One Small Step

Our minds are amazing and powerful, and when applied properly can result in us accomplishing fantastic and unbelievable things. Unfortunately, almost all of us have, at times, allowed our brains to become our worst enemy. I doubt anyone does this deliberately, I think it’s hard-wired from more primitive days to keep us alive; but we should be aware and be ready to challenge it when it happens.

I have a few times that stand out VERY clearly – my son’s first diagnosis, my wife’s passing and my pending retirement. Each of these probably seems very obvious, I was facing a significant loss. But there have been less “obvious” times – halfway through a 5k, as I approach project deadlines or even when deciding if I should walk the dogs.

It starts innocently enough, the self-talk isn’t obviously negative; just an overview of other options or possibilities. For me, it didn’t take long for these thoughts to take on a life of their own – I’m creating whole dialogues and if/then end results; and suddenly I realize I’ve convinced myself the worst is going to happen and I haven’t even started down a path. When I was younger I missed opportunities because I wouldn’t give myself the chance to be successful and prove myself wrong.

It’s taken me years to accept my son has Autism, which is not (to me) the same as accepting his diagnosis. I have chosen to refuse to believe he cannot live a fulfilling, independent life. I have had to re-frame what “independent” means, because we all use supports – for some of us they are just less obvious.

Now, I take a different approach. I still evaluate the risks and weigh the pros/cons, I plan for a living so I doubt this will ever stop. But instead of allowing myself to go down the vortex of negative self-talk, I focus on the first step. After my wife died that first step was just getting out of bed, then getting into shower, etc. I literally broke every thing I did into single steps, and celebrated accomplishing them as a “win” because I needed to.

Every journey starts with a step, and no – we’re not psychic. We can’t know what’s around every corner, and sometimes life is going to hit you in the face with a cast iron skillet – and it’s going to suck, a lot. But this doesn’t have to remain your reality. What’s the next, small, step you can take to make things better?

For example – you hate your job. The next step isn’t “find another job” – this is too broad and can be overwhelming. The first step could be what do you hate about this job. Do you control any of it? If you do, what is the easiest thing you can change to make things better. Maybe it’s getting up 30 mins earlier or stopping at the gym on the way home to stay out of traffic. If there is nothing you have control over, then think about the first step to getting a new job.

What do you want to do which you have the skills for? Write out your skills and talents. Write out your nonnegotiable – what are the absolutes you must have for a healthy work experience (be realistic)? Pick one search engine (I like SimplyHired) and start looking. Be aware of your self-talk, and stop yourself when/if you catch yourself saying “I’ll never find something for my skills”; “there are no jobs in my area” or anything else not supportive of the efforts you’re making. These are not helpful, you are going to find answers supporting your beliefs – this is known as Confirmation Bias (Farnham Street, May 2017).

You DO control your happiness, because you control how you perceive and react to the world around you. Take your ownership back, one small step at a time.

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Ideas to Stay Afloat

Some of the hardest conversations I have with people is telling them they cannot accomplish the goals they’ve shared with me; even worse are those I have to have a conversation with about how they can reduce their living expenses – foregoing the lifestyle they’ve grown accustomed to. It tears at me, because I wonder if they really had no clue or have they been in denial? Either way, it’s not easy being the harsh voice of reality.

How do they get there? How does anyone? For some it could be medical expenses, or other things they had little control over. However for most I believe it’s an unwillingness to delay gratification. It’s difficult to deny yourself, especially to set money aside for something that will “probably never happen”; but these rare events occur with frequency. Cars are going to require more than routine maintenance (oil changes, brakes, etc) – own one long enough and something major will need to be replaced. Mechanical systems break down.

Same is true with anything else in your life – from owning a house, to having a child. Childcare is expensive, I think most of us understand that. But what about clothes, hobbies, food (especially for teens). We should know these things are going to come up, but so many seem surprised by how much everything costs.

So what to do? Few of us are going to win the lottery, so how can we prepare. Start small – save money into both your retirement account and a “rainy day” fund. The retirement accounts are usually the easiest to maintain, because most employers will withdraw funds before paying you – so you never “miss” it. It’s the savings you have to be intentional about that’s more difficult.

