The Stories We Tell Ourselves

December 13, 2020

Once upon a time, there was a young girl named, ummm. . . . let’s call her Farah. Farah grew up in a happy home surrounded by love, but she just knew something wasn’t right- with her. She tried to keep this “not right” feeling locked up in a little box, and the key to that box was perfection. The more perfect Farah could be, the tighter the lock would get. Farah became an expert at meeting other people’s expectations of her (or rather, she became an expert at meeting what she thought others expected of her). She didn’t get lost in the Big Woods; she knew how to read signs, and she never veered off the path.

Slowly over time, and then seemingly all at once, questions started popping up. People- professors, new friends, even Farah herself- started asking things like, “What do you want to do?” and “How do you feel about that?” and that’s when Farah realized that she didn’t have all the answers. She spent so much time and energy listening outside of herself that she lost her ability to hear her voice within. She didn’t really know who she was or what she wanted. And she couldn’t really remember how to ask for help. On top of that, bad things kept happening regardless of how perfectly locked up her “not right” feelings were. To make up for the silence inside, Farah told herself a new story; this one was called the “Not Good Enough” story. It was extremely portable and suited any number of situations- from “Not Smart Enough” to “Not Attractive Enough” and even into “I Don’t Deserve it” territory.

Farah’s new story, and the memories of her old stories, kept her from truly enjoying her “Happily Ever After” when it came along (the handsome prince, a “castle” on a cul de sac, and beautiful children of her own). It wasn’t a Big, Bad Wolf or an Evil Queen- it was the tale itself that got in her way. And it wasn’t the needle on a spinning wheel, or even a deeply restorative sleep that brought Farah to her senses- it was Life. Big, Messy, Life. Where Bad Things Happen. . . and then what?? What happens after the “Happily (or Not So Happily) Ever”?

However, whenever Life brings you here- a loss (or a gain), a time of transition, a feeling of uncertainty about what comes next- you can start by asking yourself, “What is my story?” What is it that you keep telling yourself about yourself? Coax it to come out by acknowledging that whatever the story is, it existed to keep you safe (it’s gotten you this far, hasn’t it?), and it most likely was created when you were younger and simply learning to make sense of the world around you. Aim for awareness and understanding– gratitude and compassion can come later.

Next, ask yourself, “What am I getting out of the story that I am holding on to so closely? Take three deep breaths and see if you can listen to your “voice within” and not just to all the thoughts racing in your mind. This isn’t an easy question to figure out- our defenses, our ego, will be kicking into overdrive to protect us and “keep us safe.” Even when that “safety” is really just a comfortable, familiar way of suffering. . . Why be vulnerable and truly see how little control we have over, well, pretty much EVERYTHING, when we can just stay here all nice and cozy with the self-doubt and self-sabotage we’re so very good at inflicting on ourselves?

Whatever shows up as your answer- sit with it. It’s going to reveal something about your thoughts and beliefs that will probably have some strong emotions attached to it. Aye, there’s the rub- our emotions that we try so hard to avoid, repress, lessen, will resist all our attempts to assert control. In the end, letting go of control and allowing those strong feelings to exist is the only way to move forward. Don’t add suffering to your pain; allow yourself to feel the pain. The only way through it is through it. Know that you are not alone. Our common humanity binds us together on this journey.

Now, instead of just sitting with whatever shows up, ask yourself, “What do I need?” Can you move with your feelings? Rock back and forth, hug yourself, take a walk, kick or punch pillows, shake it off- embody your emotions and use the wisdom of your physical body to release all that energy you spent trying to cover up the fact that you are human and have feelings (and that not being in control is scary). Feel like shouting or crying, screaming or laughing? Go for it.

This is an awful lot to process and experience. If you need to take a break, or a nap, give yourself permission to do so. Call a friend, one who will listen without judgment and without giving advice. There’s freedom waiting in this new place, with this new clarity- freedom to choose a different story. You can feel exposed and vulnerable and powerful and hopeful, all at the same time. Over and over again. Why not choose a story for yourself of love and hope and forgiveness? Of strength and courage and even happiness?

A New Year is coming. Time for a new story. Choose freedom from your old story and find the joy of living fully as your flawed and beautiful, beautiful self.

