It’s You, Baby

It’s morning rush hour as I inch along in my gray car on a 10-lane, gray highway beneath a swollen, gray sky. The whole world is a heavy gray and the weight of it all seems to rest right in the center of my gut which turns with a groaning sound. Start, stop, start, stop. Inch, break, inch, break. Sweat beads on my brow which sucks because today is a day that I have actually and carefully applied makeup. I dab at my forehead with a crumpled napkin from the center console.

On the passenger seat next to me is my travelling-reading bag which I’ve toted around to several schools who have invited me out to read my book, “Tink the Bravest Donkey,” and talk donkey rescue with their students. Within the bag are several signed copies of my book, the actual blue boot that Tink the real donkey used to wear, my laptop, a Tink story board, and little bracelets to give away. I’m on my way to an elementary school to read for several different groups and for reasons which I’m unsure, I’ve spiralled into a full on panic attack.

This isn’t the first time this has happened, not by a long shot. As a person living with anxiety, it’s not uncommon for my mind to spin out without warning at the most inopportune times. I used to think there was something wrong with me—like physically wrong—when this would happen. I’d be fine, going about some mundane task, when all of the sudden, I’d start having trouble breathing in. Was something wrong with my circulation? Was I having a heart attack? Stroke? Only in the past couple of years have I understood that these symptoms were not physical sickness, but unrest from deep within my mind.

Google maps (my forever driving companion) tells me my exit is in half a mile, but still, it takes me nearly 15 minutes to get there because of the heavy traffic. Inch, break, inch, break. I’m so worried that the giant, shiny pickup truck that’s been riding my tail with what must be only centimeters between us is going to bump into me. Why won’t they back off? Why do people do that?

I feel nauseous and the idea of being sick to my stomach only deepens the worry that I’ll have to take a vomit break while trying to read my story to eager students. You have to breathe, I tell myself over and over, but it’s about as useful as telling my dog to stop barking when the squirrels chirp at her from high up in the branches. Try as I might to pull my breath down to the bottom of my lungs, over and over it breaks at the base of my throat.

Finally, I exit and pull off to a gas station on the corner of a busy intersection and park in front of the Stop-n-Shop which advertises Monster Energy drinks, buy one get one free. I imagine two of those would make your heart explode. Mine feels like it might right now. I’d planned my commute to get to the school about 20 minutes early, so I have a few minutes to spare. I unbuckle my seatbelt, lean back in my chair, turn up my music, and close my eyes.  

I’ve learned over time that panic attacks are not situations from which you can just “calm down” because they’re not a mood and at least in my experience, they’re not even circumstantial—at least not consistently. They’re sporadic, sudden, and often inexplicable. In the case of this morning, am I nervous about doing several presentations at this school? Sure, a little. Who isn’t nervous to perform no matter how well they know their subject? Also, this is my first children’s book: it’s a really big deal to me. But I’m not afraid. I’m not panicked about it. This attack is coming from somewhere else—somewhere deeper and over high heat. It’s water bubbling up and beginning to boil because the fire’s hot under that pot.

After several minutes of trying to picture jellyfish-like movement of my breath, I open one eye to look at the clock and realize that I need to be on my way. I don’t have time to sit here and wait for the panic to pass, so I sit up, pop myself on the cheeks a few times, and back out of my parking space.

In my mind as I near my destination, I start reciting lines from my book. “Cock-a-doodle-doo, what’s with the shoe?” The kids love this part because I ask them to make rooster sounds with me (and as loudly as they can). I also recall a comment on one of my Instagram posts a while back where someone told me that the rooster is their child’s favorite character.  “‘Cock-a-doodle-cool!’ The rooster said.”

I pull into the school’s parking lot and grip my steering wheel tight. You’re going to be fine, I tell myself again and again, even if I can’t quite believe it.

I check to make sure I haven’t smudged my makeup, grab my travel bag, and head towards the school’s front door.



I’m happy to report that the presentations I gave all went wonderfully. It seems that as soon as I got busy with the task at hand, there was no more oxygen left for panic to consume. The children were amazing, the staff was amazing, and I suspect that donkeys gained some new, little advocates.

I write about this because there are many of us out there—many of us with anxiety, panic, and depression in our brains and I for one have spent a lot of time scared and ashamed to admit it. I’ve feared judgement, distrust, and condescension because to much of our society, mental health is still wildly misunderstood and often pushed aside or swept under the rug. The more we avoid talking about it, the more stigmatized it becomes and the more myths about it perpetuate. Studies show there are 40 million people in the US who have anxiety disorders. That’s no small thing. And it also means you’re not alone.

So my victory I share with you in case you might need it as a tool in your toolbox: apparently the remedy to my sudden and inexplicable panic was busyness with something that I couldn’t (and certainly didn’t want) to wiggle my way out of. I put one foot in front of the other until without me realizing the shift, I was breathing normally again. The distraction must’ve snuffed out the panic attack. I suppose it’s along the lines of what we give oxygen to is what will live and breathe—although I recognize that it’s not always that simple. An anxious mind rarely has the ability to compartmentalize, so it’s not always easy to pick and choose what you allow to breathe. But who knows, maybe in some instances, it’s exactly what’s needed.

