anxiety

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Stress – Learning to Deal With Sh*t (With the Help of a Dung Beetle)

Published March 18, 2017 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

I read somewhere that people who have a positive attitude live longer. If this is, indeed, the case – I am screwed.

As far as I can tell, I’ve pretty much been a crotchety old person complaining about the music being too loud and telling people to get the hell off my lawn (figuratively speaking, of course) for most of my adult life.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m generally a nice, friendly person in my own guarded, reclusive, “New England introvert” sort-of way. It’s actually my intense emotional sensitivity that causes me to become overwhelmed and thus more circumspect and wary. I feel all emotions deeply. I brood, I ponder, I analyze, I worry.

Everything has a weight. Even little things when added to the pile make it that much a heavier burden to bear. And when that pile gets too heavy? Let me tell you, my friends, there are times when I’m in a truly foul mood.

Oh, I’ve heard my share of tut-tutting over my negativity and well-meaning appeals to “just look on the bright side” and to “consider those less fortunate”, the assumption being that surely if I considered the plight of others compared to my own I would realize things don’t suck as much as I think they do and I’d be more grateful.

The thing is, we sensitive folk are already well aware of injustice and suffering and despair in the world. It’s part of the pile – trust me.

My problem isn’t a lack of perspective or an inability to recognize all I have to be thankful for; my problem is how do I cope with the increasingly heavy pile of life’s stresses?

And it’s not just the day-to-day stresses anymore. Lately, this Universe has become a colder, darker place, with looming threats and uncertainty beyond my ability to control. I’ve become mired in a pile so deep, at times I feel as though I’m almost unable to move. There’s an instinct to protect myself, to pretend things don’t bother me, to ignore any unpleasantness with the hopes that the world will simply right itself again.

Sometimes in dark and troubled times, comfort and inspiration can come from unexpected sources. In this case my unexpected source of comfort and inspiration happens to be “Scarabaeidae” – the common dung beetle.

I caught a glimpse of this plucky little insect on my son’s “Video Touch” app. It was a short video clip of a diligent, determined dung beetle pushing a perfectly formed sphere of poop over a pebbled landscape. He was clumsily making his way along the ground with his front legs while pushing the poop ball with his back feet. At one point in his earnest travels, he lost his balance and landed on the hard, black shell of his back. Front legs flailing wildly in the air and back legs digging backwards, he desperately hopped his body about until he leveraged himself against a small rock, flipped over, and scurried back to his poop ball to continue his journey.

I’m not normally a fan of insects, but I must admit I was impressed. At this point in my life, I am barely able to keep my shit together. Yet this amazing little insect is able to shape his shit into a tightly formed ball many times his own weight and then, with great effort and persistence, roll it quickly from the dung pile from whence it came.

Not only that – he rolls his poop ball in a straight line so as to not accidentally circle back and end up back at the dung pile where other beetles might try to steal it from him. How does he move in a straight line? Turns out, he uses the polarization of the sun during the day and the moon at night. And on moonless nights, the dung beetle guides himself using the Milky Way, the first animal shown in scientific studies to navigate by the stars.

In fact the more I researched this insect with a penchant for poop, the more I came to appreciate him on a philosophical level.

There are three types of dung beetles – dwellers who live in dung piles, tunnelers who bury their poop underground where they find it, and rollers who make their poop into balls and roll them away. In a strictly metaphorical sense, I believe “roller” dung beetles handle their shit better than “dwellers” who wallow in it and “tunnelers” who bury it.

For a while I was a “tunneler”, pretending, putting on a happy face, trying to bury the stress and anger and all those other negative feelings I thought best denied or hidden. But let’s be real – that shit doesn’t stay buried for long.

Right now, I’m a “dweller”, exhausted from wading through an overwhelming amount of crap, unable to pick a direction in which to focus my energy, and, quite frankly, beyond the point of pretending everything is OK and that I’m not actually stuck in a very stinky place.

I aspire to be a “roller”, to sort through all my stresses and worries, discard those I have no control over, get my shit together and form it into a tight ball I can roll with. I need to take action, pick a direction, and hold a steady course so as to not become entangled in conflicts and dramas at the dung pile. I need to focus my precious energy – there are many battles to be fought, but to my personal poop ball I will only add those that hold the most meaning for my family and me.

So now, emboldened by the dung beetle, the scarab, the Ancient Egyptian symbol of transformation and renewal – it’s time to break free from the pile.

Attempting to roll with my poop ball will be a clumsy endeavor, with lots of tripping and falling and flailing about with my vulnerable underbelly exposed, surrounded by a dusty cloud of curses and swears (and the occasional snark-filled tirade). Perhaps in those moments of frustration, I will take comfort in the image of a little dung beetle, sitting atop his sphere of poop, gazing at the heavens, setting his course by the stars.

Dung Beetle (courtesy of giphy.com)

 

Sources:

Dell’Amore, Christine. “Dung Beetles Navigate Via the Milky Way, First Known in Animal Kingdom.” National Geographic, January 24, 2013, http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2013/01/24/dung-beetles-navigate-via-the-milky-way-an-animal-kingdom-first/ . Accessed March 17, 2017.