If you’re new to saving, start with 2% of your income to the retirement account. No, this isn’t going to fund your retirement, but it’s small enough most of us won’t notice it’s gone. The goal is to scale over time. Same is true with the “rainy day” fund. Open an online account and start an automatic transfer set for (5) days after each pay check (6th and 20th if you get paid on the 1st and 15th). Generally this is far enough to provide a buffer if there are holidays, or other delays to the money hitting your account.

I’m partial to Ally, because they’ve made it very simple to enroll and they’re offering a 1.6% interest rate (as of 5/13/2018). However, I encourage everyone to do their own homework – I like Bankrate’s website. Start with an amount small enough not to be missed, but large enough to be meaningful. For most, I wouldn’t save less than $25/pay period – but you will have to decide your own threshold. The more you can afford to put aside, the better prepared you will be for life’s “oh craps”.

Build your support network too. Try to surround yourself with positive people – not Pollyannas, but with people who understand life happens and it’s best met on your own terms. I prefer to be around people who have overcome adversity, although they haven’t necessarily had my experiences. We keep each other grounded – allowing a brief “pity party”, followed by a shoulder and non-judgmental ear. This network is best built before you need it, because when you’re in a dark place it seems to mostly attract “Emotional Vampires” (Orloff, J, 18 Jan 2011).

The most important take-away is this – shore yourself up, using small steps. Take some time to get to know yourself – what sets you off and what makes you feel great. Surround yourself with people who can help you feel great, not small. And invest in yourself financially by setting money aside. Little amounts first, increase by at least 25% every quarter (if it helps, go by key dates: Martin Luther King, Jr Day , Tax Day, Independence Day, Halloween).

We’re Not Atlas

In Greek mythology, Atlas was tasked with holding up the heavens on his shoulders (Atlas, 17 Dec 2016); and as parents of children with challenges (emotional, physical, neurological, etc) I believe it’s easy to feel the same way sometimes. It can be so easy to get caught up in our own world, believing no-one else can understand or relate. And unfortunately, this may very well be true as it pertains to your current circle of friends and family.

But you’re not chained to these circumstances – no matter how overwhelming it may seem. As I’ve stated in past posts, it takes just one step forward to start overcoming inertia. Make the time to go to a resource fair, or read (listen to an audiobook); anything to get you out of your own head.

I’m biased, I don’t want to hang around with people who acknowledge how hard I have it – this isn’t helpful to me. Yes, I’m a single father of a child with a disability, and I happen to have some of my own challenges as a legacy from my time in the service (don’t we all?). But none of these define me. I have the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, and although I may get less sleep (not by choice), ultimately it’s up to me to decide how to use my time.

We’re powerful, all of us – not just those of us who have challenges or family members with different needs. Each of us has different strengths, and weaknesses, so although it may feel really great to share how “hard” things are, nothing is going to get “easier” unless/until you do something to change your circumstances. If you “can’t”, then look for someone who can. Find someone who has overcome a similar challenge – I will guarantee you they are out there; although you may not hear them shouting from the mountains.

In my experience those who get things done, just do them. They don’t spend much time bemoaning their current situation with a “woe is me” attitude. Sure, there are probably pity parties – life sucks sometimes. But you can either wallow in it, or you can get help to pull yourself out. Notice I did NOT say you can pull yourself out ALONE. If you could do this alone it would already be done.

As much as it may feel like we are alone in this world, and we’re shouldering more than our fair share of problems, understand this – there is someone, somewhere who has it much worse than you and is getting it done. I think all of us are stronger than we give ourselves credit for; but I also think we allow ourselves to believe we’re beaten or overwhelmed because it’s often the easier road.

You’re not alone. There are people out there who have overcome some incredible disadvantages and challenges – what can you learn from them? How can you ask them for a hand-up (not a hand-out)? Who do you know who has overcome their own challenges?

Better yet, who do you know who is in the midst of challenges, and you think to yourself “man, they’re lucky that’s all they’re dealing with”? Go to them, offer your help. And while you’re helping open your mind to possibilities. What can you take from this experience to help in your own situation? Is there anything they can do to lighten your load? There are a LOT of people in the world, there is absolutely NO reason you should solve problems by yourself.

Upcounty Community Resources

Upcounty Community Resources (UCR) is a small non-profit with a HUGE mission and impact. Located in upper Montgomery County, they provide weekend enrichment programs –  “guys night out”, “girls on the town” and “TGIF – Totally Great Inclusive Fun” to name just a few. The intent is to help reduce the stigma sometimes associated with having an intellectual or developmental disability, and help those with disabilities integrate seamlessly into their community.