The bottom line is this: your mind is a beautiful thing—lined with panic or not. It’s powerful and complex and nothing to be ashamed of. Love and care for it deeply and always because it’s you, baby. It is your most powerful tool, your most valuable asset, and it’s you. You are worth nurturing. You are worth taking the time to understand. You are worthy of love. You as you as YOU.

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A Big Thing: Read Across America Day

As a writer and an anxious person, I spend a lot of time dissecting small stuff. I live for small stuff. Tiny moments. Little pieces of much bigger things. I want to see and understand every single brick because otherwise, the house won’t make sense to me. This can be annoying to others because I’ll get hung up on facial expressions or word choices, refusing to skim over the details when trying to get to the bigger picture. It’s why I obsess over things and find myself in the wee hours of the morning, staring out into the darkness with snippets from my past playing on repeat in my mind which have been mulled over to the point of non-recognition.

Because of my obsession with the small, when big things happen, I’m often rendered speechless until the bottom feeders of my anxious mind have had a chance to devour the meat off the bones of the big thing, ultimately breaking it down into something small enough to wrap my head around. It’s why I wait so long to publish posts on my blog after big things have happened. So many of my posts have said things like “I’ve been trying to write for days about [insert event here] but just haven’t been able to find the words” or other, similar statements.

For days now, I’ve been like a snake with the shape of an egg in my throat: full, unable to speak, and so unbelievably happy because last week, a really big thing happened. It’ll likely be months before I unpack all the perfect, little details of that day, but I can’t wait that long to share and to thank the people responsible for making it happen.

Last week, I was invited to read my recently released children’s book to the students of McDougle Elementary School for “Read Across America Day” and I’m not exaggerating when I say it was one of the best days of my life.

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This was the first opportunity I’ve had to read my story to anyone other than my own kid and the few people who helped me out during the editing process and so of course, I was nervous. I wondered if the children would receive it. Would it be meaningful to them? Would they get the message? Would they even care enough about donkeys to pay attention?

Yes. Yes to all of it.

I’ve since been told that many McDougle students went back to their classrooms and drew pictures of donkeys. I’m told several students have said they want to rescue donkeys when they grow up. I’m told that students have come back to check out books about donkeys in the school’s library.

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I was able to do three performances for children ages 6 – 10. Before reading the story, I’d prepared a short slideshow with cute pictures and videos of donkeys and the real Tink. I wanted to share some of the really cool things about donkeys that most people don’t know before diving into the story. They loved it. After each performance, McDougle’s amazing librarian, Ms. Julie Zachary, came up to ask the students what they thought the message of “Tink the Bravest Donkey” was. They’ve been talking a lot as a school lately about themes in books and it never failed that when she asked the question, a student would raise their hand and say the book was “about being nice to others.” That it was about how “we shouldn’t bully others because they’re different.” Another said it was about “being brave” and another, that it was “about donkeys.”

Yes. Yes. YES. YES!!!

Y’all. I mean. Golly. Where are the words? I don’t have the words. It’s just too big right now.

Thank you so much to McDougle Elementary School for having me out to read to your amazing students. What wonderful kiddos. They were so engaged, so sweet, and so thoughtful. Special thank you to Ms. Julie Zachary, the school librarian, for putting together the whole thing and to Catherine Chance for making the connection.

I’m sure I’ll come back to this once I’ve had the chance to digest it a bit more. There will, no doubt, be many mornings of sipping coffee at dawn while pulling apart the fabric of every detail of this most amazing day and in those fibers will be small, magical discoveries. But for now, I am just so thankful. I am so excited. I am so touched. And I am so happy.

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I really hope to have the opportunity to share my story and the love of donkeys with other schools because empathy for animals and others begins with our children! If you or someone you know would be interested in having me come read at your school, please feel free to send me an email at adonkumentary@gmail.com

Interested in purchasing a copy of “Tink the Bravest Donkey” in which 100% of the proceeds are going to save more donkeys like Tink? Get your copy here!: http://www.donkeyrescue.com/books.html

Little Foot’s Little Books

We are nearing the end of the usual soaked, Texas spring. Soon, the clay will crackle in devastating dehydration and the treetops and rosebushes will be broiled. I give it another month until we’re begging for relief from the heat.

I sat on the floor in the living room sipping my coffee, watching Little Foot flip through his ‘Peppa Pig’ book while it poured in sheets of rain outside. From his point of view, the pages were actually upside down, but still, he flipped through each cardboard page, one-by-one, and studied the pictures. He flips the pages with his left hand and holds his right hand out for balance, even though he sat steadily on the floor.

I’m so grateful that he loves books. All day, when we’re inside, he brings book after book from the bookshelf in his room to me so I’ll read it to him. We read them 3, 4, sometimes 5 times in a row before he retreats to grab another.