“Dung Beetle gif.” Giphy.com, uploaded by: gifhell.com. from BBC One: Hidden Kingdoms. http://giphy.com/gifs/ball-dung-ha0ihj0UdzqP6 . Accessed March 18, 2017.

“Dung Beetle.” Wikipedia, last modified February 14, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dung_beetle.  Accessed March 17, 2017.

Wits University. “Dung Beetles Follow the Milky Way: Insects Found to Use Stars                   for Orientation.” Science Daily, January 24, 2013, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130124123203.htm . Accessed March 17, 2017.

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Fear – Learning to Eat Cake Like a Shark

Published November 14, 2016 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

Watching my son eat a cupcake on his 6th birthday was a special event indeed, not only because of the way in which he ate the cake but also because he actually ate the cake at all.

To say that my boy devoured his cupcake like a shark during a feeding frenzy would only be accurate if “said shark”, while circling a particularly tasty looking hunk of tuna, began sobbing with anticipation because he couldn’t begin eating the tuna soon enough, and if once he actually started eating the tuna he continued to cry while swallowing large bites, barely chewing them, and then finally went into full-on meltdown mode upon finishing the tuna, realizing that the tuna was gone and there was no more yummy tuna goodness left to eat…. Then, yes, you could say my boy ate that cake like a shark – an emotionally expressive shark, a passionately dramatic shark – with salty, shark tears and a runny nose.

Although a stranger may have found this over-the-top display a little surprising and maybe humorously unsettling, for me it was a victory celebration after a year’s worth of feeding therapy.

Like many children with autism, my son has always been highly selective with the foods he is willing to eat. His sensory processing issues make him especially sensitive to texture and appearance, while other food aversions are more practical, given his food allergies, intolerances, and frequent tummy troubles, like pain, constipation, and diarrhea.

Naturally a fear built up in his psyche, the knowledge that some foods do not feel good in his mouth and others do not feel good in his stomach. He narrowed down his feeding repertoire to just a few “safe” foods and ate those same foods day after day after day: oatmeal, chicken nuggets, rice & beans, and Goldfish crackers.

When his staple diet at school was reduced to just Goldfish, we decided a weekly trip to feeding therapy was in order. Over the span of a year, his feeding team, consisting of a psychologist, an occupational therapist, and a board certified behavior analyst (BCBA), gently and methodically re-introduced old favorites he had eliminated like avocado and sweet potato, while coaxing him to try new foods like green beans and cake. The process wasn’t always easy for my boy…or for me, for that matter. But he had become too limited, physically and mentally – it just wasn’t healthy.

While feeding therapy helped expand his diet, it didn’t solve the underlying anxiety that permeates most aspects of my son’s life. It’s a neurosis that takes on a life of its own: Fear creates a desire for sameness and sameness transforms into routines and rituals from which any deviation invites danger, uncertainty, and panic. He controls those things that are within his power to ease the fears of the things that are not.

Hmm…control as a means to feel safe and decrease anxiety? That sounds vaguely familiar. Well, it shouldn’t really come as a shock that I totally recognized myself in his behaviors. I understood first-hand: control – or the ILLUSION of control – is so very powerful. Before you know it, the boundaries you construct for safety begin closing in, trapping you, limiting you to an ever-shrinking world.

Flash forward almost one full year: Sting and Peter Gabriel’s “Rock Paper Scissors” tour was coming to the area, and I had tickets to attend the concert with my siblings on my son’s 7th birthday. I had been super-excited for months, counting the days with anticipation, pulling out all my old CDs as well as familiarizing myself with newer songs, and sharing my favorite music videos on Facebook.

About a month before the concert my enthusiasm was tempered by a mischievous itch in the back of my mind – a vague, unnamable worry that conspired with my imagination, growing and spreading, wreaking havoc with my logic center, harassing my amygdala.

Worries about traffic became fears of a terrible accident.

Worries about crowds became fears of a crushing mob or terrorist attack.

The likeliness of something horrible happening may have been statistically small, but that fact mattered little to me. The idea that they were possibilities, no matter how unlikely, was enough to send me into a panic until the risk seemed too great for me to chance. My responsibility was to my son and husband – who cares about a stupid concert anyway?

It turns out I did, because within an hour of cancelling, my emotions went from relief, to guilt, to regret. I had disappointed my siblings, especially my sister who had been looking forward to hanging out with me that night. I had also given up what was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to see two of my favorite artists perform together…all because I was afraid.

I comforted myself with the thought that at least I would be home…safe…like every other Saturday evening. No crowds. No traffic. No possibility of an accident or random act of violence. I’d be free from torturous anxiety.

Free from worry, maybe. But not FREE.

I thought about my son, about how difficult it is to take him places and all the experiences he’s missed out on. I thought about his anxiety-triggered meltdowns and the panic in his eyes when he realizes other people are sharing his space, especially children with their quick, unpredictable movements and loud voices. I thought about how he would much rather be home, safe with Mom and Dad, despite his painful loneliness and boredom.

