Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Empathy Desert

"Hey, buddy - what did you think about the race?"

The man stuck his hand up for a high-five from my (at the time) five-year-old son, whose eyes had already darted around the loud room several times. Bird (my son's nickname) had woken up early, skipped his standard breakfast at home, waited for our race to finish, and was looking forward to eating. Bird didn't return the high-five and said a flat-sounding, "great."

I considered nudging my son to return the high-five. After all, this is what I'd done his entire life.

1.) Place child into social situation
2.) Nudge and prompt child to respond appropriately
3.) Watch the other person react, likely thinking my son is rude
4.) Try to not think about it for the rest of the day (or more. But here I am, two years later.)

That day, I chose to not force my child to respond appropriately and chirped out, "eh, he's clearly got donuts on the brain!" Heh. Heh.  I knew the day had already been too much, too loud, too little food, too many smells, too many grown-ups (who would eventually make him feel not-so-great. Like that exact moment.). My son wandered over to his dad and leaned in, wrapping his arms around my husband's leg. He stared at the ground and began to trace the outline of the tiles with his foot, the side of his face pressed firmly on Derek's hip.

All children have awkward, inappropriate social encounters throughout their life. It is part of growing up, and we learn by doing - so it's something they do have to figure out for themselves. But when you have anxiety - a physical, neurological, medical condition - your "figuring it out" becomes a very different experience when compared to your peers.

I honestly was not aware that I had anxiety until we discovered my son has anxiety, and I started to remember similar experiences when I was his age. It's been life-changing for me to understand what has subconsciously motivated me my entire life, why I sought out "soothers," why I have always had problems sleeping, why I have had extreme physiological responses to stress (I've been in the ER more than once in my life for what ended up being panic attacks). I'm not a "weak" person. This isn't something my parents did to me - it's just me. It's genetic. And it's something that Bird will have to navigate his entire life.

Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to explain to people who do not have anxiety. You can't see it. Sometimes it's not a big deal. Some days it's crushing. I can understand where neuro-typical are coming from - regardless of the "why," when someone doesn't show up, it sucks. Like that encounter with the denied high-fiver, it does not feel good when someone doesn't respond to you. Anxiety or not, there are real consequences in life. People eventually stop calling. People no longer invite you places.

People think your child is just a little jerk. After all, so-and-so has such sweet children who always make eye contact and respond appropriately during conversation.

We haven't told our son, "you have anxiety." We have offered him various age-appropriate coping techniques. We dabble with therapy (haven't found a great fit yet). We talk to teachers and coaches. Some folks get it, some folks do not. When they don't - it's like you've wandered out into the empathy desert, and it just plain sucks.

Depression and anxiety are real, physiological conditions. The brain is not wired the same as a neuro-typical person. Here's another thing - when you tell someone, "my child has anxiety," it's like saying they have a broken bone. It could be any bone - you haven't told them which specific bone. But let's say their child also has a broken bone - but it is specifically their foot. They expect your child needs crutches. They expect you to tell your child not to attempt walking. But in reality your child has a broken arm. So, unfortunately sometimes we can't even empathize with fellow parents of quirksters.

Make sense? These neurological conditions are extremely personal and unique, but they're just as real as a broken bone. You can't - and won't ever be able to - see which bone is broken on another person with a psychological disorder.

In the mean time, please consider how parents of children on the spectrum, children with anxiety, ADHD, etc., feel each and every day. They are constantly cringing, struggling with how much/how little to intervene. I know it's uncomfortable for you - the neurotypical person - to wander out into our desert. But we would love to share a glass of water now and then.

Monday, July 10, 2017

When the Empty Glass is Optimistic

Over the holiday weekend, we had dinner at our favorite wing place in Durham where I had a beer. A few hours later, I had a few beers as we watched the neighbor's firework display. Delicious food, beer, fireworks. A full heart, full belly, and full glass kind of day.

The following morning, I turned on my phone to browse the news and Twitter, etc., and stumbled upon an article discussing the caloric content of IPAs. I immediately sat straight up and said, "HOLY CRAP!" Actually, I didn't. I'm an overweight woman with broken abs. I flopped over to my other side and looked at Derek.

My weight gain started when I began to train for endurance events. Also, around that same time:

  • Madeleine stopped nursing as a food source. (That burns a LOT of calories)
  • So, I started drinking beer again because ... I could.
  • Thanks to being spoiled by the craft beer industry, I discovered I loathe domestic beer, and only like IPAs - the bitter, the better.
I could talk about other things that have contributed to weight gain (the impact of stress is very real), but I just want to talk about the beer.

I only drink in front of the kids if we are out and - with the exception of a few baseball games - it's usually just one or two drinks. Other than that, I usually wait until they are in bed, then have a few beers.

Why? Well, that's a loaded (heh) question. I actually like the way it tastes. But, I also have anxiety - it's a real thing. Some people wonder how I can exercise without music. The answer is simple - it's just too darn loud. Not the volume, but the input. I can't stop thinking about Things, and the music makes it worse. When my day finally comes to a close, I don't want to think about anything, I don't want to process anything else - and the easiest way to get my brain from thinking about everything to thinking about nothing is ... beer.

