In Denial of Being in Denial

It was  Monday morning, and I was settling down to the dining room table with my pumpkin spice coffee steaming in my favorite mug, getting ready to teach my daughter her first class of the day, both of our least favorite: math. We complete math first so that we both have the patience of not being over tired from other classes to give math the attention it needs. And usually it goes pretty well. She may grumble a bit, or I may have to retrace my steps to make sure I haven’t made a simple computational error (which I’m known to do). But usually math doesn’t cause too many problems for us.

Today, however, it was quite the learning moment for us both. Perhaps more so for me than her.

You see, I gave her a final project assignment for multiple digit addition and subtraction, and place value that I thought was really cool, and applicable to the real world. Because, seriously, anyone who is not full of joy to work out some numbers needs all assignments to have real-world application. She was challenged with planning a sleepover party, and needing to budget both her money and time between activities. Initially she was really excited to work on this. She dove right into the planning of what she would want to do. Rent a movie or go to he movies? What kind of pizza and what size to buy? Should we have pizza before or after the movie? She was all abuzz over these decisions. But as soon as I asked her to figure out which pizza deal was better, and if she’d have enough money for each plan, her face fell. I hadn’t said anything else when I could see the tears welling up in her eyes. What the hell just happened? I wondered to myself. What did I do??

I didn’t want to rock the boat any harder, for fear of collapse, so I just silently watched her as she started adding pizza and pop prices together. And I continued to say nothing until she was finished, even when I saw her make an easy mistake of not carrying and adding the one, hoping she’d catch it herself.

She didn’t.

So, when she looked up at me from her paper, I had to tell her to recheck her solution to problem A. You’d swear that what I asked her instead was “Can you solve 2x+3y-9(16+4b)=. (I don’t even know if that’s a legitimate math problem, and if so what the fuck the answer would be). As soon as I asked her to check her answer again, the delicate balance of tears on her bottom eyelid toppled, and down flowed her frustrations from her cheeks to her paper. I knew then that I was fucked. There was no way she was going to go any further in this assignment today.

So, instead of pushing her to finish the work, I asked her to set her pencil down, and without shrugging, and using her words, tell me why she’s so upset. My kids hate when I do this, but I refuse to let them shrug and try to force me to drop the subject. Nope, not this mama. We’re talking this shit out.

Perhaps because she’s been though this so many times and is sick of me, knowing I can outlast her silence any day; or, perhaps because she really was ready to talk, she actually opened her mouth and squeaked out a “It’s just so hard.”

Huh? I’ve seen her do much harder work than adding a pizza and a pop together. How was this hard?

“What’s so hard, Lil? This was simple addition, which I’ve seen you do so many times before.”

“But I got it wrong. And I always get something wrong. And I hate getting it wrong.”

Now we were getting somewhere. I inhaled and exhaled fully and slowly, just like yoga taught me to in a situation when talking right away is not necessary or advantageous. I looked at her picking at her cuticles, avoiding eye contact with me, and suddenly understood who she was. She was me. And it was not only shocking, but also very disheartening to realize. My heart ached for her because I knew exactly who she was and why this math problem had become so monumentally huge and terrifying for her.

Having anxiety is a motherfucking bitch. It’s crippling at times, and the longer it goes unchecked, the worse it becomes. And it doesn’t give a shit if you tell it to go away or if people tell you that you should just ignore it or get over it, or that you’re too old, or smart, or capable to have to deal with it. Nope. That asshole latches on and Does. Not. Let. Go.

So because I know all of this already, but my sweet little girl is just figuring it out, I couldn’t have just told her, “Lil, it’s fine. It’s just a math problem. It’s not life or death.” Because for her in that moment, it felt like it. So, instead, I said, “I know, Lil. I really do. It feels like shit, and I hate it too. But what does feel  better is acknowledging it. Talk to me, Pookie Girl, so I can try to help you.”

I don’t think this was what she was expecting. I think she had already made up her mind that I would try to dismiss it away so that we could get back to work. So it took her a second to switch gears and decide how she was going to explain herself to me.

“It’s just like taking a test. I’m always last. And everyone is always done way before me. And then I feel like they’re looking at me, and waiting for me to be done. And then I don’t even finish because I don’t want to be last. I don’t want them looking at me. And then I get a lot wrong because I don’t finish. So then I don’t even try different next time.”

Well, fuck.

I couldn’t talk. My face was pinched as tightly as my throat was. I couldn’t talk because she had just put my whole life into her words. And I had no idea what to say to her. How was I supposed to tell her to carry on and move forward when I can’t do that myself? How could I be an inspiration when I was so damn stuck in this, too?

