Life Lessons Learned from Tetris

I’m hungover. I’ve been hungover all summer, actually.

There’s been no alcohol involved. Those who knew me in university will be amused to know I have one drink of wine these days and need a nap, so that type of hangover isn’t too likely. What I’m experiencing is one massive anxiety-hangover.

I’ve had migraines and stomach issues this summer, which I know are my body’s way of releasing all that tension I felt over the past school year.  I stopped imbibing those stressors a couple of months ago, but I’m still waking up each day surrounded by a mess, not quite sure how I got here, and feeling like hell.

I have fewer stressors in my life at this moment, but I’ve got more anxiety. Stress isn’t the same as anxiety. Stressors are things can make a person sad, angry, or worried, while anxiety is a feeling of fear, dread, and apprehension. Stress is often caused by external influences, while anxiety is an internal response. Anxiety can manifest on its own, without any real “trigger” or cause.

It almost seems that without being in a constant ‘fight or flight’ mode, my brain no longer knows how to function. Not having stressors is actually anxiety-provoking for me. I lie in bed late at night, sure that I’m forgetting things (and chastising myself for little things I did forgot to do five months ago, or when I was 13) and making endless mental ‘to do’ lists. I struggle to focus during the day, and have even started drifting off to sleep mid-afternoon. Too often, I find myself at the end of another day, having accomplished little on my many colour-coded to do lists.

My anxiety has turned me into a procrastinator. I was never a procrastinator. I was the type of student who finished an assignment weeks before it was due. Now, I know how much I have to do, but I can’t get out of my own way and do it. Instead of working, I spend too much time on social media, letting my inner critic jab me in the ribs and point out how focussed and productive and successful everyone else is.

I started off the summer by trying to be patient with  myself. I tried to practice self-care, and give myself time and space to bounce back and feel like myself again. But as the summer has gone on, my anxiety has only gotten worse. The level of my anxiety-hangover has grown in direct proportion to how well things appear to be going in my life. I’ve lived for so long with our anxiety amp turned to 11 that I can’t remember how to dial it back. Without a crisis to focus on, I can’t seem to focus, at all.

While everyone else went to the cottage last week, I stayed home and went on a midsummer cleaning binge. Cleaning and organizing helps me focus, and it’s also much easier to do when no one else is around. So I grabbed recycling bags and hit the closets, throwing myself into a task that was productive and didn’t require me to think much.

One of the treasures I found was my old GameBoy, circa 1990. It came with one Mario game, and Tetris. Tetris was my favourite — again, all about organizing and focussing. Things I used to be good at, back in the day.

I feel a bit like I’m living in that Tetris game, these days.Read More »

Put on your rubber boots, we’re wading through bureaucratic crap.

Puck starts a new school in September, because administrators at the school he’s attended since Primary have stated they can’t support him to the level he needs. He’ll be attending one of a handful of schools in this province that focuses exclusively on teaching kids with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. In the old days, when I was in school, I suppose we called this “special ed”. It’s taken a while for his dad and I to get our heads around that.

The new school is technically part of the public school system, but it’s a private school — meaning, you must apply, be accepted, and pay a sizeable tuition. Because it’s part of the public school system, however, tuition support is available from the Department of Education, if you meet certain requirements:

  • accepted to school (check)
  • diagnosis of learning disability and/or ADHD (check)
  • supporting psycho-educational assessment and IPP  (check)
  • previous attendance at a public school  (umm…..)

And that’s where the rubber boots and bureaucracy come in. Although Puck meets all the requirements and demonstrates a real need to attend a special education school, we’re not eligible for tuition support, because Puck has never attended public school.

Puck struggled socially and academically even at age three. He became anxious and overwhelmed in groups, and showed signs of language-based learning disabilities. Based on his preschool teacher’s concerns, we had a screening with an early interventionist when Puck was four. She found no obvious developmental delays, but there were indications of learning challenges that she felt would likely become more evident in the school system. She suggested to us that Puck might benefit from a private school, where there would be a lower student-teacher ratio and more individualized attention. Our older child, Daisy, was just about to start Primary at our neighbourhood school. After talking with educators, psychologists, and other parents, and giving much thought to what would be best for Puck, we decided to enrol both he and Daisy in a liberal-arts private school.

Daisy thrived at the school. Puck did not. The school environment was nurturing and the teachers well-trained and thoughtful, but from the beginning, Puck was lost. He was unable to identify letters, to read, or to follow directions. He became frustrated and angry, yelling at teachers and hitting himself. His first psycho-educational assessment revealed language-based learning disabilities and slow visual processing speed. The most recent assessment found that his learning challenges are much more severe than previously believed, and are compounded by clinical anxiety and ADHD. Additionally, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome in 2014.

