Maybe someone else will bring stamps

I had that dream again! The one where you’re being arrested or deported or evacuated, and you’re forced to pack up everything for yourself and a bunch of other people to survive, and you only have a few minutes to do it, and you only have a tiny little suitcase, and you have no way of knowing what you’ll actually need, and you know you’re making horrible choices, but you just don’t have the time to do it right. Do you have this dream? I don’t have it routinely like I used to, but it still comes around every once in a while.

But something new happened in my dream last night. Right in the middle of the anguished panic of stuffing a mishmash of precious and useless belongings into a too-small suitcase, I was thinking frantically, “Stamps? Should I bring stamps? We may need them!” And then I thought, “Maybe someone else will bring stamps.”

And that was it. I still had to do my best, and the rest of the dream was very unpleasant, but at least it occurred to me that not everything was riding on my efforts alone. My therapist will be glad to hear this. He’s only reminded me about eleven times that this is so. Maybe you need to hear it, too. 

It’s not always true. Sometimes it’s really the case that, if you don’t do the thing, then the thing won’t get done, and maybe it’s a very important thing that absolutely must get done. Sometimes life is just like this, and it stinks, but there’s nothing that can be done about it; or sometimes, life is like this because other people are terrible, and they’re letting all the burden fall on you because they know they can get away with it. Good old you, always doing thing.

But sometimes, someone else really will pack stamps. Or maybe you can get stamps when you get there; or maybe you won’t really need stamps after all. Or maybe you will, and someone else can arrange for it to happen. I’m trying to get in the habit of asking myself, especially when I’m feeling overburdened and rushed and pushed into things unwillingly: Who is putting this burden on me? Who is pushing me? What will happen if I step away and let the burden fall?

It’s almost shocking to see just how often someone else is perfectly capable of doing the thing that I thought I alone could do. Or sometimes someone else is already quietly doing it, and I didn’t even notice, because I was so self-importantly accomplishing things. Or sometimes no one else will do the thing if I don’t, but it doesn’t really matter as much as I thought it did. My busyness is very often not as important as I think it is. Sometimes, I’m chagrined to realize, the main purpose of my busyness is not to accomplish things at all, but to make sure people know I’m important. Ick.

So, there’s a secondary revelation here, not as icky, but harder to internalize: I am important, but not because of all the things I can accomplish. I’m important when I’m in the background, and when I’m resting. Check it out: I’m even important when I screw up and pack the wrong thing and everybody suffers because of the dreadful lack of packed stamps. My actions and choices are meaningful, but they are not a test of my inherent worth. 

That’s it. That’s the dream. I needed to hear this. Maybe you did, too!

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Photo by: Senior Airman Alexandre MontesReleased 

 

 

Kids’ first confession? Here’s how to make it easier

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate their anxiety and even help them learn to look forward to confession:

Make sure your kids fully understand that confession is a place you go for help, not a place you have to go when you’re in disgrace. Mercy mercy mercy. Tell them until they’re sick of hearing about it. 

Practice ahead of time. Nothing eases anxiety like familiarity; and humor helps, too. Let the kid take turns acting out confession playing the part of different penitents with appropriate sins: Their two-year-old sister, for instance, or Indiana Jones. Let them know the routine inside and out before they make it personal.

Let them have as many crutches as they like, including a cheat sheet with the act of contrition or even the entire form of confession written out. They can bring in a paper with their sins on it, and throw it away or burn it afterward. 

Let them check out the confessional during “off hours,” so it’s not a mysterious or terrifying place. Or arrange for confession in a setting that is familiar. Confessions don’t have to be in a confessional to be valid.

Remind them repeatedly that father has heard it all before, and remind them that he’s used to people being nervous, too. It’s okay to say, “I forget what I’m supposed to say next,” and it’s okay to tell the priest you’re scared or embarrassed, too.

Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part. If a child finds it truly excruciating to wait in line, consider making an appointment where he can just pop in and get it done.

It’s okay to avoid difficult or unpleasant priests and to seek out helpful, reassuring ones. Yes, it’s always really Jesus in there; but it’s also a particular man. If your kid likes and trusts some particular priest, he may be willing to schedule a confession if that’s what make the difference between going and not going.

