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.


Friday, October 26, 2018

The Never Ending Cycle of Suicide

Within the last month, I have been notified by my daughter's schools (one in high school, one in college) of a student taking their own life. Each time I hear of a suicide my heart aches; it aches for the person who hurt so terribly that, for them, it was the only answer, and it aches for all those whose lives will be forever changed by their absence.

It's important for us to stay vigilant; to monitor the mental health of those around us. Even those who appear happy on the outside could be struggling and you might be the lifeline they so desperately need but are reluctant to pursue.

One other thing to keep in mind: people make mistakes. None of us are innocent of making poor choices at some point or points in our life. Judging someone, pointing fingers, condemning them, hating on them because they did something wrong (no matter how terrible it was) accomplishes nothing except show what an unforgiving, non-empathetic, non-altruistic society we are moving towards. Being empathetic rather than hurtful proves they are more than their mistakes and their life is valuable, important and worth fighting for.

Those at the highest risk of suicide are the following:

1. Teens - This is obvious. Hormones, school struggles, family dysfunction, depression. There are so many reasons why teens contemplate or commit suicide. They are going through significant body changes causing unattractive breakouts, oily hair, body odor and so on. Because of these changes, they may be the subject of bullying causing their self-esteem to plummet. They may struggle with friendships, making them feel unliked and insignificant. They may deal with stressful family situations that they keep hidden, or they could be experiencing a true clinical depression that they just don't understand.

2. Those who have suffered severe physical or emotional trauma. Perhaps a close family member dies, a crime was committed against them, or they were injured physically in an accident. Also, losing a job, a good friend or financial stability can also have a direct impact. These traumas can take people to a dark place where they feel they can't escape.

3. Those who suffer from addiction. Whether someone is addicted to drugs, alcohol or some other addiction that runs their life, it can cause them to want out with as little pain as possible. Also, drugs and alcohol take away inhibitions making it easier to act out on suicidal thoughts.

4. Those who suffer from mental illness. Whether it's depression, Bi-Polar Disorder or some other mental illness, those who suffer from it, just want the pain to go away. Medication for these different disorders is not always as scientific or precise as we would like it to be, leaving some trying multiple different medicines without significant improvement.

5. A friend or family member has committed suicide. Oddly, suicide can be contagious. It has sometimes been romanticized as well as sensationalized making it look appealing.

Some signs to be aware of:

* Feelings of hopelessness
* Inability to sleep
* Panic attacks
* Socially isolating themselves
* Feeling of being a burden
* Anger/rage

Look for these behaviors:

* Increased use of alcohol or drugs
* Looking for ways to kill themselves; talking about how they would do it
* Acting recklessly
* Isolating themselves from family and friends
* Drastic change in sleeping habits - sleeping too much or too little
* Gives away prized possessions
* Becomes aggressive
(info found on www.afsp.org)

Also, keep an eye out for those who may appear overly happy. I'm not saying that being overly happy is a behavior that leads to suicide, but it is a way for those who hurt inside to hide. Sometimes, those who seem to have it all together and seem so incredibly happy are only using that to mask the pain that is manifesting itself on the inside.

The big question is what to do if you think your loved one is suffering from some of these symptoms. It's obvious that help is needed and as soon as possible, but that may not be welcomed by the one who is suffering. If they refuse help, you need to at least keep the lines of communication open. Always guide with a gentle hand. Forcing someone to do something they don't want to do will probably only cause them to become more resistant. If they won't get help, you need to reach out and get help from a professional so they can guide you in how to handle your friend or family member. There are a number of websites and toll-free phone numbers that can help you immediately.

I am not an expert on suicide, and I encourage you to do your own research and gather your own tools for prevention. But, I must share with you some advice based on an experience I had yesterday.

I went to order my daughter some food at a local fast food restaurant and started to take a seat on the bench to wait for my order. I already had my phone in hand, ready to check out Facebook and emails when an older woman made a spectacle of herself while trying to sit down on the bench next to me. My first thought was, "please don't talk to me, please, please, please!" but, of course, she did. She joked about her unsteadiness and then she introduced herself, telling me to shake her hand harder. "No, squeeze harder. C'mon, you can squeeze harder!" she said. She then complimented me on my blouse and told me how important it was to her to make sure everyone she met knew she noticed something nice about them. She made this her mission. She believed that too often, we ignore those around us, not even saying hello when time and space allow for it, and I have to agree. I can't tell you how many times I would look away to avoid saying hello to a stranger. After I had left, I thought about what she said, and it really resonated with me.

