If you are on Facebook, I bet you have seen people post old photos or status updates from their Timehop apps. If you're unfamiliar with the app: it allows you to link your photos and social networks to it, and everyday, it shows you what you posted on that date in history. It can be quite fun to be reminded of your past exploits and to see fun, old photos. I'm finding I like it for another reason though. It is allowing me to look back on tough times and to reflect on how much progress has been made.
Two years ago today, I posted a very long status on Facebook. I spoke of having a conference with Troy's teacher and finding out that while an increase in ADHD medication was helping his behavior, he was still not conversing with the other children and needed many accommodations in order to be successful. On that same day, I met with the special education teacher about Laura and found out that she had been so out of control in class that help had to be sent for the teacher. Next, I met with the school counselor--who had been working with both Troy and Laura. She suggested that Laura needed a special education counselor and that she foresaw years of intensive work for Laura and years of behavior difficulties. She also suggested that Troy could have Asperger's (this was obviously before the revised DSM).
At one point in the post, I wrote:
"I am so incredibly sad and frustrated and angry that they all have such mountains to climb. And I am feeling so unprepared and inadequate and hopeless.[...] I just wish it wasn't so hard."
I read this old post when I first woke up this morning, and throughout the day, I've read it six more times. When not reading it, I've thought about it.
Two years ago today, I had never even considered that Troy could be on the spectrum. Two years ago today, Laura was kicking people in her class and throwing such out of control meltdowns that extra help had to be brought in to remove her from the room. Two years ago today, every single day, I had bad news from school for one, two, or three of my children. Two years ago today, there was never a good day. Two years ago today, I truly did not know how to move forward or what to do next. Two years ago today, I felt like I could not do this. I was hopeless two years ago today.
In the last two years, my little family has made such tremendous progress that it is truly miraculous. It hasn't been easy. We have had amazing educators, therapists, specialists, doctors, and medications to help us. We've worked hard at home to maintain strict routines and expectations. Our journey is nowhere near over, and it is still a very challenging one, but I am amazed and grateful at how far we have all come.
We still have bad days. We still have really bad days. I sometimes cry. Sometimes, I get frustrated and angry, and I worry about what the future will hold for us. But those days are fewer and fewer between, and I can usually calm myself down with a nice shower and a good night's sleep. (A bit of ice cream helps, too!)
Looking back helps the most though. It's so easy to forget what has happened when and how much progress you have made. Recording it when it happens so you can look back at it later makes all the difference in the world. I'm not saying you have to be like me and share your life publicly on Facebook or on a blog. It can be a journal or whatever works for you. Writing, in itself, is so therapeutic. Looking back on the old events that you have written about is also therapeutic.
This does not just pertain to parents of special needs kids. This goes for everyone! We are all works in progress. I love looking at how far my children have come, but I also love to see just how far I have come! I no longer feel paralyzed with fear, feelings of inadequacy, or hopelessness. I have made great progress, too.
I understand that, at times, the past is painful to remember. It's not fun to remember feeling hopeless. But reflecting on the past can empower you by showing you just how strong you are and how much you have overcome.
So, I encourage you in someway, whatever works for you--to start jotting down bits and pieces of your day--the good and the bad! A year from now, two years from now, three years from now, you'll be glad you did.
Many years ago, when I was young and had no real responsibilities, I had quite the social life. Dinners, parties, shopping, and hanging out filled the hours when I wasn't working, sleeping, or studying. Yes, I'm talking about college.
Then, I became a high school English teacher. My free time was consumed with grading essays and working a second job to make ends meet. I barely had energy to pop a bag of popcorn for dinner, let alone reach out to my friends. On occasion, I did hang out with fellow teachers for a night of dinner and drinks. Those nights were few and far between, but when we had them, I loved spending time with people who totally got what I was going through.
Somewhere along the way, I got the crazy idea to become a foster parent. On my own. While teaching. And not just for one or two children at a time, but up to four. My house was a wreck. I was a wreck. And there was no time for socializing.
