Over the past two years (and counting) I have lived through events that have bore incredible pain, as many others have. If you had asked me in March of 2020 if even a fraction of what I experienced would occur I would not have believed you.
I often have described these past two years as purgatory or limbo; life was going on around me but I was stuck in time. Event after event transpired yet the hardship of my own reality was unchanging. During this time, when the universe dealt me that painful set of cards, I was reminded that through our wounds we heal.
I couldn’t stop several grievous events from happening or even prevent how other people were treating me. What I could do is pay attention to the loving & extraordinary people in my life, love myself with my whole heart, heal, and witness the system around me. It was through this process that I was able to start healing my wounds. It was also through this process I saw how damaged our legal system and many related parties are.
The Injustice of the Justice System
I witnessed how power, control, status, money, and fear are the status quo. At first, I fought and screamed against this. Then I realized that the screaming only made it worse. This is how I learned to witness–to surrender–to the system that would now make life-changing decisions for my life and my children’s lives. I realized freedom I thought was mine I never really had in the first place–I was just privileged enough not to have to enter the system before.
Waking up this past weekend to the rights of women being stripped away across the country was sobering but not surprising. Through my own witnessing and observance of our legal system in action, I am able to see this for what it is. As I’ve said before and will say again; power, control, status, money, and fear.
It is sickening to think that these base human qualities are making decisions restricting the rights of women, yet it is our reality. While the restriction of abortions is by far the largest power play we have seen in decades, power plays to remove our rights and increase the wealth & control of others have been happening in front of our eyes for decades.
I still believe that the majority of human beings are good and have more in common than not. Yet so many of us have become disconnected (myself included) from the legal system and the politics around us. I don’t know about you but the word ‘politics’ comes up and my gut reaction is to tuck and roll; to avoid the conversation. My instinct to avoid the conversation is because, to me, politics equals arguing and conflict that ends up with inaction and everyone upset at Thanksgiving.
I wonder now if this wasn’t a ploy to keep us all away from the system, to keep us away from being a part of the conversation? Seeing what I have seen now, I wouldn’t put it past anyone in a position of power in our country. Because if we are all fighting with each other we are not paying attention to them and when we’re not paying attention elected officials who have no right to lead us, let alone speak for us, are running the country for their own selfish gains.
What if we all paid attention? What if we all listened to each other? What if we all stopped arguing and began to witness the system in front of us for what it is? Could it change? I think it could. I also think, much like my own experience, bearing witness may be painful because we will have to look at the wounds of our country. We will have to ask, “Baby, where does it hurt?” We will have to listen to the oppressed, listen to the wounded, and hold space for each wound so we know what needs our attention.
Broken System, Unbroken People
The system is broken, overrun with greed. But we are not broken. We, the people beneath the system. The overturning of Roe vs. Wade is a national wake-up call, shining a light on people in power who should in no way be in power. Six people took away the rights of millions. Six.
I do not know where to start, truly I have to google it. What I do know is that being a bystander in our country is no longer an option. The conflict of politics is not an excuse not to get involved. I can no longer say it’s not for me because this system is taking away my, your, and our children’s freedom. It will require strength, care, and humility. It will require knowing ourselves so we know what we will and will not stand for. It will require learning and unlearning. It will require kindness, strong boundaries, and grace. Trying and failing, then trying again.
Wounds allow light to come into the darkness when we are brave enough to heal them. “Hate, it has caused a lot of problems in the world, but has not solved one yet.” -Maya Angelou. We can either spend the rest of our lives fighting with each other about disagreements, differences, and what we do not want in our policy or we lean into love, listen, take action, and ask what we want. There is kindness in so many of us, our love is stronger than hate. We can make a change we want to see but it will take all of us.
Be brave, band together, listen, heal, and move to action. Be the change you want to see.
Over the course of that last month, I’ve written to you about finding joy amidst hardship, living through pain, leaving domestic violence, and navigating fear. This is not a light load for anyone to take, let alone write about. Outside of my own personal experiences, I know that the people I love (and the world) are carrying hardship too.
LIfe has always had joy, pain, happiness, sorrow, and other dualities. Add a 2+ year pandemic to any of those feelings and we have an additional ongoing hardship to navigate in addition to life being, well, life. How are we surviving and how can we thrive during this time? I don’t know the answer to that but I do know that taking care of our own hearts, bodies, and spirits is truly the only option to get through it.
