Monday, February 3, 2020

What Is Social Anxiety?

Social anxiety is... Fear in anticipation of social events

Social anxiety is not.... Being a party pooper or a buzz kill

Social anxiety is..... Exhaustion, irritability, or headaches and a need for down time following social events.

Social anxiety is not..... A lack of desire for connection or a hatred for interaction with others

Social anxiety is.... Feeling overwhelmed in large groups and crowded areas. Feeling claustrophobic, unable to breathe, or panicked. Feeling an overwhelming need to escape.

Social anxiety is not.... Simple nervousness

Social anxiety is.... Automatically and involuntarily cringing when the phone rings due to feeling unprepared and fear of saying something awkward and filling awkward silences

Social anxiety is not..... Blowing you off

Social anxiety is.... Sometimes needing to cancel social events or leave early

Social anxiety is not..... Flakiness

Social anxiety is...... Not knowing how to start or end conversations

Social anxiety is not.... A lack of intelligence

Social anxiety is.... Over thinking everything you said, if you said the right things, and what people were thinking

Social anxiety is not.... Craziness (whatever that is!)

Social anxiety is.... Low tolerance for small talk but often a preference for deep conversation with a trusted person

Social anxiety is not.... Being stuck up or standoffish

Social anxiety is.... Insecurity making friends

Social anxiety is not.... A lack of desire for friendship (often those who take a little longer to get to know make the most loyal frriends

Social anxiety is.... Needing to set boundaries and limits to preserve energy and sanity

Social anxiety is not.... Antisocial or rude behavior

Social anxiety is.... A type of anxiety disorder

Social anxiety is not.... All in the sufferer's head/simple nervousness

Note: This post is based on my own personal experience with social anxiety. It is not meant to represent all those who deal with social anxiety or generalized anxiety. Each person is different and not everyone with social anxiety will relate to each point. However, if you can relate to any of the above, you are not alone or weird. Please feel free to add your own experiences in the comments. Be gentle with the friends who don't always show up or stay long, or those friends who prefer one on one interactions or small groups to big parties.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

To the Parents of the Classmates Who Didn't Give Up On My Son This School Year

Dear Parents,


In the daily grind of schedules and snow pants, I’ve neglected to acknowledge my appreciation for you and your family – namely, your sweet, amazing child. 

 Let’s start with you. Before I first dropped my child at your house for a playdate I informed you that my son lives with moderate autism. I hate having this conversation, not because I have any shame surrounding his diagnosis, but because it sounds like I’m giving a warning, when really I’m just highlighting what my son needs to be set up for success with peers, and potential pitfalls I can predict. But if I’m being honest, we didn’t really know each other. We were moms with kids the same age in the same class. We’ve come a long way when it comes to stigma, but the reality is, not everyone is comfortable with special needs. You seemed like a mom I could really get along with, but how could I be sure you wouldn’t have reservations about hosting a child with unique needs, with whom you were unfamiliar? If you had reservations, you didn’t show it. On the contrary, you put my mind at ease, assuring me you’d let me know if any snafus popped up. 

I appreciate your openness, acceptance. Parenting a child with unique needs is often isolating. It can feel a lot like living on an island. Finding someone willing to reach across the water is invaluable. There’s someone else I appreciate. Here’s to your child.

You see, my son transitioned (transition – a four letter word to many on the spectrum) from a special-needs preschool class to a mainstream kindergarten. His IEP team proved amazing, but we were nervous about how he’d relate to his peers. We had the same fears most parents face. Would he make a friend? Would he be lonely at recess? Would he get bullied? I remember relating to Julia Roberts’s character in the movie, Wonder, when she watches he son, Auggie walk into the school building and whispers, “Please God make the kids be nice to him”.

 Our concerns were amplified by E’s social anxiety and difficulty reading social cues and communicating verbally. Selective mutism was suggested, as E spoke to teachers and aides but tended to freeze with peers. This looks like flat affect, and a frozen, staring face. Often, he won’t respond when a peer says “hi” or asks to play. When he sees peers playing together, he wanders around them waiting for them to invite him to play. Despite role play, he struggles to verbalize his desire to be included. My biggest prayer wasn’t about reading or math. I prayed that God would send him a real friend to make his school days more comfortable.

God gave more than I asked. He gave E. your child. When we ask E. who he played with at recess, instead of hanging his head and saying “no one” like he did in the beginning, he mentions your child’s name with a grin. When E. struggles to transition back into the school week after a weekend or longer break, we remind him that he’ll reunite with your child. That helps. Your child gives him something to look forward to, someone to comfort him when he gets homesick.

Your child was okay with taking the lead, which my child needs. Your child not only asked mine to play, but they were undeterred when E. didn’t respond to their invitations and greetings. Instead of (understandably) running off and finding a more receptive playmate your child persisted, somehow recognizing that my son’s companionship was worth the extra effort. Your child kept asking, kept greeting, and kept inviting. 

I remember the ice cream social during the fall of first grade. E. clung to me, overwhelmed by the excited voices bouncing off the cement walls of the cafeteria and the lines of people. To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed myself, though I didn’t show it. I saw you and your child. We all exchanged greetings. E. was overloaded and didn’t say “hi” to your child, even with prompting. He remained glued to me even when your kids asked him to come outside and play on the playground. E. tugged on me to go with him, but I was in line for his coveted ice cream ticket. Your kids ran outside.

