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If you’ve already gotten the message about Embracing Special Needs Parenthood moving to a new home, Durga’s Toolbox, please excuse the extra mail. It’s taken a few days and not so much help from WordPress to figure out how to let all of you subscribers and followers know that the migration has occurred. And if you’ve already taken the time to visit the new site and re-subscribe or re-follow, I’m sending you a big cyber-hug of gratitude.

For the rest of you, here’s the update that I believed would reach you last week. The long and short of it is that you will have to re-follow or re-subscribe if you want to keep in touch with me. I hope you do! As I say, your companionship means a lot.

There’s a change I’ve been putting off for a long time because I didn’t want to confuse anyone, but I just can’t hold back any longer. Not being able to stop one’s self is either a sign of an incredible lack of impulse control or a wonderful burst of creativity that simply won’t be checked. Hopefully this is a case of the latter.

Depending on how WordPress decides to format this, you may notice that the blog formerly known as Embracing Special Needs Parenthood  looks completely different and has a new name and address, Durga’s Toolbox.

I’ve been writing about Durga for a while, why she inspires me, how I enjoy looking at this crazybeautiful life as a blessed opportunity to grow my capacity, to acquire tools and most of all, to live life fully awake. Durga reminds me that I can invite life to “bring it” and that it’ll take more than the usual skills to stay present, to stay open, to stay in the middle.

Not all entries will be about Durga’s toolbox. I just wanted to refresh the look and find an easier domain name to share. I’m also hoping to add a page about some academic research that might interest folks and I’m contemplating whether pseudonymity suits me.

P.S. To all the generous folks out there who’ve taken the time to click a “follow” or “subscribe” button: I have no idea how this address change will impact you and whether you’ll continue to get content in the way you’ve chosen. I hope it’s still coming. If not, I’ll try to find you. Your companionship means a lot.

Last year, my typically developing seven-year-old daughter had about a 1-minute homework attention span and over 30 minutes of homework daily. You do the math.

I tried everything — pleading, yelling, coaxing, creating a consistent routine, using positive behavior reinforcements and a visual timer — to no avail. Staying focused without having someone physically present to re-direct her attention to the work was simply above her ability. The year started and ended with a lot of teeth gnashing from both of us. The question of ADD hung in the air.

This year’s homework now lasts 10 minutes or less. Problem solved, more or less. No more anger and frustration. ADD is still a question mark, but our lives are more peaceful.

I also have a son who has a number of medical, developmental and behavioral special needs, much more complex than, but including, difficulty paying attention. Though it’s not a perfect analogy, it’s hard not to wonder if something similar could happen to him if the world was different.

The more time I spend “fixing” my son’s various medical etiologies, behaviors, and inabilities so that he can productively participate in society, the more I wonder: Are his disabilities themselves really a problem, or is it society who has a disability?

If his school cannot provide an adequate and appropriate education for him — is that his disability or theirs?

If our town’s recreation department cannot come up with a single activity that he could do with other typically developing peers — is that his disability or theirs?

If my community cannot see his value and seek out ways to include him in their restaurants, plays, activities and events — is that his disability or theirs?

If it does not occur to local business owners that they could one day hire him — is that his disability or theirs?

If my country cannot see the justice in creating a safe and welcoming society for him (and everyone like him) that gives him the supports he needs until all of these disabilities are overcome — is that his disability or theirs?

I’m not proposing that we lower the bar for him. But what if we could raise it just a little for everybody else?

Here’s another in my toolbox series of techniques that inspire me to live with joy, compassion and courage, as inspired by the Hindu goddess Durga  — my nominee for patron saint of special needs parents.

When it comes to raising kids with special needs, there are a lot of gatekeepers who get to be on our “team”– insurance company reps, city officials, special ed departments, healthcare providers, state agency eligibility screeners.

