Posted in family life

meltdowns

People are hard for me.

Last weekend was filled with people – a water system sales guy came over right after work on Friday, we had our church small group on Saturday morning, I took the kids to a park Saturday afternoon, we went to church Sunday morning, and we visited my parents Sunday afternoon. So – a complete stranger in my house for several hours, and a crowded, noisy, open-plan park, on top of a weekend already social-heavy, with the looming threat of preparing for the babysitter to come Monday morning, was not a good situation.

Unexpected changes of routine are also hard for me.

Last weekend had a lot of those also. I had hoped to celebrate Candlemas with the boys on Friday after work by melting some beeswax and making earth candles in the planter out front (I had even managed to find my old candle-making supplies from high school!). But then my husband made the appointment with the water system guy (for the promise of a Home Depot gift card, which is always useful), which started 30 minutes earlier than I had thought and went considerably longer than I had expected. So because of a misunderstanding about the start time I didn’t get home until shortly after he arrived, meaning my normal coming-home rituals and reconnection with the kids were hampered; the length of time he stayed meant we didn’t get to make candles and didn’t even get to have time together as a family until dinner (which I had to throw together last minute as soon as the sales guy left).

In addition to that, I forgot how crowded the parks around here are on Saturdays this time of year, and this was a new park for us. That in itself was stressful, because we didn’t have a routine for where we would go first, what we would do next, etc., and what favorite corners we would end up in, and it is hard to develop those routines when there are so many other people around. But it became exponentially more stressful when Rondel didn’t stay put while I maneuvered the stroller around an awkward spot, and wandered off into the crowd. Those 5-10 minutes before I found him (ensconced in the arms of a mother with an older daughter, who had come across him panicking and offered to help him) were some of the worst I’ve ever lived through, as I’m sure any parent would agree!

Then, Limerick had a low fever and runny nose Saturday night/Sunday morning, so my husband stayed home with him while I took the other two to church by myself – which was not really that stressful, but it did change things up and force me to make a lot of logistical/efficiency decisions that I don’t normally need to. Not a big deal in itself, but not ideal after the two days prior.

So… I crashed, Sunday night. As in, I laid myself down on the bed after dinner and cried, leaving everyone else to fend for themselves. I had spent all my energy on small talk, relationships, social navigation, people in all their myriad forms, and I had none left to craft the semblance of “engaged parent” for even the remaining hour or two till bedtime.

We hear/talk a lot about children having meltdowns – how to help them, how to distinguish meltdowns from tantrums, how to prevent meltdowns from happening in the first place – but we seem to think that once someone is an adult, they’ve somehow managed to outgrow them. Well, adults can still be introverted, socially anxious, and sensitive to sensory and emotional stimuli. We can still push ourselves too far. We can still collapse, now, just like we did when we were children – and the best way to help us is with space, rest, patience, and gentleness.

(Protip: it is not helpful, in the moment where a meltdown is happening, to try to identify a specific trigger and explain all the ways that trigger is really insignificant or fixable and therefore unworthy of causing said meltdown. Did you notice how many things I mentioned in this post that contributed to my meltdown? And yet the apparent in-the-moment trigger was a whiny baby during dinner. When someone is emotionally collapsing and feeling completely overwhelmed, they aren’t going to be able to give you the blow-by-blow account of the multiple days’ events that led up to the meltdown.)

(Another protip: It is also not helpful, if you see a person supporting someone else through a meltdown, to start talking to the support person about how you don’t understand what’s going on and really don’t know what to do, with a shocked, confused, and/or repulsed look on your face. The support person is busy taking care of someone in clear emotional/sensory need; they most likely do not have the time or bandwidth to simultaneously coach you through the ins and outs of what a meltdown is, why this particular individual is experiencing one, and how he/she prefers to be assisted through it. If you want to learn, bring it up another time. But in the moment, shut up and give the individual some space and privacy unless they indicate otherwise.)

