Learning to Accept We Won My Son’s Battle with Autism

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When your child is diagnosed on the autism spectrum, you instantly enter the greatest battle of your life—the battle for your child’s future. I’ve been fighting that battle for almost 11 years with no one in the trenches with me but my son, Michael. I can’t describe the pressure I’ve felt trying to do everything in my power to ensure the very best for him. It’s been a long road filled with frustrations and triumphs, setbacks and breakthroughs, tears and laughter. Michael turned 14 this month, and as I reflect on how far he’s come on his journey, I’m filled with so much pride. Why then am I still so scared? Why am I still on guard every minute? The answer is that Michael’s life and future are changing. Everything we’ve fought for is coming to fruition; everything we fought for is being realized, and while he’s reveling in the change, I’m the one struggling with it. I’ve spent so long fighting for my son that even when I’ve won the battle I don’t know how to stop fighting.

From the day Michael was diagnosed, I went into action. No diagnosis was going to hold him back. No one was ever going to tell him what he can and cannot do. I scheduled him for two speech therapy sessions, one occupational therapy session, and one physical therapy session a week. Insurance covered a minimal number of sessions, but even when I had to pay for the sessions myself, I continued for three years until the therapists released him due to his progress.

I immediately had Michael evaluated by the county educational services and enrolled him in a preschool for children with special needs. In addition to the weekly therapy sessions, I would work with Michael each day reinforcing what he was learning in preschool and in his private therapy sessions. Within three months of starting preschool, I was informed that Michael would need to go to another school the next year because he had progressed so much in the short time he was there that he was too advanced compared to his classmates; he wasn’t getting enough stimulation. I moved him to the preschool in our hometown, and he continued to progress.

Year after year, IEP meeting after IEP meeting, and teacher conference after teacher conference, I went armed and ready to fight. Michael would get the services he needed to succeed. He would get the individual attention he needed to ensure he understood the classroom material. All this while spending hours each day helping with homework, breaking down assignments into manageable chunks for him to tackle, and teaching him how to study based on his strength of memorizing information. It was grueling at times, some nights ending with both of us in tears, but it was also rewarding when he would come home with an A on an assignment or test that he had worked so hard to earn. It was our life; it was what we were used to it, or at least it was what I was used to.

Fast forward to seventh grade. The year certainly hadn’t started the way I imagined. It was a rough start with math class posing an ongoing struggle, but as the year went on, something changed. Maybe it was puberty, or maybe it was just all of the hard work we had done over the years, but Michael started owning his schoolwork. When asked to be taken out of class to work with the intervention specialists, he declined. He didn’t want to work with them other than in study hall. He didn’t want to leave class; he wanted to stay with all his classmates. He also didn’t want his helicopter mom checking all of his work or helping him with his assignments. At first, I thought it was just Michael being lazy, and I was angry and pushed back, which frustrated Michael. He knew what he needed, and he wanted me to trust him when he said his work was done, trust him when he said his assignment was ready to be handed in, and trust him when he said he was ready for his test. The truth is that I wanted to, but I didn’t know how because I was supposed to be the one fighting for him, but now, he was fighting for himself.

The biggest shock was at his IEP meeting at the end of the year when his teachers indicated Michael would be due for reevaluation at the end of his eighth grade year. They didn’t think Michael would need an IEP for high school and that he most likely could move to a 504 plan, if he needed any type of plan at all. I freaked out when I heard this. Under no circumstances would the school take services away from Michael. I went on the defensive and prepared for a fight. The intervention specialist pointed out that Michael wasn’t truly receiving any special services. In addition to not being pulled from classes at Michael’s request, we had never used any of the accommodations we could have. Michael could request extra time when taking tests, but he never did. Michael could have requested extra time for assignments, but he never did. All of the accommodations Michael could have asked for, he never did, and he didn’t because we had spent so much time working on making him understand how he needed to work. We spent so much time making him understand how to play to his strengths and how to compensate for his weaknesses. In the end, it resulted in Michael performing at grade level side by side with his “typical” peers.

