Erika Marie


About Erika Marie

A simple Catholic wife & mama.


Quick and Easy Nacho Cheese Casserole {Meatless}

So Lent starts in two days! That means meatless Fridays (and Ash Wednesday) starts this week.

I used to panic about trying to come up with meatless dinners for Lenten Fridays.  I was trying to make meatless dinners that were also fancy.  Which is kinda besides the point of fasting and abstinence. Duh.   Once I figured out I didn’t need to make anything super fancy and meatless, it wasn’t so hard. Actually, Lenten Fridays have become my favorite dinner days because it’s a great “excuse” to keep things super-duper simple.

Who says you can’t serve your family cereal or eggs and toast for dinner?

If, however, you’d like something a tad more exciting than breakfast for dinner, here’s a meatless recipe I shared last month at CatholicMom.com that’s super easy but looks a little fancy too. They’ll never know how hard you didn’t try. 

Quick and Easy Nacho Cheese Casserole

You only need Five Ingredients, an Oven, and about half-an-hour to put this together and on the table. Go here for the full recipe and, while you’re there, I suggest you check out all the delicious CatholicMom.com’s Meatless Friday Dishes.  

What are your favorite go-to meals for Lenten Fridays?

 


But He Looks “Normal”?

{Somehow I accidentally unpublished this so now I’m publishing it again. Weird, I know.}

In my last autism post about our son I shared that I’m slowly Learning to Drive Autism. It’s a simple analogy for an incredibly complex reality.

When I used to think of autism, the image that came to mind was of a child who couldn’t speak, avoided eye contact, walked around on tiptoes while flapping hands, and moaned and yelled to communicate.

When I thought of Asperger’s (when it was still categorized separately from autism), I thought of the awkward people that stand too close and shift around excitedly when talking about something they find so incredibly fascinating they can’t seem to think of anything else to talk about.

Those are the caricatures I saw on TV and movies or in magazines and online articles, this is what I thought autism was because that was the only related portrayal I’d seen. The only people with autism I had ever seen or met mimicked those stereotypical portrayals of autism.

Or so I thought.

Autism, vaguely defined, is:

a variable developmental disorder that appears by age three and is characterized by impairment of the ability to form normal social relationships, by impairment of the ability to communicate with others, and by repetitive behavior patterns

Ok…

But autism, as it applies to our son and each individual “with autism”, has a definition of it’s own. In fact, it can’t really be “defined” in any one sentence.

From the beginning of our journey, my son never quite fit into the typical characteristics or “symptoms” of autism.

He looked people in the eye, spoke well – with a cute little lisp he eventually grew out of, he’s always had great physical strength and athletic ability like any other boy his age, playing with other kids and having friends has always been important to him, and, aside from a wonky pencil hold, his fine motor skills have never been an obvious concern.

In school, he was just “shy” and “reserved”. Sure, he tended to play with the same classroom toys, had minor “focusing” and “attention-to-directions” concerns but nothing the early-years teachers felt was anything “abnormal” compared to others in his class. Behaviorally, all his teachers have always loved him and described him as sweet, kind, helpful, never a trouble-maker. Everything a mother wants to hear about her child’s behavior at school, right?

However – and this is a huge HOWEVER – Home and family life – very, very very, different.

Away from the structure, routines, and enough social pressure to follow the rules, a flip of a switch turned that sweet and “reserved” little guy into a very different boy no one could recognize or contain.

In those moments, I looked at my son and thought about what I’d read about autism and saw clearly that he did fit into that category. But then, once he calmed down and acted “normal” again, I wavered and thought – “hmm, well maybe he just sensitive and has bad tantrums…” Or, as I shared in the Boys will be Boys post, I deduced this was all my fault since he only acted to this extreme with me and at home and never at school. It was all so confusing and frustrating!!

No wonder it took so long to get a diagnosis for my son, right? We – meaning me and the professionals we initially worked with – were trying to fit my son into that narrow definition of what autism is and he didn’t fit. Or did he?