What if we all spent more time with our eyes open to those around us? What if we said the one thing that a person who was struggling, needed to hear? A kind compliment, a helping hand - something that says I CARE ABOUT YOU. Think back to the last time someone complimented you on something you wore - your hair, your smile or a great job you completed. Didn't it make you feel good? And what if that person was a complete stranger? Wouldn't the compliment heighten that feeling more, knowing someone who doesn't know you, noticed something special about you?

I challenge you to reach out. Try finding something special in those around you and pay homage to it. You never know when that little act could have such an enormous ripple effect and change the direction of someone's life for the better. Sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest difference.

If you're in for the challenge, post yes in the comments. Please share your experience with us as well! I would love to hear how people reacted to your positivity!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Bigger Cage

I wrote this non-fiction piece a while ago as a way of documenting a portion of my friend's journey through domestic abuse. Watching her go through this painful journey opened my eyes to all we never see behind closed doors. If you know someone who is suffering from domestic abuse, get them the help they need before it's too late.


It all seemed so normal until it wasn’t. Her life personified by the two beautiful boys she had always aimed to keep safe, to love without conditions or expectations. She did everything for them and for him. Him, now a monster in her rearview mirror, wasn’t always a monster. She loved him; loves him. How did she become so blind? How did she allow him to take so much?

“You need to get out of the house,” he said. “I’m having an open house, and you and the boys can’t be here.” His face bore only satisfaction as the words left his mouth. The utterance of those words was the first large rug to be pulled out from under me since I learned of his affair.
“Our house is for sale?” I said.
“Get out or I will throw you out.”
I didn’t understand. We were working things out. I was willing to forgive him for having a long-term relationship with another woman. I was willing to do anything to keep our family together, to keep the boys from the pain of a broken home. I did everything he wanted. All those hours making the house spotless, homeschooling the boys, making appearances with a beaming smile on my face. I endured his swinging moods, his stinging words, his leaded hands and his need for control. Every day, when the garage door would make its grinding noise, I could feel my heart beat faster as I scanned the house one last time to ensure it was perfect—for him.
But it was never perfect enough.
“Why isn’t dinner ready?” he would snap. “What in the hell did you do all day? You’re a worthless piece of shit.”
“I’m sorry. I was schooling the boys and lost track of time.”
“I’m so sick and tired of your excuses.”
Our dialogue was predictable, my apologies discarded like table scraps.
The day I discovered he was still having an affair, my heart broke into a million bloody pieces. Each piece seeped with sadness and despair. Everything I had done to prove to him how much I loved him was rejected along with my apologies. He lied to me; told me it was over with that woman; told me he wanted to make our marriage work. I didn’t understand. But rage soon overcame me, and when I confronted him in the kitchen, while the boys were still nestled in my bed after a night of movies and popcorn, he smirked and told me I had no right to look at his computer, the one he left open to that woman’s Facebook page. I snapped. I could feel something physically break inside of me. I took a swing and hit him, and he hit back. The small scratch on his chest was nothing compared to my swollen eye and bloody nose and lip. I ran upstairs. “Call your aunt and have her pick you up,” I said while I packed them a bag. Moments later, I heard him on the phone telling 911 I was running after him with a knife. What followed seemed like a nightmare I couldn’t shake. My beautiful boys’ wide eyes watched as the flashing lights approached, as they handcuffed me and patted me down, as they rested their hand on top of my head and guided me into the back of the squad car. They were too young to see this, but he let them watch as if it was a warning. His face wore that same look of satisfaction and maybe a glint of evil flashed in his eyes as he watched me being loaded into the squad car.
I was broken.
I was weak.
I was lost.

The Friend

I had no idea. My friend with long locks of blonde hair and a perpetual sweeping smile always seemed so happy, especially when she was with her boys. Our kids performed in musicals together, and she had a golden touch, making whatever she worked on, beautiful. She could make a few sad flowers look like a masterpiece, and she could decorate a table or an entire room with a flair that came from only the most gifted decorators. And she loved doing all of it; always with a smile; always with a sense that she was that perfect wife and mother many aspire to be.
It wasn’t until she announced she had separated from her husband, that I saw the cracks. She had covered them up for years, never letting on to the nightmare she lived. That’s why it was such a shock to hear the news. And then, through the ever expanding cracks, the painful truth began to leak out like thick tar that stuck to everyone it touched.
“You know that movie, Sleeping with the Enemy?” she said. “That was my life.”
“How could that be? You seemed so happy?”
What could she say to that? All she could do was tell me each painful, poignant event in her marriage. Like the time he dropped her off at the hospital for a hysterectomy and forgot to pick her up. Instead of staying at the hospital like normal, loving spouses would do, he went and spent the day with his lover and never answered the phone when the hospital called multiple times. Or the time when they were all supposed to go to Hawaii for their anniversary, but at the last minute, he told her she couldn’t go and left her at home while he and the boys enjoyed a week on the beach. As she recounted these stories to me and let go of some of the baggage she had carried secretly for years, her face straddled between fear and embarrassment for the truth she never saw.


