Neon Sign



Have you ever had a day when a neon sign would come in handy? Let me tell you about a couple of mine. 

Hands clutching the steering wheel, I tapped the accelerator a little harder then I knew I was supposed to. This just became a race, and it was one I had to win.

If the school bus carrying the morning kindergartners beat me home, little girl would not know what to do. We hadn't yet gone over options she had if for some reason Mom wasn't home when she got there. Best case scenario she would make her way over to a familiar neighbor's house. But most likely case scenario she would be a puddle of tears first.

Whether I'd gotten dismissal times mixed up in my head or made one more stop than I should have during my morning errands, I was running a tad bit later than a momma with a kindergartner due home any minute should be.

Two minutes from home I punched the gas til I was going 15 over the speed limit.

Praying I'd be able to evade any cops on the way home, I had an amusing thought. I did not have the time to stop and explain to an officer why I was speeding, let alone to wait for him to write me a ticket. But how nice would it be if I had a flashing neon sign above my car, an electronic marquee that read, "MUST GET HOME BEFORE KINDERGARTEN BUS." He'd see the determination in my eyes and in my grip on the steering wheel as I passed and all of that would be enough to explain my behavior. And I do think he might let me go.

I did not make it in time to meet little girl at the front door that afternoon, but she met us in the garage where I had pulled in seconds before the bus arrived.

Phew.

*****
Growing up I always seemed to have fixations with fear. My earliest memory of being afraid in this way was connected to plastic. Somehow I became aware of the warning labels on plastic shopping bags and what they were there for, and I became terrified that I would suffocate on plastic. If I had had an older sibling, I would have been a very easy target. All you would have had to do to terrorize me would be to stick a plastic bag in my face. Or mention plastic.

I would also become fixated on the fear of dying. I would go through phases of a few weeks to a few months where the thought would consume me. 

As I grew up my fears grew with me. As did the desire to be normal.

And if there really wasn't anything in my carefree young life to worry about, don't worry. There was just a general feeling of impending doom that followed me around for no good reason at all. 

In my early teen years, leaving home exacerbated my fears. If I went to girls camp for say, four nights, my thought process would go like this. "Okay, four nights left. Four nights ago was last Thursday. And I made it from Thursday til now. So I can do this."

While other girls planning pranks, or while engaged in a craft, I was always doing this in my head.

"Okay, two days have gone by. If I can do what I've done to this point one more time, it will be time to go home."

Was I having fun at camp? Kind of. A hearty round of camp songs could pull me out of my anxious thought cycles. I could enjoy s'mores and stories around the fire. When it was all over, I was always glad I had gone. Some of my very best summer memories come from those times. It was just when family and neighbors asked if I had a good time, and I'd say, "YES!", it was like I was trying to convince me as much as I wanted to convince them. All I knew was that the fun was very hard-earned.

Sometimes I would question if this was really how life was to be lived, saying I was fine when I was really a bundle of sick nerves inside. And I guessed it was.

I don't want to be overly dramatic here. I had a wonderful childhood. Devoted parents. Lots of happy family memories. A collection of kids in nearly every house on our street who loved to play kick-the-can as much as I did.

Anxiety, like many other conditions, can be described on a spectrum. I was not debilitated by severe panic attacks. I could attend school without problem. Large group settings did not overwhelm me. And I could get distracted and briefly experience what it felt like to be carefree. Worry was just the lens through which I experienced most of my world and it significantly hampered my enjoyment of life from time to time.

*****
The other day I was going through photo albums on a visit to my parents' house. My siblings and I can say that our happy childhood is thoroughly documented. As I turned the pages, I realized something inside me had changed.

I used to have a mixed reaction to looking at family photo albums. They were full of happy times, but I could also look at my face in many of the pictures and tell you exactly what my fears were fixated on. And I would cringe. And frankly I have always simply come to the conclusion that while I was a nice girl, I was also somewhat of a freak.

When I decided to write down the details of my depression story, one result I didn't anticipate was how extremely therapeutic it would be for me. As I have researched the causes of depression for presentations I have given, I have realized that I had the elements for the perfect storm of a depressive episode brewing in me since my childhood.

Because anxiety and depression are closely related. They feed on each other.

I have realized over the last several months that nearly every awkward moment or experience or phase of my life can be tied back to anxiety. When you look at it that way, all the awkwardness kind of falls away, and all that's left is me simply doing the best I knew how. And everything really was all right.

And so I had a whole lot more love in my heart for me this time as I sat with the photo album on my lap. I didn't cringe this time. I wished instead I could install a flashing neon sign for 10-year-old me, 12-year-old me, 15-year-old me, but not for the outside world, just for her to see. Maybe when she looks in the mirror. And this is what it would say.

