Put on your mascara and slay

close up of woman make up
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At the beginning of my sick leave, I would avoid public areas for fear of being seen by one of my colleagues. I felt guilty for being well enough to go to the mall, but not well enough to work. I was afraid of being judged… so I wouldn’t put eyeliner or bronzer, fearing that if I looked too good they’d think I was a fraud, but if I would forgo the concealer and mascara altogether, everyone else whose path I crossed would think I was stepping off the set of Walking Dead (which I have never actually seen btw). I would wake up every morning asking myself if I would have been okay to teach, and if I was in fact a fraud.

I wasn’t at my lowest when I stopped working. I had gotten back to a point where I was able to recognize that if I continued that way, I would never make it to 40. I had kept working through my lowest point. In fact, I kept doing EVERYTHING while I was at my lowest, and I am still paying for that. Adrenaline, high levels of cortisol, autopilot, coffee, and meds go a long way. What got me through those days was work. It was putting a face on every morning and going to do something I was good at, while the rest of my world at home fell apart. At that time I felt like, despite not being a good enough wife, daughter, friend, mother, therapist, nurturer, etc… at least I was a good teacher. I couldn’t control my children, but I had control in the classroom. The students I taught that year when they were in 8th grade just had their last day ever of high school.

Last night I was having a conversation with a friend and colleague who is on the prom committee. In the 13 years I have taught at this school, I’ve never ever felt compelled to go to prom, because by the time they graduate, the students usually forget about the English teacher who did a mediocre job at getting them to speak a second (or third) language three years prior. This is the first year that I wanted to be there, because those monsters hold such a special place in my heart. They lifted me up when I was crashing, and they had no idea. They changed me just as much as my son did… because they molded me into a more human teacher. I cried with them and I may have even said a few inappropriate words to them during the classes when, for the first time in my Type-A career, I said “to hell with the lesson plan” and sat on the desk and spoke with them as people. We were going through hard times together, and that gave me purpose. Seeing them on prom would have been a celebration of not only their success, but of my own journey. But I am not allowed to go. Because I am on sick leave, and if I am not well enough to work, I shouldn’t be well enough to go to a party, apparently.

I know that it’s more complicated than that. I know that administration supports me and my struggles. I also know that they need to protect themselves from the judging eyes who would tear me apart if I showed up with my eyelash extensions, red lipstick and glammed up hair. If that one night, I did exactly what I had done every day I taught those kids, which is to show up and give the best of myself, I would be judged. I get it. Despite mental health awareness initiatives, most people don’t understand how you can simultaneously fight debilitating demons and yet paint a face on and walk into a room radiating with your head held high. They don’t know how many days you will spend lying in the dark afterwards to recuperate, and they don’t know how good it feels to feel alive while you’re rocking it, albeit for a fleeting moment. So I am not bitter because I am not allowed to see my little monsters on their prom… and instead, I did my hair today and put real clothes on and strutted into my workplace with my head high and asked for a few minutes of class time, on their last day of school, to speak to those students from my heart. I stood there bravely as I bawled my eyes out in front of them. Brave, because I was terrified. I tell my daughter all the time that being brave doesn’t mean you’re not afraid, but it means you do it despite your fear.

I dodged most of my colleagues, because, honestly, I couldn’t face them. I left with a heavy heart, but my soul felt lighter and brighter. Those kids will face the real world with the knowledge that although some people are fighting a battle you have no clue about, you can be their guiding light just by being yourself. That sometimes, what gets you through the hardest days is just showing up. That it’s okay to crash. That it takes bravery to say what you feel, and that those who judge you may win the fight at the moment, but the battle is yours to slay.