My husband and I had realized that although my son’s fears were visceral and profound and real, those fears had to be challenged. That’s why we still tried to get him out of the house to sensory-friendly places and activities. Sometimes he enjoyed them; sometimes he most decidedly did NOT.  The point was to push gently on his protective walls, to broaden his understanding of the world, to prepare him for dealing with the unexpected while at the same time opening him up to the endless possibilities and experiences that make life worth living.

Yes, my fears about the concert were real, but I had to challenge them. In reality, the things I was worried about were things that just happen, the everyday risks we take by simply stepping out the door every morning. I could prepare the best I could to mitigate those risks and minimize my anxieties, but staying home meant resigning myself to a hollow, unsatisfying existence. It meant missing out.

So I went to the concert. And with the first electrifying chords I felt the rush of excitement and adrenaline you only get from experiencing music LIVE and LOUD.  I was filled up, recharged.  I danced and sang. I got lost in the music and didn’t care what people thought of me.

After all, everyday life with its sameness and routine and beige banality is like chicken and white rice: It’s good and all, but once in a while it’s nice to have cake.

And I ate my cake like a shark that day.

That’s what I want for my son, as well.  To live a life of avoidance, of sameness for safety’s sake, is to nibble at life’s edges.  I want him to gobble up opportunities and experiences, to try things and enjoy things and, when he’s finished with that bite, demand more.

So I will keep pushing those boundaries of comfort, ever so gently, for my son and for me, in the name of cake and concerts and all of life’s yummy goodness.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Noise – Why It’s a Good Thing I Can’t Shoot Laser Beams From My Eyeballs

Published March 8, 2015 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

I hate going to the movies.

Actually, I hate going anywhere that requires people to sit quietly for an extended period of time and just watch or listen.

The reason I do not generally enjoy these things is not because I cannot sit still and be quiet, it’s because I cannot tune out the OTHER people who cannot sit still and be quiet.

And I may sound a little paranoid, but I’m pretty sure fate likes to mess with me when I go to the movies. No matter how empty the theater is, undoubtedly the “distractors” will find me: The parents with several small, antsy children, the teenagers who are just looking for a place to hang out and goof off, the couple that wants to analyze and discuss the plot of the movie, the guy chomping on popcorn, slurping his soda, and shaking the cup to dislodge the ice in the hopes of finding more soda near the bottom.

They FIND me.

They find me at the symphony. Just when the orchestra reaches a particularly moving part of a Mozart Concerto, the little old lady behind me tries to open a cough drop wrapper…very…very….slowly. Crinkle! (Pause) Crinkle! Crinkle! Crinkle! (Pause) Crinkle! This is followed by the “mouth noises” of the cough drop clicking against her teeth as her tongue moves the lozenge from one area of her mouth to another. I cannot focus on or enjoy the music until the noises stop. Mercifully, the noises DO stop, only to be followed by her loudly whispering to her friend, “Do you know where the ladies’ room is?”

AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHH!!!!!

Sometimes I hear sounds nobody else even notices. The “thump, thump, thump” of the music from a party down the street plays on my every nerve until I literally feel my chest tightening and my heart beating faster, like the start of a panic attack. A person chewing and swallowing in the same quiet room makes me feel physically sick. Don’t even get me started on gum-chewing.

So, yes, you may have figured out that I have very sensitive hearing, which seems to be wired directly into my nervous system. I’ve been cursed with an almost complete inability to filter out extraneous noises that disrupt an otherwise quiet environment or interrupt a situation that requires my focus and attention. The distracting sounds start as a small irritation, but as they continue they fill me with anxiety. The anxiety builds to a point where I am forced to escape or make the sound stop. When it reaches this point, it’s a very good thing I do not possess the ability to shoot laser beams from my eyeballs. (Yes, consider yourself lucky, college student who was the test monitor who administered my teacher certification exams and sat at the front of the classroom sipping Diet Coke, eating a bag of crispy potato chips, and whispering and giggling about your weekend to your friend who stopped by, while I tried to focus on an exam that cost hundreds of dollars to register for and would determine my ability to secure a job in my chosen career and collect a decent paycheck. You are VERY LUCKY. Just sayin’.)

At times I’ve wondered, what is wrong with me? Why am I so darn sensitive? Why can’t I just learn to tune things out like other people? As I have read up on the brain in an attempt to understand my son’s autism better, it has actually been a bit of a relief to learn that some people are just “wired differently”, both for learning and for sensing.

Throughout day-to-day life, we take for granted that everyone’s senses are registering and understanding the world in pretty much the same way. Roses smell like roses. Strawberries taste like strawberries. Mozart Concertos sound like Mozart Concertos (sans cough drops, one hopes).

So it’s true that humans have a relatively common basis of sensory experiences. It appears, however, that my son actually senses things differently. In addition to autism, my son has what is known as SPD, or Sensory Processing Disorder*. A simple way to explain SPD is that although my son’s sight and hearing have been tested to be completely normal and his motor skills and movement are developmentally appropriate for his age, his brain does not process the signals he receives from his senses the same as other children.

Individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulty filtering and utilizing the information coming in through their senses. And it’s not just the five senses we’re familiar with – vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. SPD also can affect movement, balance, and body position (vestibular and proprioceptive senses). A person can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive, over-responsive or under-responsive. They might seek a sensory experience or avoid it.