But for some kids, knowing the priest makes it worse.  Some kids would rather have an anonymous experience with less social awkwardness. If your kid would prefer to confess to a stranger, make an occasional pilgrimage to another parish for this purpose.

In any case, remind the kid about the seal of confession and what dire consequences face a priest who breaks the seal. Remind them that the priest can’t tell the penitent’s parents what was confessed!

If you’re going as a family, let an adult go first and alert the priest there’s a nervous kid coming up next, so he can do everything in his power to make it a good experience.

Make it sweet, not bitter. Associations are powerful things, for good or ill.  The Jews have a tradition of giving children honey as they learn the Torah, so they will know that the law of God is sweet. It’s not bribery; it’s helping children internalize something true. So celebrate at least the first confession with a small treat, and consider making subsequent confession trips as pleasant as possible. It may not be practical to include ice cream every time, but at last don’t make it wretched.

If necessary, wait. Some kids simply aren’t ready when most of their peers are ready. A young child isn’t going to be committing mortal sins, so it’s far better to wait an extra year or so than to force a traumatic first confession. If you have to literally drag your kid into the confessional, or if you have to threaten or coerce them into going, you may be harming your child’s relationship with God, and making it less likely that they’ll go at all, once they’re old enough to choose.

Make it a normal normal normal. Let them see you and their siblings going regularly, and then going about their day. Talk about it like it’s the normal thing it is. Let your kids hear you say things like, “On Saturday, we’ll pick up some cat food, then get to confession, then do a car wash,” or “I remember going to confession at St Blorphistan, and boy, those kneelers were squeaky.” No good can come of making it rare and unfamiliar, or speaking as if it’s some kind of mysterious, arcane experience that doesn’t fit into everyday life. Many people (not all) find that frequent confession is easy confession.

Be open about your own struggles and joys surrounding confession. If confession makes you nervous, acknowledge this to your kids. If you feel intense relief when it’s over, talk about that. If you ever feel grateful to God for the gift of forgiveness, talk about that. The last several times I went to confession and the priest said the words, “I absolve you from your sins,” I had to fight down the urge to shout, “JUST LIKE THAT?” It seemed like such an incredibly good deal, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Every time I feel this way, I talk about it to whichever kid is with me.

Let it be a standing offer. Remind them they can always ask to go to confession, and resolve to bring them any time they ask, no questions asked, no fuss, no complaints, no exceptions. Acknowledging and overcoming sin is hard enough; the last thing a kid needs is for her parents to add obstacles by embarrassing her, or making her feel like she’s causing trouble.

Mind your own business. Yes, you have to educate them in a general way about what kind of things they ought to be bringing to confession, but it’s not a great idea to shout, “Ryan, you apologize to your sister’s hamster right now, and you better be confessing that next week!” It’s the penitent, the priest, and God in there. Parents aren’t invited.

But do check in. Without asking for any personal details, occasionally make sure the experience they’re having at confession is okay. If they seem distraught when they come out of the confessional, ask if anything happened that makes them feel weird. Kids should know that confession can be difficult and intense, but it’s not supposed to be excruciating or humiliating. And they should know that safe adults never ask children to keep secrets.

Take anxiety seriously. If a child is showing severe reluctance or anxiety around confession, don’t assume it’s because he’s a reprobate who’s resisting spiritual improvement, and don’t be sarcastic or dismissive of his anxiety. Maybe something bad happened to him in confession, in which case you need to find out what happened and address it swiftly.

Or maybe he’s suffering from anxiety in general. If confession is just one of many things your child can’t bring himself to do because of anxiety, then you should be talking to a pediatrician to figure out what the next steps are. Put confession on the back burner until you have a better idea of what’s really happening, rather than cementing the association of confession with fear and misery.

When a penitent meets Christ in the confessional, it’s about a relationship. Like any relationship, it takes time to develop naturally over the years, and there will be highs and lows. Sometimes helping our kids through the lows helps us become more comfortable with this great sacrament, too.