Things to remember:

  1. I (or my child) am not necessarily melting down because I dislike you, the people in my immediate vicinity. In my experience, meltdowns occur more around trusted friends and family.
  2. I (or my child) am most likely not melting down because of something you did personally, but because of some environmental factor pushing us over the edge. This could include:
    1. Physical discomfort (itchy clothes, hot/cold feelings, allergies, hunger, fatigue, etc.)
    2. Sensory overload (large groups of people, loud noises, irritating noises, bright lights, strong/unpleasant/unusual smells, etc.)
    3. Anxiety (crowds, unfamiliar locations, unexpected changes to routine, uncertainty with how to navigate the social terrain, etc.)
  3. I (or my child) would very much rather not be melting down, especially in front of you, and are trying our hardest to contain, control, and calm ourselves.
    1. For example, Rondel, today, when I asked him to try communicating without screaming, told me that screaming was the only way he could tell me how he felt. This statement is not always true of him – but in that moment, with the emotional capacity available to him in his meltdown, it was true, and I needed that reminder.
  4. I (or my child) would appreciate it if you could minimize reference to meltdowns and welcome us back with open arms when we are ready to rejoin you.
    1. If you help us avoid triggers, pace ourselves, and prevent collapse – without making us feel like incompetent and defective human beings by snide/cutting remarks or tones – that would be amazing. That would feel like full and complete acceptance and love. But I understand how hard that is in an ableist culture. It is still hard for me not to address myself with negative and shaming thoughts following a meltdown, given how much our society values self-control, self-sufficiency, and outward appearances. So I don’t expect otherwise from you – but if you can consistently provide otherwise, you will become one of the few people I implicitly trust, and around whom I can step out from behind my layers and facades.

Meltdowns happen. Rondel had one just today, victim to another over-scheduled weekend (which was partly my fault, and I feel awful about it). We can try to suppress them with feelings of shame, isolating the individual for their socially inappropriate behavior, or we can support the individual through them, and learn from them so that we can be better prepared for the future. I know which choice I’d rather make – for myself, and for my children.

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Posted in book lists, musings

zombies, democracy, and the definition of humankind

Having made my first foray into the world of zombie fiction, I am struck by the idea that zombies are the end product of dysfunctional democracy.

In a democracy there is rule by the many, leading to decisions that may be good for individuals in the majority but not so good for individuals who are part of minority groups. As social structure and community connectedness decreases, more and more people feel that democracy is failing them by its inability to address their needs (since, as people splinter away from each other, almost everyone is bound to end up in the minority with regards to at least one significant issue in their lives). They observe society crumbling and blame the vast hordes of their fellow citizens – not without reason, as those vast hordes are the decision-makers of a democracy!

Similarly, in the zombie apocalypse, society breaks down (in very dramatic ways) at the hands of the vast masses of humankind. We, the reader, identifying with the main characters of the book or film, see ourselves as the rational few who still cling to sanity and good judgment, while the rest of the world is wildly destroying itself around us. And since our democracy is so huge (at least here in the US) that there isn’t much we can do to tangibly alter its course, zombie fiction allows us an escape into the lives of people who are even more horribly stuck – but who aren’t limited to polite social mores in their methods of dealing with their frustrations and problems!

Of course, I have no idea if this idea has any basis in reality, but it was interesting to me 🙂

If you’re wondering how I decided to make entry into the world of zombies, I did it by reading The Girl With All The Gifts, by M.R. Carey, on the recommendation of my boss. The introduction is brutal, mysterious, and haunting; the end is absolutely perfect. The middle feels rather stereotyped or trope-ish: you have the tough and experienced military man, the disposable underling, the obsessive and unethical scientist, and the bleeding-heart who is sympathetic to the zombies’ plight. However, I still definitely enjoyed it! As a science nerd, I particularly enjoyed the description of the source of the zombie plague (for reference, Cordyceps is a fungus that attacks ants, infiltrates their nervous systems, and controls their behavior for the purpose of spreading its spores; most species of Cordyceps are specific to a single species of ant):

“At some point a Cordyceps came along that was a lot less finicky. It jumped the species barrier, then the genus, family, order, and class. It clawed its way to the top of the evolutionary tree, assuming for a moment that evolution is a tree and has a top. Of course, the fungus might have had a helping hand. It might have been grown in a lab, for any number of reasons; coaxed along with gene-splicing and injected RNA. Those were very big jumps.”