Even his psychiatrist saw the change and suggested there was no need to continue his regular sessions with her. Again, I protested. He starts high school next year. Big changes are coming. She can’t just abandon us on the cusp of this huge life event. What I failed to see in her recommendation was the same thing I failed to see in the recommendation from the IEP committee. No one was trying to take anything from Michael. They just realized that Michael had achieved what I dreamed for him for the past 11 years. He’s being a typical kid his age without help from anyone else.

We are now halfway through eighth grade, and Michael is doing it all himself. He completes his homework and assignments without my help. He asks for help studying only when he feels he’s struggling with the material. He’s completely independent, and his grades are just as good as when I was intervening and hovering. He’s become more social and even went out by himself in the neighborhood for Halloween. He still has all of the quirks that make him who he is, but he also has a maturity forming—a maturity that makes him need me less, and I don’t know how to deal with that.

It took a lot of self-reflection for me to realize that the reason I’m so apprehensive about changes to the way our lives have been (no IEP, no therapy sessions, no marathon homework sessions) is that I don’t know what my role is in this life we are moving forward with. It’s been my job to protect Michael from the cruelty of the world that wouldn’t understand him and his quirks. It’s been my job to fight for him and to prove to the world that he’s more than his diagnosis. It’s been my job to make Michael believe he can do anything. After 11 years, I’ve won those battles; I have this amazingly brilliant, loving young man who has this amazing high school experience in front of him and dreams of life as an animator—a life that has him looking at art schools and technical schools to figure out what option provides the best experience for him.

So where does the fighter fit in now? How do I stand down after so many years of always being on guard? In all honesty, I don’t have an answer to these questions. I know I’m very lucky and that Michael’s experience is one that many parents dream for their children. My experience is one that many parents dream of for themselves. Michael will always be autistic. It will always be a part of him. Because of that, I’ll always be an autism mom, but now, I have to learn how to just be a mom. That may sound weird to most parents, but it’s been hard for me to let go, to step back, and to let Michael take these steps alone. Fighting for him is second nature; it’s instinctive. For the first time since his diagnosis, I have to learn how to fight those instincts.

I fought the fight life presented us. I went into battle for my son, and I won. Now, I have to learn how to trust that victory. I have to learn how to live in the life that comes after the fight, and no one prepares you for that. Don’t get me wrong. It moves me to tears to watch Michael be the man I always wanted him to be. It fills me with so much pride. I think I’m afraid because while Michael starts his new journey I have to figure out my own. I haven’t thought much about what life holds for me outside of being an autism mom. I guess it’s time to find out.

How I Made 2018 an Amazing Year

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I knew going into 2018 that I wanted to make some pretty big changes in my life. Don’t get me wrong; I had an amazing life—one I was very proud of. However, there were parts of my life that weren’t allowing me to be my best me and that weren’t contributing to my happiness. I’d spent so many years and so much time being what everyone else wanted and needed me to be, but I wasn’t being what I wanted to be or what I needed to be for myself. This was the year when I was going to change all of that. This was the year that I was going to prioritize me. It was going to be a year of peace, health, and happiness. This was the year I was going to start living the life I’ve always wanted to live.

I Learned to Practice Self-care

This was the first change I made because I knew it was the most important. I’ve never made myself a priority. I’ve spent my life selflessly giving to everyone around me. The key was to learn balance. It was good to take care of others, and doing so makes me happy. However, the reality I have come to embrace is that I have to take care of myself first. It started with something as simple as getting facials every month. This then grew to taking time daily to go for walks. From there, it’s been just ensuring my needs are met first. It’s about taking care of myself and replenishing myself so I can be my best, which allows me to be the nurturer I love being. I still have a long way to go with this, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made.

