Three Hundred Eighteen Days

Almost a year ago, three hundred eighteen days to be exact, I shared about reaching my breaking point. Physically, mentally, and emotionally I was exhausted. I was burned out from investing too much time and energy into people and things outside of myself and not consistently investing enough quality time and energy in myself.

I didn’t get to that place overnight, and I knew that getting back to a place of health – physically, mentally, and emotionally – would take time. Sure, I could have gone to my doctor and asked for an increase in my antidepressant medication, and I’m sure that would’ve “helped”. However, deep down I knew that what I was experiencing wasn’t depression (although it was definitely part of it), and putting the band-aid of more medication wasn’t going to get down to the root of the issues I was experiencing.

There was no magic formula I followed to improve my overall health. I didn’t follow a particular program or introduce anything radically new into my life (other than planning to take a leave of absence from work which got the Covid-wrench thrown into it). Instead I found that what I needed was already in my life…I just needed to utilize my time, energy, and resources differently.

First off, I prayed. A lot. I’m not just talking saying a few extra Our Fathers. There were a lot of big conversations between God and me happening. Some of them were a lot of me asking “Why?” about a multitude of different things; others were of the begging nature in which I pleaded with him to just make it all go away and show me the fast, easy road back to “normal”; then there were the ones in which I surrendered to Him and just asked Him to hold me because I couldn’t hold myself up any longer. 

The weekend before I was supposed to begin my leave of absence, I was invited by a couple of friends to join them in a 40-day yoga and personal growth challenge. Through that, I did find that doing yoga daily helped me improve my physical health. I don’t know if you’ve ever done yoga, but some of those poses are hard. And then you have to hold them for forever. Even though I wanted to give up pretty much every day in the beginning, I stuck with it and found myself getting stronger and not hating all the hard poses so much. I also found that my mental health was improving from both the nature of yoga and being focused as well as being pretty proud of my progress.

Sleep became a priority. I found a sleep app that tracked not only how long I slept but also how much light and restful sleep I got. I have learned that: a) I feel best when I get 7 hours of restful sleep; b) too much alcohol before I went to bed decreases my restful sleep; c) exercise typically increases my amount of restful sleep; d) not enough sleep usually mean I’m not going to be as peppy and patient throughout the next day; e) the less sleep I get directly affects my eating habits the next day (and not in a healthy way). Overall, I learned that sleep is essential to my overall health.

I started watching The Office. As a school counselor, I have learned about the science behind how laughter affects the brain and can improve your mood and mental health, which is why I knew that if I was going to watch something, it had to be my kind of funny. Michael, Dwight, Jim, Pam, Stanley, and the rest of the crew at Dunder Mifflin are my kind of funny!

With the help of my husband and my counselor, I began to reconcile with things from my past that were still affecting me even though I thought I had put those people and things behind me. I learned the true meaning of forgiving and letting go of the pain of the past. I learned how to finally forgive myself for the hardships and the mental and emotional pain I had inflicted upon myself and endured from others.

I rediscovered the importance of not comparing myself to others. Although I am nowhere near the perfectionist I once was, I still fell into the trap of comparing myself to other women in various ways – physically, spiritually, intellectually, professionally, etc. I stopped following people and groups on social media that served to be a source of unhealthy comparison rather than positive inspiration.

I experienced the beautiful power of relationships. Throughout my life, I have had the opportunity to meet and know some truly amazing people, and firmly believe in the idea that people have come into my life for “a reason, a season, or a lifetime”. I have been especially thankful for the people in my life who have supported me and cheered me on during this turbulent season of life. These people have helped me to remember who I am and who I wanted to get back to being. For their love, support, and encouragement, I am forever grateful.

Finally, and most importantly, I was patient with myself. As fantastic as it would’ve been if I had woken up after the end of the first week or even the first month, thrown off the covers, and announced, “I’m baaaack! All better!”, that didn’t happen. Sometimes it seemed like I was moving backwards and sometimes I felt like I wasn’t moving at all towards feeling better. Then there were the “A-HA!” moments and days that I could feel myself moving forward that helped me to know I was on the right track. There were the glimpses of the “me” that I had been missing that motivated me to keep working.