It made me happy that they acknowledged the implausibility of the fungus mutating that much on its own – but also the possibility of some scientist designing it to do so. It reminded me of the professor of my senior capstone class, who told us that we now knew everything we needed to create a bioweapon that would devastate humanity, and were responsible to conduct our science ethically. If humanity is wiped out by some pathogen, I won’t be surprised to learn that humanity had created that pathogen to begin with.

I also appreciated that this book was not overly graphic (this is the reason I’ve avoided zombie films in particular). It allowed me to enjoy the concept and implications without having to deal with excessive violence and gore! So I recommend it for anyone wanting an action novel that will, if you permit it, also raise the question of what it means to be human.

“Asking if I want to be healed is like asking if I want to like anchovies. I cannot imagine what liking anchovies would feel like, what taste they would have in my mouth. People who like anchovies tell me they taste good; people who are normal tell me being normal feels good. They cannot describe the taste or the feeling in a way that makes sense to me.”

– Elizabeth Moon, The Speed of Dark

liking anchovies

Posted in family life

hiking South Mountain with littles

Winter is one of the best times of year for hiking here in the desert! The skies are deep and clear, the air is cool and crisp, and the plants are somewhat green (depending on rainfall… spring will be better for plant life if the flowers bloom, though).

When climbing a mountain, it is always logical to become animals more suited for the task; the boys decided to be ibex and spent a large portion of the trek on all fours:

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They also spent time as mountain lions, and we discussed what the city would do if a large predator such as a mountain lion or a bear were actually living on a mountain so closely surrounded by homes (probably – hopefully! – relocation. Rondel seemed to think it would be more exciting to have it stay on the mountain and randomly pop out to eat people.)

Aubade mostly stayed in the backpack, bopping my head and laughing, because she walks quite slowly still, but she did get down a few times to stretch her legs and enjoy the desert firsthand:

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The most wonderful thing about a hike is that simply being outside, in the wild, is so freeing and refreshing an experience that even a complete meltdown for the entire return leg of the trip isn’t enough to prevent the boys from wanting to go again! Rondel keeps asking me when we can climb another mountain… I just think, hmm, I need to rebuild my emotional reserves here, that was rather exhausting for me. I am so glad that it didn’t give him a bad taste for hiking in general, though. I will just need to be more aware of his limitations as he often fails to notice his own fatigue until he is at the point of emotional and physical collapse (it’s a sensory processing thing – difficulty with interoception).

And it was a great reminder for me of why I have always loved hiking! There is something unbeatable about the path dropping away behind you and the sky stretching out wide above you and the mountain rising up before you and the wind lifting your wings as you walk over the dusty and rugged desert miles. They say exercise is good treatment for depression but really I believe that outdoor exercise is key – it is for me, at any rate 🙂

(If you’re wondering, we hiked part of Telegraph Pass Trail on South Mountain! The first part is paved which makes for an easy start and, more importantly, an easy finish for tired little feet. If you have more stamina than my boys did, you can make it all the way up to the top of the mountain where the signal towers are!)

Posted in quotes

what is autism?

The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable […]

The realm of social interaction is one context in which autistic individuals tend to consistently be disabled. An autistic child’s sensory experience of the world is more intense and chaotic than that of a non-autistic child, and the ongoing task of navigating and integrating that experience thus occupies more of the autistic child’s attention and energy. This means the autistic child has less attention and energy available to focus on the subtleties of social interaction. Difficulty meeting the social expectations of non-autistics often results in social rejection, which further compounds social difficulties and impedes social development. For this reason, autism has been frequently misconstrued as being essentially a set of “social and communication deficits,” by those who are unaware that the social challenges faced by autistic individuals are just by-products of the intense and chaotic nature of autistic sensory and cognitive experience.

(Please read the complete article here – it is the best brief introduction to autism that I have ever come across.)

