April 30, 2012

High School Survival Guide

On my side of the family, I have a niece and a nephew who've both graduated from high school and a niece and a nephew who are still in high school. To say that high school is or was a struggle for them is an understatement. Some of that is due to the school work and some of that is due to the drama that comes from student or teacher conflicts. To my niece and nephew still in school I find myself offering up advice on how to survive. Advice that, while I know it's sound, I also know I never would've taken at that age. After all, what do adults know, right?

Oh, but we do know. I want them to know that I understand where they are coming from. I want to help them survive. I want to help them succeed. Not just for their own sakes, but because if I can say anything that will help them through it, maybe I'll be that much more prepared to help my own kids who aren't that far off from high school themselves.

So for my niece and nephew, let me share my wisdom, limited though it may be. High school sucks. Not all the time but when it does, it sucks in a big way. I realize you are well aware of this and are probably rolling your eyes at such an obvious statement, but I just want you to know that my picture of high school isn't all rosy and filled with perky cheerleaders and sparkly prom dresses. But I want to let you in on a little secret. High school is not the end all/be all of life. Right now, it's everything--most of your life is centered around that 8 hour a day, 5 day a week chore that you only barely manage to endure because the alternative is listening to your parents scream at you for not making it to class. But this is not your life. This is just a testing ground. This is the place where you will only start to discover who you are and the kind of person you want to be. High school isn't real life, it just feels like it right now.

About those grades that you keep getting hounded about. Straight A's aren't everything but yes, colleges do care what your GPA is. I know what you're thinking: There's no way you're going to college after putting up with high school. But let me tell you that college is a whole new ballgame. The teachers won't hound you if you don't show up for class. For the most part, if you want to show up to class in your pajamas, they won't care. But they also won't hold your hand like high school teachers. There is no "I couldn't find a pencil" or "My mom forgot to bring my homework up to school" excuses. You are solely responsible for everything you turn in and there are no passes for late work. So why go to college? It's not a life requirement but I have to tell you that I have missed out on a lot of job interviews simply because I lack even a 2 year degree. After being unemployed for 5 months, those missed interviews hurt.

College may not even be on your radar right now. I get it. Why would you put yourself through more of that when you are barely surviving high school? But take my advice--survive it. Do whatever it takes to get through each day. Turn in the work, ignore the other students (I realize it's easier said than done), brush off the teacher's idiotic remarks--but get that diploma! You want to get out on your own and be an adult? Great. But you'll need a job. Many employers frown at a GED but it's next to impossible to get a job when you are a high school dropout. As a potential employer, why would I hire you if you couldn't even be counted on to go to school every day? That diploma is your magic ticket away. It's your first step to being able to get out on your own and run your own life.

You want your life to start already? Get through high school. That's when the fun really begins. That's when you get to make your own decisions and figure out who you really are. High school is a world built inside a self-contained bubble that doesn't reflect what your grown up life will be like. As a grown up, you won't spend all day with people your own age. As a grown up, you won't have mandatory PE, 6-8 classes a day or finals. As a grown up, you can choose how you're going to spend those 8 hours a day.

But on the other hand, as a grown up you won't have extra credit or tutors or study hall. As a grown up, you won't have parents to give you lunch money or help you finish that big project. As a grown up, you won't have the chances to enjoy things like sleepovers with friends, passing notes in class and having few responsibilities.

For some, high school can actually be fun, but for others it is a necessary evil. And this is what is important for you to know: It IS necessary. No matter how much you may hate it, it is absolutely necessary. While it does not mirror life as an adult, it will teach you some very valuable things. There is a lot of stuff you'll learn while you're there that you will never use again but there is just as much stuff that you'll need every day. But you won't know until you get older which information is going to be the stuff you use all the time. High school teaches you that there will always be expectations of you--either through work, family or even just friends. You will have deadlines, unhappy bosses or unreasonable clients, chores that you just have to grit your teeth to complete. There will always be mean people. There will always be people who are better off than you, but there will also always be people who have it worse.

The best advice I can give you? Stick with it. Give it your best. Try not to take it so seriously. Find one thing you like about high school and cling to that. It will be over before you know it. 

(Look for my next High School Survival post coming soon...)

April 27, 2012

Flashback Friday--Has NASCAR Called Yet?