Taking Care of Yourself
I’ve been a healthcare professional for longer than I’d like to admit (15 years and counting). Over the course of my time with an active caseload, I cannot tell you how many times I repeated the age-old line “you have to put your oxygen mask on first!” when talking to exhausted caregivers of children with behavioral disorders. Fast forward a decade to when I became a mommy and joined the bandwagon of “self-care isn’t selfish, really!” as I carved out time for myself to have enough capacity to raise my little men. Talking the talk is easy to do and going through the motions of self-care has also been extremely publicized over the years.
Need more you time? Pour a glass of wine. Exhausted? Slip into a hot bath. Don’t miss the gym! Press that green juice. Where is your yoga mat? Society and marketing firms have a list of activities that we all can do in order to recharge our batteries and put ourselves first. While we might actually enjoy some of these activities, these slogans and lists completely miss the mark.
You see, all the slogans are telling us that we could actually be more perfect at taking care of ourselves in addition to a mounting list of things to do in order to live the ‘ideal’ life. Perfectionism is not in short supply these days. Neither are product lines nor marketing companies that profit from our deep dives into perfectionism and trying to be ‘good enough.’
In short, the way society (and I) used to talk about self-care is a one size fits all methodology, but one that can actually leave us more exhausted than relaxed. But self-care is really important, and recharging is essential during well, life, and times of high stress. So how do we fill these needs for ourselves? How do we take care of our beautiful but exhausted hearts, spirits, and bodies? My first piece of advice has literally gotten me through my entire life (the good, the bad, and the ugly). Ready for it? My mother would be shocked. Don’t listen to anyone. Like anyone.
Listening to Your Real Needs
I mean I can apply “don’t listen to anyone” to most facets of my life (it’s not always right!) but in regards to self-care I know I’m on to something. How could anyone from the outside world tell you how to take care of yourself when our needs as humans come from inside of our bodies and spirits? The only voice that can actually tell us what we need to recharge is our own. When we need it, how we need it, what feels good, what doesn’t, and so on. Self-care looks like being a guardian of your own energy and putting what your heart, spirit, and body need before the needs of others. Yes, even your children and especially every other person you love.
In a world where we are buzzing and being “so busy,” simply saying, “firm no,” to anything and anyone is the first step to listening to what you really need. It’s impossible to be honest with yourself if you do not make time for yourself. Self-care isn’t a status, it’s a way of being, one that I needed to be more honest with myself about recently. Burning at both ends has been my status quo for well over a year (OK, more than 5 years). Then I remember the wise voice inside of me that wished for my health and happiness above all else. Then I remembered to sit down and listen to what I really needed.
For me, I needed more time with my friends and family and more quiet time to reset on my own. It was a balance. I also needed better food, less sleep (I was over napping… a lot), and finding time to be quiet in my own body (so I did sign up for some yoga classes). I’m not fully re-energized yet but each morning I remind myself I am my own guardian and that I’m worth it. Trauma comes, hardship comes, and our hearts, spirits, and bodies need us to care deeply and kindly for them as we navigate our own personal pain (or just a bad day). We all need a little more kindness starting with ourselves.
It is only in taking care of ourselves that we can care for others. I won’t go all oxygen mask on you but I will challenge you by asking you this, “what hurts, what is tired, and what do you need?” Turn off the noise of the outside world, tune into yourself, and find out. It’s a journey worth taking, I promise.
Last week I wrote to you about life being beautiful, even when it is hard after yet another winter in COVID and the extension of my divorce. As with many of us, these past two years have been full of pain for me alongside joyful moments. Leaving domestic violence saved my life and began to lay the groundwork for my children living free of abuse. Yet the system in which I am divorcing poses its own challenges as many systems do.
Living through the pandemic, alongside my family and friends, has also been traumatizing not only for me but for the people I love. As yet another winter rolled in with no change to the stressors around me, for the first time in a long time, I was able to see that pain is part of life and oftentimes it is out of our control. I’ve often written about fear as a guidepost, but the acceptance of the pain that true trauma and hardship bring is real. I’d like to say more.
