Posted in musings

walking by faith: because coping with mental illness is like striving for a virtuous life

When you live with a mental illness, you get a lot of practice at redirecting the pathways of your thoughts. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath when the first hint of an unhelpful emotion or mantra wafts in; other times it takes repeated corrections, minute by minute, guiding your thoughts out of the road they want to travel and into a different pattern.

“He’s angry at me”, my mind says – and I have to force myself to look at the facts of the situation, remember he didn’t sleep well last night, so maybe it makes more sense that he is angry at something else or just tired and not showing positive emotions well.

“I can’t do anything right”, it says again, and I have to list off the things that have gone right in the past hour, no matter how small they are, and put the mistake in perspective: I fed the kids a healthy breakfast, I got a shower, I got everyone to speech therapy on time with activities prepared, and it’s not the end of the world if they only have socks on and their shoes are sitting at home…

“You’ll never be worth anything, they’d all be better off without you”, it repeats, and I have to turn the feelings inside out, repeat what I believe in the core of my being about the innate worth and dignity of the human person, remember the irrational and inexplicable unconditional love of a child, pray for the strength to run my race with endurance as did the saints who suffered and died for their faith, lift up my head like a superhero knocked down but not out once again.

The emotions are harder to deal with, being by nature less specific of a difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is covered in a gray mist, blocking out the color and the joy and the reason to try, and all you can do is make your way from one task to the next, drawing on reservoirs of strength you didn’t know you had, waiting for the sun to break through again. Sometimes guilt (or self-loathing, or whatever the word for it is) attacks like a fistful of knives in your brain, and you hold your breath through the mental pain and then, somehow, inhale again and lift your face to the fight once more. Sometimes everything you take in is edged with inexplicable sadness, the inverse of a silver lining, and you embrace the beauty anyway, despite the bittersweet twist in your heart.

And what I’ve been coming to realize, lately, is that this turning away from the easier path into downward mental spirals and unhelpful thought patterns, and this setting of my feet so carefully and unsteadily in new ways of thinking, is really very similar to the process of living a virtuous life. Here is my fear, dissuading me from some act of charity or justice or faithfulness – now I must turn my thoughts aside from that path, from the rationalizing of my cowardice, and take an action I very much do not have the emotional support to make. And in the act, I make it that much easier to choose courageously in the future. There is my anger, snapping out at the people I love, roughening my edges to sharp and jagged lines, giving me hurtful words to hurl – now I must close my mouth, count to ten, pray for peace and gentleness and self-control, try to look through another’s eyes, and eventually even try to speak in kindness and in calm. And in the act – in every time I try, even if I do not entirely succeed – I train my mind and will to not fall so automatically into the pathway of that vice. It’s rather a daunting thought, knowing that I have both sanity and virtue at stake here 😉 – but on the other hand, what practice I will have at it! And with God near at hand with His grace and strength, and the community of saints present to encourage and guide me, I have hope that my practice (in both arenas!) will not be in vain.

Posted in autism acceptance month

autistic inertia

This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!

Ever since I took physics and learned the word “inertia”, I’ve used it in an off-label manner to describe my own difficulties in beginning an activity, changing to a new activity, or stopping an activity that I’m interested in. I have a lot of inertia, I’ll say, so it’s hard for me to get started with something, especially if it isn’t something I have a lot of motivation to do (like cleaning the bathrooms!). Or: I am mentally like a very heavy ball rolling along and it can therefore be hard to stop my brain from pursuing its direction of interest (for instance, obsessive reading at the expense of all other good things like sleep). Then there is the emotional inertia: once I am angry at someone or about something, it is incredibly difficult to stop feeling that way – but once I am close to and grow to trust someone, it is equally difficult to damage my respect for and loyalty to them.

It always seemed to me that most people didn’t have quite so much trouble getting started on disagreeable-but-necessary tasks, or have to race to recalibrate to avoid panicking when plans abruptly change, or get stuck on one particular thing for quite so long. For example, no matter how far in advance I prepare for something, I am always struggling to finish it right as the deadline approaches – I just keep merrily going along in one step of the process and suddenly realize with horror I’m almost out of time to do any subsequent steps! Or I’ll set phone reminders and ask my husband to text me and think about it every day and still manage to “forget” to make a necessary phone call for weeks, because I don’t have the mental ability to initiate an activity I dislike without some type of urgent motivation (again with the dirty bathrooms…). Or I’ll find myself unable to read anything other than the one book I’m currently absorbed in, so I’ll just read it over and over and over again until the hunger for it finally abates (I read Lord of the Rings over twenty times when I was 18-20 years old, as a reference point for this. I just could not move on. And that was hardly a unique situation…)

