How Full is Your Bucket?

I heard something awesome at my al-anon meeting last week, something that is going to make a major change as to how I manage my life.

One of my extended family members is dealing with a health crisis. I was talking about it at our meeting, because it has caused my entire family to go (what feels like) indiscriminately crazy. Not in a, “how can we rally and help this family member,” kind of way, but more of a, “isn’t this a tragic situation for me,” kind of way. This is pretty typical of the dysfunctional family. I want to be a loving, supportive family member, not just to the member that is sick, but to everyone. However after years of working on myself, I know my limits and am aware that I need to do a little self-protecting so that I don’t get swept up into the drama in a way that is not healthy. I know how hard-hearted this sounds. I was discussing my conflicting feelings of guilt and self-preservation when another member gave me the perfect metaphor.

Our life force is like water in a bucket. If every time we have a little water in the bucket, we dole it out to those we think need it more than we do, then we’ll exist in a constant state of drought. Always scrambling for the little water we have, trying to tip our buckets to extract the last little bit to give to others, shaking our fists at the sky – angry that more rain isn’t falling. This is the pitfall of extended caregiving. If instead, we tend our bucket and wait for the water to reach the top, then the excess spills over. We have plenty to give to others and can do so generously, with no feelings of resentment.

I’ve heard other metaphors for self care, but this one really resonated with me, maybe because I could better see the true benefit to being selfish. As a parent to an autistic child, I know it is so easy to fall into that pitfall of caregiving. We’re trained to give everything to everyone, not just our children, and to put ourselves last. But that is dangerous for our kids in the long run. What happens when we hit a crisis month and we’re already running on empty? Isn’t it better for my son if I tend to myself a little every day, so that when one of those crisis periods occurs (the holidays jump immediately to mind) I have ample reserves to get through it and can wait patiently for the next calm period to replenish? I can do this by giving myself a break each day. Asking my husband for help, telling the school I cannot volunteer one day, cannot substitute teach more than 3 days a week, or telling friends I can’t meet them today because I’m staying home to read a book/take a bath/take a nap. Or, by telling my extended family that I am supporting my sick family member in my own way but will not be taking 100 phone calls from them to talk about how awful it is.

Things are going to be different this holiday season. I won’t be doing everything for everybody until I’m run ragged. Before committing to anything, I’ll be taking a look at my bucket to see if I have the proper balance.

Published in: on November 14, 2011 at 3:08 pm  Comments (2)  

Party Like A … Third Grader

Today was birthday party day.  We’d let discussion of the party slide since our pink-eye driving trip to K’s neighborhood.  At breakfast, I asked G if we were going to K’s party today.  He answered with a definite, “yup.”  So off we went!

The mother could not have been nicer and more welcoming.  I was the only parent attending with their child, but she did a great job of not making me feel weird at all.  The parents organized some science experiments, like shooting off a rocket with baking soda and vinegar and creating electrical circuits to light flashlight bulbs with a battery, that G thought were great.  In between experiments, the kids played war and G did a good job of playing along.  He was basically a soldier that did whatever his team leader told him to do, but he had a blast.  He got a little pushy a couple of times but the family had an outdoor trampoline so whenever he started getting edgy we went out for a jumping break.   Almost all the boys were really nice to him – there was one that was not, but since I was right there the whole time he quickly realized he wasn’t going to get anywhere and started avoiding G.  The boys thought the present G selected was the coolest thing ever.

The party was incredibly long, 10-3, because it was a teacher work day.  At 1, I decided we needed to head and was able to get G into the car.  On the ride home, he had a complete meltdown so I know I timed our departure perfectly.  He’s been very sensitive this afternoon but nothing more than we expected after such a sensory event.  I’m incredibly proud of how well G did and thrilled that he had such a great time.

Published in: on November 12, 2010 at 5:36 pm  Comments (1)  

The Letter

We updated our letter from last year to make it current and it went out to the classroom parents this week.  G’s teacher was very enthusiastic about the idea and specifically told us we were doing a good job advocating for G.  I feel like it was our choice this year, vs last year when we were trying to head off problems with parents.  DH already got some positive feedback from another dad. 

