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Sink Deep, Rise Victorious after Loss

Grief is a universal experience. Every person will at some point in his or her life experience loss in some form. The only way to stay safe from loss is to never love, never care, never attach. The amount of grief we feel tends to correlate to the amount of love we have for a person, pet, job, situation, etc. As a counselor, I advise my clients to let themselves make space for grief and mourning rather than trying to be “fine” and shoving the grief down, drying up the tears, and getting on with life too quickly. In many cultures, mourning is a sacred time set aside for weeks so that a person is allowed to cry, wail, be surrounded by loved ones who do nothing other than “be” with them witnessing this pain and offering kindness (not advice). Being able to sink deeply into grief and truly mourn enables a person to rise more quickly in a state of emotional freedom in which they can feel joy again rather than numbness. Putting off mourning, trying “get it together” and act “fine” by going back to work and regular life duties too quickly only prolongs the healing process. Sometimes we try to “speed up” the grieving process because we are uncomfortable or even terrified of the sinking- the feeling out being out of control, of emotional pain so severe it is hard to breathe, the fear that if we sink we will never rise again. Other times we try to speed this process up because we are of a practical mindset and feel that there is no time to be “in the feels” and we have things to get done. However, grief always finds its way to force us to experience it one way or another. Sometimes, in maladaptive, negative ways such as drinking too much, workaholism, an affair, emotional numbing, disconnecting from loved ones, etc.

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Recently, I experienced a miscarriage. I had gotten my hopes up after an early ultrasound that showed a strong heartbeat and baby growing on target. My blood work was perfect. Everything was in line. Post-miscarriage pathology testing revealed no genetic abnormalities. I was left with no explanation other than simply it must have been God’s will for me not to have this baby right now. I know God loves me and isn’t a magic genie there to just give me all my wishes and make life peachy. I believe that God uses life as a testing ground to teach us the lessons we need to learn to evolve spiritually. Unpleasant experiences teach us things we would not learn from happy times. I can accept what happened and want to ask what I can learn from this rather than “why me”, but I still needed time to grieve as my body endured the physical and emotional suffering for days on end of the miscarriage process at home. For a moment, when I got the news that morning that the baby had no heartbeat and a miscarriage would start soon, I actually considered going into work that night and not telling anyone. I am that much of a workaholic. I had to use my counselor voice on myself and say “Jen that is nuts! Go home!” so I made the radical move of taking a full week and half off from work. Thankfully, I have PDO saved up and could do this. Just FYI, if anyone has to go through this horrible experience I would highly suggest you ask your doctor for pain pills, take the week off from work, get childcare for your kids, make sure you have plenty of Gatorade or electrolyte drinks in the house (hydration will keep you from dying or having to go to the hospital), prepare your mind with prayer and wise counsel (thank you Angela for helping me when I was in spiritual warfare by reminding me of the truth) and plan to settle in for a hellacious ride. I have given birth to two full-term babies with no pain meds at home with a midwife. This was worse simply because the pain was for absolutely nothing. There would be no baby at the end. There was no finish line, only empty arms. If you have never given birth naturally before, it is probably less emotionally and physically traumatic for you if you just schedule a D&C procedure at the hospital. Doing it naturally isn’t something for the faint of heart. It took 5 days for everything to be over.

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But, through this experience I realized this was the first time in my life that I have ALLOWED myself the chance to SINK DEEP and truly MOURN. I remember when one of my best friends was dying of cancer, I only took one day off from work. When he passed, I didn’t take off any time to mourn. I never told many people what I was going through. I just kept soldiering on. And I fell into a depression for about a year. No one knew because I just soldiered on being “productive” while feeling barely able to do so. But, this time I would not make this mistake. I would sink and I would rise. I cried until my eyes were almost swollen shut. I lived on the couch wrapped up in comfy blankets for a week. My church brought meals and my Mom kept my boys for a few of the worst days. My husband made sure I wasn’t passing out from blood loss and was eating. But then….it was over. As if I had “cried it out” and truly felt an emotional release of all the pain. I went back to work the next Monday feeling JOYFUL and grateful to be back to being able to help people and shocked at how good I felt. I wasn’t soldiering on depressed and dying inside. I was ALIVE. I had done my work. I had processed my grief because I allowed myself the time to truly “ugly mourn” the kind that many people avoid doing. It requires courage to sink deep. It requires knowing you will come back up eventually and for me, it requires knowing God is there with me in the sinking and in the rising. I feel closure and peace and it hasn’t even been a full month. Sure, I still have moments (usually when I’m alone driving in the car listening to music) that I feel pangs of sadness or “what if?” but they don’t take my breath away and I let them come and let them go like the ocean tide comes and goes. There is nothing to stuff down or soldier through. Only an allowing, a coming and knowing it will eventually go out too.

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Grief isn’t something we talk about much in our society and most of us just wing it the best we can. But those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. Isaiah 40:31  May you sink and then rise soaring on wings like eagles as the Lord renews your strength.

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Never Say Never…2016 Year of Surprises

2016 seemed to start of just fine, perhaps a bit more boring than usual. Things seemed on an even keel for once. My oldest son was making strides with his autism and the memories of constant struggles were slowly fading away as all of his (and my) hard work, time, and money over the years seemed to be FINALLY paying off in spades with consistently calm behavior, excellent self-expression and language, increasing social skills, no more potty accidents, and only good days at school. We were badassing autism, I would say. My youngest son had found relief through acupuncture from the tics that tormented and embarrassed him so badly at school due to his Tourette’s disorder. He had become BFFs with the neighbor boy. With our boys doing so much better and both of us working stable jobs, my husband and I were getting along better than ever before and having less heated disagreements over house chores, finances, and such. In early May, we went to a winery and I remember feeling caught by surprise and delight that I was falling back in love with my husband as we watched the sun set drinking glasses of Malbec on the patio. The overall stress level for our family seemed to be getting to that of what most people experience in their normal day to day lives. We had been living in financial and autism crisis mode for so long, I had forgotten what it felt like to just kind of coast through life some days. I posted cute pics of the kids or what new recipe I tried that night on Facebook. I went to yoga class regularly, folded laundry while watching Netflix, squeezed in the occasional coffee with a friend, date night with my husband and juggled the pressures of my jobs like a boss.

