The Great Outdoors

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Back in January, I read The Primal Connection by Mark Sisson and made a commitment to myself to follow the principles for health outlined in the book.  I was most interested in using experiences in nature as a means for improving mental health, particularly mine and Charlotte’s. I was intrigued with the idea that time outdoors could provide the sensory input her body was seeking. It seemed to be the perfect extension of Paleo principles–if eating and moving like our ancestors improved our physical health, then using nature as a tool would appropriately engage our senses, restore a sense of well-being and contentment, and improve our neurological health.

I decided to give it a try based on my past and recent experiences in nature that have confirmed the theory that it is, in fact, calming and anxiety-reducing to “get away from it all”. Each year after our annual hiking and fishing trips to Mammoth Lakes in the Eastern Sierra, I return with a renewed spirit and deep sense of gratitude and connection.

When the school year started last Fall, my friend Rachel and I committed to taking long walks or hikes together once per week. Come rain or shine, we have hiked and talked and bonded over the challenges and triumphs of raising a Paleo family. The time outdoors has become uniquely ours and resulted in a deeper level of connection in our friendship.

My most cherished memories as a child come from time outdoors. We spent many family vacations at the beach, and when I now visit as an adult, I fondly remember the taste of sea water in my mouth and the feel of kelp at my ankles and the exhilaration of riding swells into the shore on my boogie board.

As I read Mark’s book, I found myself asking, if experiences in nature seem to nurture positive feelings of gratitude and connection, along with providing strong sensory feedback, why are we not spending more time outdoors?

Over the past few months, I have made more of an effort to get myself and the kids outside, and I’ve learned several things about making this element of our health a true priority.

It works

A few weeks ago, I picked Charlotte up from school on a Wednesday afternoon. Her teachers reported that she was calm and focused all day. I did a quick mental checklist of how much sleep she’d gotten, what she’d eaten, and what we’d done the day before so I make sure to replicate this formula for success many times over. Of course, I wasn’t surprised, remembering our quiet Tuesday afternoon at the beach together. She had happily played in the sand and mild sunshine, slept well that night, and performed well at school the next day. I now pay very close attention to how her outside time relates to better behavior and when questionable behavior may need an intervention in the form of a simple walk around the block or hopscotch in the front yard.

The Primal Connection mentioned that time outdoors spurs creative energy and encourages more independent play, and I didn’t believe it until I saw it. Charlotte has reduced her TV watching and ipad playing to just a few hours a week–completely voluntarily. When returning home from school or therapy, instead of zoning out in front of the screen, she happily gets to work making a craft or coloring a picture, consuming herself in creative thought for long periods of time.

Keep it Simple

I have learned that just like adopting the Paleo diet, this, too is a shift in thinking and takes patience and learning with yourself to find a groove. There have definitely been times over the last few months when I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. Some Saturday mornings, I’ll wake up ready to have a fun family day outdoors, only to find that I’m ripe with exhaustion. A quick recap of the week tells the story–cooking, hiking, CrossFit, grocery shopping, beach trips, kids’ activities, and homework leave no energy for new adventures requiring any extra effort. I’ve learned to scale back the expectations of myself and adopt this new aspect of our lifestyle more carefully. I often need to remind myself that our simple outdoor experiences are usually the most successful.

I have learned to consider that it all takes energy to make it work, and it won’t always go smoothly. Over Easter weekend, we visited my in-laws and took a walk on a nature trail that included Charlotte falling off of her bike and melting down, a grumpy old golfer accusing us of trespassing, and a near dog mauling with our dog and another dog off-leash. Needless to say, I wasn’t any more relaxed from our outdoor experience when we returned home. But rather than give up or blame myself on some level, we laughed it off and decided it certainly was a walk to remember.

Letting Go

I’ve found that Charlotte struggles the most with sensory dysregulation when she is not in control of her environment. As she has gotten older, she has learned communication and other coping tools to deal with simple things like sharing with her sister or waiting her turn. However, even in her progress, I can still see her sensory issues come alive in places where she cannot touch or feel or move like she needs to.

Yesterday I took her to a duck pond in our local community and learned an important lesson about environment. I couldn’t bring myself to buy bread to feed to the ducks, so when we arrived empty-handed, I anticipated a brief, twenty-minute excursion with nothing much to do except watch the ducks from afar and walk around the bank. When we arrived, I sensed that Charlotte wanted to be in control. I let go and while I let her guide me around the pond, I observed how her mind and body relaxed in the natural environment. I snapped photos of her as she used her muscles and maneuvered the tree roots and twigs on the banks, how she balanced using the tree’s trunk, and how she calmed when her feet entered the cool pond water. She was relaxed and at peace in a natural setting that had an ebb and flow all its own.

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When she slipped off her shoes to feel the earth on her feet, I kept on eye on the ground just ahead of her watching for broken glass or sharp twigs, but trusting that her senses were appropriately doing the work for her. We watched the turtles swim, listened to the crane’s call, and noted the bright orange color of the duck’s webbed feet. It felt natural and right and so simple.

