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Old me, new me, changed me

August 23rd, 2019

Like most teen girls, I tried on different personal styles and borrowed cool things to say from books and television. Some just felt right and I kept them while others seemed jarring, even to me.  I learned what fit and even more, what made me feel more confident and easy in myself.  I looked around for role models too.  I was drawn to my best friend’s mother, an artist who was tall and slender, gracious and thoughtful.  She had created a home that was filled with unique and beautiful things.  Their family dinners were plated in a way that we see on Instagram today, not for effect, but because she found beauty in it.  I wanted to absorb all of it through my pores, taking it in, making it mine.

Over the years, I borrowed from many other women, learning through re-creation.  Sometimes it was personal (clothing, hairstyles) but more often it was learning a new way of moving through life.  I thought I was pretty happy with that version of me.  Then I had my son.

My son needed an advocate, a persistent, smart, untiring mom who knew how to collaborate but hold the line.  He needed a different version of me.  Not the gracious, trusting one but one that could take the bull by the horns for him.

I found myself doing what I had done as a teen girl:  grabbing a turn of phrase here, an emotional or intellectual approach there.  I had an uphill learning curve to reach a better understanding of mental health issues in children, what care was available (or not) and how to access it.  But more than that, I knew I needed to appear confident, determined and strong.

I soaked up the language I heard from national leaders like Barbara Huff on how important families were to the healing and success of their children.  I listened to parent leaders giving workshops on special education or finding resources and noted how they emphasized the importance of smart, savvy parents (and modeled it).  I absorbed stories of IEP successes and insurance showdowns, where the parent simply didn’t care how many people were naysayers and plowed ahead.

I also had a friend, whose son had Asperger’s, who was famous for not taking any hooey.  Once, when she brought her son to his first meeting with a therapist, the therapist took her aside for a private word.  He said, “I am a mandated reporter.  If your son tells me anything during our session that worries me, I will be required to report it.”  Without blinking an eye, she replied, “Likewise, if my son reports anything to me on the ride home that worries me, I too will be required to report it.” When she told me this story, I burst out laughing.  After I was done, I made a mental note not to placate my son’s team ever again.  Instead, I would be direct and clear.  By the way, my friend went on to have a strong relationship with her son’s therapist.

It wasn’t easy work.  I didn’t start out not caring what others thought of me and it was uncomfortable challenging people I often liked and respected.  But going along and believing that things would work out didn’t lead to the care, school services or service slots my son needed.  While I always knew that squeaky wheels get more attention, I really didn’t plan to become loud and squeaky. But advocacy demands it sometimes.

When I was a few years into the strategic-warrior version of me, I found that other parents, especially other mothers, were grabbing my phrases and approaches and running with them.  I would talk about what I said at a team meeting or how I politely but adamantly disagreed with a therapist and someone would remark, “I didn’t think you could say that out loud. I’ve always bitten my tongue.”  Once, when my son, then a teen, was hospitalized (temporarily, they said) on an adult unit, I called my insurer and ask for him to be transferred.  I pointed out that when he was in group therapy on the unit floor, the next youngest person was 41.  My insurer hemmed and hawed and I insisted.  They said that approval would take time.  I insisted.  They pulled out a series of reasons why this wasn’t doable.  I insisted and they found him a new bed on an adolescent unit.  I’d tell this story and other parents would say, “How did you phrase that?”  Then they would try it out for themselves.

At the start of my son’s mental health problems, I would jokingly ask his therapist for a handbook, so I could look on page 57 and figure out how to handle school refusal or on page 123 and follow the instructions for a meltdown.  What I didn’t say was that a I also needed a handbook to reconfigure myself, so I could learn to take the hits, roll with the punches and come up with a brilliant move or two.  Of course, neither handbook exists but I had living, breathing examples in other parents who had forged their way before me.  I will always be grateful to them.

We all know that life happens and it changes us.  But we change ourselves, too.  I thought I was done when I was a teen and young adult, drawing on the examples of other women.  Then I thought that I was creating the almost-final version of me when I needed to become an uber-advocate for my son.  However, I keep finding wonderful traits and points of view that intrigue and amaze me.  I muse to myself, “What if I tried that out?”  And sometimes I still do.

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