So, for better or worse, what I did do was tell her the truth. I told her that I too was always one of the last to finish tests.

And that I hate going out in public, especially doing things I’m not comfortable with because I imagine everyone is watching me and judging. I don’t go running like I want to because everyone will know I’m out of shape, and laugh at me. I don’t go to yoga class because everyone will know I can’t get myself into the more advanced poses.

I told her that anxiety has gotten me so badly that it literally has made me physically ill. That every job interview I’ve ever gone on, I’ve been on the verge of puking or passing out the whole time, and that I walked out thinking I was an utter failure. And the times I didn’t get the job only perpetuated that notion, leaving me feeling worse and worse as the revolving door of interviews kept turning.

That when I finished my Master’s degree, a professor I had told me I should really consider going on to get my Ph. D., but that I would never do it because I don’t think I’m smart enough.

That for as long as I’ve been self aware, I’ve loved stories. And as soon as I could write, I began writing my own. And there’s not much else in this world that I want to do but write and publish a book. But I don’t follow through because I’m pretty sure I’m a hack, and that no one will want to read it. And it’s just so much easier to hide and not take that chance than to face the reality of feeling so wholly inadequate.

I told her that living with these fears has left me with so many regrets and what ifs. I’ve held myself back because I was too afraid. And who knows what I might have denied myself because of it. I told her the longer you refuse to acknowledge your fears and anxieties, the bigger they grow until they overpower any will you have left.

I told her I wanted so much more for her than I have ever wanted for myself. And I told her I would do anything at all for her to show her she could do it.

She then asked me, “So weren’t you writing a book last year?” I replied that I was. “What did you do with it?” I told her that I stopped. And when she asked me why, I could only tell her the truth. I stopped because I didn’t think it was any good. I quit because I was scared. I quit.

She put her hand on top of mine, and said, “But you said we’re not quitters. That life will always be hard, but we can’t quit because what would be the point then.”

Oof, right to the gut with that one. I guess she does listen to me after all. And what could I say to that? She was right. I do say that. And I say that because I don’t want her to give up on herself when things get tough because I know firsthand what that is like. But here we were having to confront the fact that I talk a good talk but haven’t been walking the walk.

All I could muster was another, “Yeah, you’re right, Lil.” Weak, I know. But what else could I say?

And then she came at me with the one-two punch.

“But you just said you quit your book. You don’t know it wasn’t good. What if it was good? I know that my math isn’t good, but you want me to keep going. That’s not fair.”

True. It’s not fair. And it’s not how I want her to see me.

“So, if I don’t quit my math, you can’t quit either. I’d read your book, even if you did think it wasn’t any good.”

My heart.

My beautiful, brilliant, amazingly loving and true little girl. My life. My reason for doing everything. My reality check.

So I smiled, and thanked her for saying she’d read my book, and promised her that I would look at it again, and see where I could move forward with it. And when she asked if I had blogged recently, I and I told her no, she very pointedly told me that I could start there, that I needed to practice my writing if I thought it wasn’t good enough.

I couldn’t love her any more if I tried.

And after I told her I would. That I would write something today, she picked up her pencil, and finished reworking the math problem she’d gotten wrong. My brave girl.

So I guess the lesson my daughter taught me today, instead of me teaching her something as expected, is that being in denial of being in denial is bullshit. I’m not fooling anyone, least of all myself. And if she can tell her anxiety to pack it up and out, the least I can do is try to do the same myself.

You see, when I was 23 and trying to get pregnant, I heard from so many people in my life that I was too young, that I had no reason to get pregnant yet. But somewhere inside of me, I knew that I needed her. I didn’t know who she was yet, but I knew that this baby, whomever it turned out to be would give my life greater  purpose. What I didn’t know, however, was how much she would ultimately save me.

 

 

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My Ovaries and I: A Story of TMI

It’s 5:23 p.m., and I’ve already completed making dinner, teaching my kids, and grocery shopping; and, am only mildly tired. This is quite a new experience for me. Especially considering I have my period, and I’m usually wiped out to the point of utter exhaustion. Like can’t even be awake right now. But today I’m not. And there’s a reason why. And no, it’s not coffee.

Weight struggles have always been a part of my life. I was once a very tiny person. When I was a child, I was short and very thin. I used to revel in sucking in my stomach to reveal ribs jutting out like those you see on exaggerated cartoons of people on dessert islands. In a family of mostly larger people, I was a bit of an anomaly. But, alas, I did not stay this way.

