Full Circle

This week, both of my kids are spending their mornings at cooking camp offered by a local cooking school. It’s actually the second time this summer that my daughter has been at the camp. She did a week early in the summer and loved it so much she asked to do another week.

Toward the end of that first week, my son was with me when I dropped his sister off. Normally he opts to stay in the car when I walk her in someplace, but on this particular morning he got out of the car and said he wanted to see what the school looked like on the inside. When we walked into the school, the “head chef” of the camp greeted us and engaged my son in a conversation. She asked why he wasn’t at camp with his sister, talked to him about his favorite foods, and encouraged him to think about joining the camp another time. I remember thinking how nice it was to see him interacting with a new-to-him person in a new-to-him place, but didn’t think the conversation would have a lasting impact.

I was wrong.

Later that day, I was on the cooking school website trying to figure out if there was another week ,with spots available in camp, that would work for my daughter. When I mentioned to my daughter that I found another week she could attend, my son quickly chimed in and asked if he could attend the camp as well.  I was surprised and must have asked him half a dozen times if he truly was serious. He was. “The teacher was really nice. I think it will be fun,” he said.

Fast forward about a month to this past Monday. As we pulled into the parking lot of the cooking school, my daughter asked my son if he was excited. He responded by asking if the teacher would be the same, “Because I really liked her.” I told him that as far as I knew, the teacher would be the same.

I was wrong.

We walked into the school, and as I was signing the kids in, we were greeted by a “head chef” who was not the woman my son had found to be so nice. I looked around and did not see the chef from earlier in the summer. I looked at my son and saw panic in his eyes. As I decided how to respond – or not – to the unasked questions I saw on his face, my daughter took control.

“Come with me,” she said to him, “Let’s get our aprons and find a spot at the table.” So he did. Aprons on, they went to the table and looked for their assigned spots. I watched from a distance as fresh panic appeared on my son’s face when he realized that his assigned spot was several kids away from his sister’s assigned spot. I watched as my daughter took my son’s hand, looked him in the eye and told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll get it changed.”

I approached the new teacher, and asked if it would be possible to have my kids next to each other. She responded that they had found it was better to have siblings separated. I told her that in general, I could see how that would be the case, but in this specific case – in the case of my son who is an Aspie and struggles with anxiety and panic – it would be best for everybody for my kids to be next to one another. I watched as the expression on the teacher’s face morphed from one of a person in charge explaining something to a meddling parent, to one of a person in charge who suddenly had dozens of questions about one of the kids in her care (but that is not the point of the story).

About that time, my daughter came over to join us. She said, “He needs me. I need to be able to help him if he gets upset.” With not another question, the teacher rearranged the seats so that my kids were together.

As I drove away that morning, I remembered another first day drop off at another camp several years ago. The first summer both kids were old enough to attend morning camps for preschoolers at our YMCA (they would have been 3 and 4 years old that summer), I registered them both for two consecutive weeks. The first week the drop off went smoothly – they were excited to be doing something together and the YMCA was familiar to them both. The second week, the drop off was rough. The counselors from the first week, were not the same as the counselors on the second week. My daughter had developed an adoring attachment to one of the counselors from the first week, and when she discovered that person was not there on the second week she melted down in a way that only disappointed 3 year olds can melt down. She was inconsolable. She was never a kid who clung to my legs at drop offs, but that morning she clung to both of my legs as she sobbed and asked to leave.

That morning so many years ago, it was my son who held out his hand and said to my daughter “Don’t worry. I’m here. We can be together.” And I watched the fear disappear from her little face as she took his hand. Just like on the morning this week when I watched the fear disappear from his face as he realized she was by his side.

Full circle.

And as I have been writing this post, I have had flashing through my mind a slideshow of images over the years like this one…

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They may not always agree, and they certainly do not always get along. But they always take care of each other….through the real, raw, broken and beautiful parts of life.

Adventure Is Out There

Adventure Is Out There

Last week, my son went away to summer camp.