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Then, that equilibrium that I hoped would be my new normal slowly disappeared in a domino effect leaving me in utter brokenness, some of the darkest nights of the soul I have ever experienced, on my knees pleading to God, crying my eyes out in my car, calling doctors begging for help for my son, sitting by the lake talking myself out of wanting to swim away and never come back, counseling sessions, trips to multiple specialists for a new medical and mental health condition my son developed called PANDAS (“because moderate autism just isn’t enough is it God?” I lamented) which occurred after a bout of strep throat. He was also starting puberty. Crap. Humbled. Waving the white flag by calling the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta crying and breaking down begging for someone to help my son and to help me. They did….with a psychiatry appointment. The last thing I ever wanted for my son. Never say never…..

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We had previously experienced so much miraculous success with naturopathic medicine and diet changes, public school special education programs, SonRise program and therapies (Occupational, Speech, Aquatic, and Hippotherapy), that I NEVER thought I would be one of “those parents” (sorry, I was just so ignorant) who put their kids on psych meds. As a mental health professional, I understood theoretically that there is a time and place for meds, but I observed that often parents tend to just jump the gun and go straight for meds rather than trying other treatments first and using meds as a last resort. I still advocate a conservative approach to medication. But, where I went wrong was assuming that because I am a mental health professional, well versed in natural treatments for various ailments as well, that my son would just NEVER need meds. WRONG. Last resort was exactly where we were at. At least I could feel confident I had exhausted all the options first I suppose.

PANDAS (see article) plus the onset of puberty made autism look like a cake walk. PANDAS made debilitating OCD symptoms, insomnia, and aggression appear. These tormented and took over my once sweet and docile son’s daily life and thus my life, my youngest son’s life, my husband’s life, and even affected our extended family and friendships. We had to stop going to church, taking him to the store, visiting friends, or going out to eat as a family. He just couldn’t handle noisy or crowded places anymore. We would spend hours trying to get him to finish up his rituals of closing doors certain ways or counting to 12 over and over. One night, I stayed up until 2am waiting for my son to stop repetitively banging the bathroom door to the count of 12 over and over again for hours. If we tried to get him to stop or even so much as breathed too loudly during these rituals, we would be violently attacked. My son is as tall and weighs as much as I do. I would have heated disagreements with my husband and my mother about medication. I was desperate and wanted to try it for my son, they were adamantly opposed. One day, one of my younger son’s friends came over to visit and made the mistake of “opening the door wrong” and my son went into a rage. When I tried to calmly de-escalate things (even thought I was on the verge of a panic attack) and make sure my younger son’s friend wasn’t attacked, my son started pulling me by my hair to the ground where we wrestled and I had to pin him down just to get him to let go. I am a trauma survivor and every time my son had one of these episodes I would end up going into the bathroom crying and barely able to breathe in the throws of a panic attack. I would have to drink a small glass of wine just to feel like I wasn’t going to hyperventilate. I was worried about one of us being seriously injured or that I would snap. I just wanted it to STOP.

I knew hospitalization was an option people would advise if I told them the truth, but I refused to put my son in a mental hospital where God knows what would happen to him. I saw news reports of children at local mental hospitals dying or being scalded in the bath. I would rather have my ass kicked all day long or let him kill me than risk inhumane and traumatic treatment for my baby. This is how so many parents feel and why so many families end up in tragic situations. We can’t trust the quality of the help and many can’t afford it if they could trust that care would be adequate. “I am a mental health professional, I will make my home my son’s treatment facility”, I decided. I just didn’t have prescribing privileges, so I needed a doctor’s help. That’s when I reached out to Marcus Autism Center. They normally have a 6-8 month wait list for psychiatry. After I told them the truth about what was happening and how I didn’t honestly know how much longer I could take it, they worked us into a cancellation spot 4 days after my call. I just had to hold on 4 days.

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The first medicine, Clonidine, helped so much with sleep. My son sleeping again helped me feel like I might make it after all even though the days continued to be torment. I found the place he raged the least was in the pool, so every day off was spent at the public pool for as long as we could stay. I still had to pull myself together and make it into work looking like my son hadn’t been attacking me and act as if nothing was wrong and do my job as a mental health professional. It doesn’t make good water cooler talk to discuss how your son kicks your ass if you breathe wrong when you work at a domestic violence victim’s services center. I needed to keep my job and my paycheck. Next, we added in Prozac supposedly for the OCD, which made my son violent and manic all of the time. Now, I had a child who was in an irritable mixed state mania plus it didn’t do crap for his OCD and PANDAS. I called the psychiatrist and told her I was stopping the Prozac. She wanted to try increasing his dose at first, but I said hell no as politely as possible (you HAVE to advocate and speak up to survive this thing as a parent) and she made an appt for us to come in the next day for another treatment plan. That’s when the decision was made to put my son on Risperdal. As a hippie, crunchy type mom this was a “big gun” antipsychotic med I did not trust and did not want to try. It was going to make my son diabetic and make him grow breasts, I feared. But, in utter desperation I honestly would have tried a tranquilizer dart for a bear at that point so I said “what the hell? I don’t even know anything anymore, screw everything I think I know” and got the prescription filled. I lied to my husband about it. Within just a few days my son was BACK. He kept getting better day by day, calmer, happier, engaging with us, not zombied out like I had feared. Biting himself less, attacking less, then I realized days had gone by and he hadn’t gotten physical with us, I hadn’t had to tell my younger son to lock himself in his room for safety. It was a MIRACLE. I finally told my husband and he cried because he finally had to admit that our baby did need meds and that they were helping. This isn’t what we had wanted to do. But never say never….

After he was stabilized mentally, I had the energy and strength to start going more hardcore into researching PANDAS and treatment options. I found a pediatrician in Atlanta (Dr. Rodbell) who takes our insurance and is PANDAS informed (many doctors aren’t) and we got on the wait list to see him. We started a treatment protocol of long-term antibiotics. This made me cringe because we avoid antibiotics in our crunchy natural household like the plague. Never say never….

Lots of driving back and forth to Atlanta ensued (about 1.5 hours away from our home). I somehow shuffled my work schedule around to be off some half days to take my son to his specialists and therapies myself and not lose hours. I proceeded to get quietly then loudly pissed off at my husband for working his 9-5 job, going about his business, and not really seeing all that was going on in my world at home in the “mental hospital” I ran while I wasn’t at work at a domestic violence crisis center and all of the stress that I felt was damn near killing me. I said I would never be “martyr mom” who did absolutely nothing for herself, but that’s exactly who I became during the Summer. There was no time for me to even think about what I might like or want to do. I didn’t go to yoga class for weeks. Those who know me know that I need my yoga just to stay sane and that I NEVER miss. I wasn’t sane. I looked like shit. People probably thought I was on drugs or worse. Nope. Hanging in there. Pulling up at the school in my PJs to drop the kids off late. I never imagined I would let myself go like that. I fought so hard to not let that happen, but it did. Never say never…

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I came out of the “Summer of Hell” now embracing the wonders of psychiatric medication (still as a last resort, but one I wish I had tried much sooner before things came to a crisis point when I barely had the will to live left). Never say never. Crunchy hippie natural mama meets hell yes for RisperDONE. That really is the drug name. I joke with my husband that I would gladly make a TV ad for Big Pharma smiling and saying in my sweetest Mary Poppins voice: “RisperDONE…for those times when your child’s aggression and violence make you want to say I’m just DONE son!”

