The Revolution

It isn’t what I pictured, that’s for sure.

At the beginning of 2020, I was:

~ authoring chapters for a few collaborations
~ editing new projects
~ working on content for an international virtual conference
~ accepting more interviews
~ moving through my daily role at ATS

… all while of course supporting my family. I looked at my bracelet from my BFF Christina Abernethy — the MyWord bracelet that says “revolution” — and I thought I had it all figured out.

I had so many plans for 2020 — a few more collaborations, maybe create a course, start creating the book of my dad’s poetry that I promised to publish for him, and put some more work into a memoir that has been almost two decades in the making. I meditated, prayed and agonized over when it would be time to release this book to the world. I decided 2021 made the most sense as it would mark 20 years from the incident where it all began.

I brought everything to a screeching halt in March, and started to say “no” as much as I wanted to maintan my constant “yes.” What happened?

Uh, COVID happened?

We’ve been surrounded by illness, anger, fear, protests, riots and even death. It is a time where we all, collectively, are moving through a trauma and are finding a new way forward. It’s been devastating for all of us, certainly including myself even though I didn’t realize it until months later when I was called out on my own BS by people very close to me.

“Cathy, you’re NOT ok. It’s time for a break.”

Ummm, say what? Hello?! I’m still working every day, running the errands, maintaining the house, making sure everyone has what they need day in and day out …

… during a global pandemic, that is.

As you will read in my book, there was a time when a psychiatrist forced me to look in the mirror at my tear-stained reflection and she asked me, tenderly:

“Cathy, what do YOU need?”

My, how I forgot this critical daily question. My, how I tend to forget it more often than I should.

Lesson revisited.

I stepped away to focus on strengthening and healing myself so I could return to doing more of what I love. As I reflected on what was most important on the “to do” list, after considering the encouragement of people close to me, and as I found myself visiting Dad to search for answers, it came to me.

Imprisoned No More could not wait any longer.

After some brainstorming with my publisher and dear friend Chou Hallegra, we quickly came up with my final subtitle: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom.

The launch plan and final assembly of the manuscript has come together in warp speed. Mama Betty even got in on the act, serving as the final book editor. It’s fitting for so many reasons.

I felt in my heart — I KNOW in my heart — that 2020 needs our story desperately. Families impacted by autism around the world need this book to provide inspiration and hope.

The Pre-Order Party is scheduled for July 14, 2020 on The Caffeinated Advocate on Facebook. Be sure to RSVP and join the page for exclusive content including quotes, videos, interviews, special posts, and of COURSE a giveaway (or two)? This date was selected to pay tribute to my father, who passed away on July 14, 2009.

The book is set to release on August 23, 2020. Those who know me well know the significance of THIS date — HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOURS TRULY!

The revolution is ON. I hope you’ll join me as well as share with others who need to hear what I have to say.

Imprisoned No More: A Mother and Son Embrace Autism and Journey to Freedom RELEASES ON AUGUST 23, 2020.

I have tears and chills (even in 90 degree heat) typing this again.

Keep up to date with my latest happenings through writing and speaking by registering for updates. It’s EASY! Click on my contact form, and provide me with your name and email address. In the subject, write “SIGN ME UP!”

Ah, life indeed is what happens when you make other plans.

Wishing you all a Happy 4th of July — filled with burgers, iced tea, sparklers and great joy,
Cathy

Experiencing and Embracing Holland

“When your child received their diagnosis, were you ever handed the Welcome to Holland poem as rite of passage and token of introduction to this new and strange place filled with jargon, acronyms and medical appointments?

Did you find yourself in the land of worry, grief and unknown?

So did we, and then we realized that this new place can be pretty cool, and it’s filled with lots of amazing people. So in an effort to share the stories of families doing creative things as a result of their child’s diagnosis, our podcast was born!

Join us as we embark on this new leg of our journey to share with you how we, and a bunch of really inspiring people, are Embracing Holland!”

This is the exciting introduction to Embracing Holland, a new podcast that you can listen to on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and other places where you can catch your favorite hosts! Join Angie Auldridge and Megan Barrett, two powerhouse mama bears and unstoppable advocates who bravely share their stories, their energy and conversations with other amazing individuals and disability changemakers.

I am truly honored to have been asked to be their first guest to share excerpts of my journey and answer some insightful questions (and maybe a silly one at the end). Thank you ladies for reminding your audience, and our world, just how beautiful Holland can be. I’m grateful for your contributions to our community.

Give it a listen!

The Right and Wrong Reasons to Advocate

I have a message to send loud and clear.

A true, honest advocate fights for the child, adolescent or adult whom they are representing.

They will position themselves to partner with all parties involved – the parents and/or other caregivers, school personnel, aides, the therapists, the case managers – and will not set out to make enemies of any of the aforementioned parties or convince caregivers that this is an ideal strategy.

Sending a message that insinuates that the majority of teachers and therapists are out to make someone’s life miserable, are abusive, and/or are targeting their child is dangerous and careless.

I am not asleep, nor was I born yesterday, and I am WELL AWARE about devastating situations that occur in our world today.

