I love to get crafty when I have the downtime, but being a full-time working single mom means I can’t always have a sprawling, unscheduled art day. Not to mention the fact that my lack of art training means that I’ve got to keep it fairly simple.
I’m always quick to pick up a technique that won’t be too labor intensive, require a ton of new art supplies (expensive!), or swallow up a lot of time.
This paper marbling technique is one such art hack. It takes very little prep, time, or skill, and it looks gorgeous. Sign me up!
Choose your colors for grating. You can take a spoon or popsicle stick and swirl them around to get interesting patterns and color blends. Once you’re satisfied with your pastel blend, simply dip the paper lightly so that it just picks up the pigment without getting completely saturated with water.
Essentially, all you do is grate a bit of your chalk pastels into a flat container of water. You want the sides of the container to be tall enough to contain just a centimeter of water, and be short enough that you can easily dip a piece of paper into it. A rectangular cake pan or casserole dish is ideal.
You can swirl it a bit or stamp it on the surface of the water to get additional colors and layers. Then just lay it out to try, placing something heavy on top if the paper tends to curl up.
You can use this technique on letterhead, envelopes, greeting cards, and gift tags to make them unique and pretty. It’s the kind of simple trick that looks really nice right away, so you don’t have to worry about messing it up. It’s a little bit like tie-dye on paper; no matter what, it makes an interesting, colorful pattern.
When I was three months pregnant with my son, I wrote a letter to his father. He was my best friend in the world, the person I had spent four months living in a tent with on the Nā Pali coast of Hawaii, and–although I didn’t know it yet–the father of my unborn son.
We had been dating for the past two and a half years in a tumultuous on and off sort of way, but we knew that despite the ups and downs there was some ineffable connection between us.
We had even met in a serendipitous way; a friend of mine mentioned offhand that I should meet her roommate because we were so much alike. We ended up meeting by pure chance when he waited on me at a restaurant, though it took me weeks of dating him to figure out that he was the roommate my friend had wanted me to meet.
Our two and a half years might not have been so tumultuous if it hadn’t been for circumstances. I was only nineteen and he twenty-three, after all, and was successfully navigating graduate school until, shortly after we met, I took a three month trip to Europe alone. Before leaving, I abruptly stopped taking an antidepressant medication without a taper and proceeded to have one of the most traumatizing experiences of my life.
Despite how terrifying it was, I wouldn’t allow myself to return home prior to my already scheduled return flight, which by the time I was experiencing full-blown, constant panic, was two months away.
I had the idea that it would somehow make me stronger if I stayed (thanks, Nietzsche), that I could break my fear, and that if I went home I was giving in; I would be weak.
I retained this idea even after I came home. I continued dating the man who would eventually be my son’s father, moved to Hawaii with him, all the while experiencing a level of panic, depression, and anxiety that it is almost impossible to describe to someone who isn’t well-versed, whether by experience or profession, with this level of psychological dissociation.
After we both moved back and considered the journey (and at least in part, the relationship) a failed one, it still took me a year to write this letter to him, finally coming clean about what had happened.
All he knew in the entire two and a half years of our knowing each other and loving each other deeply was that I had once been on medication and I wasn’t anymore. It was a minute detail, a side note.
When I finally felt compelled to write this letter to him–because it certainly felt like some force beyond me–I was three months pregnant with our child and completely oblivious to it. Funny how love still finds a way.
Some might find this letter triggering, others might find it self-indulgent. I don’t dispute either, and I certainly took plenty of poetic license. What I can say is that it was the closest I ever came to successfully describing the pain and darkness that I was experiencing, making myself vulnerable to a person I loved, and finally being honest about how much I was suffering inside.
I have removed large sections that are very personal in nature, and any mentions of people or places. My hope is that this description will help others feel less alone in their experience, and also help those who have not dealt with mental health issues to understand what the experience can be like.
I call depression the “big lie” because it is the very thing that prevents those who are experiencing it from seeking help. Depression justifies our suffering, telling us we deserve it, it’s our fault, that others would be angry at us, or that we will be penalized, ostracized, or persecuted in some way. That’s why we hide it behind a very convincing mask.
Breaking out of that lie, as someone who has experienced it several times, is one of the hardest things in the world to do.
From: Crystal Date: Tue, May 17, 2011 at 10:43 PM Subject: checking my pulse
I came home early from work cuz of my tummy. I drank a few sips of beer yesterday, trying to be social, trying to participate, and I guess it was a bad idea, because then I got a headache and kept waking up to run to the bathroom gagging, though nothing came out but little trickles of chemical bile.
It would have been so satisfying for something to come out, that feeling of purging, cleansing, but instead I just sat there gripping the toilet, welcoming the cold porcelain against my feverish skin, feeling like my body was trying to eject me from the inside out, nothing to expel but this vague disease and me, the carrier.
So like most days I woke up feeling exhausted, so reluctant to leave bed, almost not coming to grips with the reality that I have to, that I’m expected somewhere, there are people in whose daily narratives I figure; peripherally, at least. So like most days I get up feeling like I’m dreaming, dragging myself like a heavy object through my life that is a dream, a foggy cinematic.
I am the camera and what I see the projected image. I often wonder what images my lens will fall on as I move through the day, what colors and shapes and sounds will come together to form the illusion of reality in front of my eyes, to prove to me that I am, in fact, on earth, that I am human, that I am living.
And when I wonder this the thought is almost always followed by another; that regardless of the images the world composes for my entertainment, for my continued life-fiction, that all they really can be is fiction, and so why go through it again? And the why is because of beauty, and feeling, and aliveness, and love. And the why is purpose, and meaning, and will to live, and I wonder which of those I’m lacking; is it just one or is it all three?
There is another thing that why is, and that is community, for it seems that social animals like we are built to share life, to cry and love and laugh together, and that purpose and meaning come naturally from sharing these experiences. This truism is an irony that circles in my mind, because it occurred to me as I was literally trying to create meaning out of thin air, after I had examined and rejected the shoddy foundations out of which we create meaning these days, in a splintering, secular culture that is barely a culture at all, and increasingly becoming a mass of people, and those people are individuals by golly because they won their independence and they’re keeping it, along with all the accoutrement.
And I rejected it just for this reason, that it seems to me an undeniable failure. But my mistake was rejecting people along with it, to close myself and hide away until I came up with a better answer, and what pressure, and what loneliness, and what contempt I developed for the world. Me, who always meant to find a better way to love.