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So, we were back on track with my son’s mental health. We resumed his therapies and he went back to school no longer headbutting the teacher and giving him a bloody nose now that his meds had him stabilized. Life seemed to level out….but that feeling of love for my husband that had surprised and delighted me when we had that winery date watching the sunset on the patio overlooking the vineyards had gone…somewhere…away….we had devolved over the course of that summer into being simply fellow survivors living in the same fresh hell.

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We tried to maintain connection the best we could. We never stopped talking or being physically intimate, if nothing else just for moments of free stress relief….but the connection, the love, the emotion just wasn’t in it. We were both like shell-shocked zombies stuck together by trauma bonding. I found us a marriage retreat for special needs parents and was so excited to go in October. This was going to fix everything, right? We just needed to chill out and really connect. Love would surprise us again…right? Sadly, my precious Grandma had to have emergency open heart surgery to fix several life-threatening issues a month before our retreat. My Mom is our only respite care provider by choice because I have high standards and trust issues. She is the only person I am confident can handle my boys as well as I can over long periods of time. She had to stay in the hospital with my Grandma for over a month. We had to cancel our trip. I cried and soldiered on. I was worried about my Grandma, but she came through and is doing well thank God! We registered for the December retreat instead. We went on the retreat, connected, had fun, laughed, had one spat about housework, but overall it was a fabulous time with new friends who “get” what living the special needs kiddos lifestyle is like. Love didn’t arrive to take us by surprise as it had done at the winery, but something else was happening. It felt cleansing, painful, but good. We did realize how much we still have in common and how much we enjoy each other’s company still after all these years.

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Then, one week after the retreat when I’m walking on cloud 9 all hopeful thinking things are starting to maybe look up for the first time, we had gone out for sushi, picked up the kids at my Moms, and just had to get them put down to bed in order to continue our date night 😉 So, I’m walking into the kitchen all la-ti-da in my pink PJs to get a drink of water after putting the kids to bed when I’m hit square in the face with the fact that my husband is not who he claims to be at all, not Mr. Self-Proclaimed feminist Christian who is sensitive to the fact that I spent years in therapy getting over anorexia and trauma. That every time he portrayed himself as “someone who doesn’t struggle with THAT” he was lying. Nope, he was all of a sudden in a flash of a second none of these things he had so frequently and vehemently claimed to be. He was cheating on me. He was some shady bastard I didn’t even know anymore. I won’t go into the gory details out of respect for him, but there was no mistaking the proof. In this age of technology, it can be confusing what even constitutes “cheating” anymore, but when a husband and wife discuss and agree upon THEIR boundaries, needs, and definitions then anyone who violates that while their wife is looking forward to them coming to bed and paying her some attention is cheating, plain and simple. Cheating your thirsty spouse out of your love, attention, and affection and putting your sexual energies into someone else is cheating. And it makes that person wonder why? Am I not good enough? Do I look bad? Should I start starving myself again and undo the 6 years of therapy that got me to the point of being able to say “I’m no longer anorexic at all and I am actually able to view myself as beautiful FINALLY”? When my husband would support my recovery and tell me he thought I was more beautiful not scary skinny, was he lying to me?

Regardless of how it went down, in that moment I felt everything I believed to be true crumple into a big ole pile of bullshit. I could barely stand. I yelled the first thought that raced through my mind, “Well I guess I’ll just go out and do whatever I damn well please with whoever I damn well please now (expletive) huh!” and ran to the bathroom to throw up. I threw up over and over again all night long. It was like labor. I felt my body, the one thing that has never betrayed me and has always tried to protect me, trying to empty me of whatever was causing me to feel so sick. My body, unlike my husband, was trying its damnedest to protect me and cleanse me of anything noxious or harmful to my health. My mind was whirling around. I always said that I was the type of woman who wouldn’t put up with certain types of bullshit. I won’t put up with disrespect in my own house after I bust my ass at work all day and take care of the kids anytime I’m not working. I won’t put up with cheating when I’ve offered the option of an open marriage. I just won’t abide a liar who claims the highest fidelity in order to coerce loyalty from me. I own my home with only my name on it. I make my own money. I pay my car note. I am by no means stuck, I thought. All bets were off. What was good for the gander might just be good for the goose…..So, I told my husband to get out of the house until I could stop raging and wanting to kill him and go seduce the nearest unmarried person. I alternated between crying so hard my body shook, being so angry I almost broke my hand punching a door, and dolling myself up and flirting a little with strangers out in public. I don’t regret it. I survived being punched in the gut and having the wind knocked out of me, emotionally speaking, so I think its only fair and normal I came up swinging rather than being sweet and doing all the “right” things.

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Finally, one night I was crying in bed alone, my hand outstretched onto my husband’s now vacant side of the bed. Cold crinkled sheets. I can do this. I can survive this. I’ve lost loved ones, lovers before. I know how to suffer. I know how to feel like you are going to die…and yet survive. I started praying. Blubbering crying and praying. God reminded me of everything wrong I had ever done to my husband. How I wouldn’t marry him for so many years because I didn’t know if I could be faithful or not, 99% certain I couldn’t be. How I had messed up just weeks before we said “I Do” due to my fears creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and how, even in spite of my Herculean efforts at recovery, I had grown overly confident that I no longer could be tempted, allowed myself to be in a compromising situation and almost slipped and cheated while I was newly married, catching myself at the last second before going through with it. I realized that my husband had forgiven me much, as had God. But ultimately, the realization that was the most profound was that even if my husband wanted to see other people, I still wanted him to come home and be my best friend. I wanted him to come home to my bed, my body, my table, my food, his children every night.Heartbreak.jpg

