About two and a half years ago I would not have known what the word mindfulness meant. It was like all the other buzzwords crunchy Santa Cruz mommas throw around here in California; words that I would aspire to if only I could get my shit together. But I had every excuse in the book to stay the hot mess I was, and if nothing else I was dedicated to that hot mess. Ripping me away from the chaotic life I had created was like trying to tear an ice cream cone away from a toddler- it was going to take time, convincing, negotiating, and someone was ultimately getting hurt in the process. But I ended up on this crazy journey to mindfulness against all odds I ended up becoming a huge advocate for mindfulness. And, trust me, no one saw that coming less than me. I continually struggle with how much information I would like out in the world about myself so this blog was not an easy one to write. But more and more I was meeting parents who are in the same struggle I found myself in. We do everything we can to make sure we take care of our families, friends, work, co-workers, sometimes even our ex’s that we have forgotten to put the oxygen mask on first before we go to help anyone else. We have a false sense of control when we think that if we only take care of everyone they will all be happy and our lives will be smooth. Wrong. What happens is we get in a cycle of people pleasing all the time and it’s impossible to make everyone happy all the time. I mean, it’s not like your chocolate or something. So here’s my struggle with the ugly underbelly of parenthood that I lost my foothold on for some time and how I got my shit together (more or less) and started to respect MYSELF for the first time in my life.
Let me set the stage for you about what my life was like almost 3 years ago. I had divorced an abusive husband and was an I was a single momma living paycheck to paycheck, I had a very “busy” (then) 7-year-old with T1 Diabetes who wanted to constantly talk with me. No, not just talk to talk. She wanted engagement in all topics she chose and was not tolerant of being told no. I was a Special Education teacher who taught kinder-8th grade at two schools (set on the same mountain, separated by a parking lot) so I was constantly running back and forth and putting out fires, talking to my many aides, being called to handle students who weren’t on my caseload, navigating parents concerns, making sure the Special Education students were being included in mainstreaming, teaching my own class, making sure all IEP’s were in compliance and dealing with the towers of endless paperwork. Oh, and I was handling my daughter's health care at school on top of that. Since I was the Severe Special Ed teacher I was the last resort for a lot of students so there was immense pressure from administrators to figure out how to make, for example, a child with Emotional Disturbance, stop screaming at his elementary general education teacher that she’s an asshole. Maybe she was, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I was tapped out. There was little to no support (beyond my amazing paraprofessionals I was working with!) so I would come in early and stay late. I would come home and many nights I would have to stay up pretty much all night if my daughter was having troubling blood sugars. I was tired-that word doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I was. I was broken. Literally. And on top of all this, I used an age-old crutch that many people do with they don’t have the ability to cope anymore; I drank. I had started drinking when I was married because he didn’t like to drink alone and if I did drink with him he was much easier to deal with. If I didn’t? Well, that’s an entirely different blog. So I drank with him and I loved the feeling I got from it of letting go and not worrying about what would happen next. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t new to drinking. I had drunk growing up but I could take it or leave it and would go for years between having a drink. This was a new coping mechanism that worked for me...until it didn’t.
Eventually, loosing I did leave him and, being the type of person he is, he was not happy with that. He thought losing control of me so he kept trying new ways to let me know he could find me any time he wanted, like having me followed and calling to tell me who I was with or what I was doing. He also would threaten to kill himself and tell everyone it was my fault, something he did to manipulate me because my own father died by suicide and he knew the impact that had on me. At this point, you start to feel like your crazy and when I would try to tell someone it was incomprehensible to them. Outside of a bad Lifetime Movie of the Week no one really believes this type of stuff happens.
Drinking continued to be my crutch to deal with his various forms of abuse and harassment because I felt I deserved it. Common misconception; you're used to being abused you start to believe you deserve to be punished because your abuser is angry at you. So, even in divorce, you do whatever you can to make sure they won’t be upset but it’s an empty battle because they will always be angry at you because you left. It’s been six years since we divorced and he is still mad at me. For someone like me, a consummate people pleaser to the point where I would loose sleep if I knew anyone was mad at me, this was a nightmare. Getting up in the morning and showering became a huge chore as well. I hated looking in the mirror because I was so full of self loathing and shame. The abuse continued (I’m consciously leaving out what the abuse entailed because I don’t want it to be the focus of this blog and I’ve worked really hard to deal with it) and so did my downward spiral.
I knew what I was doing wasn’t working for me but I couldn’t see a way out of my cycle. Every time I thought I had hit my rock bottom it seemed like a trap door opened and I fell to a new low. Something had to give and eventually it did. I put myself in recovery and some hard core therapy to deal with, well, everything. This is where I started to learn self-care. I had always thought self-care was buying yourself something or treating yourself to some big indulgence which I had done many times. This was actually me trying to fill a void (much like many people do with alcohol, drugs, gambling, over spending, over eating....the excess of anything I suppose). I was trying to fill that internal void with external things and that never works I found out. Working on me seemed selfish and quite frankly boring because I already knew I didn’t like me. Plus I had known me my whole life so what more was there to learn? Man, was I an idiot.
Meditation had always been something, like yoga, that I wanted to say I did on a consistent basis but I never did. And I didn’t even participate in it when I was there doing it. My mind was always off somewhere else thinking about other things I “needed” to do. During my therapy I learned, I was suffering from some aggressive PTSD and Anxiety. Being the unaware individual I was I was actually surprised by this! As it was explained to me, having your heart seize up in fear, your body shaking, and being unable to think a complete thought or catch your breath because you feel like you are suffocating was NOT a normal response to someone, say, knocking at your door, walking to your car alone, or your phone ringing. But, as I found out, these were my triggers that had been set in place. These were my tiny red flags that would wave in my head that meant someone was about to come after me and hurt me. We all have situations that trigger aversive reactions in our bodies, a fight or flights response. I had learned my whole life to stay put because if you run it’s worse, so just take your punishment. This served my survival instincts in my marriage as well, take the punishment or things will get really bad.