As we walked to the car, Charlotte was already planning our next trip to the duck pond–this time with Dana, Daddy and his fishing pole, since there were fish in the water. I felt the weightlessness of her tiny hand in mine as we crossed the parking lot–using my senses to grab the moment and become fully aware of the precious time we had just shared.

Mirror, Mirror

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Last month we celebrated Charlotte’s 5th birthday. She hit a milestone number in a whirlwind week. Between traveling with both kids over the winter break and planning her small birthday party over the weekend, I did manage to find some time to reflect on everything that we have been through since her birth. What I concluded is that I am a changed person. I honestly remember very little about my life from before she was born. I can’t even recall what things I thought about, what I did with my time, or even what I ate.

I would have loved to do a full post on how much I’ve grown and learned since she was born. How the challenges of managing her health issues and my health issues simultaneously are often more than I feel like I can handle. How I now understand the depths of unconditional love in a way that I could have never before. How I see the world through a new lens of acceptance and respect. How walking on this path full of the big and little challenges and changes that raising her brings has taught me more about myself than any other experience I am certain I will ever have in my lifetime. I have found a new level of confidence with a self respect and acceptance that I never thought I would find.

But true to form, Charlotte didn’t give me much time to slow down and reflect. She kept me on my toes all week–her enthusiasm and excitement over her birthday bubbling over into overstimulation, sleep disturbances, anxiety, and repetitive behaviors. It certainly posed a challenge to get in a positive and reflective place while she became dysregulated and exhausted in anticipation of the big day.

The hardest part of managing Charlotte’s anxiety is that it is so much like my own. It knows no boundaries. It starts with happy and anticipatory thoughts of an exciting event. Without enough control to predict or prepare for every possible scenario–who is coming, what will my presents be, why can’t my birthday be here already–a spiraling and magnetic energy forms and begins grabbing at any fear or thought that she cannot control. Long buried fears of bumble bees and flies once again resurface and can’t be put to rest with mommy’s explanation that the flies and bees are more scared of you than you are of them. Her thoughts remain unsettled and the questions are unanswered. And so they are asked again and again and again.

Her repetition is a breeding ground for my own buried fears and concerns–for her future, for her relationships and for the challenges that she will continue to face. It’s at this point that my own tornado of self-defeating thoughts and emotions begin to gain momentum.

And at the same time, even the briefest moments of reflection and positive thinking actually pay big dividends. The challenges over the last five years have made me somewhat of an expert in managing my own anxiety. I have learned to painfully dig past the influences and experiences that have created the unhealthy patterns of negative self talk and found a well of acceptance and self worth that only I know how to nurture and protect. Using my own resources as tools for light and hope when the darkest thoughts want to have their way. And while it’s difficult and somewhat painful to have a mirror image of my most annoying patterns of behavior parroting in front of me, it’s comforting to know how to handle it.

It is as simple as telling myself what works for me will work for her and vice versa.

Self Talk

At about 2 years old, when Charlotte was first talking in meaningful sentences, she often repeated the phrases that calmed her. If she saw something that frightened her or if she was feeling upset or dysregualted, she would begin her mantra. “I’m okay. I’m okay. I’m okay.” It was an early coping mechanism that served a valuable purpose. Her self talk calmed the anxiety storm that was brewing internally. I’ve used it often myself when I feeling myself getting worked up. A couple of deep breaths and Charlotte’s mantra are a quick fix when either one of us are on the verge of a meltdown.

Back to Basics

In the last post, I mentioned a book called The Primal Connection by Mark Sisson. This book can really be best described as a Primal/Paleo Blueprint for a healthy mind. Mark discusses all of the ways modern society has lead us down a path of anxious and negative thoughts. After reading this book, I began to understand my issues with anxiety not as the shameful character flaw that I always thought them to be, but more of a result of human cognitive abilities gone a bit haywire. Mark discusses how “technology–and the noise, sound, light, and thought pollution it produces-the fight or flight response, our bread and butter throughout evolution, is now one of the most abused mechanisms in the human body.”

All of the seemingly innocent thoughts and fears that Charlotte and I should otherwise dismiss are noisy alarms in our anxious and unsettled minds–sending off signals for fight-or-flight and the accompanying stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, keeping us both awake in the nighttime hours.

Mark beautifully outlines in his book all of the way we can counteract these broken biological messages. Simple pleasures like a walk outside, slowing down the pace of a busy day, or taking a bath are all ways to reset the body and mind naturally. And on a day where the stress hormones are free flowing around these parts, we’ll grab a sweatshirt and head outside. A quick walk or bike ride around the block, some creative time with sidewalk chalk or just digging in the dirt for worms really brings Charlotte back to a place where she can better control the anxious thoughts and behaviors.