There is no rational explanation. Just LOVE. Not co-dependency, because this isn’t insecure need out of fear of being alone (the thought of being alone actually excited me and relieved me in many ways), this is simply what I WANT and what I choose right now at this juncture. His pros outweigh his cons. I forgive him and he has forgiven me. And to me, that is love. 14 years. Plenty of reasons to leave, but more to stay and try. Maybe we could work towards reconciliation, I thought. When we had a heart to heart, he finally acknowledged the truth and shared that in counseling he had realized that he honestly didn’t trust me and thought I was still cheating on him which made it easy for him to do what he did. Maybe, I thought, instead of signing a lease at an apartment using our kids Christmas presents money as a down payment, he could just come home and we could work through this by the grace of God somehow…..It’s been tough…and beautiful…and surprising in so many ways. Surprising like that day at the winery falling back in love over wine. Except this time, we are falling back in love over honest, heart-felt conversations rather than the buzz of wine. I’m still figuring it out and realizing I don’t have to figure it all out. I can just let it unfold. The boys are super happy to have Daddy home. So am I. One thing is sure…I will never say never again after this year’s humbling lessons. I will just continue to wing it…together with my sons, my husband, and you all my sweet friends and strangers 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

Bless Our Mess

My son’s occupational therapist shared with me something cute my 8-year-old shared with her at school. She said, “He said my house sure can be a mess sometimes, but its the best mess. Its my favorite place to be.” At first, I have to admit, I was mortified because I carry a little bit of secret shame about my free-spirited, “just trying to survive and stay sane as a working mom” housekeeping philosophy. But, then, I was struck with how profound my son’s statement really was. Our house, our family, ourselves sure can be messy, but messy can still be amazing. Messy can still be our favorite place to be. A big ole come as you are mess is actually quite comforting and endearing. You are always accepted and don’t have to clean up first and fit everything into a neat and tidy toy box. It’s the expectation of shiny, well-organized constant perfection that trips us up in so many ways, isn’t it? I honestly don’t want a constantly neat and tidy house. I want a sanitary house with clean dishes, the litter box scooped, enough clean clothes for the week and the trash taken off, but do I want floors with daily fresh vacuum lines and with toys neatly in their place or my son’s art supplies in perfect order at all times? No, I really don’t.

One of my favorite things about my Mom’s parenting style was that she was very relaxed when it came to her expectations of the house. She would rather let us relax, study, and play at home most days than to have a rigid chore chart schedule. There were times she asked for help or told us “alright that’s it, your room is a disaster its time to clean it up,” but overall there was always a sense of home being a place to rest, get schoolwork done, and to not have to be as tightly wound as the outside world expected. I want my kids to look back on their childhood the same way. That their home is the one place of constant refuge where they can kick back and relax, be messy, be themselves, but also a place where they can earn a dollar if they help Mama do the dishes.

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Of course, I’m not advocating never cleaning or letting your house be unsanitary, but I am all in favor of relaxing a bit and instead of shaming myself for my messy home, savoring the fact that this is my son’s favorite place and “the best mess.” My kids don’t care that my desk is overflowing with books and papers for the online class I teach. I’m thankful my youngest son’s room looks like a Lego explosion and he feels creative freedom and relaxation. I’m thankful my oldest son’s room is an explosion of stuffed animals and art supplies where he can shut the door and decompress after school. I’m thankful I can go to yoga or read a book instead of spending hours each day trying to get my home to look like a magazine. I do not enjoy cleaning at all because it is an exercise in futility and I don’t have the time to put any effort into futile pursuits my kids will just undo for me. Why spend an hour picking up Legos or hounding my son to do so when I could instead be playing Marvel versus Capcom with him or even just sitting by him on the couch reading a book, available if he wants to talk while he draws? He is just going to empty out the Lego boxes looking for the perfect Darth Vader helmet tomorrow anyway, so why bother? Ain’t nobody got time for that. I sure don’t. I work 3 jobs for goodness sake and take care of 2 boys, one of whom has special needs that take up any excess energy I might have. When you are just trying to survive as the parent of a child with special needs, you don’t have time to get neurotic about perfection. You start to accept and cherish the beautiful mess that is your life because your ideas about perfection were shattered the day you received that diagnosis.

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As I think and write, I realize that housekeeping tends to be a deeply personal issue for me and for probably most of us women. Men are pretty much off the hook because if someone comes over and the house is a wreck, no matter if the wife works just as many hours or not, somehow the spoken accolades or the passive-aggressive disapproval falls on her. Her only hobby  after working full-time should be cleaning and childcare right? That is the unspoken expectation so many of us feel. It is us women who frantically announce, “Ya’ll! Clean up NOW Grandpa is coming over in 2 hours!” as we bust out the mop, the vacuum, and the shovel for all of those toys simultaneously in a flurry of panic at the thought that our family member or friend is going to judge us harshly for slacking off and maybe playing with the kids or reading instead of non-stop cleaning.

Who do you allow into your home? I am very selective. I know which friends are my “safe friends” who I don’t have to clean up the house for if they want to swing by for coffee and these friends are the same ones I go to when something serious is going on in my life and I need to share my pain or my emotions without having them judged “a hot mess” or offering to “tidy up” my feelings for me either. There is something beautiful about accepting the messy parts of ourselves, our people and our homes. Let’s cut ourselves and each other some slack as we wing it through parenting, housekeeping, and realize we are all really a mess in one way or another. But we can find the love in our messiness. We don’t have to get it all in the toy box to be loved or enough.

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Sorry I Missed Your Call. I’m Busy Riding the Autism and OCD Parenting Roller Coaster.

When I was a little girl, my parents would take us to the county fair or to Six Flags over GA to ride roller coasters. I was always the type who would get on any ride or roller coaster not because I wasn’t terrified, but because I knew I wouldn’t die and that at the end I would be so exhilarated that I did it! Some of the rides were fun, but some I would just have to hold on tight and scream my lungs out to endure until the end. When you scream out “Stop the ride! Let me off!” no one hears you. They can’t stop the ride just because you want off or you think you are going to have a heart attack. No one cares. You can scream or cry all you want to, but it changes nothing. You just have to hang in there and endure. You have no idea when it will be over. It feels like forever. You can’t even really think straight to evaluate how far along in the track you are. You just hold on tight, scream, cry, pray, and try not to throw up. This is very similar to my experience as the parent of a child with autism who is going through the tween years and has recently developed OCD as well (because no, Lord, autism just wasn’t enough). It often seems as if just when I have caught my breath and think I’m gonna survive this thing just fine, I am thrown into another upside down loop de loop, tilt a whirl and I’m in danger of losing my lunch, my glasses, and looking pretty rough when I get off this thing. Thankfully, I get a chance to get off this roller coaster sometimes when my son is at school or at my mom’s when my husband and I have a date night, but even then it feels as if although I’m not actively riding it, I’m just standing in line, trying to settle my nerves taking deep breathes and waiting to get back on again.

