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My sweet Anya-Marie (Elizabeth) Joy is almost sixteen now. Our journey together has been difficult at times, almost unbearable at others, but like her name, she brings me great joy. Within hours after her birth, my husband and I noticed that Anya looked a little odd to us. She seemed to stare off into space. She is our sixth child, so we had some frame of reference on which to base our observations.
At first, we didn’t really worry about what we were seeing, but as time went on, she didn’t accomplish milestones at the same rate that our other children had. She didn’t look at us, she looked above us. She rarely smiled. We couldn’t ignore it anymore… something wasn’t right.
She was only mildly delayed in terms of motor skills, so by four years old she functioned physically quite well, except for extreme sensory integration issues. She was both hyper and hypo sensitive and required physical therapy from age two. She would stomp her feet when she walked, but would also scream if a light went on or a hair touched her body. Blessedly, we had dealt with similar issues with her older sister, so we recognized the problem and got intervention early.
By the time she was four, we were told that she had a low IQ and was moderately developmentally delayed. By age eight a diagnosis of Asperger’s (a mild form of autism) had been added to the list. As is typically with that combination of issues, the world was a threatening place to poor little Anya. She spent most of her time in screaming fits and meltdowns. Life was difficult for our entire family due to managing her problems and still trying to raise a healthy family and maintain a strong marriage.
At one point, an ‘expert’ suggested we find a ‘home’ for her. It was then that we decided to proactively change everything in our lives to help our little girl thrive. We read everything, studied anything, spent countess hours working with Anya. We were supported by some wonderful family and friends who wanted to help us, help her. We developed a plan and strategies, regularly changing them to adapt to her changing needs. We looked at all family outings as potential meltdown scenarios and developed coping and exit strategies when our worst fears materialized.
One of Anya’s safety zones was, well, me! A friend once referred to me as her Rosetta stone, because I could translate her to the world and the world to her. She went everywhere with me. My mom jokingly (and lovingly) called her, “mommy’s little barnacle.” She clung to me all day, everyday. As she got older she would even go to work with me, sitting quietly for hours as I had meetings.
A few years ago, things started to improve. She still went everywhere with me and still wouldn’t venture anywhere except school on her own, but her gifts and talents started to shine through. She has a love for the clarinet. She also has a wonderful gift for caring for small children, especially with children who have disabilities. As I would teach Adult Faith Formation, Anya would care for the children of some of my catechumens. One little boy was non-verbal, autistic. He would jump up and down as soon as he saw her. Anya also has an ability to take beautiful pictures. Her dream is to photograph special needs children.
A few years ago she was Confirmed. She chose Elizabeth as her Confirmation name, very logically, as she was already named after Jesus’ mother and grandmother, why not his cousin too?! She often contributes at youth group, goes on the March for Life and to the Steubenville Youth Conferences (as long as I am one of the chaperones) and will even venture to a friend’s house occasionally now and then.
She has taught our family patience. She has taught us to put another’s needs above our own comfort. We have learned to be flexible, to accommodate her rigidity. All of my children are loving and sensitive to the needs of others, especially to the disabled. She has helped us grown in the love of Christ, as we learned to love the least of our brothers.
She has grown exponentially in the environment of our family and has had a jump in IQ score and social skills. She is still measured as low, but low-average on most scales that measure intelligence and social functioning!
As my little ‘saint-maker’ sits beside me as I drive to work, I realize how much we have shared because she has always been by my side. I recognize that someday, she will be on her own, and that my passenger seat will no longer hold my chatty, constant companion. My heart flies at the knowledge that she has grown, but as I sit here writing this, I am wiping more than a few tears from my eyes. She has succeeded, but maybe I am the one who has grown. Thank you, Anya. We love you!
Families, church members and students are under a lot of stress this Thanksgiving season. It may be difficult to find reasons to be thankful when our churches are closing or being clustered, we are unemployed or struggling with family stress during the holidays. For some families, even coming up with the money for Thanksgiving dinner may be difficult this year.
What can we do, as Catechists, to help, especially if we too are struggling with these issues?
1/ Discuss the stressors. Sometimes just sharing the fears and difficulties may help our students to get through the rough times. Open discussions can also present ideas or solutions that haven’t been considered before. It decreases stress to know that we are not alone. Creating a safe place to talk can provide a valuable resource for our students.
2/ Offer real help. Organizing a food or coat drive can give real assistance to those who need it while teaching a lesson in living out the Catholic virtue of charity to our students. Taking students to volunteer at a soup kitchen or halfway house may also make them aware of the blessings that they have in their own lives.
