Thursday, January 20, 2011

Leap of Faith

When I was little, I had a lot of fears. Fear of the first day of school. Fear of public speaking. Fear of getting in trouble. Fear of nuclear holocaust.

My mom's sage advice for handling these phobias was to "pretend that you're an actress playing the part of someone who is not afraid." For the record, this is amazing advice.

And it has worked. I no longer fear the first day of school (I've had many now), I love speaking in public, I don't fear getting out of line when necessary, and I just don't allow myself to think about nuclear holocaust.

And I can vividly remember those moments when I did something I was afraid to do. The first time I had to sing for an audition of Funny Girl, for example. I'm a terrible singer, anyway, and all the cool kids (well, as cool as musical theater kids can be) were there. I played the part of a confident singer, and on the outside, I probably looked fine. On the inside, my heart was pounding, my stomach aching, and my body threatened to run. I had to endure a persistent voice in my head that kept saying, "You can't do this. You CANNOT do this. I'm not sure you heard me, but this is really not something you can do." And then, and this is the case in every instance where I overcame my fear, I basically stepped outside of myself, shut my brain off, and let body do what it thought it couldn't. I had to take a leap of faith.

And thank God I did, because it led to so many amazing events in my life. Asking a boy out (what if he says no?), saying yes when a boy asked me out (what if he breaks my heart?), studying abroad (I can't be away from America for six months), moving to NYC with $1,000 in my pocket (am I CRAZY?), starting a family (in this messed up world?), and being the catalyst for our move across the country (what if I'm WRONG?).

Each and every time I just acted, pushed myself, taking that step off the cliff and just knowing that something would catch me. And something did. Every time.

But these are all rational fears. It's the irrational ones that I have more trouble with.

Car wrecks. How can I trust other people won't be drunk or high or just terribly reckless?

Kidnapping. How could I possibly let Stella out of my sight when someone might take her and...I can't finish that sentence.

Terrorism. After witnessing 9/11 from my apartment window, I still feel plagued at times by a fear that a bomb will go off at a crowded event or my plane will get hijacked.

And my most recent one: school shootings. Tuscon really shook me up. It reminded me how much hate is out there, and how relaxed our gun laws are. It made me think about how I'm an opinionated, outspoken liberal in an area where opinionated, outspoken liberals are considered by some to be disciples of Satan. It reminded me that some of my students hate my guts.

And just when I thought I was feeling better, I read about not one but two school shootings this week in California. These were much smaller than Columbine, thank God, but no less scary. The world is filled with hate, children are sponges for that hate, guns are plentiful and easy to acquire, kids get mad at each other and their teachers. Sometimes it just seems inevitable to me that it will happen in my life at some point, in some way.

I know. Irrational. Dave already told me. Especially when you look at how rare school shootings are. But that fear is there, regardless, and it's hurting me.

So now I have to play the part of the confident teacher, the woman whose only thought is how to instruct 13-year-olds to find the main idea of Nelson Mandela's autobiography, not peeking around the corner to see if someone's holding a firearm. This is a difficult leap of faith to make.

And yet, I will. Because I'm where I'm supposed to be, doing what I'm supposed to do. And, if you think about it, most any career can be deadly. Just ask my wise momma - she works at the Post Office.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

How a Couple of Fad Diets Made Me a Health Foodie

How did I go from eating bacon as a snack on Atkins to getting giddy about buying organic greens at a Farmer's Market? It's not as crazy as you'd think.

When I started the Atkins Diet about eight years ago, I honestly thought it wouldn't work. My family "dared" me to join them, and I thought I'd prove their crazy fad diet wrong. Instead, I lost around 60 pounds.

I remember day three of the diet, hitting a major CRASH and feeling like I would die if I didn't eat chocolate - STAT. If you don't know, Phase I of Atkins involves no sugar, no starch, and carbs that come only from vegetables. It's intense.

But I had no idea that giving up candy would be such a big deal. Until that moment, I hadn't realized that I was consuming some on a daily basis. Daily. Um...really?