Cultivating trusting relationships with these folks is essential to me; not just because I believe in the old adage about catching more flies with sugar than with vinegar, but because treating people with respect and compassion and humanity is important to my integrity. Confrontation is so draining. Besides, it’s a great opportunity to pay off some old bad karma!

Though from time to time an impasse occurs and it is tempting to lose my temper in anger or fear. Often what’s going through my mind is those situations are questions like: “How can they expect my child to make progress with so little?” or “How dare they tell me what’s best for my child?” or even “This person seems to like my child a lot and they have a lot of expertise, but why doesn’t what they’re proposing feel right to me?”

Blurting out these questions, especially in a tone of mistrust, anger or rage can damage these relationships. In my experience, even calm-headed, straight-out debating — trying to convince the person whose opinion differs from mine why their position is “wrong” — doesn’t often work either. They often shut down, get defensive, dig their heels in deeper. It’s useful in these situations to have a go-to strategy that keeps the conversation productive.

In their popular and helpful book Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy – The Special Education Survival Guide, authors and advocates Pam and Pete Wright propose what they call “The Columbo Strategy”:

“Tell the School Staff that you are confused. You want to ask a stupid question.”

Remember Columbo? With his trademark cigar and his hand to his forehead, he’d give his suspects plenty of rope with which to hang themselves in the form of one “stupid question” (usually when his hand was on the door and he was about to leave). Always friendly, never confrontational, he’d play the seeming fool before tripping them up in their own lies.

Employing the Columbo Strategy, you can sometimes bring the team around without having a head-on confrontation. Telling educators and other helpful people that you have a stupid question usually brings out their desire to help and mentor. I must admit I’ve used this technique successfully in meetings to illicit an increase in resources without having to ask for it directly.

The problem for me with this technique is that it feels duplicitous and can make people feel “handled.” The key is to keep a curious, neutral tone and to actively listen to their answer.

In Zen Buddhism, this state of openness and curiosity is referred to as Beginner’s Mind. In this space, one has no preconceived answers, only an eagerness to learn. While this might seem like a powerless posture to assume in a negotiation for something as important as your own child’s needs, it can be exactly the opposite. It doesn’t create defensiveness in others because it is at its heart an open, inclusive, team-oriented state.

Beginner’s Mind can reveal a lot of illogical holes in systems. Asking “why?” over and over again, when it leads to responses like “Because that’s the way we always do it,” or “Because we don’t have a budget to do any more,” is an extremely effective tool, especially when you simply let such answers hang in the air.

There are no guarantees of course. Each situation calls for its own approach, but having a sincere beginner’s mind is never a bad starting place, in my experience.

Playing Whac-a-Mole

The daily grind of life as a special needs parent often feels like a game of Whac-a-Mole. Have you played that arcade game? Equipped with one huge padded hammer, the player attempts to hit small mechanical moles that pop out of their holes. Only one mole can be up at a time, but as soon as you hit one down, another pops up. The faster you hit them, the more there are to hit. Hit the most moles in the allotted time, and you are the winner. Free stuffed tiger to the lady in blue!

For those of you who’ve been there, you know what I’m talking about. Just as we finish addressing one issue, another comes up. Some neurology crisis arises…whack!…then it’s time for IEP negotiations…whack!…cajole our way to a new bus driver…whack!…and it’s time for another surgery…whack!…and the game goes on and on and on.

This past week we saw a new specialist in a branch of medicine we haven’t encountered before. It’s been on my to-do list but we just had so many other pressing challenges to deal with — failure to thrive, regression at school and the death of my dad to name but three. Not trying to sound like a Drama Mama, but I’m just sayin’: this particular specialist didn’t even make it out of our doctor’s recommendations and onto our calendar for five years.

So this week, as we waited in the exam room for the doc to arrive while my son ripped his collection of outdated periodicals to shreds, I reflected on how I’m just whacking away…but kind of grateful that our situation has changed enough that I could even contemplate sitting in this particular office at all.  Another tiny wave of gratitude arose when it hit me that some things can wait. Everyone isn’t so lucky. What happens when all the moles pop up at the same time? One only has one mallet.