I Went Vegan

I was a vegetarian in 2009 but eventually stopped due to a lack of a support system. I continued to eat predominately vegetarian cuisine, but when I did, it was always met with comments like, “Oh, are you a vegetarian?” or “Wow, you eat really healthy, huh?,” all with a condescending tone like I’d just sprouted a second head. It was easier to just eat like the people around me to avoid judgement. Well, I decided this year that I didn’t care what anyone else thought. This was the lifestyle I wanted to live, and I was going to do it. The positive results of the decision were almost immediate. I feel better than I have in years, and the health issues I started having in 2017 have disappeared. Of all the changes I made this year, this one is the one I’m happiest about making, and I look forward to sharing more about this with my readers as I continue on my vegan journey.

I Changed Jobs

I’d been contemplating this change for a while.  The problem was that my job was breaking me down more and more each day. My favorite part of my team’s job was shifted to another department, and there were numerous changes taking place. The environment I was spending most of my day in and the people I was spending most of my day with were changing drastically. All of a sudden, an environment that had been creative and fun was now filled with negative energy. It was hard because I was a manager, and I had a team that was depending on me. I felt obligated to tough things out for them, but at the end of the day, I was left with nothing to give myself or my son. When I was presented with the opportunity to change roles, I realized it was the change I needed, and that I had to do what was best for my family. My team was very supportive of my decision. Instantly, I felt like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. I now get to be creative again, designing tutorials our customers will engage with daily. I also work from home, so in addition to being able to now completely control my work environment, I am home when my son gets home from school—a change we both appreciate. It’s been about three month since the change, and honestly, I wish I’d done it sooner.

I Started Attending Events I Love

I rarely get to do the types of things I want to do. I’ve always loved the fine and performing arts but rarely attended events because the people in my life didn’t share my passion. Similarly, I rarely get to see the movies I want to see because my tastes in movies aren’t shared with friends or family. This year, I decided I didn’t care about having anyone interested in attending events with me. If I wanted to do something, I did it. The result has been trips to the opera and ballet and other events that seem interesting to me, and I’ve had the best time. These are experiences I otherwise wouldn’t have had because no one wanted to share them. The funny thing is that as I tell people about this, they admire that I do this. People would respond with, “I’ve never seen an opera. That sounds so interesting” or “I didn’t realize there were those types of events in the area.” After the events, I started having people follow up with me and ask me about future events.  This is definitely something I plan to continue. In January of 2019, I already have tickets to see a play, a ballet, and a concert. That’s not a bad way to kick off the new year.

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Why I’m Grateful for Me

November is the month of thankfulness. We take the time to reflect on all of the things we are grateful for, so we’ll see the posts about people being grateful for their children, their spouses, their pets, etc. These are all important things that deserve recognition for the parts they play in our lives, but the one thing that is always overlooked when we stop to think about the things we are thankful for is why we are grateful for ourselves. We don’t ever stop to reflect on ourselves and why we are proud and thankful for who we are and what we’ve accomplished. Maybe people think it’s selfish to do that, but I decided that my first post in November would be about the things about myself I am most grateful for.

I’m a giver. It’s a characteristic I get from my dad. I always want to take care of people. Seeing people hurting or in need breaks my heart. I want people to be happy, so I do what I can to make that happen. I think this is why people always turn to me when they are in need. Whether it be family or friends, they know I’ll never turn them away in a time of need, and I never expect anything in return.

This kindness extends to strangers as well. I’ll compliment strangers on a shirt they are wearing or on their manicure when I like it. I always smile at the cashiers checking me out, exchange pleasantries when they attempts to chat with me, and wish them a good day. I’m always polite to servers and tip well because I know how hard it is to work in the service industry. I’ve even exchanged buggies at the store with a woman who had a baby in a carrier because she was struggling to work it due to a bad wheel. It may seem minute to some people, but all of these small things are moments of kindness these people can take with them through their day. Knowing I may have brightened someone’s day warms my heart, and I’m grateful for that heart.

