Prevailing with Perspective

Rainbows come and go. They are often a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel before another storm hits. It was a brief reprieve until we experienced yet another nightmare.

Reactions to food allergies span from an aggravating itch to life-threatening anaphylaxis. One’s experience can lay the foundation for a healthy fear that supports safety. This fear can also morph into an unhealthy version which resembles a phobia. Young minds and bodies learn how to cope the best they can with deep fears. In our family’s case the solution was to drink water. If the water goes down, so does the air and although we don’t feel safe, we are safe. This was sweet Ellie rose’s strategy a few weeks ago. Pair this strategy with a poor appetite from an upper respiratory bug and you get dangerously low electrolytes.

Ellie’s hyponatremia led to a seizure. Unlike most seizures, she didn’t wake up. She went blue and laid still. I couldn’t find a pulse and proceeded with chest compressions. The emergency team arrived swiftly and after a quick debrief, we were on our way. We rushed to the hospital, where we awaited her awakening. She had moments of aggravation and calm. They decided to sedate her to complete tests. The full MRI, EEG and EKG all came back normal. They proceeded to do a spinal tap, to investigate her cerebral spinal fluid. After the lumbar puncture, they decided to extubate. After the sedative wore off, she woke. 

I share the happy ending first before describing the torment because those 18 hours were the scariest that I’ve ever lived. I relived the scary unknown of our NICU days and hung on that hope. The thought of losing my little girl now- to something so preventable- was heartbreaking. The mom guilt was insurmountable. Sleep, food, anything else except for our living breathing family meant nothing. Thoughts raced, questions were proposed, and my hands still felt tied. I couldn’t help but think about what life would be like if she didn’t wake up, or if she woke up different. I knew either way she would be loved all the same and that we would make it through. I believe this because love never fails.

I stood next to her and held her cold hand waiting for it to squeeze back. In those still moments, I rubbed her legs thinking of all the cartwheels. Praying for her gymnast dreams. I thought about all the other children and their parents, who gazed at their children with perhaps less fortunate circumstances. My heart broke for them and still does. I sat in gratitude for my education in healthcare and comfort in the hospital setting and felt compassion for those that may not feel that same way.

She extubated easy and with a few coughs was breathing on our own. We then waited for her to wake up from her slumber, unsure of what awaited. About 2 hours later, she stretched and opened her eyes. Her first words where aren’t I supposed to be at the dentist? At that moment all fear vanished, and joy was insurmountable. We knew our Ellie Rose was back. She was right her siblings that morning had a teeth cleaning appointment. We didn’t care at that moment what the road ahead meant, are Elliott was awake.

Her mind was clear, but her body was aching. The lumbar puncture was painful and led to hyperemesis. Although we were discharged, we returned quickly when she couldn’t eat or keep food down. They assured us that her electrolytes were stable, and she needed to wait these symptoms out. We remained in the hospital until her nausea subsided enough to go home safely.

Elliott Rose Vanderwall is a force to be reckoned with. She is determined, hopeful and gracious. However, she is not patient. The next days were aggravating as all she wanted to do was return to the trampoline. After a quick week, she is back to her moving, shaking and flipping self.

It took me awhile to find the courage to dig deep and share. In these moments, I find writing healing. I write and share because I hope others find comfort in these words knowing that someone else has walked a similar path. To them I pray for patience, hope, and perseverance.

Today, we still live in the most chaotic home that I know. But it feels different. I feel different. I was challenged with the longest 18 hours of my life and was rewarded with perspective. I pray that it is not fleeting but lasts. Being quick to anger is easy but slowing down to listen is hard. I not only come away from the situation with gratitude but with a readiness and listen more and for longer. To pay closer attention to what’s going on in the shots of our little one, when a tantrum erupts and when coping strategies don’t seem quite right.

I also want to use this space to say thank you for all who waited with us and joined us in prayer. Ellie also felt very loved and cared for during this time. You were our light after this storm!