Moments later, they were back. I watched in grateful amazement, as your child amended, “E., do you want to play with us?” to “Come on, E., let’s go play.” I watched your children gently but firmly take my child’s hand and lead him outside. By the time I made it outside the kids were chasing each other and rolling down the hill. E. was sweaty and laughing. He’d forgotten about me, and more amazingly, he’d forgotten about his ice cream melting in my hand. I’ve never been so happy to have sticky vanilla running down my wrist. That night I got to watch my son run and play with friends - no social worker, aide, or parent prompting him – just being a kid. This was possible because of my son’s bravery to venture away from his comfort zone, but the opportunity was offered, no, insisted upon by your children. We all chatted while our kids frolicked, and I got to be just one of the moms. I went home from that ice cream social with high spirits.

Your child is so much more than a playmate. Your child is the friend who encourages my son to raise his hand in class. Your child has made him comfortable asking for sensory and movement breaks, referring to these accommodations as cool privileges. Your child often accompanies mine on these breaks, and while I’m sure they enjoy the break from class too, they engage my child without asking why he’s given these breaks.  

When your child invites mine for playdates, he hesitates, not because he’s not excited to play, but because leaving his familiar environment and predictable afternoon brings its own challenges. Often he asks that your child come to our house instead. He always has fun at your house once he’s there, but your child is just as happy to roll with the punches and play at our home. On one of these playdates, we were having some work done in our basement, and our internet cable was accidentally cut. I was informed it would be two days before it could be repaired. In general, dusty, noisy home repairs and a cut internet cable equals first world inconvenience. For someone on the spectrum, an unexpected change on top of a noisy disruption in their safe environment is a potential recipe for a meltdown. This particular week, my son’s fixation is building a boat in Minecraft with his brother. Per our therapist’s recommendation, he gets this at the end of his day. When you’re looking forward to something and it doesn’t happen, you probably feel disappointed and maybe frustrated. To my child, unexpected disappointment can feel like the end of the world.

But it can look like a bratty temper tantrum to the outside observer. I get it, I do. I’m telling you this because on this day your child witnesses a full-blown screaming, crying, throwing the X-Box remote at the (already cracked) television screen, and falling on the floor. I won’t add a full dissertation on the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown but suffice it to say no seven-year-old CHOOSES to have a meltdown in front of a peer – especially a classmate. But here we were. While attempting to deescalate, I glanced over at your child lingering at the threshold of the family room with a pensive frown on their little face.

In that moment, I froze. I didn’t want your child to be scared, but I didn’t want to embarrass my child further by attempting to explain. Before I could decide how to handle the situation, your child came into the room, walked up to my child, and without missing a beat, said, “E., I’m sorry you don’t get to play Minecraft today. That’s sad.”

My mouth hung open. Without prompting and in the sweetest voice possible, your six-year-old did what I’ve personally witnessed countless educated adults fail to do in these situations – validate feelings and show empathy. Your child didn’t see a kid “too old to be acting like that” being a brat. Your child saw a friend and fellow human upset, and showed understanding without judging whether or not his reaction was too much. My child didn’t respond immediately, but ultimately your child coaxed him out of his fixation and into another activity. 

I’m rambling now, but this event made me think. As an advocate for my child, I feel the need to learn every single fact about autism, therapy, and how to diffuse meltdowns while also raising awareness to other people. I believe those stares and passive aggressive comments (always from adults) in public sprout from simple ignorance rather than cruelty. After all, autism is an invisible disability. However, I doubt your child knows or understands that my child is on the spectrum. They probably haven’t stayed up until 1:00 A.M. reading articles and scouring online support groups. They don’t have any letters after their name (yet). In this moment, none of that was needed. Good old-fashioned human empathy and validation did the trick. What would life be like if we all responded that way? Maybe the opposite of ignorance isn’t knowledge but compassion.

In my long-winded way, I’m circling back to you, parent. Your child learned empathy and compassion from somewhere. They learned inclusion and kindness. They learned that sometimes the most valuable friends are those you have to work a little harder to get to know. Maybe you’ve sat your child down and talked about differences. Maybe in the beginning of the school year you reminded your child to be kind to classmates and look for the kid keeping to themselves at recess. Either way, I can safely assume your child has learned the most from watching you.

            We don’t know each other well, dear parents, but we know our kids watch us even when we think they don’t, and they’re always absorbing like little sponges. When you approached the new, socially anxious mom hiding in plain sight in the farthest corner of the classroom, they were watching. When you offered a kind word to someone having a bad day, they were listening. When you responded with compassion instead of snapping back at the cranky barista, they noticed. So, thank you for modeling acceptance, understanding, and perseverance. Our kids are only in first grade. Chances are they’ll lose touch over the years. But your child will always be the reason my child didn’t play alone in first grade. Your child will always be the reason my child didn’t have to feel different. Chances are my child will remember these friendships and sense of belonging well into adulthood. I’m not saying this to be cheesy. As an adult, I can name every bully, but I can also describe in detail every classmate who showed kindness. 

Through their persistence, your child gained an invaluable friend. E. is the most loyal person you’ll meet. E. is a fun, silly, imaginative, and complaint playmate. Your child took the time to learn this. Thank you for sharing your child’s pure heart with our family.