There are very few times in my life when I have felt like my life was in danger. As a rule I try to avoid anything that is dangerous, questionable or even just taxing, so to fear for my very life is a rare experience. And yet, wouldn't you know, I have a story to share about that very thing.

In the years B.C. (Before Children), MC and I lived here in TX. While he would go off to his construction work every day, I would drive the 45 minutes to an hour (depending on traffic) to my job as an assistant manager at a mall in Dallas. I liked my job and all was well...until my car broke down. (I know, big surprise, right?) We were a one car family at this point so, as you can imagine, this created some problems. MC rode to work and back every day with his dad. They were able to drive me to work for a couple of days and then I had to rely on my brother-in-law to pick me up and take me home or work around MC's schedule and wait for him. This only lasted for a week when we decided enough was enough and we needed another car NOW. Turns out my sister-in-law had a car that she wasn't currently driving; she was willing to loan it to me until our car was able to be fixed. Great! Problem solved!

Only that solution provided another problem. Her car was a stick shift and I'd only ever driven automatics. To make it even better, there wasn't anyone available to drive me to work that Monday which meant I had exactly 2 days to master driving a stick. In my opinion, driving an automatic is much easier and it had taken me 2 1/2 years to get my license to drive that! How was I going to learn to drive an standard in 2 days? Enter our dear friend, Necessity.

On Saturday, MC drove us to an empty lot in front of the high school stadium and proceeded to explain to me the mechanics of driving a stick--how to change gears, when to change gears, when to push down and let up on the clutch. In theory I got it. I could've explained to anyone exactly what went into driving a stick shift, but then came time for me to get behind the wheel. We took it slow, starting with me simply learning how to start the car and get it into first. Then we moved up to giving it a little gas so I could let up on the clutch. Eventually we kicked it up a notch and started doing really crazy things like turning, increasing speed and shifting gears. I would love to be able to tell you that I picked up on it quick, that I was a natural at coordinating the gas, clutch, gear shift and steering wheel all at the same time...but you all know that would be a big fat lie.

If you had been a fly on the stadium wall that weekend, here's what you would have seen: a little red car jerking across the parking lot, stalling out every 30 seconds and suffering through some serious grinding of the gears, while the driver cried and yelled and railed at the man in the passenger seat, who was probably praying for patience as well as a magic genie who would release him from the chore of teaching his technically challenged wife to operate a motor vehicle. I try to do my best to block out memories that will paint me in an unflattering light (which is probably why I can't seem to remember anything) but I'm fairly certain there were words screamed out to the effect of, "I will NEVER learn how to do this!" and "Curse the man who invented standards!" and "This just isn't FAIR!" (always a good fallback). MC was patient as always and we kept at it for hours. By the time Sunday evening rolled around, I was marginally better. Good thing, too, because in just a few short hours I would be testing my new skills out on the highways of Dallas.

Driving in Dallas is a unique experience. The posted speed limit on the freeway is 65mph, but the traffic frequently moves at 80mph. When there are rush hour back ups, what tends to happen is drivers get on the freeway and hit 80 as soon as they can but then have to slam on their brakes when they come upon congestion. So you have 2 speeds during rush hour: 1)Take Your Life In Your Hands and 2)Hit The Brakes And Pray For A Miracle. Good times. Let's throw into this mix a very nervous driver who is not at all confident in her newly acquired driving skills. Now we've got ourselves a party!

If I could've just driven to work, shaky hands and churning gut ever present, I would've been fine. But I'm not that lucky. Driving at those speeds, I had to shift into 5th gear. No problem. But then I would have to slow down for traffic. Time to down shift. Only every time I tried to shift from 5th to 4th, I would skip a few gears and drop it into 2nd. They are right next to each other and the shift between the two was so slight that I kept shifting to the wrong gear. If you aren't familiar with driving a standard, allow me to explain to you what happens when you do that. Doing 80mph and then shifting to 2nd (which is where you'd be at if you were driving maybe 20mph) is like putting the brakes on a roller coaster heading downhill. We're talking instant whiplash. The only thing that saved me from a steering wheel-induced concussion was the seat belt that dug into my chest and kept me glued to the seat. What also happens is the engine stalls out, so you go from doing 80 and moving with all the other traffic to being dead in the water. And that is a scary place to be.