I was forced to find a place to live. The house was sold right out from under me, and when we handed over the keys he leaned over and said, “Does it hurt yet?” In the middle of the night, my car disappeared, and there wasn’t a dime in our bank accounts. He had taken it all; stripped me bare of any support. All those years I sacrificed, all of what I brought to the marriage and gave over to him was now in his pocket, and I had nothing.
It was God’s grace; His light that guided me out of my darkest moments. Who else could deliver such gifts when you have nothing to give? A condo, vacant next to the very school my older son, would now be attending. Cash from my father, who for years didn’t offer any support, was like manna from heaven. It was enough to rent the condo. From this day forward, it was always just enough.
Once I moved what little belongings I had into my new home, I searched out jobs. Friends, who were shocked to learn that my life was anything but perfect, stepped up to the plate and hired me. I thanked God for the opportunities He placed before me, however big or small. I didn’t mind cleaning my friend's houses, pulling weeds, or stocking shelves and decorating offices in the middle of the night. I know my friends felt awkward that I was cleaning their homes, but I actually enjoyed seeing their faces when they came home to a clean, organized home. And the fact that they truly appreciated my efforts was worth more than any monetary payment. Each dollar I made and each friend placed in my path was a blessing and a promise that God would provide.
The Funny thing was, there was a strange feeling growing inside of me that, at times, made me giddy. I was free. I no longer had to fear the sound of the garage door at the end of the day. I didn’t worry that the dishes were still in the sink or that the laundry wasn’t folded and put away. I didn’t have to call him to meet me at the gas station so I could fill up my car, because now, I had the money to fill it up myself.

The Friend

But he still played the game, like a twisted chess match. The boys were his pawns and the rules of how he moved the pawns were modified to meet his own needs; to cheat. It was something he excelled at, removing boundaries for himself while imposing stronger ones to the pieces he controlled. Those around her could hear the game being played when she couldn’t.
I remember the day he texted her, shortly after telling her what a fucking bitch she was. They shared joint custody of the boys, alternating weeks. She would work extra hours on the weeks she didn’t have them so she could spend more time with them when they were staying with her. She stood in my kitchen, wiping down my stove with a hopeful face.
“He wants to help me with the boys. Says we should go over my work schedule to see where he can help.”
“Really?”  I shook my head and watched her diligently scrub off last night’s dinner. What was he up to now? “I’m not so sure he really wants to help.”
“He sounds sincere. I think he feels bad.”
“For what? For having an affair? For kicking you out of your house? For hiding and selling your car? For leaving you with nothing?”
She stopped scrubbing and turned to me. “I think he misses what we had.”
The thought crossed my mind that he probably did miss what he had, but it wasn’t that he missed them as much as he missed controlling them; he missed being their puppet master.
“I’m just not sure his intentions are pure. Don’t let him know you’re too busy with work to take care of the boys. Something tells me, he’s playing a game with you.”
She shook her head at my analysis. “I don’t think he’d do that.”
“All I’m saying is, don’t give him anything he can use against you. If he gets confirmation that you can’t take care of the boys because you work, he could use it against you.”
I was certain I hadn’t convinced her that there was something amiss until a few hours later when she sent me a text: YOU WERE RIGHT!


Denial followed me. It dragged behind me like a course, heavy blanket, picking up and holding on to the dirt he threw at me. The relentless, brutal text messages that filled my phone were sadistic and cruel. Those aren’t your friends, they are only pretending because they feel sorry for you—no one would possibly want you for a friend. You’re worthless. You’re no one. You’re a pathetic bitch.
His threats still held me captive; still had me trying to please him so he wouldn’t follow through, but he did anyway. He’d often refused to return the boys to me, keeping them a full twenty-four hours past his court-appointed time. Or he would send me on a wild goose chase, changing his location just before I arrived. I never fought back because I didn’t want the boys to think less of me. I wanted them to know I would do everything in my power to keep the peace.
When I would occasionally break down and show my friends some of the messages he had sent, they wanted me to fight back. I could see the anger in their eyes, but they didn’t understand. They didn’t understand him the way I did. They didn’t know what he was capable of and how fighting back would only mean more punishment for me and the boys. So, instead, I cleaned off the soiled blanket that trailed behind me and carried on, making myself believe he didn’t really mean it; that it was only a matter of time before he realized how wrong he was and make everything right again. And, just to make sure, on the heels of his painful texts, I would text back with only kind words and affirmations.

