Let the Caged Bird Sing…

I have spent the better part of the last twenty minutes carrying on a conversation with a dog. Now, that is either super relatable or cause for concern, depending entirely upon who you are as a person. For me, it’s a little place somewhere between “totally normal, everyday behavior” and “what the actual hell is wrong with you”. But the reason why may not be what you think.

I spend way more time than I care to admit talking to myself, and sometimes (read: a lot of the time) that happens in the form of me talking to the dogs so I feel slightly less crazy. Typing this all out, however, has only served to make me feel even crazier, so there’s that. Anyway. The talking (to myself or the animals) is not the part that has me freaked out, because as I have said, I do this often. Actually, in the spirit of full disclosure, I spend more time talking to the bearded dragon most mornings than I do my kids. There. Okay, we have established my level of crazy, are we happy? I am incapable of sitting in my own silence.

Which is where the actual problem comes in. I have never been incapable of this. Now, wait. Let me clarify. That is not to say that I like to sit in total, worldly quiet. Absolute quiet makes me really uneasy. Like I’m two minutes away from the Cuckoo’s Nest if you get my drift. I like sound. I just like it to be my sound. A sound of my choosing. Music or a book, or inner narration (because if I’m not talking out loud, you could put money down that I’m doing it in my head). Get my drift?  I’ve always enjoyed being in the sounds of my choosing, but away from the noise made by the rest of the world.

A really simple way of saying this is that I’ve always enjoyed being alone.

Better? That took an astonishing amount of words to get to.

Anyway. I am alone, right now. This minute. As I speak. Type. Honestly, I’m talking as I type, so you get the damn point.

And I am completely undone.

Which is screwing me up in ways you cannot imagine.

How have I forgotten how to be alone?

I’ll tell you how.

This is the first time in exactly six weeks and one day that I have been utterly without human company inside a house for more than 5 minutes. And I cannot recall a time before that in the last year.  I’m sure it must have happened, but I genuinely cannot remember it. The only other times I am ever alone, I am driving, and really, are you ever actually alone when you share the road with a bunch of other unpredictable people who may or may not be too busy looking at themselves on their phone to notice that the right lane is closed ahead (you know, the same one they’ve closed every day for the last month) so you have to slam on your brakes to prevent little miss sassy-pants from sideswiping you with her fancy little Mazda when she finally looks at the road? No, you are not. Driving is no longer a lonely business, it’s a death-defying feat of insanity.

Good God, I’ve turned into Tristram Shandy.

Look, I am alone. It’s just me and the dogs. Not my dogs, mind you, if they were my dogs I would be at home and I wouldn’t be having this little crisis of identity. No, I’m (happily) enjoying a weekend stay-cation with my mom’s dogs. This is also exactly what I was doing the last time I was alone: six weeks and one day ago.

And I did the exact same thing then that I’m doing now.

I had a total freaking meltdown. Because I forgot how to be alone.

Don’t panic.

I’m not panicking, or actually having any kind of freak out. I’m just… well, I am a bit baffled, a lot irritated, and quite frankly, stunned. I mean, seriously.  I pulled a Mel Gibson from Braveheart all the way here. “Freedoooooom!” But no. Not really.  I’m just at a loss of what to do with myself. I had goals, and I met them. I did a ton of schoolwork. And if it were possible to measure digital media in terms of weight, I could believe that it was truly a ton. Okay, but now what? I started to do a bunch of busywork. No shit. I am alone. My kids are not near me. I love them, they are my whole entire universe. But they are a lot sometimes. And right now, they are not even in the same town as I am. I am alone, actively seeking busy work? It’s just sad.

But I don’t know what to do.

How’s that for a screwy situation?

I slept, and it was awesome, but there’s really only so much of that a person can do before it gets old. I went for a run, and it wasn’t awesome because it’s raining outside and the dogs kind of freaked out and I was worried the whole time that one of them would burrow out of the house using some kind of magical dog weapon and I’d end up chasing them all over this neighborhood again and my parent’s snobby asshole neighbors already hate me, so that’s a miserable prospect.

Then I got some more school work done.

Then the thinking started.

Which is when I tend to get myself into trouble.

But really now. I hate this. I hate that I’m even sitting here writing this, because more than anything it’s an attempt to pull my own thoughts together, and what I really should be doing is enjoying a book. Which I cannot do because I left my book at home. And also, I apparently have the attention span of a fruit fly right now, so Terry Pratchett and I probably aren’t a good combination. Okay, fine, no book. I’ll watch television… I’ve paused this episode 18 times already. The show is good, but I’m not paying attention. I’m too worried about what else I should be doing.

And here we hit the heart of the problem.

I haven’t forgotten how to be alone.

I’ve forgotten how to relax.

It’s not a new realization, so I guess it’s lost some of its wow factor, but it’s still a crappy one. I don’t know how to shut my mind off anymore. I mean, I was never good at it to begin with, but I could at least get immersed in something, some other world, or game, or book, or idea. But now?  Now I’m pacing around while the dogs pace after me because they think I’ve got treats hidden in my hair or something (which they both know is not true, because they are the reason I cannot even run a brush through my hair right now), while I try to figure out some magic formula of shutting off my brain.

I am not worried about missing this moment. I am not worried about missing moments tomorrow or the next day either. I am worried that I am avoiding self-truths with overthinking and stupid tv shows. I am worried that I started to do something healthy for myself, and the more into it I get, the more convinced I am that people in my life are going to work to sabotage it. And that, that my friends, is a fucked-up truth.

I am worried that the more good I do for me, the more negative shit I am going to hear. The more false-positive bull is going to get thrown at me. I’m stretching myself too thin, by going to bed an hour earlier so I can get up to run in the morning. Or, I’m booking myself up and not leaving any room for plans by dedicating a grand total of 5 hours a month to an event that makes me happy and motivates me to do more, be better.