Life has a way of throwing challenge after challenge my way, and people are always saying how strong I am and how they don’t know how I overcome and do what I do. I don’t know how not to do it—how not to overcome everything placed in my way. I refuse to let anything get the best of me. No matter what comes my way, I persevere because it’s just a part of my nature. Put a wall in front of me, and I’ll offer you seven different ways I’m going to get over or around that wall.

I’m most proud of being a single mom, and this is where my resilience has served me best. I’m raising my son 100% on my own. I’m responsible for providing for his every need. Add to that the fact that my son is on the autism spectrum, and it creates another obstacle in addition to being a single parent. I don’t sit around and cry about how unfair it is that my son’s father chose not to be a part of his life or how unfair it is that my son is on the spectrum. I don’t have time for “whoa is me” because I have a son to raise. I just do what I need to do for my son. I’be worked my ass off to provide the very best of everything he needs, and I’ve fought for a decade to ensure he’s afforded all the rights his “typical” classmates receive. I’m proud of life I’m providing for my son and the amazing young man he’s become as a result of how I’m raising him. There’s no other option daily than to show up and do what I need to for my son. It’s my resilience at its best, and I’m grateful for that resilience.

While I’m caring and have a huge heart as I described earlier, I also know how to dig in and hold my ground. This surprises people who first interact with me because I’m this petite woman standing just over 5 feet tall. I’m a strong, smart woman, and if you’re wrong, I’m going to let you know. If you try to steamroller me, you’re in for one hell of a surprise. The point is that I’m a force, and I’m damn proud of that.

I’m a woman working in a predominantly male field. I’ve had to work twice as hard for everything professionally, and as a result, I protect what I’ve built with passion. I was one of the first female managers at my company, and I’ve had woman at the company tell me they admire what I’ve built; they admire my strength to go up against the men and hold my own. Hopefully, I’ve paved the way for other women to do the same. I’ve had people tell me that there are men at the company who are afraid of me, and I’m not going to lie, that makes me feel good. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not running around all day yelling and screaming at people. I’m just firm and direct. Some people can’t handle strong women, but I never water myself down or consider changing who I am because I’m proud of the woman I am—period. I’m feisty, and I am grateful for that fire.

These are the parts of me I’m most grateful for. What about you? Everyone should have at least one thing about themselves they’re grateful for. My challenge to all of you is that as you go through the month and start thinking about the things you’re grateful for that you include at least one thing about yourself on that list—just one. If you have more, even better. I get that self reflection is hard; people don’t like to analyze themselves too much, but everyone should be proud of the parts of themselves that are uniquely them. So, take some time, reflect, and make that list. You’ll be glad you did.

A Very Different Awareness Month

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October is breast cancer awareness month. I struggled with whether or not I would write about cancer. It’s played a pivotal part in the events that have shaped my life, but breast cancer specifically has played one of the largest roles in shaping my life in the last decade. For seven Octobers, the month represented hope and strength. It was a reminder that it’s possible to overcome even the biggest obstacle. The last three Octobers, however, have been times of mourning and reminders that life is fragile and precious and that the people you love will not always be with you.

My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in June 2009. Things were really, really grim. The cancer had spread to her lungs, spine, and skull. There were doctors who told us she would not make it long and that our best hope was to keep her comfortable. It’s devastating to hear that someone you love is dying. The hardest thing you will ever do is to put on a brave face for them to keep them calm and encouraged, but that’s what I did. For me, it was even more important because my mom was looking to me for her strength; she was looking to me to be her rock and to get her though the cancer, and no matter what it took, that is exactly what I was going to do.

The first glimmer of hope was when we met my mom’s oncologist. Despite all of the information the other doctors gave us, this amazing, heavensent man simply looked at my mom’s chart and then looked at her and said, “No problem. We got this!” He then proceeded to explain her treatment plan. He was very honest that my mom’s cancer would never be in remission but that it would be weakened by the chemo plan he outlined and then maintained with hormones. He was so sure and so positive. My mom started her treatment, and we held onto that hope her oncologist gave us.

