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.

Radical Acceptance- F$%@ that S*&#!

July 30, 2019

So, I’m a little mad. Make that angry. Frustrated. Almost, dare I say, another f-word? Furious. Okay-that feels better.

And I’m not even going to touch on my fury about our current political and ecological climates (too overwhelming for just one blog post).

I do internal anger very well (or rather, I have a lot of it). I’ve just never been able to let it out in an effective or freeing sort of way. My external self shows anger with a quavery voice and tears, and some spectacular red splotches across my pale cheeks. I have a feeling that putting my anger out in public through this post isn’t going to end well either, or be perfect, so this is quite a boundary-pushing, out-of-my-comfort-zone kind of exercise. I’d much prefer to be smiling and self-deprecating, and make everyone happy. Care to join me and “lean in” to some messy emotions and unpleasant truths instead?

I’m effing furious at how unfair life is. How hard things are. How no matter what I do or say or think or eat I can’t control what happens to my children, my family, the people I love. It’s completely unacceptable that Ollie has to navigate life with a triple-threat-burden of mental health issues, a genetic condition with no cure, and a body that didn’t match his gender identity.

I thought I gave up worshipping the false idol of control when we finally acknowledged that Ollie needed more help than we could give him at home. Sending your kid away is a radical, unnatural act. But that was only the beginning. It’s been two years of learning and unlearning, grieving and gaining– only to have to wake up the next day and start all over again. The bits of hard-earned wisdom I’ve gained still feel hard, even after the price I paid to acquire them. Shouldn’t it be easier to wake up every day and stay in balance and be hopeful? I mean, yes, it’s easier now than it was at the beginning but it’s nowhere near easy. And I’m tired. It is hard work, making a deliberate choice to re-set and re-center. It is relentless– this choice presents itself every second of every day. And it’s still not as automatic as I thought it would be by now. All this while my middle-aged body gives gravity a free reign and my hormones rage like the plaid-wearing grunge rockers I loved back in the ’90s. No, this is absolutely NOT Nirvana. . . .

There’s a quote that keeps floating up in my mind: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.” According to thisdayinquotes.com, this quote is often mistakenly attributed to both Irish lawyer John Philpott Curran and US President Thomas Jefferson. The most famous use of this sentence was from a speech made by Wendell Phillips, an American Abolitionist and liberal activist, in January 1852. However, it was novelist Aldous Huxley who said in 1956, “The price of liberty, and even of common humanity, is eternal vigilance.”

Why is it so hard to remember our common humanity? Why can’t it be the “factory preset” so that we don’t have to work so ridiculously, insanely hard? Oh, okay, whoops, I’ve diverged into (political) climate talk, so I’ll redirect. . . .

“Radical acceptance” is a concept in Dialectical Behavior Theory and in some Buddhist teachings (and it’s the title of a book by American psychologist Tara Brach). I’ve bumped up against it both in my own therapeutic work and in our work as a family. To me, it means that if I can accept things as they are, truly and with every fiber of my being, then I will be free– then I can step on to the path to enlightenment. To contentment. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Oh, to be content. After two years of rolling my own boulder uphill every single day, I say, “F$%@ that S*&#!” I don’t think I’m anywhere close to radical acceptance– my current status is more like “resigned acceptance.” Life is hard, and it sucks. And I don’t think that’s okay, or at least I haven’t yet found a way to be okay with that. . . but I have learned that I have the strength to choose freedom, freedom from my old, distorted ways of thinking. (Some days, anyway. Other days, I stay in bed.) It’s so deliciously tempting to fall into the comforts of ruminating about the past or freaking out about the future. It’s still so miserably hard to stay eternally vigilant and planted firmly in the present, open and terrifyingly exposed to the unknown. It’s fucking exhausting to be a battle-ready, peace-loving, lotus blossom warrior fighting to face the sunlight and stay upright in the mud and muck of human experience. It sucks. It’s too high a price to pay. And? What other choice do we have?

I want to use this space to acknowledge all the messy, unpleasant emotions that we all share– if we don’t own them then they will own us. I’m tired of being polite and contained and performing to what I think are other people’s expectations of me– none of this has actually helped my kids, or my family, or the people I love, avoid the pain of their own humanity. Nor, in fact, has it ultimately helped me.

Resigned acceptance sounds like a reasonable place to start. Today at least. If you’d like some company I’ll be right here, rolling my own rock up my own hill. There’s plenty of room. As long as you don’t mind a few curse words in between meditations and water breaks.

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

To The Moon (Part Two)

April 6, 2019

Time slowed to an excruciating crawl during the days before and after saying goodbye to Ollie. In contrast, the slashes of images from those days flash rapidly, assault-style, through my mind. The “last meal” the night before our flight to Hawaii. Putting him in a wheelchair for the first time because he was too sore and tired to walk through the Dallas airport. His last few phone calls to family and friends while we sat at the gate. Outbursts of anger and sadness throughout our painfully long plane ride. The actual goodbye was brief– Ollie’s choice to do it quickly was a testament to the incredible bravery he has shown throughout all of this. There would be no scene as we met the transportation staff at the Kona airport– actually the scene came right after they led Ollie away. Surrounded by happy “Alohas” and smiling tourists wearing fragrant leis Cameron and I dissolved. I managed to stay standing only by leaning heavily against a half-wall, while Cameron stood doubled over, trying to focus enough to pick up our bags from the baggage carousel.

What had we done?

We made plans to stay on the island for a couple of days, just to feel closer to Ollie. Driving to our hotel, seeing the black volcanic rock, the lush mountains, and the turquoise sea all in one vista reaffirmed our sense of being on another planet. It would have been breathtaking, had we had any breath left.

Actually, once we got through the pantomime of checking in and having the bellhop show us to our rooms, we were able to take in our surroundings and marvel at the spectacular beauty. There is something deeply therapeutic about being near the water. The flowers all around us, the birds trying to share our al fresco breakfasts, and the honu- sea turtles– resting on the rocky shore gave us brief moments of peace. If Hawaii’s natural wonders brought us some semblance of calm, being surrounded by people (families vacationing, kids laughing, wedding parties celebrating) was excruciating. I kept having to leave our meals early, overcome by the sight of a baby or small child in the arms of their parent. So much love, such potential– all I wanted was to have MY baby in MY arms.

We weren’t going to be able to see or hear from Ollie for the first couple of weeks, and that enforced silence, coupled with the dread of going back home without him, kept us off balance. We were tearing ourselves up inside– unable to stay centered in the present moment, grieving both the past and the unknown future to come. Now, after so many months, I know the signs and symptoms when I start losing my center and fall either forward into the future or backward into the past. At the time, though, that tearing-apart sensation felt like that was how it was always going to be– and it felt like we deserved it. We simply couldn’t reconcile the knowledge that we were doing “the right thing” with how gutted we were feeling. Our parenting instincts had failed spectacularly. We tried our best, and it wasn’t enough. We were holding on to the thinnest, most skeptical, frightened version of hope imaginable. It wasn’t much- just barely enough to keep us moving in spite of massive guilt, uncertainty, and deep sadness. Some days, back home, I didn’t move at all.

Ollie wasn’t the only one facing some of the hardest work of his life. We were broken wide open, and there was no going back.