At face value, there is nothing remarkable about that statement. He’s almost 12, headed to middle school, and was at camp with his Boy Scout troop. Going away to summer camp is a typical thing for an almost 12 year old Boy Scout.  But this specific almost 12 year old spent the better part of the past year coming out from the depths of anxiety and panic disorders. At this time last year, just leaving house was a challenge. At this time last year, there was nothing typical about his days.

I wish I could remember exactly when it was that we had to make a decision and pay a deposit to secure his spot at camp. It was months ago. It had to have been after my son had climbed far enough out of the blackhole that was the time of his worst anxiety and panic, to be (mostly) functioning in the world. But it also had to have been well before we finally reached a steady maintenance dose on his medications. Somewhere in the middle of those two points in time, was another point in time where we were far enough beyond living in crisis mode to be able to imagine a not-too-distant future date where he truly would be mental healthy enough to handle a week away from home.

Whenever that day was, it was months ago. So, as it goes with these sorts of things, a deposit was paid, a date marked on the calendar, and on we went with the day to day of life. We all knew that camp would happen, but were not actively thinking about the fact that camp would happen. For months “camp” was more of an idea than an actuality. But then months turned into weeks, and as school came to an end CAMP was suddenly looming in the very near future.

One month before he left, my son was incredibly excited. He would tell everybody about the train ride (a 24-hour train ride from our home in Southern California to the camp in Southern Oregon!), the merit badges he planned to work toward, and the activities he was looking forward to most. Two weeks before he left,  I would have described my son as nervously anticipating the trip. The week before he left he was excited yet increasingly anxious. In the days leading up to the trip, he became solidly anxious, while still looking forward to the adventure.

Two days before he left, he had a panic attack. After going weeks without even a minor attack, I watched the panic wash over him as we waited in line at a restaurant. It was small compared to what it would have been a year ago, but it was real. The cause was a lunch crowded restaurant, the root was his  growing anxiety about camp.

The day before he left was his worst day in months. From the time he woke up until the time he finally fell asleep, he cycled through sensory driven meltdowns, bouts of near hysterical tears, and a handful of minor panic attacks. Through all of that we packed him up for his week away. And through all of that my anxiety level was higher than it had been in months. I spent that day doing lots of deep breathing and praying. I spent that day wondering if we’d made a mistake all those months ago when we decided camp would be a good idea.

The date that had for so long been an idea on a calendar, was suddenly a sunny and humid actual day. With the dawning of that day also came a return in my son’s excitement about his great adventure. As he stepped on the train with a huge smile and a wave, I said a prayer. I prayed for him to have the strength to push through his anxiety and be fully present for the adventure ahead.

He was gone for 9 days. For most of that time we had no direct contact with him (they had their cell phones confiscated when they arrived in Oregon), and only sporadic updates from the adult chaperones on the trip (turns out the camp is in a cellular blackhole). The few pictures we received showed him happy and dirty – typical 11 year old at camp type pictures. For a week the only narrative we could imagine was the one shown in those few pictures.

I wish I could say that the kid who came off the train was as happy and excited as the kid who boarded that same train 9 days earlier. Or that the smile which greeted us, was the smile that we’d seen in pictures while he was gone. I wish I could say that the gut feeling I’d had all week that those pictures weren’t telling the entire story was wrong. I wish I could say all of that, but I can’t. The kid who came off the train was emotionally, physically and mentally depleted. He was spent. He was clearly happy to see us, but the happiness was soon replaced with relief. Relief that he was home, and among his closest circle, and didn’t have to try so hard to keep it together – and with that relief came the release of 9 days worth of bottled up emotions, frustrations, fears, and his self-perceived failures.

The “self-perceived failures” are a big part of the story here. It’s a story we are just beginning to piece fully together now that he’s been home for a few days. I know from the few comments I heard a couple of the older boys make to my son, that he was not struggling silently while they were at camp. Comments from adolescent boys such as “I’m proud of you” and “Forget about the bad parts – you did some great stuff” are super telling to me. The other boys saw how he struggled, and some of them showed the best of themselves by encouraging my son to focus on the successes rather than the self-perceived failures.

