Superhero Mom

In honor of Mother’s Day, I thought I would dedicate a brief post to my mom, who, for all intents and purposes, is really a superhero masquerading as a mom. Although I’m an adult and old enough to be a mom myself, I still need her; in fact, possibly more now than ever. And as a young adult with a chronic illnesses, autism, depression, and PTSD (to name just a few of my challenges), my mom has an overwhelmingly difficult task, yet she far exceeds any expectation or definition of a “mom” that I’ve encountered.

For someone who has such a easy time writing about quite a variety of topics, I always find it difficult to explicitly and effectively convey how much of “my everything” my mom is. I think that’s it though:  she is so much more than just a wonderful mom. She’s a dependable friend, an informed counselor, a confidant, a cheerleader, an unwavering source of support, to name a few. Maybe her importance in all of these roles and all of the many other hats she wears for me is so influential and necessary is because she is, in many cases, “the” instead of “a” for these roles: a sole warrior on the “Amber team”, working tirelessly behind the scenes to support my needs and dreams. It may sound cliché, but outside of the dyad of Ben and me, my mom is my best friend and my support system no matter what storms I have to weather. I’m not an easy person to befriend, given my physical restrictions for health reasons and my social confusion and blindness. Given my pain and my problems, I’m certainly not a pleasant or positive person many times, and against all odds and every challenge, my mom persists. I have yet to reach a day where my mom throws in the towel on any one of those crucial and tremendously generous hats she will don for me. This dependability has taught me to trust in her unconditional love and just be honest and open about my worries, problems, and even my lofty goals. I used to deeply dread being the bearer of bad news or opening up about some of my issues because I wanted her to see me as successful and well-adjusted. That facade is long gone! When I reflect on what changed, I think it was my ability to have faith (after continued reinforcement through her consistent backing of my needs) that mom was going to love me and help me no matter what. This is the most priceless and important gift anyone in life can receive. No matter what battles I need to face, I feel confident that I have a dedicated teammate who will help me face the challenge, strategize a way to work through it, and ultimately defeat it.

My mom carries a tremendous amount of wisdom, knowledge, patience, and dedication to learning about my problems and conditions so that she can both understand me and help me understand myself so that I am more comfortable and better off. Again, this is one of the most selfless and generous gifts I could possibly receive. My mom gives me her time, concern, compassion, and her strength when I don’t have enough of my own. Her unwavering support and love have stripped away some of the anxiety and guilt that I tend to innately bear for being “different” and “difficult.”

Perhaps equally important is how honored and special I feel that my mom allows me to be one of her best friends. She is open and honest with me and entrusts me with her own fears, pains, and emotions. As someone who has very few friends, this reciprocity in conversation and support makes me feel valued, respected, and purposeful.

I hope, for both of our sakes, that this year will be smoother, with fewer challenges and more clarity, comfort, success, and happiness. At the same time, I feel blessed that I can rely on my mom’s support in whatever way I need it and reciprocate this to the best of my ability, though we better not be evaluated on the same rubric because I’m more than a few paces behind her!

To my mom on this Mother’s Day (and every other day): Thank you for being everything I need on any given day and seamlessly shapeshifting to fill that need. I used to make you plaques and awards for Mother’s Day that read: World’s Greatest Mom, but as I’ve grown up I’ve found this to be a significant understatement. You are by far more than the best mom ever; you’re the best everything-I-need-you-to-be ever.

A Visit

My oldest sister came over today. Even though I’ve moved closer to home, I don’t see her often: she’s busy, I’m anti-social. In fact, when she got here, she commented that she couldn’t remember the last time we hung out alone. I was hoping that my nervousness was not as palpable as it felt. I guess that’s one of the weird things about me—perhaps it’s an autism thing—nervousness to see my own sister. She’s known me my whole life, yet my own social anxiety is so crippling that I fear seeing her. It’s also likely a product of times in my life I have been judged or teased, even bullied, and certainly made to feel even more different than I am by other people. Even though she’s family and I’m confident she wouldn’t treat me that way, I have trouble separating fears induced by past experiences in disastrous social situations over likely safe, and even pleasant new ones. This is another instance where I often let self-limiting anxieties hinder my happiness. Not only do I end up missing out on a source of love and joy, but it’s also unfair to wrongfully project the behavior of behavior of a handful of spiteful people onto my notions of everyone.