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I love my son more than anything and we have beautiful, wonderful moments which are exhilarating like the moment when the roller coaster stops and you smile and laugh with glee because you did in fact survive this thing and the endorphins and adrenaline are pumping through your body. Woohoo! A sweet hug! Another milestone met! Another new word! Eye contact! Potty trained! He only turned the light switch on and off 11 times instead of the usual 12! But, watching him struggle so much in spite of all of the extra stuff I am doing and buying and trying….well it makes me want to scream “Ahhhh I  hate this ride! Someone get me off! I’m gonna puke again!” pretty often.

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ASD is a spectrum and presents in a lot of different ways for different kids and adults. You may have ASD yourself or have  a child who has ASD or OCD and it may feel like a walk in the park to you, I don’t know. All I know is my experience and my truth about how it feels to parent my particular child in my particular circumstances and it feels hard right now. Just when I think I’ve got a handle on things, here comes another loop I’m thrown for whether due to a new developmental stage, illness, finances, etc.

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I think people must assume that because I say  it is so hard, I’m just doing it wrong. I wish they could see how much time, money, energy, therapies, diets, supplements, now even medicine we are doing to try and help my son thrive and be happy day to day. I feel like I should be able to make this work somehow. I should be able to not look so frazzled or I should be able to stay in Mary Poppins mode and not ever raise my voice. I should just get up earlier to avoid looking disheveled and a mess at the morning drop off at school (nevermind I’ve been dealing with his sleep issues all night long and I work late two nights per week). I should pray (check, I pray almost constantly). I should work from home. He should take this supplement (yep, already taking it), we should try this diet (yep doing that), I should _______________ (not be writing about it?). I should change my perspective (yep in therapy myself trying to do that). There has to be something I could just fix and make this easier on myself. I wish there were. I spend hours each day researching how to make this better, how to be a better mom, how to accept this unusual life journey and find more joy in it, how to make my marriage survive this, how to help my other son cope, how to make extra money to fund my sons needs, etc. Although many of the things we have done for our son and for ourselves have helped tremendously, I am still working uphill just to get my son to the most basic level of functioning and to get my family to the most basic level of functioning. Even Pollyanna would admit that’s kind of hard.

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Each day is a roller coaster of stress and I am horrified at how I must appear from afar. This is not me. This is me just trying to survive. My son isn’t going to go into remission after his treatment. He isn’t going to be sick for a little while. This is a long-haul thing for us. A marathon, not a sprint. I feel like the main character from the movie “Bad Moms” who is just stressed to the max, except I don’t have the option of just telling everyone to take care of themselves for once, because my son can’t. So, I publicly apologize for seeming constantly scattered, self-centered, crazy, stressed out, no time for small talk, snappy with the front office staff at the school, not put together, too focused on my son’s ASD diagnosis, flaky, not a good friend, forgetful, not 100% on top of every little detail at work, not having the energy to invest into things that aren’t my business or I don’t care about anyway, frequently venting to my BFFs, always broke, not able to hang out much, bursting out in tears and saying “But I work 3 jobs and what we are doing now is already so hard!” when my son’s reading teacher asks me to do add extra homework, frequently not able to answer the phone, giving up on daily gym workouts, holding tight to my Saturday morning yoga time, not up for any kind of “fitness challenge” because my life is already a 365 challenge, or just distant and crabby in general. I apologize for being strangely open (oversharing) and also really defensive (pretty much not wanting to hang out with non-special needs parents much at all).

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This is my norm, this is my life. I am just trying to hold on tight, scream, and survive it without losing my lunch just like a kid riding a killer rollercoaster. I promise you that this has nothing to do with you, I really do like you a lot. I would love to be able to hang out with you more, to relate to your stories about your kids extracurriculars and how proud you are, to put more effort into my home businesses selling amazing things, to have more of a social life that is not online in nature, to laugh more, to volunteer more at church instead of crying through all the songs just to release all that stress, to be able to just throw my kids in the mix of all the other kids at church and go chit chat with the other moms rather than having to go sit next to my son and try to hold back my tears as I rub his back while he’s biting himself and rocking back and forth because the music is too loud and there are too many kids having too much fun in there.

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Maybe we all have our roller coasters, I don’t know what goes on behind the closed doors of your mind or home, but I do know that it really does help to just let it out and scream your head off sometimes when you need to, to hold on tight to the people you love, throw your hands up and laugh hysterically sometimes, breathe deeply, and remember that you won’t die even though you may feel like it on the loop de loops. We special needs parents will survive as we wing it together. If you need to talk to someone who “gets it”, call me. It will likely go to voicemail, but I will call you when I’m driving alone in the car. Reach out to Parent2Parent or a support group. You don’t have to ride the roller coasters alone, there are plenty of seats and we can hold hands and scream together as we go through the dips and curves.

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Always Struggling? What God is Teaching Me About Success and Humilty

Do you ever feel like the struggle is just all too real and all too constant? “What am I doing wrong here?!” you may ask yourself. Been there. Still there. Where did we get this message from the world and start buying it that success = ease and plenty? That we should be embarrassed by our struggles and seek to portray ourselves as “winners” rather than just struggling people saved by the grace of God?

In the course of living my life as a working professional and mama to two boys with special needs, I have found that in spite of my best efforts and many prayers, feeling like I have it “together” typically only lasts for a few hours here and there scattered among days that are exhausting, filled with challenging behavior and sleep deprivation that requires constant patience and “therapy mom” mode, then having to go into work acting like I’m the “with it” professional who can garner respect and making sure all of the paperwork for my son’s therapies and insurance is completed in a timely manner. I’m almost always at least mildly struggling. I’m always coming up short. I am not perfect. The pictures I post on social media don’t show my struggles. I’d really rather not be lookin’ all busted in my pictures, but you should see me as I walk my kids into school in the morning lookin’ a hot mess (I go home and get ready for work after I drop them off). I definitely do not have it together. One bit. Just doin’ the best I can over here.

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 I want you to know that YOU ARE NOT FAILING AT LIFE JUST BECAUSE YOU ARE STRUGGLING THROUGH LIFE.  When did struggle become shameful? There is so much freedom in hearing a friend say “me too” and realizing you aren’t the only person going through it. I find comfort in God’s Word. God never promised us that we would be free from struggle or weakness, only that He would never leave or forsake us in it. The world’s image of “winning” was NEVER the standard on which we are meant to judge our “success.” He said we should boast in our weaknesses, that His strength is made perfect in weakness.” I actually hate the word “success” because it brings to mind all of the worldly definitions of  “winning” and “success” being financial prosperity, vacations, beauty, health, lack of struggle and strife and also how  many “successful” people look down on those who are “unsuccessful” as if the advantages they have had in life had nothing to do with their “success” as they claim the glory for themselves rather than giving full glory to God in utter humility for every single blessing received from innate intelligence to being born to a loving family to having good looks to being able-bodied and able-minded.