Peace, love, and hope to you all-

Joy and Pain

August 2, 2020

I could have easily titled this post “Pain and More Pain.” There’s so much of it these days. Physical, emotional, mental. It’s both individual and collective. It’s in the news and in my nightmares. One of my first yoga teachers told our class that “desire = suffering.” I heard that and thought about my desire for stuff, for approval, for thicker hair. I understood that desire meant longing for something you didn’t have. But what about wanting to get rid of things you already had and most definitely did not want? Like physical or emotional pain? As far as I was concerned, pain = suffering. You couldn’t have one without the other.

That was then. And it was a “not-so-distant” then, if I’m being honest. Trying to push my pain away only made that pain more potent when it either exploded on the scene a short time later or corroded my daily existence as I tried to pretend it didn’t exist. Oh how I suffered. It makes me a little nauseous thinking back to how hard I worked to swim upstream, against the current and approaching the rapids- not with goggles on, but with blinders.

My Wayfinder life coach mentor Martha Beck makes a distinction between “clean pain” and “dirty pain.” Clean pain is pain caused by circumstances or events. It is exquisite, and it can take your breath away. Dirty pain is pain brought on by our thinking, by our thoughts that surround, distort, or disguise our clean pain. That’s where true suffering lies- where the desire to escape or prevent our feelings of pain rises up. Have you ever tried to numb your feelings? Or deny their very existence? What is the point of putting on a brave face when that’s just a lie you are selling yourself and those around you? The real bravery comes from feeling your pain, your sadness– owning it, and admitting it. Grace happens when you accept your humanity and allow your body and mind to experience these feelings. Your blinders are replaced by goggles, and though the rapids do a number on you physically and mentally, you WILL come out on the other side. It will pass. A shady spot on the shoreline is waiting for you- along with a deep sense of knowing that you are not alone. You are human. And it’s okay.

Why is it that pain is easier to imagine and talk about than joy? It feels somewhat like a betrayal to even write about joy when so much of our world is sick and on fire. Joy can be hard to come by (and hard to last) if we try to look for it outside ourselves, even though there are countless little moments provided by the kindness of others and by the wonders of our natural environment. Stuck in our pandemic bubbles, I’d like to encourage you to look for joy within– through the use of your imagination. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was an only child, or if it was my love of science fiction and fantasy books- or a combination of the two– but I practically lived in my imagination as a child. Even when I played with friends we created imaginary scenarios and delighted in just how “real” they felt for us. As an adult, my imagination shrank way down, and it wasn’t very, well, imaginative. I wasted a lot of it on pretending and wishing things were different– the energy behind those fantasies was negative and came from a place of fear. Talk about suffering. . . .

There’s quite a bit of science behind the benefits of using your imagination (see “Richard Boyatzis,” “positive emotional attractors,” “intentional change theory,” “positive psychology,” and “Martin Seligman” for starters). I don’t want us to get bogged down in the details, or overly concerned with following any format. Instead, I want you to do what Martha Beck encourages her coaching students to do and “imagine your success– not to the point of delusion, but to the point of joy.” Can you find the joy in imagining all your dreams came true? What does that feel like in your body? How do you treat yourself, and others, when you come from this place of utter satisfaction? What do you notice? This is nothing like a formal meditation– this is more like lying on your bed and daydreaming. Try it for five minutes, or ten if you’re feeling up for it. This is joy that you can access at any time, regardless of your surroundings. Joy that is imagined in the future but has a noticeable effect on our bodies and our minds in the present moment. It creates a spaciousness, a place of possibility, a respite from tight muscles and shallow breathing. The more we touch that joy that is unique to ourselves, the easier it becomes to recall. You might even start seeking that feeling out as you go about your daily living, edging your reality just a little bit closer to your heart’s desire.

Joy and Pain. Hope and Humanity. The child in me honors the child in you- let’s imagine ourselves (and our world) into a boundless place of possibilities, five minutes at a time.

Nothing is Wrong With Me

May 3, 2020

Nothing is wrong with me. Wow. That sentence may have been the most difficult one yet for me to write, and we’ve covered some tough stuff this past year. Okay, technically it’s not harder to write, but it’s so much harder to actually believe it. Nothing is wrong with me. Yikes- that’s making me sweat a little. I know I talked about the importance of self-compassion in my last post, but to put this out there– heck, to make it bold and use it as the title– now that’s just a bit too much. My considerable sense of humor is predicated on the fact that there’s some-thing, lots of things, wrong with me. Hello, my name is self-deprecation. If I can’t put other people at ease by making fun of myself, then what good am I?