Stories are rampant every day across social media that demonstrate terror, harm and bullying, and those scenarios will still happen despite our strongest efforts. We can’t stop it all — but we can do better, together, as partners.

More often, the case is that people don’t know what they don’t know. They weren’t educated.

Maybe they never met someone with ASD, let alone taught them. They don’t have the resources. They lack skills to best support someone with challenges or are differently-abled.

There may be some really good folks who want to do the right thing, but who may not have the support or buy in from everyone in their district or organization.

People don’t know … what they don’t know.

I guarantee you, 9 times out of 10, people WANT to learn from YOU as to how to ensure someone’s success and abundance.

A dear friend and longtime advocate in my community taught me long ago that we as advocates attend meetings first and foremost for the person whose voice we are trying to amplify until they may do so on their own.

I’m so grateful for that perspective and I will carry that with me forever.

I’m watching a small handful of folks out there claiming to be advocates who are charging ridiculous amounts of money and whose tactics are to pounce, attack, and charge full speed ahead like a bull in a china shop.

That’s not advocacy.

That’s not coaching.

That’s not empowerment.

It’s bullshit. Knock it off.

Don’t advocate because it’s a sexy, Instagrammable 2020 money-making entrepreneurial gig, boss babe.

I’m not against charging money for a service or product (I mean, I am an author for heaven’s sake).

However, there’s a difference between charging for a service and taking obvious advantage of someone’s vulnerability. Hundreds of dollars to write an email?!?! GTHOHWTBS (Google this for definition, kids might be watching my post) … I’ll write that email for you myself in 15 minutes flat.

Advocate because you want to change this world for the better and help someone to live their best life. THAT, is advocacy.

throws down the mic

Caff-Adv O-U-T.

This post was shared on Finding Cooper’s Voice on January 22, 2020.

Interested in writing for Finding Cooper’s Voice? LEARN MORE

Finding Cooper’s Voice is a safe, humorous, caring and honest place where you can celebrate the unique challenges of parenting a special needs child. Because you’re never alone in the struggles you face. And once you find your people, your allies, your village…all the challenges and struggles will seem just a little bit easier.

Welcome to their journey. You can also follow Finding Cooper’s Voice on Facebook, subscribe for exclusive videos, and subscribe to their newsletter.

Yes, You Can Sit With Me

Dear Autism Mamas Across the Globe,

I cannot tell you how much division I have experienced over the years both as a professional and as a mother – and it’s always with women.

Why, though?! This breaks my heart.

I thought by 2020, with the “#metoo” movements, with women’s empowerment and such a fierce passion for uplifting one another, that the days of “you can’t sit with us” and “as IF!” were bygones.

That’s sadly not always the case.

I’m so fortunate to have had opportunities over the years to lead focus groups, facilitate support groups, moderate forums and present to both small and large audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I have been part of – and are still part of today – tribes of women who would do anything to support one another.

~ They listen to you when you come home from an emotionally charged IEP meeting.

~ They know you are tired from your child emptying the kitchen cabinets for the umpteenth time to line up the pots and pans (and dumping the cereal on the floor along with it, because hello sensory moment).

~ They celebrate with you when your son says a new word.

~ They scream for joy when your daughter makes a new friend and receives an invite to her new friend’s birthday celebration.

For sure, these doting mamas outnumber the mamas who exclude others in one way or another. However, I’m still seeing mamas out there whose judgmental comments or deliberate actions clearly say to a mother in need, “You can’t sit with us.”

I hate it.

Ok, hate is a strong word, but truly my friends, I hate it.

I have been invited to many groups where I have either bowed out gracefully, or felt as if I had no choice but to call someone out and went out with a bang. I’ll usually leave after sending a private message to a moderator unless the situation is really intense. In such cases, I will tastefully call someone on their garbage (essentially telling them to stick their opinion where the sun doesn’t shine), click “Leave Group” and breathe a sigh of relief.

I see so much judgment, it’s unreal.

“Hmmmm, she looks a little bloated in the belly. Have you put her on a special diet, and tried XYZ vitamins? Oh, you did? You must not have tested it long enough.”

“Oh, he’s enrolled in ABA? ABA is just terrible. Terrible!”

“I see, so you use sign language and visual supports? Are you encouraging REAL communication? You don’t want him to become dependent and take the easy way out.”

“You shouldn’t consider that private school for her, even temporarily. You’re excluding her. Our support group is all about inclusion only, so maybe this place isn’t right for you.”

“You’re giving him WHAT medication? He’s so young. You shouldn’t be putting him on anything.”

“We’re meeting at the bar – all autism mamas drink! Oh, wait, you don’t drink? Oh. OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. (insert awkward silence).”

“If she REALLY loved her child …” (YES, THIS TOO IS A TRUE STORY.)

I have seen it ALL, and these are just examples.

Listen, I’m not an idiot and I recognize not everyone is going to sing kumbaya while holding hands. But please, can we be a little kinder, and a little less Judgy McJudgy with other mamas JUST. LIKE. US?