Of course, seeing the specialist this week (whack!) led to another referral and another specialist. More whacks to come. But I’m aiming to win that giant panda hanging up at the rafters and I can do this for a long time.

Other people’s dreams can be so tedious, I know, but it can’t be helped.

I’m at a support group with other parents of special needs kids; I can’t see the other participants (am invisible to them, too) because the room is all obstructed views. I ask if we can re-arrange the seats, but am told that I don’t need to be there, this meeting isn’t about me, I seem to be doing fine and this is a support group for people with urgent issues, but why do I ask, they wonder, do I need to talk? I burst out crying, “I ALWAYS need to talk,” and I’m whisked away to another part of the room before I infect the others with my hysteria.

I am led to a table surrounded by a Greek chorus of special needs parents who in real life know my heart the best, and I plead “When will I need to stop talking about this?”, embarrassed, ashamed that I’m not cool about all this, that my struggle means that I don’t love my son, that I’m not a good mother. “I mean, he’s healthy, he’s not in pain, he’s not sick, he’s loving, he’s great. So why do I still feel like I need to talk about this?” They absorb my words impassively. Without pause my words continue to flood out, “Sometimes I think about what it would be like if I could take all of his challenges away,” and they shake their heads vigorously, moaning, “No, no, we must never do that, it can’t be done,” but I can’t help it, the words are already out, Pandora’s box has been opened, and the only way to describe what that would be like is to show them, and I raise my face upward and gasp for breath, arms floating as if I am breaking the surface after being underwater much too long, and they all raise their faces too, and they all inhale deeply with me.

“But that’s not the right metaphor,” I said, “because that would mean that now, I am drowning.”

And I wake up gasping for breath.

———–

Last weekend I went on a retreat called “Living Beautifully with Complexity and Change.” Our theme, we were told, would be this prophesy, taken from Perseverance by one of our teachers, Margaret Wheatley.

From the Elders of the Hopi Nation
Oraibi, Arizona  June 8, 2000
 
To my fellow swimmers:
 
Here is a river flowing now very fast.
It is so great and swift that there are those
who will be afraid, who will try
to hold on to the shore.
They are being torn apart and
will suffer greatly.
 
Know that the river has its destination.
The elders say we must let go of the shore.
Push off into the middle of the river,
and keep our heads above water.
 
And I say see who is there with you
and celebrate.
At this time in history,
we are to take nothing personally,
least of all ourselves,
for the moment we do,
our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt.
 
The time of the lone wolf is over.
Gather yourselves.
Banish the word struggle from your attitude
and vocabulary.
 
All that we do now must be done
in a sacred manner and in celebration.
For we are the ones we have been waiting for.
 
————

In my dream, I was right. Drowning wasn’t exactly the right metaphor. I wasn’t drowning, but being torn apart from clinging to the shore. And the clinging, I see now, doesn’t come from me wanting him to be anyone other than exactly who he is, but from wanting the rest of the world to be a place where he — where all of us — is safe, welcome, valued. I know that to help the world become this place, I must let go, surrender to the river and its destination, and sometimes I can. There are no guarantees that the middle of the river is any safer, any less treacherous, but it feels like the right thing to do. Every moment becomes the chance to do it again, to re-commit to letting go and being in the middle, where all the important work gets done.

Here I float, in the middle of the river, in sacredness and celebration, banishing the word struggle from my attitude and vocabulary. Will you join me here? When I forget, will you remind me to let go?

You don’t know how it feels to be me.” Tom Petty

Community is a wonderful thing, a place where we feel a deep sense of belonging, a place where we feel seen.  The special needs parenting community has been particularly healing for me. Connecting with people who understand my challenges, my fears and my anger releases or lightens those very same emotions simply through the act of having them observed and acknowledged by someone who I believe understands them. Realizing that instead of just a “me” there is an “us” is a true blessing.

