Tuesday, April 15, 2014

A Good Gift

Great with Child: My Body at its Finest

My body is a gift, a good gift. Though not a gift I’ve taken care of and treasured. Rather, I’ve neglected and mistreated it, then cursed the gift giver. As though it was God’s fault.

My word for 2014 is FREEDOM! God has helped me break free of many chains: guilt, shame, perfectionism. I knew this one was coming. It’s been a prison of my own making, going on 20 years.

Growing up, I was active and athletic (though not terribly coordinated). I valued my body and took care of it. I appreciated it for what it could do, much more than how it looked. I even enjoyed bathing suit shopping! Not because I was a waif. I’ve always had a sturdy frame. God blessed me with fleshy arms and generous thighs. Perfect for staying grounded, and hugging wholeheartedly.

When I went to college, my own apartment felt like freedom. When it came to food, it was really bondage, in disguise. I ate nothing but junk: cheesy doritos, frozen pizza, macaroni and cheese, french fries, Ben & Jerry’s. There wasn’t a single fruit or vegetable in my shopping cart. I gained at least 15 pounds that first summer. Which is a lot on my little 5’ frame.

As I gained weight, I felt less than. Old messages that fat was bad, ugly, and shameful, danced in my mind. Rather than losing the weight I’d put on, I became indignant and gained even more.

The rejection I experienced while overweight fueled my deep seeded fear: I’m not enough. Not worthy of love and affection. The worse I felt about myself, the more I ate. The more I ate, the worse I felt. It’s a toxic cycle.

Through the years, I’ve played with getting healthy. I’ve lost a lot of weight. But taking up less space on this earth doesn’t automatically heal the hurts. Flogging myself and shaming my back fat doesn’t inspire lasting change.

Eventually, life happens. When you seek comfort in food, there’s always a reason to eat: deployments, special needs, PCS moves, loss and grief. Life’s too hard. I’m too sad. Before I know it, a DQ Blizzard for dinner seems like an acceptable choice. The weight returns, with shame in tow.

Fast forward to this past weekend. I had an incredible day with my family. Then saw photos of myself. From behind, no less. As I looked at myself, all the joy drained out of me. Harsh, judgmental thoughts rushed into my mind.

Rather than camping there, I let the grace of God wash over me. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I had a pity party first. Then I picked myself up and remembered that my size is a reflection of my choices, not my worth.

God loves me exactly as I am. He also loves me too much to leave me in bondage. I am choosing to believe that I am who He says I am, and that through Him all things are possible. Old baggage and excess weight don’t serve me anymore. I have a race to run!

So, I’m grabbing this bull by the horns. I’m embracing my I-can-do-anything-I-put-my-mind-to attitude. It’s not about skinny. It’s about healthy and strong. It’s about conquering fears and dismantling lies. It’s about taking care of, and treasuring, the gift. 

Please visit me at my new blog, www.ericaaklan.com 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

End of My Rope- My Messy Beautiful

I feel like a horrible mom. It’s only 7:20am, and I am quickly approaching my wit’s end. After a long week of interrupted sleep, sick kids, and plans thrown out the window, I am desperate for some peace. Instead, I lie in bed and listen to brothers bickering in the playroom across the hall. 

When they awoke at 6:00am, bright eyed and bushy tailed, I set them up with cartoons and climbed back into bed, hoping for a little more rest. No such luck! Now they’re climbing all over me and what is precious and heart-warming most days is grating on my last nerve.

I adore these children. But seven days of constant interaction and neediness has taken its toll. As I sit in my bedroom chair reading my devotional, Little Man climbs into my lap with a steady stream of questions, and Big Guy laughs and squeals in the chair across from me. I can’t even read my bible in peace! Let alone, use the toilet or change my clothes or speak to their father. I escape to the front porch to pray, and have a 5 year old in my lap within 90 seconds. I lie down on my bedroom floor to cry, and my 7 year old finds me hiding between my dresser and my bed. His daddy invited him to help in the garage, and, even with tools in-hand, he ditches guy time to find me. I’m about to lose my ever-loving mind.

My husband sees the desperation in my face and lovingly instructs me to shower and then leave. It’s clear I’ve reached the end of my rope. “Just please call me if you start thinking you don’t ever want to return,” he said. “That would be a problem!” I laugh and assure him, I’ll be back…eventually.

I have a horrible habit of neglecting myself in service to those around me. I pour myself out, caring for my family, at the expense of myself. I put my needs on the back burner and before I know it, my tone becomes harsh and I feel like I’m suffocating under the weight of my life.

What’s more, I have a hard time asking for help. The self-sufficient, over-achiever in me rears her ugly head and I buy into the lie that a “good mom” could handle my life. I fear I’m being selfish if I take time to myself, outside of the acceptable outings: church, bible study, an occasional date night. It’s crazy talk!

The challenges of motherhood are great. The never-ending, thankless tasks of laundry, cooking, and dishes are enough to suck the life right out of me. There are no year-end bonuses or accolades for keeping my family alive and loving them well. No atta-girls for tirelessly wiping bottoms and sweeping crumbs. 