Three hundred eighteen days and counting. (Because I’m working every day to maintain my progress…I haven’t put in all this work to go back to where I was!)

Why have I worked so hard to gain control over my overall health for the last three-hundred eighteen days?

Simple. (Kind of.)

I did it for me.

Because I deserve it. I deserve to feel good physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because God didn’t create me to lead a life of sadness, hopelessness, frustration, and gloom. Taking care of myself – mind, body, and soul – has helped me to love who I am again. It’s helped me to be a much better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and advocate. Taking care of myself benefits everyone in my life. 

I know that I’m not alone in feeling lost, alone, unhappy, burned out, etc. My hope for anyone reading this thinking, “Where do I start?” Start where you’re at. Make today your Day 1. Your journey will most likely look very different from mine, but you’ll never know what yours looks like until you start. Once you start, take it day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute. You’re worth every second.     

For Those In Education

I have a favor to ask.

It’s no secret that our healthcare workers are overwhelmed and exhausted – physically, mentally, and emotionally. They need our support and prayers now more than ever.

I want to ask that you remember to also support and pray for those in education right now.

There are so many people in education that are also being tested day in and day out during this time.

Teachers

Administrators

Administrative assistants

Counselors

Social workers

Custodians

Cafeteria staff

Athletic directors

Therapists

Literacy aides

Paraprofessionals

Classroom aides

Coaches

There are so many people who are on the front lines in education that are working tirelessly to continue to provide not just an education but also a safe place for students and staff to go to every day. These men and women are being asked to put the welfare of others before their own.

It’s not easy, but they’re doing it.

Just like those in healthcare, these people need support and prayers now more than ever, too. And just like those in healthcare, they’re also often the least likely to ask for help.

It doesn’t have to be much. Just something to let them know that you know they’re in the trenches, that you’re thinking of them and supporting them.

Send an encouraging message. Or a funny one. A smile can literally change the way your brain feels, and laughter is good for the soul.

Drop off a snack or meal that they don’t have to prepare. Or booze.

Send a card. Homemade ones are best.

If anything else, pray for them. Pray for them to have the health and strength to continue showing up and serving the students they love.

Falling Through the Ice

I’ve been trying to figure out how to describe what the last two days have felt like. As I was putting things away, it finally came to me.

For me, going through life is like walking on a frozen lake. There are times when the ice is thick and solid, and I can walk with confidence. Then that step comes and you hear the crack. Sometimes it’s so soft it’s barely noticeable and it creates the smallest of lines. Other times it is thunderously loud and the break in the ice comes quickly and forcefully.

Over the years, there have been times that the ice breaks enough that my foot goes through and into the icy water. There have been times where I’m able to step over the crack and find my way back to solid ice with reasonable ease. Sometimes, the crack is so small I forget about it with the next step.

Yesterday felt like the ice under my feet simply disappeared and I was plunged into the freezing water.

Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has an amazing video in which she illustrates the difference between empathy and sympathy. (If you haven’t seen it, you can watch it here.) In it, she describes how many times people who are showing sympathy draw a nice silver line around another person’s problem or emotion. I think people try to put the silver lining around a person’s problems and emotions for a variety of reasons: they want to “fix” it; they are uncomfortable with the strong emotion of the other person; they don’t understand the intensity of the level of the feeling for the person; or maybe for them, the same situation wouldn’t result in the same feelings or response and so they don’t understand why it’s happening for this other person.

I think that some people accept silver linings because it’s easier than to stay with the current feeling. Or maybe the person having the strong, hard feeling can tell that the other person is uncomfortable with how she’s feeling and wants to help that person feel better. Or maybe it’s because he’s just not ready to deal with the situation or feeling. And sometimes the silver lining puts things in a different perspective for the person and she is ready and able to move on.

I can be a master silver-liner. In most situations, I can find the bright side and do my best to convince the other person to see the pretty silver light. In fact, I do it to myself all the time.