By October, things were pretty rough. My mom struggled with the chemo, so she was frail and weak. Her lungs were constantly filling with fluid, making it impossible for her to breath despite her use of oxygen, so her pulmonologist put catheters in her lungs that would allow me to drain them daily. I was giving my mom blood thinner shots daily to prevent clots due to the location of her cancer mass. I was dressing bed sores and performing other nursing duties as needed. Things were so rough that we honestly didn’t know if my mom was going to be alive for Christmas. Nonetheless, it was breast cancer awareness month, and she was still with us four months after we were told that was unlikely. Things were hard, but she was still fighting, and so was I.

Fast forward to the next October and the next October, and my mom had done the unimaginable. Not only was she still with us, but she was doing amazingly well. It was hard to believe the difference. For the next several years, my mom lived a quality life. She was living her life the same way she did before that day in 2009. Each October, I was reminded of just how lucky I was was. The pink ribbons everywhere represented the victory my mom won. They reminded me not to take any of it for granted, and I didn’t.

My mom continued to do well until 2014. Severe back pain would lead us to discover that one of the cancerous spots on her spine caused a fracture. It was back to chemo, but it was OK because she had been through this before, and I believed she could get through it again. Enter another October, and mom was still with us and still fighting. Enter another October, and those pink ribbons represented another round of hope.

By 2015, chemo stopped because my mom lost too much weight. She started steroids to try to increase her appetite, but they weren’t helping. My mom hadn’t driven since her fracture in 2014, so she had lost some independence. I was at her house at least three days a week dressing bed sores, giving shots, and just ensuring she was staying positive.  This lasted through another fall and another October. The pink ribbons still represented hope. They still represented strength. I still had faith that everything would be OK.

At a routine appointment to review my mom’s scans in early 2016, the expression on her oncologist’s face changed. It wasn’t the “We got this” expression from before. It was a serious look I hadn’t seen on his face before. As he rubbed his head in an obviously stressed manner, he looked at my mom and said, “Oh, Nancy, what are we going to do with you?” Her cancer had spread to her stomach, which was most likely why her appetite wasn’t improving. He ordered more chemo, which I knew my mom would never make it through. My heart sank for the very first time in almost seven years. The reality set in, and I wasn’t ready for it. 

The next few months all run together. My mom deteriorated quickly. We were back at the ER for breathing issues because my mom was retaining so much fluid. The ER doctor, with a look of sympathy on his face, looked at us and said that we needed to start asking my mom’s doctors the hard questions. Within a week, I did. I had to make a call to my mom’s oncologist to ask if it was time for hospice. He was the only other person in the world who had never given up on my mom, and he was on the other end of the line saying it was time to let go. It was the hardest phone call I ever had to make. It was the phone call that confirmed there was no hope. There was no more “We got this.” I was going to watch my mom die, and there was nothing I could do about it.

We lost my mom April 24, 2016. It was the worst day of my life. October now is a very different month. The last three Octobers have been times of mourning. Those pink ribbons ribbons don’t represent hope to me anymore. They represent loss. When I see those ribbons, I am reminded of what cancer took from me. Selfish? Yes, but I have earned that right. I see that ribbon and remember that I can’t pick up the phone and call my mom. I see that ribbon and remember that when I go to her house, she won’t be there. I see that ribbon, and I remember that my son has no grandmother. I see that ribbon and remember that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t save my mom.

These feelings will never go away or change. It’s the reality of grief. When I use a pink ribbon in October, I am remembering my mom. I’m grieving; I’m hurting. I don’t expect people to understand. If you have never lost someone you loved, you can’t. There is a quote that states grief is that last expression of love we can give someone. Where there is great grief, there was once great love. That is certainly true for me. A month of hope filled with a pink symbol of strength will forever more be a month of sadness and a reminder that the people you love are precious, and you should cherish every minute with them. When the people you love are gone, all you have left is grief.

