Charles Schulz, the creator of Peanuts, once said, “Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.’”
Nighttime Sticky Brain
As we lie sleepless in the dark, our brains can turn to Velcro. They stick to all the what-ifs and the should-haves and the could haves, and the classic “what was I even thinking when…” (insert a random thread of guilt, annoyance, or embarrassment here). If you care for a young person with special needs, any setback in the day can trigger: What will happen when I’m gone…when she’s grown… if he never learns to…if we can’t afford to give her… On and on, a continuous drone of inner conversation.
Some nights, I give up and read a worthless novel by the low-light setting of my iPad screen. On better nights, I sit up in the dark and find a way to manage my anxiety.
No Neat Solutions
Manage is I word I like because so many problems don’t have neat solutions. At 3 a.m. you
can’t predict your child’s trajectory as a young adult, no matter what heroic action steps you
take in the morning. There is a certain freedom in reminding yourself how many outcomes
are out of your control or beyond your future job description as a parent.
People say, “A mother is only as happy as her most unhappy child.” I don’t buy it. I never want my two sons, who struggle with a pack of developmental, emotional, and medical problems, to be held responsible for my happiness. On the flip side of that emotion, I hear parents tell me how completely blessed they feel to spend their lives caring for a child with severe disabilities. No offense, but that doesn’t work in my life, either. I can’t always look on the bright side. I don’t always count my blessings. Some days just suck.
The Opposite of Anxiety
Once I heard a teacher ask, “What is the opposite of anxiety?” People in the room
mentioned words such as peace, tranquility, and equanimity. The teacher shook her head.
The true opposite of anxiety, she insisted, is curiosity. When you are fully engaged with trying to do or learn about something, you don’t feel especially anxious. You have “project mind.” Your attention is focused on creating, taking action, or observing what will happen next. That’s the reason we shake a rattle or dangle some bright car keys in front of fussy babies. With luck, the sight or sound engages them completely for a moment, shifting their attention from the experience of feeling upset.
When a Problem Becomes a Project
We have “project mind” when we suddenly find ourselves looking at a problem with true
curiosity. What would change this situation right now? What knowledge do I need to change this situation? Who can help me? What information do I need to pull it all together? If things get worse, what types of resources, support, or friendly favors can I call in to save this project?
Oddly, when I think of the problem as a project, I’m far less judgmental about my child or myself. Project mind is neutral; it engages with solutions, not the could-haves and the should-haves.
What Gets You Up in the Morning?
The same teacher ended her lecture with a challenge to her students in the form of two
questions: What keeps you up at night? What gets you up in the morning? Those may be
the two most profound questions anyone needs to consider if they want to be effective and joyful in their lives. The trick, I believe, is to disengage from sticky bits of fear by engaging with the possibilities of hope. It may not always lead to solutions, but it might help some of us get back to sleep.