Who They Are

UCR is a private, non-profit organization who believes we are enriched by all persons in our community. They promote the full inclusion of persons with developmental and intellectual differences into every aspect of community life.

They offer innovative programs, events, and social opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual differences; promoting healthy lifestyles, friendships, self-awareness, and personal-development.

What They Do 

UCR offers innovative programs, events, and social opportunities for adults with developmental and intellectual differences. These opportunities promote healthy lifestyles, friendships, self-awareness, and personal-development. For a complete list of ALL the opportunities – please click on the “PROGRAMS” tab when you get to their homepage (click here).

What Else Should I Know

UCR’s program leaders are experienced professionals who work with our staff to ensure each member’s experience is a success. Some programs run as drop-in and some run for several-sessions over consecutive months. Some activities are perfect for anyone; others require a particular interest or skill.

Disclaimer

I am not an employee of Upcounty Community Resources and any errors noted are my own.  If I have misrepresented, or misstated anything please provide constructive feedback so I may make the appropriate change(s). All opinions and views are my own.

Overwhelmed? Stop & Breathe!

Why, when we are at the edge of our limits, choose to push ourselves even harder? Perhaps because we think it’s what we have to do to cross some conceived finish line. Or perhaps it’s all we’ve ever known, or what we’ve seen others do. In my opinion, based upon personal experience, this is the worst thing we can do – because from what I’ve seen it leads us into worse choices or dead-end solutions.

I think it sounds counter-intuitive, but when you get to your “breaking point” stop. Take as much time as you need to put everything in perspective. Identify what is going wrong, and more importantly, what is going right. And don’t allow yourself to say “nothing is going right”; which will more often than not be the initial belief. Find something (it’s there, trust me) and focus on that.

From there, take an inventory of your resources. What is available to you? Of those things available to you, what can you adapt to your current situation? Write EVERYTHING down; because your emotions are going to be a roller coaster, and memory can be fickle – coloring things based upon your mood. When considering resources, include friends, family, trusted advisors, etc… Whatever  you do, DON’T continue alone.

After serving 20 years in the Navy, I’ve learned “slow is fast”. Your body and brain will be screaming at you to “take action” – don’t. This is when mistakes and poor choices are made. Think of it like a high-pressure sale – is there really anything in it for you (most often the answer is “No”). Beware of suddenly attractive solutions, especially if you never would’ve considered them when you were not under so much stress/pressure.

I’ve been to (and over) the brink and back more times than I can count. I wish I could say I’ve mastered my emotions so it doesn’t happen anymore – but that’s just not the case. But what I have done is when I’m “lucid, write out a “roadmap” for me to refer to when enough is enough. Even this wasn’t my idea, I adapted a suggestion a good friend gave me when I was on the search for a job. Her suggestion was create a list of non-negotiables.

This same list applies when I am overwhelmed and seeking solutions. Reminding myself of my non-negotiables keeps me on track, and forces me to recognize when I’m in “react” mode. This works for me, but all of you are not my clones (how freaky would that be?!).

When you are in a good space, even if your good space is something others would consider pure chaos, brainstorm what helps you feel grounded. What is it about where you are right now that makes you comfortable and happy? Write everything down, no matter how trivial it seems. Then, let it sit for a day, and go back to it. Tweak it as you need to until it “feels” right.

Most importantly, put it somewhere you will see it without having to look for it. Because when the poop hits the fan you’re not going to have the energy or bandwidth to do “one more thing” – especially something like looking for a piece of paper that is supposed to make you feel good. Maybe make it the wallpaper on your computer, or set a reminder on your phone where it pops up. Whatever works for you. But like so many other things, it ONLY works if you take action. Stay strong, you’re better than whatever life can throw at you.

Entitlement

I’ve heard a lot of discussion, for and against, government forms of support – Medicaid, SNAP, housing, etc. Most of the comments seem to focus on who should or shouldn’t receive the help – but none of those making the comments fit what I would see as “qualified experts”; which to me is individuals who have worked in these spaces or are experts on the benefits themselves.

It feels like there is a LOT of anger about those who don’t “deserve” benefits receiving them. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve been told the government is doing “too much”; and everyone seems to have a story about someone they know who “deserved” benefits not being able to receive them. Yet when I ask clarifying questions to understand what led to the benefits being disapproved I’m met with disgusted looks and/or change of topics.