Ride it Out

There were obviously days during Charlotte’s birthday week that I wanted to scream in frustration. When several sleepless nights and dysregulated days were taking their toll on my mental state, I stayed above the darkness knowing that This Too Shall Pass. Knowing how you got into an anxious situation is often your quickest ticket out of it. As much as I tried to control all of the behaviors to prevent a spiral for both us, I also knew that it would all be back to normal when the birthday excitement died down.

Sure enough, several weeks have passed and I have found the space to reflect and post on how experiences like these continue to lead us down a path of acceptance. The more we anticipate and understand Charlotte’s needs, then more we are in a place to guide her toward a healthier mind.

And as I think further back, before she was born, maybe there are still some parts of me that have remained unchanged. I was a teacher, and I will always be a teacher. But these days, instead of teaching multiplication and reading comprehension skills, I’m modeling lessons in self care and ultimately the most powerful weapon against anxiety: confidence and self acceptance.

Disneyland Revisited

Taking trips to Disneyland became a family tradition when we thought Dana might be old enough to enjoy it. We attempted our first family trip when Dana was about 2 years old and I was pregnant with Charlotte. Although I was mildly nauseous and very tired wandering through Fantasyland with a toddler in the July heat, the experience was undeniably magical.  Dana was as bright-eyed and full of wonder as the kids you see on the commercials and print ads. She embraced each and every character with a big hug and a huge smile. She never melted down over the crowds or lines, and her enthusiasm and excitement made the experience truly unforgettable.

In 2009, we returned to Disneyland, hoping for a repeat performance with two kids. Charlotte was about 18 months old, and she was walking and talking and looking very much ready for the full Disney experience. Dana was older and ready to enjoy bigger and faster rides. I have fond memories of the trip, but I also remember returning home exhausted. It was more than just your typical Disneyland hangover, I was struggling through a confused haze.

My hope had been to recreate the magic and innocence we had experienced with Dana just a few years earlier, but I knew we had fallen short. Dana was generally not as interested in princess and fairies as she had been just a few years earlier and Charlotte’s behavior certainly was not magical nor full of wonder. She had difficulty sleeping in the hotel–waking often and taking a long time to return to sleep. As a result, she was tired and dysregulated at the park. She resisted riding in the stroller and when we took her out to walk, she picked up every item within reach off of the ground and placed it in her mouth. She approached the princesses and other characters guarded with trepidation. Instead of running and embracing them with unabashed sweetness and innocence like Dana had done, she darted from side to side and then ran as fast as she could, circling their colorful gowns.

And if you have been following this blog for some time, you know that I was heavily medicated for post partum depression at this time. Other events that year are fuzzy memories, but the glassy confusion and disorientation I felt as a result of that trip are crystal clear in my mind. Something was clearly not right with Charlotte, and for several months the experiences and memories floated through my consciousness looking for a safe place to land.

We put any future Disney trips on hold as the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. We learned the name for Charlotte’s struggles just a few months later. And as much as we all wanted to return to the Happiest Place on Earth, we knew it wasn’t the right place for Charlotte. We carefully explained to Dana that we would go again when Charlotte was ready. Over the last few years, we’ve all watched and waited patiently as her nervous system has learned to effectively process more stimulation.

A few months ago, Charlotte started showing a consistent interest in the Disneyland app on our ipad. It’s a great app as the ipad user engages with Disneyland attractions much like a park visitor would. The music changes as the user moves through the different “lands” of the park. Seeing Charlotte’s interest in this app, as well as her improved behavior, sleep, and postural control, Chad and I knew it was time to begin planning the trip.

While it was daunting to relive past disappointments and unrealistic expectations in preparation for this trip, I kept focused on what Charlotte would need to be successful.

I narrowed my concerns down to long lines and food.

One of my favorite blogs, The Diary of a Mom, had mentioned a special pass for park visitors with invisible disabilities (like Autism). The pass supposedly shortened lines and let Disney cast members know that your child may need extra attention. The GAC (Guest Assistance Card) turned out to be a lifesaver. When we entered the park on our first day, I went straight to the Town Hall and stood in line. I told the Disney cast member that my daughter was on the Autism Spectrum and I wanted to see if there were any accomodations that could be provided. He asked me a few questions and presented me with a card stating her name, the number in our party, and the days we would be visiting the park.

Our pass was tailored to Charlotte’s needs. We showed to the Disney cast member at the entrance to each ride, and we were able to enter through the handicapped/wheelchair entrance or Fast Pass lines for the bigger rides. We could use the stroller in the line if we needed to. The beautiful part about the pass was that Charlotte used her energy for controlling her behavior and enjoying the experience. I was able to help her manage her sensory needs throughout the day. Waiting in long lines would have zapped her energy and enthusiasm, leaving little for dealing with the sensory challenges around every turn.