I think one of the special qualities about family members or true friends that you don’t have to “do” anything when you spend time with one another. Because I am basically immobile with my fracture and carry all sorts of limitations normally, ranging from severe food allergies to sensory challenges, there isn’t much I can do right now anyway. Ashleigh didn’t care. She didn’t pressure me to go out, provide any sort of entertainment, or make me feel like I was boring her to death. She just sat and talked with me, asked how she could help, tidied up my messes and mishaps, made me laugh, and distracted me from the loneliness and pains I’m going through. She regaled me with humorous bits from our favorite shows and talked to me like an equal, not a little sister.

Ashleigh has her own challenges and doesn’t claim to know how to help me with mine, but we seem to have a tacit understanding that we’ve got each other’s backs and admire the courage and strength that we both engage against the struggles we face, including the necessarily hard work of self-improvement and self-understanding. I look at her and see someone who is quite different than me, but also someone who, just like when I was young, I aspire to be more alike. Especially over the past couple of years, she embodies such grace, such resilience, and such clemency.

Even though she didn’t stay long, it was a bright spot in my day and a welcome break from work and even from my usual routine that I so tightly cling to. When I was talking with my husband after she left, he asked how the visit went. I caught myself saying, “surprisingly well.” Again, reminding me that I had the preconceived notion or fear that it likely wouldn’t. He asked me why I thought it went well or what I liked about it. All I replied was: I felt like I had a real friend.

Takeoff

Yesterday my mom visited with my nephew who is just two weeks shy of his first birthday. My mom forms one of the three vertices of my triangular support system. In fact, we talk every day and those conversations (which are always the real stuff of life and not just about the weather) are often a highlight of my day! She’s also my dog’s favorite person in the world: one mention of the word “grandma” and she starts cocking her head to hear more and whimpering in excitement. String together “grandma coming” and you’ve got a full-on frenzy of jumping, sneezing (her excitement reaction), and whining. I’m somewhat the same way, albeit with a bit more of a muted and controlled reaction.

Though she always makes me feel better, I push my mom (and others) away when I’m at my very lowest. I tell her not to come, I cancel plans, and while I keep up the daily phone calls, I keep them brief and more impersonal than our normal deep talks. Part of this is the social challenges of autism intensified by the depression, which makes the mental picture of entertaining “company” completely exhausting and unappealing. As depression zaps my energy even more than it is already usually taxed with SPD, this becomes an insurmountable ask. Secondly, it’s self-preservation. Such a deep state of depression feels shameful and I want to hide from those I love so they don’t see how much I’m struggling. It’s too tiring to cover it up and pretend to be “fine” and it’s too embarrassing to be real and authentically express my emotional pain. With that said, ultimately, it’s self-sabotage. By avoiding my mom (or others), I’m denying myself the opportunity to get help with my problems, to talk and spend time with someone who not only loves me unconditionally, but is an amazing listener and resource. I wish I didn’t do it and even when I cancel plans, it sends me deeper into despair and I immediately regret the decision and start crying. I’m crazy!

My nephew is a real charmer and my sister and brother-in-law have done an amazing job raising him so far and he is their first. The kid exudes happiness and wonder like nothing I’ve ever seen. He approaches everything with a smile so big and unwavering that it looks like his happy cheeks will topple him over they are so bright and expressive. There’s something about young children that’s always been reassuring and soothing to me.

For instance, I used to be so fearful of airplanes that I chose not to travel when certain opportunities presented themselves. When I did fly, my phobia was so debilitating that I’d break into a panic attack as soon as we pushed back from the gate and started taxiing toward the runway. Even though a space shuttle and an airplane are quite different, after watching a video of the 1986 spaceship challenger’s launch, I could not separate the vision of the plane blowing up in flames at takeoff. Flying is also a sensory nightmare. The rumbling engines, the hissing cabin air, the sudden lowering or raising of the wheels that make an audible and perceptible clunk, the stuffiness, the inability to move freely, the ear pressure, the nauseating sensation of changing directions or altitude quickly, turbulence, and the inability to regulate your own temperature easily are just a few of the flying challenges that are particularly exacerbated for those with SPD. Those, I can manage a bit now like anyone else. The crippling fear the plane was going to be engulfed in flames? I got over it. I’m not afraid at all anymore. I just started watching young kids around me on the plane. Although most people hate being seated near a toddler or small child because of the inevitable crying, I hoped for those spots. Watching children’s reactions during takeoff calmed me. Babies rarely cared. Toddlers went along playing and were blind to the fact that the engines were roaring, our altitude was rapidly changing, and that stomach-turning feeling of lifting off was upon us. Even more, young kids excitedly pointed out the window, shrieked with glee, or clapped. The naivety of children is refreshing and can be reassuring for someone who is constantly fighting the chokehold of anxiety. Their ignorance is bliss, even for me.