What I’ve learned now that I didn’t know when our son was going through all that, is that Autism, as a medical diagnosis, has undergone significant developments and changes, especially in the past 5 – 10 years. The History of Autism, includes various labels and characteristics that have evolved and expanded with continued research. From “a form of schizophrenia” and “severe social impairment” to “Asperger’s syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder- Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), to “High-Functioning” or “Mid-Functioning” or “Low-Functioning” Autism to what it is now – Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Socially, people living in the autism world have coined their own terms like atypical vs typical (which, to me, just seems like a nicer way of saying normal vs. abnormal) and, most recently – Neurodiverse: A fancy way of saying there’s nothing “wrong” with people “with autism” – their brains simply function neurologically different.

Understanding this history of autism – as a medical diagnosis – has helped me better understand our son and how autism applies to him. More importantly, this understanding has helped me accept our son’s “High-Functioning Autism” diagnosis, which, 10 years earlier, may have been what we used to know as “Asperger’s”, which is now simply “ASD” or “Neurodiverse” or whatever new term we’ll come up with next.

Either way, I’ve become more comfortable saying to others – “My son has autism'”. And even then, I say our son “has autism”, though I prefer to think of autism as an adjective to describe the way his brain functions. Though even that word seems far, far, from adequate descriptor of the extremely unique and fascinating nature of our son’s mind.

In many ways, we’ve come very far in our understanding of “Autism” in our world, and personally, we’ve come a long way in our understanding of what this all means for our son. I know we – as a world – and we – our family – have much, much, much more to learn. I, for one, am excited to learn more about what this means for our son but also I’m excited to uncover all the amazing strengths, talents, and all the exciting things I know our son will achieve.


Renewed 3

Renewed.

In a word, that’s how I feel.

I’m not “back”, I now know now I’ll never be “back”.

And that’s ok.

I’m ok. I’m ok, I am ok!

I’ll still have those moments, those days, when the missing is too intense, the memories still pinch.

I’ll always remember:

The pain, the sorrow, the trauma.

The fear, the extreme anxiety, the desperation, the agony, the feeling of complete abandonment, stunned confusion.

The could haves, should haves, would haves.

The “whys?”

“Why didn’t I?”, “Why didn’t he?”, “Why didn’t they?”

Why him? Why now? Why? Why? Why?

The fog of denial, the sting of a reality I couldn’t swallow.

Keep moving, carry on as usual, keep it together, be strong.

Have faith. Pray more.

2016 may forever be a big fog in my memory. I functioned. I probably smiled and laughed. According to my calendar and pictures I went places, socialized. But I can’t remember.

Like the time a softball socked me in the nose and left a big black patch in my long-term memory.

2017, a year of thawing, healing, accepting, remembering, missing. Oh, the missing!

Snail steps forward while looking back. Stuck.

2018, a year of renewal and TRUST. Absolute TRUST.

Breath in, breath out.

I miss you.

I remember you.

I feel you with me.

I’m thankful – you were with me, and still are…in a different, silent, constant way. A deeper way.

Moving. With all the memories.

Forward.

Remembering where I’ve been, being where I am, trusting God knows where I will be.

Knowing He’s been with me, is with me, will be with me. Always. Forever.


Puppy Doggie

So remember about eight months ago, I shared our Healing Goodbye to our Dog?

Well, we missed her so much more than we thought we would – especially me. I had no idea just how much I had grown used to having Bella around and though I thought I’d be ok without a dog for a while, it didn’t take long before I caught “puppy fever”.

It started with “just looking” at puppy pictures…then my husband started sending me random cute puppy pictures.  And then, we found ourselves talking about it together.

One day, I came into our room and caught my husband looking at something on his phone –

Cute puppy pictures.

I laughed because I’d been doing the same thing downstairs.