I’m a collector of labels. And I’m a fierce comparison shopper– didn’t get the highest grade? Not as smart as I should be. Didn’t win the student council election? Not as popular as I could be. Struggled to understand something in a meeting? I don’t belong here (and God forbid whatever you do don’t ask a question or they’ll find out). Crying and flustered? Too sensitive. Or how about this one– received some positive feedback? Nope. Not real. I’m an imposter (got lucky that time- but what about next time?).

I’m an abuser. I abused myself. I focused so much on perfectionism that I lost sight of my absolute, unshakeable perfection. I believed the lie I told myself that something was wrong with me (in spite of the love that was all around me, always). Even when everything was falling apart I still didn’t get it. I surrendered to the experts, to the support and guidance of those who knew the path ahead, but I still thought the work would lie in fixing myself somehow. Fixing my thinking, fixing my actions, fixing my words. So much letting go, but I still hadn’t released the heaviest rock in my pocket– the belief that I had to change who I was in order to survive.

But I didn’t have to change who I was. Instead, I had to learn who I was. It was a metamorphosis, but what I became was seeded by that which was always there inside of me, waiting. Nothing needed to be fixed. It all just had to be undone. Unlearned. Who I thought I was. Reset to factory settings. You can’t “fix” your thinking by using the same neural pathways that formed those thoughts in the first place. You can’t “fix” your actions until you know the difference between what you can control and what you can’t. You can’t “fix” your words without grounding yourself in the present moment– and stopping the “past-future-past-future” dance. You have to be still.

This is a pretty new place I find myself in– ironic, considering it’s been with me my whole life. So I’m writing this all down not just to share with you, but also to remember. The butterfly that was inside the caterpillar the whole time. My wings are still wet, but they are beautiful.

And by the way- there’s nothing wrong with you, either.

If you are interested in exploring more, here are some of the heroes/guides that have helped show me the way back to my perfect self: Martha Beck, “Steering By Starlight” and “Finding Your Own North Star” (https://marthabeck.com); Byron Katie, “Loving What is” (https://thework.com); and Glennon Doyle, “Untamed” (https://momastery.com).

And– if you’d like to explore more, but don’t want to do it alone, you can connect with me through my own coaching website, http://www.sarahpbaird.com. Small steps, together.

Hope-y New Year 2020

January 10, 2020

Ten months ago I wrote my first “Hope-y” blog post, in which I explained that “Hope-y” sounds much more realistic and attainable to me than just pure “Hope.” Or how about “Hope-adjacent?” At this point in January, many of those New Year’s resolutions we all were so determined to make (and keep) have possibly taken a downward turn toward entropy as our future vision meets our daily reality. As a recovering perfectionist with a long history of fearing failure, I want to start off this clean slate of a year with a more realistic goal: Hope-y-ness. Hopeful and happy, but with the worn-in, “vintage” look that’s so popular nowadays. And it won’t show the stains and strains of the occasional mess. Easier to maintain, and much more comfortable.

It’s also important for me to acknowledge Hope (or Hope-y-ness) as a partner in balance to Fear, my constant and familiar companion. I spent a lot of lines last year writing about Fear and how it shows up in all sorts of ways, how I’m getting better at spotting it when it comes at me wearing a different disguise (humor instead of tears, impatience instead of paralysis). Choosing to act in spite of the fear is a daily, sometimes minute-by-minute intentional choice, and that can be so exhausting- even as it’s getting easier to do.

American author Audre Lorde, writing on her 50th birthday (and two weeks after a diagnosis of liver cancer), penned this about fear: “I want to write down everything I know about being afraid, but I’d probably never have enough time to write anything else. Afraid is a country where they issue us passports at birth and hope we never seek citizenship in any other country. The face of afraid keeps changing constantly, and I can count on that change. I need to travel light and fast, and there’s a lot of baggage I’m going to have to leave behind me. Jettison cargo.”

Instead of adding more goals and actions to the start of this new decade, what if we focused on subtracting excess baggage? Jettisoning some cargo? Letting go of old stories and past regrets so that we can be fully present in the Present? That’s the only way we can create space for a Hope-y future. There is such freedom in choosing Hope (Hope-y-ness) over Fear, and it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, over and over and over again.