Yet I still feel conflicted.  I know this is a proactive and positive step but I can’t help but feel that we’re betraying G’s privacy.  It’s a bit hypocritical of me, I talk about his autism with other parents often.  The difference is that is one-on-one where I can get a feel for the individual person before I say anything.  This feels more like taking out an ad in the paper. 

However, I know this is necessary.  The first few days have gone smoothly, as is typical.  We generally start seeing problems during week two that stretch into the remainder of the first month.  By giving parents a head’s-up, we’re garnering a little leeway while we work through the issues.

I know not everything relates to alcoholism, but I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t the true root of my discomfort.  When you live in an alcoholic home, you spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort covering up your family problems.  You create a facade of perfection so that nobody will suspect anything dysfunctional is happening behind closed doors.  Sending out this letter feels like I’m exposing our family secrets.  There is nothing shameful about autism, it’s just a fact of life, but taking this action goes against everything I’ve ever done from the time I first realized my dad wasn’t like other dads. 

Maybe the issue isn’t really one of betraying G’s privacy.  Maybe the issue is really with me and my fear-based need to be seen as perfect.

Published in: on August 26, 2010 at 10:43 am  Comments (1)  

Don’t Take it Personally, Part II

G is in love with his daddy right now.  He wants to be with him every minute of the day and when he’s not with Dad, he counts the minutes until he gets to be with Dad.  This would be so great if he didn’t have an equal and opposite dislike of being with me.

Last night, we both took G to t-ball.  After the game, G and I were stopping to get our chinese take-out and DH was heading off to ‘a meeting.’  When G realized Daddy was not going to be eating dinner at home with us, he got very upset.  He kept saying, “Noooo, I want you to come home with me.  Pleeeeease, Pleeeeeease, come home with me!  Pleeeeease eat dinner with me!”  It was heartbreaking.  If it wasn’t pretty important that DH attend his meeting, I’m sure he would have caved.  Frankly, I’m amazed and impressed with his self-discipline. 

I got G distracted, we collected our food and went home.  But every now and again I’d hear him whisper to himself, “Stupid Mom, I don’t want to eat dinner with her.  I wish she went to the meeting.”  I acted like an adult and ignored it.  I was pretty proud of myself.

DH and I have an equal division of G-duty.  We have a pre-determined schedule so one parent gets up with him 3 days a week and puts him to bed 4 days a week, the other gets up 4 days a week and puts him to bed 3 days a week.  During the worst of times when G had multiple daily meltdowns, this was a sanity saver.  It allowed us to have a scheduled off-time, to pursue our own interests, to relax and regroup.  It kept one parent from taking on too much and burning out and we were much more patient with G as a result.

Today was my morning to get up with G, so when he came into our room this morning, I got out of bed.  G took one look at me, turned around and went back to his room.  I went after him to see what was wrong and he said, “I don’t want you this morning.  I only want dad.  I will not get up until Dad comes to get me.”  I ignored him and told him patiently that I’d be downstairs making his breakfast when he was ready to get up.

When he did finally get up, he found fault with everything.  He didn’t want the smoothie I put out for him until he found out it was left over from a batch DH had made yesterday.  I put it in the wrong cup.  I gave him a straw instead of a spoon.  I didn’t cut his toast into the right shape.  I took the high ground each time, until he said, “You’re so stupid mom – you can’t do anything right.”  At that, he went straight into timeout.  We had a very firm discussion about respect. 

Everything is fine now, he’s back to his normal self.  I know this is just a phase.  I know he sees the world in such black and white terms that when he feels such love for DH, it’s hard for him to expand that to include anyone else.  I know this evidence of attachement to DH is a very good thing.  I know I need to be the adult and simply wait for this to pass, while requiring basic civility and respect.  But gosh this is hard!!

