How Do You Define Your Sanity?

Dear Family,

A GAPS Haiku:

Lamb Ribs for Breakfast.
Satiated, Happy Boys!
Such a Lot of Grease.

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Jemmerisms:

--Stating his bathing preferences clearly: “I do not _ever_ want to be in a shower.”

--“Don't take the boogers out of my nose--I just want to sniffle!”

--After a loud explosion of bodily function, proudly: “That was good! Two burps by once!”

--Two things that are really fun to do: watch Jem practice winking, and listen to him sing “Little Bunny Foo Foo” from start to finish, complete with accidental neverending-song in the middle when he gets stuck on a loop of the chorus.

--I love the way Jem will listen silently to a fantasy children's book, filled with dragons and sorcerers and magic and make believe. He will listen to the part where the snail shell grows into a giant boat, that turns to solid gold and sprouts wings, and he will examine the pictures where the little boy climbs aboard and the boat takes off and flies into the clouds. Jem will sit solemnly, then finally remove his thumb from his mouth to ask an eminently practical question: “But HOW will it stop?”

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Bennerisms:

“...People thought the earth was FLAT??! ...That's because they hadn't been to the moon to see.”

Yesterday, once again it was a tribute to both student and the teacher when Jem brought me a giraffe that Ben had taught him how to make all by himself.

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Books we're reading:

--”Pippi Goes On Board,” by Astrid Lindgren.

--”Hush Little Baby,” retold/illustrated by Marla Frazee. Gorgeous pictures in an adorable sing-along book.

--”The Water Hole,” “The Legend of the Golden Snail,” and “The Eleventh Hour.” These books have “really good” pictures, says Ben, and are all written by the inimitable Graeme Base.

--”The Last Polar Bear,” by Jean Craighead George. A bit of a not-so-subtle global warming fable, with really gorgeous pictures.

--”Gramps and Fire Dragon,” by Bethany Roberts. A little boy and his grand dad “aren't tired at all,” and so make up some fabulous adventures while rocking in front of the fireplace.

--”Sally Ann Thunder Ann Whirlwind Crocket,” a Tall Tale retold and illustrated by Steven Kellogg. We like stories about kids who are stronger than anyone in the world! Somehow it makes any adversity they face a lot less scary...

--”David Gets His Drum,” by David “Panama” Francis and Bob Reiser. This is a thrillingly mundane story about a little boy who lives somewhere Down South and wants more than anything to make music with the Big Band. Jem says he wants a drum just like David's, “with a strap,” so that he can play music too.

--”My Friend Rabbit,” by Eric Rohmann. A funny, almost graphic-novel-style. “My friend Rabbit means well. But whatever he does, wherever he goes, trouble follows...”

--”A Grain of Rice,” by Helena Clare Pittman. A little bit wordy, but involving fun math: what if you get one grain of rice on day one, two grains of rice on day two, four grains of rice on day three, etc. How many grains do you have on day 100??

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I am floored by Jem's brain exploding every day, turning more into himself. He is so incredibly smart and perceptive in such a deliciously average sort of way, doing what humans have been doing for so very long: developing ideas and thoughts and skills as he grows older and more independent and more connected to his world. I love to watch this.

And I sometimes feel funny, because Ben is different from Jem, which of course goes without saying due the incredibly obvious fact that they're different people. Ben is amazingly smart and perceptive, too. And of course he is not immune to growing older. But for a long time, he's been sicker than we realized, all the while that, in a very gradual sort of way, he _wasn't_ reaching certain key developmental milestones, otherwise known as Things that People Generally Do As They Grow Up. I love to watch Ben be himself, and I am also very determined to help his body/brain start functioning in an easier, happier, more normal way.

What does it mean, to say something like this? To use the dangerous words “normal” or “abnormal” as descriptors of my children's (including mental) health? We generally trust our abilities to assess the degree of functioning in, say, our child's legs and arms, pretty much going on instinct concerning whether or not they are healthy and strong or suffering from injury and needing immediate treatment. When we check out our child's poop in the toilet, we say, “Yup, it's solid,” or “Uh-oh, it's diarrhea,” or “Gosh, it sure is in-between and mushy today.” But how on earth does one parse the idea of mental health in our children? How does one define ones own or anyone else's sanity?

Many people I talk to have two suggestions. One: Go To A Professional for a Diagnosis and subsequent treatment (and also, don't be afraid of drugs, because they can really make your life easier). Or, Two: Your child _is_ in fact normal, and you are simply overreacting to his symptoms.

Unfortunately, I don't think that professionals are necessarily better able to define a child's mental health and appropriate treatment than a parent is. I especially think this as I learn more about the human brain, the human gut, and myriad aspects of the human experience that we term “psychological.”