Through observation of his behavior, it appears that my son is more visually sensitive – he seeks lines and patterns, and he loves lights and lightbulbs. He seeks out vestibular and proprioceptive input through spinning, jumping, and crashing, yet he tends to avoid some kinds of swinging. His feeding issues stem from an avoidance of certain textures and tastes of food. But, by far, his most distressing over-sensitivity is his hearing.

Some causes of his auditory distress are pretty obvious: Toys that move and make noises frightened him. A clock striking the hour or a toilet flushing might send him running from a room. He might become inconsolable if a rooster crows on TV. He has a physical aversion to places where sounds are loud and confusing, like the grocery store and the gymnasium at school. He refuses to go outside to play if a neighbor down the street is using a leaf-blower. Even the sound of my voice sometimes causes him to howl and clap both hands over his ears.

But some causes of his auditory distress are more of a mystery, like during a ride home on the highway not long ago. As I merged into traffic and brought the car up to speed, my son suddenly started shrieking and kicking his feet, his hands covering his ears. I searched for reasons for his behavior: the radio was off, no one was talking, the windows were up. Still this continued until, hoping to find a way to calm him, I slowed down to take the next exit. As the car slowed, my boy took his hands from his ears and his crying quieted. When I sped up to the speed limit on the back road, he became agitated again. I realized it was the sound of the car engine – my son was bothered when it revved at certain speeds. So I kept the car at a steady, slower speed on the back roads. (It was my own version of the movie, “Speed”, only my movie would be called, “Deceleration”, starring me as Sandra Bullock’s Annie, my husband as Keanu Reeves’s Jack, with Dennis Hopper on the cell phone warning us there was a preschooler in the backseat set to explode into a full meltdown if the car went above 50mph. Yes, at times my husband and I have all the suspense and drama of an action/adventure movie. Although taking the slow, scenic back roads through the countryside to get home would not for make a very exciting plot twist, I suppose.)

We all have those things that make us crazy – certain smells might give you a headache, a particular sound might send chills up your spine, the motion as you ride in a car might make you carsick. We learn ways to cope by either addressing the problem or avoiding it.

This got me thinking about my own issues with tuning out noises. The discomfort I experience with my auditory sensitivity, milder than my son’s I’m sure, gives me an idea of how overwhelming and even painful the world must be at times for him. What’s more, my son does not possess the skills that I have to cope with the noises that bother him. He does not have the communication to express how he feels or to ask someone to stop. Nor has he learned the not-so-subtle ability to clear his throat loudly and shoot a stink-eye at someone (passive-aggressive, yes, but less violent than laser beams).

My heightened sense of hearing, at times a curse, provides a glimpse into the reasons for my son’s anxiety and agitation stemming from his SPD. The blessing is my ability to understand his discomfort. It’s an awareness that allows me to identify a source of distress and provide him the tools to cope (like wearing headphones in the gym) or help him avoid the issue in the future (like enjoying a museum only on “sensory friendly” days to avoid noisy crowds).

It’s a connection we share, my boy and I.

Not long ago, we found ourselves in a building that must have had thin walls, because I kept hearing an irritating noise coming from the floor above. I just couldn’t ignore it no matter how hard I tried. Looking at my son with his hands firmly placed over his ears, I smiled. “I know, Buddy. That IS really annoying!”

Yup, when it comes to noises, my boy totally gets me.

* Please note: I’m a mom, not an expert in SPD, senses, the brain, etc. Consult an Occupational Therapist if you have questions about SPD, or check out one of my favorite books on SPD, “The Out-of-Sync Child”, by Carol Stock Kranowitz.

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Control – Basic Physics and The Average Bear

Published February 1, 2015 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

There are many different bears in this world: Winnie the Pooh is stuffed with fluff yet philosophical and, in my opinion, unfairly labeled as a “bear with very little brain”. And Yogi Bear – thought to be smarter than the average bear based mostly on his ability to steal picnic baskets from park visitors. Of course, there’s Fozzie Bear with an indomitable comic spirit despite constant heckling from the balcony. Also the easygoing, practical bear, Baloo, from The Jungle Book, looking for the bare necessities of life. And don’t forget Smokey the Bear, passionate activist and educator who is always on the look out for danger.

But this is not a blog post about bears – it’s a blog post about physics. More to the point, it’s a blog post about physics and bears and the way fate and the Cosmos conspired to wrest control from my stubborn, desperate, clenching fists, because I sure as hell was not giving it up without a fight.

But first…physics and bears:

Back in my previous universe, I was a fifth grade teacher in an elementary school. Part of our science curriculum was basic physics, including Newton’s first law of motion, also known as “The Law of Inertia”: An object at rest tends to stay at rest, and an object in motion tends to stay in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force.

I wrote this on the white board in the front of the classroom while my students dutifully copied it into their science notebooks.

Any grumblings there may have been when I asked them to copy down their homework at the end of class quickly turned to smiles and even some cheers. Their homework was to bring in a large toy car or remote controlled vehicle and a stuffed bear for the lesson the next day. The toys would be used during science class to conduct an experiment. They would work in pairs or groups, place the stuffed bear atop their vehicle, push the car with a quick motion to start, and end by crashing the car into another car or a wall. Sounds violent, I know, but keep in mind that these are kids, and it’s very likely they had done this many times before in play. The only difference was now I was asking them to make observations about the motion of the bear.