I am worried that I have buried myself in a toxic environment. And I am more worried that I have created the foundation for it. I am worried that I will cave. That I will capitulate. That I will give up and give in because me doing good for me is too hard for other people to handle, and despite every fucking tough-girl-take-no-prisoners-give-no-shit attitude I have worn like a tattered cape since childhood, I still want the people I love to be happy.

Even if it means I’m not.

And I’m worried that I am growing out of that.

Finally.

I am worried that means other people will either have to grow or have to go.

And I am terrified because I don’t know which choice will be made.

So, I sit here, unable to be alone, and talking to the dogs.

They say “hi”, by the way.

Because I know that growth is painful for me. But I never realized how painful it would be for other people. And that hurts a whole lot more. Almost as much as accepting that it isn’t my choice to make. I made my choice. I cannot determine how other people react to it. I can’t decide what the outcome will be, beyond my own small role.

Gives a whole new meaning to growing pains.

And to finding freedom.

cocoparisienne

A Little Guilt…

I was going to start out using a Felicity Huffman quote I found that states, “Motherhood has been an exercise in guilt”. Then I thought wow, that may be a bit too on the nose.  You’ll notice I still used the quote, but mostly because I thought it was funny in that oh shit kind of way.  While parental guilt is not at all funny, at least she did something to feel guilty about!

I learned recently that parental guilt is actually a thing. I had no idea it was so widespread. Sure, it’s always been there, on the peripheral in one way or another.  A friend who feels guilty for missing a field trip.  Someone who feels guilty for how they parented child #1 after child #2 comes along and life situations are different. Parents of adult children who still hold onto shit that was done twenty years ago, which the kid has long since let go of, but the parent just can’t. Or, in some cases, things the kid hangs on to which become destructive all around.  What I didn’t know is that parental guilt isn’t just some obscure little thing some of us live with, but most of us never experience.  Actually, it’s the other way around.  Nearly every parent on the planet experiences it in one form or another, and for many of us, it’s a constant struggle.

The dictionary I keep near my desk defines guilt as “a feeling of deserving blame for offenses”. That doesn’t even come close to touching it, though, does it? Because the real problem with parental guilt is that it is inherently rooted in intangibles. What if me missing this field trip is the thing that eventually leads my child down the path of drugs and addiction?  What if I don’t stop what I’m doing right now to gush over this thing my kid made and he resents me forever? If I yell right now in this moment, will it prevent him from doing something much more harmful in the future, or will it be the trigger that leads to a lifetime of reckless behavior? The really messed up part is that I’m not exaggerating.  At least, not as far as my own guilt goes.

It’s not always.  It’s like a rollercoaster for me.  There are days where I feel completely in control of everything, and I know that none of these people would last five minutes without me. But those days are sadly rare.  They’re good days though, in that I feel like I matter.  I feel like I am where I am supposed to be, and everything will be fine.

On the bad days, however, I feel completely irrelevant in my children’s lives.  Hell, in the lives of everyone around me.  Days where I sit here and wonder if I were to vanish tomorrow, how long would it take them to notice?  Sometimes those days are just my own anxiety and depression knocking at the door, and I know it’s time to take a break. Walk away from whatever has me tied up in knots and take a different look at my life.  Remember who I am, and remember what matters.

But some days it stems completely from my intense and overwhelming feelings of guilt.  I spend too much time working. School is taking too much away from my children.  I’m not making good enough dinners, there isn’t enough variety, Kaleb hates this, Mason hates that, why can’t I just get it right? When is the last time I cleaned the house – I mean, really cleaned it?  I’m failing, I just know I am.  Mason’s school struggles are my fault, I’m not patient enough,  I don’t give him enough time, I’m not paying enough attention. I’m failing at every turn.  I’m not giving my husband the support he needs to get through his own struggles.  I’m not giving Kaleb enough positive reinforcement or telling him how wonderful I think his uniqueness is.  Not enough, not enough, not enough. 

Crazy, right? Or… not so much.

Parental guilt is real. It’s everywhere if you take the time to look for it. There’s an article in Psychology Today that lists the top 20 reasons parents say they feel guilty, and holy crap do some of those hit home. If I had a quarter for every time I lay in bed awake at 3am wondering if going back to school isn’t actually showing my kids how to follow dreams and not give up, we wouldn’t have to worry about bills anymore. I can’t even begin to count how many wasted hours I’ve spent laying there wondering if, instead of showing strength and drive and determination, me doing something good for me is actually detrimental to them? It’s hard to stay out of my head here. When I think about the amount of time I actually put into things like work and school, I panic. I then have to spend the time I should be doing something else reminding myself of all the reasons what I am doing is not wrong. And then I feel guilty for wasting so much time worrying about it when I have so much else I could have been doing.

Seeing the pattern yet?

Parental guilt is huge, silent, and indefatigable. It’s a vicious cycle filled with poison spikes and it takes a constant battle of the will to overcome it, at least, in my world it does.  It even infects good things.  We recently changed Kaleb’s medications, and a lot of good has come out of it.  He’s been better able to handle sugar in his system again, he’s slightly less angry, and some of the self-destructive behaviors have slowed down or stopped altogether. That doesn’t mean I don’t sit up regularly wondering if I made a huge mistake ever agreeing to medicate him in the first place.  Maybe he would have learned to self-regulate without it.  Maybe the binge eating and weight loss issues never would have happened.  Maybe, maybe, maybe. What if, what if, what if. The guilt and the self-doubt have become a terrible drumbeat banging over and over again in my mind.

The first time someone suggested I medicate Mason I lost my shit completely.  No! No way.  You don’t even know what’s going on with him, and you want to medicate him into one of those kids that sits and listens and does his schoolwork without interrupting the lesson with random facts about how platypus’s have venom spikes in their ankles (true fact, btw), or having meltdowns because the dyslexia is bad today and he just can’t cope with what is being asked of him, despite the fact that what is being asked is not only perfectly reasonable but something he’s completely capable of doing… I don’t think so, buddy. No way.