Now, I am faced with the prospect of genuine good news– our son is coming home– and I am desperately wanting to hang on to Hope. I don’t want the marks I carry from past fears realized to dampen these potential-filled days ahead. My parenting PTSD wants to drag me back down to the days where I was faking it but definitely not making it. Back to before I learned to stay balanced by rooting myself only in the present moment (with the deep understanding that nothing is permanent). No lingering in the past or dipping into the unwritten future. It’s watered my Hope down to Hope-y-ness, but that’s okay. Like Audre Lorde, I need to travel light and fast. And if Hope is “the thing with feathers,” according to that well-known Emily Dickinson poem, then Hope-y-ness is a feather itself, nothing at all that will weigh you down (especially with unmet expectations).

The not-so-divine in me acknowledges the not-so-divine in you, and loves you because of this shared humanity. So “Hope-y New Year” my friends. Here’s a feather for your travels–

Instead of a stroll down memory lane, how about a fast walk in the opposite direction?

December 23, 2019

Ahh, the holidays. . . so full of sugarplums and partridges in pear trees. . . and stress. And not just 12 days of stress, but a whole calendar’s worth of it, as the year winds down and we gear up for a new one. Like Santa’s big red bag stuffed with presents, we carry around our own big bag– ours is stuffed with memories of past holidays and past New Year’s resolutions, of the year (and now the decade) that’s past, layered with holiday-amplified grief for loved ones lost. I’m already hunched over wrapping all those presents; under the added weight of my “bag” I’m almost crushed flat.

Yes, of course there are many happy memories in there too. And if your bag is stuffed with only those, then have another glass of eggnog and thank your lucky stars. But many of us are dealing with experiences that fall somewhere in between on the spectrum of Happy and “big-T” Trauma. “Little-t” traumas and other types of heartbreak also leave their mark on us physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. I, for example, feel guilty at times that I feel so gobsmacked by my own traumas when others have much bigger challenges. But why do I feel that I don’t deserve to be as sad as others can or should be? What kind of messed up thinking is that? Let me tell you, from my vast experience on the subject, that not allowing yourself to feel all your feels will only cause more sorrow and less joy. Dashing through the holiday “snow” of parties, days off (or not), family gatherings (or family exclusions), we can focus so much on what we should be feeling that we leave no room for what we actually are feeling. We can get so hung up on the past that we waste the present trying to either recreate it or get as far away from it as possible. What if we gave ourselves permission to be just as we are, to feel what we feel, even if it’s sadness during a time of joy? That joy will itself be hard to come by if we don’t acknowledge the grief, or the fatigue, or the anxiety, or the anger. Once we own it, it will pass, and in its place will come possibility. That potential that feels like kissing a baby’s sweet little head, or like a raucous laugh that bursts out of nowhere and comes with tears and side stitches. The possibility of creating new memories in old, familiar places. Hope.

My wish for you, and for myself, is to simply feel what you are feeling during this intense time. Notice your feelings, and please don’t hide them– you are entitled to your feelings, even if they can’t be wrapped up with shiny paper and tied neatly with a festive bow. Light the candles, but acknowledge the existence of the darkness too. If hope seems like too lofty a goal, then just breathe. And breathe again. Ask for help if you need it. And be gentle with yourself.

‘Tis the season for miracles.

Your Least Happy Child and You

October 24, 2019

I’m going to stir the pot, break some eggs, bring some heat– and I’m not even in the kitchen. Right now, in fact, I’m lying with my feet up, typing on my new rose gold-colored MacBook Air, feeling pretty comfortable. Earlier today, I enjoyed a Starbucks caramel macchiato (with 2% milk, not even nonfat!), and I spent a couple of hours at the hair salon getting my hair dyed its newish deep red color. This evening, I had a glass of rosé before eating Chinese food with Cameron and watching and reminiscing over the original “Clash of the Titans” movie. Not a bad day at all. In fact, a happy one.

What was my “least happy child” doing? Well, one of them is stressed out over some really tough college exams, and the other is in a residential treatment center far away from home. Let’s go with the latter one. . . . chances are there are no lattes or laptops available there.