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Image by Michael_Swan via Flickr (Creative Commons)
This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in The Catholic Weekly in 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

Meaningful Christmas traditions and how to wrangle them

I’ve tried various esoteric practices involving veiled candles, bits of straw, paper chains, acts of service, gift lotteries, medieval anagrams, and every other kind of overachieving cultural what-have-you that caught my eye while I was desperate to make everything Meaningful For The Children.

I remember one year worrying so hard about materialism that I told the kids that one of their presents would be the opportunity to choose a gift for a poor child, and donate it. It wasn’t a bad idea . . . for the older kids. The younger kids, predictably, misunderstood horribly, and it was bloody awful. I only hope they’re so young, they don’t remember the year Mama apparently told them they could pick a toy for themselves and then forced them to dump it into a box and walk away for no reason at all. AT CHRISTMAS.

So. We don’t do that anymore. Through the decades, here is what I have learned about Christmas family traditions . . . 

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly

A cautious PSA about PANDAS and rapid onset OCD and anxiety in kids

‘Tis the season of strep throat and norovirus and other infections, and that is bad enough. But some researchers and doctors believe that infections can occasionally trigger a misdirected autoimmune response, especially in children, that causes sudden, alarming psychiatric symptoms: extreme anxiety, OCD, intrusive thoughts including suicidal ideation, tics, sudden difficulty with math and handwriting, and sensory problems.

The illness is called PANDAS (Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal Infections) or PANS (Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome). A child who’s otherwise healthy develops these symptoms literally overnight, and while the infection that triggered them can be cured, no treatment seems to alleviate the psychiatric symptoms.

I know that not all medical professionals accept PANS/PANDAS as a legitimate diagnosis, and that a lot of very nutty people have latched onto it. I am not a doctor or a scientist. I’m simply a mom passing along information about something that has helped other parents, and that is the entirety of what I know about it. I know three moms — sensible, educated people who accept modern, western medicine, not gullible, fearful, or prone to woo — who had run out of other explanations for their kids’ sudden change in behavior, and got no relief from the normal treatment (therapy, SSRIs). They talked to their doctors about PANS/PANDAS and then gave their kids n-acetyl l-cysteine (NAC), which you can get over the counter. NAC is normally used to prevent asthma attacks and treat rashes, but it truly seems to have cured these kids of their psychological symptoms. 

I am not making any claims about this hypothesized illness or this hypothesized treatment, as I’m not qualified in any way to do so (and I’m certainly not getting any kind of kickback or payment, other than what I normally earn from page views of this site). I’m just passing along what I have heard, because I know how it feels to see a kid suffering and to not know how to help. This is just one more thing to consider.

So if your kid develops anxiety or other inexplicable psychiatric disorders, please don’t immediately assume it’s PANDAS, and please don’t try to treat it without professional help. We have a few kids who suffer with severe anxiety, and it’s not PANDAS. Lots and lots of things can cause psychological symptoms, and sometimes there is more than one cause. But if you and your doctor have tried all kinds of other treatments and nothing is helping, and the kid did have an infection before a very sudden onset of the symptoms, this is something to consider. 

Image: Sherif Salama via Flickr (Creative Commons)

 

Parents who are failures, and parents who are not

Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”

Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew damn well what would happen to her if she turned up pregnant in this house.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.” “My child has learning disability.” “My child is non-neurotypical.” 

Failure: “I have no idea what to do, but there’s no way I’m letting stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for people who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”

 

Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”

Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”

 

Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”

Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my spouse, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I undermine this relationship every chance I get, because they’re usurping me. I’m the parent.”

 

Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”

Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish him double, once for each of us.”

 

Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”

Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”

 

Not a failure:  “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”

Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is gay.”

Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”

 

Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”

Failure: “I raise Catholic children, so I guess this is no longer my child.  How could he betray Me this way?”

 

Not a failure: “I just said or did exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”

Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”

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A version of this post was originally published in 2014. 

Photo by Alon via Flickr (Creative Commons)

17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

When anxiety comes disguised as love

Anxiety is like a strangling vine. Rooting it out feels perilous, because you’re afraid that all the wholesome, fruitful shoots will be uprooted along with it. If I stop fretting, will I stop caring? If I stop freaking out, will I stop making an effort? If I’m not suffering, is it really love?