With love,

A Fellow First-Grade Mom

Monday, December 2, 2019

If You're Struggling This Holiday Season...

Tis the season to be jolly. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Have a cup of cheer. It’s December and every time we step in a store, turn on the radio, or walk down the street we are reminded of the season of Christmas. Let’s be real; we’ve been inundated with these messages before the Jack- O’ lanterns rotted. Whether you love Christmas or hate it, these messages are inescapable.
I’m not here to go all grinch and ruin your Christmas spirit. However, if you’re not feeling the joy but in fact feel the exact opposite, this post is for you. Maybe you’re struggling with depression and it’s triggered or exacerbated by this season. Maybe you’re dealing with grief and the twinkling lights and scent of poinsettias are painful reminders of loss. Perhaps the stress of the holidays is fueling joy-stifling anxiety. You’re not alone.
Recently, my church did a sermon series tackling tough stuff, including, grief, addiction, depression, and anxiety. I was volunteering at the resource table set outside the worship center. A middle-aged man came up and shyly scanned the pamphlets. He shared that he was currently dealing with depression and was feeling much worse as the winter and Christmas season commenced. I was glad this man felt safe enough to reach out. He was far from the only one. It got me thinking. Is the bombardment of cheer, joy, presents, and decorations sending “should” messages to the many people struggling during the holiday season? You should be feeling joyful and jolly. You should be drinking eggnog and smiling by the Christmas tree. You should love every moment.
I’m not suggesting channeling Scrooge and banning all things holiday. But, here’s the thing: if you’re not feeling it you are not alone. This year, I turned on Christmas music while the turkey was still digesting. I smiled while my kids reacquainted themselves with favorite Christmas decorations and books. But the main reason I’m embracing the holidays this year is because last year I really, really couldn’t.
I live with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and attention deficit disorder. I anticipate a spike in anxiety as I try to do all the things (the pressure to do all the things is a whole other post) but last year it was the depression that really defeated me. People say things like “don’t let it steal your joy”. That’s like telling someone, “don’t let the rain fall”. There’s no “letting” involved.
My depression tends to have a reverse seasonal pattern - it worsens in the summer. I also have “double depression” which means I manage chronic dysthymia as well as episodic major depressive episodes that can last weeks, months, or even years. During the summer of 2017 my mood took a serious nosedive. Depression is frustrating. I have coping skills and check in with myself and my doctor regularly. Despite this, sometimes it comes without warning and with no identifiable triggers. In this case, I think it was creeping in and the dismantling of an important friendship among other stressors tipped the scales. I suppose the reason doesn’t matter. With my brain chemistry, it’s easy to slide into a depressive episode. It’s much more complicated to crawl out of it.
I tried self-care, medication changes, writing, sleep hygiene, you name it. The depression deepened and persisted. By November of 2018, I was at an all time low, and not for any particular reason. Depression doesn’t need a reason. Fun fact: depression (or anxiety, grief, etc.) doesn’t care what season it is or what kind of music is playing on the radio. I was a year and a half into a major depressive episode. I was tired. I wondered if I’d ever emerge this time. I’m sharing this because last year at this time the festive reminders felt like mockery.
I don’t think anyone really knew where my head was. After all, I’m a mom. I always loved Christmas. Growing up, it was my favorite time a year. I love replicating the idyllic Christmases of my childhood for my own children. My dad loved Christmas. He passed on December 10th, 2006, and every year we keep his memory alive and laugh as we adorn his favorite decorations. I plastered a smile on my face while the pressure in my chest expanded. That was the hardest part; the pretending. I smiled when we picked out an evergreen from the lot across the street. I took pictures while coercing my ten-year-old to stand by Santa. I dragged myself out of bed and to Christmas parties. When the sign-up sheet for my youngest son’s kindergarten class party landed in my inbox, I volunteered. Every night I read Twas the Night Before Christmas, Polar Express, and Charlie Brown Christmas.
 But when I was alone I dropped the act. The rare times I got in my car without kids in tow I punched the audio button as soon as I turned on the engine, turning Christmas music to Linkin Park. The Christmas music I normally looked forward to sounded almost eerie. The words “jolly” and “joy” were like big red fingers pointing at me. The lights only illuminated the gloom. In the shower, when I had the energy to take one, I grieved. Depression had stolen my joy and I was helpless to get it back.
Aside from anxiety, depression’s best friend is guilt. I berated myself for being immersed in darkness during the most wonderful time of the year. I isolated, fearing I’d fail to hide my bleak mood and it might rub off on my friends and family. Smiling was painful. Singing was painful. Visiting and talking and pretending was exhausting. I wanted to snap out of it. I know it doesn’t work that way, but the guilt was oppressive. Not only that, I was missing the season. I was sad about being sad.
Notice I’m saying “was”. This year, I can’t say I’m on top of the world, but I’m miles above where I was last year at this time. Thanks to support, a dedicated psychiatrist and counselor, and maybe some random luck thrown in, I’m in a good place. Some pretty cool things have happened since last year. I’m in the process of working with a publisher toward my book release date. Those dark times propelled me through my novel, which deals with mental health. I’ve watched my kids grow and change. I’ve learned about myself and my relationship dynamics. That’s why I’m embracing Christmas this year; I couldn’t last year. Not didn’t but couldn’t. That’s one massage I want to leave you with. Last year at this time I didn’t think the joy would ever return. I was ready to give up on ever feeling it again. I was wrong. I’m not going to sit here and tell you “things will get better” or “this too shall pass”. I’m not going to patronize you with platitudes, because I don’t know who you are or where you are or what your situation is. All I know is life is not static, at least not forever. It keeps moving, and if you keep moving with it, it has the chance to change. Give yourself the chance. That’s the other thing about depression. It not only helps me with my writing, but it helps me enjoy the times it’s absent. Because of depression, I can appreciate the mundane, I’d venture to say more than the average person.
The other message I want to leave you with might be the one you need to hear the most if you’re in a dark place. It’s okay. It’s okay if you’re depressed this holiday season. It’s okay if you’re grieving. It’s okay if you have the urge to shatter every single Christmas light and the thought of eggnog makes your nauseous. It’s okay if you’re dragging yourself through the motions of shopping, wrapping, cookie exchanging, and ornament hanging. It’s okay if you’re not. It’s okay if your skipping the holidays altogether. Listen, if this is you I truly wish I could come hug you and roundhouse kick your depression, grief, anxiety, etc. in the face. I know it sucks. It sucks worse when the joy you’re surrounded by contradicts your inner climate. It’s not your fault. If I can’t remove your struggles maybe I can help put a dent in your guilt. You’re not alone. I hope you feel safe to reach out for help. I hope the more we talk about this stuff the more people will feel comfortable. That’s why I started writing about my mental health. I’m just one person, but I want to be part of the conversation. If you’re not ready, that’s okay too. But just know that you’re not required to bathe in eggnog and feel all the joys of the season. You’re not alone. I know, I know, that’s a cliché, but based on myself, conversations with friends, and the number of people who approached that resource table, I can promise you it’s true.
Be kind to yourself. Be really gentle. It’s okay if this isn’t the most wonderful time of the year for you. Whatever your feeling inside is legitimate. If all you can do is put one foot in front of the other, if you can’t put one foot in front of the other and all you can do is roll over in bed, that’s enough for now. You’re enough, during this season and always.