I imagine you are on to me by now. . . . I’d like to talk about the well-worn adage “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” My guess is most of you have an immediate reaction to hearing this phrase, and you instinctively agree with it. So, taking a look at how I spent my day today, either I’m a terrible, insensitive mother, or there’s something wrong with this tired-out trope.

I’m sure most of you who know me would quickly offer me an exception, knowing the challenges our whole family has endured. But would you offer an exception for yourselves? If your family story hews a little more closely to the norm than ours does, would you grant yourself a pause to really examine the sentiment behind this commonly offered consolation?

Why is this phrase offered to those of us who have children struggling? Do people actually think this is comforting? I understand the impulse to validate our own sadness and stress– isn’t that what good friends do?– but what, really, are you saying to us? It’s okay to be sad when our kids are sad– but then is it not okay to be happy when our kid isn’t? If whatever is making our kid sad is something that isn’t easily fixed– or can’t be fixed or solved at all– what, then, should we as parents do? Trust me, we spend an awful lot of time as it is walking around in a daze, especially at the beginning of the journey, acting as close to fine on the outside as we can, all the while falling apart on the inside. But how is this Herculean effort sustainable? Do we really expect a parent to be permanently unhappy because their child struggles? And what exactly would this look like? Who gets to decide?

And what does this say to the child who is unhappy? Granted, many teenagers would think it’s pretty cool to have so much power over the adults in their lives– but not for long. This kind of control over the ones who are supposed to be in charge inevitably causes anxiety and fear– if I’m responsible for my parents’ happiness, what about my own? What if my parents are mad or disappointed or down? Is that my fault? What should I do?

Please don’t surrender the burden of responsibility for your emotional health to your children. That will leave an imprint on them that will stay with them for life, until and unless they finally realize that this is something beyond their control and seek help undoing the damage.

If I want my children to find their inner strength and be resilient in the face of challenges, I have to show them how to do that. How to develop healthy attachments to the ones we bring into our lives, where our happiness and our power come from within– we don’t give them away for others to control. It’s not just happiness we are talking about– that is a fleeting and unreliable source of strength. What we are really talking about is peace. Balance. Centeredness. A deep understanding of what we can control, and what we can’t.

Least happy or not, I am determined to teach both my children that my happiness doesn’t depend on their happiness– and vice-versa. My choices about my emotions are my responsibility. I still feel their pain more deeply than my own– watching your children suffer is the worst torment on Earth for parents– and yet my tears, my sadness, my laughter, are all my own.

If you’ve offered this phrase to parents whose children are struggling, please forgive yourselves. Life is hard, we make mistakes, and we learn. Self-compassion and the ability to forgive are also huge skills to model for our kids.

I am not the exception that proves the rule. This rule needs to be broken.

Okay then, “Resigned Acceptance” it is (heavy sigh)

September 8, 2019

In my last post I settled on the idea of “resigned acceptance” instead of the “radical acceptance” urged by yogis, authors, therapists, and other enlightened souls. I am resigned to the facts that bad things happen and I can’t control everything. This reluctant balance has given me some surprising benefits: my recovery time when “bad things happen” has shortened dramatically, both physically and emotionally. I don’t need to put on my happy face as much anymore- I can function in public spaces (and some private ones) even while sad or in pain, and not frighten any passers-by. I’m not faking it, or avoiding it– believe me, I’ve tried both for decades now, but my cosmic fatigue finally forced me into this new place, and it actually feels strangely good. One of the hard tasks now is to accept feeling good, feeling capable, feeling worthy of this small piece of peace.

And then our sweet, sweet pup Finny died.

He was only 8 years old. We knew for a year or so that he had some kidney issues, but we had been managing to keep him healthy through special food and medications. Then, suddenly, over the course of three weeks, he deteriorated. At the start of his last day with us, we weren’t even sure that would be his last day. Just a couple of hours later, however, we were calling the vet and asking to come in as soon as possible. Our last best gift for the sweetest dog ever was to help end his suffering, and that knowledge gave me the strength to plow through those last few hours of that utterly surreal and sorrowful day.

