“You Pick Your Battles”

My child was recently diagnosed with autism—for the second time. If I found the initial report from this past fall sharply illuminating, the complete evaluation report we received on Monday was by far more circumspect.

Parenting a child with special needs poses unique challenges when it comes to maintaining our family values of bodily autonomy and personal agency—values that we have developed in response to my own background as a child abuse survivor and our subsequent education on the topic. Toilet training, in particular, has remained an enormous question mark for years. My child has needed a great deal of assistance, and many things that come naturally or make a certain amount of innate sense to a neurotypical person do not occur to him. Despite our attempts to help him habit-train privacy routines, for example, they are easy for him to forget or ignore simply because he feels zero compulsion to modesty, even as he ages. I have faith he’ll surmount this complication eventually, but his brain is going to get there differently than mine did. This isn’t generally a big problem, but occasional situations crop up that trigger the fears I have that are rooted in my own background and advocacy training. Even as I own and manage my triggers, separating them out from the situation in front of me and dealing with each separately… I do routinely still have to face a particular dilemma.

How do I meet my child where he is and help him develop healthy and safe personal boundaries from the ground up?

The abstract solution is straightforward enough; the implementation, however, is not.

Though my child is good-hearted, an eager learner, highly intelligent, and naturally very curious… his stubbornness quotient is enormous, well beyond that of a typical grade-schooler. When the stubbornness isn’t at play, the distractedness settles in full force. Between these two impediments, exhaustion, frustration, and overwhelm rises up daily on all sides. We are all steadily working on strengthening our coping mechanisms: self-regulation, co-regulation, self-soothing, comforting, patience, owning our triggers, resilience, verbal articulation, CBT…

And, still, my husband and I often resort to choosing our battles.

Sometimes I focus on maintaining my child’s hygiene and lose sight of the need to guard his privacy. Sometimes I focus on guarding his privacy and overlook behaviors that are less than hygienic.

Frequently, I just can’t do both. I do my best to cover both priorities, and I try to improve my tactics, my resources, and my approach on an ongoing basis.

But at the end of the day, I pick my battles.

Note, when I pick my battles, I’m not defending my choices or my actions by projecting them onto you, dear reader.

At least, I try hard not to do that anymore. Cause I used to—a lot. I used to say, like everyone else I know, “You pick your battles.”

But, while I’m sure you do—pick your battles, that is—your battles aren’t mine. They don’t apply to me. And I don’t pick them. And you don’t pick mine.

We, each of us, pick our own battles; and I have found owning my choices in battle—rather than casting about for another person to share their victory with me or take on my shame if I fail—has freed me to do the best job I can with what I have.

That is the only work that makes sense for me to do.

Before, I would hold myself up to standards that only made sense for other people. People without my history, without my skillset, without my hangups, without my strengths, without my weaknesses, without my resources or lack thereof.

My battle choices are not prescriptive for you, and yours aren’t prescriptive for me.

Just above there, I typed, “How do you meet your child where he is…” before I caught myself and corrected it.

How often do we do this? I read a viral twitter thread recently wherein posters were confronted with this tendency in themselves. Over the past few months it has deeply shaped not only my own perspective, but my husband’s.

“Like ya do.”

“As one does.”

“You know when you…”

“How do you…?” (rhetorically, non-literally)

Yikes.

Let’s own our battles. We’re the only ones out there who can fight them.

Like ya do.

The Nature of Healing

Today my children and I read “How the Bear Clan Learned to Heal: An Iroquois Story” from Angela McAllister’s A Year Full of Stories. It goes like this:

Three young hunters were running home one evening, when a rabbit jumped out ahead of them and sat in the middle of the trail. The hunters stopped. They’d already caught plenty of game, but each one reached for his bow, plucked an arrow from his quiver, and shot at the rabbit. To their surprise, the arrows returned without a spot of blood.

As they reached for a second arrow, the rabbit disappeared. In its place stood a bent old man.

“I am sick,” said the old man weakly. “Help me find food and a place to rest.” The young hunters didn’t want to be bothered by the old man. Ignoring his plea, they put away their arrows and ran on down the trail. They didn’t notice the old man turn and follow.