My students laughed and chatted the next day as they pulled cars and bears from their backpacks. They split into groups and found spots in the classroom to drive their stuffed bear around, colliding into walls, radiators, desks, and other cars. The room filled with “Vroom! Vroom!” driving sounds and high-pitched “EEERRRT!” sounds for brakes, followed by loud crashing sounds. (Really, how could you do this activity and NOT add sound effects?) They noticed that when they first started pushing the car, the bear fell backward. When the car came to a sudden halt after slamming into something, the bear flew forward. A bear at rest remained at rest even though the car began moving. A bear in motion continued moving forward at the same speed, even though the car had stopped.

But what about the ‘unless acted upon by an outside force’ part of Newton’s Law?

The din subsided into problem-solving discussions when I gave them their final task: Use materials found in the classroom to design a support or safety system to protect their bear from the effects of inertia.

Thinking back now to that classroom and those students really is like stepping back into a whole different universe…one in which I was a bear completely in control of her car.

Sitting on the roof? No way! I was behind the wheel of my vehicle, swerving to avoid chair legs, bookcases, radiators, and the other insane stuffed bears that were riding on top of their cars. I could see that wall coming from a mile away and have enough time to not only avoid colliding with it, but also plan out an alternate path to avoid it, a “Plan B”, if you will.

Yes, I felt fully in control of my life back then and not because I had great confidence and bravado. It was actually the opposite. I had a desperate need for control in order to ease my constant anxiety. I felt safe in my world as long as I was the one who was driving.

Somehow I was plucked from the driver’s seat and placed on the roof the moment my child entered this world. My car unexpectedly veered off the planned course onto an alternate path to my Universe “Plan B”, and I am currently a stuffed bear hanging on for dear life to the top of a speeding vehicle that is fully in control of a highly energetic, complex little boy with autism.

There are times on this crazy ride when I feel I’m coming apart at the seams, my stuffing beginning to show. And I’ll admit that my own personality is partly to blame.

Since my son was born I have felt compelled to respond to his every need. I choose the word “compelled” quite purposefully here, because indeed I felt instinctively driven to respond to my son’s cries. It was more than just a sense of maternal responsibility – I actually felt physical symptoms of anxiety when my infant son was crying. Even when others around me offered to help, I just couldn’t give up that control. It was not that I didn’t trust others to comfort him. As strange as this may seem to someone who has not had anxiety, to NOT respond felt almost unbearable.

But this was no ordinary baby. He was a discontented, colicky, “high maintenance” baby, and his needs only became more complicated as he grew older.

What’s more, I felt weird about letting people clean my house and help with chores when they offered. It was my family’s mess, after all. Besides, my Type A personality was convinced they wouldn’t clean it the way I would clean it anyway – stuff would get put away in the wrong places, towels would be folded differently, and I’d probably just end up all out-of-sorts instead of relaxed.

So what does all this have to do with bears and physics and a grand conspiracy of fate and the Cosmos?

Well, if you happened to be the kind of person who feels compelled to do everything yourself and you were to, let’s say, have a child who lacks the ability to communicate and requires help for everything from eating and dressing, to regulating emotions, to occupying what seems like every waking moment, all in addition to your normal tasks like cooking, cleaning, and shopping, it may take hitting a wall before you realize…you can’t do it all.

That wall for me was the Epstein-Barr virus, the cause of mononucleosis (just one of the many delightful illnesses carried home by our little host monkey from his preschool). This illness made me dizzy, short of breath, and more exhausted than I have ever felt in my whole life. I kid you not – I was at times so tired I had difficulty responding to someone talking to me, like it took too much energy to get my thoughts to combine with the air in my lungs and the vibration of my vocal chords to actually speak words. Nope…Sorry…Too tired.

I had to let go of some of my control. I had to accept the help of others. I needed to recognize my limitations and say no to those things I couldn’t handle…just focus on the bare necessities.

The experience made me realize the importance of a support system – the “safety belt” that will keep me from flying into the next wall that appears in my path. It’s a support system for me AND my husband (who is also a bear atop his own speeding, swerving car.) That support came first and foremost from our parents, who babysat, cooked meals, picked up groceries, chopped wood, and mowed the lawn. Next were siblings and family members who repaired our cars, hosted holiday gatherings, and provided emotional support.

But having a child with complex special needs requires our support system to extend beyond family. As our parents have gotten older and our son’s issues have become more complicated, we’ve looked into community resources for respite, requested grants to pay for therapy in the home to teach our son self-help and communication skills, and attended workshops and meetings to connect with other parents, always on the lookout for materials and information to construct a more secure support system.

So now I guess you could say I’m a practical, passionate, philosophical bear learning to rely a little more on my safety belt while the inertia of life speeds me forward. Maybe with time (and a good sense of humor) I can learn to relax…just a little bit…and enjoy the ride.

