Hope is Close

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My name is Anahi Garza, I am a Peer Support Specialist at Lutheran Community Services Northwest (LCSNW). Peer Support Counseling is based on lived experience, the journey, and perseverance through challenging situations. It is based on self-advocacy, self-care, and resilience. My lived experience includes overcoming homelessness, navigating grief and strengthening relationships, and my favorite, being the Mom of my 14-year old son living with an intellectual disability.

 

My son was born at 24 weeks gestation; he was the twin that survived ventilator induced injury. It all happened so fast that day. I had struggled with fertility for 5 years losing 5 babies, but we finally had our fragile one-pound miracle baby boy. The doctors painted a picture of what our son's prognosis would be. It was scary and we decided that we would take it one day at a time. I felt very alone during this time, falling into a state of depression and anxiety.

Anahi and her 15-year old son, Lamoni

We spent 5 months in the NICU. It was so hard, but I met other families with NICU babies and we found comfort and support in sharing our challenges with each other. I realized that listening to other parent's in need of hope gave me hope. I wasn't alone, and in fact I gleaned a new found inspiration and awareness of how others may struggle with mental health and how sharing your story provides hope.

The challenges for my son continued long after we left the NICU. Academics proved to be difficult for my son. I sat in one IEP after another hearing of my son's low-test scores and inability to focus or stay engaged. I did not know how to advocate for him. My husband and I began to feel like his development reflected our parenting skills. We didn't know how to parent him because we were uncertain of his level of understanding. But one thing I knew for sure, I never wanted him to feel like there were limits to his potential. It was a challenge to find that balance.

It was not until his 4th grade IEP review, when I met with his teacher who once again reported that he was severely below grade level. I was not able to hold back the tears of frustration and disappointment, continuing to feel like I was failing at parenthood. She could see the disappointment and began to praise us for raising a son who was respectful and who had a pure heart. She talked about how he shared his Sunday school lessons with the class and regularly made good choices. She told me that I should feel proud, and that academics were not everything in life.

I went home that day feeling instilled with a new hope. She had helped me realize that I was hyper-focused on a single aspect of my son, and that his grades did not define him as a person. I began to praise him more for his work. I stopped crying at his IEP meetings and started asking questions, which led to brainstorming solutions together as a team. I worked with my son to understand that he could speak out and not feel intimidated to ask questions. I told his teachers to share his accomplishments with me, even if they were below grade average and to stop telling me what he wasn't doing. I celebrated him in every way I could!

My experiences in the NICU, finding comfort in sharing stories and caring for one another, as well as navigating education and learning to care for my son led me to pursue a career in social work and in advocating for others.

I love the work I do in peer support. I get to share with other parents how to focus on the strengths of their children. I get to reach out to families who do not speak English and reframe ingrained stigmas about mental health. I get to encourage the ways they can be proud of their child's accomplishments and embrace them for who they are and whatever challenges they are facing.  I get to encourage parents to take care of themselves and their own mental health. Whether it's a walk, meditation or their own therapy to process challenges, we care for others better when we care for ourselves.

I want people to know that they aren't alone in their struggles, that there are others with similar experiences who can help them navigate parenting a child with challenging behaviors or special needs. It can be overwhelming when we face hard things alone, but I believe that we all have someone out there who is willing to support us; family, friends, or mental health and health care professionals. No matter how big or small the challenge may be, It's never too late to reach out for help.

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