By Heidi Denner
I am a mother to three wonderful, curious, strong-minded children. Each one of them unique and each one a teacher of mine, with their own lessons to grow, challenge and change me. I could write hundreds of stories of these lessons – stories of when I have failed (miserably), stories of when there has been triumph and stories that are yet to have an ending as they hold ongoing lessons that need to be learned. However today, this story involves a little girl, who at the time of this story was only 6 years of age and yet who demonstrated to me not only what courage truly is, but how courage develops and our responsibility as people within our families, friendship circles and communities to foster courage within each other. This story involves one of my life’s greatest teachers – my beautiful, creative, intelligent autistic daughter. A brave little girl who faces challenges every day that I can’t even begin to imagine. Today, I wish to share with you a specific story that provides a small glimpse into the world through her eyes in hopes to encourage (and challenge) all of us with one of the most extraordinary lessons my daughter has taught me. This lesson has significantly impacted my life, how I view myself and how I view others.
The world through her eyes…
Every day each of us are bombarded with input through our senses (sight, sound, touch etc). For most of us, our brains are wired to “filter out” this sensory input, however for my daughter, her brain takes it all in and cannot filter any of it out. The world is a “scary place” because she has a constant megaphone in her brain and things that my brain would filter out before I consciously become aware of it, fill my daughter’s every moment. This makes what might be a fairly simple experience for most, like going to the grocery shops, to the movies or to the park, incredibly difficult and challenging for my daughter (and other beautiful people like her). Her brain is basically “under threat” (fight/flight or freeze mode) most of the time.
My family has always loved the beach – I grew up surrounded by a family of surfers, living at the beach over summer and visiting it most other weekends. The beach for me is and has always been my place to “just be”. My daughter has always been petrified of the beach. The feeling of sand between her toes, getting stuck to her skin causes her significant stress. The noise of the crash of the waves is heightened in her brain. The unpredictability of the moving water that “might reach her even if she is standing under the Life Guard Tower” causes her great fear. In short, the beach has been a no-go zone for my daughter since she was a toddler because the overwhelming sensory input causes her extreme anxiety. Although to an outsider it may seem ridiculous, to my daughter those intense feelings of fear are real and they are debilitating.
That was until last year. In 2019, on the Easter long weekend, for the first time in 4 years, my daughter CHOSE to go to the surf beach, and she even walked into the water, (holding my hand the whole time). She began to jump over the small waves at her feet and at one point she even began to laugh and said, “Mummy this is actually fun!”. My daughter was still afraid most of the time – throughout the whole half an hour of being there she looked to me for reassurance as I talked her through what she was seeing, hearing and feeling. But that day, my daughter overcame a fear that had prevented her from experiencing something wonderful, because she was willing to trust me and more importantly, trust herself.
My husband and I reflected afterwards that for our daughter, her fear and anxiety does not make her weak. In fact, because of her fear and anxiety, that makes everyday life so much harder, we believe she is incredibly strong. Often, we can be mistaken to measure “courage” on how significant or grand the experience or physical outcome of it looks. The person who gets up in front of thousands to perform, the person who runs a marathon or rides the biggest wave. Yes, these experiences require courage, but courage isn’t just about the “outcome” that we see. I believe courage is about the level of anxiety or the difficulty of the struggle present within someone as they take steps to be brave, and this looks different for different people. For my autistic daughter, the courage it took to walk onto that beach and then down into the water demonstrated a level of resilience and bravery I will never have. It wasn’t walking on the beach or into the water that made my daughter brave, it was that she was petrified and everything in her brain was overwhelming her and yet she chose to take that step to trust me to look after her and to not lead her where she would not be safe.
Together we are better…
As I share this story, I cannot help but think and reflect on some of the conversations I have with people as I support “wellbeing” in my professional role and other community groups I am part of. I hear expressions of fear – fear of change, fear of failure, fear of being out of control, fear of letting people down. These thoughts and feelings are real (and are stronger for some of us more so than others) and there is no point in any of us pretending that life isn’t scary and uncomfortable at times, because IT IS! I feel honoured when people let me in on their inner world and share their worries and fears because this is where we truly get to help each other! But helping each other is more than just saying “it will be fine”, “toughen up” or, “get a grip” or joining each other on the pitty-party bandwagon where we all just fall in a heap.
If I had just told my daughter over and over as she walked onto the beach, “you will be fine”, “suck it up”, “you are okay” that would not have helped her. Alternatively, if I had started melting down or becoming too overwhelmed myself, I would have fed her inner panic instead of sharing my inner calm. (I have made both of these mistakes before and they DO NOT WORK!!). As I have learned from my failings as a parent, as we walked onto the beach I had to continually acknowledge, “Mummy knows this is scary for you. I know you are being brave in giving this a go and I will be with you every step of the way.” I had to meet her in her fear but walk her through it in order for her to overcome it.
So I want to say to all of us that fear is a part of being human and in the fight for bravery we need to recognise and acknowledge these uncomfortable feelings that often leave us paralysed, negative or “on the run”. We also need each other to share our struggles with as we empathise with each other whilst also encouraging one another to be brave.
I heard this brilliant quote by a Psychologist & Author Susan David, “Courage is not the absence of fear. Courage is fear walking”. This quote is so raw and powerful to me as this is the image I hold in my mind of my daughter walking onto the beach that day – courage is fear walking. Being courageous can’t happen if we don’t first experience an element of fear and so the goal is not to “not feel afraid”, the goal is to take steps to be brave. My hope is that this image would stay in all of our minds as we continue to move forward, taking daily steps of bravery, but also as we support one another with empathy and understanding to be brave. Together as a community we are more brave, more courageous and more powerful. Together, we are better…
Heidi is Chief Culture and Wellbeing Officer at Mother Duck Childcare. You can follow more of her writing on her blog at www.motherduck.com.au/blog/