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Happiness – A Trip to the Dollar Store

Published July 17, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

So far, I’ve been writing my blog in chronological order. I like it when things are in order. It makes me happy. However, sometimes a totally blog-worthy story presents itself and rules have to be broken. If and when I publish my book, this will be a later chapter, in its correct chronological spot. This will make me happy. Until then, please enjoy this story in all its blog-worthiness:

Not long ago, I decided it was time to desensitize my four-year-old son to shopping. His autism and sensory processing disorder have always made shopping with him very challenging. I can’t be sure exactly what it is about stores that cause my boy so much anxiety. At school he had to be desensitized to the gymnasium, which absolutely terrified him. So maybe part of it was the largeness of the store and its tall ceilings. Then again, his senses have always been very sensitive, and all the hustle and bustle of a store, the colorful products and packages on tall shelves, the beeping of registers and loud announcements and such – it’s a lot to take in and process all at once!

And then of course, there are PEOPLE. My son will go to great lengths to avoid people. He will take himself as far from people as possible, keeping a constant eye out for an escape route. It doesn’t matter if it’s a store, a playground, a gathering of family members, a play date with friends – there is something about people that inspires a fight or flight response.

Obviously this is something we need to work on.

I began my quest for desensitization by taking him into the local country market in town. The first few times he clung to me as we did one quick walk around the perimeter aisles of the store. Next we graduated to walking up and down the aisles, picking out a banana or yogurt, then standing in line and making a purchase. His need to drag his hand along the products on the shelves and his fascination with the floor tiles prompted me to carry handi-wipes, but otherwise he did really well!

Next we tried Kmart – bigger store, but not huge crowds of people. He hesitated as we walked through the doors and tried to pull me back out. Once he resigned himself to the fact that we were, indeed, going into Kmart, he held tightly to my arm and walked quickly and purposefully around the outside aisles. We were not going to stop to look at anything, not even toys – his body language made that very clear. He wanted to get out of there as soon as possible. He looked down each aisle in hopes of catching a glimpse of the exit, and he damn-near sprinted when we got within sight of the glass doors. I gave him hugs and lots of praise when we finally walked out into the sunshine.

We made other excursions into stores like Stop and Shop and Kohl’s. Toys-R-Us was interesting: Despite being a happy destination for most children, my son didn’t make it past the first display before he was pulling my husband and I toward the exit in a panic.

A few days after the Toys-R-Us attempt, I decided to try taking my son to the dollar store with me. I needed to buy some plates and party favors for his birthday, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to practice shopping and waiting in line.

Entering the dollar store was similar to other store experiences. He hesitated at the door, turning to me with his arms up indicating that he wanted to be carried. I hoisted up my 40-pound boy and hoped that I wouldn’t have to carry him around the whole store.

It turns out that, no, I would not have to carry him.

As we walked in, a look of absolute joy came over my son’s face. He gazed around the dazzling, magical wonderland that is the dollar store, slid down from my hip, and laughed, saying, “Iiii-yeee!” (My son is non-verbal, but he makes vocalizations that often indicate how he is feeling. This particular vocalization is one of his “happy sounds”.) I took his hand, and we walked down the first aisle where the paper plates were found. He touched the shrink-wrap on the colorful plates and cups and tried to reach the balloons that were bobbing from a display. “Iiii-yeee!” he laughed.

“I know, Buddy! This place IS great!” I was thoroughly enjoying his reaction. He was smiling and laughing and jumping up and down, having fun exploring the store, completely ignoring the people around him. A lady nearby smiled and commented how adorable he was.

At some point his happiness became so overwhelming it could no longer be contained – he just HAD to let it out. My arm pulled downward with the weight of his body as he sat down on the floor and kicked his feet in an excited frenzy.

This, of course, reminded me of the first time I had shopped in a dollar store: “You mean THIS is only a dollar?! No Way! What about this? This is only a dollar, TOO?! This place is AWESOME!” So that’s pretty much what I imagined my boy was saying as he made happy sounds and kicked his feet on the floor: “Mom! All this stuff is a dollar! Can you BELIEVE it? This place is AWESOME!”

I picked him up off the floor and crouched at eye level to him. “No, Honey. We don’t sit on the floor. We walk in the store.” He might not have understood the words I was saying, but I was pretty sure he got the message that he was not supposed to sit on the floor and kick.

Or, maybe not.

We continued through the store – me, choosing plates, decorations, and some glow sticks for party favors; my son, sitting down every few feet to kick and laugh.

In the toy aisle, my son’s excitement exploded into a supernova of wild exuberance. He found a display of plastic toy megaphones and started pulling them out of the box and throwing them on the floor, creating an obstacle between us. Then he took off in a sprint, not entirely unlike a criminal in a police drama, dumping a trashcan over to slow the pursuit of the cop chasing him down an alley. I’ll admit, it kind of worked. I hesitated, trying to decide if I should chase him or clean up the mess he had made first. It didn’t matter, because ultimately his get-away was foiled by his inability to resist the urge to sit down and kick his feet. I captured him before he made it around the corner and, holding him tightly with one hand, cleaned up the megaphones.

At this point I realized that my boy was a bit TOO comfortable in this store. It was time to leave.