(See http://www.lifeisapalindrome.com/articles/miraculous-possibility-hope and http://www.lifeisapalindrome.com/articles/saving-sammy-curing-boy-who-ca... for more of my opinionated ideas on this topic.)

And yet at the same time, we aren't dealing with normal here. After six and a half years spent trying to meet Ben's “needs” through tremendous parental compensation strategies and acceptance, I am certain that he is not experiencing a particularly “normal” human set of issues, unless if by “normal” you mean “common in this modern, industrialized world.” And Jeff and me spending more than full-time moderating Ben and his screaming fits and anxiety attacks and intensity and gastrointestinal distress is not normal parenting, period. Someone once said that Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In that case, you might say that last spring, I began the process of consciously ceasing my own insanity, and starting to heal my child.

It's amazingly challenging to work out the details, though--much more so than diagnosing a semi-mushy poop or a bruised arm. That's partly because most people are used to the parameters defining a Good Poop or a Healthy Arm, while we are only beginning to work out the crazy threads that hold together our theories concerning “human psychology,” which I no longer believe is any different from “human physiology.”

I don't think that Depression, Anorexia, and ADHD belong in a different sphere from Sprains, Nearsightedness, and Dental Cavities, but this is not exactly a popular view in our Freudian culture. Try explaining to someone that their unhappiness might be just as much a symptom of ill-health or nutrient deficiencies as diarrhea or tendonitis. Try it! And watch the strange looks just fly out their owners' eye sockets.

We are so used to defining our “personalities” completely separately from our physical bodies, as if they exist in isolation from the foods we eat, and the ways we live, and the functioning of our gut flora. Sometimes we'll admit that we “feel hormonal,” or that we get grouchy when we don't eat frequently, or that “mind and body are connected.” But I am sure that mind and body are NOT only “connected”--they are actually just one thing, a bodymind/mindbody that is a lot more complex than either nurture OR nature.

As Ben heals, I'm getting crazy glimpses of the ways in which his anxiety and intensity and speech patterns and disordered eating and digestive dysfunction and “learning delays” and “ways of looking at the world” are ALL affected, in massively major ways, by his new diet and the ways his body is dealing with new foods, probiotics, detoxing, etc. Suddenly I am learning that there may be few inevitable features of my son's “temperament”--and so, just out of curiosity, what does that mean about my own?? The whole thing makes me batty on a regular basis: what does it mean, to Be Ourselves? Which is the real Ben: the Ben who was addicted to double-chain polysaccharides and starch, or the Ben who now eats sauerkraut and fatty doses of liver? When is a person “sane” enough to make their own treatment choices, or to even understand what's going wrong? When does a parent's will deserve to trump child's fevered, addled desires? When does a human have the right to make his own choices, no matter how insane he may appear?

It's a tricky path, to realize that loving your kid suddenly involves not only wanting to heal his painful tummy aches, but also to change the way he behaves. There are many more questions than answers. How does one not slip down the slope of considering “normal” neuroses as an illness? What does it mean to understand that your child has the potential to possess an entirely different “personality” than the one you've been trying to force yourself to like for so many years? Is it possible to be non-dogmatic enough to recognize patterns of human behavior without heaping damaging judgment on your child that might be worse for him than the original symptoms were?

As I quickly found out, even Professionals can't provide absolute, non-controversial answers to these questions; my own change by the day. I do know that I'm interested in noticing patterns of Normal, and learning about those humans who are happy and healthy in order to understand those who aren't so much.

And that's why, after all these years of using Parenting Techniques that make a whole lot of sense, and assuring myself that Psychology can be healed by talking about it in the right ways, I know that giving children freedom and choices and love and attention and tools for Communication is not always enough. Maybe your child has ulcerative colitis, and you can discuss the treatment possibilities with her in detail, as you snuggle on the couch. Perhaps your other child has diabetes, or would like to lose weight, and you can talk about ways of supporting her in improving her health, if she so chooses--it's her life, after all, and you can give her the space to decide. This past fall, this was me: trying to explain the concept of neurotransmitter production as it impacts eating disorders (which are almost certainly precedingly impacted by pathogenic strains of bacteria in the gut), and the potential precipitating factors of multiple nutrient deficiencies. Additionally, I was trying to discuss the potential for a healing diet to also help quiet a terribly racing, anxious mind. And I was trying to talk about this with a child who never let me hug him, and had been more or less starving himself for years, and often lay screaming and writhing on the floor.

There are some days when I'd trade my son's brand of sickness for just about any other kind on the planet.

I'm finally starting to learn, as a lifelong unschooler dedicated to the importance of Questioning Authority and Institutions and The Status Quo at every turn...that it's okay to sit back and take note of _average_ developmental behaviors within groups of people. That it's okay to at least listen to what the Experts are saying, so that you can learn a few things. That even if “normal” is super hard to define, it just might be okay to notice when your child isn't. This doesn't mean suddenly becoming a eugenicist--it means finally letting down a defensive guard, the part of that Always Has to Be Right, in order to question concepts of health in order to heal.