 National Sucide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or test TALK to 741741

Thursday, April 4, 2019

What Receiving My ADHD Diagnosis In My 30's Did for Me

They called me slow. Funny that I even remember that. Yep, I’m in my thirties still lamenting on the indignities of grammar school bullying. Sigh.

Seriously, though, that’s a cut-throat world. I couldn’t keep up with the cliques, the social cues that hovered just over my head, the expectations and assignments. I was in a foreign land feigning fluency in the language. My peers knew it, too.

I was the last to get my milk at lunch and the last to clean up. I was always behind on assignments or forgot them altogether, to the point where my teachers required me to have my Pepto-Bismol-pink assignment notebook signed. I forgot a lot of things, actually. On free dress day, I was the kid who showed up in uniform. I forgot to get my tests and permission slips signed. My fifth grade English teacher threatened me with detention if I forgot to bring my red pen to class one more time. She said she was doing me a favor and teaching me responsibilities so that as an adult I wouldn’t forget important things (like always having a red pen on me?). Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.

Ask anyone in my life if Mrs. M scared me straight in the fifth grade. Anyone who’s ever asked me (and rightfully so) if I called that person yet, saw that they called, or if I remember to bring X, you know what I’m talking about. In my “grown up” life I forget things. My keys aren’t where I swore I left them. Laundry hovers in various stages of completion, the dirty sometimes converging with the clean. I start things that I don’t finish. Making phone calls makes me squirm and I’m ALWAYS late. You might be thinking every busy, tired, frazzled, mom, insert-situation-here does these things. We all have our moments and our “stuff”. Nobody has all their shit together off of Facebook. At the risk of sounding dramatic, though, since kindergarten I’ve noticed that I struggle with things that most people can accomplish without so much thought. I’m not late because I don’t respect time and I’m inconsiderate. I don’t miss calling you back because I don’t care about you.

Detention didn’t teach me to stop forgetting things any more than those pink walk-of-shame tardy slips taught me to get it together and be punctual. Why didn’t these punitive measures work? Was I a kid who just couldn’t learn her lesson?

On the contrary, I was compliant to a fault. I wanted to do what I was supposed to do. I feared getting in trouble and I wanted to please people and meet their expectations. Spoiler alert number 2: that hasn’t changed much either. I didn’t start remembering things or better organizing. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do theses things; it was because I couldn’t.

My peers were right; I was “slow”. I froze up timed tests. I stayed after school to finish my work. I looked around in a panic when the teacher announced five minutes left to finish the project, observing my class mates gluing on the last pompom or flipping over worksheets, when I wasn’t even half way through.

“What were you doing all that time?” the teacher would ask. I didn’t know. I still don’t

A child knows when they’re different. Instead of denying that difference, our task is to create a world where differences are recognized as assets. It’s a tough sell when peers can be so cruel, homing in on any difference they can sense. Some girls dream of becoming princesses, movie stars, dancers. I dreamt of becoming “normal”. I tried to learn the language, but the accent grew thicker as the years passed and the demands increased. I concluded I was just stupid.