The Friend

The text messages he sent her were horrific. As she shared some of the rants he sent her, my mouth shot open, and the blood coursing through my body began to boil. I couldn’t imagine my husband saying such horrible things to me, and I began to realize that her husband was either really stupid or a psychopath. His words were calculating and vindictive, but she just brushed it off as though she were trying to prove the “sticks and stones” theory.
I tried to offer counsel, but it appeared she didn’t always agree. I was becoming afraid for hers and the boys’ safety, but again, she didn’t share that fear. So, for a while, we would chat briefly, but rarely about her situation with him. It felt like there was a physical fault line between us, neither of us wanting to cross to the other side. There were bits and pieces she would throw over to me, but they were modified, as was my advice.
When she announced, after two years of his relentless verbal abuse that they were reconciling, I thought I would truly lose it in front of her. After all she had been through, after the hate and lack of empathy he had shown her for countless years, she was entertaining a reconciliation.
“You’re what?” I said.
“We’re going to try and work things out.” There was a smile on her face; she seemed happy. I was still trying to lift my jaw off the floor.
“He’s changed. I think he understands now.”
“Has he gotten professional help?”
“No, but he’s finally seeing his mistakes.”
It was all I could do to not grab her by the shoulders and shake her from this spell she was under. But, even as her friend, I didn’t know if it was my place to protest.
“Do me a favor. Sign the divorce papers,” I said.
She narrowed her eyes and twisted her lips but didn’t say anything.
“If you are truly starting over with him, clean the slate first. Make him recommit with nothing on the table but you.”
“Hmmm. That’s an interesting idea,” she said.
“Whatever you do, do not get rid of your condo and protect your savings.”
My fear that this was another move in his ongoing game had me on edge.


I was excited at the prospect of our family being back together, all under the same roof. The boys ran through the vast house he had found, where we would all move into, together. This house was larger than the one he had sold. The floors were covered with warm, rich wood and the kitchen gleamed with stainless steel appliances and maple cabinets. Each boy would have his own room again, and there would be plenty of space for friends to gather. I saw myself preparing chili and cupcakes in the chefs kitchen on Halloween, made a note of where the couch would be best placed in the family room, and envisioned my colorful planters livening up the backyard.
But as I wandered the expansive halls, my stomach began to squeeze, and my chest began to hurt. And then, I understood. This was just a bigger cage.
In the back of my head, I could hear my friend’s voice, “Whatever you do, don’t give up your condo.” It was as though the cloud that grew thick and dark around my head during our marriage was now burning off, allowing me to see for the first time in years. This house was a ruse, a way to lure me into yet another cage where he could lock the door and control me. He knew how important it was to me to be a family again and for the boys to no longer be pushed back and forth on the swing of separated parents. And he knew, up until this very moment, it had always been my goal. But what he didn’t know was that I wasn’t the same woman he threw out of our house with barely more than the clothes on my back. I was more; so much more and I would never be locked in a cage again.
I told him I wasn’t ready to move. We still had a lot of repair work to do before moving back in together. And, in all honesty, I liked my little home  I had spent my hard earned dollars to renovate and make into my very own sanctuary. I wasn’t ready to give up the one place that showed me how far I had come. He didn’t like my answer.

The Friend

She didn’t show up to clean my house. I shot her a text wondering if she was going to come and she apologized that she couldn’t make it. I didn’t think anything of it, she was busy trying to balance everything. But two weeks later, when she did come, it was obvious why she had avoided me.
When I arrived home, I searched for her, eager to catch up on life’s happenings. I found her in my daughter’s room, dusting. The moment she saw me tears filled her eyes, and she lifted up her long bangs. Just above her eye was a large, red scar. She looked at me with such sadness and regret, as though her whole world had crashed down upon her, again.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He slammed my head into the door frame.”
“Why?” Not that there ever needed to be a reason for someone having their head slammed into anything, but I wanted to know what had happened.
“He got angry, and when I turned away from him, he grabbed my head and threw me into the door.”
“Oh, God!” was all I could say.
“He did it in front of our son. Told me to get the fuck up.”
It pained me to hear the details of how he ranted at her without an ounce of empathy or regret as her head gushed with blood and her brain struggled to process what had happened. She eventually grabbed her phone and called our mutual friend, who knew something was up when she couldn’t put a coherent sentence together. Our friend came to the door and when she saw the blood said, “Oh my God, what happened?”
And, as if out of some horror movie, a voice from behind our friend said, “she fell.” Him.
She continued to dust as she finished her story. “I didn’t understand until they put the wristband on me in the hospital. It read: VOV.”
I looked at her, unaware of what VOV meant.
“Victim of Violence.”