Worn out after a hard day at work? At least I have a job.

Frustrated at the sight of a dirty house that was literally clean five minutes ago? At least I have a house.

Another medical bill in the mail? At least you are able to access healthcare.

Tired of listening to Josie get anxious when she doesn’t have her note saying that I’m going to pick her up at the same time as I always do? At least she is using her words to express her feelings.

Annoyed at the extra time it takes to put Moses’ socks, braces, and shoes on? At least he can walk.

For any hard situation I may be going through, there is always someone who seems to be going through something harder. But does that mean that my situation magically ceases to be hard? Does it become less important?

Many times, it seems that the answer is “yes”. Get over yourself and your “hardship” and be grateful for what you have. Or at least leave it at the door when you leave your home.

Like in Dr. Brown’s video, I feel like the ice I was standing on – ice that I thought was solid – wasn’t so solid after all. As I kept marching forward on my path, my foot hit a weak spot and I fell through. When I hit the water, many of those hard situations and feelings that I thought I had perfectly silver lined were there waiting for me. I’m pretty sure they are what weakened the ice below me in the first place.

I have been silver lining things in my relationships.

I have been silver lining things in my family.

I have been silver lining things in my job.

I have been silver lining things about myself.

Instead of allowing myself to feel the sadness, disappointment, frustration, annoyance, irritation, hurt, etc., I’ve silver lined it, pushed it down, and went on my way. Sometimes the silver lining works, sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, that feeling lies dormant until the ice cracks and allows it to come to the surface once more.

I took another mental health day today. I felt better than I did yesterday, but I knew that I wasn’t on solid ice just yet. As I was cleaning off my dresser this afternoon, I finally pulled out a bag that has been hiding underneath it for a little over three years.

It’s a bag that I received from the Down Syndrome Association of Greater St. Louis shortly after Moses was born. In it were resources that gave information about Down syndrome, tips for raising a child with Down syndrome, brochures for agencies that provide assistance for kids with Down syndrome, and a couple of books about having a child with Down syndrome.

As I went through the contents, I broke down. Much like I did when I looked at Moses’ first goal report for his IEP.

For three years, I’ve worked really hard at drawing that silver line around the challenges that come with a child with Down syndrome.

He has Down syndrome? At least he’s healthy.

He spent 6 days on a ventilator because of RSV? At least it wasn’t 7 days of watching a machine keep him alive.

He has an ASD in his heart? At least it was able to be repaired by a cardiac catheterization instead of open heart surgery.

He can only recognize and match 10 pictures? At least it’s more than none.

I am fully aware that Moses is doing more physically and cognitively than a lot of other three-year-old kids with Down syndrome. But it’s still hard to see his limitations, especially when it’s in black and white.

As I read through his goals, I was disappointed. I tried to silver line my disappointment with At least he’s making progress.

This place where I’m at is nobody’s fault and it’s not because of one certain thing. It’s a culmination of silver lining my feelings and situations, not taking care of myself consistently, and trying to keep up my facade of strength.

I don’t think that humans were designed to be dismissive of their situations or feelings. I don’t think that humans were designed to be physically or mentally strong all of the time. I think that we were designed to experience life, feel the feelings, rest when we feel weak, and hold others up when we feel strong. And when we find ourselves in that icy water, we can be at peace knowing that God doesn’t want us to stay there and He will help us find our way back to the solid ice.

Giving Up and Giving In: Taking Care of My Mental Health

When my alarm first went off this morning, my first thought was, “I can’t do this today.” Then I hit the snooze button.

When it went off the second time, I thought to myself, “I can’t do this today. But I have to because I have groups to meet with, students wanting to talk with me, classes to teach, teachers to meet with. I have too much to do, too many people counting on me, so I have to do it.” And then I hit snooze again.

The third time my alarm went off, my thought was, “I can’t do this today. I don’t have it in me to give to others the way they need me today. I’m not okay. But I have to.”

If I were a superwoman, this is where I would tell you about how I got up, showered, put my big girl panties on, and mustered up the strength and energy to face the day.