The trouble is that with every “us” there comes a “them.” By finding comfort and community with those who understand what it’s like to be me, I’ve been drawing a ring around the “us.” While I’m not exactly banishing folks who haven’t shared my experience to the space outside of the circle, I’m unconsciously not including them.

This weekend I was on a meditation retreat with the Buddhist nun and wonderful teacher Pema Chödrön. At certain points throughout the weekend, she invited questions from the audience. An audience that I realize now I saw as “them.” People approached the mic, shared their stories, sought advice. People who had no idea about my particular flavor of pain, but who clearly had their own: addictions, abuse, trauma, violence, isolation. It was impossible to not expand my circle to include them in “us.” Our pain is all the same, Pema pointed out. Only the storylines differ.

When I am in pain, I feel isolated, cut off and invisible. Why would I want to inflict that pain on someone else? It struck me that placing someone outside my circle was an act of aggression, of causing that very same pain. It’s a little embarrassing and ironic for a person who declares she wants everyone to be included.

“How did I get so lucky to have my heart awakened to others and their suffering?”

–Pema Chödrön

Plate techtonics

I’m on shaky ground this week, dizzy and disoriented. I can’t find a linear thread here so I toss out all these puzzle pieces hoping to make a coherent picture in the end.

Last week I jealously listened to a couple of parents on a panel share their memories of receiving their children’s diagnosis of a particular genetic syndrome before or at birth. Their stories triggered memories of my own years of confusion and worry when my child with medical, cognitive and developmental special needs had no diagnosis or prognosis, only assurances to wait and see. Nothing like their experience of having rock solid information, a roadmap, a sense of place even.

Chronic limbo left me unmoored during those years. I had two mental tapes, the public one which chanted “he’s fine, he’s doing great, wait and see, he’ll catch up” in unison with the therapists and teachers around me, and the private one, darkly creative, the one that read or heard about the worst cases of horrible care and outcomes for adults with disabilities and inserted my gentle, vulnerable son’s image into each one.

In the special needs parenting world, talk often turns to the need for acceptance. Accepting our children, accepting our challenges, accepting reality on a very basic level to simply exist helps us meet it with wisdom and discernment instead of running away from it in fear or kicking it away in anger. Without a clear sense of what was actually going on, acceptance was elusive for me. Acceptance and proper diagnosis, at least in my experience, were connected, and one couldn’t come without the other.

A few years ago my son was given a label, a diagnosis based on the appearance of his symptoms. The mothers on last week’s panel talked about how they both remembered the exact moment they receive their child’s diagnoses–where they were, what they smelled, what song was playing on the radio when the call came in or the information was revealed.  Our diagnosis was never like that. It just evolved over time based on new symptoms as they appeared, a name of a syndrome followed by a question mark which faded over time until it was nearly invisible.  It wasn’t a perfect match, but simply getting a label enabled me to get unstuck and move toward acceptance and advocacy. With the diagnosis came a whole new tribe of folks to talk to, new access to research, to resources. It felt good to stand on ground that wasn’t exactly solid, but swayed just gently and rhythmically enough to make it look like I was dancing.

A few moments spent on the website of a genetic syndrome support group this week brings me face-to-face with photos of a boy who could be my son’s identical twin. The same eyes, the same jaw, the same nose, even the same expression. Another click of the mouse and there’s another one. Brothers from another mother. With a deep sense of knowing, like cylinders in a lock clicking into place, I see my child in the list of symptoms where only a year ago I could see no strong resemblance. It’s hard to explain how. New symptoms have appeared, new behaviors have been identified. But this is not our genetic syndrome, not our diagnosis. A different one, a rarer one, with a whole new set of symptoms, a whole new tribe, a whole new language, a whole different place altogether.

And the ground begins to shake yet again.