We waited in line, the weight of my boy pulling me sideways as he hung limply from my arm, laughing. I reconsidered the glow sticks as the thought of my son biting into one of them and the subsequent calls to poison control entered my head. I put them on a nearby display, paid for the rest of my things, and carried my boy from the store (because now apparently he didn’t want to leave).

During the car ride home, I found myself imagining my son five or six years in the future. A four-year-old, sitting on the floor in a store, kicking and laughing with joy, is kind of cute. But what about when he is ten years old? His behavior will not be so cute then. He will be bigger, heavier, and quicker, and his escape attempts might be more successful. It’s scary to think about. Perhaps by then, after years of practice, he will learn the appropriate behavior for when we’re out in public and not be so enamored by magical places like the dollar store.

I looked at my son’s smiling face in the review mirror. I really didn’t want to lose that innocent joy. Maybe we could find a way to keep the joy, just teach him to contain it and express it in a way that won’t make him a danger to himself or others. And, hey – if he wants to laugh and let out a few “Iiii-yee’s”, so be it.

Heck, I might just join him in his celebration, because he’s right…the dollar store IS a pretty awesome place.

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Sleep Spiders – And You Thought Sleepwalking Was Creepy…

Published April 9, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

One night, months after my son was born, I awoke to find a very large spider working its way down an invisible thread right over our bed. I shook my husband and said, in a strangled whisper, “Don’t move! Spider!”

My mind was racing. I had to prevent the spider from reaching the sheets, but how? I remembered easily moving a small spider hanging from the living room ceiling by gently gliding my hand above the spider, catching its sticky thread, and moving it to the safety of a houseplant. I decided to try that with this much larger spider, at least to get it away from the bed. However, I underestimated the weight of the spider, and when I ran my hand above it to catch its thread, the spider plummeted into the waves of the bed sheets below. I shrieked in horror and started patting and flicking the sheets, hoping to either squish the spider or catapult its giant, hairy-legged body out of our bed.

Meanwhile, my startled husband moved to the edge of the bed where he sat watching me, confused. When I asked with exasperation, “Didn’t you see the spider? It was HUGE!” he just shook his head, rubbed his hand over his eyes, and sighed deeply. (You know – the way people do when it becomes clear that you are nuts, and it’s too exhausting for them to even try to find logic behind something you are doing.)

Slowly, my mind cleared. There was no spider. I sheepishly apologized and told him that it was ok, he could go back to sleep.

That was my first “sleep spider” visit.

Sleep spiders are a relatively new phenomenon for me. Sometimes I wake up to see one skittering across the wall, or poised on the ceiling right above the bed, or hanging from a thread over me, like that very first spider. Naturally, I find them threatening and scary, but, in a way, also fascinating. For those first five seconds or so, the spider seems real to my senses. If I blink and focus on it and tell myself it’s not real, it doesn’t disappear right away. Instead, it fades gradually into the shadows as I become more alert or evaporates as soon as the lights come on.

How strange it is to have your mind play tricks on you, to be briefly caught between two plains of existence – the dream world and reality. Strange, scary, but kind of cool, if you think about it.

Writing this post got me wondering – why a spider? Of course I find them creepy, but I’m not terrified of them like I am bees and hornets. What was the significance of a spider?

In my quest to figure out my sleep spiders, I did a Google search of “seeing spiders in your sleep.” A few sites had a medical explanation about being deprived of REM sleep, how your mind continues the dream state as you are waking up, causing you to see things that aren’t there. That made sense – even after six months, our boy was still a terrible sleeper, and I was woken up repeatedly at varying intervals every night by his crying.

That explained the reason I was seeing things in my sleep but not why the things I was seeing happened to be spiders. So I looked up the symbolic meaning of spiders in dreams. Now I must say, there are many interpretations of what a spider means, but most books and sites agreed that the spider often symbolizes a feeling of being stuck or trapped (like in a web).

Aha! Ever since our son was born I had felt trapped in an endless loop of feeding and holding and rocking and diaper changing. Of course, there was my ever-present anxiety about being a mother (like something to be feared is lurking in the shadows), the disappointment that reality did not match my expectations (like a fading dream world overlapping reality), and the perception that things were beyond my control (like being stuck in a sticky spiderweb, unable to break free).  More than that, I felt like I had lost my identity. I longed for a sense of direction and purpose, a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day, a sense of self again.

My sleep spiders are so wise.  Mystery solved!

Well, perhaps not entirely.  There is one more explanation for my sleep spiders, and it is my least favorite: The spiders (at least some of them) might be REAL.

Before you shake your head, rub your eyes, and sigh deeply at that suggestion, I have one more story to tell. And, by the way, I was fully awake during this spider encounter.

Not long ago, my son (now older) was playing on my bed, while I stood by making sure he didn’t do anything that would result in an ER visit. As I pulled the curtain closed over the window at the head of the bed, the biggest frickin’ spider I have EVER SEEN fell onto my pillow. So humungous was this spider, that I actually HEARD the sound that its legs made as they impacted with the pillow. I pulled my boy from the bed and screamed something high-pitched and unintelligible to which my super-hero husband responded, leaping into the room with a “what-the-hell-is-wrong-with-you?” look on his face. I pointed at the spider and only left the room when I was sure that he did, indeed, see it and that it was not a figment of my imagination.