So now here I am seemingly having forgotten how to do just that. Mostly now I long to love, but don’t do it directly. I long to love myself and the people around me, the people I’ve made alien, made other. I sit amongst them feeling half-human, feeling corrupted in some way, wishing I spoke their language, peering through a barrier I see is paper thin and yet solid as granite. That barrier is my pain, somehow, which is scabbed over with my pride. And I sit there begging inside that I can break through, searching frantically for fractures that might allow me to breathe, to shed the frigid barrier I’ve encased myself in, and then I’ll alight and say I’m finally here, I’ve arrived after all that struggle, pure me without all that extra heavy weight I was dragging along behind my feet.
The same scenario a thousand times over. My life in loops. All ours are, actually, but you notice it more in some than others. Some are stuck in a kind of spastic rewind. We recreate the same people, our families and friends, the same scenarios, homes and places where stories happened, where we felt our lives were imbued with meaning.
But still, although I feel like I’ve been fighting so hard for such a long time, I’m still encased inside this false version of me. It’s false because it’s sad, I guess, and angry. It is only a thin layer of daily imagined despair, that projects itself outward just in the moments of waking, before I have a conscious chance to reign it in, and then it settles on me. I feel it in those moments as I transition from sleep, feeling something like peaceful and unharmed and perfect and then it descends, and my mind begins its loops of worry and defeat and loneliness and how can I do this, where can I draw strength when all these wells are empty, and my heart quickens pace and I think it has begun; another day of my disease owning me.
I want you to know I’ve really been trying. That I told myself you have to get up, you have to be alive, animate yourself and maybe your body will remember how it loves to move, how the blood loves to circulate in your limbs. I’ll keep up maybe the adrenaline, the momentum will catch me one day, and I’ll be animated all on my own, from the inside out, without this material force that I have to draw upon. It really is a strange sensation to rely on your muscles alone to move, to have been abandoned by that lightening force from within that makes existing feel so easy and natural and desirable.
I feel more present now than I did then, I guess, but it seems that becoming more present has presented me with more pain. It seems that I traded a little of my nonexistence for reality and with it that pleasant numbing has subsided. It heartens me to feel, a little. I don’t want to be numb.
I want to feel to full capacity, the way I felt when I first moved back in February and I could feel the pleasure of the sun on my skin in such a real way, or the wind on my face while I rode my bike, just like a child, because it seemed the medication took away those other insidious feelings that colored my existence, the tiny anxieties that meet me when I wake up, the feeling of heaviness, lethargy, illness, of being half-alive, those feelings that cover up joy.
I think a lot about a potential future where I’m alive again and happy, and sharing my gifts and living among people, and participating in the world that I shunned for so long that’s really not so bad but could do with some improvements. I’ve never felt more genuine joy than when I give, but now giving feels empty, I feel I have very little to give.
You and [mutual friend] really shocked me. The first time we all hung out at your house I could feel myself leeching, feel myself sucking in the life in the room like a black hole. And I thought, it’s only for now, they’ll forgive me. There’s something wrong. It’ll be past soon. And then you can give again, you won’t be taking.
I just kept thinking, why the hell do they love me so much? This weak and tiny version of me; how could they love me this way?
But I think about how that feeling will reignite in me and I’ll do things for all these people, how I’ll be strong again, the caretaker that I know myself to be, the person who uplifts her friends and encourages people and gives permission. A leader, someone who sets examples, who nurtures, who loves so well.
I’ve been taking tiny steps, trying not to run ahead of myself because one day I feel momentum and maybe even a little inspiration, and then my heart falters and I forget what I was excited for, and this up and down goes on for days, always more days of emptiness than fullness, the lifted days almost a little taunting.
But even if I can’t carry over the enthusiasm, the true will, I still mimic it. So slowly maybe as I feign interest in making a life and it begins to take shape around me, I can get a little boost from watching my own hand create. Because really, that’s what depression is; the loss of the creative impulse, which is ultimately the impulse to sustain life.
And isn’t that ironic coming from me, considering what I do, what I’m passionate about, what I write about? Do you even remember that person anymore?
I wish I could watch it like a movie, so I could have proof that it actually happened. It’s fading away. I trust those memories less and less, the memories of happiness, memories of feelings that I doubt my capacity for. I’ve seen so little evidence lately. I feel like I might just fade away, flicker on the periphery, become a part of the backdrop in all the other dramas, let mine fall by the wayside, until I disappear totally and exist only and briefly in memories. A girl you used to love, I wonder what happened to her? And the answer is that, as James Joyce puts it, one by one we’re all becoming shades.
As much as I feel that way, I keep hoping. That in another month’s time this medication will kick in, and I’ll remember how I’m simply okay, that I don’t have to believe the whispers in the back of my mind, all that psychic chatter that winds me up like a toy, that ties me in knots, that steals me away from the present. I wonder so often how things would’ve been different if I had stayed on it, I ask God to show me the film of that alternative cosmic reality.
Do you know that place you go when you’re lost in thought, when someone has to nudge you to bring you back? That’s where I live, most of the time. It’s another realm, I think, maybe the one they call the Hungry Ghost. It’s made up of hallways where we wander, looking for something lost, and those lost things are our thoughts, empty wind thoughts that we chase down hallways. And every time we chase them we leave the present, the human realm, and enter into a realm of wind.
The wind scatters our thoughts like paper, it chills us, and the more we wander the more nervous we become that we won’t find our way back through the labyrinth of hallways to reality, to rejoin everyone in the humanity. This feels like a cold place, a place we don’t belong, where we are unsafe and far from home. Some people wander so long they forget they’re looking for anything, they just keep wandering and watching their thoughts blow by on the wind, and mutter to themselves under their breath, for company.
I feel like I’m running for the end of the hallway. I see the other side, sometimes reach a hand through, then I’m dragged back by thoughts that have taken root too deep in my mind. I’m struggling against the wind. I’m starving for light. For fresh air and sun and warm embraces that express real love, real joy, we’re glad to have you back, Crystal.
I keep imagining that this will all pass. That I’ll look back and laugh a little. Because I know it’s just on the other side. That I only feel pain from moment to moment. That any new moment could offer peace and love and happiness if I could just remember that alternate route, that groove in my brain that’s lain dormant, the synapse that’s atrophied from negligence.