We are all doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Just like our children (or our adult children, in my case), we are using the tools from our toolbox in the moment the best way we know how.

Advice is welcomed, but bullying and preying on vulnerable women (JUST LIKE US!) cannot be tolerated.

There’s also room for you to be in more than tribe, mama! It’s ok to take part in many groups that you connect with on a different level or in different ways. Maybe you’ll have some overlap between groups, and introduce ladies to one another, maybe you won’t. It is ok – more than ok! – to run in different circles.

What isn’t ok, is closing that circle off to someone who desperately calls out for help or needs some direction? Why? Because I guarantee that you have been “that mom.” If your group is knowingly not the best fit, or perhaps inconvenient for whatever reason, please guide Crying, Haggered, I Haven’t Showered for Four Days, Am Living On My Child’s Gluten-Free Leftovers That He Refused to Try and I Have One Hour to Clean Before the Therapist Comes Mom to someone who can help her.

Be the difference.

Be the change.

Be kind.

I’m glad most women aren’t like this, but I hope this post reaches those who may have made a snide comment or two in their day.

Mamas, you’re allowed to have opinions, and can express them with grace and grit without hurting anyone. You’re also allowed to sit at other tables. But if you can’t find one, if you’ve been pushed away, or are simply seeking some advice and a friendly ear …

Pull up a chair. The Caffeinated Advocate has plenty of room. I also have coffee.

Chats (and Coffee) with Community Leaders – My Growing Podcast List

“You speak, I listen.” 

Thanks again to my dear friend Michelle Sedlak, the founder of Leading Education and Advocacy for Families (LEAF) in Pittsburgh who has served as a true advocacy champion in the Pittsburgh community for years for saying these four words to me. These simple words will always remind me of who I am, what I stand for, and the work I have left to do so I may leave this world someday better than I found it.

Have you tuned into my podcast interviews and/or FB Lives? I’d love for you to give them a listen and hey, contact me to tell me what you think.

The On-Air Advocate (Tammy Flynn):
“When the Bus Stops Coming”

http://theonairadvocate.libsyn.com/when-the-bus-stops-coming

Xceptional Leaders Podcast (Mai Ling Chan):
“Autism Parent Takes Advocacy to the Next Level, with Catherine Hughes”

https://xceptionaled.com/autism-parent-takes-advocacy-to-the-next-level-with-catherine-hughes/

FB Live – Amorose Family Chiropractic (Drs. Lucas and Kelly Amorose, and Baker the Beagle!)
https://www.facebook.com/amorosefamilychiro/videos/832770483743617/

The Chou Hallegra Podcast (Chou Hallegra):
“Women Making History: Interview With Cathy & Christina”
(An interview featuring me with my colleague, colleague and BFF Christina Abernethy!)

https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/women-making-history-interview-with-cathy-christina/id1269261753?i=1000433643964

Autism Stories, by Autism Personal Coach (Doug Blecher):
“Autism Stories: Catherine Hughes”

https://anchor.fm/autism-personal-coach/episodes/Autism-Stories-Cathy-Hughes-e206pk

Voices of Hope (Kristine Irwin):
“Coffee and Consent: Episode 1 with Catherine Hughes”

https://voicesofhope15.wordpress.com/2018/04/03/coffee-consent-episode-1/

COMING SOON:

2 Autism Truths and 1 Lie with United in Autism’s Julie Hornok
I Am Enough in Christ with Infinitely More Life’s Shawnee Penkacik

Want to book me for your podcast or Facebook Live series?

Contact me and let’s connect! I have a few spots left for the last quarter of 2019, and I am now booking for early 2020.

Abundant love to you all – and remember, it’s self-care Sunday! Be good to yourself. Empty cups cannot pour. (Speaking of … where’s my coffee? Sigh. Maybe my Keurig will brew my mug and deliver my mug to ME. Hey, a girl can dream, or simply be silly).

~ Cathy

We Were All Made for More

I was made for more … and so were YOU!

Learn about my latest collaboration released yesterday just in time for World Mental Health Day! I was one of the 16 men and women who came together and contributed vulnerable chapters about our struggles with mental health, addiction, sexual abuse, suicidal thoughts and/or other traumas. All of us share a common bond – we are rising above our circumstances, and we shared these stories in the hopes of reducing stigma, helping others feel less alone, and encouraging people to seek help with what pains them.

I am so thankful for this extraordinairy opportunity. Chou Hallegra, thank you for choosing me as your editor-in-chief for Made for More. I love you, my dear friend! (So, are you ready to do this again next month?)

You can find Made for More on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Scribd, Kobo and Playster. Print copies will be available soon, and I will be sharing an order form in the near future across my platforms.

Thank you so much for your support of my work and my mission.

Wishing you abundant love as you rise above YOUR circumstances,
Your Caffeinated Advocate

An Xceptional Discussion Between Xceptional Leaders

What does it mean to be The Caffeinated Advocate? I’m going to tell you! Lean in and listen to my latest podcast interview with the AUmazing Mai Ling Chan of Xceptional ED on the Xceptional Leaders Podcast! I think our time together was pretty doggone “xceptional” but I’ll let you be the judge!

