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…

1176184_10201859123107904_1529240921_n

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.

design-6.png

 

 

 

 

 

 

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…

IMG_8939.JPG

 

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. 

Bearing Each Other’s Burdens

I was honored, and a little (okay a lot!) nervous to be invited as the featured speaker at Atascadero United Methodist Church as part of their annual Mental Health Awareness Sunday. The key word to me in that sentence is “annual”…..every year for the past few years they have set aside one Sunday in the month of May to shine a light on fact that mental illness is widespread and that we all need to do out part to break down the stigma that continues to persist. In a world where most people are still to frightened by the thought of mental illness to really begin to understand mental illness, this congregation is actively searching for understanding and for ways to turn that understanding into action.

I am not an expert. I am a mother with a story to tell. A story that I tell because I know there is great power in giving names to the things that feel frightening. A story that I hope helps to break down the stigma surrounding childhood and adolescent mental illness. A story that I know touched the hearts and minds of the people at Atascadero UMC this past weekend.

Take a look, and see if perhaps that story touches you as well…Bearing Each Other’s Burdens – Atascadero UMC; May 7, 2017

The Is Us; 2017

One year ago today I hit publish on “a little project” I’d been working on.

365-days-later.001

Today I went back and read the post that started what has become an incredible journey. Take a peek and see where we started.

We’re in a much better place in general today than we were when I wrote that post. We have words to name things in a way we did not at this time last year. And we have all found our own voices and own ways of narrating our story for the world. As a family we are changing the dialogue. There are still dark moments, hours & days. But the light spaces in between have stretched. There is still a lot of who we are to be found in that original post, but it’s not where the story ends.

And as for me and that “little project”… 12 months, 76 blog posts, 6 articles published on The Mighty (including one co-authored by my son), 7,000 people in 60 countries reading those words and hopefully finding encouragement to find their own voices.

Here’s to another trip around the sun…

Love, Faith, and Anxiety

Maundy Thursday is the day that Christians commemorate the gathering of Jesus and his disciples for the Last Supper. Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, meaning commandment, in reference to Jesus’ teachings about a new commandment. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John. 13:34-35, NRSV). That piece of scripture, and it’s message,  has been woven into my life for as long as I can remember, but last night I felt those words in a way I had never experienced them before.

I’ve written before about the internal struggle my son wages between his love for God and church, and his inability to be in large groups of people. After a year on medication to ease his anxiety, he is generally good on Sunday mornings – he knows what to expect, can position himself in the sanctuary in a way that offers an unobstructed escape route, and has figured out how to entirely avoid the over-peopled parts of church. He has found a balance that allows him to participate in worship and fellowship, without being too overwhelming.

But every now and then, he finds himself in a situation at church that is outside of his comfort zone.  With the decrease in predictability comes an increase in the potential for anxiety or a panic attack. Such was the case last night as we observed Maundy Thursday.

He was trying so hard to stay in control. I could see it and I could feel it in his tense body seated next to me. But shortly after we were seated – in a sanctuary that was darker than he is accustomed to, in a seating arrangement completely different from on a Sunday morning, in a worship service filled with heart wrenching words and haunting music – he realized he was not in control. And his chosen means of attempting to hold off the panic attack was to bury his head in my lap and squeeze his eyes tightly shut.

So it was that I found my sweet boy – who is almost as big as me – curled into my lap as the words of this Taize chant washed over us both…”Nothing can trouble. Nothing can frighten. Those who seek God shall never go wanting. God alone fills us.” Over and over I heard and sang those words which were simultaneously heart breaking and soul filling. My heart broke for Jesus, for the world at large and for my son – as I sat holding my son, I felt my heart-break wide open.

The message of Maundy Thursday is love. Love in its purest form. Love for one another. Love in action. And while I am still reeling from the pain of last night, in the light of this day I know that above all else it is our collective love and faith that will see my son through this world.

IMG_8235.PNG