A few years ago I tried looking up this concept online to see if anyone else had similar struggles, and to my great surprise I found that other people had noticed the same phenomenon and even given it the same name! There is something very reassuring about not being odd and not-quite-right all by oneself. From what I can tell, this inertia is related to several executive functions that can be impaired in autism, and is related to more commonly-referenced autistic behaviors such as rigidity, adherence to routine, discomfort with transitions, and perseveration. It is not due to laziness or stupidity; it’s just a result of the way the autistic brain is wired. And that is certainly a relief to hear when someone has spent years berating themselves because they’ve tried to change and couldn’t – and it also provides the accuracy of understanding necessary to design helpful solutions to the inertia problem. For example, no matter how many times I tell myself I need to get my lazy self in gear and clean the bathrooms, it isn’t going to happen and I’m going to be swamped in guilt and struggle to do anything else either – but if I tell myself something like, I’m in here anyway supervising a bath so how about I just wipe things down and see how much I can get done, I can usually get it taken care of and then have the glow of having conquered a difficult obstacle to build off of.

Anna Sullivan’s handout on inertia from Autreat 2012 is the most comprehensive description I’ve found of inertia, and takes the time to break down why it is in fact different from laziness or poor decision-making, and how it is possible for someone to not do something they actually want to do (personally, I have now or have had in the past significant challenges with four of her examples: I cannot make arbitrary choices, I used to struggle a lot with breaking a large task into smaller pieces, I cannot put myself into a desired mode of operation on demand, and I find it very difficult to move from a low-energy to a high-energy state). Reading through her list of practical tips was insightful as well – although I’ve stumbled upon a lot of those strategies myself, having them articulated objectively makes it easier to remember and practice them in the future. (If you click through to the article, note that the abbreviation AC refers to “Autistic and Cousins”, including other neurodivergent groups and individuals in the discussion).

Are you an inertial person? How does it affect your day-to-day life?

 

Posted in musings

it is not surprising that those who neglect the Mother of God also demean and objectify womanhood

A toxic strain of misogyny dwells within Christianity, an infection that pretends to be part of its host. It makes women out to be spun glass or precious china – beautiful objects, of great value and worthy of being protected. Notice that this analogy, while purporting to elevate women, actually paints women as objects, not persons, and portrays them as being unable to protect themselves or others who they love or who are vulnerable and in need. It limits the acceptable competencies of womanhood (i.e., from fighting to nurturing) and removes agency and autonomy from women.

A particularly egregious article from the well-known ministry Desiring God has by virtue of its poor writing made this misogyny more blatant than is typical (or, likely, than was intended). First, the author writes that “our God, our nature, our love must firmly say, You are too precious, my mother, my daughter, my beloved. It is my glory to die that you may live.” Here part of the true reasoning behind the overprotective platitudes is revealed: the pride of men is at stake, and it is a fragile thing! Far be it from these men to endure the long years of loneliness and deprivation following the death of a loved one; no, for them it is the single shining moment of a glorious death that they crave, that though the women they leave behind might suffer and be forgotten, they at least might be remembered and praised for their valiant bravery. No matter that if they had fought together, this man and his mother (or daughter, or beloved) may have both escaped unscathed, or more effectively protected their children or neighbors. The heroics of the man would be diminished, his glory tarnished! May it never be!

I (and I believe I speak for most women here) have no desire to be the token object by which a man’s glory is elevated, a precious thing but a thing all the same. Womanhood complements manhood that the two might fight the battles of life hand in hand, and they are not so dichotomously opposed that is must always be the men who die in glory and the women who remain at home in silence and tedium. The strength of manhood grows more patient and steadfast when tempered by the daily tasks of nurturing and maintaining a family and home; the strength of womanhood gains sharpness and fire when allowed to whet itself on the battlefield (whether philosophical, political, or physical). Though cultural traditions have often mandated otherwise, God has given to some women – like Deborah and Joan of Arc – a vocation of war and public ferocity; and He has similarly given to some men, though their names may be lost to a history that treasures only moments of flashy glory, a vocation of tenderness and private service.