I know people need to self-preserve, or perhaps they legitimately don't care, but the political climate took a toll on me. I've been extremely concerned about access to healthcare, education, immigration, racial tensions and discriminatory practices, the environment - the list goes on. But, I can't think about it all night, so I would go from "UGHHHHH" to bzzzzz after ... beer. Bad day with the kids? Look forward to beer. Stressful "other Thing?" Pick up beer for that evening.

Beer, beer, beery beer beer.

Do I think I have a problem? If I go through the standard checklist: I haven't hit anyone or yelled, haven't blacked out, haven't missed work. *shrug*? I've been extremely honest about it with my therapist, and he hasn't suggested I need to stop.

But is IT a problem? Without a doubt - yes. Going back to that article that shocked me into flopping over in bed: estimated caloric content of ONE beer that I usually enjoy: 320 calories. If I have three over the course of an evening? Almost 1000 calories (or more depending on beer choice and quantity) on top of what I ate that day - not to mention it's consumed right before I go to bed. Of course there are also plenty of other impacts to my health other than weight gain - well aware of those. (Also - the cost, good god lemon. Three-buck-chuck, IPA is not.)

I think it's extremely important to understand the motivation behind any "soother" and/or habit. If I'm drinking because of self-loathing (which absolutely has been some of those days, but truly isn't the majority. I've worked hard with my therapist and have made a lot of progress), it's crucial to avoid replacing a bad addiction with a healthy addiction. It might be better for my physical health, but my mental health will still struggle because "addiction". But it has mostly been to just not think, and to give a little tease to the pleasure center of my brain. "There, there, Heather. The day is over, let me turn off your brain for you."

As I write this, my kids have been at each other during their "clean-up, clean-up, everybody, everywhere" chores they successfully avoided all weekend because we were busy. At. Each. Other. Screaming, yelling. I have no doubt around 5:15PM during swim practice, when I have been watching my children do the opposite of their coach's instruction, observing 46 different and painfully awkward social interactions with my son, I will want to dive into my own pool of NonThink, AKA: Double-Ditterbotter, Smack Your Preacher In The Eye, 2,348% ABV Brewed With Psychedelic Hexes IPA around 8:30PM tonight.

But, I won't. It's just time ... to not to.

Friday, June 23, 2017

The Last Time I Saw Richard

The last time I saw Richard was Detroit in '68,
And he told me all romantics meet the same fate someday
Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark cafe
You laugh, he said you think you're immune, go look at your eyes
They're full of moon
You like roses and kisses and pretty men to tell you
All those pretty lies, pretty lies
When you gonna realize they're only pretty lies
Only pretty lies, just pretty lies (Mitchell)

I don't hide the fact I see a therapist - it's been extremely helpful to me in not only identifying and understanding anxiety, but having the opportunity to vent. He does say the standard, "you're a great mom, you're doing great things," but he also asks tough questions from time to time, including this one at our last session, "when was a time in your adult life that you were truly happy?"


I've been happy many times throughout my life, but I found myself unable to find a lengthy period of happiness. That's ... really sad. Like, Michael Scott-"I want to have 100 kids when I grow up so I'll have 100 friends and they'll have to like me" sad. It's not that I don't appreciate my life - I am cognitively aware that I have a fantastically lucky life. A non-abusive partner I so very much enjoy, two healthy kids, a house with a yard, "things," a few friends, and so on.

While I appreciate it all, not being able to immediately answer my therapist's question peeled back the layers all at once.

I'm not happy-happy, and I don't know that I have ever been.

Again - I feel like I need to insert this every paragraph, I appreciate so much in my life. I'm happy about things in my life. I experience happiness and joy.

My husband and I celebrated our ninth wedding anniversary this past Wednesday, and we watched the ceremony DVD with the kids. Now, I am a crier - always have been. I have become better at controlling it, but I do remember trying not to bawl my eyes out during the wedding. It was very emotional to be with our family, some of our friends, and it was just ... perfect. Except watching this video nine years later, I saw Derek smiling and happy, smiling at me while I looked... miserable.

The thing is - I know I was not miserable! I was extremely happy, I was overwhelmed with gratitude that morning. So, why did I look miserable? (Full disclosure - I have serious RBF, always have had.) My therapist's question echoed in my mind... when have you been happy?

My road to positive mental health is somewhere in here, I think:

1.) Acknowledging several traumatic childhood events, processing them, accepting them. They were not my fault.

2.) Understanding I have anxiety, my brain never turns off, accepting this is my normal, and finding healthier ways to process the exhaustion.

3.) Also accepting that I am quirky, weird and have behaved poorly throughout my life. It's part of anxiety - difficulty dealing with sensory processing, hating how I feel and then sabotaging. Sabotaging friendships, romantic relationships, my physical health, etc.

4.) This is the hardest part. Looking back on my life at these mistakes I have made, those sabotaged moments, and loving myself regardless. (Read this reflection by Brian Cuban to better understand what I mean and why it's important.)

Number four is going to be so, so hard. I mean - I've distanced myself from people who voted for 45 (which is not necessarily healthy, either, but partially to self-preserve). Having said that, how on earth can I look back at Jerk Heather and feel shame, guilt and subsequent distaste/dislike for my mistakes, but accept and love myself regardless?

I don't know. I think a part of it is understanding that I wasn't looking for pretty lies, I was looking for acceptance. I still am. And, maybe... happiness.