4 ways to keep your head up when you're feeling down

Parenting a child with autism is hard.

I know we're not supposed to say that for a lot of reasons: we might attract angry social media trolls, we might manifest more difficulties, and nobody wants to hear somebody complaining about their troubles.

But it's true. This shit is hard.

I mean, parenting a neurotypical kid is hard. Parenting a special needs child is much harder. If you share some of your child's autism genetics, you may struggle with a combination of sensory issues, executive function skills, anxiety and auto immune disorders, which makes parenting much, much harder.

Figuring in the sky high divorce rate among special needs parents, there's a good chance you're doing this alone some or most or all of the time.

It can be overwhelming. Believe me, I know, because all of the above applies to me.

Thankfully, these days I'm in a much better place than I used to be. Life was much harder when Tosh was younger and required more care, and I didn't have the supports in place that I do now. I'm much better at handling stress and don't turn to self-destructive behavior to cope with stress like I used to in my "dark ages."

Yes, things are easier. But that doesn't make them easy.

The past few days, I've felt really drained. Days and weeks and months of never taking time off, rarely sitting down to relax and always being on top of things has taken its toll. 

I'm spent. Not just physically, but emotionally too.

When I get to this point, here are four things I do to feel better and avoid self-destructive behavior.

1. Celebrate what's working.

In March, I committed to an 80-day fitness challenge and absolutely crushed it. I've kept the momentum going, and the results have been spectacular. This is the best I've looked and felt in 15 years. Maybe even ever.

That means I've been doing something really fun this summer: shopping for new clothes in my own closet. Everything fits. Heck, some of my someday skinny clothes are too big. Even the skinny jeans I'm wearing in this photo from April are saggin'.

When I'm feeling depressed or overwhelmed, I walk away from whatever is stressing me out and go try on clothes. 

It sounds superficial and silly, but it's my way of celebrating my success. When you're feeling like a failure, that's exactly what you need.

Find a way to celebrate something you've done lately, even if it seems silly or too small to matter.

Did you go to the salon for the first time in a year? Walk away from that broken appliance you can't afford to repair and style that gorgeous hair, Mama. The emotional lift you'll get is exactly what you need. With your mind in the right place, you are more likely to find a financial solution that you couldn't see when you were upset.

2. Indulge yourself but retain control.

Yes, I'm crushing my fitness goals, but it's a lot of work. All that food prep, sweat and consistent self discipline can feel like a grind, especially when the rest of my world is crashing down.

I felt like that a few days ago, and then Tosh asked for nachos for dinner from my favorite Mexican take out place. Even though I was hungry and didn't have anything prepped in the fridge that was legal, I remained strong. As we drove to the restaurant, I reminded myself that if I cheat on my diet, I'm only cheating myself. 

I executed flawless self control in the drive thru, ordering only Tosh's nachos and nothing for myself. We drove home so he could eat.

And then when we got home, he changed his mind and refused it. 

Oh, you're damn right I ate those nachos.

But I only ate half of them. Then I threw the rest in the trash. It was just enough to feel like I treated myself without sacrificing my pride and hard work.

The only thing better than perfect self discipline is imperfect self discipline. Abstinence is impressive, but the ability to give in just a little bit and still maintain limits is ninja level mastery.

Knowing that I've achieved that higher level of self-control made me feel so much better about the things I can't control.

3. Find someone else who understands.

This autism parenting gig is lonely, but it shouldn't be. Currently, there are 3.5 million Americans who have been diagnosed with autism, according to the CDC. There are 70 million worldwide.

I've made some wonderful friends by reaching out to other autism parents in local online parenting groups, at school pick up and in the therapy waiting room. Never be afraid to make the first move. Chances are, they're just as desperate for someone who understands as you are. 

And just like their children, they're also smart, interesting, funny and empathetic.

Yesterday, Tosh and I spent time with an autistic friend and his mom. We went bowling and then they came over to our house afterwards to play.

We began planning a fun getaway next month for the other boy's birthday. Tosh began perseverating over it, as he tends to do when he anticipates a future event.

It grew into a meltdown. He started flailing about on the floor like Linda Blair in The Exorcist. He wasn't self harming and even though he was genuinely overwhelmed by his jacked up central nervous system, he was also adding in some extra dramatics for show.

I can tell the difference when he stops and opens his eyes to make sure he's getting a reaction out of me.

I couldn't help it. I laughed. 

I know, parents aren't supposed to do that either, but I was exhausted and it was kinda funny and it beat losing my cool.

"I'm sorry," I said to the other mom, "I know I shouldn't laugh, but he looks like he's possessed and ..."

And then she rocked my world.

"The power of Christ compels you!" she said, as she pretended to fling holy water on Tosh. "THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!"

We both let out full belly laughs. (TBH, I'm still giggling about it today.)

Apparently, she has some legit exorcism skills because a miracle occurred. Our laughter lightened the mood, our unexpected responses redirected Tosh and was just what he needed to break the perseverating loop and calm himself.

Many of us have autism parent friends on social media, but I'm telling you, there's nothing like spending time with another parent in person who isn't the least bit unsettled by your child's meltdown. Someone who reminds you that you're not the only one who struggles with these things. 

If you're as lucky as I am, you might even find one who can make you laugh.

4. Give yourself permission to slack off for a day or two.

I rarely watch TV. You probably don't either, because kids with autism tend to struggle in the late afternoon and evening hours. We rarely get to kick up our feet and veg in front of the TV to relax.

However, this weekend I really needed that break. So I binged on season one of Stranger Things. I didn't let Tosh go feral and I did get some housework and office work done, but I also slacked off way more than normal.

And man, did it feel good.

Not only did I get some much needed physical rest, I gave myself permission to rest my busy mind. I stopped obsessing about all the things both within and beyond my control.

Instead, I immersed myself in the upside down. It was a very fitting analogy, actually.

It's okay to slack. It's okay to laugh. It's okay to indulge. And it's okay to celebrate yourself. 

You're carrying a much heavier load than everyone else. Give yourself the grace to cope with it all.

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