"You think that you are a freak. That you're the only one who feels this way. Everyone else seems to be having a great time while you are fixated on your fears. And as soon as one worry is resolved, another steps up and takes its place."

Perhaps we should dispense with the neon sign, because this is not all going to fit.

"You are right that this is not normal. This is not the way everyone experiences life.

"But--this is a real thing. And you are not the only one who lives life this way.

"It's called anxiety. And you're just kind of predisposed for it. And it's okay."

"I know it's uncomfortable at times. But you'll see. You'll [mostly] grow out of it. But because you are familiar with anxiety, you will be more compassionate. It will help you look out for others. Your overall experience as a human being will be richer and deeper. And everything is going to be all right."

Or, condensed, so it can all fit on my neon sign: 

"You are acting and feeling this way because of anxiety. And it's going to be okay."


P.S. This article is fantastic for parents of children who experience anxiety. Or anyone who wants to understand it better.



One More Graduation Letter to a Very Important Graduate


Dear Andrew,

Sometimes I laugh when I think about the totally different ways we have experienced the same family.

You see, I am the front end of the family. I was there for each new baby that was born. We were a house dominated by three little girls. For years. Til that day in 7th grade when I used the pay phone at lunch and between classes and Dad would update me on his brick cell phone how Mom was doing. She was bringing my first brother into the world that day.

You are the tail end of the family. Your life has instead been punctuated by each of your sisters leaving the nest until you were the only one left. Twenty years ago I never would've been able to wrap my head around the idea of Mom, Dad and a teenage boy at home. I didn't even know what that would look like. I was scared of teenage boys.

The time when we lived in the same house together might be even more of a distant memory for you than it is for me. But I wanted to tell you that that makes me no less a proud sister, especially now that your high school graduation has arrived.

I know that we joke a lot that from the moment we got our hands on you in the hospital, you were smothered and mothered by your sisters. And now I stand back and look at who you've become in spite of us. I'm really just part-joking about that. I hope you've also felt us cheering you on.

One of the things I admire most is the way you get a project in your head. From the moment it's born you work furiously until it's sitting concretely in front of you.

Like robots that can sort marbles by color. And potatoes that conduct electricity. And music boxes that play music you punched out yourself.

And PVC instruments. (really, everybody, check this out)

Your appreciation of music far surpasses anything I have ever experienced, and I like to think of myself as musically inclined. I play by the books. But you experiment and create and compose.

I am intrigued by the way your brain works differently from mine.

I love how you take things by the reins and you're not finished til you've put your own creative spin on them. And the rest of us are left stunned by the WOW factor.

I just know that junior high and high school can be rough. And I am so impressed with the ways you have engaged yourself while you're there.

You're like the stuff Pixar is made of.

And now it feels like I've set the stage for advice. I just want to tell you is the same thing I told my former fifth graders last week.

And that is, don't be afraid to struggle.

You are so good at problem-solving and working your way through issues until you get what you're after. You are well-equipped, brother.

But life has a really good way of throwing things at us that are meant to develop new muscles in our character. And it is these experiences and situations that keep us truly living and thriving. But they are often not comfortable. I am still learning this, because I don't like being uncomfortable. When those moments come, it is okay if you don't know what you're going to do next. In coming months, you may find yourself in unfamiliar places and circumstances wondering if you've got what it takes after all. But know you do. You've got the know how we've already talked about. You've got a family that loves you forever. And you've lived your life close to God who is always watching and ready to sustain and strengthen you.

You are WAY cool, little brother.

I love you.

Love,
Brittney



To My First Class of 5th Graders Who Graduate This Month



Dear Alicia, Andres, Angel, Anthony, Austin, Charlie, Cianni, Collin, Dante, Destanye, Gutania, Jennifer, Jonah, Juan, Justis, Kasarah, Lara, Latasha, Maddi, Makenly, Maren, Marisa, Marissa, Mark, Nick, Peyton, Sidney, Susana, and certainly not least, Taryn,

Hi!!! It's your 5th grade teacher! Didn't expect to hear from me after all these years, did you?

You've had many a teacher since your 5th grade year. I wonder if anything sticks out in your mind from the one we spent together. I'll tell you what I remember.

I remember going out to greet you, all lined up for our first day of school together. Rumor had it there was a new fifth grade teacher, but no one knew anything about her. I remember the look of joy in your faces when you saw that I was 24 and beaming in my excitement to meet you.