I want to be careful about oversharing sensitive aspects of Rondel’s life, so I’m not going to list specific examples here, but I will say that this description makes so much sense in understanding him – his reactions to stimuli, his emotional swings, his physical being and course of development. What is more, it gives me that understanding without making him seem broken or deficient: he is simply different. His differences may mean that he requires extra support and accommodations in a world designed for people whose minds don’t work quite like his, but they don’t mean that he needs to be fixed or changed. He is who he is. He is beautiful the way he is. And I love him for who he is, without changing anything.

(In case anyone was wondering, we don’t have a diagnosis for Rondel right now, but in seeking to understand and support him we have found that a lot of resources aimed at autistic individuals are quite helpful for him, and descriptions like this one in particular lead me to believe that he could most likely qualify for an official diagnosis under the (very pathologizing and depressing) terms of the DSM. So while the very long diagnostic process is underway, we’re going with “suspected autism” over here, per his pediatrician.)

Posted in musings

thoughts on humanity

The single most important thing about any person is their humanity.

No matter what other characteristics define them – their race, gender, age, neurotype, health, sexual preference, career, level of education, immigration status, religion, whatever – every single person is human, and by virtue of being human they are entitled to respect and dignity.

Years ago, I stumbled across a few MRA and white supremacy outposts online; I remember reading through their blog archives in a kind of shocked daze, disbelieving that people could actually hold the opinions presented there. Authors attempted to use social and biological science to prove racist tenets, or to claim the superiority of the “alpha male” type over women and more “feminine” men (often just decent and courteous men). Careful rational examination of their source material could show where they were wrong, but the sheer volume of output would make that a full-time job – with little or no reward, given that they’ve already shown their disregard for real science or actual facts.

Since then, the hidden (and not-so-hidden) biases against the old and sick (e.g., assisted suicide), the LGBTQA community, the homeless (e.g., park bench design), illegal (and often legal) immigrants, and Muslims have risen and fallen through the headlines of the news cycle. Every time there is a group of people who try to make themselves appear and feel superior and, more malevolently, entitled by virtue of that superiority to demean, belittle, and discriminate against groups they deem inferior. We, the employed, do not wish to see or even think about the unemployed; we can provide for ourselves, they cannot so they must be lazy and shiftless, and thus do not even deserve to sleep on a bench where we might see them. We, the citizens, obviously deserved to be born in this nation with all the opportunities we have; those immigrants who were so stupid as to have been born elsewhere shouldn’t be allowed to come here and steal our opportunities. We, the heterosexual, are so uncomfortable with trans and homosexual individuals that we must clearly be the only natural and moral beings here – never mind our promiscuity and infidelity, we are the ones following God’s sexual plan for humanity, and those who disagree should be silenced and kept apart from each other.

And recently, as I’ve been reading through the online communities dedicated to respectful parenting and disability advocacy, I’ve begun to encounter childism and ableism in all their ugliness.

This week, when the horrible story of the Turpin family came to light, the comments I read on the New York Times were straightforward and predictable: this is why homeschooling should be prohibited, or, at least, more strictly regulated. My own coworkers have made the same comments in response to the simple fact that Arizona requires no academic testing of homeschooled students. Similarly, in the past, when horrible stories of bullying or sexual abuse perpetrated by teachers have surfaced, or when poor curriculum choices are exposed, the comments in the homeschooling community are equally predictable: this is why you should never send your children to public school! The issue at the heart of many of these comments is: who is entitled to control children. Does the state get to control children’s activities, in an attempt to create productive future citizens? Or does the family get to control their children, as the creators of and providers for those children during their development? In other words, both sides are coming from a position of childism, even as they claim to have children’s best interests at heart.

The whole philosophy of unschooling, in contrast, rests on the premise that children are not partial persons, or potential persons, but full persons deserving of the same respect and autonomy as adult persons (recognizing of course their individual needs and limitations). As fellow humans, they should have freedom to pursue their own interests and develop their own talents, instead of being forced into a one-size-fits-all standardized education or into the molds envisioned by their parents. They should have the liberty to use their time as they choose, to eat the foods they like when they are hungry, to sleep when they are tired, to play outside learning to control their own words and actions instead of sitting inside following adult directions all day.