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This idea that lack of struggle = “success” is so dangerous and discouraging. It isn’t from God or at least what I’ve read in the Bible. Sure, sometimes we bring struggle upon ourselves by acting like little kids who throw caution to the wind and do whatever we want regardless of it being wrong (like a little kid who eats all of the Halloween candy in one sitting and then spends the night throwing up asking “why am I so sick mama?” because all that sugar at once made them sick.)  We can’t blame God when we just act dumb or lazy, go against His advice and knowingly YOLO it. But, I’m not talking about messing up on purpose. I’m talking about doing the best you can, looking to God for guidance every day, and still struggling through life. That doesn’t mean we are doing life wrong or that we are just “unsuccessful” or “ineffective” losers. Take heart. Be encouraged.

Here is what God’s word actually says about suffering and struggle:

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 ESV   

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

1 Corinthians 10:13 ESV 

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

Romans 5:3-5 ESV 

More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

Jeremiah 29:11 ESV 

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.

Psalm 23:1-6 ESV 

A Psalm of David. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. …

Luke 18:9-14 ESV     

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ …

John 1:5 ESV

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Romans 8:1 ESV 

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:13 ESV 

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

James 1:2 ESV   

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds,

Hebrews 13:1-25 ESV 

Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” …

2 Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV

For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,

1 Corinthians 2:1-16 ESV     

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. …

 

Matthew 7:1-2 ESV 

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.

Exodus 14:14 ESV 

The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”

Romans 14:10-13 ESV 

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

Psalm 71:20-21 ESV 

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities will revive me again; from the depths of the earth you will bring me up again. You will increase my greatness and comfort me again.

1 Peter 5:10 ESV    

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.

2 Corinthians 1:9 ESV 

Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.

Acts 14:21-22 ESV    

When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.

Isaiah 40:28-31 ESV      

Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.

Romans 5:8 ESV    

But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 8:18 ESV          

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.

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I find it hard to hold my head high with my struggles sometimes, but maybe that’s the point. Thank you God, for humbling me daily and bringing me to my knees so that I can go to work and meet my clients who I counsel in a place of my own suffering and humility that I may never make the mistake of implying that life is about “lost” versus “found” and “successful” versus “unsuccessful” people. I am lost and found daily. I am both successful and unsuccessful daily. Thank you Jesus for always finding me and giving me what I need rather than what I want as I wing it through this life…

P.s. I know I whine more than I should, please forgive me and keep giving me what I need, not what I want. Also, if you could make my kids behave better and give me more patience that would be much appreciated. 😉

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God’s Plan > My Plan = I’m a Working Mom to Two Boys with Special Needs

Can I tell you a secret? Can I be 100% honest with you? I sometimes struggle with envy, with “the grass is greener” syndrome. I often have to fight off and pray away the envy I feel for stay-at-home-moms and moms who aren’t the primary breadwinner (whose income is just supplemental to pay for “extras” like vacations and cute clothes). Sometimes, after I pull a 12 hour day and I walk into a messy house, I  go into my boys’ bedroom and get into each of their beds to snuggle their not-so-little anymore sleeping bodies, drinking in their scent (the exact same as the day they were born) and tears start silently streaming down my cheeks. I love them so much it hurts. The love wells up in my heart and feels like a punch in the gut that has knocked the wind out of me sometimes. I cry happy tears because I love them. I also cry because I’m not able to be the mother to them that I envisioned because I have to work so much. I do my best to cherish the time I am home with them and try to reframe my thinking into “quality time versus quantity time,” and yet sometimes I just can’t rationalize away how I really feel. I don’t want to be a working mom. I want to be home with my kids reading books, cooking yummy food every night, doing chores throughout the day rather than at midnight, putting my boys to bed every night rather than working until 9pm two nights per week. I thought I would be working less by now and not more, but the needs of our family and our situation necessitate me picking up extra hours. Special needs can get expensive.

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I often notice people say things like, “well, if you just cut a few corners and make a few sacrifices like I did you can stay home too” or “well you can just sell this product on the side in your spare time (lol I don’t have “spare” time often and I’m too tired to do sales in what little I do have) and then you won’t have to work.” I think to myself, “ok, let’s look at our budget…hmm…ok so the bills I currently pay include the mortgage, homeowner’s insurance, property taxes, phone, etc. (which still come out cheaper than renting), I already buy all of our clothes at thrift shops, buy whatever food is on manager’s special, grow food in our garden, get eggs from our chickens, and cut my own hair, how can I just cut those corners and sacrifice us into homelessness and nakedness?” I can’t. “What about your husband?” you might be thinking. Well, he is a good man who quit college when I had our oldest son so that I could keep going to school and not lose my full scholarship. He started working full-time and gave up on finishing school. He went back to school when one of his jobs closed down and laid everyone off. I’m proud of him for earning a technical certification in a challenging field. He works hard everyday. Nonetheless, my Master’s degree affords me more opportunities. So, I work to makes ends meet

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Ok, here’s where God’s plan and His grace comes in. I don’t know if you believe in God or a higher power or what, but I do. I believe that the experiences we need to have come our way in this life to help us grow and ultimately are for our own edification and good. Even the tough stuff. Even the stuff that I shake my head and say “God, are you sure you know what you are doing? What the what?” I just imagine a supernatural chuckle and God being all SMH, “yes honey, I sure do know what I’m doing, I’ve been doing this whole helping people grow through trials by fire for a looong time now.” So, I was driving in my car last week feeling all miffed and frustrated and I asked God, “Why does so and so get to stay home and have this beautiful family with healthy kids and a balanced life where her man takes care of the breadwinning by himself and I don’t?”  I felt a gentle sensation in my heart and that still small voice inside reminded me, “That’s my plan for her, I have a different plan, a good plan for you. I know what you need and you need to be where I have planted you.”  I pulled over and cried. I know that this is true. I know that God has a plan for me and is working all things for good. I know that my kids really are fine and thriving even. They have so many people in their lives who love them and help them grow from my Mom who they stay with after school 3 days per week to the wonderful teachers they have at public school and the ladies who love on them at church. I know that with their particular special needs, that socialization with as many different types of people as possible is a huge need and probably wouldn’t be met as well if I were a SAHM. I was forced to put them in preschool/daycare and now public school, where they learn social skills and had to adapt to expectations other than my own for 6 hours per day. I love the bond my Mom has with my boys. She is like a second mama to them and it has actually healed our once contentious relationship by being forced to talk often and work together to meet their needs. I have learned how strong I am by having no other choice but to dry my tears over my sons’ special needs, put on my make-up and go into work acting like a functional human being (fake it til you make it really does work I’ve learned).