Published in: on May 6, 2010 at 7:21 am  Comments (1)  

Resolutions

I’m a perfectionist so I usually make my New Year’s resolutions in October, practice them for a few months, and if I feel I’m succeeding then I’ll announce them on New Years Eve.  That way I don’t feel foolish for saying something Jan 1 and failing at it by Jan 31.  I also find that I get a second wind on Jan 1 that gives me a boost for another couple months and helps me make my resolution into a regular habit.  I’ve done this with exercising and found that joining a gym in October and exercising through the change of seasons helps my mood and gives me a delightful superior feeling when I watch all the new members in Jan learn their way around.  I’m shallow like that.

This year, I’ve been having a hard time coming up with resolutions.  As a family, we’ve been through some staggering life changes in the last 2 years.  I’ve learned about autism, alcoholism, IEP’s, 12 steps, therapy, sponsorship and learned how to be patient and tend to myself throughout all of this.  I think this year, I’ll take a break from resolving to make any kind of change.  This year, I just want to maintain our new lifestyle, to keep taking steps along the path we’ve layed out.  This year, I resolve not to change what I’m already doing.

Published in: on January 1, 2010 at 10:44 am  Leave a Comment  

Stuffing Emotions

I survived a holiday visit with my mother.  I say, ‘survived’ because I grew up in an alcoholic home and learned many typical but dysfunctional ways of behaving and coping.  I’m working hard to recognize these destructive behaviors and learn new ones, but nothing triggers a regression like combining a week long visit from my mom with the holidays.  It makes me introspective and while doing some deep thinking I’ve identified another intersection between alcoholism and autism.

One particular characteristic I’m actively working on is my long running habit of stuffing emotions.  Often, family members living with an alcoholic work so hard to deny that there is a problem with their loved one that they bury the worry, shame or fear they may feel and only acknowledge the happy feelings.  In my experience, it often wasn’t safe to express intense emotions.  Both tantrums and the over-exuberance typical of happy children were dealt with harshly because it bothered my dad.  In an effort to stay unnoticed, we lived in a kind of narrow range of emotions so that we could remain in control. 

I know when I feel happy, sad and mad, but the nuanced emotions like irritated, agitated, grief, passion, joy or fulfillment have long escaped me.  Ironically, I first recognized this problem when trying to teach G to take his inner temperature.  G has a quick and explosive temper which he expresses physically.  He can go from perfectly calm to enraged in a split second.  Usually, he is frustrated for quite a while but is unable to express that something is bothering him until it reaches an overwhelming level.  We’ve long worked to help him recognize the leading indicators of trouble so he can use his words to explain the problem.  I often tell him, “If I don’t know there is something bothering you, I can’t help you fix it.” 

Then I realized – I do the exact same thing to my family.  I bottle up the little things that frustrate me, and actively deny they are bothering me, until it reaches a critical point and I explode.  Recognizing this trait and working on it myself has made me much more empathetic to how hard it is for G to learn this skill.  So we’re working on it together.  When I’m getting agitated, I make sure to vocalize it to G.  For example, “G, I’m trying to have dinner ready by 5 o’clock, but the phone is ringing, the dogs are barking, and you’re asking for my attention.  I’m feeling overwhelmed and impatient right now.  I need to stop and take some deep breaths until I feel calm, and then I will answer your question.”   I make sure to analyze what I am feeling so I can recognize those nuanced emotions that I missed for so long and then I try to express and explain those emotions to G.

I’m starting to see this effort, which I started when G was 4, pay off.  Recently, G has been forgetting his polite words and has been simply demanding what he wants.  I have been doing what any parent would in this situation and have been making him rephrase his demand into a polite request.  After prompting G to be polite the other day, he huffed and said, “Mom, can you stop making me say please?  It’s really annoying and makes me feel frustrated.”

This is one of those double-edged sword moments.  On one hand, I am so excited – he identified a trigger and a nuanced emotion and verbalized both before he exploded!!  Unfortunately for G, I’m not going to stop nagging him to be polite.