The unfortunate article in question, however, does not content itself with this first statement of objectification. In the concluding paragraph, the author states that “God’s story for all eternity consists of a Son who slew a Dragon to save a Bride.” Conveniently, it seems, he forgets or ignores the great foremother of that Son, of whose seed – not of Adam’s seed, note – the Lord promised that the Savior would one day come. Conveniently again he forgets or ignores the Mother of that Son, who suffered the ignominy and shame of an unwed pregnancy to bear Him for the world, who raised Him in poverty and exile to know and love the Scriptures, who protected with her own body the Savior who that Dragon was waiting to devour. In His person, Jesus united deity with humanity, and though He took the form of a man, He ensured in the person of His Mother that womanhood was not omitted from the salvific narrative, a mere passive item to be protected and preserved. In her, womanhood also fought against the temptations and forces of Satan, and by her obedience and faith – by her willingness to be thrown into the center of the battle for the souls of all humanity – the Son of God was able to be the Son of Man as well, and so die and rise again to bring life to us all.

Of course, it is so much easier to forget about Mary. She comes with theological baggage enough to make any Protestant uncomfortable, especially the Reformed persuasion at Desiring God. But when we write her out of the story, we run the risk of writing out womanhood in general, from social and cultural mores as well as from the life of faith. You can keep your precious china, locked away in your home, safe from the dangers of life until it fades and grows brittle with the years of disuse. Let me instead be a woman like Mary, if I can dare to even dream so high – a woman like Deborah, like Joan of Arc, like Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila, like the saints who fought for the faith and the martyrs who died for it; I am like them a woman, a child of God, and I refuse to be objectified.

Posted in family life

picky eating, oral stims, and anxiety

Rondel is not exactly a stereotypical picky eater, but he is quite particular when it comes to food, for clear sensory-related reasons. Texture and temperature are probably the most important aspect of a food for him – his favorite foods tend to be either frozen or in the dry-to-crunchy range. So he can be quite happy eating some tortilla chips (sometimes he’ll tolerate them with melted cheese) alongside a bowl of frozen mixed veggies, he loves toast and frozen blueberries for breakfast, he prefers crackers to fig bars, he only enjoys chicken nuggets if the outer coating isn’t at all “mushy”, and he won’t eat any fresh fruit at all (except perhaps melon in the summer or pear in the fall) after having decided his primary previously acceptable fruit (apple) made his mouth feel funny. He will eat noodles and potatoes in moderation, but not consistently. Mexican refried beans and rice are acceptable, but runnier beans and rice dishes (I have a few really good ones) are not. I don’t think he has ever consented to eat soup or oatmeal, and the thought of sweet potato or avocado is enough to make him emotionally upset. Also, having a favorite food to accompany a merely tolerable one seems to help by resetting or calming the tactile receptors in his mouth.

I had never really given much thought to picky eating prior to having kids, because I tend to be a more adventurous eater, but I am realizing now that I have my own sensory quirks. I heavily prefer foods where each bite will have a variety of textures, or where the level of spiciness is enough to leave a burn, or where dedicated chewing may be required – so in a peanut butter sandwich I will use crunchy peanut butter and orange marmalade and toast the bread if at all possible; I attempt to make even normal bland foods more bold by adding extra seasonings (cayenne in the mac and cheese, double the recipe’s amount of every single spice for spice cookies); and I enjoy fairly tough meat but can only rarely handle creamy soup.

The appearance or smell of a food can also cause an overwhelming or challenging sensory reaction. Rondel reacts quite strongly to anything that looks mushy or gooey (like yogurt or banana); I recoil from unevenly bumpy foods (I avoided looking at peeled bananas for at least a year as a child). Rondel can be bothered by the smell of the food other people are eating or even by food that he enjoys eating (which I have only observed in myself during pregnancy – I notice smells quite well but am not usually bothered by them), but we’ve found that lighting a candle on the table makes things significantly better for him.

Interestingly enough, I have also recently noticed that eating painfully spicy food actually helps lower my anxiety levels, and temporarily decreases my reliance on other stims. I’m guessing it is similar for Rondel, and may be part of why he’s been a bit pickier and more wild lately as we are out of both tortilla chips and frozen blueberries. It makes me wish some of his earlier oral stims were still helpful for him – he had been able to translate overt licking of his hands and arms into chewing a wooden necklace, and it made a big difference for him in more stimulating environments especially – but he hasn’t shown much interest in them since this summer. I was beginning to think he would take after my grandmother, who still surreptitiously chews on her hands to stim! And who knows, maybe he will 🙂 in my experience, stims can ebb and flow over time, even if some are more enduring or central.

In the meantime, we’ll keep on freezing our yogurt into creamy cold dots, stocking our house with plenty of whole-grain bread for toast, lighting our candle at dinner, and continuing to try new foods in hope that some of them will cooperate with his unique blend of sensory cravings and aversions!