The adults who were with him have shared with me stories that illustrate a kid who definitely struggled several times during the week, but who was able to persevere. I have also learned from the adults on the trip that although my kid was definitely struggling, he was also looking out for other kids who were struggling themselves. One adult told me that my son is the most empathetic kid she’s ever met.

He has begun to tell the story of this time at camp in little bits of stories that come at seemingly random times. I’ve heard about the food, the camp staff who he liked best, and every type of candy they sell at the camp trading post. He’s also told me how he “cried every day”,  how the early to rise and late to bed schedule left him feeling rushed, and that there were a few times where he did not take his medication. He’s clearly still processing everything he experienced. My hunch is we will continue to hear his first hand experience for weeks to come. He’s focusing a ton right now on the things that did not go right – but slowly he’s sharing the good stuff. My hope is that over time we will be able to help him reframe the story so that what he remembers is how he persevered in a difficult situation, and as a result was able to have an incredible adventure.

I’m working on focusing on the adventure part as well. A year ago there was no way I could see a near future where he would be mentally and emotionally stable enough to do something as huge as a week away at camp. With time, and hard work and medication we got him there – take any one of those three things out of the mix and we would not have gotten him there. He functions in the world only because of a tenuous balance of time, hard work and medication – this trip was a test of that balance. For the most part I think the balance was maintained. But his admission that he knows his medication was not always taken at the right time or in the correct amounts does bother me greatly. We’ll never know if some of his struggles would have been smaller (or even nonexistent) had his medication routine not been interrupted. I have strong suspicion that played a partial role in the challenges he faced during the trip. That is something that I will continue to wrestle with – where did we go wrong in communicating to the adults in charge the importance of his medicine – but it is not where I am choosing to focus.

Over and over again in the week he was gone, people close to me wondered in amazement at the fact that he was strong enough to be gone. It truly is an amazing thing and something that I do not take for granted. This kid who has been dealt an incredibly challenging hand in this game of life, definitely struggles in the day to day. But when the big things happen he shows up, digs in, and perseveres. There were so many times I questioned our decision to let him take this trip, but in hindsight I would not have made a different decision. By giving him the opportunity to strike out on his own, we have also given him a solid foundation for moving forward. There is so much adventure to be had, and we’re going to help him find his place in that adventure to help him discover his place in the world.

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On The Bookshelf – The Joy Plan by Kaia Roman

Joy is interesting. In my own life there have been times joy was plentiful and an easy state of being to achieve – and at other times something that has seemed elusive and lacking. Most recently, I have been in a season of life where joy seems to be elusive and lacking. Some of that can be attributed to the challenges of parenting through the obstacle course that is our reality. But some of it can be attributed to the simple fact that I have a very bad habit of putting my own well being dead last on my to-do list.

True confession – there have been many occasions in recent months when my husband has flat-out asked me what I need to be happy. There was even one specific occasion I can think of where he looked at me and asked, “Where did your joy go?” It’s one thing to know in my heart that I am lingering too frequently in the dark. It’s another thing entirely for the person who knows me best in this whole world, to see me lingering in the dark and put voice to the fact that I have lost my joy. So when I was offered the opportunity to read and review an advanced copy of The Joy Plan by Kaia Roman, I did not hesitate.

The Joy Plan has been referred to as a “practical memoir”. It is part the very honest journey of one woman and part research backed scientific and psychological “plan” for cultivating joy. The combination of these two very different perspectives hooked me from the start. I love the rawness of a well told personal story and my inner geek loves anything that has solid research as a backdrop. Roman delivers on both as she weaves her own experiments in cultivating joy into a deeply personal account of the why and how she sought out and successfully increased her own levels of joy. She then takes it a step further and outlines a plan that others can follow to increase their own levels of joy.

Most importantly to me, Roman is honest. She is honest in how she lets us into her journey. She is honest about the choices she made that were ultimately joy stealers and the choices she made to help replace those joy stealers with joy builders. She does not pretend to assume that her joy plan is “the joy plan”. She shares her experiences, what worked, what didn’t, and provides some tools that readers may choose to use as a piece of their own joy plan – but she all does all of that while managing to steer clear of the “shall and must” territory that bogs down so many self-help type books.