Sometime around puberty, I suddenly began putting on noticeable weight. I wasn’t exactly unhealthy, but anyone who paid attention could see that I was definitely filling out. “It’s just baby weight,” I’d be told by my parents. Of course I didn’t assume otherwise. But as my “baby” years waned, and my weight did not, I started to feel self-conscious about it.

By 7th grade, one of my childhood best friends and I had mastered the art of sucking our stomachs in to appear to be as thin as the pretty, popular girls. I remember getting a quickie physical in order to sign up for a YMCA-type camp (That I ultimately didn’t go to), and hearing that I was 107 lbs. I was 12. I was blown away. How in the hell had I tipped past 100 lbs. already? I was horrified.

And that is just one of many examples over my almost 34 years of my struggles with my weight and body image. Not that I always felt badly about myself. I’ve had plenty of moments in my life when I’ve looked in the mirror and was happy to be me. And plenty of other times when others have affected me in a positive way–not to put too much impact on how others’ perceptions of oneself should influence one’s view of oneself. Like my early teenagehood boyfriend telling me I was too pretty to need makeup, and he liked my face just as it was. Or complete strangers telling me I had the most beautiful eyes they’d ever seen. Or I had a booty other women would die for. All of these things are great and all, but I almost feel like they were told to me at my peak of physical attractiveness.

Now I am still a 5’2” woman, but have certainly flown by that initially horrid 107 lbs. mark. And I’m working toward accepting who I am and not fixating on what other women look like. I’m trying so hard to be brave about it all. So…big breath here…I can say that as of this morning, my scale told me that I am 171 lbs. Did I mention that my scale is an asshole?

Anyone who knows anything about human health knows that this puts me on the wrong side of the obese line. And I’m sure my BMI would indicate I’m going to die any moment. But I can say that my blood pressure is excellent, my blood sugar is well within normal, and my cholesterol is just fine. So, all in all, despite being quite overweight, I’m mostly healthy.

Except I do have a shit-ton (yes, that’s an actual scientific measurement) of hormonal problems. What it all amounts to is that I’m basically 34 and going through early menopause. I have what’s now called premature ovarian failure, which is what they call pre-menopause for women my age. I suppose they think that menopause sounds so awful we’d rather be told our ovaries are failures.

What so many people my age don’t know, however, is that it’s not simply just that my ovaries are unable to produce a well-developed egg, thus rendering me sterile. Hormones are so much a part of the human body systems that an imbalance in them causes all sorts of issues. For example:

Adult-onset acne; headaches; fatigue; sensitivity to cold; hot flashes and night sweats; mood disorders; poor muscle mass; osteoporosis; and weight gain and/or inability to lose weight (amongst other things). Oh, joy.

Which makes so much damn sense now that I know what my problem is. I only wish I knew it sooner. Like when it likely began. Like 5 years ago when Ollie was born. Maybe then I could have done something about it before I got to this level of discomfort.

You see, besides being 20 lbs. heavier than before I was pregnant with Ollie, I have also had to deal with a slew of other issues. Some of which are listed already for you above. What tipped me off, though, was my irregular periods. Those led to other symptoms down the line. But considering my thyroid is ok, I had to assume my wacky cycles had something to do with my female hormones.

And for so long (before I knew what was what), I did nothing but berate myself for not being strong enough or determined enough to lose weight. I could work my ass off and practically starve myself and lose just a few pounds. I could work out like normal people, and eat nothing but healthy, nutritious food, and still, the scale would barely budge. It seemed like nothing I did made any damn difference, which was really hard to swallow.

Because it wasn’t just that I felt I was unattractive. It was more than that. I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. I felt bloated and distorted. And I worried like hell for my health. And the longer this went on, the worse I felt. Too tired to even try to care anymore. And terrified that this would never end.

Until recently. I finally learned how to better advocate for myself to a doctor, and got blood tests done that finally gave me the answer to why I’ve struggled for so long. And now that I do know exactly what’s going on with my body chemistry, I’m starting to do something about it.

Though my ob/gyn wanted me to take oral progesterone pills, I stopped after a week when they had made me a virtual insomniac. Instead, I’m taking a combo herbal supplement of natural ingredients that have research-backed proof of success with fixing hormonal imbalances, and a bioidentical progesterone cream. And it has been working wonders. So, please, do me a favor: If you don’t believe in this type of therapy, feel free to keep your thoughts to yourself. I’m not at all a person who is afraid of modern medical care, but I am educated enough to know it has severe limitations and blindspots. And, you know what, it’s working.

