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.