I was wrong. None of the labels I was given by peers or that I gave myself were accurate: Slow, stupid, inconsiderate, flaky, absent-minded. It took nearly three and a half decades to discover the correct label for my penchant for daydreaming, inattention to detail, forgetfulness, and overwhelm-shut down cycle. Three and a half decades to find a label that fits, that explains everything. Now I know this label is ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, inattentive type, previously known as ADD).

ADHD runs in my family, so it’s not like I didn’t know what it was. I’d even suspected it on and off throughout my adulthood, every time I reached the next arbitrary age by which I predicted I’d “have it all together”. But whenever I mentioned it, I’d hear some version of “Oh, you’re just a busy mom. It’s called pregnancy brain. It’s called ‘mom brain’. You’re just tired. Cut down on caffeine (wait, what?) You just need to get more organized and just do it. Oh, everyone thinks they have that nowadays.” In fact, when my counselor presented the diagnosis, calling me “textbook”, I was hesitant to accept it. Wasn’t I just making excuses? Not because I in anyway think ADHD is an excuse (or used as one), but years of internalizing the message of, “if I would just try harder” …. made me second guess. Was I claiming a diagnosis that I didn’t “earn”?

That last paragraph might sound really strange. I’m making an ADHD diagnosis feel like a gift or a badge of honor. Well, it is. Finally, my counselor got me to recognize and accept that I’ve been struggling with ADHD for my entire life. The struggles came to my attention when I started kindergarten and was met simultaneously with new responsibility and exposure to the development of same-age peers. By first grade I was behind, and they wanted to send me to a “special school;”. Yes, that’s really what they called it. I hate even typing it. My parents kept me at my grammar school. I’m very fortunate for my parents’ endless patience. Even without a diagnosis or much understanding of special needs or outside support surrounding them, they didn’t blame me for my difficulties. They saw how hard I tried and encouraged me to do my best.  

Let’s circle back to why I’m referring to my ADHD diagnosis as a gift and a badge of honor.

When I was diagnosed my first thought was, “So I’m not just stupid?” The diagnosis, once I “claimed” it, was nothing short of validating. My peers ran both literal and figurative laps around me (sometimes armed with pinesol spray and spit balls, but that’s another story for another day. Or not.) not because they were smarter or more enlightened. Their brains worked differently than mine. My brain worked differently from theirs. The teachers were annoyed with me not because I was a pain in the ass kid (although you might have to confirm that with my brother) but because I couldn’t keep up with my lessons. I fidgeted with my pencils and erasers, and I was always staring out the window. The math examples on the board didn’t make sense not because I wasn’t paying attention, but because I am part of the 20 percent of auditory learners. I don’t run out of mental energy after social engagements because I’m antisocial, I don’t forget thank-you cards because, I’m ungrateful or show up 15 minutes late because I’m rude.

I don’t love these things about myself and if they were easy to change I would, but that’s another way my ADHD diagnosis has freed me. I can now work on treating my ADHD so it doesn’t interfere so much in my day to day life. I can use systems to help me focus and keep things straight. I write and color code everything in a paper calendar because the notifications I set on my phone fly out of my brain the second my screen dims. I check and double check appointments. I make definitive plans and try to follow a routine. Everything must be gotten together the night before. I team up with other homeschoolers for accountability. These tools and others are just that – tools. It doesn’t mean I magically have it all together (who does?). I still have ADHD and I’m still trying. That’s where the badge of honor comes in. All those years I struggled to get through school (and life) thinking I was just dumb and slow, I had legitimate difficulties to work with. I was trying plenty hard enough even when it didn’t seem like it.

My ADHD diagnosis answers my life long question of why can’t I just do it? It helps me understand why I would flip through the science project syllabus given at the start of the school year, get knocked over by a wave of overwhelm, shut down and shove it into my backpack where I’d try to forget about it until after Christmas break Inevitably, I’d wind up cramming a semester-long project into a week, complete with many late, tearful nights. Rinse and repeat year after year. I turned in a lot of tear stained papers in middle school. Breaking down projects into more manageable tasks doesn’t happen in my unmedicated brain. I see and think about EVERYTING I HAVE TO DO, LIKE ALL THE THINGS. Then I don’t know where to start so I start with reading a book and blocking it out. The cards I write sit on my kitchen table so long it would just look weird to send it now. I mean all the steps required to write a card, seal an envelope, address it, and put it in the mail box.

I asked my therapist why I wasn’t diagnosed if I was so textbook? Sure, when I was growing up there was less awareness and accurate testing, but through college and adulthood I questioned. I’ve had psych evals that showed major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder, but not ADHD. She postulated that current testing doesn’t necessarily “catch” ADHD as it presents in adult women, especially without the hyperactive peace. We’ve learned, to a degree, to compensate. Now I take a low dose stimulant and work with my therapist on coping skills. Sometimes I wonder which came first: depression and anxiety or ADHD. I’ll never know, but I do know years of being bullied for something you can’t control, and thinking you’re stupid and falling behind (no matter how many times my parents told me otherwise) does things to your psych.