3/ Make a Thanksgiving Turkey or Cornucopia of thanks. Have students list things they are thankful for and place them around a circle as feathers on the turkey or on pieces of paper fruit pieces to fill the cornucopia.
4/ Play an opposite game of thanks. The idea is to take a negative and turn it into a positive. For example: We don’t have money to buy everyone a Christmas present this year so we are going to make gifts or write letters to each other. Dad lost his job so he will be home to make cookies for the first time during the holidays.
5/ Use church closings and clusterings to create new traditions. This has been a really hard year for so many parishes. At a church near us the school has been shut down. Nearby, friends are struggling with the closing of their parish. It is hard to feel grateful under these circumstances. There can be blessings found even in these difficult times. Consider merging the church celebrations this year (possibly even before they have been clustered) so that parishioners can get to know each other and share their talents. Acknowledge the sadness of the moment while trying to look forward to the new experiences to come. Encourage positive attitudes rather than falling into the negativity of the situation. It can be a time of new friendships and a better stewardship of resources for all. Be assured of my prayers, dear reader and may God bless you and Happy Thanksgiving!
(Originally published, in part, in HFC column for OSV, 2009)
I steadied myself and vowed not to let it get to me this time. I walked into the room and felt the tension swell up in my chest, tightening my shoulders and exploding into my head. The culprit; my ten year-old daughter’s room.
“I love you, God bless you and may the angels sing you to sleep…..and if you don’t get this room cleaned up tomorrow, everything will be gone when you get home from school!” I threatened, through my gritted teeth.
Stress can be caused from something as seemingly unimportant (such as my daughter’s messy room) or from significant happenings in our lives. Some of us react to every little thing, while others can handle most things well, until one thing tips us over the edge. Whatever its cause, all of us are effected by stress at some point or another. In fact, 75%-90% of all physician office visits are for stress-related complaints.
In my roles as a social worker, family coach and mom of seven I have seen families in all kinds of stressful situations. As I studied this more carefully, I discovered that people who are able to manage stress have a secret weapon.
The Secret Weapon
John Walsh is a good example of this secret. His son, Adam, was abducted and killed. I can’t imagine a more stressful situation than that. Grief and anger are huge stressors. Many people would have gotten stuck, unable to continue their lives in a positive way. John Walsh made a different choice. He decided to act.
Identify the Need for Change
Studying a stressful situation may provide details and ideas for change.
John Walsh identified the need for a change in the way abductions were reported and tracked. He became responsible for a grass-roots effort to create a national data bank of information. He has since been responsible for catching criminals on his television show, America’s Most Wanted, and for advocating safety programs to provide families with information on how to protect their own children.
In the case of my daughter’s room, well, she needed a new system of organization. I realized that if I was stressed and intimidated by the mess, so was she.
Keeping a small journal of things that cause stress can reveal patterns of the things that trigger a stress response. That may make it easier to spot the need for change.
Once a need has been diagnosed, turning stress from inaction into action is the key. Almost all of us have had the experience of feeling so stressed that we are confused and immobilized. Where do we start? How do we do something, anything…to feel better? The answer; jump in and do something.
I started by ripping apart my daughter’s room and giving it a fresh coat of paint. Once that was done, I went through her clothes and gave things she no longer needed away. I enlisted my husband’s help, and we decided to give her room a theme. My husband created a small stage in the room and hung track lighting as a spotlight. I hung long curtains around the stage and soon we had a beautiful room. Now that it was cleaned, organized and a fun space, our daughter found it much easier to keep her room tidy.
We all slip. If I left my daughter’s room alone for to long, it would get overwhelming again quickly. Frequent checks, a little help and a positive attitude helps my daughter and I stay away from a situation that had become stressful for both of us.
This is true for all kinds of stressful situations. It is simple to go back to working too many hours, taking on too many projects, trying to manage our families schedules and problems. It is important to review stressors and management of those problems on a regular basis.
Give Yourself a Break
As a friend of mine once said, “Sometimes, you just have to close the door.” This applies to messy rooms, situations of intense grief or work problems. It is healthy to give ourselves permission to just forget about the stress in our lives for a while. It will still be there when we turn our attention back to it. Taking a fresh look at, after taking a break, may provide new insights to the problems and patterns that caused that stress.
Creating on ongoing plan.
When dealing with stress, it is helpful to look at all aspects of our coping skills. Are we caring for ourselves physically, spiritually, behaviorally and emotionally? Looking at each of these areas and making a plan of action can help dramatically decrease our stress.