As a small child, I thought that life was always supposed to be happy and that happiness was the destination we were all working toward. I was taught, as a girl, to modify my emotions to keep the peace and others comfortable. Any type of negative emotion was seen as something to be avoided and punished. Being uncomfortable or causing discomfort seemed to be a cultural “No” for women where I grew up.
I am lucky enough to have a mother who at home allowed us to feel our full range of emotions (and I had a lot) but even with this outlet, I was conditioned to feel shame over negative and loud emotions that often came from fear, pain, and my experiences with injustice. Happiness was where we were all going and how other people deserved to feel. The full range of negative emotions I felt (and still feel) were not welcomed and are still not welcomed in many places.
You see in a world where comfort and happiness are the prizes, discomfort is seen as the enemy. We are sold an awful lot of bullshit from the stories politicians tell, social media, and marketing firms about how to stay small and comfortable. Feel pain? Vote for me and I’ll fix your suffering. Feel pain? Follow my beautiful life on Instagram, then copy it. Feel pain? Buy another…fill in the blank to numb it. Feel pain? Just pour another glass of wine mama. All these ‘solutions’ when the real answer is, “feel the pain; first nurture your own heart and soul, then ever so slowly step back into life.”
Pay Attention to You, Not What the World is Telling You
Our society is gaslighting us by telling us that life is supposed to be warm and fuzzy all of the time. If we question our own discomfort, leaning into how we feel, we are challenging the system of power that is designed to keep us small. In my recent experience, if you speak loudly about discomfort (like domestic violence) shame is rampant because speaking about pain makes other people uncomfortable. I can write with 100% certainty that other survivors have had this experience when they have spoken about their abuse. Perhaps, in my lifetime, that percentage will decrease.
But here’s the thing. None of us, none of us, go through life in a bubble feeling happy all of the time. Happiness is fleeting and if we are using it as a meter for our life we will in fact miss our lives. Joy is a long-lasting emotion that can live with pain. I’ll write more about this later, but today we stay with pain.
How many of you have been raised to believe that pain is a scary, avoidable emotion that needs to leave your life as quickly as it came? And how many of us have had life experiences that are outside of our control that caused the pain? I’m guessing all of us. At the end of one of Glennon Doyle’s recent podcasts, her daughter Tish Melton sings. One line in the song has stuck with me week over week. “I hit rock bottom, it felt like a brand new start. I’m not the problem, sometimes things fall apart.”
This line stays with me because so many of us are not only told to avoid pain but told that when bad things happen it’s our fault especially when we are talking about abuse. Or that if we are feeling pain our job is to hide the pain to keep everyone comfortable, because everyone else being comfortable keeps us safe. It’s a loop that ultimately leads to shame and, as the brilliant Brene Brown writes, “the only way to eradicate shame is to talk about it.”
Pain & Shame
So, if pain and the strong emotions surrounding this pain are part of life, why should pain something to be avoided? The real answer is it should not. Pain is just part of life. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. It’s not something we need to race past to get back to happiness. It just is.
And alongside pain just being part of life, joy is also a part. Sitting with pain and allowing others to know about your pain heals your own experience with pain and, in cases of abuse, can save the lives of others when you speak out. The more we allow pain to be part of life, the more we can tackle head-on what is working in our lives, how to nurture ourselves through life’s challenges, and how to protect others from the pain others are trying to inflict on us. The small subset that is.
It’s OK to say what hurts. If we swallow our pain and push on into, “fine,” just to demonstrate we’ve won the golden ticket of happiness we will in fact miss our own lives. Pain happens. Hard times happen. How we navigate the pain is not only the roadmap back to our own hearts but will help to build a more true representation of the human experience.
If you are living in a situation where pain is happening because another person is causing it, this type of pain is not OK and not what I am writing about. I am writing about the pain that comes from feeling our own emotions and human experiences. If another person is hurting you, in any way, the kindest thing you can do for yourself is to leave. Yes, it will hurt, but that pain is worth it. The pain you are feeling from abuse is never, not ever OK.
Pain within is a compass. It tells us how to care for ourselves and how to leave what is no longer serving us. Happiness is a guise as a final destination. Freedom is what we all deserve. Freedom to be who we are, feel what we feel, and live our lives as close to our soul as possible.