As the diet went on, I noticed many other things about my previous eating habits. Like, for example, how many foods I consumed from bags or boxes. Chips, crackers, frozen Boca burgers -- if it was processed by a factory, I was there. I rarely ate vegetables, other than forms of potato, and, contrary to its meat-centric reputation, Atkins forced me to eat my roughage (let's just say a certain bathroom function isn't possible without it). And I ate a lot of things that didn't fill me up and made me crash - unlike candy and Pirate's Booty.

Atkins and I had to part ways eventually, because the idea of a life without bread was just too depressing to take. And that's when I met South Beach - Atkins' handsome, more laid-back cousin. Sinful foods such as beans and low-fat milk were cleared for Phase I, making it instantly more doable. I lost weight at a slower, steadier pace, but I felt less desperate and likely to steal someone's bag of Doritos.

And, again, I learned about myself. Since the diet focuses on lean proteins, vegetables, and, in Phase II, fruits and whole grains, I had to cook almost every meal. (You can find a lot of frozen South Beach meals now, but they were almost nonexistent at the time.) That seemed impossible at that point in my life. I worked full time and so did Dave, and it seemed ridiculous to me that we could have the energy to come home and fix a meal. (Little did I know that this whole equation becomes 6,000 times more exhausting when you throw in a toddler...)

But we bought a second South Beach cookbook - a quick meals one - and we found that it was not only doable, it was fun and delicious.

And I found even more success on this diet - getting super skinny for my wedding, then settling at a heavier, healthier weight for me and maintaining it...until pregnancy made me regress into my old eating self. But that's a whole other post.

And now that I'm on South Beach Phase I again - with a few modifications (I'm shying away from the fat free stuff, because I think it's too processed), I'm finding it so easy that I feel ashamed that I didn't do it sooner.

It's so easy because not only do I know how to cook - I enjoy cooking and take pleasure in it. It's also easy because, over the years, I've developed a love for many healthy foods - like basically all vegetables in existence - and I've cut down on the daily bad habits - like the afternoon Snickers bar. And because I'd been eating too much starch and consuming too many caffeinated beverages pre-diet, I'm reeling from the natural energy and good mood that I'm gleaning from my current eating habits.

And the organic, Farmer's Market greens? The initial Atkins-inspired awakening that I experienced concerning my eating habits caused me to look at all aspects of my eating, to evaluate everything that went in my body. If cutting down on the carbs made me feel great and lose weight, how would I feel if I took out all the processed crap? What if we ate less red meat? How about no artificial sweeteners?

I watched "Supersize Me" and read Fast Food Nation, leading me to cut down on and eventually cut out fast food. And I started equating my political views with our family nutrition. If I think the meat-packing industry is corrupt and immoral, how about I stop eating their meat? If I want to have a cleaner Earth for Stella, why don't we buy foods that are grown and produced locally?

Speaking of "Supersize Me," my fellow language arts teachers and I recently showed this film to our 7th graders as part of our persuasive writing unit. There's a scene at the beginning where Morgan Suprlock's girlfriend prepares his "last meal" of healthy food -- a vegetable tart, a quinoa veggy salad, an artichoke, and a simply dressed green salad. I stood there salivating (it looked delicious), but I heard several kids groan as if they were looking at something vile and disgusting. And I remembered thinking the same thing the first time I saw the movie. Who'd have thought Atkins would change my mind about THAT?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sensory Processing Disorder

Stella starting to "zone out" at All About Kids.

She still had tons of fun, though!

Her adorable friends. Whom she's completely ignoring.


A few weeks ago, Dave and I took Stella to a birthday party of one of her classmates, Alex. It was at a fabulous place called All About Kids where they teach gymnastic classes and have bouncy gyms and ball pits and general awesomeness. Dave takes her there many weeks when the weather's bad, so we knew she loved it.