What You Need to Know About My Autistic Son

I became an autism advocate on June 19, 2008, when my son, Michael, was diagnosed on the spectrum at three. It’s been a decade, and you would think that with the ever-flowing stream of information available to us in our online culture that people would be more educated about and more understanding of autism. Unfortunately, this is not the case. As a whole, there is still a lot of ignorance and misconception about autistic children, and it infuriates me when I see people treat Michael differently when they learn he is autistic. My son is not broken, and you don’t need to treat him like he is. In fact, there are probably several misconceptions you will have when you hear Michael is autistic, so let me clear all of them up for you. Here is everything you need to understand about my autistic son.

Like other kids

This is one of the most important points I can stress. Just because Michael has a diagnosis of autism doesn’t mean you need to act differently around him or towards him. Do you act differently around people who have been diagnosed with diabetes or heart disease? As far as I’m concerned, his diagnosis is no different. Autism is a part of who he is, but it isn’t all that he is. He’s a typical 13-year-old boy. He has likes and dislikes. For example, he loves animation and all things Pixar. His dream is to work at Pixar someday. Engage with him about Pixar movies or how animation varies when done on a computer versus when it’s draw by hand, and he will talk with you for hours. He’ll even show you the programs he uses to create his own animation. Engage with him about sports, for example, and he’ll be antsy and make it clear he wants to disengage because sports aren’t something Michael gets excited about. Sounds pretty much like every other kid you know, right? That’s because he is like every other kid. 

Understand

Michael has language processing disorder. Since his brain isn’t always paying attention, there are times that he hears what you are saying, but his brain doesn’t process it right away. Sometimes he needs a bit more time, so give him time to process the question fully. Be warned, however, that because he knows it’s rude to not answer when people ask you questions, he will sometimes answer with standard responses to the most commonly asked questions. So asking him how he likes school this year may result in a response like, “I’m good.” This is because he knows a standard question people ask when they engage with you is, “How are you?,” so he has an answer prepared if he doesn’t quite understand the question. Instead of turning to me with a look on your face like my son is an alien, simply ask your questions again (but not louder since he isn’t deaf and doing so just makes you look ridiculous). Chances are the second time will result in a more appropriate answer. Again, this isn’t an issue all the time. Michael’s brain works like a circuit board with a short. You never know when that short is going to trigger, and most times now that he is older, it happens less frequently. Nonetheless, be considerate.

Feelings

It is common stereotype that autistic children are incapable of feelings. In some cases, yes, there are children who have a harder time understanding or expressing emotions. Assuming this is the case for all children is wrong. Michael experiences very deep emotions. He’s very sensitive, and his feelings get hurt easily. If I am upset with him about something, he is unable to do anything until we clear the air. He’ll apologize and even insist on a hug to ensure everything is good between us. He gets nervous when he has tests like any other kids his age. He tells me daily that he loves me, and if I’m hurting, he does whatever he can to make me feel better. On one occasion when I was sick in bed with a migraine, he drew me a picture of a flower and hung it up next to my bed to cheer me up. Does this sound like a child incapable of emotion? I know several “typical” adults who aren’t capable of that level of emotional depth. They could learn a lot from Michael.

quirks

Michael’s diagnosis came with a plethora of issues he has had to learn to overcome. Let me break them down for you:

  • Hypotonia (low muscle tone): He fatigues easily.
  • Sensory integration disorder: His senses are overly sensitive.
  • Hypermobility (double-jointed): It’s hard for him to hold pens or use utensils well.
  • Hyperlexia: He can memorize almost anything, but this disorder relates to his language processing disorder.
  • Emotional Immaturity: His maturity level is about a year or two behind his peers.