Listen to the full episode here: http://bit.ly/2LVJT4x

Hitting the Open Road

“I take to the open road – healthy, free, the world before me.”
~ Walt Whitman

Christian, a 21YO autistic adult, hits the road after we purchased his first car this past weekend.

I was sitting at the Penn Hills PennDOT Center, praying with my eyes closed, but peeking constantly to glance at the time on my phone. Chris and Mike, the nice-enough road test administrator who looked like a cross between Rob Zombie and Jesus, had been out for almost 20 minutes. They left around 3:20pm, as Mike was running a few minutes behind schedule. He called us to his desk a few minutes prior and asked us for our paperwork.

He then asked Chris, “you ready to hit the road, kid?”

Chris nervously nodded and said, “yes, sir.”

Away they went with Snowflake (for those who don’t know by now, that is the name of my Jeep – a 2018 Renegade, and she’s a girl, thank you) and there I was sitting and waiting not so patiently.

It took Chris a year and a half to pass the written permit test. I believe it took six tries, hell maybe it was seven, I don’t recall. What I can tell you is that after Chris’s sixteenth birthday is when we first obtained a copy of the written manual. He studied the book off and on for years. He always had the desire to drive, but wasn’t sure about the actual driving part. Loving everything from Thomas the Tank Engine to traffic lights and telephone poles to Google Maps, from a young age Chris was simply a human GPS. I never had any doubt that if he ever obtained his license, he would be able to navigate his way around our area and beyond – and far better than I!

After several failed attempts at the written test, Chris decided he needed a break to study more, truly understand the material and move past his test anxiety. He kept missing the same questions over and over – so frustrating!

He downloaded the app for the PA Practice Drivers Test and began to use that to memorize the answers to the exam questions. In a small planner given to us by our neighbor, he started making written reminders as well as reminders in his Google Calendar to study each and every day so he had frequent visuals that also helped make him accountable for his studying. We had to return to the doctor’s office to renew his physical because so much time had passed.

Two more attempts were made, and those same nagging questions were missed.

We finally reached the day where he went into the center, bound and determined to pass. And by golly, he took double the time for the exam and he did it. He passed!

It was a Sunday afternoon around 3pm when we first drove to the local school parking lot and we switched seats. He was quite nervous, but slowly (at about five miles an hour) started circling the lot. Braking definitely needed work. And when I say work, no offense to my boy whatsoever but I felt like my stomach was at the other end of the lot!

Over the next few weeks, we kept driving around the school lots, and one day he had the courage to drive home from the school (which is only a two minute trip).

He had money saved, and he asked me about paying for professional lessons. I did what I typically do (mama bear powers, activate!), and that was to ask around and research driving instructors in our area. Recommended to us was A1 Driving School in North Huntingdon. I asked Chris if he wanted me to call to set up his first lesson and he told me no. He asked for the number and said he would do it himself. At the time, he was in between jobs and just starting his volunteer gig at Kane Regional. He definitely had time to make the call and time to take lessons. He believed he could, and so he did.

He was taking lessons and also driving with me either to drop himself off for volunteering (and later to work once Kane hired him in March), or to the store, or to appointments. Now, it took a while before he tackled major highways or the parkway due to his fear of lane changes, but in time even that came to him.

Truly, time was our biggest solution – time accompanied by great patience.

The more he practiced and the more he faced his fears head on, the more he learned that he was capable and in control. He had moments where someone would cut him off or come a bit too close with a turn, but I reminded him that this could happen to ANY driver diagnosis or not. I told him that had nothing to do with having autism. Some people just should not be on the road, I would tell him.

He started focusing more on parking, especially parallel parking which is his mama’s nemesis (even today after driving for almost 25 years). I admittedly failed not once, not twice, but three times as a teen because I just couldn’t get it right. I still think that to this day I only passed my test because I was wearing a cute purple leather mini and looked like a pinup girl, impressing the younger instructor. Whatev.

He downloaded an app from State Farm, called Steer Clear (which is available on iTunes and GooglePlay) to complete their courses, obtain driving tips and more. It also qualified him for a future discount on our policy.

Chris had a lesson on the Fourth of July, when he happened to be off and Todd happened to have his morning free. They practiced for an hour at the center, using the barrels for parking and running the road test course a few times. They came home sooner than I thought. Todd got out of his car and said to me, “you know, I don’t quite understand his diagnosis but I do understand his personality and recognize he gets anxious. But he knows what he is doing, and he is ready for the test. The only one that will hold him back, is him.”

I blinked back tears when I went back in the house. What Todd was saying to me was exactly what every teacher and therapist said to me over the years – that the one holding Chris back was Chris himself. It was that lack of self-confidence and fear of being different and/or not enough that was at times quite crippling.

Chris asked me, “can we log on and schedule my test?” And so, we did.

It was almost 3:45pm and my nerves were s-h-o-t. I saw Mike walk in to take the next person waiting to test, but I didn’t see Chris. Soon, I saw him come through the doors, red-eyed and white-faced.