There is so much written about grief that it feels wrong to even try to add my thoughts to what’s already out there. But it is exactly thoughts that I want to talk about: how grief can distort your thinking so that suddenly you are stopped cold in your tracks at what your mind just conjured. . . . I keep hearing and seeing Finny everywhere in the house, and I keep thinking that I’ve got to get home from whatever I’m doing to let him out. And when I do finally get home, I’m greeted not by the shiny black nose poking out the door (the nose we always thought looked like the plastic ones glued onto teddy bears) but by the gut-punch of emptiness. These are my everyday, garden-variety grieving thoughts. The one that almost caused a car accident occurred as I was driving home from the vet’s with Finny’s ashes. . . . We had selected a small, plain, wooden box for his remains, one that had a place to display a photo on the front. I had gotten a new iPhone in the days since Finny died, one with a much-improved camera, and I thought that I would head home and take a “portrait mode” photo of our pup– TO PUT ON THE FRONT OF HIS URN. WTF?? I was driving home with his ashes in the passenger seat, planning to walk in and take a quality portrait of him to slide into the frame on the display box holding his remains?!? Whoa.

Yes, I was under the extreme stress of grief. And yes, I realized my thought was “Not Normal” the second after I thought it. But if this is what our brains can produce under duress, how many other distortions do we think into reality and then act on? Our brains, our thoughts, are NOT reliable sources, not even in the best of times. Thinking things doesn’t make those things “real.” Question everything. Be present. Be curious. Remember– “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” That liberty, that freedom– even just a reluctant taste of it compels me to urge you to stay vigilant. You don’t have to be radical— just resigned. If I can do it, so can you.

Parenting Against Instinct

July 7, 2019

I found myself in a bookstore the other day, and decided to browse through the parenting section, looking to see if there was a title I overlooked all those years ago that would have spoken to where I find myself today. The short answer: No. There were many books still on the shelves that had provided me comfort, information, and support back in the early days of pregnancy and babyhood. Almost all of these books had something in common, a shared style that I’ll call “parenting by addition.” You worry about sleeping, eating, time outs, play dates– these books will show you the techniques to use to achieve your goals. You pick up one of these books when you want your baby to acquire a new skill or reach some developmental milestone, or when you want to find ways to incorporate your beliefs and values into your parenting. You add a new skill, food, stimulating toy, or piece of music to your parent resumé. The authors of these manuals may very well take into account your individual child’s temperament, but they almost never take into account your temperament. Your own “building blocks”- how you came to be who you are, the parent you are, today.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most of us– with or without children– have or had an image in our minds of the kind of parent you want(ed) to be. This image roots itself in the way we ourselves were raised, either growing in contrast to or in honor of the job our parents did. We’ve got to start somewhere, right? And for many kids, this way of “building a parent” works just fine. There are a couple of flaws in this fabric, however. First, the way we think about how we were raised gets a bit stuck in our formative years. When we reflect back on our memories, we often switch gears right into our younger brains– the patterns and thoughts we used way back when, and following close behind are the feelings and emotions from way back when too. As I asked in my last post, do you really want your old, child-formed thought patterns making decisions for you in the present? Unconsciously, you could end up parenting The Ghost of Your Childhood Self, trying to comfort your inner child by either filling in some holes, righting some wrongs that left marks on your psyche, or by slipping out of the harsh realities of adulthood and right into the soothing rituals and words of your imagined idyllic childhood.

And what if this present-day version of the “parent you want to be” just isn’t working for the child you actually have? What if you consulted all the books and experts, “added in” all their tips and tricks, and are still failing to connect with your child? This image you’ve constructed about the parent you are only really serves you— it has nothing to do with your children, the ones who are being parented by you. What if your child needs you to be something you aren’t? This is what I call “parenting against instinct.” For those of you who have been with me on this journey you know that “Parenting Against Instinct” is the title of the book I keep swearing I will write someday. And because every book title needs a colon, Part Two of my title will be, “Becoming the Parent Your Child Needs, Not the One You Thought You’d Be” (or something like that).

In order to become the parent Ollie needed, I had to strip away all of my well-designed plans– plans that had been tested (somewhat) successfully the first time around. This is what I call “parenting by subtraction.” This is what I went searching for in the bookstore the other day. The books that would guide my on my inner journey, help me find all those explicit and implicit memories that laid the tracks inside my brain– only instead of being along for the ride, this time I would “mind the gaps” and force myself to be aware of the scenery flying by outside. What I found was fear– fear of “Not Normal!” and “Something Is Wrong- And It’s All My Fault!” and “You Must Control Everything By Being Perfect.” Ahh, the unexamined fruit of my anxious, perfectionistic child labor, all grown up. The fear underneath it all was buzzing so loudly in my ears that I couldn’t/wouldn’t hear what it was that Ollie really needed from me.