However, when we got there, we were confused. Although Stella seemed excited to play, she completely ignored all the other kids, walking to a secluded corner and sort of zoning out. A couple of times, she even lay on the floor, face down, ignoring us.

I'll admit, I got peeved. Here we are spending our weekend eating store-bought cake (you know how I feel about that) and drinking Kool-Aid so Stella can be with other kids her age, and she just ignores them?

So, I emailed her teachers (like the over-attentive yuppy mom that I am) and asked if she's social at school. I expected them to tell me that I'm overreacting and that things will improve with age.

Instead, we got an email back saying they were in the process of emailing us about similar concerns.

Well, crap. Crappity crap crap.

I did what I do best - jump to far-fetched conclusions. Not interacting with other kids, rarely liking to hug or touch, an obsessive personality that caused her to learn her alphabet, numbers 1-15 and all her colors more quickly than I could have imagined. Obviously, she was autistic.

Thankfully, her amazing preschool teachers calmed me down and led us to a great resource - First Steps, Kentucky's early-intervention program. They were responsive and friendly, and set up an appointment with us right away. We filled out questionnaires about Stella's ability and social skills, and had a couple of counselors come over to do things like roll a ball on the floor with Stella and ask her to "read" a book to them.

And the conclusion they came to was Sensory Processing Disorder. And my little teacher brain said, "WELL, DUH!"

I have no clue how I missed this, considering I learned about it in grad school, spent two weeks over a summer at an intensive training course learning more about it and other disorders, and even had a couple of students with it. How did I not see?

Sensory Processing Disorder is a huge umbrella term and can explain a lot of different behaviors, but its definition is: a neurological disorder that results from the brain's inability to integrate certain information received from the body's five basic sensory systems.

Stella has a very mild version of it, which is great, and it can be vastly improved or even reversed with occupational therapy, which is also great. And best of all, catching it this early is the most effective way to work with it.

What this is all means is Stella has a really sensitive system. Which explains why she basically didn't sleep for 16 months. The world was too bright, too loud, to smelly, TOO MUCH to allow the poor girl to sleep.

It also explains some of her other quirks - like why transitions MAKE HER SCREAM, why she hates to have her face washed, why certain foods make her gag, why really loud places cause her to "zone out" and seek seclusion. And friends? Friends are too unpredictable, touching you at odd times or screaming in your ears or, sometimes, even smelling funny. Friends are simply sensory overload for a kid like Stella.

SO WHY DIDN'T I CATCH IT?

I'm also amazed that I didn't recognize the same condition in myself. How many nights did I simply lay awake as a child because the car lights on the street were distracting or because I could hear my sister breathing? How many times did I sob at the hairdressers because combing my hair felt excruciating? How many times have I had a friend ask if I was paying attention to the conversation because I kept looking around at all the other people and lights and displays at the restaurant?

Stella got this from me, and heredity is the most common cause of SPD.

I learned to adapt to being very sensitive, but it did make things more difficult for me. I remember my legs simply ACHING from sitting all day at school. I remember hating getting my hands dirty but refusing to say anything about it because I didn't want to be made fun of. And I was very tentative and scared on the playground because I dreaded getting hurt.

How on earth did I manage to have a natural labor? Because I'm just that awesome, yo.

Anyway, her teachers thanked us today for being so receptive to hearing this about Stella and so proactive in seeking early intervention. I was floored. Shouldn't I be thanking them for keeping such a close eye on our kid?

They said many parents refuse to listen to this sort of feedback because it makes them feel bad. But I feel relieved to have an explanation for Stella's more puzzling behavior, and thankful to have a FREE resource to help her (and us) find natural ways to deal with it.

I'm also grateful to have any insight into my amazing, gorgeous child and the knowledge to not only be patient with her differences but also proactive in helping her. Nobody's perfect, and if I'd be OK getting a math tutor or an allergist to help her, why wouldn't I want an occupational therapist to teach her how to process the intense sensations she experiences so she can enjoy this vibrant, loud, kooky world we inhabit?