I don’t know about you but I’m not raising my little men to be happy, I’m raising them to be free. Free to feel every part of their human experience knowing that first mama and then their own hearts is a safe space to land.
P.s. This one’s for you Kiki
This past November I made a decision to stop publicly writing until my divorce was final. I’ve spent hours on the stand just reading my own bank statements and wanted to prevent my blog from somehow adding to the length of the divorce process. In September of last year, the courts scheduled a final hearing for March 3rd, 2022. “Just 6 months,” I thought, “I can do 6 more months.”
This past week I received a call from my new lawyer… another extension. Four more months. The date I was told was final was not. There is so much I want for my children, so four more months of the same felt unreal, yet here it was. It felt like Groundhog Day. Haven’t I been here before? Stuck in the same?
Dealing with an Extended Divorce Process
Yes, I have been divorcing for what will now be more than half of my younger son Declan’s life. He was 18 months when this all started, now he wants a race car cake, like Metchie (his older brother, Dametrius) for his third birthday. My Henry will be ready for kindergarten this fall. My son Dametrius will start looking at colleges.
My children have kept growing, yet their mama’s world has seemed stuck in the same storm. Sunshine was promised yet clouds continue to roll in. As hard as my situation is (divorcing in a small town while leaving domestic violence) I can’t help but think of all of us, stuck in the pandemic for longer than my divorce, waiting for a clearing stuck in the darkness.
Last September when I received the final divorce date I thought “OK after my divorce is final life can go on.” I will be able to make plans. I want to go to the beach. To hold my babies for more than two nights at a time before transferring to their father yet again. To begin building a life with the amazing partner I am lucky to call mine. To spend time with friends. The list went on and on.
With COVID, I have felt the same way, wishing for it to be over so life can go on. Have you? How many times have you found yourself saying, “when COVID is over, when it’s normal again, I’m going to…” fill in the blank. I know personally, I’ve thought about activities for the kids, swim lessons, flying on an airplane with children, and so much more. My sister’s darling twins turned 3 this year, she really, really wants to take them to storytime.
I don’t know about you, but when there is a restriction present it is hard to plan, to know what to do, to make things feel formal. Whether it’s a divorce, a pandemic, or anything else outside of your control, how do you convince yourself to go on when sometimes all you want to do is go back? Back to the way things were before the restriction was there.
This week when I got the news of yet another delay something shifted in me. Snapped if you will. I couldn’t do it. I could not spend one more moment telling myself, “when I’m divorced I’ll fill in the blank.” I don’t know about you but I also cannot do one more, “when COVID is over then I’ll fill in the blank” either.
I looked at my babies (OK now full-on boys) and right in front of me, life is happening. They are growing, evolving, and living. They aren’t waiting for anything to change their lives, they are just alive. While divorce is hard, they are little, and often the biggest upset of the day is something like no ice cream or Mario time.
Dametrius is actually thriving and his thriving splits my face into a smile I cannot shake. In looking at my children and now two restrictions without an end I can depend on I decided, “you know what, I can live too.” I don’t need to wait for this to be over and the truth is life isn’t going to be the same after all of this but it’s not going to be better either. It’s just going to be different. There are amazing things happening right now in the darkness, shining stars if you will.
Seizing the Now
Sure there are a million things my heart and mind want to do when I am divorced and the pandemic isn’t restricting our social life. But there is so much to love right here, right now. Just this past weekend, I celebrated my 35th birthday and was surrounded by the best friends and family I could ever ask for. I am not kidding you, outside of my dear Aunt Linda in Colorado and Catherine in New Mexico, I sat down with, dined with, or exchanged gifts with everyone I love. Everyone.
How does a woman become that lucky? And these people I love? They are the most incredible people you have ever met. After spending a week with them, alongside my boys, I basked in the evidence right in front of me that life can be beautiful even when hard things aren’t going anywhere. Or are going somewhere at a snail’s pace.
I thought to myself, what do I want to do now with my one wild and precious life? I do not have time today to fill the pages with my dreams. But today, I want to adjust my spirit for the slow walkout and to enjoy every step on the path. I’ve got some incredible people walking right alongside me.
When Life is Dark as Winter’s Night, Share Some Kindness, Bring Some Light.