It was my wake-up call. I never considered myself to be a victim of violence. The abuse he directed at me throughout our marriage I often blamed on myself. I needed to be a better wife; I needed to please him more. When I covered myself with the bed sheets to protect myself from the onslaught of what he threw at me or when I huddled in the closet and prayed for God to get me through his next rage and spare the boys, I never thought I was a victim of violence.
The strange thing is, everyone knew except for me. I had accepted my life as it was while others watched on, hoping I would open my eyes. Friends would send me notes saying they were sorry I was going through this, or they would leave an envelope of cash or a bag of groceries on my doorstep, yet I didn’t understand. And when I still couldn’t see through the thick fog or maybe just refused to open my eyes, they protected me as though God instructed them to be sentinels and witnesses to the grace He provides.
My journey is not over. While I am now officially divorced from my tormentor, I am still tethered to him by our two sons. But now, I am fully awake and stronger than I’ve ever been. I know now that keeping our family together was the last thing our boys needed. What they needed, and still need, is for me to fight for them and to fight for myself. They need to see their mother as a strong woman, and they need to know that their father’s behavior was and will never be okay. They also need to know that I will never allow them to suffer at the hands or the mouth of their father again, and I will never live in another cage, no matter its beauty or size.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Fighting the Good Fight: The IEP Meeting

I'm sitting at Starbucks pretending to be another person working, but really I'm waiting. In forty-five minutes I will return to my son's school along with my husband, E's in-home therapy case manager, and his lead in-home therapist on whom we've come to rely, because they can help our son where we can't. It's a humbling experience.

My husband is used to meetings. He says the key is to be prepared. Those of you who know me may have noticed that being prepared is not one of my most fine-tuned skills. Yet, here I am with a bag stocked with a notebook, lists, and present and past goals and progress reports. I could (and very possibly will) write an entire post discussing the things no one tells you about being a special needs parent. Right now, I'm thinking about the paperwork. The forms and reports and requests and evaluations. The forests and forests of trees stuffed in E's file alone. But, I digress.

I was not prepared for my first IEP meeting. I remember walking in to a room full of people sitting around a long table, each equipped with their own laptop, lanyard, and shiny coffee cup emblazoned with the school's name. The scene may have been overwhelming even for someone who doesn't consider ordering a coffee to be enough social interaction for one day. Besides, I wasn't exactly sure that these people were on my side. The whole thing felt strangely like a court proceeding. I'm not being critical; E has made leaps and bounds in his blended classroom (about 50/50 special education and mainstream students) and his teacher is amazing. I have every reason to believe these people I don't really know want my child to be successful nd supported in school. The thing is, though, I can't afford to assume that. I have to be ready and willing to play the unfamiliar and uncomfortable role of an assertive person if I feel my son isn't getting what he needs.

The weirdest thing about IEP meetings and all those evals we need to fill out is the concept of discussing and highlighting what our child can't do. The focus is on where he is falling short of his typically developing peers. Of course, the point of all this is to get him the services tht he needs. I know this and I'm grateful for it, but irrationally it almost feels like a betrayl every time I make note of my son's deficits.

I'm reminded of the tender baby years. All the talk about when so and so rolled over, first teeth, first smiles, and first steps. We love to tell people these things; to record and celebrate these milestones, especially if they're early. But what if they're late? We still need to talk about that and even record it, but this process is decidedly less pleasant. The polished Facebook world of firsts and glossy back to school photos suddenly seems foreign. At an IEP meeting you discuss what your child should be able to do but can't. You also feel a vague since that you're preparing for battle, even if you have the best IEP team.

This time, the stakes feel higher. We will be meeting a whole new team. In the fall, E will be transitioning to kindergarten, one of the biggest milestones.

So, am I prepared?

No. I wasn't prepared for any of the extra challenges autism brought into our world.

Yes. I'm E's mother. I know his needs, his strengths, his quirks, and his unique and infectious curiosity. I want his team to see what I see. I want them to see his value and strengths. I want them to see past his diagnosis.

The thing is, I also need them to see his difficulties. I need them to remember his diagnosis not for the "label", but to resist the temptation of pushing him through because "all five year olds do that sometimes". Yep, I've heard that. I've also heard that they don't see some of his more pronounced sensory seeking during the two hour school day. Kindergarten might be different. Kindergarten will be different. I need them to see the full picture.

Prepared or not, I will do everything to make sure my child has the tools he needs to succeed. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go put on my (probably dog hair-covered) armor.