Feisty, Five, and anxious

My daughter Rosalia has her daycare graduation on Wednesday. She promised that she will sing and do the choreography that they’ve been practicing for months. I’m not getting my hopes up. This is the same girl who refused to budge in dance class because she was afraid of doing the wrong move. She literally just stood there and gave everyone the stank eye. Following her first swim class, she declared she wasn’t going back, and after an hour of discussion, I discovered that it was because the instructor had asked her to do something she had trouble with, and she didn’t want to disappoint her in the future. Her therapist says it’s performance anxiety. Yup, my five year old sees a therapist for her anxiety because it’s that bad.

This is also the same little girl whose sassiness puts my smart mouth to shame. At pick up one day last week, I asked her “What was your favorite part of your day”, because I had read one of those posts somewhere about the best alternative questions to “how was your day”. Most days she reluctantly answers with one detail then makes the effort to politely tell me she doesn’t feel like telling me about any more. That day she barked “Well I dunno what the BEST part was, but the WORST part is when YOU came.” Yup. (And yes, there was a teaching moment and a consequence that followed for all those who were quick to judge).

My daughter can be both the most confident, eloquent, mature, and feisty little thing you’ve ever seen, and in the same morning, she can be paralyzed by her own insecurities, anxiety, worry, or whatever else it is that flips her switch. This morning started with the regular attitude. She was asking me a series of some useless questions like most kids do, and I was tired and annoyed and didn’t provide adequate answers for your highness. At one point, I answered “I dunno Rosalia!” Cue Miss Sass. “Oh so the Great Mommy doesn’t know everything afterall!” (complete with head jerk, raised eyebrows and winced face) She literally said The Great Mommy.

Fastforward 45 minutes later, she is hanging onto my neck like a baby chimpanzee, begging me not to leave her classroom. Hyperventilation and all “Don’t leave meeeeeee”. She’s been going to daycare for 3 years. You would think drop off would have gotten easier. Now at this point, my patience is in the negative and my anxiety is making me an irritable time bomb, and, as per the therapist’s suggestion, I am sharing my feelings with her. “Mommy is getting close to her limit, Rosalia. I don’t want to get angry, but I don’t have a lot of patience left. I know you have an ugly feeling inside right now, and I do too, so we need to find a solution, and the hugs aren’t working”. “DOOOOOOOON’T GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!” 12 kids and 3 adults staring to see what my next move is.

 

I grab a marker and draw a purple heart in my hand, then do the same to hers. I press her purple heart into mine and tell her they are charging, and I try to sound as convincing as possible when I say that it’s filling my heart with love and making the ugly feeling in my heart go away, and if she concentrates hard enough, it’ll work on her too. “IT’S NOT WOOOOOORKKKKINNNNNGG. DOOOOOOOON’T GOOOOOOO!” I scrambled some more and showed her that when I miss her, I will squeeze my palm and I’ll be hugging the spot where our hearts touched, and she could do the same. By this time she had stopped hollering and I was able to calm down, and she asked me her usual questions like “promise you won’t forget to pick me up” and other worries caused by her anxiety that need reassurance, and off I went.

Her therapist, who is excellent, made an interesting observation. Rosalia’s separation anxiety is strongest when I am not well. I had a terrible, miserable day Saturday and yesterday I had to be ‘on’ all day as I was hosting a shower, and I was fragile and emotionally drained, and I desperately needed time to recharge and recenter. Rosalia felt that and reacted, subconsciously, by needing to be close to me to make sure I’d be okay. If I analyze every time her separation anxiety has acted up to dramatic levels (and trust me, I have) it has always been when I myself have not been well.

And so with this knowledge, comes great responsibility. Giancarlo is also an empath, and feeds off my negative energy too, so my family’s peace depends on mine. I have to tame the monsters in my head before they call out to and provoke the little monsters and we all lose control. And that is the shitshow we lived for a few years in this house. No parenting books or mood stabilizing meds were able to fix that. It’s a work in progress and it starts with me. And that is a heavy load to carry.

he doesn’t look autistic…

20180607_205205Those eyes. I remember when those eyes first met with mine the second they yanked your scrawny body out of me. I wish I could say it was love at first sight. I so wanted it to be. But it was more like mutual fear. It’s been six and a half years, yet sometimes we still lock eyes in the same way.