Even though their first encounter with my last name is difficult for most people, you each learned to say it flawlessly. You went home and taught your parents and brothers and sisters how to say it, and if anyone called me anything other than Mrs. Co-YA-do, I loved hearing you defensively correct them, even though it was my job afterwards to remind you to be polite.

I remember the week we learned about writing letters to the editor. Do you remember how Peyton's letter generated a furious discussion on the online comment boards? A couple more of you had your letters published in the days that followed.

Do you remember the day the mayor came to class in his fancy black and green pinstripe suit? He brought the chief of police with him because I was concerned about the negative attitude many of the boys in our class had toward police officers. You listened so respectfully as they explained their roles and then answered your questions and concerns. And then you treated them like rock stars at the end, having them autograph numerous scraps of paper and in some cases your arm.

Do you remember Red Ribbon Week and how along with all the other activities the PTA had going, I gave you a passionate presentation on how you were never to do drugs? I told you how drugs had damaged the lives of people I knew. I told you how my classmates and I had all worn the red ribbons when we were kids. But that as we got older, there were people and circumstances that disguised drugs as not harmful but fun, and some of my classmates had done them anyway. I fiercely pointed my finger at "you and you and you and you" and told you I didn't want you to fall into that category. Did you stay drug-free like you vowed you would?

How about the Valentines Day Mr. Collado came in so we could demonstrate our salsa dancing skills for you? It tickled my heart to hear some of the girls giggle over how "hot" Mr. Collado was.

All these highlights make me smile.

A funny thing happened yesterday when I went down to the basement and sorted through all I have that remains from our year together. I discovered a stack of letters from one particularly rough day in the classroom. No one told you to write the letters. You wrote them yourselves. "Mrs. Collado, I'll always be by your side when you cry."

"You're the best. Even when we treat you less than you deserve."

"At first I thought that you are new, you would go easy on me, but I have not been going easy on you."

"Thank you Mrs. Collado for not given up and I know you wanted to a couple of times. So would I."

The notes revealed something that may or may have not been painfully obvious to you.

Teaching fifth grade was a struggle for me.

I had gone to college for several years to prepare to be your teacher, but many teachers will tell you that is only the beginning. There is a huge learning curve that most teachers encounter when they hit the classroom.

Frankly, it was hard. Really hard.

But I was determined to give it my best shot. So every morning when I walked into our classroom an hour before you got there, I would shut the door and my knees would hit the floor and I would pray and ask God for help in being your teacher.

He didn't magically make you behave like angels. He didn't cause you to all master fractions overnight. But I do believe we got through the year in one piece and had some meaningful experiences along the way.

I used to think that if I was struggling, it meant that something was wrong. But the further I get along in life, the more I learn that the struggle (as much as I may not like it at first), and the way we handle it, is such an important part of life.

And so, as you stand on the brink of the rest of your life, that is what I want to say to you, my darling 5th graders.

Don't be afraid to struggle. In fact, it will likely be a constant theme for the rest of your life. In many of your cases, it already has been.

A day won't go by that you don't struggle for something.

Warning: not every struggle is worth it. Listen to your heart to help you determine which struggles are so you can use your energy for the ones that matter. Is there a relationship that is draining the life out of you? Is the way you are managing your money making your life miserable? When you honestly look at your life, is it uncomfortable? Do you find you are not being loyal or true to the person you'd like to be? ARE YOU DOING DRUGS? Or engaging in other harmful behaviors? These aren't the good kinds of struggles. I pray that you can shift the way you're doing things and living your life into struggles that will be worth it.

The struggles that are worth it? Relationships that are good for your soul. Being dedicated to your job and carefully putting some money away. Giving diligent effort to the trade or college degree you are after. Making good and honest choices each day so that you can confidently stand in front of the mirror, look yourself in the eye and like who you see.

Not everything will be a struggle. Some things will come easily to you. And pay close attention to them, because those are your gifts. You can use them to better the lives of the people around you.

Not everyday will be a struggle. I hope you can count on many, many hands the days you go to bed with a smile plastered on your face and happiness lingering in your heart.

So was our year a struggle for me?

Yes.

Was it the first time I had struggled?

Certainly not. Stick around for awhile here on this blog that I've created and you'll quickly learn a lot more.

And my struggles did not end when I left the classroom. Among other challenges, before I can go to bed every night I have to put a talkative five-year-old and a demolition derby of a two-year-old to sleep first. But our lives together with their dad are sweet and satisfying.

But back to all of you. I just want you to know that as far as struggles go, you were worth it.

Now go and live a fulfilling life.