Perfectly Imperfect

Perfectly Imperfect – The Dawning of New Era

As I sit down to write today, I am watching the rain fall along the panes of our windows. Cold, wet days often don’t bring the joy of bright, blue 72-degree weather but rather tend to slow many down and often times slow us down enough to see the muffled memories or quiet reflections in our mind. I have been pondering what, when and how of what I’d like to share in this post for several weeks. Today, I decided to simply put pen-to-paper or rather fingers-to-keys.

Today, my story is intended to empower families and caregivers in fostering mental healthcare in their homes and creating a compassionate space for each other. There is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic heightened stress and brought about new stressors for all people. I often wonder how my children will recall these last few years. Will they remember the isolation sadly? Or will they recall the extra time each other and Nana has their second-grade teacher fondly? Will they recall the big feelings that they navigated with pride or remorse?

I recognize that their reactions and recollections are out of my locus of control but my response in the here and the now is. The last year and beyond we have navigated budding mental health concerns that we knew would eventually arise due to the prevalence in our genetic pool. At first, we sought out strategies to combat the stress. We tried T.I.P.P. breaks, individual and family therapy, breathing exercises, bedtime and wake up routines, more structure, less structure, lavender, diffusers, the list goes on and on. Scenarios would improve temporarily but then we felt like we were back where we started and often times in a worse situation.

We have come to realize that this approach is simply exhausting. What if we rather embraced the stress? And, while we’re at it, what if we also embraced that are mental and emotional wellbeing don’t have to perfect? It is freeing to own that fact that we’re perfectly imperfect!

How to Embrace Being Perfectly Imperfect

  • Don’t Combat Stress, Combat Stigma.

We begin with education and the opportunity to educate ourselves and others about mental health disorders using resources such as NAMI.org or the CDC. This includes being conscious of our language and labeling of others using mental health conditions as adjectives.

  • Separate the Person from the Condition.

People First language puts the person before their diagnosis and/or ability. It acknowledges that their identity is not in their medical condition or history but rather who they are.

  • Equate Physical and Mental Illness.

We don’t discourage people from going to the doctor when they are physically ill, but some think twice about pursuing mental healthcare. The brain is vulnerable to disorder just as other organs in our body. When we can correct disruptions or abnormalities in brain function with medication, equip a young mind for healthier growth, create a mental environment that permits therapies to “stick” and provide that individual with a tool to achieve more equitable experiences.

  • Own Your Story.

I encourage everyone to find time to reflect upon your story. Whether you choose to share it or not is up to you. Sharing our stories make us truly vulnerable. However, the reward from sharing with safe people can be greater than the risk. Human connections are made through stories. In our weakness, we become stronger.

Our Story

If you were to open the medical charts of our family, you would see anxiety, ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression, oppositional defiant disorder, and panic disorder. We are not strangers to mental illness nor the therapies that accompany them. I, personally, appreciate the fact that my parents exposed me to mental healthcare providers at a young age because I became comfortable and accepting of this resource. Years later, when Frank and I perceived that there may be more to the tantrums we were witnessing, the first place we looked for help was a LCSW. Even with our personal relationships with therapists over the years, when the psychiatrist recommended medication for one of our children we were a bit taken back.

I asked myself questions like… “is it really that bad?” “have we exhausted all of our alternative therapies?” “what will their siblings think?” “will they need to take it forever?” It was in this moment that I realized I was standing in the way of a potential solution for my child. Then, I looked into their young eyes and asked if they’d like to try it. They held their gaze and provided a confident yes.

Needless to say, we started the medication and while the story is not over, the chapter filled with fear, horrific bedtimes, concerns for self-harm, and words that belong only in parents’ nightmares is closed. We are experiencing a rainbow as the sun emerges upon our personal storm. With this dawn, we see restored sibling relationships, the return of a sparkle in their eyes and a little more peace of mind.

Rainbow At The Dawn Photograph by Edward Pacil

I would be remiss in a post like this to not offer immediate help for those who feel ready. If you or a loved one are seeking help, know that it is there. SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders. They can be reached at 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

Exploring 7-year-old Wisdom

It has been quite some time since I posted. In all honesty, I didn’t have words or perhaps enough emotional energy to put my thoughts into words. The last 365 days have forever changed our lives. Rollercoasters of feelings as we witnessed a viral pandemic that sent us to our homes. It was hard to swallow the fact that for many their home may not feel safe or be secure.