My hunch is that The Joy Plan is a book that I will revisit sections of over and over. There is no doubt in my mind that at this point in my life, I need a joy plan of my own. As no two personal realities are the same, no two joy plans will be the same. Reading The Joy Plan gave me some inspiration and ideas for implementing a joy plan of my very own. I don’t think it will be quite as systematic as Roman’s plan, but hopefully the outcome will be the same. After all, it truly is the journey that counts, not the destination. And since I have a tendency to get derailed by the minutia, having another reminder to embrace joy on my journey is welcomed and helpful.

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Your Inner Superhero

It probably won’t come as a surprise that my favorite super hero growing up was Wonder Woman – both the Lynda Carter live action version and the Saturday morning cartoon version on The Super Friends. Wonder Woman was glamorous and smart and could more than hold her own among men. I can remember playing super heroes with my siblings and friends and always being on the hunt for a stray piece of rope to serve as my lasso of truth – I remember being certain that if I could find an actual lasso of truth it would be the coolest thing ever.

I looked up the definition of “superhero” on dictionary.com. It says, “a hero, especially in children’s comic books and television cartoons, possessing extraordinary, often magical powers.” Now, I don’t mean to criticize their definition, however I don’t think this one is correct. It’s not inaccurate; it’s just incomplete. Superheroes are more than just extraordinary, super-powered, exceptionally skilled people. Superheroes are superheroes because they utilize their abilities within a specific context to help in a specific way. I don’t care what the superpower may be, whether it is flying, fighting, webbing, running, super strength, or anything else. If a hero isn’t using that power in a specific context to help in a specific way, then they’re just a person. Having superpowers is one thing, but it takes action to make one a hero.

So what is it about super heroes that resonates so strongly with generation upon generation of people? Sure the super powers are amazing – who doesn’t want super-strength, the ability to fly or laser vision? But it’s deeper than that. I believe that we all have the capacity to be superheroes. I believe that we all have the super powers of heart, courage, wisdom and hope. Each and every one of us has the capacity to dig deep and find our own inner superhero.

Every person walking this earth, both those near and far—can have tremendous power in our lives: the power to speak words that lift us up or ones that crush us beneath their weight,
to reinforce our belonging or magnify our isolation,
 to be the one remaining thread we hang by or the straw that finally breaks us.

It can be easy to focus only on the doubters, the discouragers, the hope stealers, the dream killers. Their presence can be so loud and so disheartening and so disruptive, that it can sap us of our resolve and obscure the sun from view. In a superhero analogy, those people and situations are the evil villains.

But there are radiant people of brilliant light among us, and I am trying to make sure I see them and treasure them; these ordinary superheroes who are daily reminding me of the good in this world.

This week I looked and I noticed them everywhere.

The families in my church who packed sack lunches for the children in a local summer program,  the dozens of people who donated to the food drive my daughter and her girl scout troop just completed, the local school district and library who are making sure no child has to be hungry this summer by providing free lunches to all children every weekday this summer, the city work crew who halted the street work in front of our church during a memorial service, the 2 teenage boys I watched push an elderly gentleman’s car to safety after it stalled in the middle of an intersection, the friend who looked at me and seeing I was feeling overwhelmed gave me a hug and some words or reassurance.

We need to see the superheroes; to recognize the people who carry us, who lift us, who steady us when we are overcome by all that feels so very wrong. Each of us reach moments when we find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world that can so often be “too much”. When we allow enough space in those moments for people to show us  compassion and decency and love and courage; we allow enough space for an everyday superhero to save us. They swoop into our living rooms, news feeds, and peripheral vision at just the right time, and remind us that we are not in this life alone.

Sometimes that can be enough.

On the rough days we need to let ourselves be saved by someone else; to let another’s reassuring presence rescue us, to allow their lives to be the catalyst for our hope in those moments when hope is hard to come by.