One of my therapists had told me, “You’ve been abused so much for most of your life that I feel like when we talk about it it is sort of like wallpaper to you.” “What do you mean?” I innocently asked, knowing full well he wanted to talk about the things I decided were off limits (cause if you don’t talk about them then you don’t have to think about them. And if you don’t think about them then you don’t have to deal with them. Every co-dependent knows that!). When you feel like you can’t control anything in your life it’s nice to be able to control at least what you talk about and I had a stranglehold on my secrets (as most abused people do, after all, isn’t that what we are conditioned to do? Keep ours and others secrets?) so tight my palms were blistering. “What I mean is that we can bring up your abuse and you deal with it in a very manner of fact way. Like your observing someone else’s life. You’ve lived with it for so long and not dealt with the effects that it’s just like wallpaper, like a background to you. It’s always there but you won’t focus on it.” He sat back and stared at me, obviously waiting for my reaction to this epiphany. I stared back for what seemed like forever and try as I might my tear ducts went rogue on me and burst. This was the first time I had cried in over 5 years. He was right and it was time to rip that damn wallpaper down and give that wall a fresh coat of paint!
An opportunity has a unique way of presenting itself and I decided to take this one and throw myself into tearing down the broken person I was and rebuilding her stronger, more confident, and secure in her place here on earth. I engrossed myself in all things self-care. I slowly but surely started to understand why you're told to put the oxygen mask on before you help anyone else on an airplane. If my cup isn’t filled and I’m not in a good mind frame then I’m of no help to others. During this time I realized just how much I loved the community I chose to teach and how much I wanted to help build on that for them. Helping others gave me a sense of pride because I was using what I had learned and passed it on to someone else that it helped. This is what I was meant to do so I needed to be confident in my faith in myself. The more I learned and implemented mindfulness techniques (like meditation, yoga, deep breathing), journaling, and reading books on top of books (lucky for me there is no shortage of them!) on self-care, meditation, and finding your purpose. The more I filled my cup the better of a mom I was as well, my patience grew leaps and bounds, we were able to talk openly about big and little problems, and I was able to be present for the first time in my life and enjoy the little human I had created.
I don’t want to paint a picture of some romantic self-discovery journey and everything turns out wonderful in the end and we cut to the credits like a movie. Big changes had to be made in order for the happy ending and this is always a work in progress. I’ve lost friends and family members who didn’t like who I became because I was confident and didn’t let people steamroll me into making choices that benefited them. And, though I did it with love and respect, they didn’t like that I was standing up for myself and being more vocal about the kind of treatment I would tolerate. I continuously have to throat punch the old people- pleaser in me who whispers that we should just do what others want so we don’t rock the boat. I learned about boundaries and how they help keep me safe and sane. My circle of people I truly trust and confide in is small, but my faith and respect for myself and others have grown immensely.
This is when I brought these practices into my classroom. I knew what they had done for me so I thought it was worth a shot to teach my students what I had learned. In my previous blog, I noted how anxiety seems to be really high among students, and my special education students were no exception. Most could not communicate in a way that the majority could understand, so creating friendships was really difficult and came with a lot of anxiety and frustration for them. Imagine trying to connect with someone that you want to know and not knowing how to approach them or repeating a script to them that means something to you but confuses them. How frustrating would it be to not be able to say what you want to say to someone? It was like their speech was undermining their efforts and I wanted to do something, anything, to help them. I knew what my students were like when they were calm and comfortable and how much easier communication was for them when they were. Slowly I started bringing more mindfulness techniques into my classroom; I started with doing some yoga stretches before we would sit down for a period of academic work. I noticed that they were slowly getting more focused and ready to start their tasks quicker. After this, I started implementing deep breathing after periods of high physical activity such as OT or recess. While recess helped them work on their gross motor skills, deep breathing helped them bring their awareness back into their bodies and work on their self-regulation. When I would introduce something I would wait about 2 weeks to make sure it was working and would work out the kinks and tweak some things in that period of time to modify it for all my students. When this was solidified I would introduce another technique, and so on. And this was good for everyone as I noticed my aide's stress level decrease as well. We are all just energy I believe and we can feed off the energy someone is putting out there so having an environment of calm was key. My students could still be triggered by whatever their particular triggers were, however, there they were much slower to escalate and easier to reason with. As long as they were feeling heard and their needs respected they were easier to negotiate with.
If you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far thank you! Most of this I have kept hidden inside of me for years, afraid that the people who abused me would come back which is hilarious because I share a child with one of them and have to co-parent with him. But I know I’m not alone in this and I know my story isn’t unique. There are more of us, men and women, out there who live like this and don’t know where to turn. This is for you; the overworked, overstressed, underappreciated, abused, flat out exhausted parent who just looks forward to going to bed at night in hopes of getting just a few hours of peace. Who is taking care of you? If you need help, reach out. I know it sounds small but showing your vulnerability can be the hardest thing you will ever do. But know what, people are there to help! I didn’t think they were when I finally asked for help, but I was continuously shown how much people cared. My prayer for you is that you start your own journey into self-care and realize how much more inspired you will be when you learn just how amazing you are and how we all need you here just as you are!