Inequities came to light. Racial and class tensions grew. Politics continued to polarize and many didn’t know how to process. “Flatten the curve,” “quarantine,” “new normal,” “coronavirus,” “COVID,” and “pandemic” are all words that were foreign over a year ago and may be everyday language now and forever.

As the country re-opens, people are emerging from a yearlong hibernation. Some appear scared, timid, and anxious while others are over-joyed and excited to “get back to normal.” In conversations, at home, at work, at the grocery store you hear people recounting what they’ve learned and what they finally took time to do. Habits and routines they worked hard to develop and don’t want to lose, Some open up to share how old, ugly coping strategies have returned due to periods of high stress in socially isolated homes.

While we didn’t choose to share all of the events that unfolded in the last year, I believe our children learned more than we sought to teach them. I continue to be humbled by their perspectives and learnings.

Most dinners, the kiddos chat about anything and everything while the adults take turns playing crowd control and wait staff. But, the other night we shifted the conversation to reflect upon how this Spring break was different and what they had learned because of the pandemic.

Theo shared that masks are uncomfortable and don’t feel good but they’re important because they protect others. We need to continue to wear our masks.

Lily echoed Theo’s sentiments about masks but shared how important she believes it is to be kind and put others’ first.

Bella recognized how she hadn’t been to a store to browse, dream or purchase everyday items. She shared her gratitude for online shopping conveniences which helped us to keep home feeling “normal.”

Ellie pointed out that not everyone had it the same. She is grateful that we always had what we needed. She also shared how good it felt to be able to spend a lot of time with her family.

Kali wrapped up the children’s contributions by sharing how more time at home created more time for each other and other activities.

We sat and smiled and thanked them for their wise words. As I sit here now, I continue to believe that my children will forever teach me more than I will ever teach them. For this, I am grateful.

It is my ongoing hope that we’re raising game changers. We aim to preserve their precious outlook on life, foster their imagination and creativity, encourage their curiosity and willingness to ask questions and the ability to know when to speak up and share their voice and when to be quiet and simply listen. Our home has privilege and I believe our children are beginning to realize this. It is my prayer that they will continue to share this power, dismantle imbalances, explore history and its implications so that we can have a more equitable and just tomorrow.

Looking Back at E. Rosie (2019-2020)

Ellie, who is fondly called Rosie by mom and dad, is proving to be Mom’s mini-me. It is not uncommon for us to say the same things at the sametime and for our mannerisms to be eerily similar. While Ellie is the “baby” of the bunch, her BIG personality hides it well. She easily identifies her feelings and is able to articulate her emotions and her logic in a way that surpasses her years.

This little firecracker LOVES to move and is happiest when she is upside down doing cartwheels, round-offs, backbends or whatever new act is assigned in tumbling and cheer. Our Rosie is the most organized and determined quint and she will be sure you know it. She loves to lend a hand, especially when it involves outdoor chores, caring for the chickens, meal prep or sorting, however the result will almost always be in rainbow order.

Now, a look back at our Ellie Rosie over the last year…

Ellie at six years…

Ellie at five years…

Ellie at four years…

Ellie at three years…

Ellie at two years…

If you really want to turn back the clock, check out Ellie’s First Year…

Looking Back at Kali Mae (2019-2020)

Kali Mae wins the drama mama award of the year! She is a bundle of amplified emotion; a feeler inside and out. While carrying all the feels, she is also a thinker. She is easily lost in her mind and able to think steps ahead of a situation.

She loves to lead and orchestrate plans whether it is a dance routine with her sibs or an eloquent tea party for her nest of Minnie Mouse friends. Our memorable Disney adventure this year was the trip of a lifetime for this little princess; everyday was a magical adventure.

Kali’s inquisitive nature and desire to lead will be sure to take her to great places!

Now, let’s look back at Kali over the last year…

Kali at six years…

Kali at five years…

Kali at four years…

Kali at three years…

Kali at two years…

If you really want to turn back the clock, check out Kali’s First Year…

Looking Back at Lily (2019-2020)

Lily Love-Bug is exactly that! She is a compassionate ball of energy who is up for anything. She is the most fun play-mate because she’s not afraid to be herself and accepting of whomever you are. Her personal mission in life is to make a new friend everyday.