Last night in the bath we had one of those moments. In between a series of scenes from Caillou that you were re-enacting with your usual abundance of joy, you drifted off into deep thought, then looked at me, and your look pierced through my soul.

You didn’t look autistic in that instant. What does that even mean? I know there is no LOOK to autism. I repeated that to all the people who scrambled to say something comforting after learning about your diagnosis, and awkwardly offered, “but he doesn’t look autistic!?” Yet, sometimes I see a glimpse of a non-autistic you. One who would tell me about your day and have a conversation with me. A you without timers and pictos and medication and therapy. A you who will definitely graduate high school and possibly have a family one day.

Anyone who knows me or follows my social media knows that I advocate acceptance and awareness, but the truth is, if I could take away your Autism, I would. In fact, when Rosalia asked me the other day if I could have any wish, what it would be, and I even hesitated to tell her, because I want her to love all of you, disorder and all, but my heart needed to say it. I wish there was some exorcism we could perform to evacuate its presence. but then, what would it leave behind? Are you so great despite your autism, or because of it? Can we separate your challenges and limitations from your beautiful empathy, the purity of your soul, your insane memory and your mischievous laugh? I wouldn’t trade those things for anything, and I love you just the way you are. In fact, I couldn’t possibly love you any more, so how could I wish you to be something you are not? You are perfect. Just the way you are.

My Monsters

Most of the time, the monsters in my head are caused by my generalized anxiety disorder. Through introspection and therapy, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’ve been this way all my life, and I will always be an anxious person, despite medical leave, pills, therapy, meditation, and any other self-care trend. The difference is how I manage my anxiety. And I am managing it, but for a long time (longer than I care to admit), my anxiety was managing me. It began spiraling out of control in 2013 when I had a colicky newborn daughter, Rosalia, and a toddler under 2, Giancarlo, whose Autism was beginning to manifest, in all its earth-shattering glory, and was severely ill with a kidney disorder. That time is a bit of a blur, but I still get thrown into flashes of it. The exhaustion, the worry, the gruesome side effects of the drug that saved my son’s life, his insomnia, the crying, the pleading, the researching, the worry, the shrieking ear-piercing wails of my daughter, the worry… and the meltdowns. We will revisit that shitshow another time.

monster illustration
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Sometimes my monsters are my rigidity and my obsessive tendencies. I would like to thank my anxiety and my son’s autism for that brilliant award. For the longest time I pretended that his world would end if my husband served him milk in the glass that was intended for water, but I have now accepted that as my own ridiculousness. The belief that whatever last bit of sanity and order I am holding onto will implode if things don’t happen exactly as I planned them… and yet, that is exactly what got me here.

If I tell you about all the monsters in my head on my second post, this blog doesn’t have much of a future, so I’ll leave some of the juicy stuff for another day when I’m not scrambling to finish before the monsters get home. Yup, the little monsters that came out of me. The best thing I’ve ever dreamed of or laid eyes on. My greatest teachers and by far my greatest pride and joy. And they are all mine. But, man are they little shits sometimes. My kids are the cutest, funniest, smartest children I could have ever wanted. They are exactly what I prayed for, and each have the perfect combination of my husband’s best features and mine. Exactly the checklist I had always prayed for. They say you should be careful what you wish for, because it just may come true. That, my friends, couldn’t be more accurate. God has a funny sense of humour.

 

“Why don’t you blog?”

In an e-mail I received today, a friend said something like “I read your Facebook post… why don’t you blog?”

It was an innocent question. One I had been asked before. But today, it spoke to me. The demons in my head answered “because no one really cares what you have to say”, “because you annoy people enough on Facebook anyway”, “because you already don’t have time to do anything and you’re not even working”… and then, I shut them up and started a blog, because I have things to say. So here we are.

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