Which brings me to my final point. Parents, teach your kids about differences and special needs even (especially) if it doesn’t affect your inner circle. Parents of kids with ADHD, you’re doing fine. It’s not easy, but the most important thing is your child knowing home is always a safe place where they’re loved and accepted. Parents of kids with ADHD, you may struggle with whether to medicate. You know your child best and don’t do anything you’re uncomfortable with, no matter what anyone says. Maybe for your child it won’t be called for. But if it is and you do go the medication route, please, please DO NOT FEEL GUILTY! Don’t worry about what people think. They don’t know your situation. I know giving your child a controlled substance isn’t easy and it’s not a decision you’d take lightly. But for some people with ADHD therapies simply aren’t enough. They NEED medication to level the playing field and give their brain the stimulation it is biologically unable to produce on its own. And you know what? That’s okay! If that doesn’t convince you to send your guilt packing, parents, how about this. I wish I’d had access to this medication throughout grade school, and not because of my grades. It would’ve put me on closer to level ground with my peers and maybe protected some of my confidence. Homework and tests wouldn’t have taken long if I could focus, limiting anxiety. My parents didn’t have access to this. If you do and your child needs it and your enduring some trial and error and you’re doing it, good for you. You are giving your child a precious gift. Pat yourself on the back. If you’ve chosen not to medicate your child and you’re using other therapies, good for you. You’re a fierce advocate and your child will know you always have their back. Pat yourself on yours.

Labels can be harmful if they’re over-identified with, or worse, incorrect. But the right label offers a map. It offers answers and validation. So, I truly am sorry when I don’t return your call and you still haven’t gotten your birthday card, or you’re left to wait for me yet again. I promise I’m working on these things, but in the meantime please know that it’s not you. My brain just works a little differently. It’s still my responsibility to work on these things and it’s not an excuse. But it is an answer to the “why” that I’ve been asking all my life. I have ADHD.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Why You Won't Be Getting a Christmas Card from Me

Two or three years ago we (and by we I mean me) stopped sending out Christmas cards. You know the fun of shoving your kids in matching, itchy sweaters, driving around the mall parking lot, sitting in a crowded portrait studio, having over-worked frazzled college kids barking at your kids to “smile, dammit!” Okay, they may not actually say “dammit”, but we’re all thinking it. Then you have to pick out the least cringy picture, pay half a year’s salary for pictures of your own family, wait a week, drive back to the mall, keep repeating, “put it on your Christmas list” when your kids ask for every single item they pass on the way to the portrait studio, bring the pictures home, stuff them in 75 envelopes, teach your kids a new word when you get a paper cut, look up your Christmas card address list, try to remember who the hell all these people are, address, stamp, and send the envelopes “in time”. Yeah, I know, for a writer my run-on sentences need work, but that’s how crazy this makes me. My ADHD brain does not do well with multi-step instructions. It shuts down when the Your pictures are ready for pick up text comes on my phone. That’s after the ordeal of actually taking the damn pictures.

We don’t have a typical family. Getting everyone out of the house is next to impossible. Getting everyone out of the house on time and well dressed? Ha! My kids both have special needs. They, along with me, get overwhelmed very easily. For my oldest, getting to the mall, dealing with uncomfortable clothing, bright lights, crowds, and noise, and being forced to smile through it all is draining. My youngest is on the autism spectrum. Some days, putting shoes on is an epic battle. To give you an idea, I’ve already gotten a letter home from school about the number of tardys this year. Winning over here, people. Once we get to the destination, he wants to touch/lick everything. He struggles with verbal instructions and receptive language in a perfect environment. In a crowded, hot, bright studio where a strange lady on the verge of tears is telling (begging) him to “Sit there, no, there, put your arm around your brother. No, like this. Don’t touch the prop. Don’t touch the light. You moved. Smile. Hold still. Smile. Don’t touch the teddy bear I just put next to you. Smile. Now let’s take 872 more poses,” well, you get the picture. No pun intended.
“But, Kat, you know you could have a photographer come to your house and take the pictures? You could do them outside!”
I could, even with all the dog hair. The thing is, that wouldn’t eliminate the other 70 steps involved in sending out the damn pictures. Now, I get the fact that for some “normal” individuals, addressing and stamping envelopes and putting them in the mail box is no big deal. Some people love giving and receiving Christmas cards. Great. Don’t let me steal your joy. But we’ve kept up with the sending of the Christmas cards because it’s expected. Yes, I like to have pictures of my family, but at this point I’d rather have the pictures reflect our real life – mismatched socks, messy hair, and no one looking at the camera. Probably a dog photo bombing. So, you won’t be getting a Christmas card from me even though I’m thinking of you, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and I will save the picture you send of your beautiful family. Except for that one person. Just kidding.

When we stopped sending Christmas cards, we violated an expectation, and we heard about it. The lady my mom worked with thirty years ago wants to know why she didn’t get a card from us. Was it lost in the mail? Third cousins twice removed felt slighted. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but only slightly.