With the extensive, nurturing support of my heroic therapist, I’ve begun to lay some new tracks in my brain. Or, more accurately, I’ve reckoned with the old tracks and am learning to step off into the uncharted unknown. You can’t be present for your kids when you are gripping so tightly onto the past and afraid of the future. What signs are you missing from your children when you are working so hard to parent your younger self? What are your kids learning from you that you are not explicitly teaching them? I’ll share an example– by showing Ollie every single way to name and manage his anxious feelings (something that was missing from my own childhood– who did that sort of thing in the ’70s and ’80s??), I thought I was showing him acceptance, building up his “toolbox” of coping strategies. That was the explicit/outside message. What I was really doing (the implicit message) was showing Ollie that he couldn’t manage his feelings on his own– my fear prevented me from doing what Ollie needed most, which was for me to just sit beside him and bear witness. To validate his emotions and give him the space he needed to work things out on his own. I know I’m simplifying a bit, but please wade through my less-than-perfect explanation (such progress!) and take a moment to think about the difference between what we show our kids and what our kids actually “see.” Take a deep breath. Be Curious. Be Present.

By the way, THERE ARE BOOKS! They don’t seem to pop up when searching for general parenting books– but they should. If I could focus on the past just once more, I wish I had come across these titles BEFORE I became a parent. While each of these titles has the word “parent” in it, the ideas and science behind them would benefit ALL of us– parents or not. This is one of the recurring themes of my blog posts- what wisdom I’ve gained the hard way as a parent is invaluable for all of us, as human beings. It’s scary and hard and breathtaking and impossible and the only way forward.

Here are the titles, in alphabetical order:

“Not By Chance: How Parents Boost Their Teen’s Success In and After Treatment” by Tim R. Thayne, Ph.D.

“Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive” by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Mary Hartzell, M.Ed.

“The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will be Glad That You Did” by Philippa Perry

“The Journey of the Heroic Parent: Your Child’s Struggle and the Road Home” by Brad R. Reedy, Ph.D.

I am indebted to these authors. And to my children.

The Work

June 5, 2019

I’ve made a few references to “the work” we have had to do since starting this journey with Ollie– work that is harder than anything else I’ve ever done. When the current started shifting and we felt the backwards pull, I thought our work was to help Ollie by advocating for him. I committed myself to finding doctors and therapists and specialists who could fill Ollie’s “toolbox” with skills, stretches, and strategies for coping with all of his challenges. I downloaded mindfulness apps and tried to engage Ollie in breathing exercises with me. I began narrating my days–in the same way I did when he was a baby and learning to understand words– showing him all the times I was frustrated or angry or happy, and how I managed all those emotions (or didn’t), in every different situation.

It’s ironic, considering how sure I was of my complicity in his challenges, of my failure as a parent, that I never fully realized what I was signing on for when we sent Ollie away. He wasn’t the only one who was facing back-breaking work. . . . We may not have had to endure the physical labor of wilderness therapy: preparing the earth, planting seedlings, harvesting produce, and managing the kīpulu (compost system), but we did have our own homework. This is referred to as the “Parallel Process” — and the book of the same name was our first lesson. As Krissy Pozatek notes in the Preface, “To have a child engage in self-destructive behaviors can cause parents to feel inundated with shame, and lead to strong defenses. This book is about using the crisis of having a child in treatment as an opportunity to open up to those blind spots we all have in our parenting.”

Let me say right here, finding your blind spots isn’t just for parents. And if you’re involved in anti-racist work, or strengthening your support as an ally (which we all should be doing, btw), these blind spots aren’t quite the same as those you’ve been confronting. These blind spots are ones that need excavating, with roots that run down deep all the way to when we were children ourselves. And, like roots, these blind spots can be all tangled up with each other– digging them up will make you break an existential sweat (and give you a very bad headache). So, why bother? Especially if you don’t have a struggling kid who needs you to do this work alongside him?