I knew that the food issue would just take some preparation. Some internet research told me that Disney offered many gluten-free options. My plan was to eat meals at the park or hotel restaurants and pack plenty of Paleo snacks. It worked out very well, as our hotel offered a hot breakfast of eggs, bacon, and fruit. Lunches were eaten inside the park restaurants. I simply asked for gluten-free replacements for items like corn bread and hot dog buns. Since my kids are used to going without these starches, the gluten-free breads and rolls felt like a special treat.

Our favorite Paleo treats worked great for the long car ride as well as in the park between meals. We packed plenty of coconut chips, apples, raisins, sunflower seed butter muffins, and sweet potato bars. It certainly wasn’t easy, but I saved the day before the trip for baking and packing the special treats.

The trip was special and magical in its own way. Dana was tall enough to ride every ride with her roller-coaster-enthusiast daddy while Charlotte and I made our way through the same Fantasyland and princess attractions that Dana and I had enjoyed so many years ago together. Charlotte loved the tea cups, getting her face painted, visiting the princess, and especially Toon Town. By the time we had gone on a few rides together, she let us know that she preferred outside rides and roller coasters, and that any ride without dark caves was okay with her. She self-regulated beautifully and let me know when she needed a break. It was fine with me to sit in the shade, slow down, and soak in the experience–making it all our own.

I could not be more proud of her and how well she handled the many challenges she faced on the trip. On the morning of the last day of our trip, we learned that our dog, Redford, had passed away while we were gone. Chad and I shared the news with Dana, encouraging her to enjoy the day as much as she could. We all decided we would wait to tell Charlotte until the day was over.

As we headed out of the mountains of Southern California and began the long stretch of highway home, we sat with the news and I knew we needed to talk about it as a family. Charlotte had already processed and experienced so much. I felt like this might be the end of the fun, peaceful trip we had all needed. I felt certain a meltdown with repetitive and scripted language was going to fall upon us. I was unsettled between telling her and facing the uncertain fate of her reaction and waiting for her to discover for herself when we got home.

But I had no reason to worry. True to form, she met the challenge in her own way. Upon hearing that Redford was in heaven, she asked for God to welcome and watch over him.

My mind was at peace and my heart was heavy but happy. All that was left was a silent prayer of thanks for the challenges and disappointments that have become incredible blessings and magical family experiences.

It takes Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom

Each day I pick up Charlotte from preschool, I immediately check her lunch box. She has recently started attending 3 full days of pre-kindergarten and now eats lunch and takes naps at school. The transition has been exceptionally smooth and I find that if I stock her lunch full of her favorite foods, I’m pretty guaranteed to see only crumbs left in her Planet Box.

Last Wednesday I found her precious salmon cakes in the protein compartment completely untouched. I got little information from her teacher’s aide about why her lunch wasn’t finished, and it was ultimately Charlotte on the car ride home who provided me with the key piece of information that I needed.

When she shared from the backseat that she had enjoyed a smoothie at school today, I pressed further. When I asked her what was in the smoothie, she promptly reported strawberries, raspberries, and yogurt. Yogurt? I began scanning my brain for the last conversation I had with her school staff about dairy. Had I made it clear that she couldn’t have dairy? I probably didn’t remind them this school year. So worried about gluten and grains, I completely forgot dairy! Swirls of guilt and confusion set into my thoughts and they were only made worse by what I saw when we got home.

I asked Charlotte if she had experienced a tummy ache or if anything hurt. She told me she felt fine, but while I watched her watching her favorite movie, Dora Explorer Girls, I saw the regulation and predictability around her behavior that we had recently gained slowly evaporate. As hard as she tried, she couldn’t sit still. Sensory seeking behaviors like pacing around the table, pushing on the edge of the table with her foot, and inverting herself in weird positions into the couch cushions were telling signs that things were not right in her body–all of a sudden.

A few minutes later she was arguing with her sister and communicating less. What she was saying wasn’t making sense. Her delicious Paleo dinner sat untouched, and I predicted a difficult night shift for myself, as Chad was out-of-town. Sure enough, at some point in the middle of the night, I woke up to find her pacing around my room in the dark, argumentative and upset about going back to bed.

Thursday morning I woke up feeling overwhelmed and upset. We had a full day ahead, and I was dysregulated myself–struggling with PMS and interrupted sleep. I was feeling angry and distressed, wondering why everything in my life has to be so hard.

And then I stopped. 

I found the strength that is found in clear and healthy thoughts, and I pulled out the mental tool box I have developed to help myself in these situations. I meditated a bit in the morning, said the Serenity Prayer several times, and then made a plan to help Charlotte.

When we arrived at our Occupational Therapy session a few hours later, I explained the situation to our wonderful therapist and asked for a restorative and regulatory session to get Charlotte’s nervous system under control. I took a brisk walk during her session to regulate myself and when she emerged, I could already see by the way that she sat down in the chair next to me that she was restored on many levels. I thanked our therapist profusely, and we went about our day with very few issues. The next day I spoke to her school and asked that dairy not be served to Charlotte. I asked the staff to substitute the gluten-free cookies that I had provided as an alternate treat.