You won’t be getting a Christmas card from me and it’s not because I hate you. It’s actually not you, it’s me. I can’t keep up and it’s one thing I’ve chosen to let go. If you want pictures of our family, I’ll be glad to send them via text in all their imperfect glory. If you want to take pictures of the kids at a holiday get together, by all means. Please send me copies! But I won’t be sending Christmas cards. Here’s my Christmas greeting: Merry Christmas to you and your family, and a happy New Year to everyone on my Christmas card list and anyone reading. Except that one person.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Tis the Season to Be Stressed Out

            Tis the season to be merry. Joy to the world. Right? Right?! Okay, let’s be real. I’ve always loved Christmas. I’ve been one of those annoying people who starts listening to Christmas music before the jack-o-lanterns rot. My husband and I have a friendly debate about it every year. When I was a kid, Christmas meant Hallmark movies, picking out the best tree on the lot, eggnog, and circling creepy dolls in catalogs. For us, it first and foremost means hearing the story of Jesus’s birth.

            As an adult, I was excited to carry on Christmas traditions, my favorite of which is hosting Christmas Eve. My best childhood memories include sitting around with cousins, eating too much, and having a “surprise” visit from “Santa” aka my dad, parents clapping hands over the mouths of older kids who tried to declare that was just Uncle Don. Damn those older kids, ruining the magic for everyone. That happens, though, doesn’t it? We lose the magic. Joy to the world becomes stress to the world. Tis the season to be crazy.

            It’s fun to decorate with my kids, showing them decorations that date back to my grandma. I love seeing them count down the days until Christmas and picking out the gifts. We still host Christmas Eve, though we can’t get anyone to play Santa anymore. I’ve tried soliciting some of my neighbors, but they’re all mysteriously busy on Christmas Eve. Weird. Most of the kids have outgrown the belief. Hopefully, I still have a few years with my six-year-old.

            Where am I going with this? Here’s the thing. Every single year I, like every other adult, jump on a hamster wheel while the Thanksgiving dishes soak and fall off, exhausted, somewhere around January 15th. I’m a straight up Scrooge by December 25th. Every year I tell myself this year I’ll let go of the stress and really enjoy this season instead of it being a whirlwind. I’ll focus on what really matters and let the rest go. Yet every year the messages come in. OMG, 27 shopping days left! Amazon delivery is behind! What does everyone want for Christmas? Hurry, decorate! Make cookies! Watch all the Christmas movies in my abundant free time! Go to everyone’s holiday party! An introvert’s dream!

            By the time the wrapping paper I inevitably spend all night Christmas Eve securing around gifts is strewn across the living room and my kids are arguing about whether or not it can be recycled I’m left feeling…. empty. I doubt I’m alone. Holidays are hard for a lot of people, and not just because of the added to-dos. This past week my pastor was talking about keeping the Sabbath. In his typical gentle/challenging way, he said, “Don’t raise your hands, but how many of you remember when you’ve last actually rested on the seventh day? Left the dishes in the sink? They’ll still be there Monday. Are you waiting until after the Christmas season to keep the Sabbath?”

            Now, he said this to a group of women, so you can imagine the response. I heard someone say, “I wish he’d tell my boss I need a day off!” His point was, why do we think we have to do it all, and we’re the only ones who can? Well, I have an answer: expectations.

            Whether we get it from our families, Facebook, our kids, or our own internal pressures, we all have a running list of what we should be doing. We feel like if we don’t do all the holiday things we are somehow failing. Actually, when we do all the things we get less out of the season, or at least that’s true for me. So, a few years ago I decided to let some Christmas tasks go for my own sanity. Let me tell you, it was a big deal, but I’m still on that hamster wheel. I have to figure out what other corners I can cut.

How do you keep from going crazy during the holidays? Please, please share! Unless your answer is, “I love doing all the things; it just takes a little organization, that’s all!” If that’s your answer, please return to the Hallmark movie from which you escaped and let me know which one it is, so I can make sure it never shows up on my DVR. Thanks.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Be That Person

            I have been thinking about Jan’s timely and important post.
Her discussion of suicide, risk factors, and warning signs is apt,
so I won’t belabor the point. I would, however, like to expand upon
her challenge to all of us. Jan challenged us to live with our eyes
open; to reach out. She astutely pointed out that one question or
small gesture could make all the difference. This reminds me of a
book I read by Kevin Hines, who survived jumping from the Golden
Gate Bridge. He shares his instant regret the moment he jumped. The
other thing that stood out to me is that he walked up and down the
foot path on the bridge for forty minutes in obvious distress. He
made a deal with himself that if one single person stopped to ask
if he was okay, he wouldn’t go through with it. Instead, a woman
stopped and asked him to take her picture, completely oblivious to
his despair. This experience illustrates the importance of keeping
our eyes open and getting out of our own world. As Jan challenged,
let’s notice those around us. It doesn’t take more than a few
seconds to ask someone if they’re okay.

I’m going to challenge you (and myself) further. Be willing to hear
the answer. Most people are conditioned to say they’re fine, and
maybe they are, but what if they’re not? What are you going to do if
they answer your question honestly? Show them you care by actively
listening and trying to understand or run for the hills in case
their negativity and “drama” rub off on you?

This brings me to the concept of social isolation. Social isolation
is a risk factor for suicide, as is mental illness. The problem is,
despite our awareness campaigns, well-intentioned postings of crisis
hotline numbers, and “Reach out for help, things get better”
platitudes (usually also well intentioned, I’m sure), mental illness
leads to social isolation. Let’s take depression, for instance.