When I was on medication I saw how clearly it was a choice, that I chose to be happy from moment to moment, that I chose not to descend into this dark escapism. That’s why I tried so long without it, just make the choice Crystal, just make the right choice, choose to be happy. Fake it til you make it. Don’t tell everyone you’re sad because that makes it stronger, makes it more real.
It seems though, that the drug gave me the fuel I needed to make those choices, or to even experience the pleasure of those choices in the moment. Because I tried, I went to yoga religiously and I got up every day and I kissed you and threw all my love into it but still, some element was missing. Some element that made those things matter, made them more than moving my body from place to place and reacting to the movie screen.
The element, I guess, is love. It’s really like a fuel, the life-force. Another thing they call depression is an energy crisis, a lack of love. Like small animals and babies who have all the conditions for health, nutrition and sunshine and exercise, but despite it all they whither away because they don’t have enough love. Nature takes them back to rest in love until conditions can be more favorable to live in it. It’s called failure to thrive.
I wonder sometimes if it happened so long ago for me, something when I was young that I’ll never get back, that gives me this sense of being unsafe, uncared for. And it became so normal that I didn’t notice until I really couldn’t get out of bed anymore, and the alarm bells were so loud I couldn’t brush them aside, tell myself I was being lazy. I saw I was really letting myself fade, failing to thrive.
Despite every strength that I have, my gifts, my capacity for life. And I wonder if it’s not just a little musing on the part of the divine, a little evolutionary experiment. To give me every natural tool for success, for self-sufficiency, and then to throw in one curve ball, one that eclipses everything else and makes me weak, weak in the strangest way, weak in the soul. And then my life, the test. To overcome this weakness of my will, this urge for death–because one way or another I think in this life I’m meant to die–or to buckle, to collapse and never rise again, let the earth take me and become God’s abortion.
But really, my urge for death is an urge for God. The only thing I ever really crave. I think I feel life too acutely, feel my body dying as I occupy it. And I feel everyone else’s pain, too, it rises up from the asphalt in waves, like heat. Sweltering. It presses on the back of my mind, their cries, their suffering. It’s like the hands of the dead in the river Styx, clutching at my ankles, pulling me down.
But only because I stopped to listen to their moaning, only with the best of intentions, a light heart and a child’s compassion. I forgot to steel myself against the world when I attempted to save it, to make my mind firm, like a fortress. I did it in a different way, that killed me. I did it to my heart instead of my mind.”
If you are in need of help, please tell the people you love. Tell everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are eloquent or justified or even coherent. They want to know, and they want to help you. If you don’t share your pain, you rob them of the chance to even try, and you rob yourself of the possibility of support and compassion.
You are not to blame, and not matter how you feel, you are not alone.
It has taken me seven years, my son’s entire life to-date, to realize that I have been grieving for the childhood I wanted to give him.
As I’ve been shedding layers and discovering guilt, shame, remorse, resentment, among other things, my most recent discovery has been this grief. It finds it’s origins in my unplanned pregnancy; when I realized very late that I was pregnant at all.
Months lost when I could have been bonding with my baby silently, internally, when I could have been taking more intentional, better care of myself and my body—his first home.
I would have sung him lullabies and talked with him, maybe read him excerpts of some of my favorite books, played him some of my favorite songs. Even in the latter months of my pregnancy, I don’t recall whether I got the chance to do this. It was all such a whirlwind, a time of deep fear about the future and how we were going to survive.
After his birth, I still did many of the things I thought I would; we co-slept, I made him homemade gripe water for his tummy aches out of ginger and fennel, I took him to mama and baby yoga classes. Though I did them, I did them with little joy.
It is difficult to feel joy when you’re overwhelmed, scared, and completely unsure about yourself.
Teasing the Grief from the Guilt
It’s funny to me that this feeling of grief was covered up by guilt for so long. It’s a subtle difference, but a real one.
The guilt told me that I was a bad mother for not having given him these things, that I had somehow deprived him. It admonished me and made me never-enough for him.
On the other hand, the grieving is for my own loss, not his. Funnily, I never realized how deeply I longed to experience these things with my son until now. I suppose I never wanted to allow myself to feel it.
It’s only as my heart opens to new love and even to the possibility of future children, to allowing myself the indulgence of that dream, that I realize this grief has been lodged in my heart for seven years. As it comes up in waves, I find myself tearing up at the almost invisible desires of the past that never came to be.
Separating this grief from the old guilt has been a big step for me. By differentiating between the two, it has finally allowed me to separate my constant striving for my son to be “okay”—behavior based on my own insecurity and sense of unworthiness as a mother—from his reality.
His reality is his own. It is not the same as mine. It is not his burden to carry to relieve my guilt, to be “good” so that I can prove to the world that I am, as well.
He may grow up and not care a stitch that I didn’t live up to my own expectations as a mother, that I didn’t succeed at diaper-free potty training or keeping him outside and barefoot for the majority of his life.
In fact, he’s likely thrilled (for the time being, at least) that he instead boasts his own Nintendo Switch and the right to eat potato chips at an increasing frequency, the right to dine in front of the TV way too often on what are usually leftovers or frozen pizza. At least—sometimes—it’s gluten-free (and on the other hand, thank god I’m not as anal as I used to be and sometimes it’s not).
Even as I write this, I realize that I didn’t fail quite as much as I originally thought. Many of these objectives were accomplished at least partially, or if not truly accomplished, at least I tried. Not only did I try. I tried amidst what were constantly difficult circumstances; changes, shifts, pressures, and losses.
Letting Go Of the Past to Live in the Present
There have been many times when I wondered what my son would be like had I been relaxed and carefree as a young mother. I’ve questioned and decided pretty conclusively that his difficulty regulating his nervous system is inextricably linked to my own during the pre and post natal period, and even in periods since.
I’ve also come to realize that barely discernible autistic traits run in my family, and that (via adamant reassurances from his diagnosing doctor) while his early years were bumpy ones, that his autism isn’t my fault.
I’ve also come to realize that when I am able to relax and enjoy my son,
I wouldn’t want to change him. Maybe I would take the opportunity to go back in time and sing to my growing belly; surely I would have been more gentle with myself while he grew inside me.
The only outcome I would change is how deeply I connect with him, and that is an outcome that is determined moment-to-moment.
In the interest of that deep moment-to-moment connection, I choose my son as he is, and—even more difficult—I choose myself as his mother; the unsteady twenty-two year old who made it this far, and who she has grown into.