“Noooooo!” I thought. He tried SO hard, and he wants this so much! This can’t be happening.

He came up to me, and I slowly turned towards him. “Did you …. ?” I trailed off.

He nodded, looking almost shocked, tears in his eyes. “I passed, Mom.”

I jumped up and hugged him, probably scaring him out of a decade of life. As of recent years, he is not super affectionate with me which I am used to. He went over to have his photo taken – a photo that shows him smiling from ear to ear. I called Mama Betty, bawling and not caring who saw me. I said “this is for everyone with a disability who thinks they can’t do something.” The woman who was sitting next to me smiled when I was off of the phone, winked at me and said “congrats, mom!” I don’t know if she quite understood the magnitude of what happened, but I was grateful just the same.

The photo I shared across my platforms and groups went viral – in fact, it is still being shared and we continue to get comments and private messages. What meant to the most to me was that teens and adults with autism and/or their caregivers were responding that his story was ultimately giving them hope.

Isn’t that why we share our stories to begin with? It makes my heart full.

Over the next few days, Chris began asking to make trips, first to a Bible study at his new church (a group of gents from 20-70 years of age), then to Subway, then to GNC to pick up vitamins, and then Giant Eagle in Monroeville (twice the size of ours with a Nature’s Basket) to buy groceries. The one evening we had a terrible downpour, and he knew enough to pull over, text me from where he was (ONCE PARKED), not drive through flooding and wait it out. I was so proud of his responsibility!

I had seen a Jeep Liberty on the lot (actually, two) at Jim Shorkey via their website that seemed affordable enough, so I made an appointment to visit after Chris was done at work for the day. Rather than look at the two older vehicles with higher miles, our salesman named Brian asked if we would consider a Patriot. We test drove a 2013 with 85K miles, but it seemed like the transmission was going so that was a no-go. |

Brian said to us, “you know, I have a fantastic 2016 with only 45K miles and all the bells and whistles.” We went outside again, and lo and behold, with the exception of being a High Altitude vs. a Latitude (which means very little difference in features and opti0ns) it was like my Smoky (the Jeep I traded in exactly one year prior)! I laughed out loud. Brian asked “is something wrong?” I could barely get out words because I was laughing so hard “it’s like we’d be buying my old car back, only this is in far better shape because I beat mine into the ground.” We went for a spin and Chris was very happy with how it handled and rode (which I had no doubts about).

I winced when we returned to the dealership. “Brian, I’ve got excellent credit but I just bought my new vehicle last year. I’m not sure even with Chris’s income added that I’ll get approved. And these payments … I’m not sure that he can do something this new or this nice for his first car.” Learning Chris’s story and background as he and other staff had seen the now popular photo on the Facebook group “Across Westmoreland,” he said, “you let me and my manager worry about that. He has worked hard and he really deserves this. Let’s make this happen.”

With very little bargaining, we were able to get the payments to a reasonable monthly amount for him and we were approved in two hours.

What a great day, indeed! Thanks, Brian!

The look on Mama Betty’s face when we came home with two vehicles was priceless. Within an hour after eating dinner, he drove to Best Buy to look for a backup camera to install and also a phone charger. He also set up his Bluetooth so he could safely use his phone on the road if needed.

We have never been a two-vehicle household. This is brand new territory! I have immense joy for Chris and his newfound freedom – admittedly, along with the relief that I no longer have to worry about my own schedule adjustments and that I have an extra person who can get to my mother in an emergency if I am out of town.

Let’s get back to that freedom thing though, shall we? I am asked so often about what Chris does for socialization outside of work or what I want to see for him.

It’s not about me – it’s about him and his desires and what makes HIS heart happy. I don’t and will never push for him to be with “peers his own age.” I haven’t done this since his childhood. He was who taught me at a young age (his first ever IEP meeting) that forcing him into social groups with young men who only shared a common diagnosis was wrong. I had to let him choose his hobbies and interests. Yes, he did spend a lot of time alone and yes, sometimes that depressed him. He spoke about that often with his therapist. However, both she and I found as he grew older that same lesson rang true – he needed to make his own choices and learn from them. He knew that obtaining his license would give him more opportunities. Now that he fought to achieve this goal, he now has the opportunity to spend time with others OR be alone. Isn’t that what we ALL do, diagnosis or not?

In the past few days, he has driven to a friend’s house to have dinner with his family, went running at a local trail, shopped for new shoes, and swam laps at a local pool. I am so happy for him.

Tonight, he’s off to the mens’ group at church while I enjoy dinner with Dave during my “staycation” from work. On Friday, Chris returns to work and may be discussing a different schedule that may finally lead to full-time status and health benefits. All of my limbs are crossed, that is for sure. If you don’t mind, keep a good thought for him!

As I have shared before, it is Chris who was quoted in the final school newsletter of his senior year “never let a diagnosis or disability hold you back.” He’s definitely staying true to his own words of advice.

We could all learn from his … roadmap.

 

 

 

 

 

Saving Light

Last night was hard. More like gut-wrenching.

