cringing and shaking, but okay

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When I was a junior in college, I took an Old Testament class. It was a small class and most of it consisted of open discussions around a large round table. One week in, I approached the professor and told him I was sorry, but I needed to drop the class; “I just can’t do it. My heart races just thinking about speaking in front of everyone.”

Had you known me at that age, you might find my anxiety surprising. I wasn’t someone who hid in a corner or didn’t like attention. It was the combination of academics and public speaking that made me panic. School hadn’t been easy for me thanks to some learning issues, so when I was at school, I did my best to stay safely in the back of the room. I saved my loud, social self for after class time.

To make a long story short — the professor would not let me drop the class. He bargained with me, promising that he would not make me speak until the last class of the semester. I sat silently for months in a class of maybe a dozen people – until the last day. Of course that made things rather awkward. Everyone had thought there was something wrong with me and couldn’t believe it when I actually opened my mouth that day. I did manage to get my words out, but not without a whole lot of “Ahhhhhhh”s and “Uhmmmmmm”s.

After that class, I promised myself that I would never again speak in public. Then, I decided I wanted to be an art teacher. My first few attempts to model lessons in graduate school were painful, but I got over it and managed to become comfortable . . . in front of a classroom of children.

As an adult I have done a little more public speaking. I spoke at a fundraiser for The PG Chambers School, and to some small school groups with our service dog, Keegan. I even spoke at Listen to Your Mother. Each time I walked away cringing and shaking, wondering when it would get easier.

Since Smiles and Duct Tape was published, I’ve had the opportunity to speak more — at bookstores and schools. And, it’s really ramped up this month. I spoke to a psychology class at Seton Hall University about “exceptional children” and was honored to speak at a CPNJ fundraiser sharing our story and our love for CPNJ Horizon High School. Next week I’m speaking about ALD up in Boston and then heading to Wisconsin for the Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books. I can’t say I feel completely comfortable as I start a presentation, but I do think I am getting the hang of it.

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It’s so strange how life can send you in a direction that you never expected. The girl who got Cs in English, wrote a book. The girl who couldn’t stand up in front of a small group of classmates, now speaks in front of large audiences of ADULTS. It’s not without plenty of nerves and a whole lot of shaking (honestly – it’s unreal how my whole body shakes), but I am doing it. If it helps other families going through similar situations or helps students trying to understand what “special” looks like or helps people understand ALD or if it encourages people to support wonderful organizations like CPNJ – I’ll do it.

It’s my way of taking back some control. It’s my way of proving that our family has reached the other side of hell. It’s my way of not letting ALD win.

 

Love, Jess

 

 

 

Our (kinda) Skilled Companion

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Keegan is a Service Dog. To be exact, he’s a “Skilled Companion” which means that he has been trained to work with people with disabilities (JackO) under the guidance of a facilitator – that’s me. He was trained for two years by Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) and is qualified to be in public – wherever a human is allowed.

Today Jack, Keegan and I are going out to Long Island for our Public Access Certification Test. We will be meeting up with a CCI team and several other CCI graduates at a mall where they have us work for an hour to see whether on not we are still qualified (under CCI standards) for public access. I’m a little nervous.

I hope the folks at CCI don’t see this, but I am pretty sure we’ve ruined Keegan. Sure, compared to Finn (our other pup), Keegan is a star, but when I think back to the dog we brought home 7 years ago, I cringe. Keegan knew over 40 commands and did not need any guidance to behave perfectly when in public. Now he’s a very sweet, kinda smartISH pet.

I keep warning our CCI trainers that we may have gotten a little lax over the years, and that perhaps Keegan’s skills might be a little rusty. The team has been sweet, assuring me that they understand that Keegan’s primary role is to be Jack’s buddy. “As long as your team can be handled safely and appropriately in public you should be fine”.

Fingers crossed.

So why am I brining him? Because I am a rule follower AND because I feel that if I DESERVE to be scolded, I should be. A great deal of time, effort and money went into Keegan’s training. If we are falling short on our end of the bargain, I need to do what I can to rectify it. After all, I am the first person to judge people that take advantage of the rather loose definition of a service animal.

I am an animal lover and I know a pet can be a member of the family. I also know that many pets can be well behaved and probably wouldn’t cause much of an issue in public, but the training it takes to insure an animal is silent, respectful and helpful in caring for specific disabilities is huge.

If you buy a vest on-line for your pet so that he/she can accompany you on vacation, you are actually hurting people who can’t be independent without their animal. If your dog/cat/miniature horse/ferret does not behave appropriately in public, people start to complain that all service animals are just “pets with vests”. We don’t want laws to change regarding public access for service animals because so many people gain a huge amount of support and independence because of their four legged friend. I know for Jack, Keegan is primarily a best friend/furry pillow, but some people rely of their service animal for far more than licks and cuddles.

So we are up bright an early to drive out to Long Island. Keegan has been bathed, his nails have been cut and his vest has been cleaned. I’ve been working on “Wait” and “Under” and “Car” for weeks, and we are as ready as we are going to be. I will let you know as soon as soon as we get the thumbs up or thumbs down.

Love, Jess

PS If we do not pass, CCI isn’t going to put me in handcuffs and take Keegan away. They will work with us to regain what we have lost.

For more information about CCI go to http://www.CCI.org

 

UPDATE: We passed with flying colors!!!!!!!

 

My other silent boy

For those of you who have been worried that I may be sharing too much with Jack, I’m sorry. It is true that he has heard more than a teenage boy should about local gossip and various peri-manopausal symptoms. I am trying to be better at avoiding such topics when Jack’s in earshot. And, it’s not just because I’m worried that he is going to blackmail me – it’s just the right thing to do.

The truth is that he is not the only holder of my secrets. I have another silent boy in the house who’s also a really good listener. His ears are floppy and he lets me lie on the couch with him and rant about everything. He never gets bothered if my breath is bad or my feet are stinky. He just snuggles in and lets me vent about things and sort out my crap. He is the one that people should be worried about – Keegan knows EVERYTHING about EVERYONE.

Things I am too scared to even write in my private journal have been shared with my furry friend. There’s something about the way he looks at me, that I know he understands and cares. Keegan’s brother, Finn (AKA “Bad Dog”), walks away in the middle of a story if he hears a truck outside or the postman walking up the front steps. Keegan never leaves my side until he knows I’ve really let it all out.

Yes, I know that technically Keegan is Jack’s service dog, but the truth is that without him, I’m not sure that I could manage. There are just some days that I feel like I am going to explode (or implode). Stuff builds up and I need someone. I can’t always burden my friends and family – particularly when it’s my friends and family that I need to discuss. We all need a sounding board and Keegan is mine.

Yesterday was Keegan’s 7th birthday. I tend to forget birthdays of people/creatures I love (just ask my nieces and nephews). Ironic, because I expect everyone to remember mine — November 19 — 13 more shopping days left. Keegan’s puppy raisers reminded me today and I instantly stopped what I was doing to showered our boy with some love. Then, I gave him a nice long walk and two cups of kibble for dinner. Next year, I promise to throw in some balloons and streamers.

Thank you Keegan for being Jack’s best friend and my therapist.

Love, Jess

For more information about Canine Companions for Independence check out: http://www.CCI.org

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A great listener and so handsome.