I look forward to a time when he is mature enough to understand, when we can look back and laugh at how his young and unprepared mother tried neurotically and vainly to make everything perfect for him.
We will laugh, because we will have traveled together through the darkness, and he will know, from the evidence of my failed striving for perfection, that he has always been and always will be deeply loved.
It is likely that you don’t understand the ramifications of your comment. It is likely that you didn’t put much stock in it, either at the moment you said it, or at any point afterward. It is very possible that the incident never crossed your mind again.
The scene that inspired it was simple; you saw my son run up to the counter and ask for stickers. I stopped him and asked him to repeat himself, but this time to ask while making eye contact with the woman at the register. He paused, connected, thanked her, and ran off to create his sticker masterpiece.
That’s when you said it.
It is likely that you didn’t know I had spent many hours and numerous occasions working on this social skill with my son. It is likely that you didn’t realize this is one of the indicators that led his doctor to diagnose him with autism.
Even if you had simply been praising a mother for encouraging her child to make eye contact with the counter attendant, that would have been enough to deserve this letter. It made it just that much for meaningful to me.
Our Parent-Shaming Culture
It’s all too rare that parents hear praise from strangers, and yet that simple act was a powerful one, so powerful that I’ve remembered it for months and finally decided to write about it.
Parenting is often described as a thankless job, but in my
experience the most thankless element is not that our kids don’t yet get the gravity of what we do for them. It’s that everyone else doesn’t.
People who watch us on the street as our kids have meltdowns, utter curse words, run out in front of cars, or roll their eyes at our well-meaning affections–in other words, act like kids–often write us off as negligent, irresponsible, poor disciplinarians, or worse.
Judging parents is so automatic that there is often no lag time between the offending action and the judgment, no moment of pause that might otherwise be an opportunity for compassion, understanding, or simply neutral curiosity about the context that parent and child might be living in.
The fact is, most environments in the modern world are designed for adults, have adult rules, and tacitly expect adult behavior. This makes bringing kids almost anywhere a challenge. There is a secret, unspoken class divide between the parent and the non-parent.
For a moment, you bridged this gap.
I was on my way home from work waiting for a train when a little boy who looked to be between the ages of four and six bounced up the stairs to the platform with his parents, humming and singing and hopping around like a ball of sheer delight.
A nearby elderly woman made a snide remark to her husband about moving away from the “nuisance” and getting on a different car. “If I had a son,” she said, “he would never act like that”.
For some reason, overhearing that judgmental comment lit me on fire, and I even considered shooting one back. Obviously, that wouldn’t have done much good.
Luckily, the parents and their son were out of earshot and continued on blissful and oblivious. There is justice in the world.
Where Have All The Children Gone?
The thing that struck me most about this woman was how entitled she felt to have a certain kind of experience even in this very public place, an experience that was patently un-childlike.
It also struck me how simple and natural this little boy’s behavior was, and how even the most basic understanding of child development would support that conclusion.
My unposed question to this woman is, what if this attitude were taken to its logical extreme? What if we, as a society, were to sequester “childish” behavior even further than we already have?
What would it actually take for that bouncy, cheerful little boy to suppress his natural behaviors and “act like an adult” at the train station? I shudder to think.
Kids are already relegated to parks and plastic play places, or expensive indoor museums and experiences that aren’t accessible to every income bracket. We’ve already compartmentalized family life so much that, in a way, it’s becoming fringe.
What does it mean that we, as a culture, are developing such an aversion to kids? Why are we trying to expunge the spontaneous and causeless joy that an energetic, playful little boy expresses at a train station? Does it remind us of something lost in ourselves that is too uncomfortable to see?
And even if we aren’t going so far, there is a growing number of people who identify as “not a kid person”. There was a time when I counted myself as part of their ranks. Interestingly, it wasn’t motherhood that changed it for me, but inadvertently teaching preschool.
After a long stint in academia, being around these little humans who were completely logic-and-rhetoric-free bundles of feelings, impulses, and reactions had a profound effect on me. It did something to my heart, and I no longer identified as being a person who isn’t into kids.
In fact, I imagine that the way I began to see those little kids is the way that God might see us; completely irrational, dramatic, exhausting, inconsistent, and maybe even a little insane.
But say what you will; those little kids running around, screaming, jumping on each other, wetting their pants, and falling asleep on our shoulders are nothing if not love embodied. And if we let them, they can elicit in us the most unadulterated kind of love there is.
Finding Joy In Kids And The Kids In Ourselves
From an evolutionary perspective, disliking the young of our own species is pathological. It’s kind of that simple.
Certainly, animals in the wild abandon their young for various reasons, but we are basically programmed to be nurturing and affectionate to not only our own progeny but those of other species, as well.
In some cases we’re even favoring the latter; after all, “fur babies” don’t talk back, they don’t have teenage angst, and they don’t usually force us to confront things about ourselves we might not like to see.
It took me a while to recognize that my general avoidance of kids said much more about me and what I was avoiding in myself than it said about kid behavior in general. I’m grateful every day that falling into the preschool-teaching profession shook me up and taught me to reflect, and more than anything, to open my heart.
After all, that is the quality in you,
the anonymous man at In-N-Out, which led you to spontaneously thank a mom–a total stranger–for encouraging her son to make eye contact. Your open heart touched mine and opened it further.
I’ve noticed that the more my heart opens, the more I become a better mother. Heck, a better friend, sister, daughter, coworker, neighbor, customer, even fellow driver, too (none of us are immune to road rage).
Parents deserve to get a little lift to their
hearts, because theirs is some of the greatest emotional work that there is to do as a human being. Parents are raising the future, the workforce, the culture-makers, the inventors, the creators, and the stewards of the earth. Thank you, if only for an instant, for recognizing that.
Parent or not, love and compassion is our greatest emotional labor, and it doesn’t always come easily. Somehow, in that moment at In-N-Out, you nailed it.
You have my deepest gratitude for your seemingly inconsequenctial act of kindness and respect that has already rippled this far. May I do it justice and allow it to ripple even further.
At my son’s most recent educational support meeting, I went in armed with research on our rights, the legislation that entitles him to certain accommodations due to his Autism diagnosis, and literature explaining the obligations of the school district. I was ready to do battle.