So here I am, only about 2 weeks into my new therapy, having already dropped 3 lbs. and having a bunch more energy. I’m no longer perpetually ready to pass out and simultaneously cranky as fuck. My appetite has leveled out, and I no longer crave mass amounts of sugar. I no longer have to constantly fight with myself because I feel healthier.

And really, that’s the point. To be healthier. To feel good. I’m used to being chubby. I’ve come to terms with it. My husband is a wonderful man who constantly tells me I’m not only beautiful, but sexy and desirable. I feel very lucky to have him. Because even when I look at myself and see nothing but flaws, he sees nothing but beauty.

So, hopefully over the next few months, I will continue to feel good, gain more energy, and lose the excess weight that my body doesn’t need.

Thanks for letting me get this weight off my chest…..Hahaha, I’m so corny. 🙂

 

 

I’ve put the photo below to help document my journey. I want to be honest and brave, and stick to the mission of this blog, but damn is it hard sometimes. So, yeah, I changed it from color to black and white. We can keep the color of my stretch marks something only I know. 🙂

 

me

The Last of the Single-Digits

As Lily enters her last year of being of a single-digit age, I can’t help but think this is an enormous turning-point for her. Her physical development is starting to catch up with her precocious nature. And it’s readily apparent to anyone who sees her that this little girl is becoming a young woman. Already. How is that even possible?

I’ll admit, my memories of being a child are a bit fuzzy. I have general time frames at which certain things happened, and have some recollections of things I did and people I did them with. So I may be looking at Lily’s development through a very skewed perception when I wonder how in the hell a 9-year-old can already be becoming a woman. To me, she’s still a baby. I mean, 9, in the grand scheme of things, is really quite new to the world. But then I look at this long-legged beauty, and listen to the clever, witty things that comes out of her mouth, and get slapped with realty. A baby she most certainly is not anymore.

Then again, I don’t want to encourage her to grow up too fast. Meaningful, careful change takes time. I want her to have all the time she needs.

This first occurred to me when, one day this spring, she had her two good girlfriends over to play—both of whom are one year older than she is. The three girls were all outside taking advantage of the mild spring weather. I just sat and watched them. They were all wearing training bras, all in different stages of needing them. They were all wearing some sort of accessory or had nails painted. They all had cute, sassy little outfits on. They all looked very much like they were becoming little ladies. And one might assume by just looking at them without hearing their conversations that they might be gossiping about boys or talking about situations with other friends at school. But they weren’t. They were playing house. Well, a strange combination of house and Minecraft, but house nonetheless. Like with baby dolls and each girl playing a different role: mom, dad, little sister. They were making pretend food from garden materials, and playing with Lily’s tea set and toy dishes that she got when she was 2. And it was so sweet.

It was at this moment that I really came to understand the term “tween” (even though I still think it sounds ridiculous). Here was my girl in a training bra, with hoop earrings in her ears, and temporary metallic tattoos on her arms, playing house and tea party. Not quite ready to move on, and not quite ready to let everything go. A little bit like a child, and a little bit like a teen, and nothing all the way. She’s kind of stuck in this middle-ground trying to slowly traverse her way from one stage to the next. And though I’m a little bit sad at how quickly childhood goes by, it’s sort of endearing as well. I do have many memories of that time in my life, with my girlfriends, and it was some of the best times of my childhood. I’m really glad she’s able to experience it as well.

In continuing with Lily’s transition from girlhood to womanhood, I also noticed that she’s become much more aware of how other females act, dress, and present themselves. I see her looking at older girls, studying them. What are they wearing? How are they talking? Who are they with? It’s almost as if she’s trying to figure out how she fits into the womanhood equation. And when she comments about seeing other girls maybe acting in a way she doesn’t agree with, I can see that she’s sizing up their choices in relation to what I’ve given her as a perspective on what it means to be a woman. Of course I’m going to always be, perhaps, a most influential example. But I do try to explain that there really is no one definition of what it means to be a woman, and I think she’s really trying to piece out all the choices available to her.

It’s a puzzling time, I think, making this transition. She needs to figure out what her values are, and how they compare to what we’ve tried to instill in her, and what might be uniquely her own. She needs to figure out what she likes about herself and others. She needs to figure out what her strengths and weaknesses are. All awhile taking into account what she feels others see in her. And I’m so thankful that I’ve been able to be there to play a more active role in her life this past year. Not having to dedicate so much of my time and energy to my job and someone else’s children, but rather my own, has been a true blessing. Especially given Lily’s nature.