This past week I wrote to you about setting boundaries with our children. In my blog, I wrote about the importance of boundaries for the emotional development of children. I also wrote to you about my own struggles in setting boundaries as a mama. One of the main reasons I struggle with setting boundaries for my own children is the (out)bursts that come with it.
It just so happens that as a clinician one of my primary areas of specialization is problem behaviors (the bursts). It’s what I went to graduate school to study over a decade ago. Over 10 years later and I can tell you the science of reducing problematic behaviors hasn’t changed. My own journey applying clinical skills at home, of course, has not (well, not totally). Today I’d like to write to you about both.
ABA & Bursts
Let’s start at the beginning with ‘burst science.’ Applied Behavior Analysis teaches us that social behaviors, both positive and negative, can be broken into units that can be studied. In studying units of behavior, BCBAs are able to identify the function of behaviors (why behaviors occur) and missing skills in the child they are studying. When it comes to reducing problem behaviors, behavior analysts are looking for why the behavior is occurring. This involves looking at what is happening before the behavior and what happens after the behavior.
While studying the environment before bursts occur, BCBAs look for a deficit in the child’s environment. What are they missing? Studying environments after bursts allow BCBAs to see if the child’s problem behaviors filled the deficit. If they did, the child is successfully using the problem behavior to get their needs met. This means the problem behaviors are being reinforced and will continue to occur. Magic I’m telling you. Magic.
You see, by studying what a child is seeking in a specific environment you can create interventions that fill the child up with what they are seeking to immediately decrease the problem behaviors. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it creates a short-term solution to make the days easier for the child and their families. While the child is being satiated BCBAs work on teaching new skills surrounding the child’s needs. This always looks like teaching functional communication skills, how to ask for exactly what you need.
Sometimes teaching specific skills can look like teaching patience and tolerance to ‘no’ when what the child wants isn’t good for them to have all the time. For example, if a child is throwing tantrums to get access to candy it’s damaging to have non-contingent candy all of the time. But if a child is tantruming for positive attention, we can fill them up without having to teach tolerance to no. Though we might have to teach waiting because sometimes mama (or papa) is busy.
The key to this remedy is to also remove reinforcement when a child is using their problem behavior to get their needs/desires met. If, in the scenarios above, the BCBA is providing candy (one piece) every 30 minutes and within 15 minutes the child hits to get access to the candy the BCBA cannot give the child the candy. If they do they will reinforce the hitting and take the motivation away from using words. It is here, in this little sweet spot of the behavior intervention, that bursts occur. Let’s talk about that.
Why Do Bursts Occur?
Underneath the bursts for children (and adults… more on that later) is fear that their needs/desires won’t be met. The bursts occur because, in the child’s mind, that very thing they want could become unattainable, their need won’t be met, and they will have to experience negative emotions. Dealing with both the fear of a need/desire not being met alongside psychologically negative emotions is tough stuff for a child. This right here? This is the hard part for parents and the sweet spot for teaching emotional resilience and intelligence.
As a mama, I know firsthand how easy it is to give in. To not want to deal with the temper tantrum, the screaming, and the crying. We are human beings and crying children is not comfortable. When we give in as parents at a given moment it provides immediate relief to ourselves and our children. It also perpetuates the very behaviors we don’t want to see more of and does not teach our children how to deal with the big emotions.
About a year ago Henry and I were at Dametrius’s football game and Henry wanted candy from the concession stand. I had packed snacks and knew sugar was on the menu later so I didn’t want him to have extra candy. I leaned down and told my little son, “no, not now we’ll have dessert at dinner”. Of course, in public, a full-on tantrum occurred. At that moment I thought how perfectly aligned this example was. You see at that moment I could have made a concession at the concession stand by just giving in. If I gave in Henry would happily watch the game and I wouldn’t have to be teaching Henry to breathe and tell me how he feels. But giving in also meant teaching my son to numb his emotions with food and that screaming works. So I stood my ground and worked with Henry.
You see under the bursts, as we are teaching boundaries. As children burst, their hearts need to know they can ride through negative emotions and still be safe on the other side. That nothing bad comes from feelings and that needs can be met in new ways. To me, as a clinician, I know that working through the bursts creates long-lasting, positive, change. As a mama, teaching my children to ride what is underneath the bursts is more valuable than any concession I could make at any given moment.