When I mention any of these obstacles to people in conversation, they automatically take on a tone of pity, and they start to treat Michael like he’s fragile, dumb, or weird. His diagnosis makes him none of these things.

While these issues have presented challenges that have frustrated Michael, these also contribute to the very best parts of him. The hypotonia made sports difficult for Michael, so instead, he decided to be in band, and has become an amazing drummer. The sensory integration disorder makes Michael especially ticklish, and when he gets going, that laugh could brighten anyone’s day. Because it’s hard to write, Michael prefers to type on the computer, and his word-processing skills put mine to shame. The emotional delay means Michael can be a bit silly, so he’s drawn to sitcoms. This coupled with his hyperlexia that gives him the skill of memorizing anything results in Michael memorizing episodes of his favorite shows and often reciting scenes that he found most entertaining. We have a lot of fun with this. 

These are all the little things that make Michael who he is, and I wouldn’t change any part of him and neither would he. Michael knows he is autistic, but that’s just a word to him. He knows that he struggles at things and that he has to work harder at school, but he accepts it and doesn’t dwell on it. Since he doesn’t understand that he is different based on social standards, he is unapologetically who he because that’s all he knows how to be, and this makes me proud. He’s my imperfectly perfect son.

More about you

We tell children that they should strive to stand out and be who they are, but when we meet a truly unique child like a spectrum child, we don’t embrace the difference; we emphasize it by freaking out and acting like the child is something other than a child. Our behavior changes and becomes awkward. I often wish I could record people when they interact with Michael and play it back to them so they can see how ridiculous they are being. Having experienced this type of behavior for a decade, I have learned one very important lesson that I have shared with Michael to help him cope with people’s reactions to him, and I will leave you with that lesson as well. Just remember that when you act differently around my son or tell me that you can’t relate to him because he’s autistic, you are saying way more about yourself than you are about him.

 

Why a Butterfly?

Anyone who knows me well knows I love butterflies. What’s not to love? They’re alluring with their intricate patterns and amazing colors. Their grace when they fly and flutter about is lovely to watch. They’re beautiful, but that’s not why I love butterflies. I love them because they remind me there’s always hope at the end of every situation.

Everyone knows the butterfly metamorphosis metaphor. It’s a cliché at this point, but I don’t care. As I look back at life, I see the cycle of the butterfly clearly in all the events that have shaped me: caterpillar, cocoon, and butterfly. It’s a cycle that’s repeated over and over again in my life, and that’s fine because I know no matter what life presents, no matter how dark the cocoon, I will always emerge as the beautiful butterfly I was meant to be.

Caterpillar

I know that in most metaphors the caterpillar is considered ugly and that this is viewed as a negative life stage, but this is not the case in my metaphor. The caterpillar is the symbol of living life. I believe we spend most of our time in the caterpillar stage just going about our day-to-day business. These are the periods of stability, comfort, and even boredom—the time we spend just having simple days. There are good and bad days in this stage but just your standard highs and lows. It’s just us going through life, crawling around, and doing what we need to do.

This is a good stage. After all, what’s wrong with having a stable, consistent life where you know exactly what to expect? The problem is that if you stay a caterpillar, you never grow. The point of life is to become the very best version of yourself you can become, but how do you do that? Well, sometimes life forces you to do that. It leads you to experiences, circumstances, or even people who force you to begin your metamorphosis.

Cocoon

Everyone at least once will enter the cocoon stage. At the introduction of the catalyst for your change, you start by feeling angry, lost, hopeless, and/or alone. You feel like no one understands what you’re facing. Heck, you may not even understand what you’re facing. Eventually, you begin to go inside yourself to reflect, to strategize, to figure out how you’re going to overcome the mountain in front of you. You create your cocoon and attempt to find hope and guidance within it.