I’ve often said that when Charlotte’s routine changes, it’s like a switch is flipped internally. She becomes dysregulated, withdrawn, frustrated, and just more autistic than we normally see. This was the first time I had ever see it happen with food. It was scary and empowering at the same time. I thought back to The Autism Revolution, which I continue to reread in parts every couple of days. The following quote stood out to me about our recent situation. From page 107 in Chapter 5 Help the Body Mend the Brain:

“…that autism may be more of a ‘state’ that can change than a ‘trait’ that is fixed and unchangeable. Change can come very quickly when a blockage is somehow removed or a previously unworkable connection is made.”

As parents we know these workable connections so well. In the form of eye contact, verbal processing, clear and understandable questions and answers, or even a lack of repetitive speech or nonsense talk, it’s when we reach our kids and see them respond. It’s exhilarating and inspiring. We keep at it and work toward more growth, improved communication, and the holy grail of self-regulation.

It’s my belief that when the workable connections break down, the child needs our help to restore order. No one else knows what they need like we do. From twisting into pillows in the couch to screaming at me in the middle of the night, I knew that Charlotte was calling out for help.

It’s a big responsibility. It’s overwhelming, exhausting, and lonely.

Parents of special needs children must wake each and every morning and recommit to helping their child get exactly what they need using varied skills and strategies–carefully planned meals, critical but objective observation, appropriate and efficient communication with others who deal with the child, as well as walking a tight rope schedule that challenges the child to be a part of the outside world while preventing their total load of stressors from reaching the dreaded tipping point.

My victory over yogurt last week taught me that in addition to all of things listed above, the skill of taking care of myself is a crucial step in regulating Charlotte. After pushing through PMS symptoms, anger, and guilt I was able to get to a place of problem solving and solutions.

It’s taken me years of difficult experiences to build a tool box full of helpful strategies and support, but over time I am learning to find the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can and most importantly, the Wisdom to know the difference.

Eating Paleo in the Real World: It’s a Jungle Out There

 

Most people I speak to about the Paleo lifestyle understand its benefits and can see it working for their family on some level. I most often hear the what ifs and what abouts around things like birthday parties, restaurants, grandparents’ house, and even school. In fact, my WordPress stats show me that many people come to this site via Google searches like Paleo lunches, Paleo birthday parties, and Paleo on the go.

Clearly, this is a valid question for most people considering the switch to Paleo, and I completely understand these concerns. So today I thought I’d share with you the crazy-updside-down week that my family and I just lived through. After reading this you will see that eating Paleo is possible when life pulls you outside of the comfort of your own kitchen.

Scenario #1: The Dance Recital

Dana and Charlotte participate in weekly ballet lessons, and twice a year their studio puts on performances. Last December, Charlotte made her performance debut in The Nutcracker. After agonizing over the decision of whether she was ready for a commitment to the classes, the rehearsals, getting on stage, and the chaos of it all, she put our mind at ease and performed like a champ.

Her motivation to perform and endure the challenges that come with it most likely come from the years of watching her sister dress up in costumes and make-up to be cheered and praised by friends and family. Having survived the stress and anxiety of the December performance, we knew she would love the performing experience again and we used what we learned to be better prepared this time around.

On the night of the dress rehearsal, we were told to arrive at 5:00pm. Both girls needed to have hair and make-up done and were instructed to bring dry snacks, not to be eaten in costume. As you can imagine, examples of dry snacks were non-Paleo foods like crackers, pretzels, and granola bars. I entertained the idea of eating an early dinner just before we left, but with a 30 minute drive to the stage, hair and make-up to be done, and a nap for Charlotte until the last possible second, packing food for dinner was the only option. I had planned ahead the night before by roasting a large chicken with lots of meat and baking a few extra potatoes, ensuring easy-to-pack leftovers.

Dana’s Planet Box is shown below. The foods were not exactly dry, but not messy either. I kept an eye on her in the holding area backstage and made sure she used her napkin, didn’t eat in her costume, and washed her hands immediately upon finishing her dinner. I also let her know that other kids would have junk food/fast food, and that just wasn’t an option for us.

Charlotte’s dinner was similar, but catered to her preferences. Lots of napkins and washing hands kept her and the costume clean and her belly full.

Since I was camped out with Dana at the dress rehearsal until 10pm that night (Chad picked up Charlotte earlier) I knew that Paleo food was the only way to survive the marathon of dance numbers I had the privilege of watching. Here’s my dinner:

Both girls performed beautifully and the recital was a huge success!