Our community lost an amazing man yesterday, and I learned of this loss when I got home from my typical Friday night grocery jaunt with my crew. He (I’ll call him Trevor for anonymity’s sake) had so many talents – the arts, music, photography, not to mention being a kick-ass clinician and teacher by day and passionate advocate.

He was also a devoted husband to an incredible woman and loving father of beautiful young children.

I had to read the post in our private Facebook group a few times before reality set in. Moments later came the hand over my mouth, tears welling in my eyes, and then …

“Why didn’t I say something?”

Weeks ago, I happened to come across one of Trevor’s posts in my feed, and what he shared was deeply personal. What followed for days afterwards was fairly dark and he soon removed that jarring post revealing something that I believe under typical circumstances he would not have written for public display and also referring to himself as “a joke,” as “unworthy” and truly lesser than others in this world.

I had a dream last week that I was at a gathering with both Trevor and his wife present (probably an upcoming event when we would have all run into each other), and that we were enjoying a conversation about the work we were doing and about our kids. I woke up peaceful. Looking back I wonder if it was because in that dream, so lucid and so real, we were speaking face to face and I had made a connection with the two of them.

Why didn’t I reach out like I did in my dream, when my instincts kept nagging at me and saying “something isn’t right?”

Why did I assume that someone else spoke up already?

Why did I feel as if it were not my place to practice kindness and express humanity, even if just to send a message to ask “hey, is everything ok? You seem pretty upset lately.”

Why didn’t I follow my heart?

Why didn’t I advocate for his well-being, so that his wife and children would not be in mourning today?

I wish I had. I wish. But dammit, wishing isn’t going to bring this man back.

Death by means of succumbing to mental illness is devastating, and just passes ones pain to others. However, this world needs to “get woke” and recognize that suicide just isn’t a choice that someone who is emotionally well would choose. It is the way out for someone who has suffered for far too long without relief, feeling as if they just don’t have another viable option.

Depression is an evil beast, a dark reaper that takes over one’s mind and soul, and sometimes, our human selves are unable to fight any longer.

It has almost ripped away many friends and even friends’ adolescent children from my circle. So many faces and stories right now are flashing through my mind.

I’m thinking about my mother’s cousin’s ex-husband Bill, whom my cousin found after just days without typical contact. Though the marriage did not last, she kept tabs on him as she knew that no one else was. He had a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and it was severe. Without his medication and without maintaining his therapy sessions, he was a ticking time bomb. After days of “disappearance,” the time bomb went off. She sensed something was wrong, and she went to his apartment. She said to my mother and I, “I will never unsee that for the rest of my life.” I can imagine that witnessing such a scene is like a video stuck on repeat.

Growing up, I was aware of this danger being the daughter of someone with bipolar disorder myself. As I have shared openly, mental illness runs rampant in my family on both sides. As a child, somewhere between the ages of 8 and 10, my father was hospitalized not just for one of his usual cyclic episodes, but because he was 302’d. If you aren’t familiar with this term, it means you are committed to a psychological setting or hospital because you have made a threat against someone’s life or your own. July 14th will mark ten years since I last looked in those big steel blue eyes. I’m so glad that he wasn’t ultimately victim of his diagnosis (no, just everything else under the sun it seems), and count myself fortunate that I had him in my life for as long as I did. We were blessed.

Also in my mind’s eye is my college dean, who also lost his life to depression when I was in my 20’s. I could not stop crying for days when I learned that he was gone. If it wasn’t for him – named John, like my Daddy – I would not have finished my two year degree. I walked – no wait, I wobbled – into his office when I was about seven months pregnant with Christian. I said, “I’m here to withdraw and I apparently need your signature to do it.” Rather than taking the form and pen I tried to hand to him, he pushed both back into my hand and asked me to sit down.

He asked how I was feeling, how my classes were going, and if leaving school was really what I wanted. Not only had I just switched my major from education to journalism, I was active with the student paper as the Editor-in-Chief, I was involved with student government, and I was a campus ambassador who gave tours to prospective freshmen. I said, “Well, no, Dean Beatty this isn’t at all what I want but I don’t know that I have any choice right now. And besides, why would you want me as a Lion Ambassador? I’m PREGNANT. I’m a poor role model and I let everyone down including you.” I put the form on his desk. “Go ahead, sign it.”

He stood up, handed it back to me, and gave me a hug. “No, Cathy. No. You are a role model. You are a good student. You’re a good person. You are going to make something of yourself for you and that baby and I will NOT sign that form. Not now, not ever.” Fast forward to the summer of 1998, I enrolled in a summer class and started working towards a letters, arts and sciences degree. In May 1999, my mother, my father and my son in his stroller accompanied me to my graduation ceremony. I would not have donned that cap and gown if it weren’t for that man – a man who like Trevor and like Bill simply could not overcome the demonic cloud of mental illness.

These memories have been haunting me since last night, like what cousin Gerry describes as the scenes that won’t stop replaying.