(If you instantly picture children running wild, gorging on junk food, playing violent video games, watching stupid cartoons, and staying up all night, you may have some internalized childism or an incomplete understanding of unschooling. Children who are exposed to beauty and goodness, and given the opportunity to develop maturity and moral character, will resonate with those things just like adults will, since they are equally made in the image of the God of beauty, righteousness, and truth.)

But even in the unschooling community, there is uncertainty when it comes to children with special needs. Since my son most likely has autism or another developmental disorder, I noticed the number of parents commenting that they were unsure of how to maintain that level of freedom and respect while making sure that their children accessed all of the “services” and therapies needed to help them fit in and appear neurotypical. I noticed it even more in the public school setting, where an extremely strong emphasis was placed on accessing services now so that my son would be “caught up” to his peers in time for kindergarten. I picked up on it in the special needs ministry at my church, when the parents’ support group had a meeting about “grieving” over your child’s autism diagnosis as if there was some loss to you in not having a neurotypical child. And I discovered it for myself when I found a thousand support groups for parents of autistic children but hardly any communities for autistic adults. Their voices went unheard.

And in some dark corners of the Internet, some people made it even worse by painting adults with Asperger’s/autism as narcissists and psychopaths, incapable of parenting without emotionally neglecting or abusing their children, and inherently capable of committing the next mass shooting. Maybe they vented some frustration or boosted their own sense of self-worth by saying these horrible and untrue things about others, I don’t know. But I don’t really care. I think of Morenike, the autistic mother of autistic children who loves and advocates for them fearlessly and tirelessly, and who almost had her children removed several years ago, and I wonder what role this type of ableist stigma played in her situation.

And I am thankful beyond words for Ally Grace, another autistic mother of autistic children, who is an unschooler on top of that, and whose stories have helped give me the courage to let my children develop at their own pace and in their own way, with the pressure of needing to conform to some external, arbitrary, socially-defined metric – as well as the courage to be an unschooling parent despite my own social limitations.

I think as all the different “-isms” of discrimination come to light, society will slowly be forced into being more respectful and more accepting of those who are different, of those who may need more help or accommodation given the way the world is set up, but in the meantime there is a fairly vicious backlash of those who seem to think accepting the other somehow diminishes their own status or worth. They are the ones who create the websites in the dark underbelly of the Internet, and they are wrong. To receive another human being with dignity and respect, with courtesy and kindness, regardless of the differences between you and them, allows your own humanity – the image of God within you – to shine forth in beauty and power, even as it elevates their humanity. We can ascend together; we do not need to climb to the heavens on the downtrodden backs of the other.

Posted in musings

how does the soul survive?

Modern fiction brings out the evil in domestic lives, ordinary relations, people like you and me […]

Once evil is individualized, becoming part of everyday life, the way of resisting it also becomes individual. How does the soul survive? is the essential question. And the response is: through love and imagination.

– Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran

It’s easy to see evil as something distant, or something belonging to people “not like me;” it’s been especially easy, I think, in a politically polarized era to attempt to push our perception of evil off onto politicians or political enemies, the political and cultural “others”, instead of recognizing the sin that cuts through each and every individual heart. We ignore accusations of immorality against those whose ideology aligns with ours, or who benefit us in some way, while jumping at every hint of wrongdoing in those who disagree with us.

But a good novel will show us the hidden depths of goodness and humanity in even the people we dislike and disagree with, while exposing the foolishness and flaws within the people we most admire and who are most like us. By drawing us in emotionally through the story, it relaxes our defenses and allows new, unpleasant, or inconvenient truths to seep in. Our empathy for the characters can engender empathy for real people whom we may have overlooked, avoided, or misunderstood – and the realities that we see more deeply and completely by the light of imagination can spur us to resist the daily evil and pour out the daily labor of love in our own mundane lives.

In other words: let us go read great books so that our hearts and minds can grow in love and understanding – and maybe, as a result, evil need not win each hourly battle in our thoughts and interactions.