But I’m not superwoman.

I’m just a human.

The truth is, I hit snooze. Again. And when my alarm went off for the fourth time, I gave up and gave in to the understanding that I wasn’t well enough to go to work today.

At that point I got up and met my husband in the kitchen as he was about to come check on me and tell me how late it was getting. When he saw me, he asked if I was okay, and I told him, “I think I need to take a mental health day.” Then he listened as I stumbled through my thoughts and held me while I cried.

I sent my principals a text saying “So I’m going to take a mental health day today. I can’t really explain it, but I just know that I need to take it.” Thankfully, the only question that was asked was if there was anything they could do to help.

I know that there are some people who don’t understand the concept of taking a mental health day. They are probably the same people who don’t quite understand mental health. They might even be some of the same people who don’t understand taking a physical health day (aka “sick day”). They may believe that unless you’re in the hospital, you should go to work.

We encourage people who are running a fever/throwing up/sending germs into the air with every cough/spreading germs by touching all the things after blowing their green-snotty nose to stay home to get well and keep others from being affected. We understand that when a person pushes himself too much physically when he is sick, it can turn into an illness that is even more serious. That makes sense, right? We understand that, right?

The thing is about understanding when someone is experiencing poor mental health, you don’t have to have experienced it yourself. Just like someone who is physically sick – it’s not about you and how you feel. It’s about understanding that she isn’t well and needs to take steps to get better.

Maybe you’ve never experienced depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or compassion fatigue. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t real experiences for others. Perhaps you know what it feels like to be extremely sad, extremely worried, or mentally exhausted after going through a difficult time for you or your family.

For example, I’ve personally never had the flu, but I don’t need to have had the flu to understand that a) it’s real, and b) the person who does have it needs time to rest, recover, and feel strong again. I’m certainly not going to tell a person who has the flu to suck it up, maybe take a nap, and just try to be positive. I wouldn’t do that because I have been sick before and know what it’s like to need to take the time to rest, let my body recover, and regain my physical strength.

Likewise, you don’t need to have experienced a certain state of mental unwellness to be able to understand a) it’s real, and b) the person needs time to rest, recover, and feel (mentally) strong again.

It’s called having empathy.

It’s called having compassion.

Instead of questioning or making judgments about a person who is in poor mental health, just understand that she is not okay. Ask what you can do to help. Send her a message or Bible verse that might bring some peace. Understand that he may just need some time to regain a state of mental strength wellness.

Was it easy to take a mental health day today? No, it wasn’t.

As I sit here typing there’s a part of me that feels guilty that I’m missing work and inconveniencing people even though I’m not running a fever, puking my guts up, hacking up a lung, or blowing my nose a thousand times an hour. Part of me is uncomfortable thinking about people who may not understand or judge me because of this.

But I also know that because I took today to rest, cry, pray, and just let God hold me, tomorrow will be better.

I will be better.

Take care of yourself.

1-800-273-TALK (8255)

As a parent, I know that there are certain topics that are hard to talk to your child about.

Sex, drugs, and alcohol are probably the main three that a a lot of parents dread having to talk to their kids about. When it comes time for the conversation, the message is simple:

Don’t do it.

There’s another topic that parents can’t afford not to add to that list.

Suicide.

The message is just as simple:

Don’t do it.

As a parent, just the thought of your child knowing about suicide is sickening. The thought of your child having suicidal thoughts is enough to take your breath away and bring you to tears.

For a lot of parents, it’s easier to think that it’s not necessary to talk to their child about suicide. To default to thoughts like, “My son/daughter would never do that.” or “I would know if my son/daughter was having a hard time.” or “My son/daughter is too young to talk about suicide.”

Like abuse, trauma, and addiction, suicide does not discriminate. It doesn’t have an age limit. Skin color does not provide protection against it. Nor does gender. Zip codes mean nothing.

In my career as an elementary school counselor, some of my most difficult days were the ones when I listened as students told me of their desire not to live anymore and their plans to attempt suicide. The youngest of these students was in Kindergarten. My first experience of a student contemplating suicide to the point of having a plan was with a 1st grader. Some may say, “They’re just saying that for attention.” And I would agree. These students were not okay. They needed help. Big time.