A parallel can be drawn between the reassurance I felt on planes with children and the power of my nephew’s awe, enthusiasm, and undeniable joy to elevate my mood and reestablish some pleasure in the simple things around me. It was impossible to not smile while watching Eamonn (my nephew) totter around stumbling towards things with such palpable exuberance. A stick. The arm of a chair. An old plastic cup. His favorite, of course, the dog. How thrilling!

Even though social interactions are exhausting for me even when I’m not depressed, they come with an inherently wonderful tradeoff: they are able to refill the tank. When they left, I felt a familiar sadness creep back over me. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it meant that I was afforded a pause from such pain while in their company and some of that goodness and love lingered with me even after they were gone, bringing my baseline up. My takeaway for myself on this one is two-fold: don’t hide from those that love you just because you’re too depressed to be social (it’s worth the effort and transparency) and approach the little things with joy and wonder because life looks even more beautiful and less hostile with those glasses.

 

Bending Won’t Break Me

I’m about as far as one can get from being spontaneous. I often refer to myself as “robotic” in that I do the same thing at nearly the exact same time every day under my own volition. My job is flexible, I don’t have kids, and I theoretically can schedule my time as I so please and so I do: I choose routine. Even my weekends are quite regimented and look remarkably similar from one to the next.

Routine makes me feel calm. It gives me something concrete to count on, something stable in my seemingly unstable mind and in the confusing, overwhelming world around me. I’ve always loved routine and the stability of a schedule, and I think that’s fairly common for people on the spectrum. Change, even switching tasks between things I enjoy, is very stressful and anxiety-provoking for me; it causes irritability, headaches, and even meltdowns. However, it’s grown from enjoying and abiding by a routine in a (mostly) healthy and organic fashion, to clinging so tightly to one that it feels like a clinical disorder. On the day I was attacked, I was doing something out of my norm, attempting to surprise my husband by doing a bunch of extra chores so that we wouldn’t need to on the weekend, freeing up time for something more fun. I think this fact, combined with the fact that I have since become very cautious and calculated, has exacerbated this limited capacity for spontaneity. I feel simultaneously pacified by my strict, predictable schedule and trapped by my grip to routine and inflexibility. I want to be able to deviate more easily and comfortably. I want to jump on spontaneous plans and fly by the seat of my pants, so to speak. I want to be the fun, adventurous wife who plans a last-minute outing on a Friday night, surprising my husband with some sort of wild date night rather than predictable pattern of comfort (not that we don’t have fun, it’s just it’s always a predictable kind of thing).

Today, I pushed myself. Instead of my usual engagement at 12:30pm on a Sunday of doing work for school, I announced that I wanted to go to the Spring Bulb show at Lyman Plant House and Conservatory at Smith College. My husband, understandably shocked by this suggestion, was happy to go, and, bless his heart, is always able to get ready quick enough that I don’t lose my drive.

The Bulb Show itself was great. There’s nothing like a whiff of spring on a 10-degree day to help you feel less irritable. I always enjoy looking at flowers and examining their structures for patterns in the leaves and petals. Nature crafts the most beautiful and perfect rhythms in its structures. I also got to see my family and talk about real stuff in our lives that matters. I spent quality time driving there and back with my husband. These last two things were the real benefits. Mostly though, I felt proud of myself for being flexible and doing something different at the last moment. I’m now trying to live my life in such a way that I seize chances to make lasting memories and grow individually and together with the people I love. It’s easier for me to stay at home and do what I know makes me happy and feels safe but it’s more enriching to stretch out of that comfort bubble and capitalize on the opportunities around me to foster my relationships, engage in activities, and build new experiences. I want to learn to grip a little less tightly to the things that I cling to. In the letting go, we open spaces to allow more happiness, connection, and meaning to enter and fill our lives.