Initially, I met with expected resistance from both teacher and principal, so I asked them why point-blank. After a little digging, it seemed that the issue was that there was simply no infrastructure for the IEP to actually make a difference. Even if my son received an IEP, they explained, all he would get was a few extra classes a week, in which he’d be pulled out of his current class and tutored.
Because he shows no academic roadblocks, this would essentially be pointless. It reminded me of my time spent in G.A.T.E. classrooms as a kid, which I viewed as simply a way to get the “Gifted and Talented” kids out of the mainstream classroom where they had already done their work and were becoming bored and disruptive.
I shrugged and conceded that, no, I didn’t see much of a point in pushing forward if that was all that was available to him. It sounded like the district just didn’t have the infrastructure in place to give my son what he needed, and I had two options; go to war and trailblaze that infrastructure, or find it elsewhere.
A part of me wants to do the trailblazing, to open up avenues for other mothers who might find themselves in that school district with kids who need some kind of undefinable support that can’t be measured by test scores and report cards.
Maybe I’ve become jaded, or maybe I’ve just learned that I have to choose my battles, but that is not a road I want to go down right now.
Right now, both I and my son deserve the path of least resistance. We deserve readily available support. So that’s not the path I’m choosing.
What Real Empathy Feels Like
At the end of the absurdly short meeting (20 minutes for a biannual assessment of my son’s needs), the teacher and principal are hurried to return to their other obligations. Everything is always going too fast to be solved, to be properly dealt with, to be considered deeply and with care.
It’s on the to the next test, next school event, next funding benchmark.
But the school counselor was willing to stay behind and answer a few of my questions. I asked her what more there is I can possibly do to support my son.
I explained that he’s seeing three therapists multiple times a week, all out of pocket, and I’m still getting reports sent home almost every week about his behavior, along with getting punitive phone calls that fluster me while I’m at the office.
Was there something I was missing?
She asked, “Are you sure that you are getting enough support?”
Surprised, I reflected for a moment. And my answer was that, now that I thought about it, no. I wasn’t.
“It’s really hard to live with something with autism,” she continued. It felt like someone had given me permission to breath for the first time in a year.
“Yes, it really, really is,” I replied.
I love my son deeply, but it is exhausting to be around him every single day. He can have a very rigid way of doing things and can have meltdowns–or more recently, swearing fits–if things aren’t as expected. Although this is mostly because of a cognitive difference, sometimes it feels like living with a little tyrant.
The school counselor’s comment made me realize how guilty I had been feeling for feeling this way about my little boy. And her empathy made me feel like I was a million times lighter than before.
Feeling Bad for Feeling Bad
I went home giving myself permission to recognize that living with an autistic child can be hard. It is emotionally taxing.
Suddenly it seemed okay that I always feel tired and reluctant to play at the end of my work day and
long commute, that I get nervous that I might break a “rule” imposed in what might otherwise be a fun, relaxing game and cause a meltdown. It made sense. There wasn’t something wrong with me, and I wasn’t being a lazy or checked out parent.
I realized that feeling
badly for being a bit reluctant to pour my energy into my son’s high needs doesn’t make me a bad parent. It also occurred to me that while negative feelings are totally natural, that feeling bad for feeling bad is suffering.
I accept that sometimes I wish my son was more chill, more calm, more laissez-faire. I also accept that sometimes I feel completely blessed that my son is so witty, so insightful, so over the top passionate, and so unique.
Taking the good with the bad is a part of life, especially when your life involves parenting with unconditional love. Loving my son unconditionally doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it every second. It simply means I accept him for who he is, respect my own boundaries and energy levels, and let us both be.
When I was a child, I watched my mother express emotions and my father criticize her for it. I watched my father stuff his feelings and brood, and my mother use heightened emotionality to be heard.
Making this observation over and over led me to conclude that there were two ways to deal with emotions; hysteria or stoicism. I chose the latter.
Even though I made the conscious choice to stuff my feelings because I believed it was the better option, the emotions still had to go somewhere.
I had the false belief that if I didn’t act out my feelings, I was making them go away. In reality, they were making a home inside of me.
The Effect of Not Feeling
We are emotional beings, and there is nothing wrong with that. It is natural to experience emotion, as painful as it can be, and let it pass. When we do this, we are relating to our emotions in a healthy way.
When we stuff our emotions through repression, they store themselves inside the body. Emotions are literally energy, and that energy–although intangible–is very real.
When I was about eight years old, I was running and playing on our cul-de-sac with the neighbor kids. I accidentally ran into a kite string that slit my neck straight across and made a perfect red line of blood.
Because there were lots of boys around who were prone to teasing, I turned on my heel, set my jaw, and walked straight home as if nothing was amiss. The moment I closed the door behind me, I burst into tears.
To this day, I notice myself setting my jaw in that same way whenever I’m trying to conceal my feelings; when I’m doing an intense workout and pushing through to muscle failure, when I’m hurt by something but feel safer acting angry instead of sad, or when I feel scared as a man approaches me on the street at night.
All the repression I practiced in my youth had consequences. I began getting headaches around the age of ten. They were so frequent and debilitating that my mother took me to the doctor multiple times.
Of course, they could find nothing wrong with me, as medical doctors can only work with the gross symptoms of disease, so nothing was done. My mother eventually took me to the chiropractor, and that helped for a bit until the adjustments wore off.
Energy Makes a Home
The chiropractic adjustments might have done the job had my headaches been from an injury or gross misalignment, but they weren’t. Emotion is energy, and energy needs an outlet. When I wasn’t giving the energy of my emotions an outlet, the energy found its own.
Eventually, as a preteen my PCP prescribed Tylenol with Codeine in it. I took this rarely, as I was already aware of the addictive quality of Codeine (thankfully). Either way, it wasn’t going to solve the issue, only cover it up.
Aggravation – energy spreads from its natural home
Dissemination – the energy begins to move throughout the body
Localization – the energy localizes in a place other than its natural home; low grade symptoms like aches, pains, feeling off, and mild depression can emerge
Manifestation – the first signs of disease as we know it emerge (in my case, headaches)
Chronicity – the disease becomes long-term or even permanent, and significantly disrupts quality of life
It is telling to note that modern medicine only acknowledges, identifies, and classifies disease at stage five and six. This means that anything stage four and below goes undetected and untreated.
Symptoms and sensations from stage four and below often get responses like “rest more”, “reduce stress”, or “it’s all in your head”.