One of my favorite stories to tell about Lily, and one I think I’ve already included in a birthday reflection, is from when she was about 10 months old. She had a very favorite book that we read approximately 1 million times a day. And one day, she picked it up and held it out to me. I asked her if she wanted me to read it, and she grunted and clapped her hands. And when I jokingly said, “But what if I don’t want to?”, she stiffened her arms out to her sides, balled up her fists, and yelled. I still think that memory is both hilarious and telling of her. Lily wants what she wants. And God help you all If you make her angry.

And even though she has definitely come to realize she can’t have everything she wants, she’s still just as fiery and quick to anger. But now she will pout, stomp upstairs to her room, and shut out the world. I understand that sometimes she just needs some time alone. But luckily I also have the time, energy, and patience to be there for her. Because every time (I’m not exaggerating), every time she gets into one of these moods, if I come to her room to see if she wants to talk after she’s had time to calm down, she always does. She wants me to hold her hand or snuggle her, and just listen to her. She wants to cry and yell, and be heard. And I’m forever grateful that she lets me do that. That I can be present for her. Because I know so many children who never had that, and how it made them grow distant, angry, self-critical, and even harmful to themselves and others. And I’m grateful that Lily loves and trusts me enough to know that no matter if she’s angry with me or someone/something else, or if she knows I’m angry with her, I’m still going to come into her room, sit on her bed, and ask her if she wants to talk about it. And I hope this will help her through whatever challenges this next year will bring.

And I expect there to be many challenges ahead of us. With homeschooling on the horizon, it could be a recipe for trouble even though it will also most probably bring us closer. What I hope is that Lily will continue to see how much I believe in her, and transfer those beliefs to herself. I hope she will go back to loving school, as much as she loves learning (which are, of course, not one in the same). I hope she continues to grow as an artist now that she will have ample time on a daily basis to experiment with new ideas, mediums, and techniques. I just hope that every hurdle we come upon, we will jump over together. Whether she is giving me a boost or the other way around.

Because as I love my children equally but different, I love my firstborn in a way a parent has to love the person who brought them the greatest gift of parenthood. I see so much in her, and I would do anything for her. She was my first sidekick, my first baby, my only girl, and hopefully my future best friend.

And so, Miss Lily-Girl, I wish you more happiness than you can ever know. I love everything about you, even the things you yourself don’t seem to appreciate. Because you know what, Pookie, everything inside of you makes a whole you. And without them, you wouldn’t be the girl I know so well. Embrace all your quirks, interests, shortcomings, fears, hopes, and dreams because every bit of those things make you the funniest, cleverest, pun and joke-making, intelligent, talented, beautiful little sassy-pants that you are.

I saw a story online that told of a mother who always told her daughter, “I wish you enough.” And it resonated with me. Yes, I wish you the world, but only so far as the world brings you that which fulfills you. I wish you enough from life to make you happy. Because no matter how much you have of toys, clothes, books, travels, whatever, as long as it makes you truly happy in your soul, it will be enough to sustain you. And that is what I wish for you, my dear girl. I wish you enough.

I love you, Pookie. I hope you have a most marvelous last single-digit birthday. Thank you for being my baby.

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

Last June—right around this time, actually—Ollie got a mosquito bite on his eyelid that made his whole eye socket swell up so much that he couldn’t open his eye. It was frightening and stressful because I had no preparation for that. I had no idea how to handle it, what to do, other than to call the doctor. And luckily for us, it turned out just fine in the end.

But while his eye was healing—it took about a week—we obviously had to go on with our lives as normal. One of the things we look forward to at the beginning of the summer is the food truck rodeo at the Historical Museum. We weren’t going to let a little eye swelling get in our way of a nice evening. So we went as usual, and got our food, and went to sit in our usual place. And it was during this very brief walk, that ultimately felt very long, that I began to notice the stares. Other people were openly staring at Ollie’s face, and some were even whispering amongst themselves while staring at him. Yes, he looked different, but he was still the same Ollie. I truly hadn’t realized how brazen people can be in the presence of someone else. Like who the hell were they to judge my child, a little boy? And I thought to myself at that moment, “I imagine this must be a little of what it’s like to have a child with special needs.” Now please excuse me if this thought was inappropriate for the situation, but at the time, it really felt like so many people were looking at us differently, waiting and watching to see what Ollie would do. And it broke my heart. And this was only one day that I experienced this! I thanked whatever powers that be or forces of nature at that moment that we ended up with two healthy, well-adjusted children without any significant health, developmental, and/or learning concerns. I couldn’t imagine the strength needed to have a child who was anything but typical—I hate to use the word normal.