But was my initial outrage because I genuinely believe there is something more going on in Mason’s head and I’m worried if they simply medicate him for being hyper they will be burying the real issue instead of addressing it?  No.  Much to my own guilt-ridden dismay, I will admit freely right now that was the secondary reason.  The primary reason?  The instantaneous guilt I felt over all the struggles we’ve had with Kaleb and the medication dance we’ve had to do over the years.  Bad enough one of my kids has to go through it, I’ll be damned before I let you do it to the other one.

Does that make me a good mom or a bad mom?  I don’t know. Both? Neither? Maybe just a mom who struggles with a shit-load of guilt. A lot of it is my own mind. My own determination to be better, and the constant Pinterest comparison that makes me feel less. The feeling that I may never be the kind of mom I thought I would be.  The worry that I’ll never get my patience back, no matter how many times I start running or do yoga or go to bed early or meditate or whatever.  The fear that I will spend the next 9 years fighting with Mason night after night over some mundane piece of homework and his frustration and anger will lead to lifelong problems and so much incredible potential thrown away because I couldn’t get my shit together enough to figure out how to help him. Or all the time I spend trying to get Kaleb to understand that taking responsibility for your part in a problem means not ending the sentence with “but you…” will lead to him never holding others accountable because I’ve brainwashed him into thinking everything is always his fault.

It. Is. Constant.

The guilt is a cement block tied around my neck.  It’s old Marley’s chains wrapped around my waist. It’s suffocating. It’s infuriating. It’s impossible.

And while so much of it is based on intangibles, things I can feel but can’t see until they have come and gone, some of it is genuine. There are things I regret. Things I wish I had thought through more carefully.  Moments, meltdowns, words, whole days I wish I could take back.  But I can’t. And that’s the real bitch of it. And also the blessing. Because what it means is that looking back all the time does me no good.  Learn from the mistakes, and move forward.  Maybe you repeat a couple of them.  Maybe the lesson takes a bit longer to sink in.  That’s okay.

Parenting does not equal perfection.  Maximum effort does not mean you run flat out all day every day and try to be a superhero.  Maximum effort means you do the best you can with what you have to work with at that moment. Then you move on to the next moment. Because that’s all you can do.  Unless the Doctor swoops in with his (her?) blue box, you’re stuck in time. You might feel adrift, but you aren’t. You’re here. Right here in this moment with your feet planted firmly and time marching forward. All you have to do is march with it.

I tell my kids every day is a fresh start. Bad day at school yesterday?  Erase the board and start new today.  Big meltdown last night? Let it go and try again now. But in reality, every moment is a fresh opportunity. Each minute that passes by presents you with a chance to make a choice. You won’t always make the best one, nobody gets it right 100% of the time. We yell, we lose our temper, we run out of patience, we open the bottle of wine. And then we move forward. Each moment is a gift, and our guilt makes us forget that. Tomorrow isn’t promised. This afternoon isn’t promised. Right now is all we have. Right now is tangible. You’re in it, deep in the trenches of this moment. Look around you. Nothing is perfect, everything is a work in progress.  We are too. And that’s okay. Because we can’t change the past, only the future, and the future can only be changed by paying attention to right now.

The guilt is nerve-wracking. It sends my anxiety sky high and every time it rears its head I can see the impact it has all over my day, my week, my life. But what that really means is that I’m giving power to the monsters in my head, and I don’t accept that. My mindset is mine to change, as is yours. My moment is mine to live, as is yours. So acknowledge the guilty feeling when it shows up.  Hold it for just a moment, just long enough to decide if you can use it to make this moment or the next better, and the let go of it, regardless of the answer. Because it can only be used if you let it go.

TheDigitalArtist

For One Single Yesterday…

This is the time of the year when we are meant to show gratitude for all that we have. And I am grateful. So, so grateful for every wild and fantastic turn my life has taken that has led me to this point. But I am also indescribably sad. This is one of the hardest nights I’ve ever had.

I am a lucky person. My life could have gone in a million directions – any of our lives could – but mine went the way that it did in many respects because of my grandmother. She was fierce and smart, loving and loyal, and fucking vicious when the time called for it. She refused to accept anything but the best of everyone, and I have spent my life trying to live up to the expectation of who she thought I was, and who she thought I could be.

Some of my best memories take place in her kitchen, and that’s why I’m writing this now.

I can remember being young and sitting cross-legged in the middle of the kitchen counter as she rolled out dough. She’d pass me scraps of dough, and I’d pile them up. She would call for ingredients, and I’d have them ready. Sometimes.

Sometimes I would sit with my book and forget that I was helping. Yeah, okay, maybe more than sometimes. But she never made me feel bad for not paying attention. She’d remind me of what we were doing, and then ask me about what I was reading.

I can remember the way she helped me, with my little rolling pin, on the section of the counter I’d claimed for myself – space I know now she likely needed (to say nothing of the space I was taking up myself as I perched on the counter) to help me roll out my own dough. I remember eating the apple slices out of the bowl every single time she turned around and feeling so very proud of my sneakiness.

I remember Janis coming through the speakers and all the times she sliced her fingers with that silver paring knife. I remember learning to put foil around the edges of a pie, and to sprinkle a bit of sugar on the top. I remember being so damn proud when my little tiny pie came out next to her great big ones and being so happy when it was every bit as delicious.

She didn’t just put on a dinner. She put on an event. One I looked forward to every year. She made everything a production, and I got to participate. It wasn’t just passing out plates or moving chairs, I got to create with her. I got to flour my hands and mold my own dough. Even then, she encouraged me to create my own space in the world.

