Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I couldn’t breathe. I tried to get air into my lungs with large gasps of trapped in the car, stuck in traffic oxygen. However, no matter how deeply I breathed, the weight of emotion on my chest stopped my lungs from expanding. I remembered feeling a similar way, years ago, as an unwilling participant in a swimming pool game that pitted my stronger sibling against my weaker self. The “game” was a bit brutal, the rules simple: hold your opponent under water until they can’t hold their breath any longer and panic sets in. Panic induces motion. Push, strike out, writhe in protest, walk, run from the weight of the hand or emotion keeping you submerged. Do whatever it takes to get the message across that I need air, NOW!

This time the opponent wasn’t a blood relation, enjoying a summers, sunny day, of childish entertainment. This days unexpected attack came from a school Administrator informing me on my cell phone, while I was on a busy expressway, that my daughter’s anxiety induced absences were cause for the District to recommend a visit to our home from a county agency.

Anxiety, mood disorder, depression, mental illness, behavioral health issues are the terms I have heard to describe the agony my daughter goes through. It’s not a choice, it is a chemical imbalance. Sometimes, but not always, medication offers relief. This wasn’t the first episode, it will not be the last, but to date it has been the worst. As a result of our recent move, we had little in the way of a support network in place to keep us afloat in the dark, deep end of our anxiety pool, and the school, a raft that we were leaning on, had just deflated. I tried to breathe life into a rescue attempt at the school with IEP meetings, explanations, medical documentation, and even a desperate cry for help to the team of people who were trained professionals.

The fight that was triggered that day didn’t abate for weeks. I fought to keep her safe from crippling anxiety that made the simple act of leaving the house a terror. I fought for her right to experience school in Pennsylvania as successfully as she had experienced school in Ohio. I fought for her right to breathe easily. I fought to catch my own breath. She fought too. Everyday she woke up and fought to hold on with me. Each morning she moved into her day believing that today she would find a light to move towards. In the end, we couldn’t move forward until we stopped the slide backwards.

On that long ago summer day, stuck somewhere between the bottom of the swimming pool and the surface where the air existed, I realized that fighting a stronger force was futile. I needed to conserve oxygen and devise a new defense to outwit the brute holding me under. After all, my beloved sibling didn’t want me dead, or even unconscious, he just wanted to reinforce that he was stronger and entertain his bored self. Slipping deeper into the water, it occurred to me to let go. Stop fighting. When I did, the game was over and I could surface and fill my lungs with oxygen.

In the end, this is the same strategy my daughter found, mid panic attack, in the parking lot of the high school. Together we stopped fighting. We let go. We drove away, towards home, knowing she would never again enter that building as a student. It took a few days for us to realize that we were no longer going backwards, and a few weeks to put a team in place that helped us to move forward, one small step at a time. Letting go of the school and the unhelpful professionals there had been the answer we were seeking. Much of what is intelligent and strong about me today I learned from my siblings. Courage I am learning from my children.

Today, my daughter smiled. It was the first genuine, relaxed and sincere smile I have seen from her in months. We still have a long way to go, but I think we can start to breathe again.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Go Big or Go Home

I like witty, one line rejoinders that define moments of truth. Whether it is Dr. House’s expletive, “Everyone lies” or historic greats proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death”, I am attracted to big ideas encapsulated in simple phrases.

Recently however, I heard a one liner that just didn’t resonate with me. “Go big or go home”.

I suspect that this term entered pop culture through movies like Crazy Stupid Love, as a transfer from some sporting event where “going big” means to catch air while dangerously plunging off a high edge of snow on a board, or cartwheeling the wheels of a bike/skateboard. Granted, I’m not sporty. I will occasionally banter with friends over why any Chicago athlete is better than their favorite hometown, pass throwing, star, but knowing the names of Chicago teams is the extent of my sporting knowledge.

So at first glance, “going big” isn’t my life. How could it be? I’m a history crazed/writing enthusiast/wife/mother of four/educational advocate for my daughter with special needs. I don’t go big in the sense that I jump off the edge of cliffs or leave all of my blood sweat and tears on a field. I spend a significant amount of my time at home, taking risks on a regular, if not so media blitzed basis.

I’m not alone. I know many working near, at, or from home Moms who “go big” daily in their living rooms teaching children to walk, talk, and read. Dads who make life improving decisions at the kitchen table where they consider if they have the fortitude to support a H.S. Freshmen through one or two college level A.P. classes. Parents who hesitantly decide the riskiest of all, is it safe to hand a set of car keys to a sixteen year old. Families know that in order for risks to be taken beyond the front door, they are first taken with thoughtful consideration and honest communication in a place where dreams are allowed to come alive.

If I were to create an age defining media slogan that made sense, I would write something that didn’t diminish risk takers to those who get attention only from cameras. After all, some of Americas most important risk entrepreneurs existed well before the televised madness of today. Those heroes wrote slogans for populist consumption and won battles for liberty, whilst simultaneously writing letters to family and friends longing to be home.

George Washington wrote continuously of his desire to leave public life and return to Mount Vernon. Thomas Jefferson pined for his children and the comfort they brought him, as he observed nations invent democratic governments based on the words he penned. John Adams and his wife spent ten years of their marriage separated by war and an ocean, while he was “going big” in Europe securing funds and international support for the biggest risk of his generation. All of these historic superstars desired to face life’s challenges from their beloved homes, instead of the national stage.

I think Susan B. Anthony said it rather well when she said:

"Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones...The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these...”

I admit, exciting moments can act like magnets that pull us into a spotlight that feels warm and adoring for a moment, but going home isn’t the consolation prize this simple slogan would make it seem. I propose that home is where we learn that risk isn’t just what happens on a razors edge, in front of a camera, but rather, it is where we grow the grandest of dreams. History has taught that germinating a dream is the biggest risk of all, and nobody should go home, head hung in shame, they should race home for a chance to begin again. I might say it this way: Go big, go home and go again.