Usually, the joys of motherhood outweigh the challenges. Until I drain myself dry. My kids don’t need a martyr. They need a mom who takes care of herself, so she has something to give. 

As I step into the shower, I remember that even Jesus needed time away from the masses: from those he loved and instructed, healed and restored.  He prayed and sought God and was refreshed and renewed. The mommy guilt washes away with the water, and I thank God that my hubby is here to help. I leave our children in his very capable hands.

As I stroll through Williams Sonoma, soaking in the grown-up surroundings, I feel tension leaving my body. I browse cookbooks, delight in beautiful table settings, and bask in the luxury of an unhurried pace. As I quiet my mind, I make room for God to speak.

When I try on clothes at the store next door, He reminds me that I am wholly and dearly loved: exactly as I am, today. He fills my cup with His truth and the lies lose their power.

I fill my shopping cart with ripe produce and revel in the goodness of dinner from the deli case. Only a mom of little ones is this excited about grocery shopping alone.

By the time I return home, I am at peace and my heart overflows with love. I’m greeted with great enthusiasm and return love to them in equal measure. This is the mom I want to be. This is who I am, when I take time for myself. I am a mom with untiring patience and determined perseverance. I am a mom who delights in my children, who shares adoring glances with my husband, wondering how we got so lucky.

I am a mom who takes care of myself, so that I have more than enough to give.

Please visit me at my new blog, www.ericaaklan.com

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Just the Beginning

It’s been 3 years since we received Big Guy’s autism diagnosis. I didn’t think I would cry today, which is incredibly na├»ve. Of course I’m crying! It’s what I do. Three years ago, my tears were a result of shock and fear and hopelessness. Today, I know more; my tears are simply an expression of overwhelming love.

We were smitten with Big Guy before he was even born. His daddy would kiss my belly each day, telling him how much we loved him and urging him to grow big and strong. When we first laid eyes on him, we were goners. He was the most beautiful sight we’d ever seen. As he grew, we found him to be joyful, animated, easy going, affectionate. We were delighted by each new discovery.

When Big Guy was a baby, he would lie on his back and flap his arms and legs like he was trying to fly. He would squeal with delight as he flapped. We’d never seen anything like it, but none of the other new parents around us thought it was odd. We know now that he was stimming: which is a repetitive behavior associated with autism. Since Big Guy is also diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, it’s possible his flapping was sensory-seeking as well.

When Big Guy became mobile, he found new outlets for his energy: toe walking for sensory input; racing back and forth in the house, literally bouncing off the walls as he reached them; jumping up and down and squealing as he watched cartoons, etc. At 7, he still engages in these activities. Watching TV is an aerobic event for Big Guy!

As a baby, Big Guy babbled and cooed and smiled, right on track. But he was slow to develop words. Truthfully, we anticipated so many of his needs, that little communication was required. Once mobile, he would express his wants and needs by leading us to what he wanted and pointing or manipulating our hands to get it. He’d take us to the fridge and place our hand on the door handle, for example. When a friend gave us some fabulous Baby Signing Time DVDs for Big Guy’s second birthday, signing allowed him to express himself without having to drag us around the house. Eventually, he began speaking in two word phrases, and we were ecstatic!

Big Guy interacted with us so much to get his needs met, that we didn’t realize he failed to interact for the joy of interacting. As a toddler, he wanted to be near us, but was content to play on his own. As he accomplished things, he didn’t seek us out to share in his achievement. We didn’t hear the typical “look at me!” requests as he played and he certainly wasn’t creating things and bringing them to us for praise. As parents, we initiated the social interaction and delighted in our sweet boy.

I give you this glimpse of our life because I believe autism awareness is far bigger than knowing the most recent statistics. Yes, the CDC just released new numbers. Two years ago, 1 in 88 people were diagnosed with autism. Now, the rates are 1 in 68. That’s a 30% increase in just two years. Those numbers represent real people! Real people, like my adorable boy. As the rates rise, the odds are greater that each of us will know and love someone on the autism spectrum.

Perhaps you’ve heard the word autism, but you don’t really know what it is. Fair enough. I didn’t either, until we received our first diagnosis.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder that involves difficulties with repetitive behaviors, communication, and social interaction, to greater or lesser degrees. How those difficulties manifest is different for each person. I gave you an idea of what it looked like for Big Guy in my description above. But keep in mind, when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve done just that. Each person is unique.

When Big Guy was diagnosed, the psychologist told me that autism is not a dead-end diagnosis. Which means, there’s no end to a person’s potential. We can’t predict the future for Big Guy, any more than we know how it will unfold for any of us. But we do know early intervention (therapies) makes a huge difference. These therapies give our loved ones the tools they need to succeed in our neuro-typical world.