As I got older, she’d read what I was reading, and talk to me about authors and stories and fictional worlds that I found so much easier to navigate than my own. And then I’d read what she was reading, and we would talk about those authors and those worlds. I never got too big to sit on the counter, and she never made me feel silly for doing it.

When Kaleb was born, she sent me my pie pans. My little tiny pans, that she helped me use every year while I grew up. She even sent me the tiny rolling pin for him. She made jokes about little feet getting in the way of pie crusts and told me to carry on the tradition.

And I have. I’ve made pies with my kids every year, without fail. Even in the midst of depression. Even when the last thing I wanted was to be all the things you need to be in a kitchen with kids. Calm and compassionate and patient and fun. I could point to two years of the last ten that were bad ones for me, and I forced myself to do it because I knew she would ask me if I had. And I couldn’t lie to her. So I did it. Even when all I wanted was to hide.

I ended up loving those moments far more than I could probably ever make anyone understand. They were bright spots in dark times.

I carry on the tradition.

But that makes this year by far the hardest.

Because this is the first year I can’t tell her about it.

This is the first year I can’t call her and tell her how I added extra apples so the kids could sneak them behind my back like she used to let me do.

This is the first year I can’t call her so we can share complaints about how miserable it is to core apples, and how weird the dough feels when your fingers get all pruney after you’ve spent far too much time peeling and slicing fruit.

This is the first year I can’t send her pictures, or videos, or ask her questions. This is the first year I can’t watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with her on the phone.

This is also the first year I’m hosting Thanksgiving.

I can’t call her to freak out. Or to complain. Or to laugh. Because this is my first year without her. And I don’t know how to do that.

I know she’d laugh at me if she was here. She’d laugh at me for forgetting some basic key ingredient (sugar), meaning I have to go back to the store tomorrow at the crack of dawn. She’d laugh at me for stressing out. She’d call me a worrier and tell me to relax because everything will work out.

Okay, that last one was a lie. She’d probably be freaking out with me. But she’d also make room on the counter for me to sit while I panicked.

She’d also know exactly when to pour the wine.

I am incredibly grateful. Because she gave me a gift that can never be taken. She taught me about love and life and laughter and how to put all those things into food, and I don’t know where I would be if I hadn’t had her.

My boys and my nieces have a tradition that will hopefully stay with them for years to come, because of her. Tomorrow, they’ll sit on my counter. And they’ll probably be silly, or not pay attention, and messes will be made.

I like to think she’d love every moment of it.

I am grateful. I’m also sad.

Savor not just the food this week, but the people. Because life is too short.

I love you, Nana. And I miss you desperately.

Thank you for… everything.

Home Now…

NEWS ALERT:  I AM A HOMESCHOOL MOM NOW.

Let me repeat that, just in case it didn’t sink in the first time.  I am a homeschool mom now. We are homeschool people.  We were never going to be homeschool people. I mean, never-ever-ever-ever-no-freaking-way-over-my-dead-body-ever.

And yet…

One of the most commonly heard phrases right now (at least in my neck of the woods) is “the struggle is real”.  I thought I got it.  Seriously.  Two parents with jobs and two kids and the daily crap that goes with that is enough.  Add in all the struggles and the emotional stuff and the autism stuff and my school schedule and the house that just won’t quit (breaking)… it was already way more real than was probably healthy. And now we’re homeschool people. I’d love to be able to tell you I’m having all the feelings, but I promised honesty.

I’m almost to the point of being afraid to feel my feelings.  My needle is swinging from numb to “Danger Will Robinson!” faster than Mason can say “can I have my tablet?”… actually.  No, that’s about the right speed, now that I’m thinking about it. I am frustrated beyond belief.  I am angry and disappointed and heartbroken and floating in a mist of uncertainty.  To put it bluntly, I’m terrified.

Kaleb has been riding an emotional rollercoaster his whole life.  But he was stable two years ago.  He was doing well and on a clear path. This is where we introduce the mommy guilt.  So many things have probably built up to contribute to this.  Our moving, my course load, our jobs and so much more. But really, the last 16 months have just been a downward slide of rejection, disappointment, heartache, and regression because he hasn’t been able to get joy out of the one thing he’s always found joy – learning. He hasn’t felt safe and secure in school, and that’s the one place that he’s always seen as his constant outside of home.

I’m not going into why we pulled him, not yet.  It’s too raw and I’m too damn tired to dredge it all up.  In the end, what it came down to was Kaleb’s mental and emotional wellbeing. And that’s always going to make even the most terrifying decision an easy one.  That comes first. So, we’re homeschool people now.

He’s emotionally regressed years. It’s going to take serious work to get him back to where he was, and then some. I’m talking about almost having to drag my nearly-12-year-old out of the grocery store today for behaviors he hasn’t displayed since 3rd grade.

This is scary as hell for us. How do we integrate socialization from home?  The truth is though, right now, we don’t.  We help him focus on his mental and emotional health.  And we support him as he remembers why he has a love of learning. I know this will be hard, and some serious sacrifices are going to have to be made.  But there are bright sides too.

For a start, Kaleb began virtual classes today.  In the last 90 minutes, he’s completed over 12% of his entire math course with all A’s (man, you should have seen how pissed he was when he realized he had to start with the number line).  He’s happy and shiny and pleased as punch with himself. He’s bouncing in his seat – not the erratic, anxious, picking-his-skin-until-it-bleeds kind of bouncing either.  What I’ve got here is the bonafide light, happy, “I’m doing something that makes me happy” bouncing.