When I realized that it was five years ago this month that I was in that same dark place myself, I let loose and let Mama Betty comfort me while I sobbed hysterically. I said, “Mom, do you know that could have been me that people were dropping their jaws over?” In July 2014, I almost faced that same fate. I thank God, my loved ones and treasured friends for ensuring that I accessed the treatment that I needed to recover, to restore, and to realize that I am indeed worthy and that I am indeed enough, right now. They saved my life.

I’ve been so busy these past few months with many exciting happenings while watching my son strive to grasp abundance in his life, too. We had a rough go of it for a while, but I’ve clawed my way up out of the rabbit hole. I’m involved with several writing projects, both collaborations and solo pieces, and no they aren’t just focused on autism. That’s what I’m most well known for, but as I told a friend who will be interviewing me next month for her podcast, I don’t narrow myself to one bucket. I have so much to share.

I have said yes not just to authoring works, but to multiple interviews and presentations – from teaching healthy relationships and self-care for people with disabilities to stressing the critical importance of providing Applied Behavior Analysis to persons living with autism to my experience as a survivor of sexual assault.

I am going to keep saying yes, and I am going to keep openly sharing each and every painful moment. Recovery has amplified my voice more than ever before. I refuse to be a highlight-only reel on my platforms.

I am no longer afraid.

I am imprisoned no more.

I owe the world my stories. Someone, maybe many someones, need to hear them. Maybe next time, my story will save a life and stop someone’s light from fading away.

Who cares if one more light goes out?

Well, I do.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tm8LGxTLtQk

In the Driver’s Seat

In the driver’s seat means that one is in a position to take control.
Oh, son, how you have placed yourself in the driver’s seat in more ways than one.

What a year this is turning out to be for me and for Christian. Those who follow my work and my social media platforms closely see that I have quite a lot of excitement going on. More about that at the end, because this post is not meant to be focused on me.

It’s about Chris and his massive success.

As you can see here, as part of finding his way in this world, Chris is focused on becoming a licensed driver. He has come a long way in the past five months from the first Sunday afternoon when we drove around the school parking lot together. I legitimately thought I was going to go through the windshield when he applied the brakes at his first stop sign.

Poor Snowflake (for those who don’t know, that is my Jeep daughter’s name. My Jeeps are girls. Don’t judge me).

Well, goodness knows during my first lessons, I was a hot mess express and nearly drove my boyfriend’s father’s big black Ford F150 (with an extended cab, mind you) into the telephone pole in front of my house.

Being the Google Map guru that he is, navigating his way is not an issue whatsoever. As I expected, he’s fabulous with shortcuts especially in unfamiliar territory. And I have to tell you, it’s AUsome (to my tribe, you see what I did there) to have another driver in the house. It gives me a much needed break – sometimes to catch up on texts and messages while he takes the wheel, and other times to close my eyes for ten seconds and breathe. Note, I only close my eyes for about ten seconds, because he *is* still learning and I need to be another set of eyes and ears as he grows more comfortable with being on the road and increases his techniques.

I was really worried after many failed attempts at the written test as to whether or not this dream of his would become a reality. I wondered if the failures were due to test anxiety, or the fact that deep down, maybe he wanted to drive, but he didn’t want to drive if you know what I mean. I was jumping and crying (tried to hold back the tears … NOPE, couldn’t) at the driver’s license center the morning he passed in November. After struggling just weeks before with a terrible end to a short lived job, I wanted this so damn badly for him. He once again defied the odds and overcame what had become a barrier to independence. Nevertheless … HE persisted (he earned the right to borrow this line in this particular case).

Speaking of the short lived gig as a chef, Chris and I met with his job coach and OVR counselor that same month at … ummmm, where else? Dunkin’! (Convenient, of course). We discussed the whole “where to go from here” concept and it became pretty heated. Chris actually got up from the table for several minutes and nearly had a meltdown.

Chris could have easily returned to Dollar General and yes, we did push that a bit because we didn’t want him, well, to be broke! We told him he could work and earn some money part time while pursuing his goals in food service. After some frustrating moments, he said to us, “I really like helping people. I don’t want to work in a store. Some days I hated it.” After another half hour of discussion, we honed in on the idea of volunteering at local nursing facilities where he could evaluate a variety of job possibilities that would help him to actualize goals.

He went home that morning and made a list of places he could call or apply while I rushed off to my little ATS home away from home (my mini apartment as I call it). He spent that day, and the next few weeks emailing, calling, and visiting multiple places with his job coach. He did keep other part time work under consideration, but ultimately decided “that isn’t what I want.”

After many visits and conversations with his job coach, Chris followed his heart, and applied to be a volunteer at Kane Regional Center in McKeesport. For those who know us better than others, you know that Kane is where our dear friend Frankie resides due to complications from a TBI stemming from a horrible accident that thankfully did not take his life. Kane is also where my dad passed away ten years ago after complicated illness. Kane, being a county managed Medicaid facility, has a reputation for perhaps not always being the most ideal placement. However, due to our own personal experiences, we know that there are so many good people who work there who truly care about the residents and treat them like family.