When our kiddos are typical, we can teach them through our example. They learn to interact socially and communicate by observing us. The skills come naturally. When our kiddos are autistic, it’s not quite that simple. Their brains are wired differently, so we need to teach differently. The sooner we understand that a child has a neurological difference, the sooner we can reach them effectively. It’s maddening to try harder and wonder why your kiddo isn’t “getting it.” I imagine it’s equally as frustrating for the child!

When we get an autism diagnosis, we can bring all the resources to bear; a whole world of specialists opens up to us. Our kiddos may qualify for early intervention at home or in a preschool setting. Big Guy benefitted from both. He also received speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy.

After the autism diagnosis, Big Guy became eligible for behavior therapy too. Through ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis), we’ve tackled skills like: impulse control (not darting into the street), accepting “no,” waiting, potty training and other self-help skills, transitioning from a preferred activity, taking turns, answering personal information questions, like “what’s your name?” and “how old are you?” and other age-appropriate social skills. ABA has made a dramatic difference in Big Guy’s ability to interact with the world around him.

Last night, Big Guy awoke at 3:00am and pounced happily onto my bed. When I groggily marched him back to his room and tucked him in bed, he looked at me with a downcast face and said, “I’m sad.” I hugged him and validated his feelings with a simple, “I know buddy.” As I turned to walk away, he said, “I want to play with you, and you want to sleep.” My heart about leapt from my chest. It seems like yesterday that we were ecstatic over his two word utterances. Now, three years after diagnosis, my sweet boy is communicating complex thoughts and interacting socially, for the joy of it!! He has worked hard and grown so much!

I pray that when a parent musters up the courage to admit they have concerns about their child’s development, their friends and family would encourage them to trust their gut and seek answers. An autism diagnosis isn’t the end. In many respects, it’s just the beginning. 

Please visit me at my new blog, www.ericaaklan.com

Monday, March 10, 2014

I Surrender!

I attended an incredible women’s conference on Saturday: It’s Your Day, put on by Savannah Christian Church. After the first session, we were invited outside for a snack break in a beautiful, historic Savannah square. As I gathered up my bag to head outside, a song began playing that stopped me in my tracks. I knew God was speaking to me, inviting me in.

I told my friends to go on without me and I dropped to my seat, in search of my prayer request card. As the familiar lyrics softened my heart, I read the prompts. “How can we pray for you?” it asked. My first response was to write about someone dear to me, but the next question asked about whom else I’d like lifted in prayer. So, I got honest about the deepest desire of my own heart: that I would have the confidence to do what God asks of me. He’s been asking for a while, and I’ve all but ignored him, dragging my precious little feet. The third question asked “What do you hope God will do in/for you today?” I wrote, “That He would set me free!” Then I remembered that He already did. I’m the one who holds on to the chains. So, I added, “That I would be set free from my fear.” I tucked my pen in my purse, and tried to shield my tear-streaked face from the women in front of me as I soaked in the last of the song.

The more I seek you, the more I find you
The more I find you, the more I love you

I want to sit at your feet, drink from the cup in your hand
Lay back against you and breathe, feel your heartbeat
This love is so deep, it’s more than I can stand
I melt in your peace, it’s overwhelming

I made my way up the aisle of the historic theatre, gave my prayer requests to the volunteer, and found my friends on a wooden park bench. We had all been wowed by the first session about Sitting at the Rabbi’s Feet, and eagerly returned to hear Jen Hatmaker speak about Loving Your Neighbor. It was refreshing to hear someone speak so honestly and so passionately about her life and her love for Jesus and His people. She added insight to scripture passages I’ve heard many times before, and brought them to life in a meaningful, relevant way. But, hear me on this: I was equally moved by how she embraces who God created her to be. She’s unapologetically herself.

As the second session came to a close, the worship leaders returned to the stage. We were directed towards the white cloths in our gift bags, and invited to hold them up to God in surrender, if the Spirit led. I knew instantly that I’d be bawling my way through the song. And that was the good news!

I can’t even tell you what the song was. It was beautiful and impactful and on-topic. I even sang along, arms lifted high in freedom. But I only had ears for God. And He had plenty to say! “Just BE who I made you to be. Don’t worry about doing it wrong. I made you the way you are on purpose. Embrace ALL of it! Don’t worry that you stand out from the crowd. Do what I call YOU to do. It may not be what I call others to do. Or, maybe it is and they aren’t obeying me either. Just keep your eyes focused on me! Do the things that make YOU come alive. I gave you those desires. I am with you, and I am for you!”

I stood in awe. When I wrote those prayer requests earlier, they were about the nagging desire God put on my heart to share my journey, through this blog. I feel called to bare my soul and live transparently, and that’s a scary proposition when I’ve spent so much of my life hiding: behind my over-achieving, my busy-ness, and food (to name a few).

As I allowed God to minister to my heart, He reminded me that I am writing for an audience of one: Him. What He does with it is out of my control. I’m simply called to obey. So, here I am, God, with my heart on my sleeve. I surrender! Use me, Lord.

Please visit me at my new blog, www.ericaaklan.com