Not that it was easy to get him there.  First, we had an hour-long argument over why there was an estimated completion time at the top of his list of assignments that he felt was way off the mark because he could do it in less than that time easily, and it didn’t make any sense…. we wasted an hour on this. Something I ended up coloring over with a sharpie while practically vibrating with frustration. We then had a 40 minute struggle over the set-up of the course.  It went like this:  Me: “click this button, do the lesson, then click that button to do the assignment.”  Kaleb: “WHY ISN’T THE ASSIGNMENT RIGHT AFTER THE LESSON THAT’S STUPID AND IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE AND WHY WOULD ANY LOGICAL PERSON DO THAT AND…

Do you feel my pain yet? It took everything I had not to shriek that I didn’t know because I didn’t design the damn thing. Only, louder. And more “mommy’s on the verge of a panic attack so just why do we have to fight about this innane bullshit?!” But I didn’t. Shriek. Or have a panic attack.

This is the point where I pause and remind myself that this is exactly why we are homeschool people now.  Because all of a sudden he needs an answer to every single thing, every single time even when there are no answers to be had. This isn’t new.  In fact, it’s old. Very, very old.  This is kindergarten Kaleb peeking through the curtains. And it’s got me completely off balance.

That is really the biggest benefit of this.  The idea that we can help to get him back to a good place. Without having to worry about school, we can tweak (and hopefully remove) some of his medications. We can adjust our expectations based on what we are seeing, not the snippets we are hearing. There are good points, they’re just hard to see through the fog.

The truth, as I’ve promised, is that I’m drained. This is just one of a dozen different things that have gone so unexpectedly sideways lately I feel like I’m never going to get a proper grip on anything again. The emotional temperature of these kids is all over the place and it’s got me running in circles with no clear direction. There are so many more unanswered questions than there are answers and so much is unknown. But we’re doing it. We’re homeschool people now.

Send wine.

SarahRichterArt Pixabay

Human Behavior…

I am supposed to be doing so much homework right now,  it makes total sense that I’m on here instead, right?  Okay, maybe not.  But I can’t concentrate.  Well, I can’t concentrate on coming up with a reasonable thesis about the necessities of a reader understanding the social and political climate in order to fully appreciate a satiric novel.

Instead, I am completely consumed with the ideas of behavioral reinforcement and/or punishment.  More to the point, how in the hell am I supposed to help my kid change unwanted behaviors when said child could not give a shit less about consequences?

That wasn’t rhetorical.  I’m open to suggestions.  Only, don’t suggest building a giant velcro wall using the trampoline base and sticking my kids in velcro suits so I can launch them Ninja Warrier style onto said velcro wall, where I can watch them like flies on fly-paper until they’ve agreed to stop doing really absurd shit.  Todd already said no to that idea, the spoilsport.

Last time I was on here I did a mini-dive into the anxieties my kids face.  But now I want to look at a whole different monster.  Because anxious or not, actions still have consequences, and I have hit a wall when it comes to effective measures of dealing with unwanted behaviors. As usual for me, I have done far too much research on this, hoping to find some kind of method or idea that we haven’t already tried (and watched fail), but I’m at a loss.

So, let’s start with the basics.  In psychology there are 4 main methods of either reinforcing or punishing behaviors:

  1. Positive Reinforcement – Adding something positive to increase a response.  Think about offering dessert for eating all of dinner.
  2. Negative Reinforcement – Taking away something negative to increase a response. Such as, my constant badgering to brush teeth stops when the kid brushes his damn teeth.
  3. Positive Punishment – Adding something negative to cut out a response. Such as having a child do an additional 30 minutes of reading at home when he refuses to do his work in school.
  4. Negative Punishment – Taking away something positive to cut out a response.  Like taking away electronics time when a major rule is broken.

So, the basic idea is that any time you want to reinforce a behavioral change, one of these four methods is implemented.  But how do you know which one to use?  Or, in our case, what the hell do you do when you’ve used all of them in various ways over the years and it doesn’t make any difference?

This, friends, is one of the most frustrating things about life with autism I have come across yet.  Meltdowns can be next level, but I can usually see them coming.  A need for routine and a constant desire for fully understanding the ins and outs of everything from the logical to the downright absurd (think going from reading stereo instructions to asking why cows need four feet), okay, fine.  I can work with that, even if it is frustrating.  But this?  Figuring out how to curb unwanted behaviors in kids who don’t really give a rats ass about consequences? This is a bitch.

Allow me to lay this out for you.  We’ll start with the littlest first.

Broadly speaking, Mason does pretty well with a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment.  Here’s what that looks like right now:  We have a points system we use in the house.  Points are like currency.  He earns points by doing well in school, maintaining basic hygiene, and managing a couple of small household responsibilities (making his bed, putting his laundry away, etc).  He then gets to spend those points on things he wants, such as time on electronics.  Until recently, this was a fairly lax system for Mase, as he was able to earn enough points each day to get his tv or his tablet or whatever.  However, when his behavior at school started sliding downhill, along with his grades, we changed it up.

Now, I’ve taken away the access to all electronic devices on weeknights (negative punishment), and he has to earn enough points throughout the week to have them back for the weekend (positive reinforcement). In addition to this, there are weeknight privileges he can earn as well, and a bonus point system.  For example, if he earns a minimum of 7 points today, we play a game of his choosing for family game night. If he earns 60 points throughout the week, he can have his tablet on the weekend after his chores and 30 minutes of reading are done.  If he earns more than that 60 points, the left-over points are saved, and over time he can earn things like a day at the zoo, etc.

Strict?  Yes.  Has he done better in school?  Yes.  He also sleeps better because he doesn’t have his face crammed into a screen for two hours a day.  He’s more engaged, and pleasant, and is forced to spend more time interacting with the rest of the living creatures in this house. Of course, he hates being unplugged all week – but he’ll live.

Then, here comes Kaleb.  This kid.  Without going into too much detail, let’s say that he has absolutely zero compunction when it comes to other people’s personal spaces or stuff.  And yet, if his personal space is invaded you bet your ass there is a war on the horizon.