Published in: on December 28, 2009 at 9:38 am  Comments (1)  

The 12 Steps and Autism

My family doesn’t just deal with autism on a daily basis.  We also deal with alcoholism.  So for the last couple years, I’ve been attending Al-anon and ACOA (adult children of alcoholics) meetings.  I first sat in the rooms about a month or two after autism was floated as a possibility for G’s difficulties in preschool.  My husband had also been in recovery for a month or two (come to think of it, I wonder if autism may have contributed to his recovery – thoughts for another day…)  I was full of anger and resentment.  All through my life, I was the ‘good girl’ who never broke a rule or stepped out of line.  And now my life was completely out of control and I was incredibly pissed off about it.  It took me quite awhile, but the first three steps slowly started sinking in.

I admitted I was powerless over alcohol, that my life had become unmanageable.

I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.

I made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of my higher power.

This is not as easy as it sounds for me, note the use of ‘higher power’ in place of the more commonly used “god.”  I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in anything if it hasn’t been proven by science.  But I was pretty desperate to get help, so I was able to cobble together a pantheistic type theory of a connected universe and the alanon group itself as a knowledge base with answers to common problems that works for me.  When I need to ‘turn it over’ I have an image of a helium balloon with my worries tied to its ribbon, and I release it to the universe.  (it’s ok, you can laugh.  The important thing is I found a way to make it work with my cynicism.)

All my life, I had been a fixer.  Control was incredibly important to my sense of well-being so when I ran into a problem, I set myself to fixing it with all my energy, so that my peace and ease could be restored.  I fixed my problems, I fixed my husbands problems, I fixed my sibling’s problems.  But I could not fix my son’s problems and this was cause for great distress.  I did a lot of research into biomedical treatments, causes of autism, vaccines, and the like.  I feel my cynical atheistic attitude actually helped me here because I could see that the science behind these aspects was sketchy at best, and nothing I, personally, could trust.  But that left me without a way to fix things for G and that was incredibly upsetting to me. 

Then, an incredible thing happened.  While sitting in the rooms one evening after the holidays, when the transition back to school was particularly stressful and volatile for G, I substituted the word ‘autism’ for ‘alcoholism.’  I suddenly felt a great weight lift from my shoulders.  I was powerless over autism.  By trying to exert power over autism, I was causing my life to become unmanageable.  Believing in a power greater than myself, and greater than autism, could restore me to sanity.  I made a decision to turn my will over to my higher power instead of trying to exert my will on autism, and therefore my child.

This doesn’t mean I have given up on my son – I still try to help him in every reasonable way I can so that he may learn coping skills and life skills, and I advocate for him in the community until he is ready to take on the role of advocate for himself.  The key word is reasonable. I recognize that I can’t make him be different because his autism is a part of him.  I can’t make him learn faster than his own pace.  I can’t force change, it has to evolve naturally.  And the small steps we take each day toward independence will be more effective than the miracle concoctions, diet changes and assorted cures being sold to me on the internet.

I was able to put my new found theory into practice last month when G started school.  It has been one of the most challenging transitions of his school career.  (so far)  When the parents of classmates started making complaints, I became overwhelmed by the stress of it all.  So I consciously sat down and worked my first three steps with autism in mind.  And it helped enormously.  I was able to focus on doing what I could to help G and to effect change in the attitudes of the people around him.  I recognized the things I couldn’t change – specifically that G was going to have to do the work of adjusting on his own.  I could support him with checklists for his schedule, snacks to keep him energized and introductory letters to parents, but I couldn’t change G into some kind of model student.

Sometimes when I read other blogs and blog comments, I can hear the anger and frustration in the voice of the parent.  I’ve been there.  I recognize that feeling and I still struggle from time to time.  Finding a mechanism to achieve serenity has made such an incredible difference in our family.  Because I’m not as irritable, my family  is not as on edge.  We’re able to take things as they come and enjoy the good moments more fully. 

I’ll close with this final nugget:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

Published in: on October 4, 2009 at 2:41 pm  Comments (11)