Fast forward a year to now, and I’m singing a different tune. We are now amidst figuring out how to live with Ollie’s newly diagnosed anxiety disorder. It feels like our world was turned upside down practically overnight, even though, in retrospect, this was a long time coming. It had been right in front of us for so long, but we had no clue.

And though I don’t want to place blame on anyone or anything, certainly because in placing blame, I would also be claiming that what Ollie has to deal with is something regrettable, which it is not. But I suppose I want to point out that what appeared to be just personality characteristics, because of society’s continual (though slowly changing) ignorance of what mental illness looks like, were really early signs of his issue. What I thought was just excessive empathy and sensitivity was his mind overthinking sad or scary scenarios. What I thought was age-appropriate uncertainty at being new to school was really obvious separation anxiety. What I thought might have been normal indigestion or the need to poop was really physical symptoms of stress after his anxiety was left uncontrolled for so long. I really had no idea. But I should have.

Even as someone who suffers from anxiety and depression herself—and as I now can realize after being educated about this topic, did as a child as well—I didn’t have the needed knowledge or tools to look at my son’s behaviors and spot something wrong. And again, I don’t want to place blame on anyone specific, but to blame society as a whole for constantly overlooking mental health issues and for this deficit of what should be common knowledge.

You see, we all know about children with ADHD or signs of Autism, or what a speech delay looks like. Any good pediatrician these days will ask the parents at every routine checkup for signs of these things. But never did I ever get asked any questions like, “Does your child have a difficult time leaving you?” “Does your child ever complain of being lonely and/or scared?” “Does your child seem to worry a lot or engage in repetitive behaviors when upset?” Never. Not once. And maybe if I had, I would have picked up that these behaviors were not, in fact, normal for someone of his age. Instead of thinking that perhaps he was just a little immature or stubborn or too sensitive, I would have caught the warnings before they got out of hand like they are now.

Maybe. Maybe not, of course. But the fact that these issues were never even brought up upsets me. Because to me, and loads of other people speaking out lately, it seems that not only is mental illness very much misunderstood, it’s also misrepresented as something of less importance than other conditions. And I can back this up.

Here are the statistics for numbers of people/children diagnosed with the following conditions:

Autism—approximately 1% of the population

Sensory Processing disorder—approximately 5% of the population

ADHD—approximately 11% of the population (But I must add that there are numerous studies pointing to misdiagnosis of anxiety disorders and/or depression as ADHD in children as symptoms of these disorders are far different in children than in adults.)

Speech/Language Disorders—approximately 7-8% of the population

Mental Illness (Broad category)—approximately 20% of the population

Anxiety Disorder (more specifically)—approximately 8% of the population

Now I realize these are not the only conditions parents find themselves facing when raising children. These are just some of the more easily recognized and understood conditions. And I’m also not implying that any of these conditions is any easier or more difficult to live with. I just want, again, to point out that even though mental illness (in general) ranks the highest for diagnoses in children (and adults, I might add), it’s often the least understood, accepted, or treated.

Unlike so many other conditions, mental illness symptoms often get either misunderstood as other things or pushed aside as something the person should be able to control. Would a parent whose child doesn’t make eye contact or fusses excessively when touched push that away as nothing? Would a parent whose child hasn’t spoken a word by age 2 push that aside as being a “late bloomer”? I hope the answers to my previous two questions would be a resounding no. And yet, when a kid is so distracted by whatever is in his/her mind that they can’t focus on anything else, we tell them they need to “pull it together or else”. Or, when a child is clinging to his/her parent, refusing to let go, figure they’re just a little immature. And when we do these things, whether intentionally or not, we set the child up for an increase in the condition.

Here are some more facts for you:

Approximately 60 percent of adults, and almost one-half of youth ages 8 to 15 with a mental illness received no mental health services in the previous year.

One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays−sometimes decades−between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help.

Approximately 26 percent of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and an estimated 46 percent live with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders.

Approximately 20 percent of state prisoners and 21 percent of local jail prisoners have “a recent history” of a mental health condition.

Seventy percent of youth in juvenile justice systems have at least one mental health condition and at least 20 percent live with a severe mental illness.

Serious mental illness costs America $193.2 billion in lost earnings per year.

Over 50 percent of students with a mental health condition age 14 and older who are served by special education drop out−the highest dropout rate of any disability group.