It’s worth mentioning that the anxiety that comes with hours of waiting in a holding area filled with jittery, young dancers brought Charlotte’s needs for sensory input out in the open. I managed to snap a few shots of her regulating herself in a stressful environment. While these situations are not ideal, I was very proud of her for finding ways to stay calm enough to avoid a meltdown, still remember her dances, and even smile on stage.                                       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scenario #2: The Hospital

On the night of the recital, Chad mentioned to me that his stomach was not quite right and he was feeling pain and discomfort. At 3 am, he woke me up from a sound sleep and let me know this stomach pain was like nothing he had experienced before. We phoned the ER, and he was told to come in with a driver. I made a call to my amazing friend Siiri, and she arrived at our door within minutes to stay with our sleeping kids.

After isolating the pain to the lower right quadrant of Chad’s abdomen and getting a CT scan, it was determined that he was in the midst of an appendicitis attack. We were thrilled to see our friend Dr. Mike at the hospital who reassured us that this was a random event that had nothing to do with diet, lifestyle, or overall health. With a sigh of relief, Chad slipped into a morphine nap and we waited for an OR to open and have his angry appendix removed. 

I checked on the kids and then began to think about some breakfast for myself. Seeing that my health issues tend to center around stressful events, bringing on excessive adrenaline, I knew that some clean food was in order to get me through a long day at the hospital. I fought feelings of panic and anxiety as I approached the hospital cafeteria cautiously, expecting to find nothing suitable for to me eat.

I was delighted to find a bar of warm food with eggs, sausage, and bacon. I loaded up my plate with dry-but-edible scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, and some starchy carbs in the form of tasteless hash browns. (I’m one of those carb eating Paleo people, and I do much better keeping potatoes in the rotation a few times per week)

After my Paleo breakfast and a hot cup of coffee, I felt much better and Chad and I hung out until it was time for his surgery. After I got word from his doctor that he had made it through surgery, I ventured back down to the cafeteria for lunch. I ordered a bunless hamburger from the man at the grill and cheated with some sweet potato fries (I’m sure it was not coconut oil that I saw in the deep fryer).

Once Chad was settled in an overnight room, I was back at the cafeteria for dinner and asked for a grilled chicken breast to sit on top of lettuce greens and veggies from the salad bar, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. When I returned to Chad’s room to eat my dinner, he joked at how Paleo it was and that we should consider a date night at the hospital cafeteria.

While it was surprising to find Paleo options at the cafeteria, it did take a certain amount of will power and focus to walk past plenty of packaged foods and treats that seemed to be more tempting in times of stress and little sleep. Resisting this temptation and eating clean paid off when I returned home at 8pm and found that I had enough energy and sanity to put my very tired kids to bed. I gave huge hugs to my incredible friends Kimberly and Siiri who not only kept my kids entertained all day but managed to feed them Paleo all day as well.

Scenario #3: Junk food at Summer Day Camp

There was no rest for the weary over the weekend at home as I tended to Chad in his recovery, nursed Charlotte with a throat virus and a fever, got my house back in order, and managed my own needs for sleep and rest. In the midst of this chaos, I kept the upcoming week in the back of my mind. Dana was scheduled to attend a week-long day camp at our church, and I had been informed of the provided snacks via email. While we normally opt for packing our own snacks at events where a non-Paleo snack is provided, this situation provided a bit more of a challenge.

All of the snacks were tied thematically to the day’s lesson, and most of them involved junk food, including goldfish crackers, pretzels, marshmallows, whoppers, and other candies. I knew that asking Dana to sub a box of raisins for these super fun activities and treats was too much to ask. She is still a kid, after all.

I talked to her about the situation, and the food options would may have worked fine if it were just a one day camp. But given that the camp was all week and the fever bug was running through our house, I knew I needed a more Paleo option to give Dana the best chance at staying healthy and enjoying the camp.

I remembered seeing a cookie-like treat made with sunflower seed butter in our copy of Eat Like a Dinosaur by The Paleo Parents. I was so relieved to find a quick and easy recipe for Mini Nut Butter Cups. We made a bunch of super-yummy, kid-friendly, nut-free, muffin-shaped cookies with just a few ingredients that were easy to transport. This morning we filled a baggie with a bunch of grapes and a few cookies and sent her off to camp with a snack that she was excited to eat, despite what the other kids had. 

We survived this week and managed to eat clean with the help of our amazing friends, some luck, lots of preparation, and a wonderful resource. It has taken two years, but I can proudly say that we have established a lifestyle around Paleo. We were able to make it work in the most trying of circumstances. So the next time someone asks us about Paleo and all of the what ifs and what abouts, I’ll remind them that it’s not just a way of eating, it’s a way of living.

For more inspiration on staying Paleo in trying times, read about NomNomPaleo’s adventures of living in a hotel room with her family for the last 2 months.

Our Secret to a Delicious Liver Burger

Last night we grilled our homemade Paleo burgers and when I sliced into mine and saw juicy deliciousness running onto my plate, I knew we had a recipe that I was ready to share.

You may remember that Chad and I began a quest to incorporate organ meat into our diet after I realized that my hair loss may be caused by nutrient deficiencies as a result of my adrenal issues. Organ meats, especially liver, contain loads of Vitamin A, which was the main ingredient in the vitamins that were helping my hair grow again. See this post for more details.