Resisting Our Emotions
By the time I was in my early teens, my headaches had transitioned into
mild depression. By the time I was in my late teens, I was having full-blown anxiety attacks.
The energy I had ignored and continued to repress had made its home deeper and deeper in my nervous system, until it was practically screaming for me to acknowledge it.
Along with my lifelong general stuffing of my feelings, I was also beginning to wake up to the fact that I didn’t want to be with the boyfriend I had been dating for four years. Together since I was fifteen, I had truly believed we’d be together forever.
Coming around to the reality that I didn’t want that required a huge reorientation and redefining of my life and who I was. It was an identity crisis, the the truest sense.
In retrospect, I’ve come to understand that panic attacks I was having as a deep resistance to the changes of heart I felt welling up inside of me. Couple these major life changes with an already exhausted nervous system, and it was a perfect recipe for anxiety.
I was fascinated a few years later to see a close friend go through almost the
exactly same scenario. She had made a life with her high school sweetheart, then her husband. As she was starting to realize that her identity as a more mature woman wasn’t meshing with her previous choice, she started to experience eerily similar anxiety and panic attacks.
Change is hard, especially when we don’t know how to express our feelings about it, or don’t have anyone to express them too. But feelings are very real, although they are intangible. They affect our behavior and color our perception much more than we’d like to admit.
If we are resistant to the feelings welling up in us, it can feel like the world itself is being ripped apart. We can make ourselves wrong for feeling, or we can try to deny that we’re feeling at all.
Whatever coping mechanism we use to try to avoid our feelings, it never works for long. Although it’s a bit of a cliche, what we resist persists.
Relating to the Emotional Self
I am still very much in the process of learning how to relate to my emotions in a healthy way. I understand at least conceptually that this involves not resisting my feelings, allowing myself to feel everything (even when it hurts), and then letting it all pass.
There is a saying that emotions are like the clouds passing over the sun. If we dwell on them, we continue to shut out the light. If we allow ourselves to be in the dark for awhile but ultimately let the clouds pass by, the sun’s light is always waiting for us on the other side.
There is no reason to resist something as natural and inevitable as the clouds making their way across the sky. The same is true for our emotions; they are simply the weather of life.
This indicates that his nervous system is on hyperdrive, his fight or flight response much more active than his affectionate brother.
According to Ayurveda, Berlin exhibits the qualities of excess Vata, or wind energy. If you can imagine a candle flickering in the wind, that probably approximates how he feels much of the time.
On the other hand, Oslo exhibits the qualities of Kapha, or water and earth. He is grounded, juicy, loving, soft, cuddly, brave and bold. His sympathetic nervous system is much less active than his brother’s.
My point here is that often those who need love and support the most are the ones who hide from it. Poor little Berlin lives inside of an overactive nervous system that tells him there is danger around every corner.
That shadow of a hand reaching to pet him? It must be a predator! That explosive squeal of a little boy who loves him? Must be a sign of danger!
Because Berlin’s nervous system is in this hyperdrive state, it is distorting his perception of reality and causing him to run away from the very thing he needs; love and affection.
We do this as humans too, especially when we are anxious or depressed. We tend to hide away and rationalize the reasons we don’t seek out support, affection, or a shoulder to cry on. Often, we rationalize that we don’t deserve this kind of support.
I have been so depressed that I was ashamed to let my friends see me. I have been so anxious that a hot bath, normally one of my favorite self-care activities, felt like nothing to me. My body couldn’t relax and feel the pleasure of it at all.
Those were the times I needed love and affection most. But what did I do? I hid. I played it off. I kept my chin up.
This helped no one and worsened my depression by further isolating me.
I encourage you to watch the ways you hide from love in your life. This applies to so much more than mental health.
How many times have you skipped out on a blind date, rationalizing you “probably wouldn’t like them anyway”? How many times have you avoided calling your family because you “had nothing to say”? How many times have you left the house when it’s pouring rain without your umbrella or raincoat?
Though these may seem trivial, they are small ways that we avoid taking action to love ourselves, care for ourselves, and let ourselves be loved by others.
Allowing Love In
Love is a verb. It doesn’t just happen. We have to seek and give love actively. Otherwise, we are in stasis.
Love cannot exist in a vacuum, nor can we as social creatures. It is our job to create it through connecting, giving, sharing–especially sharing ourselves, no matter how inadequate we think we are.
I have been surprised to find over and over again that when I share my perceived inadequacies with others, rather than shunning me, they extend compassion. Often they confide that they share the same fear of inadequac.
Our culture is increasingly looking like ships passing in the night, never really seeing or communicating with each other. In order to change that trend, we have a responsibility to reach out. And we have a responsibility to educate ourselves on how to notice when someone is in need of being reached out to.
I say this without judgment, because we are all still learning. Coming back from pain and self doubt is tricky business, but making ourselves vulnerable makes us relatable and human, and it allows others to be human as well.
I’ve suffered from major burnout several times in my life–I guess I’m a little too ambitious for my own good.
The first time happened slowly over several years, beginning when I was in high school. I had left regular public school to do independent study, and began to get hyper-focused on academics to the exclusion of all else.
I had very little social life, my boyfriend lived in another state, and I mostly spent my time reading and writing. Not surprisingly, I fell into a depression. When I began to go deeper into yoga practice, this depression lifted significantly.
Unfortunately, a big move to a pretty isolated place severed me from my yoga community, and I again began focusing on academics and little else. I was beginning to get so tense and anxious that I didn’t even want to leave the house for the simplest things, like going to the grocery store. Of course, this only compounded the problem.
Eventually, everything came to a head and I began suffering from severe panic attacks. I was only 19 and already a year into graduate school, and everything on the surface seemed fine.
Then I started to lose interest and motivation to even do my academic work, which at the time was my whole world and identity. I started to realize how dissatisfied I was in my relationship, which was ipso facto my only relationship. This was all extremely disconcerting. I was so terrified by the panic attacks that I took them as a wake up call and sought emergency help; anti-anxiety medication.
Before this, I never would have touched a pharmaceutical with a ten-foot pole, which gives you an idea of how severe the anxiety was. I was adamantly all-natural, vegan, GMO-free, organic–you get it. But even now, I’m so glad I was able to at last let go of all that ego and ideology do what I needed to do for myself.