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. (more common than homicide) and the third leading cause of death for ages 15 to 24 years. More than 90 percent of those who die by suicide had one or more mental disorders.

 Think about this: Heart disease is the leading cause of death in men and women. It is the cause of death for 20% of men and women each year. So, someone with heart disease is 20% more likely to die from cardiac arrest than people without heart disease. That’s pretty awful and scary. BUT, people with mental illness are 90% more likely to die from suicide than people without mental illness. And this is considering that people with mental illness also account for 20% of the population. That’s terrifying for someone either suffering from mental illness or a loved one of someone who is. But where are the ad campaigns highlighting how we can reverse these statistics? Where are the constant reminders at doctor’s appointments to take better care of your mental health? Why do we act as though mental illness is a brand new condition that we’re still trying to get a grasp on?

Because despite all these things we know about mental illness, it is still one of the most highly undiagnosed and untreated conditions people suffer from.

But how can anyone outside of the medical profession see these symptoms for what they really are when the information is just not out there? Worrying, stressing, being afraid of something, feeling lonely or lost: these are all very common feelings that everyone at some point experiences. But what makes the difference is when these feelings are negatively impacting the quality of life of the sufferer. Then it becomes a disorder. But perhaps because so many people have experienced these things and have gotten through it, they seem to think that anyone can and should also. But like I said to my husband, “Not to be an asshole, but if you don’t suffer from mental illness, you can’t possibly understand.” You can’t understand the feelings of futility. You can’t understand why someone would not want to feel a certain way, but be powerless to do anything about it. You can’t understand how hearing someone tell you to “just get over it” makes it worse. You just can’t understand.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t help. It doesn’t mean you can’t spread awareness. It doesn’t mean you can’t support someone who does know. It doesn’t mean people who have mental illness have to suffer in silence or ignorance.

Because mental illness does have a genetic component to it, it is very likely you know or will know someone suffering from mental illness. No matter how good their life may seem, brain chemistry imbalances trump all else. Remember, you’d never tell a diabetic to just stop not processing insulin correctly. So you can’t possibly expect a person with mental illness to just stop feeling anxious or scared or depressed.  (Please also remember depression is not the same thing as sadness, so please don’t use these words synonymously.)

So what does that mean for our family? Well, it means that we will have to work as a group to overcome some obstacles together. We’ll need to see a psychologist, both individually, and as a family. We’ll need to be more patient. We’ll need to be mindful of using effective coping strategies and not letting our tempers rule our behaviors. And we’ll have to remind ourselves daily that we are living with loved ones who have special needs. Perhaps our needs are not something that’s seen as easily as Ollie’s bug-bitten swollen eye. We look just like everyone else. But we have special needs nonetheless.

I’m hoping that homeschooling with help ease a bit of Ollie’s anxiety in being left with others. And I’m hoping our time together will not reinforce that I’m the only safe person, but that he can use what we learn together—in his time and comfortable pace– to make himself feel good enough to function well. And I’m also hoping that him knowing he’s not alone in this will help him to feel less worried that others are judging him.

But this is not something that my family can do alone. We can’t normalize mental illness for everyone. People will continue to stare when he has a meltdown for what appears to be no reason. He will still feel fear and uncertainty. I will still feel guilt.

But if everyone who reads this can do one thing toward normalizing mental illness, it can become just another condition. If you see something on the internet, share it. If you hear a comment you know is incorrect, correct it. If you see someone out in public who is having a hard time, smile at them warmly or offer a hand. If you know someone who has a mental illness, remind them you are there. There is certainly power in numbers and the ability for something to go viral. And if we all work toward bringing greater awareness and understanding to these issues, we will all benefit.

 

Souces:

http://www2.nami.org/factsheets/mentalillness_factsheet.pdf

http://www.autism-society.org/what-is/facts-and-statistics/

http://www.healthline.com/health/adhd/facts-statistics-infographic#3

https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/statistics/quick-statistics-voice-speech-language

https://www.nami.org/getattachment/Learn-More/Mental-Health-by-the-Numbers/childrenmhfacts.pdf

http://www.spdfoundation.net/research/newresearch/

http://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm

https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/common-genetic-factors-found-5-mental-disorders

To My Kiddos

This morning I read a news article explaining that the original founders of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, were arrested in the Capitol for protesting ‘big money’ in politics. Knowing a bit about the two, and knowing that they regularly speak up for and out against issues that they find important, I wasn’t really surprised by this information. But maybe because it’s the primary election day; or, maybe because we’re in the midst of a political movement that has been a long time coming and needed, and the likes of which we haven’t ever seen; or, maybe it’s my own growing desire to do something of similar meaning and importance; or, maybe it’s a firestorm of all of those things; whatever the reason, I felt compelled to seize this feeling, and make this an opportunity to hopefully teach my kids a little something someday. Thus, this letter is born.