I’ve noticed a disturbing misconception that depression is
contagious, like the flu or leprosy. Spoiler alert: it’s not. Sure,
other people’s moods can rub off on us. If someone is always crabby
you might notice your own irritability rising. But depression is not
a mood. On the contrary, it is a psychological disorder that
disables people from experiencing the full and typical range of
human emotion. Ignorance and fear of depression and other mental
illnesses may cause people to disengage from, avoid, or abandon
friends with these disorders, which is complicated by the fact that
often people withdraw when going through a depressive episode. Sure,
lack of energy has a lot to do with this; it’s exhausting to try to
act cheerful, fear you’ll bring others down, or feel like no one
could possibly understand.

Do we really wonder, then, why people are hesitant to “just reach
out”? Reach out to whom? When we’re too scared to have the tough
conversations, we allow stigma to persist and send a message
opposite to the one we have no trouble posting on Facebook. Saying
talk about it with the subtext “but not to me” does more harm than

Listen, you don’t have to be a mental health professional. You don’t
need to fix your friend with mental health challenges. In fact, you
shouldn’t try. Maybe they do need a therapist, but they don’t need
you to fill that role. They just need you to stick around, even when
it’s not always fun. Even when it’s not always easy. Even when
they’re not a ray of sunshine. Is it easy to maintain a friendship
with someone with chronic mental illness? Not always. But just
because something’s not always easy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do
it. I’m leaning heavily on my depression example because its what
I’m most familiar with, but you could substitute it for something
else. People with depression feel things more deeply. Sometimes that
intensity is off-putting, but it’s also real. This may not be the
friend who’s the life of the party, but they will be the first
friend there when you need a shoulder or a couch to cry on because,
hey, they get it.

Maybe people get freaked out when someone starts talking about tough
stuff such as mental illness, hopelessness, or suicide because
they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. As someone who’s been on
the other side of that conversation let me tell you that saying
nothing is worse than saying something. Ask the questions; sometimes
that makes all the difference. But go further than that. Be strong
enough to hear the answers. It’s okay if you don’t understand. It’s
okay to ask for clarification. But I’m challenging you to be the
friend who asks the questions and receives the answers with
compassion rather than anger, panic, or indifference. I’m
challenging you to be the friend who stays in a world where too many
people discard relationships the second they stop being fun. Be the
friend who stays. You might be the only one.

Now what if you have your own mental health challenges or you
already have a lot on your own plate and these conversations are
triggering for you? Am I saying you should just suck it up? No. You
need to take care of yourself and your own mental health. Setting
boundaries in relationships is healthy. Again, though, I’m going to
take it a step further. Your friend (I’m using friend for the
sake of clarity, but it could be any relationship) really needs to
feel like you care about them. Depression is really adept at
convincing you that no one cares anyway, so what’s the point? Prove
it wrong and show your friend you care by being there and being
honest. I promise you they can handle it.

People with mental illness are not fragile little flowers who blow
over in a strong wind. They deal with adversary every day within
their own minds. Respect them enough to be straight with them.
Saying, “I care about you and how you’re doing and I want to hang
out with you, but I can’t always hear/talk about
(depression/suicide/triggering topic) because it can be a trigger
for me. However, I can come over and bring you a coffee/hang out
with you/just be here. I want to know what’s going on in your life
and how you’re doing, but let’s have our friendship be about other
stuff too," will hurt them way less than your “I’ve just been super
busy” excuses or ghosting. Their jerk-brain will run with that and
make them ruminate about what they could’ve done wrong and how no
one wants to be around them, etc. Don’t insult their intelligence by
making excuses for your absence and don’t insult their strength by
deciding for them that they can’t handle honesty.

Obviously, the quote I wrote above is a paraphrase.
Boundaries and limitations look different for everyone. You might
tell your friend to check in via text so you can have time to
process and consider your response, for example. Again, your job is
not to be a crisis counselor. You might be okay talking about it,
but lately it seems they’re talking about it all the time. Tell them
that. If you value the person at all, tell them. Mental illness is
so all-consuming and it’s so difficult to find a safe person to
share that significant aspect of your life with; it’s easy to fall
prey to word vomit when you find a person willing to listen. If
they’ve been sharing that stuff with you they must consider you a
very close friend, and you probably encouraged them at some point to
open up about it. Chances are, they don’t realize they’re bombarding
you with it, because it’s their normal. I can’t say this enough:
TELL THEM. If you don’t, it feels like the rules of the relationship
changed without their knowledge. It feels like, “What did I do wrong
that my friendship is becoming more distant? Was it this
conversation? Or this one? Maybe they just stopped caring about me?”
A little bit of honesty goes a long way, and unless they’re a toxic
friend (which is a whole separate issue) the last thing they want to
do is trigger you or bring you down. They’ll appreciate that you
care about them and the friendship enough to be transparent with
your own needs and limitations.

It’s okay to set and revisit boundaries and expectations. It’s not
okay to set boundaries and shift expectations in your head and
expect the other person to telepathically get the message. It’s not
okay to discard a human being like a broken computer. Even if you do
have to end a friendship, “Listen, this friendship isn’t working, I
think it’s best we go our separate ways,” is kinder than silence.

Break the silence. I challenge you to be the friend who stays. At
the very least, be the friend who’s straightforward. Mental illness
is confusing enough. No one wants to try to interpret excuses or
silence. Be the person strong enough not to take the easy way out.
It could make all the difference. Be that person.