All my love,
Mrs. Collado



The Day Sharon Hushed My Fears: A Mother's Day Post


 One night as a new mom, I stood next to my baby girl's crib. She was all swaddled up and it was time to lay her down for the night. But I just couldn't yet. I lingered a little longer. I loved her so much I thought my heart would burst. I knew that this precious bundle in my arms was not going to stay small forever, and as a new mom, the thought paralyzed me. I wished instead I could paralyze time and hold her in precious innocence forever.

As time went on, however, I found that her growing up was not nearly as scary as I thought it was going to be. It was my new favorite spectator sport. Very small things like rolling over and sitting up became very big deals.

And with sending her off to Kindergarten, it has only gotten better. She comes home spouting off facts about Antarctica, and demonstrating how she can count by 5's to 100.

Life is so sweet.

*****

This post is now going to take a major detour: to a whaling boat in Alaska, for that is how we met Joe. The details truly deserve an entire post of their own, but suffice it to say that four years ago, he and my family (my husband and little girl plus my parents, sisters and brother) ended up on the same excursion to go watch whales in Juneau, Alaska, an experience which also deserves an entire post on its own. 

Joe was traveling on his own on vacation from his church where he served as a pastor. His sense of humor and personality meshed so well with our family that day and on the remaining days of our Alaskan cruise, that he has since traveled out our way for weddings and high school productions of Les Miserables and The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Whenever Joe's in town, we get the whole family together for breakfast and lunch and dinner whenever people can make it because we're such big fans.

You could kind of say we've adopted him.

Except that he's already got parents who love him very much.

And last year he decided it was time we met his lovely momma. 

And his darling fiance.  

 *****

One thing I noticed very quickly about Joe's mom Sharon was that talking to her required practically no ice-breaking period. It didn't matter that she'd only been off the plane a matter of minutes, she could talk to you as easily as an aunt who watched you grow up.

And so I was thoroughly enjoying my conversation with her that day as we walked down the street, showing them the sights of our major city. We were swapping stories about what it was like to raise a little boy as Joe and his fiance Jill (with whom it is easy to get along famously as well, how do you think I got that cute picture up there ;)) walked hand in hand in front of us. 

I shared with her my experience of at first fearing motherhood would be one big painful farewell to each stage of my children's childhood, and then expressed what I already said in this post. That each new thing they learned how to do brought me so much joy, it was much easier to move from one stage to the next.

Little girl was bopping around next to us, probably freezing various trees and buildings as she sang Let it Go. "See, there was a time I wanted her to stay three weeks old forever," I said, motioning both arms toward my daughter. "But this age is so fun."

"And it doesn't matter that I've done it all before with his sister, watching little brother grow has been just as exciting. He's grown out of the baby stage, but I like this stage, too!"

Sharon smiled and nodded knowingly. "And you know what?" She pointed to her son a few steps ahead of us. 

"I like this stage, too."

Oh. That was profound.

Sharon went on to explain, "He's a hard worker, I'm proud of all the things he does for his church. He checks in with me from time to time so I can know how he's doing. He's kind of like the best kind of friend you can have. And now that he's found someone he loves and cares for so much, I'm excited about the new life he'll start with her. It doesn't get much better than watching your own child find happiness."

She had done it. She had passed that horizon that I think most of us mothers of young children fear. That someday when they are pretty well independent, they won't need us anymore. And that there will be some kind of final farewell. And so we are dragging, screeching our heels because we are terrified of that day.  

But she had just demonstrated that even when he's pushing 30, a momma can look at her child and say, "You know, I like this stage, too."

And that prospect, which I hadn't ever really considered before, flooded my heart with joy. 

Suddenly the future looked a whole lot brighter.



Post Partum


 Chelsea and Jordan welcomed her beautiful baby boy yesterday, one week to the day after Hailey and Colin. WHAT A SPECIAL WEEK!! What a lucky aunt.

I wanted to elaborate on something I hinted at a couple of weeks ago in my letter to my sisters. In addition to describing the love that washed over me with the births of each of my babies, I assured them that if they encountered moments or periods of not feeling like themselves, that they were going to be okay. 

I don't know if it is hormones, lack of sleep, or my being somewhat predisposed for depression (a mix of all three I am sure), but having a baby can create the perfect storm for a funky mood for me in the days and weeks immediately after. Going in informed helps a lot, and knowing you're not the only one helps a lot, too.  

I wrote this piece in 2013, 20 days after little brother was born. 
 

"I can throw this away for you if you like," said the Walgreen's pharmacy tech. He was holding my empty bottle of Motrin in his hand. I'd taken one a day from that bottle since baby boy was born. He was done using the label on the old bottle to fill my new prescription.

Little did he know the battle that was waging inside of me.