I spent my winter break recovering at my mother’s house, mostly sleeping and eating and doing very little else. I could feel the medication kicking in and my nerves starting to recover. I finally allowed myself the rest and rejuvenation my body and mind had been craving for years and recovered fairly quickly. The medication was like a bridge from a very negative mindset, brought on by sheer nervous exhaustion, to a much more balanced and connected one.
With the sense that I was coming back to myself, I realized that I was deeply unhappy in my relationship and in my life. Looking back now, it seems incredibly obvious — I was extremely lonely. It’s very difficult to sustain a sense of purpose when you aren’t part of a community to share it with.
To remedy all this, I left my relationship and made a move from the isolated forest town I lived in to a vibrant college town. I continued my studies with renewed commitment–and best of all–passion. I was making tons of friends, and remembered what my bubbly, quirky social personality was like for the first time since high school. It was like discovering an old friend had come back from the dead, except that the old friend was me.
After only 5 months I was ready to stop taking medication. Of course, being young and still totally out of touch with my limitations, I decided it was also a good idea to go to Europe by myself for three months at the same time. I figured I could keep up my exercise routine, healthy food choices, and self-care–which had become so essential to me in those last five months–while traveling. Serious face-palm decision.
I stopped my meds abruptly (big no no) and took off. At first I was mostly fine, though I did feel more stressed than usual taking off for the trip. I eventually started having night sweats as the medication left my system, which was pretty scary. Still, I felt like “myself”, so I pressed on with my trip. Here comes burnout number two.
Know Your Limits and Respect Them
Constantly moving from place to place on a continent you are unfamiliar with by yourself can be an extremely stressful experience. Add to that plenty of alcohol and a very erratic sleep schedule and you have a recipe for disaster.
At first, I easily made friends and traveling buddies, but the more stressed I got the more I wanted to be alone.
I started withdrawing again, started feeling exhausted and wondering why, and my solution was to push on because I “shouldn’t” feel this way. I kept thinking that I “should” be able to handle this, and my solution was to force myself to do it until the tiredness, irritability, and tension “broke”. That’s exactly what happened, but not in the way that I wanted.
The previous panic attacks reached a whole new level, and this time I was in Europe–alone. Still, I forced myself to stay the entire three months because I somehow thought it would make me stronger. This extremely misguided understanding of exposure therapy was the opposite of what I needed.
When I came home, I went straight to my parent’s house. I was supposed to start another year of grad school at a new school that was more rigorous, more suited to my academic interests, and would more likely lead to a top PhD program. I only had a week before orientation.
When I went to meet my academic advisor, I was very literally a nervous wreck. What I should have done was go straight back home and repeat the whole recovery cycle over again, just like I had when I first started having panic attacks. I didn’t.
I dropped out of school before the semester started and suffered through a couple years of extreme anxiety, this time determined to figure out how to recover by myself, without meds. There’s that ego again.
I eventually got to a point where I felt “just okay”. I felt okay enough that I could get by, and that’s how I lived for several years afterward. I was tired all the time. I found it difficult and exhausting to do basic things like wash the dishes. I was hyper-sensitive and on-edge. I even found it difficult to sit still and relax. Yet I was getting by.
Moving On, Letting Go
Recovery didn’t truly start to take place until five years later after a lot of bumps in the road. Once I finally found myself in a stable lifestyle, a job with regular hours, and a strong community, I started to come back to myself again just as I had when I was 19 and had finally allowed myself the rest that I needed.
The false idea that we should be able to cope with life at all times is not only a very dangerous one, it is a very lonely one. Humans were meant to be in community, to work for a common goal, to rely on each other for a sense of security, friendship, and camaraderie.
We are meant to rest, to enjoy silence and stillness, to experience time outside of our daily to-do list. We are not meant to “do” non-stop, or to be productive at all times. Letting go of this very American and very masculine idea allows us to give ourselves the love and care we actually need and crave.
The tricky part is that once our nervous systems are agitated, we become somewhat addicted to that state and find it very difficult to slow down and even reap the benefits of self-care.
Be kind to yourself and find the edge between your level of agitation and the next most relaxing state. Sometimes that’s going from a day of phone calls and meetings to vegging out watching TV. If you were going to your first yoga class, you wouldn’t expect yourself to be able to do the splits or scorpion pose. Give yourself that same compassion when you’re stressed, exhausted, or anxious.
Caring for ourselves the way we would care for a friend or the way we would care for our own child leads us to rest, recovery, self compassion and healing.
Find what the equivalent of “mom’s house” is for you, and give yourself permission to enjoy it without judgment or doubt. You deserve it, your friends deserve it, your children deserve it, and this big crazy world does too.
We all know the basics of hygiene – washing our hands, brushing our teeth. We do these things daily almost without thinking about it, they’ve become so habituated for us.
Just as important as these hygiene basics is our mental hygiene, something that is increasingly essential in a world that is fast-paced and constantly “on”.
Mental hygiene is the idea that the mind and nervous system need some “cleaning up”, too. We can certainly just get up and go every day, but we’re doing ourselves an immense disservice if we don’t take a little bit of time to prepare our minds for what they are going to face in the day.
For those of us who find it difficult to focus on the task at hand or to complete a project, you could say that our horses have gotten the better of our charioteer. When the desires of the senses start to affect our behavior and mood each day, to the extent that we may even feel a bit out of control, it’s time to take a step back and do a little mental house-cleaning.
Below is my mental hygiene reset routine. When I’m feeling overworked, overstimulated, overwhelmed, or over-tired, this is where I start to get things back on track in cleaning up my mental landscape:
The Morning Routine
Keep your mornings simple and give your body time to just be without going into full overdrive.
No media besides music during this period!
The morning is dedicated to self-care, meditation, exercise, yoga, etc. and breakfast. These activities are done with focus, care, and reverence if possible. You can’t force it, of course, but the point is to clear everything else from the mental agenda and give yourself totally to this morning ritual.
Self-massage can be an incredibly nourishing practice of self-love. I like to use almond oil with a few drops of my favorite essential oils like myrrh and sandalwood added, and massage from head to toe. This is extremely moisturizing for the skin and helps to give the nervous system a sense of cohesiveness.
When work time inevitably rolls around, we don’t have to go in full speed ahead and spend up all our mental energy at once. If you slice things up into chunks and focus on efficiency, not sheer volume, you can actually get a lot more accomplished and better than if you tried to do it in all in a day.
The first work task is a list of 3 essential tasks for the day; take 5 minutes to reread this list over and over to yourself. Repeat to yourself that nothing else has to get done today but these three tasks.