And the truth is, we all have this same potentially saving power. Because of this, we need to continue to speak and care and love and forgive, and do our work and raise our families and live well, and look into the eyes of strangers and to ask how they are and really want to know—because other people are watching us and counting on us. For someone else, we might be the difference in the day.

So look around you today and take note of the people who are sustaining you; those who through humor, goodness, talent, empathy, or righteous anger, show you heroic things and give you the strength to go on. Look carefully at the good people crossing your path and you may notice a cape trailing behind.

See the superheroes who are saving you, and be encouraged.

Back to Wonder Woman. At some point I “outgrew” her the same way I outgrew other fictional heroines of my childhood. She always remained my “favorite superhero”, but I never spent anytime as an adult really thinking about her and what she represents. That all changed last weekend when we had a family movie date to see the new Wonder Woman movie. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. Hopefully I am not spoiling it for those who have yet to see it, but Wonder Woman’s closing words of the movie are a testament to the power of love – the greatest superpower each and everyone us possesses. The super power that we can use to change our world each and every day.

“I USED TO WANT TO SAVE THE WORLD. TO END WAR AND BRING PEACE TO MANKIND. BUT THEN, I GLIMPSED THE DARKNESS THAT LIVES WITHIN THEIR LIGHT. AND I LEARNED THAT INSIDE EVERY ONE OF THEM, THERE WILL ALWAYS BE BOTH. A CHOICE EACH MUST MAKE FOR THEMSELVES. SOMETHING NO HERO WILL EVER DEFEAT. AND NOW I KNOW, THAT ONLY LOVE CAN TRULY SAVE THE WORLD. SO I STAY, I FIGHT, AND I GIVE, FOR THE WORLD I KNOW CAN BE.”

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The View From Here..

School ended today at 12pm. By 12:20pm I had four extra kids in the house – two friends of my son and two friends of my daughter. They all came home from school with us and will all spend the night. It’s a huge “Welcome to Summer” celebration.

Earlier today as I was leaving work and heading to the grocery store to stock up for 6 hungry kids, I told my co-workers that this party was either the best idea I have ever had, or the worst. So far, so good. They ate enough food to feed a dozen kids at lunch, they’ve played video games, had water fights, and nerf battles. All together in a big pack. It’s been so much fun to watch (as I have been attempting to get in a couple more hours of work sitting in the yard.)

Right now the boys are in the living room playing video games, and the girls are in my daughter’s room whispering and giggling. There is peace and harmony and joy in the land of preteens as they ease into their summer break. And the current view from my outdoor “office space” is this…

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That is the remains of water balloon fights, nerf battles and hot tub dunking. It is the loveliest, most joyful mess I have seen in a long time. Its existence proves how far my son has come since this time last year. The beginning of last summer was right after my son had hit rock bottom in his battle with anxiety, panic and depression. While this was clearly hardest on him, his behavior, actions and choices for many months last spring and summer had the net result of our entire family being hostage. We did not have people over because there were too many possibilities for the visit to end poorly.

This time last year, we were all just trying to survive. This time last year, the long and empty days of summer seemed desolate and daunting. This time last year, there was no celebrating.

But today there is laughter, and joy, and fun, and friends, and beautiful messes. Today there is celebration and eager anticipation for what the summer will bring. Today the view from where I sit is incredibly good.

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words…

We are in the swift downhill race to the end of elementary school for my son. Every single day there is some celebration marking the end of the class of 2017’s time at the school. 

Today that celebration was an awards ceremony honoring academic achievement. My smarty pants, loves school, never met a book he didn’t like kid went into the morning knowing he would receive an award and was eagerly excited when he woke up this morning. 

Even with that excitement, the actual act of sitting in a cafeteria full of other kids and parents was hard for him. He is doing so much better at keeping his anxiety in check, but crowds, noise, anticipation and that cafeteria all remain individual triggers. Put together, he could have been sitting in the middde of a perfect storm. At this exact awards ceremony last year, he could not even enter the cafeteria – he listened from outside the doors. 