Long story short, soon we were stalking our local animal shelter’s adoptable animals page on their website. One day, my scrolling eye stopped on a new photo of a sweet lab puppy with fur so light it looked white.  And then, somehow, I ended up at the animal shelter and decided to see what she was like – just out of curiosity, of course.

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Well, that did it. Next thing I knew, there was a puppy in our backyard.

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She was so pretty and soft – we called her Daisy.

We soon found out, however, that though she was pretty and soft and cute as can be – puppies are no easy task!

Thankfully it didn’t take too long to crate-train her so she only used the backyard as her “toilet”. But we weren’t quite prepared for the nibbling…

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And the chewing…

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Oh, my the chewing!!!

Here…

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There…

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Everywhere!! The kids soon learned to put their outside toys away unless they wanted them to become new chew toys for Daisy.

Apparently, all that chewing is exhausting…

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Cute pictures aside, it hasn’t been a walk in the park owning and caring for a puppy. One reason I didn’t share about her until now is because there were many times within the last eight months when I wasn’t sure if we would keep her.  Ask my poor patient friends who had to hear me ask for their prayers several times, always ending with, “I think this is really the end this time,” to then end up deciding to give her “one more chance”.

Luckily for Daisy, the kids loved her. One reason I decided to get another dog was for all of us to have a special companion but especially for our oldest son who struggles with anxiety/anger management – I hoped she could become a “therapy dog” of sorts for him.

At first, he wasn’t so sure about her – she was so hyper and he just didn’t know how to handle that.  Then, over the summer, something magical happened and he “discovered” her and realized – “Hey, I like this dog!”

I started sending him outside to be with Daisy when he needed a break or was on the verge of a meltdown. He’d go out there and stroke her ears, the anxiety or anger melting out of him with each stroke.  Now, the first thing he wants to do after we’re finished at school is “go see Daisy!”  so he can stroke her ears and play with her.

She still likes to nibble on me, still chews everything! (Though not quite as much), still jumps up on us when she’s excited (which is all.the.time), still ignores me as much as my kids, still drives me and my husband a little stir-crazy.  Ok, maybe a lot stir-crazy.

But, she’s also still cute, still soft, still loveable, still loves the kids (she never nibbles on them!), still wants to be with us wherever we are (she thinks she’s still a small puppy and tries sitting in my lap), and she still has a lot of growing and learning to do.

We “celebrated” her first birthday this week – I even went to the petstore and bought her some special treats. Yup, she has me. Hook, line and sinker.

And I guess we’ll keep her…for today at least. 😉

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Learning to Drive Autism 1

I’m still here! Are you? Now, where was I?…

Oh yes, last time I blogged about autism and our son I shared how God reassured me in that He “has something special in mind for [my son].” As I noted there, I started sharing these posts in September 2017 but I originally wrote them privately as we were going through it three years ago, 2014 and the last one I wrote was a year ago (2016).  And now, it’s time to write new ones. It’s hard to catch up on a years worth of life! Feel free to come along with me as I stumble back through a year of fragmented memories.

We received the official High Functioning Autism diagnosis (used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome) in September 2016.  As I said before,  I felt relieved to receive the verification of what I’d suspected about him. Though I didn’t want him to “have Autism”, I felt a certain satisfaction knowing there is something that explains his behavior.  I didn’t know exactly what it all meant or where we’d go from there but, as a friend put it to me – At least now I knew what road we are on. 

Well, I’d like to say life was easier after that – and in many ways it was because I at least had the big question answered. I felt like I finally had the right key to the car I’d been sitting in and I felt very excited that I finally had the answer.  But then…I sat there in the car and realized I had no idea how to drive or where I was even going to go! This was no self-starting, self-driving smart car – nope – this was a good ol’ stick-shift-and-clutch kind of machine.

It didn’t take long after the diagnosis for me to feel almost as confused and helpless as before.  I guess I naively expected that someone would call me and offer to take my hand as we walked through this new path with our son.  “They” would explain autism to me and how it related to our son. “They” would tell us exactly what he needed and where to get it. “They” would be there in his “out of the window” moments when I had no clue how to handle him and “they” would tell me exactly what to say or do.  “They” – the experts who knew more than my husband and I  – would teach us, train us, encourage us, and guide us.