More times than I care to remember I found myself suddenly stopped in the middle of the freeway with cars zooming closer in my rear view mirror. Drivers honked and flashed me some creative hand gestures while swerving to avoid plowing into me. Trying to talk through all the steps I learned over the weekend while on the freeway would've been bad enough, but throw in the risk to life and limb and the fear of being the subject of tonight's headline news and I was a wreck. Everything seemed to take longer. Gears moved around on me, the clutch wouldn't cooperate, and I swear someone magnified that grinding noise the car made when I was slipping through gears until every car on the freeway could hear the evidence that I was a new driver.

By the time I finally made it to work (in one piece, thank you, God), I was a nervous wreck. And 15 minutes late. I must've looked as bad as I felt because as soon as I walked in, my co-workers came rushing over asking, "Are you okay?" And, as any girl can tell you, those are the magic words that will unleash the dam. I started bawling (whereas up to this point I was only mildly crying), my stomach rebelling and my hands shaking like they were forming their own tap line. But I had survived. I couldn't believe I had made it through that harrowing gauntlet alive. And I couldn't believe I was going to have to do it all over again.

Necessity forced me to master driving a standard and soon I was confidently flying down the freeway with all the other daredevil drivers. I still avoid driving a stick shift whenever I can help it but it's nice to know that the skill is there if I need it. I just always hope I won't need it.

April 19, 2012

More Aware Than I Want to Be

My apologies for leaving you all hanging for over a week. I know it was tough to live without my blog updates but I'm here now. All is well again.

April is Autism Awareness month. In the past, I've posted about going through the initial diagnosis with my son, Bubba, and I've blogged about his progress since then. I've shared with all of you the ups and downs and joy and tears of living with a child with Autism. I've shared my hopes and fears for him, my struggle to come to terms with being a mom of a kid with a disability and dealing with siblings who don't understand why their brother is different. This year I wanted to do something different. This post is coming so late in the month because it's taken me awhile to figure out exactly what I wanted to say this time. What I'm going to share about Autism this April is strictly my opinion and others will not agree with me. I'm okay with that.

When I first started going through the whole Autism "ordeal", the official numbers were 1 in 250 children would be diagnosed with Autism. Nine years later that number has changed to 1 in 88. One out of every 88 kids will have a diagnosis of Autism or a diagnosis on the Autism spectrum. That is mind boggling. It's scary. It's heartbreaking. And it's beyond frustrating.

I'm on the fence about many things you hear about in the media nowadays regarding Autism. As a whole, I feel like our society is more aware of Autism and what it entails, as opposed to even 10 years ago when people still mainly associated the word with Rain Man. I am thankful to organizations like Autism Speaks and celebrities like Holly Robinson Peete and Jenny McCarthy for getting media attention to the epidemic this country is facing. Raising awareness is so important. There is not enough funding for research into Autism--what causes it, what can be done to prevent it, how to effectively deal with it--so having big names out there raising money is a good thing. However, I feel like there are so many misconceptions being floated around that I sometimes wonder if they are doing more damage than good.

First, let me tell you a fact. While most Autistic kids have many similar traits, you will have a hard time finding 2 kids who are affected exactly the same, even among siblings on the spectrum. The span of "symptoms" (for lack of a better term) is so vast that it is next to impossible to do any blind studies or supported testing on these kids. Some have food allergies, some are hypersensitive, some are hyposensitive, some are non-verbal, some speak through echolalia (repeating words or phrases they hear as opposed to using their own words), some are considered high-functioning and can be integrated into classes with "typical" kids, while others will always be completely dependent on their parents and caregivers for even their basic life functions. Because there is no set pattern of traits or symptoms, there is no one way of dealing with Autism and no way to effectively test and research how best to treat these children.

Okay, that being said, let me share with you my stand on the whole issue. I have friends who believe that all the stories coming out right now about these kids being helped or even "cured" through special diets or alternative methods are pure bunk. After all, if they were such wonder cures, why aren't all kids Autism free? (Side note: there is no "curing" Autism. If you met my son today, you'd never guess he had Autism. He is not cured, he's just progressed enough that we are able to deal with his issues, issues that he will have to work around his entire life.) I also have friends who believe that you just need to find the right organic-based diet and weed out all the dairy/wheat/artificial flavors/fill-in-the-blank-dietary-allergy and these kids will instantly become different children--the non-verbal start speaking, the violent kids start calming down and previously detached kids suddenly start engaging their parents.