We have consistently been eating beef liver for about 4 weeks, adding it to our weekly burgers. Each week Chad tweeks the recipe a bit working toward the right blend of flavorful juicy-ness that hides any metallic taste of the liver. As we enjoyed this nutrient dense meal last night, we discussed what we believe to be the secret ingredient to creating a moist and flavorful burger that contains both grass fed beef and beef liver.

Yes, it’s the candy of meats. A Paleo staple and my favorite food. BACON! Well, actually we used bacon’s snobbier Italian cousin–Pancetta. Pancetta is pork belly meat that is salt cured, seasoned with such spices as nutmeg, fennel, peppercorns, dried ground hot peppers and garlic, then dried for at least three months (source: Wikipedia). We love pancetta’s delicious richness and flavor, and we find that it pairs well with many meats and vegetables. It is more expensive than bacon and harder to find, but well worth the search, in our opinion. We buy ours at our local meat market where we pick up all of our grass fed meats, beef liver, and fresh fish.

After many attempts at getting this recipe just right, we can safely say that incorpoarting fattier meats like sausage and bacon/pancetta adds the juicy-ness that is difficult to get in a typical grass fed burger, and the rest is in the cooking:

Recipe

This recipe made 2 larger adult and 2 medium sized burgers for our kids. It was the perfect amount for our family, as our appetities tend to run on the higher end.

1 1/4 pound grass fed ground beef

1/4 pound beef liver (grass fed preferrably)

1/3 pound pancetta or bacon

4 large Italian sausage links (without casings)

1 whole egg (we use pastured eggs)

1/2 TBSP fresh basil (when chopped)

1 TBSP Worcestershire sauce

1/2 TBSP spicy or regular mustard

1/4 tsp olive oil

1 tsp sea salt

1 tsp pepper

1/2 tsp garlic powder

1/2 tsp cumin

1/2 tsp chili powder

1/2 tsp paprika

1/2 tsp cardamom

1/4 tsp nutmeg

Combine meats–we used the grinder attachment from our Kitchen Aid mixer to grind ground beef, panchetta, sausage, and liver. If you get the liver in a frozen piece (1 pound or 1/2 pound pieces are easiest to work with), thaw it slightly and slice off about a 1/4 pound. If you don’t have a grinder, chop up the liver and pancetta/bacon as small as possible and mix with other meats.

To the meat mixture, add the whole egg, Worcestershire sauce, mustard, olive oil, and spices and mix vigorously with a large fork and form into a large ball. Place the ball of meat into a large bowl and let it sit in the refrigerator for a minimum of 20 minutes. Form into patties appropriately sized for your family and grill over a hot fire for 4-6 minutes on each side, according to how you like your burgers cooked. Chad’s grilling tip: do not touch or press the patties while they are grilling to keep the juices in tact.

Serve on a bed of lettuce and top with avocado and/or your favorite burger condiments.

Health Update

I have always felt that Charlotte and my health issues stemmed from a lack of nutrients. As soon as we began the Paleo diet and consistently ate nutrient dense foods, we immediately felt better–I had more energy and Charlotte’s eye contact and sensory issues improved.  

As we have made a conscious effort to eat nutrient dense organ meats, our overall energy level has continued to improve. I have seen an improvement in recovery after exercise as well as a decrease in PMS symptoms. Charlotte’s sensory and social issues continue to lessen. While we are still working on sleep issues with her, we are confident that she is becoming stronger and more nutritionally sound every day.

Just this week Mark Sisson did this post on nutrient deficiencies and listed Autism Spectrum Disorder as a symptom of Vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 can only be found in animal products, and we have seen a tremendous decrease in Charlotte’s Autism-like symptoms as we have incorporated more B12 into her diet through grass fed and pastured rasied meats. See this post for more information.

If you decide to try the recipe, please give us your feedback in the comments below.

A Lesson Learned

Approximately one year ago, we moved to a new home. It was only about 1 mile from our previous home, and the neighborhood was familiar. We were moving only a few blocks from our very close friends. Escrow closed in the first weeks of the new year. Little did we know how much we would learn from the timing of our move.

We visited the home often before we moved, explained as much as we could to both girls to prepare them for the transition. The first few days and weeks went smoothly. No troubles arose until Charlotte’s 3rd birthday at the end of February. As some of you may have experienced, the third birthday is very significant in the world of a special needs child. Under the age of three, the child can (somewhat easily) qualify for Early Start services. This is a state program where the child is evaluated and receives therapies or services, depending on their individual needs. Charlotte had qualified for a center-based program where she was working on controlling her sensory dysregulation impulses in a classroom setting.

She thrived in this environment and loved her school. Three mornings per week, her caring and supportive team of teachers gave both of us what we needed at this point…a community where we felt like we belonged, specific strategies to help with behavior issues at home, and a safe opportunity for Charlotte to practice her emerging, yet delayed, social skills.  Unfortunately, the center-based school and all Early Start services abruptly end on the child’s third birthday.