As I’ve said before, I do not doubt the system is being abused. I’ll even admit it’s “broken”; but I believe we should look at making repairs and tweaks – rather than do away with the entire thing. Let’s focus on Medicaid to provide a concrete example. And we should be very careful about what changes we make – beware unintended consequences.

Medicaid is health insurance for those with disabilities and the destitute. There is discussion in progress cut $1.4 Trillion (with a “T”) in Medicaid (See Article Here). Sounds reasonable – save the government money. However, this could force States to reduce their funding, hurting those who need assistance most. “The Congressional Budget Office estimated on a preliminary basis that Graham-Cassidy would result in the loss of health insurance coverage for “millions,” cap federal Medicaid payments to states, and give states the option of imposing work requirements on parents with children over age 6 (Andy Schneider, 2/12/2018).”

Yes, people need to work. But what if you have a child with significant support requirements, and one of the parents is a full-time provider? This occurs more often than I think most people not impacted by a disability realize. These families are not advertising their situation, they are putting their heads down and doing everything they can to survive. In many cases they didn’t ask for this and without the extra funding face losing their homes.

Safety nets, like Medicaid and SNAP, are in place for a reason. If you find yourself begrudging someone of this assistance, ask why. In some cases it almost sounds like jealousy – yet when you peel the onion back those same individuals complaining have, more often than not, made some poor life choices putting them in the negative financial situation they are in – without the option of a government “bailout”.

Again, this is a generalization. Yes, there are deserving people who cannot get services. My son, for example, did not get approved for the amount of SSI I had expected and a few of the items I filed with the VA were found to not be “service-related”. There are processes in place to contest findings you don’t agree with; or you may have to learn to live with it. If you want to increase the odds of your success, talk to those who have gone before you.

But don’t fault another family for doing what they need to do to survive. You don’t know their circumstances – when was the last time you were completely open about what was going on in your life with a complete stranger (who wasn’t your physician)? Want to change the system(s), look for ways to create opportunities for those less fortunate than yourself. Offer hand-ups, not hand-outs – and stick to what you control. I think you’ll be happier for it.

One Thing

Recently I’ve found myself focusing on the wrong things – what is not going well instead of what is. To me, this is the wrong thing to focus on because it becomes what I see – once it’s front of mind it morphs into the lens I look at everything through. I don’t think I’m unique or unusual, I’m betting more people than not have similar experiences.

But it’s SO easy to fall into this trap. It often starts with a “vent” to someone, or listening to someone else and then commiserating. Gradually, so slowly I don’t think many of us even know it’s happening, it becomes the centerpiece of our conversations. We’re sharing what is going wrong, how f’d up the world is and how we can’t seem to get ahead. And it feels like things continue to stack up against us. Does any of this sound familiar?

You can break this cycle. I’m not saying bad stuff will never happen to you, sadly this is part of life. But you can control the narrative. You can control what you focus on, and what you share with others. I’m certainly not suggesting you don’t ask for help when it’s required. Rather this – if you find yourself wanting to “vent”, ask yourself if there is anything constructive. It may be you need to share to process what you’re feeling and put it to bed; then do so.

But don’t fixate on it. Instead, think of at least (3) other, positive, things happening in your life – and share those as well. This will start to break the cycle, and open your eyes to all the amazing and good things in your life. And we all have them – no matter how dark things may appear.

It’s hard to get perspective when you’re living through tragedy or stress. Having a family member with a disability can be overwhelming; as can other situations like caring for a sick relative, looking for a new job, etc. But there are always opportunities to give thanks and acknowledge what is going right. There is a Cherokee parable about 2 wolves – I think it’s the best analogy for what I’m trying to convey. You can find the parable here.

It’s addicting to “vent”, share your problems with others. But when you’re not solving them you may be giving them power over you. Allowing them to control how you feel, casting yourself into a feeling of sadness or hopelessness. Break the cycle by starting to share what is going well. Even if the only thing you can think of is you woke up (this was my starting point after my wife died). Eventually, you’ll be happier and it will become almost second nature to focus on the positives rather than the negatives.

Keep working on it. I have let my guard down, and slipped into old (bad) habits. But now I’m aware, and I can (and will) do something about it. So can you. You deserve happiness, but it’s on you to allow yourself to feel it.