When we first got an inkling of what was going on with Bubba, I read everything I could get my hands on. I researched every article I could find. I consulted with pediatricians, therapists and Autism specialists. I read a 200 page medical report written in medical-ese detailing the findings of alternative treatments such as chelation and the effect of mercury on a child's system. I tried everything out there. We went gluten- and casein-free for my son. We refused vaccines. We did allergy testing. We spent hours working one on one with him on things as basic as eye contact. We taught him sign language, took him to speech therapy and occupational therapy, spent time at the Y doing swim therapy, tried different medications. I approached Bubba's pediatrician with the medical report and proceeded to inform him of all the latest research on Autism only to be informed it was all garbage and "anecdotal".

I've grown to hate the word anecdotal. If something can't be quantified through carefully controlled research, most doctors will dismiss it outright. Remember when I said Autistic kids are all different? That makes it next to impossible to do any carefully controlled research. You won't get the same results when your test subjects all have different traits that you're testing against. So if my kid gets the flu I will take him to the doctor. A broken bone, a rash, an ear infection? He'll see the doctor. But Autism issues? Forget it. I know more about what's going on in regards to Autism than most doctors. And the doctors that actually do spend their careers in the Autism field risk being ostracized by the medical community for embracing alternative treatments and therapies and unpopular theories that go against Big Pharmacy.

I am thankful for anything that brings awareness to the Autism epidemic--even if I don't necessarily believe that people in general are being educated about what families with Autism are really dealing with. If a child dies, the nation cries out. But if a child will spend the rest of his life locked in his mind, being completely dependent on his parents for everything (imagine changing diapers on a 200 pound, 6ft "child", or restraining that child if he has a sensory-triggered meltdown in public) which frequently causes parents to fight and eventually divorce, if that child wanders away from home and gets lost, if that child is confronted by a police officer but acts "shifty" because he doesn't grasp social cues and gets arrested which, due to the unwanted touching, causes the child to get violent and end up hurt by the officer (true story), if that child will be dependent on the state for therapy or housing or medical for the rest of his life (all of which are very real possibilities, and for many children daily realities), no one gets upset. There is no national cry for answers, no demand for more research funding or acceptance of whatever offbeat treatment it takes for our kids to be able to function even marginally better in society.

To the mom who can tell you to the minute when her child regressed into a non-verbal Autistic child and will stake her life on it being caused by her child's vaccine? I say, you are absolutely right. You know your child. Don't let anyone bully you into saying it wasn't that vaccine. To the mom who radically overhauled her family's diet so that her child would stop having psychotic episodes brought on by a severe allergy to wheat? I say I'm impressed. Keep at it. Giving up bread for the rest of your life is a small price to pay for making that child's (and your) life a bit easier. To the mom who won't try anything that doesn't come straight from her traditional pediatrician? This is your child. Only you know what is best for him/her and what your family can deal with. Most of the things that I've heard have helped other kids I've tried with Bubba. Hardly any of them made a difference for him. But that doesn't mean I don't believe they work. They just didn't work for us. And I will mention every single one of them to any mother who comes to me looking for advice in dealing with her Autistic child. I believe that as moms we know our children best. If a mom tells me removing red dye from her kid's diet made a difference, then I believe she's right. That doesn't mean it will work for everyone but if it helped one child, it's a worthy option.

I don't agree with most of the views of Autism Speaks because they are not in support of what many see as alternative methods. I don't agree with Jenny McCarthy who has convinced many people that a special diet is the magical cure. I don't agree with parents who aren't willing to try anything and everything (that isn't harmful to their children) in an effort to find even ONE thing that makes a difference. If I hear that something worked for one child, I figure it is worth trying. How do I know it won't work for Bubba unless I try it? But I do agree that we are all after the same thing--a better life for our children and the hope that we can somehow slow the bleed and keep other children from ending up with a similar diagnosis. And for that reason, I am in support of anything that will get others looking into Autism. Whether or not they cause any national "awareness" is questionable, but if the efforts of these organizations and individuals cause one person to try to better understand what is happening to our children, then I am in full support.