For many, many years, I thought that the most important task for an unschooling “attachment” mama was to Accept Her Child Just as He Is. I now think it's possible to admit the ways we are instinctively hardwired to want healthy children. And that this is not a bad thing! It's not about playing favorites, to celebrate Ben's brother's “neurotypical” behavior simply because it indicates a measure of this child's health. It's certainly not about giving or withholding love based on this data, in an unequal-opportunity sort of way. Noticing when a situation is chronically off-balance and not developing “normally” is, while a dangerously challenging task, pretty much the job I signed up for when I decided to midwife a small child from helpless infancy up through and including every possible degree of independence and beyond.

With any health issue, there's more of a scatter pattern than a spectrum concerning What People Do About it: treatment (with the ensuing additional plethora of options), acceptance of the health issue without pursuing treatment at all (either with or without agreeing that there is a problem), and denial that the situation even exists. Many of us choose to employ all three strategies at one time or another.

I used to say, “If you ask twelve different unschooling families about what they do all day, you'll get a dozen different answers.” Now I say the same thing, only when discussing human health and the way that different families choose to heal whatever ails themselves, or not.

The simple fact is, I want to heal Ben. He is amazing and unique and talented, definitely in spite of and possibly in some ways because of, his sickness. Yet his particular brand of Sick has caused (and continues to cause) exhaustion and depletion of our entire family's resources and reserves. I am finally getting over my guilt in comparing him with his brother, because I do not and never did so with the hope or intention of producing two boys who are exactly the same. I don't want to shove my son into a tiny box and treat his symptoms one by one, to create some perfectly Model Child who will grow up and parrot what he's told and get good grades and be A Doctor or Lawyer or Business Executive. My greatest hope is that I can help to heal his body so that his symptoms will take care of themselves and so he and the rest of our family can continue on with the rest of our lives. I want to raise two sons who have a fighting chance of thriving, being happy, and becoming independent, and with whom I personally enjoy spending time.

The funny thing about Health is that, more than I ever realized, it's a crazy, fragile spectrum on which we all balance in a teetering sort of way. That many humans are resilient enough to withstand an assault on our bodies/brains while being on the up side of mentally functional, means that most of us don't even have to notice that that which defines US, our sanity, might be endangered in the same way that proper jaw development and cavity-free teeth have gone by the wayside in our rush toward industrialization. I watch people as they listen to my explanation of the Gut Flora Hypothesis, and I can see them zoning out. "Thank God,” they're thinking, “that my did doesn't have your kid's Syndrome.” Thank God, that My Kid Is Not Like Ben, and Is Therefore Healthy.

The other funny thing, though, is the way that Health is such a dynamic, constantly fluctuating thing. It's not only about acute issues, or kids who are completely challenging, or autistic, or solidly depressed. It's not like you get birthed with a set of immutable features, like dyslexia, or insomnia, or obesity, or Health, and are stuck with these for a lifetime No Matter What. Health is not the opposite of physical injury, either. Health is a mirage, an intangible thing, subject to a billion and three variables, subject to change without notice for even the “healthiest” among us. “Minor Issues” that you might be ignoring can turn out to be big ones, and cancer can be healed in many cases with careful attention and a whole lot of work.

In a way, I'm not that much closer to sickness or health than another random mama--we're all on the edge of precipices, between perceived heaven and hell. I just that I'm noticing this balancing act a lot more thoroughly than many choose or need to do.

Some parents get terrible visions: my child, hit by a bus! I never had those visions, mostly because things were generally chaotic and strange and not-right feeling after Ben was born, and life was honestly and largely a struggle. “Bonding” seemed like something I could aspire to, but that sure didn't come naturally.

Now I do get terrible visions: what if my child gets hit by a bus before I ever get to spend long stretches of time with the solid little happy boy who's often stuck inside the body of a super-challenging, screaming child, pitifully possessed by demons that we can't see?

I don't know much, but there's something I believe: Mental health is probably not anything like what we think it is. Some days I'm balanced on a precipice, helping my child through a perilous routine. One tiny adjustment in diet, or air quality, or the fact that Mercury is in retrograde, and he goes one way, toward health, toward what I am now deciding to call “normalcy.” One other tiny adjustment in a different direction, and his brain function slips the other way, away from happy, away from healthy, and, incidentally, away from what I believe Normal can be.

Some days I hate this reality. And some days I am utterly grateful, that Ben is giving me the chance to learn along with him, how to help him (and me!) learn how to heal.

Because Goddammit, someday he will be Healthy. And when that day comes, I will let you know all the details concerning this intangible, unknowable, incredible state.

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Happy Weekend!
Love,
Sarabeth