Chris, even at age 11, enjoyed caring for and entertaining Dad’s roommate and “neighbors” on 3B. He would assist with feeding, tidy up messy rooms, wheel people up and down the hallways, play board games and even belt out a tune now and then.

Chris’s spark to follow his gift (as Steve Harvey says, his GIFT, not his PASSION) has led him down a road that has landed him in a place of pure abundance.

For months, he volunteered three or four days a week, assisting with bingo, coffee socials, transporting residents to and from therapies on busy days, accompanying groups on trips (like the Festival of Trees and Rivers Casino), delivering and gathering trays, and transporting residents to and from church services on Thursdays and Sundays.

Chris was clearly not only finding his place, but he found something even more powerful that I too needed to rediscover this past year. He found his faith in Him. A little over two months ago, he was invited by Pastor Dennis and Pastor Marie to give his testimony in front of a small and close-knit group. He disclosed and explained his diagnosis of autism, his struggles, and his triumphs. Together, everyone prayed for and with him as they knew he was applying for a part-time food service and hospitality position with decent starting pay and benefits.

Prayer works, y’all. My boy VOLUNTEERED. HIMSELF. INTO. A. JOB. He was offered a position in February, completed his onboarding and has been working – HAPPILY – for a few weeks now.

Chris did what he set out to do. He tried out different areas in a “helping place” and learned new skills while he was at it. He cultivated new interests while building a bit on his passion. He discovered the church. He found his own tribe – not a tribe that either his grandmother or his therapist or I encouraged. He learned that there is life after high school and you aren’t necessarily meant to be with those people all of your life. He found a way to provide food service while helping others all at the same time. And, he gets to see our buddy several days a week and make him smile (especially when he beats Chris at Chess or Connect Four on the iPad).

A few weeks ago, Pastor Dennis and Pastor Spike invited us to service at Calvary Baptist in West Mifflin. They said they would love to have Chris as a member and thought he’d be an asset to their Sunday School, would make contributions to their incredible congregation, and find more camaraderie. We attended Sunday service, and I was amazed at how welcoming and laid back everyone was. We felt so much love and we felt the Spirit the minute we walked in the door.

But nothing prepared me for what I would witness during sermon.

As Pastor Dennis preached, Chris would hear others saying “yes” or “amen” in agreement with testimony. But at one point, he was visibly moved, and he said aloud, for all to hear, “He died for my sins and saved me. I WILL praise him!”

No matter what or who you believe in, the POWER and FAITH in his declaration was evident. I was in tears then and I’m in tears now. Chris has found confidence, he has found purpose, and he is moving forward in his life amidst other struggles he faces on the daily.

He has followed his GIFT – giving to others – while still exercising his passion, which is food service. This is person-centered planning, people. If you don’t know the term, get thee to Google University.

Person-centered planning was the focus of my last C2P2 (Competence and Confidence: Partners in Policymaking) session with my fellow female warriors (yes, we all happen to be ladies in this group). Yes, we need to be voices for others in our world, including and especially our loved ones. We need to speak up when they cannot, until the day that they can and will use their own voice. Never, ever stop believing that they can. And, if they are unable, please put yourself in their shoes and think, “what might I want if this were me? What is most humane? What promotes self-sufficiency? What promotes inclusion in our world?”

I have a homework assignment due in a week, and I refuse to do it alone (well ok, I kind of refuse to do it in general if I’m transparent. I can only add comments, share my thoughts on his vision and encourage his plans). We were asked to create a life plan with goals for our children and share in group during class. Well, I clearly learned my lesson that Friday and Saturday, because I spoke up and said “sorry, I can’t and won’t do this alone. His life plan isn’t up to me at this point. This is for him to determine. He has a voice and uses it.”

I’ll leave the worksheet for him Monday morning and see what he comes up with that I can add to. However, I don’t think he needs much of my help, just some gentle nudging and reminders.

He has taken the wheel, he controls the gears, and he is the one accelerating forward. And it’s going to be … *aulright.

~*~*~*~*~*~

*For decades, many family stories have been shared about autism’s impact and influence on our world. You haven’t heard ours.

Our story is now not only being shared through blogs and social media, but with the entire WORLD.

You can read an excerpt of our journey – and of a dozen triumphant women – in “It’s Going to Be AUlright – Testimonies from Ausome Women Raising Ausome People.” The eBook is available NOW for Pre-Order on Amazon (print version in April 2019, date TBD) and became a best seller in less than 6 hours ranking in the top 10 in several categories and even #1 on multiple lists including Rachel Hollis and Michelle Obama! I am so proud to serve as a contributing author and lead editor in this project with an incredible tribe. Little did I know that this would be the FIRST international publication I would be a part of, and that Imprisoned No More (a longer and fuller account of our story) was meant to come later.

Pre-Order Your Copy Now!

Please stay tuned to The Caffeinated Advocate and my social media platforms (my personal page on Facebook, my Facebook TCA page, LinkedIn, Instagram) for information about our Virtual eBook Release Party on World Autism Awareness Day, 4/2/19, book signings, an official launch party in Pittsburgh and more. You can also watch my Amazon Author Page.