When he reached the hunters’ settlement, the old man saw many lodges. In front of each lodge was a skin hanging on a pole. This was the sign of the clan within.

The old man stopped at the lodge of the Wolf clan and asked the elder woman for shelter, but she wouldn’t let him in. “We don’t want any sickness here,” she said. So he shuttled on.

The young women at the Beaver lodge insisted they had no food to share. The Turtle clan and Deer clan both sent him away. The old man asked for help at the sign of the Hawk, Snipe, and Heron, but everyone shook their heads.

Night fell, and the air grew cold. At last, he came to the lodge of the Bear Clan. When the Bear Clan mother saw the sick old man, she lifted the blanket at her door and welcomed him inside. She gave him a bowl of warm corn mash and spread soft skins for him to rest on. The old man was grateful. The next day, he told her what herbs to fetch from the woods to make him well, and soon he was healed.

The old man stayed with the Bear Clan mother, but a few days later, he became sick again. As before, she cared for him. He told her what roots and leaves to use for medicine, and she made him well.

Many times the old man fell ill: once with a fever, another time with pain, then a rash and a cough. Each time, he instructed her about the flowers and plants to use for his condition and she listened and learned well. Before long, she knew more about healing than anyone in all the clans.

One evening, as they sat together under the stars, the old man gave the clan mother thanks. “I was sent to earth by the Great Spirit to teach people the secrets of healing,” he said. “You were the only one who showed pity and welcomed me at your fireside. Now I have taught you how to use plants and roots to heal the sick, and from this day, all the other clans will come to learn from the Bear Clan how to heal, and the Bear Clan will be the greatest and the strongest of all.”

Then the clan mother was filled with joy. She gazed up at the sky and thanked the Great Spirit for his precious gift. But when she turned again to the old man, he had disappeared. All she saw was a rabbit running away down the trail.

The abuse survivor sphere has taught me just how true the lessons of this story are.

In order to help others heal, I must listen to them share their needs. I must acknowledge, understand, and meet those initial needs–and I must be prepared to meet many more varied needs as they are gradually expressed.

I must understanding that healing takes a great deal of time, and that if I want to become a good, capable, effective agent of healing, I have to commit for the long haul.

I must maintain a posture of humble attentiveness that whole time. I should constantly expect to need to take in new information and apply it.

I have to be willing to go out of my way again and again and again to bring in resources to help the wounded.

I should expect the recovery to be lengthy and involved and taxing, primarily for the hurting party, but also for me.

I should understand that what I gain from the privilege of caring intimately and faithfully for someone is a greater gift than I could ever give them. That I am not the source of their rescue and restoration: God is. When I enter into another’s suffering, I witness the work God forges in the interplay between their expression of needs and hurt and my acceptance and tending.

In the comprehension brought about by that witness and engagement, I am renewed.

And most importantly, I should understand that healing is primarily the work of the wounded. I am the student and the servant. The one healing is the healer. I follow her lead and provide support–but she does the work of knowing her pain, choosing her struggle, and asking for help.

I might provide resources, treatment, time, expertise: but she is the one who heals.

We best serve our wounded when we entrust them with their own fates: when we affirm their agency, their autonomy, their responsibility as their own primary caretakers.

When we defer to them like this, we learn a great deal about how also to look after ourselves.

Published at The Salt Collective

Last week I was honored and grateful to tell a larger part of my story publicly for the first time. The Salt Collective [edit on 6/3/22 to add: The Salt Collective disbanded and shut down their website on 5/1/22] provided a broad platform for me to share, certainly a larger audience than I’ve ever had; and the encouragement, kindness, support, and practical editing help that I received from Nathan Roberts was invaluable.

The essay this collaboration produced is a heavily modified version of a blog post I originally published here. The end product connects further details of my own history and experience to the broader issue of religious gendered abuse and how it is unwittingly harbored and enabled by systemic abuse and shame culture within American Evangelicalism.

The consequences of rotten roots are far-reaching. If we wish to restore the church, we must protect and rescue our most vulnerable. The healing of our community begins and ends with the healing of the wounded individuals within it.

Read my essay here [now preserved on The Internet Archive]: I Survived a Rural Evangelical Daddy Cult