God knows I have a high need for mental stimulation and boy has he met that need with my jobs. I get bored easily and I like a lot of change and challenge. Working at a crisis center/shelter certainly meets my need for change and challenge. I never get bored there. I also needed to learn how to do a better job of gentle discipline and enjoying play with my own boys, so where did I get planted right after grad school? Where I still am, working as a Children’s Program Coordinator (after saying in grad school that I wanted to work only with adults and teenagers, God laughs once again). I wound up working in a situation where I had to learn how to handle challenging behaviors and wasn’t allowed to yell. This helped me practice gentle discipline techniques that I now use on my own boys that have also improved my sanity and saved my voice. I work with victims of domestic violence and every day am reminded to be thankful for my situation, where I can live with my children in safety and stability. Often, I am reminded that being a counselor is my calling and something I simply must do for others and for my own growth. I teach online and tutor students which meets my need for academic/mental stimulation.

Even my sons’ special needs have been a blessing in disguise (although very challenging and draining as well) because they have taught me unconditional love, patience, and connected me with a community of amazing kids and parents I never would have known otherwise. I remind myself, “Jen, God has perfectly met your needs, you know yourself and you know that while you would enjoy not having to get dressed up for work and having a lot more time on your hands to do the chores each day, that staying home might bore you to tears or might become depressed or you might end up feeling guilty and depressed for using the time you should have been doing chores to read and exercise instead.”

love-shoes

So, if you have ever envied me thinking I’m some big shot  “career woman” because of my titles as Adjunct Professor, Children’s Program Coordinator, and Psychology Tutor, just know that I am only a mama, doing these jobs 1) to pay the bills and 2) because God planted me there through a series of fortunate events and callings according to some kind of plan that is a lot bigger than my myopic vision of what life should be like.

I still struggle with juggling everything and often feel like I’m doing “B” level work and certainly not “A+” at both work and home. But, as my grad school professor pointed out, “Bs get degrees.” I continue to pray opportunities that afford more balance and time with my family come my husband’s way and my own, but until then I will do my best when I feel overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, and stretched too thin to remember that still small voice reminding me that THIS life I’m living is God’s perfect plan for me right here, right now and me winging it is good enough for Him so I need to let it be good enough for me and focus on how blessed I am rather than how I don’t measure up. 

Loving Jesus Doesn’t Have To Be So Complicated…

 

So, I was lying in bed last night thinking about so many things. Feeling confused. Inadequate. That’s when I felt the love of Jesus come over me like I haven’t in a while….this sweet, unconditionally loving presence in my heart, that kind, still small voice in my spirit that says, “stop doing this to yourself Jen. I never asked you to do any of that stuff you think you have to do in order to be a “good Christian”. I never asked you to be something or someone you aren’t or to give something you don’t have. I just want you to be with me, let’s just be together right now, let me hold you. I’ve missed you and it’s completely ok because I know you missed me too and I know you are doing the best you can. It doesn’t have to be so hard. You don’t have to try, try, try. Just be still and know that I am God. Receive me. Let me hold you at night after the crazy day is done. Quit guilt-tripping yourself and comparing yourself to others. We don’t even have to spend the mornings together ok? You don’t have to read anything. What if you just lie down and let me give you peace at the end of the day? Let’s get back to spending time together.” My body, mind, and spirit finally calmed and accepted the peace He was offering me without hesitation, without asking me to repent or apologize for not doing a “good enough job”at being a Christian. He knows how I beat myself up for not being “good enough” in any way that I possibly can. He knows I just need to stop, to be held.

Relationship-with-Jesus

So, that is what I will try harder to do. Nothing else. No other goals for this year. I will bring Jesus whatever I have in my heart and let him hold me. My time with Jesus doesn’t have to look like anyone else’s. I don’t have to have “quiet time” at 5am every morning. I think Jesus knows “morning person” is not in my DNA. It can be at midnight when I’m lying there unable to sleep. It can be in the car when I bite my lip because I’m twisted up with anxiety after checking the bank account and tallying up all my bills. It can be when I go in the bathroom at work for some peace because I can’t take all of the demands and sadness of the stories I hear as a counselor. It can be anytime. ANYTIME. It can involve reading my Bible or just being still and knowing Him.

Because, if I wait to spend time with Jesus until I feel like I can do it like a “good Christian” or I wait until I have large chunks of time to sit and sip coffee leisurely while reading my Bible and pondering a devotional for an hour somewhere with a beautiful view….then I will miss out on being held, in the here and now, in my real life, my messy life, my exhausting life, my life that isn’t picturesque most of the time. It is this life that I need Him in so badly. Real life. I don’t want to miss out on time with my best friend just because I can’t do it “like I should.”

It makes me think of my friend out in Texas. If I waited until she came back to Georgia and we could have a spa day together to spend time with her at all, we would likely grow very far apart. But, just by talking on the phone for 20 minutes here and there when we can and sharing our messy real lives, we have a great friendship. I know I can count on her support and she knows she can count on mine. I want to have a close friendship with Jesus too. I don’t just want to call him up when something catastrophic happens.

love-shoes

I have to get back to the basics. 1) Love God 2) Love one another. There is no 3) Feel guilty for not serving within the church constantly. It really doesn’t have to be that complicated. Spend time loving God and love people. Loving people doesn’t even have to be so complicated. It doesn’t have to involve all kinds of volunteerism or going to a foreign country or serving at the church during this season of life where I have plenty of opportunities to love on the women and children survivors of abuse I work with, to model care and compassion for the mentally ill to my students, and to love on my own kids, husband, and extended family members. What if I just stop feeling guilty and focus on treating the people in my day to day life, the ones I’m CLEARLY called to love, with love and kindness? That can be challenging enough. What if everyone loved their families, clients/students, and co-workers well?

One day, in a different season of life, I will serve within the church more, I will have more to give, I might get to read my Bible for an hour or more sitting by the lake digging into each scripture. But, right here? Right now? Loving Jesus doesn’t have to be so complicated. I just need to be still and know Him. Right here. Right now.