After both psycho-educational assessments, the school worked with a psychologist and a learning resource teacher to put in place accommodations. By this January, however, it was clear that the accommodations weren’t working. He was doing so little work that it was impossible to assess whether he was meeting any provincial learning outcomes (although it was evident to all that he was not meeting them). His teachers told us they were unable to teach him — they feel they don’t have the insight into learning disabilities that he needs. He would not be allowed to continue there.

While the academic impact of Puck’s learning disabilities has been profound, the impact to his sense of self and psychological well-being has been devastating. We have watched him devolve from a happy, curious five year old to an eleven year old who calls himself stupid, hits himself in frustration, and feels he is ‘bad’

He feels he’s not worth helping, and that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. We’re desperate to prove him wrong.

We believe the new special education school can help. Going there means he’ll have access to teachers who understand his learning challenges and how best to teach him. He’ll be surrounded by other children who have the same lived experience — he won’t feel isolated, or like he’s the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ one. He won’t automatically be sent home every day due to emotional outbursts. He won’t feel left behind, or left out. He’ll have access to specialized programming and services that help him not only to catch up academically, but that focus on teaching him to live (and thrive) with learning disabilities, and to develop social skills. He’ll have the emotional support and understanding that he needs to develop self-confidence, and to be a happy young person.

Maybe – we hope – he will, for the first time in his six years of school, not feel physically ill at the idea of going to school.

But…there’s the issue of money.Read More »

Put on Your Oxygen Mask

In past years, working in an air-conditioned office while the kids were in summer camps and organized activities, I kept summer at arm’s-length. Summer was a thing that happened on weekends, or on a patio with a gin and tonic after 6 pm. It was scheduled into my tidy and organized days and didn’t infringe on my 9-5 world.

For the past few summers, I’ve worked from home. The heat and proximity to the garden or ocean throw a veil of innate laziness over even my busiest days. I bring my laptop outside and work in the sun. I have meetings on coffee shop patios. I go to the cottage and sit on the dock while I write. Time slows to a crawl. The kids roam around like feral animals, spending days in their pyjamas and emerging only to forage for snacks. All structure is gone. The world condenses into hazy thoughts, blooms of honeysuckle, and quiet bird song.

This lack of structure worked for me, in the past. This year, though, I’m struggling. I’ve spent the past week being, basically, a lump. I’ve tried and failed to muster the energy to make it though my growing to-do list. I start ten different things, but at the end of the day stare at a blank computer screen. I am horrified by the dirt in the corners of the bathrooms, but have no energy to do anything about it. I drink too much coffee. I spend a lot of time staring at honeybees and wondering how such small, fuzzy creatures get the energy to do bee stuff all day.

I have run out of oxygen.

Puck wants to be a pilot. He’s obsessed with airplanes. And one of the first things you hear on a plane is the warning that in case of emergency, put your own oxygen mask on before helping anyone else.

My plane has been in a nosedive all year, and I have not put my oxygen mask.

One thing I’ve learned in my 48 years on this planet is that there is always ‘stuff’. There are jobs to do, bills to pay, relationships to navigate, fix, or leave. To be an adult is to tread water in a sea of stuff. For me, though, this year’s stuff has been dragging me under. I’ve questioned my own life-choices, and dealt with job uncertainty. I’ve spent sleepless nights worrying about Puck, and whether he will ever be okay. I’ve stayed with him through months of missed school and rounds of testing and medical appointments. I’ve been stabbed by guilt from not being with my parents more often as my mother’s memory slips away and my dad struggles to cope.  I’ve worried that I’m not doing enough to live up to whatever notion of ‘success’ society tells me I should attain today.

I realize now that I’ve dealt with it all by just diving into that deep pool of stuff — holding my breath, and not wearing a lifejacket. It’s been months since I came up for air. Only now that the pace has slowed — no school, fewer appointments, less anxiety, less structure — can I feel the shortness of breath, the heaviness in my very bones.

I am going under.Read More »

Mental Health Week (or, “At least you’re not really sick…”)

This blog is still in its infancy, but people are asking me why I’m doing this. Why am I putting my family out on public display, even with thinly-veiled identities? Am I brave, or irresponsible, or in need of therapy?

(Well, ‘yes’ to all of those.)

But really. I can tell you why I’m doing this: stigma. I have spent decades of my life pinned down by the stigma of living with anxiety and of having recovered from an eating disorder. I have felt invisible and fake, and convinced that people wouldn’t like me if they knew who I really was.

Enough of that bullshit. This is who I am. I am not perfect. I am not particularly strong, or brave, or smart. I am flawed but surviving, and I can do that better if I tell the truth about my life. Our society, in general, will do better if we all tell the truth, and smash through the stigma that comes from living with mental illness. Mental illness is isolating enough without having more isolation imposed on you by society’s stigma. I don’t want Puck to feel the isolation I’ve felt. I am committed to working for change.

Things are better than when I was Puck’s age, for sure. Somedays, though, the stigma shows up where it’s least expected.Read More »