But today he managed to get a win over his triggers and demons. Today he sat in the midst of the other kids, cheered his friends and classmates on as a couple dozen awards were given out before his name was even called, and walked proudly and confidently up to the stage when his own name was called as a recipient of the President’s Award for Outstanding Academic Excellence. In other words – he rocked it!

I took gobs of pictures during and after the ceremony. Some show him solemnly examining his award, some show him beaming with pride, one shows him with his amazingly kind and wonderful teacher, and a couple even show him goofing off with friends. But this picture is the one I know I’ll treasure most over time. 

This picture of his back (and the back of his sister’s head) tells the part of the story I think matters most. The story isn’t that he’s an excellent student with a crazy smart brain. That’s amazing, and we’re super proud of his academic achievements, but it’s not what really matters here. What matters here is the fact that he is in the room. We could tell he was about to burst out of his skin at several points during the ceremony, but he didn’t give in. He fought through the anxiety and was a true participant in a huge personal milestone moment. From our seats in the chairs behind the kids, we were able to witness him truly being present for himself and with his peers. And it was beautiful. 

Too Much!

One day last week I spent sometime updating calendar. There were at least a dozen things – some work related, some volunteer related, some kid related – that I knew were happening, but had not yet made it onto the calendar. I am generally pretty good about getting things down on the calendar as soon as they are scheduled, so it was unusual for me to have to actually make the time to do a calendar update. As soon as it was done, I realized why all of those things had not made it onto the calendar….there is just too much happening in the next month.

That same afternoon I was chatting with a friend at school pick up. A friend who I have seen quite infrequently recently because we both have too much on our plates. I told her about my time spent updating the calendar and how i had decided that if I just didn’t look at it, then none of it was real. We laughed.

Later in the week, the subject of the calendar came up with my husband. We operate off a shared Google calendar, so he gets notifications overtime I put something on the calendar. That day I did my major update, he got a separate notification for each of the dozen or so events I created on the calendar. He joked to somebody that there is just too much on that calendar which functions as our shared brain. But there’s more truth than humor in that statement.

Too much. Even though I have become so much better at learning to say no, there is still too much. Some of it is ongoing – the work meetings and events, sports practices, therapy appointments, medication checks, orthodontist visits, and  tutor appointments are all things that take up space on the calendar on a regular cycle. Some of it is seasonal – year end awards ceremonies, scout events, performances, track meets and parties are all taking up space but will soon give way to the more open calendar of summer break. That calendar is really not vastly different than many other families, but lately when I look at it, instead of seeing the individual events, I just see too much.

And what do I do with too much? I power through. But sometimes powering through comes at a cost, as I was reminded this past weekend.

Saturday morning I woke up feeling mentally tired (my normal these days), but physically fine. By the time I had showered and headed out for a day full of work events, I noticed that my back was a little sore. I proceeded to stand on my feet for the next few hours, and when I finally sat down I realized that my back was actually very sore. Another two hours passed as I sat in a meeting and then drove home. By the time I pulled into my driveway the soreness in my back had become full blown pain. As that afternoon and evening progressed, the pain became worse and worse.

My husband asked me what I had done to hurt myself. My answer – nothing. I didn’t do anything. I could not put my finger on any one act of lifting or bending or moving that had caused strain to my back. His response to that – perhaps it was my body sending me a message that I needed to slow down from the too much. He also pointed out that I can’t take care of anybody else, if I am out of commission myself.

So my body sent a warning shot – a pretty painful warning shot, but one that I am already mostly recovered from physically (thanks to a couple days of rest, ice and ibuprofen). All of those things that combine to be the too much are still on the calendar (in fact a couple more things were added just today), but on most days there is time in between the things that are the too much. And it is how I choose to fill (or not fill) those moments that contribute to or take away from my own physical and mental well being. It’s not all of those dates on the calendar that are causing my strain, it’s my own inability (or unwillingness) to use the time in between to care for myself. So as I lay on an ice pack and drifted off to sleep last night, I made myself a promise to pay more attention to my own needs and make the time to care for those needs. There is very little of the too much that I can actually rid from our lives right now. What I can do is add something to make  the too much feel a little easier….

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