 

“Maybe they are helping me as I try to help them?”

letterfromt

That sweet little girl who handed me a note that said “you are pretty Ms. Jen” after group couldn’t possibly have known about the battle that was raging in my mind that day. I had just posted some family pictures on Facebook and someone made the mistake of thinking (and also commenting publicly) that I looked pregnant due to the flowy shirt I was wearing that didn’t hug against my stomach. I chose this flowy shirt because after 2 kids I feel like I consistently look 3 months pregnant no matter how many ab workouts and low carb diets I go on. I can’t win. Most people don’t know that I struggled with anorexia during middle and high school. I ate maybe 500 calories per day. I never ended up in a hospital or treatment. I finally recovered and started eating more (my disorder just shifted from anorexia to OCD and I was rigid about my diet and exercise up until about 2 years ago, even now I have to fight not to compulsively exercise daily). This little 7-year-old girl couldn’t possibly have known any of that about “Mrs. Jen” her counselor. I gave her a big hug and we both smiled as she left that night. I sat in my car just looking at this drawing for about 10 minutes. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for giving me this little girl and her sweet drawing which I am blessed to have in my life as a stark contrast to everything in this world that causes me thoughts of “not good enough”.  There is so much negative stuff in this world, but kids haven’t been in it long enough for it to take away their love and their truth. I need kids in my life. I need what they show me. I need their truths. We all do.

But sometimes kids scare us with their messiness, unpredictability, their emotions that they haven’t yet learned to bottle up and keep quiet so they are loud and they scream and cry. I know they scared me when I first started as a children’s counselor. There was always this feeling of “what if they mutany and I can’t keep order and they tear the place down with their teeth and then everyone finds out I’m not some magical child whisperer and then I’m out of a job and I’m living in a van down by the river with my kids….” There was serious panic in my mind those first few weeks of work. Simply because kids are kids. Now, I’ve learned to roll with it and embrace their enthusiasm, honesty, desire to help, their messiness, and their hugs that usually leave me with boogers on my pants.

Did I ever tell you I never wanted to work with kids? Sometimes when you make a plan, God laughs. “Honey, you don’t know what you need, bless your heart” I think of God saying to me.

As I was suffering through graduate school trying to become a counselor, I always imagined a nice office with soothing colors, a fish tank, some houseplants, a couch, and a chair. I would sit in a chair and my client would sit on the couch and I would try to understand, empathize, and help them in some way. My sons were 4 and 15 months old at this time and I just knew that I would NEVER work with kids all day and then come home to my house full of kid chaos and messes. No sir. No way. I told many professors this. I didn’t get the first job I applied for working at a private practice because they were seeking someone to do therapy with young children most of the day and I was honest about that not being my ideal career.

Fast forward to my husband losing his job (that is another whole blog post right there) and rent being due, mouths to feed, yadayadayada…I needed a job…like yesterday not in a month. It was either go back to waiting tables, being a preschool teacher, or accepting that maybe my first counseling gig would involve messy, shin-kicking booger-eaters.

After sending no less than 20 resumes and job applications off…nothing. Finally, after breaking down in an ugly puddle of snot and tears on my bed and praying something to the effect of “God, I know I’m a mess and I’m unmarried with 2 kids and I have all kinds of love and financial problems and (garbled, incoherent list of everything wrong I’ve ever done) and I haven’t been to church in a decade, but IF you are real, IF you hear this….SOS HELP, please help me get a job before we get evicted. Please see how hard I’m trying, please give me something…anything! I give up, I surrender. Just give me what I need, please. Give me a sign, anything!”

The very next day when I opened up my inbox, worried I would just see yet another ad for a job 3 hours away from my house….there was this job posting…in my town…part-time…and all it involved was getting up in front of middle and high school kids to talk about dating violence and healthy relationships. I wasn’t really sure I was qualified to discuss healthy relationships, but none of mine had ever been violent so I felt at least moderately qualified to talk to teenagers about avoiding dating violence. So, I applied thinking this would at least help pay the bills while I continued my search for a “real” counseling job. You know, the kind where I get to sit in a chair in a nice office and no boogers are involved.

I arrived for the interview and hit it off with the director of the non-profit and my (now) supervisor. They told me that after reviewing my resume and talking with me about the work I had done during my internships, they actually wanted to offer me an additional position: Children’s Program Coordinator. I would be facilitating groups for children who had experienced domestic violence. GROUPS OF CHILDREN. AHHHHH! You have to understand, I NEVER would have even considered this if my bank account hadn’t been close to overdraft status. But, I smiled and said I would love to facilitate these groups and try my hand at doing both positions- community educator and children’s program coordinator.

When I got there to start my first shift, I realized my predecessor hadn’t left me with a “How To” manual and there wasn’t a specific curriculum I was required to follow. I had some training materials on children and trauma, but nothing that listed specific activities to try with the kids. I had done children’s groups before- a group for children of incarcerated parents, children whose parents had passed away, a social skills group, a friendship group for shy kids, etc. but these had all taken place in a school environment (kids would be pulled out of class to attend a group for 30 min to 1 hr). They were cool with circling our chairs up and doing the activity that I had pulled from a curriculum workbook. On my first night facilitating a group of 7-11 year olds at the DV center, I made the rookie mistake of trying to have them circle up and let’s do a “getting to know you” activity. This didn’t go well. First, one child got up and started dancing on the table, then another got up and opened the (unlocked) closet door pulling out hula hoops and throwing them everywhere. Other kids were making fart noises and saying curse words. A few little girls just sat there looking terrified. “OH.MY.LORD. what have I gotten myself into!?” were my thoughts. I never would have made it without my co-worker, Shelby, who said “don’t quit, at least give it a month, these kids need structure and discipline, you can do it.” You see, children who have experienced trauma and witnessed ongoing violence often reflect with their behavior the chaos of their homes and their minds. This was going to be the nature of my work.

Maybe I can wing it….structure and discipline aren’t really my forte….so I started doing more research and just using common sense to bring order to the chaos I came into. I locked the closet that all of the kids liked to climb and hide in. I re-decorated the group rooms with activity centers instead of open space. I added therapy tools like a doll house and sandbox. I noticed the kids loved arts and crafts, so I bought a ton of arts and crafts stuff. I asked them what activities sounded fun to them. I bought some therapeutic games that helped open up the conversation about home life and family issues. We went outside and burned up some energy on the playground at the start of every group so that we all could focus and get along better. I let them lead me. But I still kept that closet locked. Boundaries, input, structure, choices, unconditional love, encouragement, meeting their physical needs as well (we have a snack box in our room for any child who comes hungry), consequences and accountability, but above all else unconditional love. All in balance. Trial and error. I paid attention to what worked and what didn’t. I was figuring this out. We were winging it together.

And on nights when I have those questions in my mind of if I’m good enough…these kids always help me find my answer. Out of the mouths of babes….