 

Dear Lily and Ollie—

As your parent, I want so very many things for you. The normal stuff—love, friendship, health, opportunities, and of course happiness. But I also want some pretty complicated things too. I want you both to understand things about life that took me far too long to figure out, or at the very least, accept. But these things I want for you aren’t things I can give you. No, these things are far too valuable, and which you must earn on your own. And I worry each day about you missing out on them, and feeling like I could be failing you if you do. Please understand that it’s not that I don’t want to give you these things. If I could, I’d open your skulls, and crack open your ribs and shove these things deep into your brains and hearts. But like most things that are worth anything at all, these things will only be worth it if you go out and get them yourselves, and define what each means to you as individuals.

I can hear you now, Lily, “Ok, Mom, stop being so damn vague. Get to the point.” Or, at least that’s what I imagine you’ll sound like someday when you’re old enough to read and appreciate this. Ollie, tell your sister to calm down. I’m getting to it. So impatient she is. 😊

What I want so badly for you is something I was not able to give myself until recently. I want you both to feel safe enough to always be brave, and fierce, and radical. To do what’s right, not what’s popular or expected of you. To believe in something so deeply you’re willing to risk everything for it. To put yourself out there and try. And to put yourself on the line sometimes. You know, “fight the good fight”.

I want these things for you because no one ever achieved anything great by sitting on the sidelines. And what I want for you is greatness. Not necessarily in the sense that you need to be President or someone rich and famous. But greatness in the sense that though you may question yourself or doubt your choices, you’ll never regret them because you’ll have earned a life that makes you genuinely and wholeheartedly happy. I mean happiness that seeps into every cell of your being. Happiness that cannot be permanently erased by a slipup or momentary hard time. Happiness that is so inherently a part of who you are that no one can take it away. But the only one who can give you that is you.

And so you need to live each day with the intention of doing all you can to better your life. To find that place of deepest contentment. But not be afraid to shake things up to get there. You need to go to sleep every night knowing that you truly did all you could that day to be the best you, work toward the best world, and that what you’ve done could have enacted change or goodness for others, and lead you to your greatest happiness. If you cannot do that, you mustn’t be too hard on yourself, but promise yourself to do so tomorrow. But don’t sell yourselves empty promises. Believe me, that’s only a temporary soothing. It’s a Band-Aid where you need stiches. Use your words, and use your heart, and act. Take a plunge, knowing you could, and likely will at some time, fall hard. Then get yourself back up again, brush off those bits of gravel from your pants, and climb up and jump again.

Of course, don’t be foolish. Your dad and I have hopefully raised you better than that. Do your research. Think. Inspect. Ask around. See for yourself. Experiment. And listen to others. Don’t always take what they say and adopt it. But listen. Always be listening. And choose wisely. There are so many chances to take. And there are so many battles in this world. You can’t fight them all. It took me until my 30’s to realize that. You must be more like Atticus and less like Scout. (Surely, you’ve both read To Kill a Mockingbird by now! What kind of mother would I be otherwise??) As long as you are helping others, and not harming yourself or anyone else, know that we will support your choices.

And just remember that everyone is someone. We all have thoughts, hopes, dreams, fears, mistakes, etc. If you can look into the eyes of every person you meet, and see them as a person, an individual, regardless of their actions, behaviors, or choices, and see what is universal in us all, I think you will never really make a terrible mistake. We’ve tried to raise you with empathy, and with consideration for others in hopes that when you see a wrong being committed, you’ll act to stop it. And when you see a need being unfulfilled, you do what you can toward filling it. Everything we have done and continue to do is for you two. For your greater good and so that you will become amazing adults. And we hope you can use our examples as a springboard for doing so much more. Losing my job for speaking out against poor education practices is small peanuts really. But I have the hope that it was one of the first examples of you seeing your parents standing up for what they believe in, even though it had a somewhat unfortunate outcome. Follow us, kiddos, but eventually pass us. Forge those trails on your own. Look back and we’ll be waving. We will always be here; we will always support you. So don’t be afraid to be yourselves and do what’s in your heart. Because if you do, you’ll never want for a thing. And what more could we hope for you both?

Love you with all my heart and soul,

Mom