Next task is admin; filter through emails, texts, etc. Make a secondary list of things to do for the entire week. Take 5 minutes to tell yourself that these things will get done, but right now you are going to focus on your first three tasks.
Work on first three tasks through lunch, and deal with any ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL things that come in. Check email once per hour at the most. Answer essential calls only during this time.
During lunch; eat away from the computer, no media, focusing entirely on the process of eating. Enjoy a walk outside to help you digest, or even eat outside as well. Give yourself at least 30 minutes of uninterrupted non-work time to enjoy your lunch, not just scarf it down.
Continue to work on the first three tasks and any essential tasks that come up. If the three tasks get completed, bring the next task in from your weeklong list.
During the work day, take three to five FULL 10 minute breaks (don’t shortchange yourself) to 1) chat with people about non-work related topics, 2) take walks around the home, office, or outside, 3) do something fun, playful, or aesthetic, like a puzzle, arranging decorative items on your desk, or decluttering. Do it casually and not with much agenda.
When the workday is done, ABSOLUTELY FORBID yourself from taking calls or checking emails. Allow your mind to completely detach from any work-related topics. Tell yourself “The work day is done, everything else can wait until tomorrow. This is my time to just be, just live, just enjoy.”
Allow your mind to completely detach from any work-related topics. Tell yourself “The work day is done, everything else can wait until tomorrow. This is my time to just be, just live, just enjoy.”
Winding Down for the Day
When cooking and/or eating dinner, do not do anything else. No media, no multitasking. Just wind down and enjoy your meal, seated at the table. Play a little soft music, make the space feel warm and inviting, chat with your friends or partner. Once dinner is over, move on to leisure activities, not tasks. The time for tasks is the daytime.
After 7pm, NO MEDIA. Put your phone on airplane mode and turn off the TV. Start to let your mind wind down. You can read, do a puzzle, do a crossword, do some yoga, tai chi, garden, stroll, anything that is not stimulating to the sympathetic nervous system. We are starting to allow the parasympathetic take over as we prepare for sleep. This usually takes at least an hour. For our wound up world, even more.
Prepare your sleeping space and do whatever you need to do to relax. Make sleeping a ritual. Take a bath, put on soft music, do your brush teeth and evening care routine. Have a cup of chamomile or kava tea. While you drink, sit and smell the tea, taste the flavor, and do nothing else. Enjoy the hot cup in your hand.
Whenever you feel the urge to do, relax it and let it go. If you find it difficult to do this, you can supplement with little activities like puzzles, zen sand gardens, or journaling so help your mind get used to being less stimulated.
Once in bed, turn off all the lights. Make sure you are comfortable. Do a body scan to notice any areas of the body holding tension, and consciously relax them. Notice if you are too cold or too hot, and correct appropriately. Do you like a soft breeze? Do you like a little white noise? Make this process very intentional, as if you were putting your baby to sleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep or wake in the night, get up and do slow movement, like seated yoga, to take your mind off of the frustration of not falling asleep. If that isn’t enough, try journaling or something slightly more engaging for the mind.
DO NOT turn on bright lights or media, as they will stimulate the nervous system far too much to encourage sleep. CBD, Valerian, GABA, and in moderation melatonin can also help with going to sleep.
This is my comprehensive plan for slowly waking up my senses and mind for the day, and then slowly and gently bringing them back down to a calm state for the end of the day. Our nervous systems are an often-neglected part of our health, but we can all benefit from a little extra TLC to help us handle each day without stress.
The beauty of a mental hygiene routine like the one above is that it allows us to use our mind only when we need it. It calms down the sense-horses so that all non-essential stimulation is put aside, and allows the charioteer, our higher executive functioning, to make the decisions.
I find myself using Ziploc bags quite a bit when I’m storing leftovers that just don’t fit into my tupperware (or when I can’t seem to find lids for my tupperware).
I started thinking about a way to remedy this, as I don’t love the idea of buying plastic bags, although I do wash and reuse them, in order to keep my kitchen organized. I figured there must be some alternative that was just as convenient but more sustainable.
Then I came across waxed food wraps, which are essentially a piece of cloth treated with beeswax so they are water and food repellant and shapeable. You can wrap up a sandwich, cover a roast, or wrap up a dinner plate so it’s ready to serve again tomorrow. They can function as both plastic wrap and as Ziplocs, so the need to buy plastic for your kitchen really plummets.
Another option is to go DIY and make your own, which is what I’ll be attempting and documenting below:
First, I chose my fabrics. Ideally, I would have liked to get organic, but I saw these adorable kitchen cloths at Daiso and thought they’d make the perfect wraps. Then I grabbed a big block of beeswax from Amazon. So far, we’re at about $11.
Since the cloths aren’t organic, I washed them several times before I got started to rinse out any chemicals that I don’t want around my food. You can avoid this by just using organic cloth.
Grater (unless you bought Beeswax pellets)
Cookie sheet you will only use for this purpose going forward
Place in the oven for only a few minutes and keep your eye on things. We’re looking at about 5 minutes max
When wax is melted, remove and immediately spread with large paintbrush. If wax hardens before you can spread, pop it back in
Hang on string with clothespins to harden
Once you’re done, your wraps are ready to go. The hardest part of this whole process was probably grating the beeswax. In retrospect, beeswax pellets might’ve been a better choice.
Since I have a ton of beeswax left over, I can use cloth I already have such as old bedsheets, pillow cases, kitchen towels, and scrap fabric from sewing to make more. This puts me at even more cost-effectiveness than Trader Joe’s!
On top of that, this is a fun project to do with the little ones. My little guy in particular loves getting in the kitchen and creating things, edible or not. I love sharing this kind of activity with him not only for the bonding, but it’s an opportunity to teach about chemistry (not only the beeswax but the plastic and what’s in them) and sustainability.
Most importantly, it develops his consciousness that the earth has finite resources and that making effort to reduce our impact is an act of compassion to the planet we live on and the people who occupy it with us.
Oh, and in the interest of being imperfect, I haven’t sworn off plastic wrap. Until I get myself a critical mass of food wraps, the plastic wrap is sticking around in my drawer. We’re going for a little progress, not perfection. Maybe by the time the plastic wrap runs out, we’ll have our little food wrap collection to replace it.
Be soft with yourself as you are soft with the earth!