Posted in book lists, sqt

{sqt} – reading highlights of 2018

I’m joining up with the seven quick takes linkup again this week, for the first time in a while, with a fitting theme for the last Friday of the year: 2018 favorites! My focus is going to be on the books I’ve read this year; with my end-of-the-year detour into fan fiction my booklist is shorter than it was in 2017, but it is still full of books I loved and want to share.

Parenting: Differently Wired, by Deborah Reber

differentlywired

If you were following my blog this summer, this favorite should come as no surprise! This is one of the best books I have found for parents of neurodivergent children – one that honors their differences and supports parents in helping their children to remain authentically themselves while also learning to live in a world that is often critical of who they are. For a more in-depth review, see this post leading up to its release this summer. (You may notice I tried to run a giveaway for the book; well, no one entered, so if you feel this book would be relevant or helpful for you, let me know… I still have the extra copy 🙂 )

Science: The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee

emperorofallmaladies

This book offers an interesting take on cancer, as it examines the history of human interaction with cancer in all its ethical and political context rather than focusing solely the medical manifestations of the illness (though it delves quite deeply into the biology of cancer as well). I learned a lot and was deeply fascinated through the entire book (but as it was a library book, I can’t go back to pull up any awesome quotes for this post, unfortunately!). While it is very long, I think it is definitely worth the time and effort to read it, especially for anyone interested in biology, pathology, bioethics, or science policy.

Other Non-Fiction: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson

justmercy

When you grow up in a privileged environment, it can be challenging to learn about corruption and brokenness in systems skewed in your favor. This book was difficult to read primarily because of the nature of its topic, and the injustices it exposed – whose depths I had no idea existed beforehand (even though I was aware of the biases in our judicial system, I was not aware of the extent of those biases, particularly in certain areas of the country). I picked up this book last Christmas on the recommendation of Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, for both myself and my grandma, and both of us agree that it was a powerful and moving book, containing invaluable context for understanding (and hopefully healing) some of the racial and cultural divides in our nation. (For more of my thoughts, and some quotes, see this post from April.)

General Fiction: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

majorpettigrew

In this novel, an old British major slowly falls in love with a Pakistani shopkeeper (both widowed), to the general consternation of her extended family and their entire village. The interactions between them on both individual and sociocultural levels are simultaneously awkward, amusing, and enlightening (in other words, fairly realistic for two very different people from very different backgrounds thrown into contact with one another); and the twists and turns of the plot are both somewhat unexpected and very satisfying. Major Pettigrew especially, as a slightly cynical and cantankerous old British man finding himself in ludicrously unprecedented circumstances, is quite a wonderful character 🙂

Dystopia: American War, by Omar El Akkad

americanwar

I’m surprised I didn’t post about this book back in July! Dystopia is one of my favorite genres, and this one hit particularly close to home. It is set in the southern United States, in a future in which climate change catalyzes a second Civil War; with Northern forces applying external pressure and international agents internally taking advantage of hatred and discontent, the book follows one individual from poverty, through a refugee camp, to indoctrination and grooming in a shadowy terrorist cell. The methods and circumstances are drawn from the actual history of civil war and terrorism in the Middle East, but the culture and setting are undeniably American, and the juxtaposition reinforces both the humanity of people our culture often labels as “other” and the very real possibility that our nation too could be ravaged by the dark side of that shared humanity. I highly recommend it, but it is not a comfortable read.

Science Fiction: Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

lefthandofdarkness

LeGuin is an exceptional world-builder, and I have enjoyed all of her works, but this is in my opinion one of her best, exploring aspects of nationalism, humanity, and gender. How arbitrary are the categories with which we identify ourselves? When one of those categories is rendered meaningless, how do we cope with our own self-understanding, or refashion the image we present to others? How far can one stray from the center of a category and still be considered part of it, by either themselves or by others? And of course all of these questions are not so much discussed as illustrated and implied as the two main characters seek (in both the context of two different nations, as well as in almost total isolation) to accomplish a mission with global and even universal consequences.

Fantasy: Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

nameofthewind

The story here, as wonderfully epic and convoluted and fascinating as it is, in a world with magic and music and legend coming to life, isn’t even the main reason I have to choose this book (and its sequel) as my top fantasy book of the year. Rarely have I encountered an author who can make their prose sing as beautifully as Rothfuss manages to do here. My only disappointment is that the third book in the trilogy has not yet been published, so while each book so far has a definite story arc and is still satisfying to read, the overall story is incomplete.

What are some of your favorite books from this year? Please share in the comments – I always love to hear about good books to read!