Let me respond by asking another question: How much do you want old habits and patterns making decisions for you? So much of our life is beyond our control– do you really want to surrender your ability to make conscious choices in the present to the thinking patterns that you formed in the past? Back then, those patterns were created to help you navigate the world. They were useful and necessary. Now, however, they are way past their expiration date. Side effects of using expired, unexamined blind spots can include getting stuck in the past, a general sense of unease, an inability to grow or fully mature, and a tendency to make the same mistakes over and over again. Oh yes, and chest pains too. Trust me, I know.

The two words that have become my mantra are “Present” and “Curious.” Stay in the moment, and keep asking questions. In order to achieve these seemingly-easy-but-actually-pretty-hard goals, you’ve got to do the work. When you shine some light into those dark spaces, when you find the courage to put your insides on the outside and take a good look, you open up the chance to be fully present in the world. To know yourself in such a deep, authentic way that you actually “show up” in all of your relationships. You open the door to growth. To pain and joy and limitless possibilities. To hope.

Baby steps at first. Fuzzy socks and mugs of tea. Lots of naps and walks. You can do it. We can do it together. Keep those eyebrows up–

Daughter/Son/Grief/Love

April 21, 2019

When we said goodbye at the Kona airport, Ollie asked us to introduce him with his new, chosen name and use the he/him pronouns- this was our first time. So, we were saying goodbye to both a daughter and a son. Our daughter would not be coming back to us, but hopefully our son would return.

In the turmoil that enveloped us, there was a bright, hard spot that we couldn’t even talk about with each other, and I dared not poke at it too much even while caught up in my own thoughts. How do you grieve for a child that isn’t lost? She was discarded so that he could live. Living was then, and is now, the most important thing. That is all that matters. You always hear parents say, “I just want him to be happy” or “I just want a healthy baby.” We just wanted our baby to live. We could deal with everything else later. Including a change of gender.

“Dead-naming” is the act of using a transgender person’s birth name. It is traumatic and hurtful and “othering.” However, the idea of “death” as an adjective to describe anything relating to my child causes me pain. My pain pales in comparison to what Ollie experiences, but it is still there. And the fact that Ollie is thinking a little too much about death makes it exponentially harder to stay on the grateful side of things. What do I do with 13 years’ worth of memories? I can remove old family photos and much-loved childhood artwork signed by the artist, but where do I put my emotions? It feels shameful and selfish to even name these feelings. And dangerous too– when the statistics surrounding transgender youth (harassment, self-harm, safety, lack of support) are so grim. But if you can’t talk about it, or even acknowledge it, it just sits there, eating away at your insides.

Therapy, PFLAG parent support groups, and conversations with Cameron are where I can share my “backstage mess.” I come home to these places, and these people, to let go of negative emotions and loneliness and guilt, and I leave them feeling less alone, with a desperate desire to make this world safer for both my son and my daughter. I also leave these places sometimes and head straight for bed– this is my new “duality.”

As far as duality goes– one of the main therapeutic modalities we’ve encountered on our journey is Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT for short. Loosely, it is based on the concept of holding two opposing thoughts or feelings in your mind at the same time. Acceptance AND change. I am happy AND I am sad. I am grieving AND I’m grateful. This is not always the most comfortable place to land– our DNA still reacts powerfully to strong stimuli with a “fight or flight” surge of adrenalin. How do we live in the middle? How do we fight AND flight? Advocate AND retreat? My body reacts to this ongoing tension by sudden, unexpected episodes of shaking and trembling. It takes a lot of energy to stay in the center of the unknown and be okay with it.

How much energy did it take Ollie to shed our expectations and give voice to his true identity? How much pain did he have to suffer, living in a way that wasn’t authentic? How scary is it to find your path when you look around and can’t see those who’ve gone before you? On this Easter Sunday, this day marked by resurrection and rebirth, I honor Ollie, and shout my pride and love into the world. Perhaps all my recent pain is just my second labor– all this noise and tears and mess, breathing exercises and visualization techniques and helping hands (and medication this time for sure)– bringing this new life into the world. Congratulations- it’s a boy!

To learn more about PFLAG, visit https://pflag.org

For more information about DBT: https://psychcentral.com/lib/an-overview-of-dialectical-behavior-therapy/

And to learn more about ways to be a trans ally, visit the National Center for Transgender Equality at https://transequality.org/issues/resources/supporting-the-transgender-people-in-your-life-a-guide-to-being-a-good-ally