Safer at home orders have been hardest on this little socialite but she finds freedom in her imagination, daily dance parties and Frozen 2 or Trolls World Tour musicals performed for all to see in the backyard.

When she isn’t entertaining, you will likely find her amidst an exciting Lion Guard portrayal or plotting her next invasion of Bella’s privacy. Her faves remain her little koala (Uti) and her ever-growing pride of lion stuffed animals.

Join me as we take a look back at Lily’s last year…

Lily at six years…

Lily at five years…

Lily at four years…

Lily at three years…

Lily at two years…

Lily’s First Year…

Looking Back at Bella (2019-2020)

Miss Bella is no longer the only princess in the bunch and thus has diversified with her new aspiration to be a pop star when she grows up! She remains a budding artist and continues to take her reading, art and writing quite seriously. She still cannot live with her assortment of white fuzzy animals including Tiny her ginormous bunny, Feliz her little puppy and Whitey a small white bear that she received when she graduated from the NICU step down clinic.

Bella also loves to sing, dance, and swim as well as continue create vast imaginary schemes. Now, a look back at Bella’s last year…

Bella at six years…

Bella at five years…

Bella at four years…

Bella at three years…

Bella at two years…

Bella’s First Year…

Looking Back at Theo (2019-2020)

While birthdays feel a bit different in 2020, our excitement to celebrate our five miracles does not.

Big brother Theo continues to lead his sisters by example. He is a budding gentleman who is still the King of Questions. He wants to know the what, when, where, but most of all the why and how. Digging, building, drawing, swimming, and playing Mario Odyssey or RBI baseball are among Theo’s favorite hobbies. His number one, however is playing baseball.

Theo and Daddy are baseball buds! If they aren’t tuning into the Cubbies on the TV or radio they are outside in Quintupletville Stadium hitting homers into the pool or playing some good old-fashioned catch.

Now, here’s a look at Theo at Six Years…

Theo at Five Years…

Theo at Four Years…

Theo at Three Years…

Theo at Two Years…

Theo’s First Year…

The Most Magical Place On Earth

After nearly a year of planning, our family took on Disney with confidence, gratitude and sheer awe. The Disney experience is truly life-changing. From the built environment to the personalities of the cast members, they truly transform the world for kids of all ages. Our 8-day plan included a 4 park pass to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot. We made sure to keep our park days manageable by getting their at rope drop and bowing out around dinner time each evening. This helped with the traffic and prevented major meltdowns. Since we were staying off property our fast pass opportunities were fair, especially because we were booking for a party of ten. But, it still helped to provide the necessary structure for our Disney Park agendas. At the end of the day, we were tired but not exhausted and after our 2-day respite we were ready for the remaining two parks.

Instead of rambling on about our daily itineraries, I’d like to tell the story in pictures, which starts of course with our BIG REVEAL!

My Favorite Things

“Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes
Silver white winters that melt into springs
These are a few of my favorite things”

Gratitude, gratefulness, thanksgiving, contentment; these are a few of my favorite things! Many keep a gratitude journal but I would challenge them to not only recount their grateful moments but to live them! Slow down life just enough to appreciate these moments before they become memories.

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As I type this, it is a challenge for me, too! Many of my entries and posts are recollections because life whirls by us. This post is yet another account of my children and their favorite things because I know that too soon, these faves will be likes of the past.

Mr. Theo

He is outnumbered. This describes his life, his challenge but also his greatest gift. He has no one to compete with in our household simply because he was blessed with that Y chromosome. He shines bright- not only because he’s the only boy – but also because his patience, inquiry, maturity are far beyond his 6, well, I’m reminded 6 1/2 years. Here are a few of Theo’s favorite things:

  • Favorite Color: Orange and Green
  • Favorite Sport to Play: Baseball
  • Favorite Sport to Watch: Football
  • Favorite Team: Chicago Cubs
  • Favorite Hobby: Building… anything
  • Favorite Food: Chinese
  • Favorite Animal: Humans or more specifically homo sapiens
  • Favorite Memory: Going to the Cubs Convention with Daddy
  • Favorite Song: Go Cubs Go
  • Favorite Saying: Why?