The next step for continued services is through the school district or medical insurance. We hit an immediate road block with both of these options. Charlotte’s strong language and motor skills kept her from qualifying for anything. We were encouraged to mainstream her. On a cold and dark March morning, I made calls to local preschools. With apprehension and a fear of being rejected, I explained our situation to the newly-opended preschool from the same elementary school that Dana attended. We were welcomed with open arms, yet we were fully aware that this was a mainstream situation and these teachers had completely different training and experience than where we had just come from. I alternated my teacher and parent hats, connecting with and educating the preschool staff, filling them with as much information as I could that was specific to Charlotte’s needs at that time–sensory regulation issues, social delays, repetitive language, and defiant behavior. Despite my best efforts and the wonderfully receptive teaching staff, it was a brutal change for Charlotte.

Looking back, I wonder how we could have been so blind to how these huge changes were going to affect her.  I think we’ve learned so much about her needs from this journey, that experiences like these have begun to guide our choices, our actions, and our parenting. We see it all so clearly now, but at the time she was the teacher and we were the students. She took us back to the beginning of her life to let us know how much she was affected–she stopped sleeping.

Just like in infancy, it was slow at first. Initially, just some trouble going down at bedtime. It would take a few trips into her bedroom to settle her down to sleep. As the nights progressed, there was more resistance going down, and eventually waking a few hours later. This could be as early as 10 or 11pm–just as we were winding down, she would appear wide-eyed in our doorway. At the worst point, she would be awake for several hours in our bed, absolutely refusing to go into her own room.

We have always been a big fan of sleep hygiene, so we were hesitant to start any habits that were going to be difficult to break later on. We knew that letting her learn to sleep in our bed was going to be a battle we would have to fight eventually, so we faced it head-on. We had done “sleep training” with both girls in the early days with success, but we were stuck with knowing that wasn’t going to work for Charlotte. We were confident that she would have cried all night, never allowing herself to go to sleep.

I tried everything I could think of–I stood outside of her door in the dark hallway for hours, trying to wean myself away from her so she could learn to sleep on her own. It was maddening to hear her fall asleep and then wake herself up screaming for me. One night I remember rocking her in the rocking chair for over an hour, only to have her awake and talking to me, instead of getting sleeping or even drowsy.

It was in the middle of one sleepless night that I remembered the sensory inputs that we had done early-on in her diagnosis. With her improved skills and sensory regulation, we hadn’t needed to do any bouncing, brushing, massage, or swinging. The next morning we made an appointment with the Occupational Therapist that we had worked with through Early Start. We paid the $125 for an hour-long session that would teach us to regulate and calm Charlotte’s nervous system to find sleep again.

We brought back all of our old tools and re-learned the importance of sensory input in Charlotte’s life. Without hesitation, we added in joint compressions, brushing therapy, jumping, and swinging to her daily routine. She began to seem like her old self in her new environment. We recognized that sensory regulation was not a ball we could afford to drop again, so we sought out private Occupational Therapy and began to pay for as much as we could afford. In the meantime, I filled a grievance with our insurance company for failure to cover her needs.

After a few weeks of rigorous sensory regulation inputs that made her feel comfortable in her new environments, Charlotte began sleeping better. We have learned so much about how to make her comfortable in her environment and how to help prepare her for sleep. We make sure she gets plenty of exercise in the form of therapy or play throughout the day. We start her bedtime routine early and give her a lot of time to get ready to go to sleep. Rocking, bouncing, massage, and other inputs became part of of her bedtime routine. We limit her naps and keep her bedtime consistent.

Currently she falls asleep easily and then wakes only once to come into our bed. Once there, she falls asleep quickly and sleeps soundly until morning. While it’s certainly not perfect, and we have tried everything from bribery to physically moving her to keep her in her own bed, we accept it as her progress and listen to what she continues to need–safety and security in the form of us.

Sensory inputs and twice weekly Occupational Therapy Sessions are firmly set in our schedule. We learned that this is absolutely crucial to her healthy sleep patterns. Also, with any change in routine or her environment, we prepare Charlotte with words and visuals. We travel less often, knowing how it stresses her system and affects her sleep. We let her be our guide for a busy weekend with friends or a mellow night at home with an early bedtime. We still look for the fine balance between challenging her system with new experiences and stressing her system to the point of dysregulation.

I heard Chris Kresser say on a recent podcast that more melatonin is produced in the gut than in the brain. I nodded in agreement and reflected on the lessons we have learned about sleep, change, regulation, and overall health in this past year. As we heal her gut with the Paleo diet, we will heal her brain and nervous system, and she will find more comfort in her environment with fewer sensory inputs.

In the meantime, we’ll celebrate Charlotte’s 4th birthday this month and all of the lessons we’ve learned together.