Okay, once again, I get that this is par for the course, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.  Nor does that mean I have to be content with raising a hypocrite. So, moving on.

In the span of a week, Kaleb has had his hands in lots of pies – and none of them were his.  Devices that were not his to mess with have been altered or reset.  Rooms and workspaces that were not his to enter were violated without hesitation.  So, what do we do here?

Let me point out, Kaleb runs on a points system much like Mason’s, since they were both doing poorly in school.  Which means, he only has his devices on weekends.  So, when he does what he did this past week, our immediate inclination is to take away the ability to have the electronics at all for a certain amount of time and try come up with a different positive reinforcement goal.  He cares about this… for about 10 minutes.  Then he’s reading a book or running back and forth through the house humming Windows 98 tunes or whatever at the top of his lungs with the sole purpose of driving all of us completely mad.

Here’s where the problem lies – none of the reinforcement/punishment strategies do shit with this kid.  Positive reinforcement – okay, first of all, how do you positively reinforce someone to not take shit that isn’t theirs?  Here kid, have a cupcake every time you don’t go into my room and riffle through my stuff and take my tablet without my permission?  How does that work?

I’m not being sarcastic here, or at least, not intentionally.  I’m dead serious.  If someone has a strategy for positive reinforcement in this instance I am all ears. And before it gets suggested, we have gone so far as to lock all the stuff up in a cabinet with an actual lock. But that isn’t the point.  The point is, I should not have to do that.  I should not have to hide my tablet from my 12-year-old.

Now we look at negative reinforcement.  Look, I don’t know how many of the people who read this have met me in real life, so I’ll explain something real quick.  I do not have a deep voice.  And when I get worked up, I really get pitchy.  You wanna talk negative reinforcement?  How about not having to listen to me lecture your ass?  Again, I’m not joking.  One of the things Kaleb hates the most in the world is having to have “conversations” with me when he’s done something foolish.  He thinks it is torture to have to sit out here and discuss what has happened and what should be done about it.

So, where were we?  Oh, right.  Positive punishment – add something negative to stop a behavior.  Once again, I’m at a loss.  I can add chores, or essays, or jumping jacks or a dissertation on nuclear physics (probably not a punishment for him but it sounds like hell to me), but how do I make him do it?  He’s not 3, I cannot have him clean the bathroom hand over hand like a toddler who needs to pick up his blocks.  How do you make that stick?  As far as negative punishment – I’m pretty sure I already mentioned the removal of the electronics…

Where we are at right now is this:  Kaleb did a lot of big no-no’s over the last week.  Impulse control is an issue – always has been, and will likely be something he struggles with for the rest of his life. Impulse control in Kaleb’s world isn’t like it is for the rest of us.  When I talk about it,  I don’t mean choosing not to buy that Snickers bar while you’re standing in the checkout lane.  I mean actively making the decision not to rob a bank because your paycheck was crappy.  It’s a whole new level.  And, to make matters worse, this is not a simple matter of impulse control.  This is a matter of knowing right from wrong and choosing wrong anyway because it suits what you want at the moment.  This is hiding the stuff he’s gotten into because he knows he’s not supposed to have it, which shows he is not only aware of what he is doing but that he intends to continue doing it.

What the hell do we do?

He wants all these freedoms – and yet time and again we are unable to give them to him because he is constantly pushing his boundaries too far.  He wants to be able to be on a computer unsupervised (he screwed the desktop up so badly we had to completely reinstall the operating system and start from scratch – a fact he acts almost proud of).  He wants to have unrestricted access to YouTube (don’t even get me started).  He wants a laptop. He wants, he wants he wants.  But each and every time we get to a point where he starts to show a bit of restraint and we start to think he’s ready to take on the responsibility that comes with a new privilege, he turns around and pulls some shit like this. Which leaves me at a total loss.

How do you trust him to make wise choices, when he’s completely ruled by impulse?

We’re trying a new system this week – one that largely entails that he spends every waking minute in the presence of an adult until he is so damn sick of us both that by the time he gets his freedom back he might think twice before repeating the same mistake.  Except… we’ve thought that before, and we’ve been wrong. I am entirely open to suggestions here.  Because now I’m back to feeling more like a prison warden than a mom.

Once more for good measure, I’ll ask it again, what do you do?  How do you get through to a kid nearing teenage years who has a stubborn streak that could cross half the continent? A kid who will dig in his heels and starve rather than eat something he finds unpleasant?  How do you help him curb the behaviors?  How do you get him to see the seriousness of what he is doing and how it impacts other people?

I’m fresh out of ideas, and it’s beyond frustrating.

Much of a Muchness…

Did I say I was going to post on here once a week last time I wrote?  Gotcha!  No, seriously, I’m trying.  This was supposed to be the slow month of the fall, and instead, it’s been a whirlwind of disasters.  I know I mentioned that we had made some changes, and I was feeling more than a little optimistic about them, but.

We’re working on things, one week, one day, one hour at a time.  One meltdown over homework at a time.  One refusal to cooperate at a time.  One follicle of grey hair randomly sprouting from Todd’s beard at a time. One glass of wine at a time… you get the idea.  It’s a process, as is everything in life, especially with kids, especially with kids who are so far off the normal chessboard you aren’t even sure what game you’re playing anymore.

Having said all of that, I want to take the time I have right now to talk about a word that gets thrown around like f*@#ing confetti, but rarely given the consideration it deserves – especially when it comes to kids: ANXIETY

Did you here the dum-dum-duhhhhhh music in your head just then?  That melodramatic forboding beat that practically screams at you to run or take cover? Well, pretend you did anyway. Okay, here goes.