After about fifteen minutes of thumping, banging, cursing, and moving of furniture, I heard the toilet flush and my husband emerged from our bedroom victorious. He guessed the spider had probably made its way in through the window and had not been living in our room for long. He also reassured me that although the spider was big, it was not dangerous. Pssh…who cares?! I slept with the light on for about a month after that.

Now when I awake to see a spider, I wonder – Is this my subconscious telling me that I’m stressed out and feeling trapped in my life? Or is that just a really big-ass spider dangling threateningly from an invisible thread over my head?

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Sleepwalking – Why I Always Wear Pajamas to Bed

Published March 31, 2014 by Jen Rosado from MyAlternateUniv

Years before I met my husband, I lived in a cute little apartment in the center of a small town, right above the beauty salon. I lived alone, and every night I pulled two kitchen chairs in front of the door and piled pots and pans on them. No, I didn’t do this because I was afraid someone might break in; I was worried that I might get out.

What I did next was to tape a sign above the doorknob and place several other signs on the floor at regular intervals back to my bedroom door. On the signs, in bold, black Magic Marker, was written, “STOP! GO BACK TO BED! YOU ARE ASLEEP!” The purpose of these signs (and the booby-trap of pots and pans) was to keep me from sleepwalking out my apartment door, only to wake up when the door slammed behind me, locking me out.

If that had happened, it wouldn’t have been be the first time, and living alone meant there was no one on the other side of the door to let me back in. Hence, my paranoia.

You see, my friends – that is why I always wear pajamas to bed. No sleeping in my underwear or a slinky nightie for me, hell no! It’s flannel pajamas, or shorts and a t-shirt at the very least. I have to be proactive and practical about my sleep issues in order to limit both the danger and the humiliation.

The truth is I never thought the fact that I was a sleepwalker was particularly odd until I went to college. I have five siblings, and all of us were sleepwalkers and/or sleep-talkers as kids. Three of us (that I know of) have continued this behavior into adulthood, which I guess is unusual. We often share our funnier stories of sleepwalking at parties and family gatherings, because…well…they’re kind of weird stories, and after a few drinks they can be downright hilarious.

The sleepwalking story I share is one from college. I was dreaming that I was trapped in some kind of a large box. I couldn’t find my way out, so I thought of my friend, Bob, who was really smart. I knew he could figure out how to rescue me from the box. When I awoke from the dream, I was banging on my dorm room wall, exclaiming, “I’m trapped in this box! I need some help! I need Bob! Go get Bob!” And if that wasn’t mortifying enough – there were a few drunk guys in the hallway banging back and laughing. (I’ll admit the story is probably not as funny on paper. Try having a few drinks, and then act it out very dramatically, putting special emphasis on Bob, who is very smart and who is the only one who can save you from the box.)

But I digress.

I don’t always sleepwalk. My sleepwalking gets worse when I’m sleep deprived or under a lot of stress.

That’s right: “sleep deprived” and “under stress”. For a new mom, the “sleep deprived” part is pretty obvious and expected. Some of us, however, are taken off-guard by the intensity of the “stress” part – the stress that comes from bonding with a little human being that is totally reliant upon you for his very survival.

The author, Elizabeth Stone, said it best: “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Yup. That’s it, right there.

As you know, I had anxiety before I had my boy. For me to feel so attached to and so protective of this completely vulnerable and precious baby – to feel like my heart no longer resided in my chest but with my boy…that just scared the shit out of me. It was like giving a Red Bull to someone who was already hyped up on caffeine.

I worried about him all the time. Is he eating enough? Is that what his poop is supposed to look like? Why is he making that face? Why isn’t that rash going away? What IS that rash anyway? Is he crying because he’s in pain or because he’s bored? Is he meeting all his milestones? Why does he seem different than the other babies?

All this worry carried into my subconscious, too. Almost every night, I would dream that the baby had rolled from my arms and was buried in the bed sheets. I would wake up to find myself frantically digging through the blankets looking for him. (Logically, losing my baby in the sheets would not have happened because I never brought him into bed with me…for this very reason!)

I also almost injured my poor, snoring husband several times as I dove across him to catch our imaginary baby as he fell off the side of the bed. Sometimes my sleepwalking brought me into the hallway where I dreamed that our boy was just about to fall down the stairs. Always my dream was of me searching for him or rescuing him from impending doom. Even in sleep, my mind just could not rest.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to give props to Mother Nature for the brain chemical/hormone cocktail she invented for the purpose of mother/baby bonding. Seriously, that is some powerful stuff. You are handed this rashy, stinky, screaming baby that keeps you up all day and night and pushes you to the very brink of insanity. But you stick around, tending to his every need for survival, protecting him from real dangers and rescuing him from imaginary ones. Why? Because you are totally and completely madly in love with him.

Let me tell you – awake or asleep, consciously or unconsciously – I loved this baby something fierce.  And as that bond grew stronger, so did the intensity of my anxiety.  My subconscious mind had to come up with more interesting and creative ways to channel that anxiety – like, for example, “sleep-spiders”…but that’s a topic for another post.

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