Isabella

She will forever be my Bella Bean but has explored a variety of identities this last fall… Isabella, Izzy and has come back to Bella. Bella remains the artistic Princess. She has notebooks filled with doodles, hearts, stars and of course the new love of her life… King Boo, or has she refers to him, “Boo King.” While it’s an odd pairing, it works! Here are a few more of her favorite things:

  • Favorite Color: Purple and White
  • Favorite Sport to Play: Cheer
  • Favorite Sport to Watch: Sportsball
  • Favorite Team: Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bears and 49ers
  • Favorite Hobby: Drawing and Playing LOL dolls
  • Favorite Food: Chocolate Mint Ice Cream
  • Favorite Animal: Bunny, Lamb and well, Ghosts
  • Favorite Memory: Joining the Siwanatorz fan club
  • Favorite Song: I want candy by JoJo Siwa
  • Favorite Saying: “Sto-op, Mo-om.”

Lily

Lily-Love-Bug is exactly that! She is the most heartfelt, helpful and considerate little girl from 6a to 6p. If you catch her outside of her normal business hours, her sensitivities run high and so does her temperament. Lily continues to adore her little stuffed koala, Uti, horses and unicorns. She also loves to entertain with her Y.O.L.O. approach to life.

  • Favorite Color: Green, Teal and Black
  • Favorite Sport to Play: Gymnastics
  • Favorite Sport to Watch: Dance
  • Favorite Team: Brewers and the Cubbies
  • Favorite Hobby: Spending time with family and DANCING
  • Favorite Food: Bananas
  • Favorite Animal: Baby Koalas and Lions
  • Favorite Memory: Snuggling with her baby Koala
  • Favorite Song: Everyday Pop Stars by JoJo Siwa
  • Favorite Saying: No words, simply places her palm to her forehead  and subtly shakes her head

Kali Mae

Kali Mae is a thinker. Her thought life is rich and tough to break into. She is a natural observer and at times is not afraid to share her thoughts and emotions. Other times, she is a tough nut to crack. She is a sweetheart and loves to take care of others. To say Kali loves Minnie Mouse would be an understatement. She plans to one day live next to Minnie in Disney World.

  • Favorite Color: Yellow, Blue and Pink… are polka dots a color?
  • Favorite Sport to Play: Cheer
  • Favorite Sport to Watch: Gymnastics
  • Favorite Team: Chicago Cubs, Chicago bears and 49ers
  • Favorite Hobby: Playing Minnie Mouse
  • Favorite Food: Minnie Mouse Cake
  • Favorite Animal: Mice and Puppies
  • Favorite Memory: Opening up her Minnie Mouse presents at Christmas
  • Favorite Song: D.R.E.A.M. by JoJo Siwa
  • Favorite Saying: “That’s Weird!”

Ellie

Ellie Rose, known strictly now as Rosie in the household is truly a depiction of the rhyme, “Sugar and Spice and everything nice.” She is super sweet but can also be quite spicy and salty for that matter. She continues to love to move, bounce, dance and flip. She is counting down the days to see JoJo Siwa in concert and acquiring more JoJo bows than there are days to wear them. Her love for animals continues, as well as, the joy she finds in organizing her things… in rainbow order, of course.

  • Favorite Color: Gold, Silver, Turquoise, and Rainbow!
  • Favorite Sport to Play: Cheer and Backyard Football
  • Favorite Sport to Watch: Volleyball
  • Favorite Team: Chicago Cubs, Chicago Bears
  • Favorite Hobby: Making up dances to JoJo Siwa songs
  • Favorite Food: Donuts
  • Favorite Memory: Going out for donuts as a family
  • Favorite Animal: Kittens
  • Favorite Song: Everyday Pop Stars by JoJo Siwa
  • Favorite Saying: “That’s Rude!”

Our favorites come and go. But, our gratitude for these things, these moments and memories never will.