I’ll use funny voices if there are characters, some of which make him laugh and some of which make him turn the page faster. I’m not particularly good at voices.

I’ve heard so often that “I don’t have time to read” or “what’s the point of reading fiction?”

The point is simple: you learn things. You learn about worlds that often, you cannot visit. You learn that there are other “me”s out there. That everyone is a “me.” Neil Gaiman talks about this in his most recent book (which I am obsessing over slightly) called ‘A View From the Cheap Seats.’ He talks long and emotionally about how reading fiction helps readers become empathetic. It teaches you how to see the world — real or otherwise — from someone else’s point of view. Young children learn very early on that they’re not the only “me” out there. We are all “me”s.

Little Foot stood up from his book, ran as quickly as he could back into his room, and came back out carrying my copy of Don Quixote. This made me laugh and I told him that I think this might be a tough read right now. He is, after all, only 17 months old. Come to think of it, I wonder from where he grabbed my copy of Don Quixote in the first place.

I thumbed through the thick paperback as Little Foot backed himself up into my lap, through the hundreds of pages with the tiniest, single-spaced print, and picked out a few lines to read aloud for him.

In my best, silly Spanish voice I read:

“Did I not tell you so?” said Don Quixote. “Wait but a moment, Sancho; I will do it as quickly as you can say the credo.” Then, stripping off hastily his breeches, he remained in nothing but skin and shirt. Then, without more ado he cut a couple of capers and did two somersaults with his head down and his legs in the air…

…at this point, I was laughing which made Little Foot grin and scrunch up his nose…

…displaying such arts of his anatomy as drove Sancho to turn Rozinante’s bridle to avoid seeing such a display. So, he rode away fully satisfied to swear that his master was mad…”

I couldn’t read anymore because Little Foot had started laughing hysterically, I think, because I had giggled so much. I’d also gotten louder, my Spanish accent more ridiculous. So I tickled Little Foot who squirmed onto the ground, gasping for air between belly baby laughs.

I gave him a break and stopped tickling so that I could finish my coffee before it got cold. Little Foot scampered into his room and returned, this time carrying his ‘Big Book of Animals’. The book, almost as big as him, is colorful page after page of zoo animals, farm animals, birds, house pets, and a few more categories. We go through this book, Little Foot flipping the pages while his blue eyes jump from shape to shape and me listing off the animals and making their sounds (side note: what does an Egret sound like? Besides the picture, I don’t know if I really know what an Egret is.) I skipped Egret.

This went on for sometime — I drank coffee and tried to get things done around the house and Little Foot chased me with various books, sometimes bashing me in the legs with them, sometimes plopping himself on the floor and flipping through them on his own.

I’d been thinking about books a lot lately, partially because I’m working on one of my own and partially because of the aforementioned Neil Gaiman book I’ve been working my way through. I’d been thinking that books were very important to me growing up and I was very encouraged to read as much as I could.

Where I get sad and a bit regretful is how, as a kid, I was so shy and so insecure that when I did have a book out at school or otherwise and was made fun of (because kids do this – they make fun of other kids for the silliest things) I would, instead of find a safe place to read or tell the bullies to buzz off, I just stopped reading entirely. For years, I didn’t read, even if I wanted to. I just stopped.

I watched Little Foot on the floor now flipping through a lovely kid’s book called ‘The Pout Pout Fish’ by Deborah Diesen and I want, so badly, for him to always love to read. I want him to go absolutely everywhere, reality wise and fictionally speaking. And I don’t want him to worry at all what other people say or do.

I want for him to do what he’s meant to do. Whether that’s read or build things or fly planes or drop different chemicals into test tubes to try and solve critical problems. Or if he wants to splash odd colored paints onto canvases to convey his feelings or if he wants to dive deep into the ocean to learn just a bit more about life down there — I don’t want for him to feel like he has to make those choices based on someone else’s permission or approval.

How, as a mom, do you instill confidence in your child when you, yourself, struggle so much?

I don’t have the answer to this. I don’t have a lesson that I’ve learned on my ranch yet to answer this question either. I’m hoping that I figure it out. I suspect I don’t have that much time to do so.

What I do know is that right now, more than his stuffed animals, his blocks, his trucks, and his dinosaurs, Little Foot is enamored with books. He can’t get enough of them.

And I can’t get enough of that.

Outside, the rain subsided. I thought about going outside but by the time I pulled on some pants, the Texas heat was pulling the rainwater off the ground outside in blurry waves. I would need to wait until the ground was fully cooked outside because it’d be impossible to breathe that steaming air right now.

Instead, I pulled Little Foot into my lap with our copy of ‘Love You Forever’ by Robert Munsch which, for him was a great choice because of the colorful pictures and over and over song of “I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living, my baby you’ll be.”

But for me, it was brutal. I bawled — big, sloppy, swollen crying — because how is this all moving so quickly? This season is ending and then on into the next. One day, Little Foot will be the one to tell me what an Egret says.

 

 

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