I have mentioned in the past, here and there, my own struggles with anxiety.  When I say I struggle with anxiety, I don’t mean I get a little hyped up before a big test, or I get a knot in my chest every now and then when thinking about certain things – for some people, that is their level and that is completely okay.  Me?  Not so much.  I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder years ago.  I tried meds, I didn’t like them.  I deal.  If that means every now and again I sneak out of bed to have a 2-hour panic attack on my back porch at 3am, so be it.  This shit crosses into every corner of my life.

Take school for example: I freak out over every. single. little. thing. in my head.  All day, every day, without stop.  1 page paper due tomorrow that Kaleb could write in his sleep?  I revise and proof read 87 times and then have nightmares about it.  Huge final project that is due in December?  I’ve spent so much time worrying over this thing since August, Todd is about ready to wrap a roll of duct tape around my head.

So, there’s that.  That’s school, for me.  And school for me is a big deal.  I work hard, I stress out, but I do well, and even with the stress, I largely enjoy the entire process.  You know what I don’t enjoy?

Watching my kids struggle with this shit every day.

The big word is a baseline for me.  I worry about my crap, Todd’s crap, the dogs, the dragon, even the hamster hits the radar on the regular.  But the biggest thing?  The thing that completely unties me?  Those boys.  Those wild, intelligent, funny, absurd human beings that I am supposed to somehow help turn into respectable (whatever that means), responsible, thoughtful, caring men.  It seems like a pretty daunting freaking task when I can’t even get the little hellions to brush their teeth without turning into some B-level horror film character with all the screaming and the flying hair.

And yet.  That’s the job.  That’s the goal.  And it’s doable.  I mean, it must be, right?  People do it every day.  But it’s hard.

The thing is, in our case anyway, it’s made about a million times harder by the little monsters that live inside the heads of my monsters.  The ones that tell them they aren’t good enough.  They aren’t smart enough, kind enough, social enough.  The ones that tell them they’re too loud, they talk too much, they have too much energy.  The ones that tell them people don’t like them because of who they are and they must change.

FUCK THAT NOISE.

This isn’t a joke.  This isn’t a drill.  This is a real-life thing that is happening inside the minds of my kids – and other kids just like them – every single day.  The constant struggle to meet the expectations of people who don’t even know them.  The weight of judgment and laughter and name-calling and just downright shittiness is more than they can take.

I’m going to be super candid here.  The last 12 months in our house has been nothing short of hell.  Confidence has plummeted.  Self-esteem has been flushed down the drain.  The light has dimmed in those big beautiful eyes.  There’s a sadness and an anger that is rooted so deeply in my children’s souls you can see it. 

They’re miserable, and we don’t know what the hell to do about it.  Where does it come from?  All the negative self talk?  Did they hear it from us?  Eh, maybe, sometimes.  Consistently, not really.  Honestly, Todd and I both have a bit of egomaniacal streak, and neither of us is big on putting ourselves down.  Am I critical of myself?  Yes… didn’t I just admit to that?  But do I say negative things about myself out loud?  No, not really.  So, what then?  Where does it come from?

YouTube videos?  Just too much technology access?  Okay, cut it all out.  Surgically remove the damn problem and lock everything with a screen up.  Well, now they’re negative and they’re furious.  That’s fun.  Do I think that there is too much of a dependency on screentime?  Yes.  Without a question.  We use it as a reward system.  They use it to have “downtime”.  The schools use it to teach and train and reward – it’s everywhere, and it’s becoming toxic.  But watching too many episodes of Skylanders is not going to make my kid hate himself.

But being told consistently by other people that he isn’t good enough, sure as hell will.

Allowing other kids to call him names because he’s different, or new, or too abrasive and doesn’t know how to be any other way sure as hell will.

Not working to reinforce the knowledge that they are smart and kind, and funny, and wonderful people every single day sure as hell will.

My kids have both been diagnosed with anxiety disorders.  They both struggle every single day with not feeling like they are enough and it is driving me to the brink of my own sanity.

Mason didn’t want to go to a birthday party of a friend he’s known for literally his entire life last month because he was convinced everyone there was going to hate him.  He’s known these people all of his life!  They’ve never been anything but kind, considerate and generous to him, and he was in such a state of affairs on the way to the party that I had to pull over out of fear he was going to hyperventilate.  Did he have a good time at the party?  Not at first, no.  He sat outside the party room on the floor, and twice I had to take him outside because his heart was racing so bad I thought he was going to have a panic attack.  In the end, after I pushed, and pulled, and coddled, and coerced, he joined the fray and had an absolute blast.  But it wasn’t as natural for him as it used to be, not by a long shot. Exactly one week later we had his 9th birthday party.  Instead of baking the cupcakes or cleaning my house, I spent that morning locked in his room with him while he ran through all of the reasons why nobody was going to show up to his party.

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This is what Anxiety looks like

There were 23 kids at my house that night, I kid you not (a pun! Ha!). He had kids from schools he doesn’t go to anymore, new kids from the new school, neighborhood kids and the same kid whose birthday party he’d gone to the weekend before.  And out of all that, the chaos and the noise and the sheer madness of it all here’s what I learned about my kid:  He chose the outcasts this year.  He’s the new kid on campus, new school and all that.  He was terrified he wasn’t going to make any friends.  One kid who came to his party had never been invited to a friend’s birthday party before.  Another one had never been brave enough to attend.  Another one told me that Mason was the first friend he’s had in his whole life.  I had to lock myself in the bathroom to cry that night because the kids he picked as his friends were kids who he thought needed friends.  He picked other kids like him.

Kaleb has had the worst year imaginable.  It’s been one issue after another, and to watch the self-confidence slide out of him so easily is heartbreaking. Here’s the thing:  Kaleb is a smart kid.  I know, Newsflash! right?  But seriously.  I don’t just mean he spent the summer reading college textbooks on physics and calculus for fun (which he did much to my bewilderment).  He’s a lot smarter when it comes to people than people themselves give him credit for.  If he doesn’t like you, there’s a reason for it.  If he doesn’t respond to or respect you, you’ve given him cause.  He is a tough nut to crack, but he doesn’t walk into situations expecting not to like people.  Actually, he doesn’t walk into situations thinking about people beyond what random and fascinating stuff is floating through his head that he can possibly share with someone he hasn’t already shared it with.