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

photo credit: L____ photo_0014 via photopin (license)

On mindfulness (and nosefulness)

This week, I’m driving up and down, up and down the same twenty-mile strip of road every day. I was getting terribly bored, even though the car is stocked with a CD flip folder of the complete works of Pavement (I dunno).
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So I decided to stick my head out the window and see what I could smell as I drove and drove and drove. And there I was! Wet pavement, hot pavement, hot dust, dry dust, several kinds of pine, mold and mildew, wood fires, wood chips, wet wood chips, all manner of sweet grasses and sweet and spicy weeds, lighter fluid, and, in one lonely sumac grove, a startling cloud of chicken pot pie. So many invisible, disembodied, very insistent presences ready to be named as I hurtled past them down the highway.
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Strangest of all was when I couldn’t smell anything for minutes at a time. I could see with my eyes that there were things to smell: shining bogs, waving clusters of chicory, downed pine logs abandoned in piles and overcome with wild grapes and clematis. But no smell, just the everyday air. Either they somehow cancelled each other out in some kind of arcane chemical process, or else they smelled of something I live with day to day and don’t recognize as a thing anymore. I sniffed and sniffed when I didn’t smell anything, but I didn’t get anywhere. I was seized with a desire to change that, to know exactly where I am, nosewise.
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This olfactory walkabout made the ride fly by; and it’s also a pleasant way of practicing mindfulness, which in its basic form just means choosing not to skim heedlessly over the surface of your day, but to deliberately root yourself in the world and moment you’ve been given. Happily, olfactory mindfulness also brings extra oxygen up into your brain, which never hurts (assuming the air is clean).
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I was glad to happen across this way of spending time because I waste and disregard and scroll past so much of my life, and I want to do that less. It’s a beautiful world, and you can choose to gratefully, actively partake of that beauty, or you can choose to let it slip by.
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But also, the last several weeks have been intensely stressful for several reasons. I sometimes find myself panicking without really knowing why. Habits of mindfulness, olfactory and otherwise, help enormously. When I stop and decide to practice mindfulness, I don’t try to figure out or solve anything; I just mentally pause and deliberately name all the things I’m feeling as I hurtle down he road. No judging, just categorizing. If I feel guilty for feeling something, then that gets named and put on the list, too.
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Then, once I’ve taken a few minutes to narrow in on the best possible words to describe the top five things I’m feeling . . . they often sit back and let me deal with them. It’s like sorting a nightmarish mountain of dirty dishes into tidy stacks of plates and bowls: You still have to wash them, but my goodness, it’s suddenly a manageable task, rather than overwhelming chaos.
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Sometimes, once you’ve sorted everything, the task ahead of you turns out to be not as bad as it looks; sometimes there was a lot of empty space in between pots and pans, and the actual workload is much smaller than you thought; and very often, a few things can be dispensed of with a quick rinse, and then you’re done with them.
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Then maybe you do come across a grisly, blistered old broiler pan that’s going to take some extra work, if it can be salvaged at all. Well, you’ll feel a lot more at peace about letting it soak a little longer once you’ve cleared away the easier stuff. But you won’t be able to tell which is which until you pause and do a little sorting, naming.
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And yes, breathing helps. Get more oxygen into your brain. It may not make you feel calmer right away, but it will help you think clearly. Mindfulness is not a substitute for prayer or for a spiritual life (and there’s nothing especially eastern or pagan about it, even if your posture while you’re being mindful happens to resemble a downhearted dog or whatever); but it serves your spiritual life very well. It’s easier to pray once you’re calm and know clearly what is on your mind, and it’s easier to speak to God once you’ve rooted yourself, with attention and gratitude, in the world He’s given you. Including the smells!

When we’re mad at God because we’ve sinned

The other night, I was having a mild panic attack in the middle of the night, and I dealt with it this way: I breathed in while thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” and then breathed out while thinking, “But I place my trust in Jesus.” I accepted my ignorance and my uncertainty, and I reclaimed my knowledge of the one true thing that will always be true, which is Jesus Himself.

It got me through that one bad night. But there has not been a single second in my life when that was not an appropriate prayer.

Read the rest of my latest from The Catholic Weekly.

Image via Max Pixel (Public Domain)

I thought Good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.

Read the rest of my essay for America magazine.