Posted in musings

struggling with autumn

Autumn used to be my favorite season. It was the slow build towards Christmas – Halloween, my birthday, Thanksgiving, and the final crescendo of Advent, gradually growing excitement and joy with each passing day. It was the flash of defiant color flaming bright against the shortening days and cooling nights. It was the sharp relief of heat breaking like a sudden smile on a stern face. It was the beginning of a new school year with new classes and things to learn and a definite schedule after the chaotic fun of summer. It was apples ripening and pumpkins to be carved and pot pies pulled steaming from the oven. It was russet and gold and amber and deep brown turning all the world the warm rich colors of wooden bookshelves and leather-bound books – nature and library in one.

And I started out this autumn so well, taking the kids up north to try to see the changing leaves, going to local fall festivals, painting with the warm colors of fall, carving pumpkins – and then it all fell apart, in the fading glow of Halloween, as the realities of four birthdays and Thanksgiving and Advent and Christmas coming all hit me. If autumn has always been for me the season of growing anticipation of coming joy, than this year it feels like the season of growing anxiety about coming struggles. I hate that the same beautiful things I once loved, that have always been so special to me, are now mocking me for my inability to fully enjoy and live in them like I used to. I want to make beautiful traditions for my family, to give them the love of all the seasons of the year that I have always had (for all things are beautiful in their own way, or have the potential to be redeemed into beauty), and all I can feel is shame at my inability to do so – or to even see that beauty myself, anymore.

I just can’t wait for it to be over, this year. For the dead and barren branches of winter to take over. For the lights and colors and gifts and effluence of friends and family to be gone, and in the cold January air to be able to take up the tasks of everyday life again without the expectations of the holidays weighing on my shoulders. Beauty is too high a standard to live by, when I’m the one who has to create it in my home. Like a flame-tinged leaf myself, I’m swaying in the strain of the autumn wind and soon I must break and fall – only I can’t let myself and I have to hold on until the wind passes and the still of the winter brings peace.

Posted in musings

turning thirty

I suppose turning 30 is as good a time as any for contemplating my twenties and looking ahead to my thirties, since we use a base ten system. Ten years is such a long time, when I sit down and think about it – I mean, ten years ago I was single and in college, and ten years from now I will have two teenagers…

It is interesting how time passes, how so many things change about life and circumstances, and how yet, inside, I still feel like the same person I always have been. I suppose I have grown and matured since childhood; but I still feel like the preteen who couldn’t put feelings into spoken words even when she was bursting with them, like the teenager who was haunted by feelings of inadequacy and failure, like the college student who knew how to excel academically but could never maintain social connections, like the young adult who tried to bury her insecurities by attempting to be perfect at absolutely everything. I suppose that is part of being a complete person: carrying a self that at its core remains one thing, one entity, despite the processes of maturation and the effect of time.

And what have time and maturation done for me, these last ten years?

Superficially, I graduated college; got my first non-student job (which I’m still at 8.5 years later!); lived with roommates for a year; recovered from a break-up; lost a treasured mentor; dated and got married to my husband; bought two homes (we moved); and had three kids.

Not so superficially, I struggled a lot over the last ten years with my inner companions of depression and anxiety. The first year of our marriage was especially hard because it felt too good to be true, I suppose, but in the long run our marriage has ended up being one of the most helpful things for that struggle since I have a partner I can trust to unconditionally love and support me through hard times. Also in this decade I sought out professional help for the first time and found it incredibly helpful. I’m realizing that depression and anxiety are fairly loyal and steadfast traveling companions, so I know I’m in for a more struggles still to come, but I’m also realizing that having them around doesn’t make me any less valuable or worthwhile as a person.

Along with mental health and marriage, parenting and neurodivergence have been the two big players in my life over the last decade, particularly the last five years. I have been learning that difference is not necessarily negative, in either myself or in others, that perfection is not the goal (and is ultimately a subjective goal anyway). I have been (and probably always will be) learning to be patient 😛 I am learning how to draw boundaries for myself – even with my children – and how to teach my children to draw boundaries for themselves. I am learning that a bad day or a difficult season does not make me a failure as a parent. And I am learning not to compare myself or my family to other parents and families, because the differences of personality, neurotype, and circumstance are so vast and varied.

Most days, honestly, I feel like an imposter at this whole adult-ing thing. Inside I’m just a teenager, nervous and insecure, with the added pressure of having more years of mistakes to look back on 😛 According to my husband this is fairly common, though, which is somewhat consoling 🙂 My hope is just that, however many years are still to come, I will keep growing in wisdom and holiness, and that I can be a blessing to the people around me instead of running away from them.