Kaleb reads situations better than he’s ever been given due credit by, with the exception of a handful of well-loved and deeply missed teachers at his elementary school, and his family. But he’s also, well… he can also be a jerk.  The key distinction here is this:  He doesn’t mean to be mean.  He isn’t trying to make people feel bad.  He isn’t intentionally judgemental.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t sometimes mean, or make people feel bad, or come off as judgy, because he can – especially to people who don’t know him. And the thing is, he can’t help it.  I mean he legitimately cannot help the words flying out of his mouth.  The ability isn’t there.  NO mouth filter.  There’s never been one – not since he started talking – the thoughts come into his head, and the words go flying out of his mouth.

That means when his Dad says something about well, basically anything these days, and Kaleb’s pubescent, hormone, filterless brain has feelings about this, his mouth lets those feelings fly.  It’s hard.  It’s hard to deal with, for him, for us, for teachers, for peers – it’s a problem.  But there’s no clear-cut solution to the problem because it’s a part of of his basic make-up and the only way to help him grow a mouth filter is to address the problem directly, and positively.  That kid, hell both kids, eat up negativity like I used to munch on Flintstone vitamins.  Don’t actually know what the hell it’s doing to you, but damn is it tasty.

My kids are getting messages daily that they aren’t enough and I am absolutely sick of it.  Their grades aren’t good enough.  Their behavior isn’t spotless.  They’re too mouthy, too loud, too much.

It’s a never-ending loop, and I’m hitting the panic button.  I’m hitting the desperate point.  Because I cannot, I will not allow the expectations of the world to break their spirit.  Does Mason need to do his school work?  Of course he does!  And preferably with enough care that someone can actually read what he’s written.  Does Kaleb need to learn appropriate behavior when it comes to interacting with others – especially those on a different academic level than himself?  Hell yes!  Does he need to understand the necessity of following directions by people in positions of authority?  Aboslutely.  Does he need to learn to follow orders without asking questions?  Absol-fucking-lutely NOT.

Asking questions is how you learn.  Asking questions can help keep you safe in unfamiliar situations. And asking questions is a staple of not just children with autism, not just children with anxiety, but children in general. If a kid asks you why he has to do something and you cannot provide him with an adequate explanation, perhaps you should reevaluate why you’re having the kid do it. Is that easy when an almost-12-year-old is shouting “But just tell me why!” at the top of his damn lungs when you’ve got about 100 other damn things to be doing and this is just so not what you need right now?  No.  Actually, it’s hard as hell.  And completely necessary – because if he’s that upset, there’s a reason for it.  A reason that should be explored.  Not ignored.

My kids suffer from anxiety on a level that I have exactly zero personal experience with.  Their little minds and hearts and spirits are in pain and I don’t know how to fix it, but I’m damn sure going to try.  Because holy shit if I’m going to stand by and let the world suck the muchness out of those boys.  I’d like them to keep their muchness, thank you very much.

This was supposed to be a brief touch on some shit that’s been bothering me lately and turned into a full-blown rant, so if you’re still with me, thanks for sticking through. If you have had any experience with kids and anxiety, or have struggled with it in any way, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  Whether to commiserate, laugh, cry, or offer advice, my door is open.  This is becoming increasingly more common, yet the conversations aren’t happening that should be. I’d like to change that.

We’re Baaaaack…

Maybe.  Look, let’s just be super honest for a second here.  Every time over the last few years that I’ve managed to get my butt back in the driver’s seat of this page, I’ve somehow managed to run myself right off the road within weeks, if not days.  Life is busy.  My kids are (not so) little tiny tornados of chaos and terror, and most days I’m lucky if I’ve been able to eke out so much as five minutes to pull my sh*t together.  But I am going to try.  There’s been a lot going on in the last year, and I want to share.  But more than that, Kaleb wants to share.  He’s finding his voice, and he wants you to know it. I’m not sure whether to tell you to run or celebrate this – the kid is just as long-winded as his mom!

So, here’s the deal.  From here on out, I solemnly swear that I will attempt to get a post out once a week, and if it isn’t from me, it’ll be from the kid.  You might even hear from Mason, though at this point if it doesn’t walk on four legs or have a jump scare he likely doesn’t give any sort of crap about it, so I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one.

My posts will likely be pretty short compared to those of the past – this is because the kids in this house won’t stop harassing me for better food (I’m never going to win MasterChef, okay?  Just be happy you even have food), more screen time, and fewer chores, which basically just means everyone is yelling, I’m on an eternal hunt for a glass of wine, and nothing is getting done. Also, the dogs won’t stop trying to eat the lizard and the hamster (why doesn’t hamster have a ‘P’ in it??), which is a daily struggle – more for the lizard and hamster than for me, but still.

The last year has seen a lot of changes in our little corner of the world.  We’ve added pets, changed schools multiple times, shed many tears – both of laugher and of the not so happy variety – and we’re walking a new path.  Again.  I don’t know how frequently the road has been traveled before we arrived to it, but it’s new to us. We’ve been asked where we’ve been.  We’ve been asked how we’re doing.  We’re here!  Again.  So stay tuned, as we try to grease the gears and get our engines running again.  Kaleb has informed me that I have way overdone the traveling metaphors.  Oh well.

Anyway, like I said, I’m going to keep this short and sweet.  We’re back people.  And not just here – we’re coming back in a BIG way everywhere.  We’re bringing back Monster Marchers!  There’s even going to be a walk coming up, so get ready for me to harass the hell out of everyone about that.  Basically, just get ready.  Because…

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