I looked for “They”, calling around different “autism-specialist” places in our area hoping “They” would take pity on me.  Instead, I ran into wall, after wall, after hard-concrete-reinforced-wall.

Yes, we’d love to help…would you like to add him to our two-year waiting list? Bam!

Yes, we offer free services….but he’s not severe enough. Bam!

Sorry, he’s too old (most “free services” end at age 5). Bam!

Um, how much will that be….oh! Each time for how many times each month or week?  Yikes.  Expensive!!!! Bam!

And, a super-high insurance deductible we’d never reach before paying burning a hole through our pocket and our savings. Bam!

Once again, I felt trapped. Trapped in the gap.  The gap between typical and severely atypical, the gap between too young and too old, trapped in the gap between making too much money and not enough.

Looking back, however, I see that I was also trapped in my own grief. Yes, apparently grief comes not only after the death of a loved one like I was already experiencing, it also comes after a life-changing diagnosis.  And, like death-related grief, there are normal “grief stages” one goes through.  Without realizing it,  I was in the Denial and Isolation phase about the autism (like with my dad’s death) even though I told myself I accepted it.  I both yearned for help to walk us through this journey and, at the same time, recoiled and just wanted my son to “be normal”.

Looking back, I think one reason I didn’t find the help I sought was because I was looking for someone who would make my son “normal” again – and our life easier.  That person did not exist because that was an unrealistic expectation. 

I also assumed “They” were the experts and knew more than we could about how to help our son. I assumed everyone else – the therapists, specialists, teachers – would be the ones to tell me what my son needed and what we needed to do for him.

I had the key. I started the car. For a while I sputtered along awkwardly riding the clutch and grinding the gears trying to decide which gear to shift into next, still unsure of our destination.

Then, slowly, slowly my foot eased off the clutch and the gears didn’t grind quite as loudly. I prayed more for acceptance than for a miraculous “easy button” to suddenly appear. I prayed more for guidance – that God would lead me to the right resources and the right people.  I prayed more for grace-filled patience to deal with the out-of-control moments.  And He answered me.

I waited expectantly for the LORD, and he took notice of me and heard my cry.

With my husband’s encouragement, I took steps to make sure my needs were taken care of so I could function better and have the physical and emotional strength I needed for my family. I joined the Y and developed exercise routines; I found a great doctor and counselor to navigate me through all the grief and confusing emotions that go along with parenting a child with unique needs; I searched for books and podcasts and other resources to give me a better understanding and perspective of the what and the who of Autism; and I simply took time to just be with God and enJOY Him in the subtleties of life.

For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matt 7:8)

I reached out to a local parent-to-parent group and met a mother whose son had similar struggles as ours and I found a  support group for Catholic Mothers with Special Needs Children – it was the group I didn’t want to need but when I finally started going I knew it was the group I needed and wanted.  Though we all faced our own unique challenging children, we all shared the same hopes and prayers for them and our families. I discovered how powerfully encouraging these simple words can be:

Me too. 

or

My child, too. 

Slowly, slowly – God breathed His Grace through me and slowly, slowly my grief turned into hope and I began to see the joy and peace in myself, in our son, and our family.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13)

About six months after the diagnosis, we finally found a therapist who was an “autism specialist”, didn’t have a two-year-long waiting list, was located on our side of town, and was more than happy to work with us and our budget. Through that, the support groups and resources I plugged into, I feel like I’m finally getting the hang of “driving the car”.

I still ride the clutch and grind the gears more often than not and I’m still not quite sure where the heck we’re going, but I’m going – and that’s the first step to getting wherever we’ll end up.

What I am doing, you do not understand now, but you will understand later.(John 13:7)

You can read all the posts I’ve shared about our son and autism here.

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