"Yes, that'll be great," I said, confidently.

I had won again.

I tried not to look too triumphant as I heard the bottle clunk in the trash underneath the counter.

When my babies are born, I have a borderline obsession with objects that were part of those first few days and weeks of life with them.

Not just the first outfit they wore home from the hospital, but the plastic from their first package of diapers, or the mug they send home with me from my hospital stay.

I don't know what my reasoning is. Something along the lines of being able to preserve their tenderness and innocence through clutter.

I know I struggled with this when little girl was born and that if left unchecked it could hinder my progress in getting to and keeping a healthy state of mind as a new mom, so when we got home from the hospital this time, I took a garbage sack through the house at least once daily and threw away stuff.

If it hurt to throw something away, I tried to step out of my emotions and look at it objectively. How happy are you going to be in three years that you saved the styrofoam cup you chewed ice chips from as you waited for labor to progress? If I couldn't provide a rational answer, it went in the garbage. I will admit, I hung on to the disposable cover to little brother's bilirubin bed for three days before it went in the trash. He'd punched out that cute hole with his arm! Some things must be allowed a little more time. :)

This is one facet of my personal experience with postpartum depression. I wondered to what extent I would experience it after my second baby was born. I am thankful that it has been fairly mild this go round.

It's interesting though, this experience at Walgreen's happened 45 minutes ago. I have step back and laugh a little that I really do have to think that hard about throwing away an empty prescription bottle. The fact that it's a decision at all tells me it's still lingering a little, but the way I win a little "battle" each day makes me so thankful that I am doing so well.

Here are some other facets to my whole postpartum experience.

I love my hospital experience. I am especially emotional after giving birth, and it makes me especially appreciative of the care that is shown to me by the nurses. It actually makes it really hard for me to go home. I become attached to my nurses. This time one of the nurses slid an envelope into the paperwork I was bringing home the evening we checked out. When I got home I opened it to find a card signed by all the nurses that had cared for me. It made me cry. Now it makes me smile. It did not go in the garbage.

For several days after giving birth, I have a heightened sense of how fragile mortality is. Danilo turned on Tarzan one night at home shortly after little girl was born, and I didn't tell him, but I got so upset inside and couldn't enjoy the rest movie when Tarzan's parents were killed by the cheetah in the beginning. I can (kind of) laugh at it now (having just experienced becoming a mother again), but I was truly, truly angry. 

The hardest part of the postpartum experience for me is an intense fear or anxiety that settles in and nearly paralyzes me. Fear of all kinds of things. Parent-killing cheetahs, Danilo making it safely home from work, and mostly over the responsibility of being a parent. Will I be able to do this as well as my parents did? I feel so broken and inadequate. This little person depends on me for everything. Will I be able to rise to the task and give them everything they need?

And then there's the need to know I will experience normalcy again. I was comfortable with life before the baby and now I feel like my whole world has been thrown up in the air and come down scrambled.

The night we brought little brother home from the hospital, he cried all night long. I wanted Danilo to sleep so we could have at least one alert parent the next day, so I made a bed on the floor in his room and tried to calm him from sun down to sun up. As I lay there, I had a wave of anxiety rush over me all night long. It was kind of uncomfortable and scary, but I just kind of let it do its thing.

Because this time I can say, hey, I have a three-year-old now and I felt this way when she was born too, but now she is mine and her daddy's whole world. It took several nights to figure out and adjust to life with her, but now it's impossible to imagine life without her.

Something else that has helped make my postpartum experience easier this time round is having little girl here with me. At a time when my emotions could cause me to take life and myself and this whole experience too seriously, she provides comic relief. She laughs when he burps. She laughs when he spits up. She laughs when he goes cross-eyed. She laughs when he chooses to relieve himself when his diaper is off. It's a truly amused laugh. And it makes me laugh too. And while I laugh, I'm thankful that I'm not all by myself taking life too seriously.

Lastly, I taught a lesson a couple of months ago to the young women at church on the topic of grace. It changed my life. I have come to understand that after all we can do, God will bless us with a strengthening power (grace) that will make the seemingly difficult or impossible possible. So when postpartum panic starts to set in, I just remember my testimony of His grace and move forward. Sometimes the manifestations of His grace have been through my own daughter, sometimes a text message from a friend, the words of a blessing spoken on my behalf, or moments when I'm blessed with clearer understanding. These verses were part of my scripture study this morning and I loved them:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
The Lord is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.
Lamentations 3:21-24

All that being said, it would be cool if I knew I am not the only one who has become attached to an empty package of newborn sized Pampers. Is anybody with me?  

Summer 2013



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