Then, I decided to adopt three children! On my own. And continue to teach. And grade papers every night. Oh, and did I mention, the kids all have special needs?
Things were tough. My life spiraled out of control, and I entered a deep depression. I was definitely not looking to spend time with anyone.
But things got better. I got better. With the help of loving, knowledgeable professionals, my kids have gotten better. I left teaching for a job that is better suited for my very unique life circumstances.
But still, something has been missing: Socialization.
With the challenges I brought on myself: a demanding job, the responsibility of taking on fostering and adopting on my own, the stress of having special needs children, I pulled away from friends. Not intentionally! It just happened. I neglected to make time for myself and to nurture those friendships.
It did not make the hard times easier. It made them so much more difficult. I felt so alone.
One of my aunts researched support groups in my area. Did I mention that she lives in another state? She took it upon herself to do what I did not do for myself. She found a support group for parents of special needs children that met once a month and had free childcare. I started going, and I loved it! I was among people who understood my struggles, and I got so much out of the meetings.
For some reason though, I stopped going. I think I may have felt like things were so much better that I didn't really need to get up early on a Saturday morning to attend the meetings.
Facebook has also helped me believe I didn't need to spend time with people in person. No, I don't get to see my friends in person, but we could connect there at least. I can celebrate their happy life events and try to comfort them in their sad times. It also has been instrumental in both giving and receiving support and advice from people who are or who have been where I am. I love Facebook!
Recently, though, I realized that social media is just not enough.
I am a very open person. I share my life with really anyone who will listen. So, at the only real places I socialize with humans face-to-face, work and family functions, everyone knows my business (more than any of them would like, I'm sure!). I have very kind people in my life, and they listen to me whine with patience and are kind enough to give me advice or to let me vent. I appreciate them. They enrich my life and have helped me through some very difficult times.
Still, I'm starting to realize that it's not enough.
I attended a conference recently about living with disabilities. There was not a whole lot of time to socialize, but I loved being in a place filled to the brim with people who can truly understand what it's like to be me. The information I received at the conference was fantastic, but the experience of soaking in the material while sitting with parents who totally relate to me was powerful.
Remember when I said I love Facebook? Here's one example why: Randomly, on a message board for buying and selling, I recently connected with another autism mom. She invited me to join a moms of special needs children's group. They were having an upcoming meeting. So, I agreed to go. I was nervous to go to a place where I knew nobody, but I went! I sat and visited with this amazing group of beautiful, strong women for a couple of hours. We shared our stories, we laughed, tears were shed, and we supported one another. Time flew, and it was time to go home.
The entire way home that night, I felt like I was floating on a cloud! I suddenly realized just how important it is spend time with people who can totally relate to us.
Tonight, at our church life group meeting, we discussed relational health and the importance of spending time with people who will listen to you, accept you, support you, and who you can do the same for. The church life group is one such group for me. They support my spiritual growth, and, hopefully, I also can support theirs. We relate to one another because we're all Christians who want to continue strengthening our relationship with Christ.
On our way home from tonight's meeting, I realized how much I have gotten out of my recent experiences spending time with people who can not just sympathize with me, but who can truly empathize with what I face day-to-day.
Reach out and connect with people! No matter your life circumstances, you are enriched by spending time with people who can relate to and empathize with you. If you like to knit, find a knitting club. If you like to garden find a gardening club. If you're a foster or adoptive parent, reach out to others in your shoes.
If you're a special needs parent, find ways to connect with other special needs parents.
I know it's hard. I know you're tired, and you don't know how you will find the time or energy, but find a way! Well-meaning friends, co-workers, and family members cannot give you the same support as those who are living or who have lived what you are going through.
This is a lesson that has, sadly, taken me over a decade to learn. I still love social media and its ability to bring people together across the miles. Technology can be a beautiful thing, but I'm learning that it cannot be the only way I connect with others. I hope that you, too, will find ways to reach out to those who share your hobbies, passions, or life circumstances. I just know you'll be glad you did!