This can be a very dark time depending on what you’re going through, and it can scare the hell out of you. There will be times where you want to scream and times when you cry—a lot. There will be times where you want to give up because it seems like your only option. There will be times where you have no idea how you will even get through the day, but you get out of bed, put on a brave face, and do your best to keep it together. You make it through that seemingly impossible day. Then, you get through the next day and the next day, and as you do, something amazing happens. You start to empower yourself. You start to find your strength, and you start to tell yourself, “I will get through this.” And, you do!

Butterfly

Once you make the decision that you will not let “this” beat you, you begin to break out of your cocoon. You begin to define who you are outside of this experience, and you start taking steps to be that person. With each step, day, or change, you punch out of the cocoon, and then, one day, you emerge as a beautiful butterfly.

My favorite part about being a butterfly is the moment you realize that the very thing that sent you into your cocoon has no power over you anymore. It may have scarred you in some way, but you are now stronger than the obstacle. You’ve learned from it; you’ve grown as a result of it. You’re a different person, a new, better version of yourself. You went through the darkness and now fly in the light. It’s an amazing feeling.

The challenges and experiences that inspired me to write this blog all took me through this metamorphosis. I am who I am because of everything I have been through, experienced, and survived in my life. I’ve made many cocoons, and I’ve emerged from all of them a butterfly. That’s why I included a butterfly on the header for my blog and why I use the butterfly as my icon virtually everywhere. I even have a butterfly tattoo (although very few people have known this until now). It reminds me that no matter what life throws at me that I will overcome it. When the challenge in front of me seems impossible, I will find a way to make it possible. In the darkest times when I feel like all hope is lost, I simply have to remember that butterfly deep inside of me. That butterfly is unfailingly always with me giving me the strength and courage I need to persevere. That butterfly is always going to see me through because that butterfly is always unfailing Andrea.

It All Starts With a Spark

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The first time I heard this quote was at my mom’s funeral. The visiting priest obviously used this as his standard eulogy, inserting the details provided by the family to justify how their loved one fits the quote. In my mom’s case, he used it to describe her life as a housewife. While this itself could be a topic for a post (and I’m sure it will find its way into a blog or two), that isn’t what struck me about the quote. I heard the quote, and it stirred something in me. The words hit me—hard!

I’ve thought about this quote every day since the funeral, mostly because I don’t believe I am living the life I was meant to live. I’m a successful working woman, an amazing single mom, and a supportive friend/sibling/coworker. I’ve been a caregiver, therapist, activist, and every other role you can imagine. So, what’s the problem? Where’s my fire?

It is that quote. It haunts me daily. I’ve all the characteristics life has forced me to develop. I can be as hard as a diamond or as soft as a security blanket depending on the situation. I’ve handled every obstacle life has thrown at me, and I’ve come out on the other side stronger, smarter, and more determined. It’s that quote that makes me look at all the experiences I’ve been through (and I mean the equivalent of six lifetimes worth of experiences) and realize that maybe it’s those experiences and what I have taken away from them that is the fire I have been looking to ignite.

That’s why I decided to start this blog. Life is insane, and it’s easy to feel like you are going through your trials alone; I know that’s how I felt. I never want anyone to feel that way, so I’m creating a space where people can feel supported and realize that there are people out there who understand what they are going through and who may even have some advice to share to help get them through. If I can share an experience that makes a single mom feel better about the day she just struggled with, that’s a spark. If I can help a caregiver understand that it’s OK to take care of herself/himself, that’s a spark. If I can help someone look in the mirror and love who they see, that’s a spark. Eventually, all those sparks will ignite a fire—a fire to keep the community who find comfort and strength in the words I share warm.

This initial post is the first spark. As someone who has always been a very private person, this will be a challenge to me to step outside of my comfort zone. I’m ready to accept that challenge to share the experiences I have grown through and the knowledge and strength that growth has given me. I am not sure where the spark will lead, but I know that if one person is inspired by anything I write here, then I will have created that fire, and that will make it worth it.