Listening as these students talk about these things is heartbreaking. Calling parents and hearing the shock and confusion is hard. I’m sure the conversations that were had at home were extremely difficult.

But you know what would have been even harder?

Finding out that one of those students attempted or completed suicide.

We all have mental health, and just like our physical health can change at a moment’s notice, so can our mental health. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, although there seems to be a part of our society that is bound and determined to convince us otherwise.

Don’t let them see you cry.

Boys don’t cry.

Neither do big girls.

Suck it up.

Get over it.

You’re fine.

Today I spent the morning in a neighboring school district trying to provide even a little bit of comfort to students that were struggling to accept and make sense of the fact that one of their classmates completed suicide yesterday. More than once I heard them say things like “He was always so happy”; “I never thought he would do something like that”; and “I never thought that would happen here.”

Please talk to your child about suicide. You’re not going to plant a seed or “give them ideas”. What you are going to do is open a line of communication that is vital. That lets your child know that you’re not going to stick your head in the sand and that she can come and talk to you when she’s struggling. That he can tell you about a friend that he’s worried about. That you will listen and take her seriously when she says she feels hopeless. That you will find the right way to help him just like you did when he had a fever and a sore throat.

If you’re wondering how to talk to your child about suicide, this article gives some good ideas on how to broach the subject.

If you’re wondering what to say to your child if he tells you that he has thought about hurting himself or has had suicidal thoughts, keep it simple. Say “I’m so thankful you told me” followed by “I’m going to help you get through this”. If anything else, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But it will be easier than wishing you had.

Running On E

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

That’s the thought that has been running through my head.

Because mine is about empty.

Tonight I have gotten to work on refilling it.

This kids are at my in-laws. My husband is out celebrating the end of his school year.

I am ignoring the piles of clothes covering the dining room table that need to be put away and the mess of papers littering the kitchen counters. I’m going to let the dishes stay in the dishwasher until tomorrow and not care that the bathrooms haven’t been cleaned this week. I decided against going shopping for a new swimsuit or flowers that would’ve likely died before I could plant them. The top of my dresser has been collecting papers and pictures and dust for months, but I’m not going to clean it tonight.

Instead, I took this evening for me. I have gotten to sit on the couch and eat too many chips and french onion dip while watching TV. I got to finally take full advantage of the free vacuums at the new fancy car wash. (I don’t even want to know how many Cheerios, Fruit Loops, and penguins were in the cracks of those car seats…). I was able to turn off my phone and sit quietly with my thoughts for 45 uninterrupted minutes. I’ve taken the time to write.

I know that I’m in the season of life that requires me to take care of others in a big way, both at home and at work. But that doesn’t mean that I have an unlimited reserve of mental, emotional, and physical energy to unceasingly meet the needs of those who depend on me. That I don’t need to have my own needs met.

Right now, I’m tired.

Mentally.

Emotionally.

Physically.

Which is why I need time like this to myself. It’s quiet times like this that I am able to think, reflect, and pray for direction.

Some may think it selfish for me to be as thankful as I am to be at home alone this evening. I know there was a time I thought it was a selfish thing to want to do, let alone actually do it.

But even Jesus needed time alone to think, reflect, and pray, right? There were times that he told the twelve guys following him to leave him alone. I think that’s pretty understandable considering he spent his days being sought out to heal the sick and raise the dead, feed the masses and turn water into wine, and somehow also find the time to teach life-changing lessons in ways his students could understand. He knew there were times that He needed to take time for himself up on a mountain or in a boat in the middle of the sea. So He did. And then He was able to come back and continue serving others.

I know that doesn’t quite compare to what I do on a daily basis for my husband, children, geriatric dog, friends, students, etc. But like Jesus, after spending my days serving others, there comes a time that I need to stop.

Be still.

Be quiet.

Pray.

Tomorrow when I wake up, my cup will be refilled. It may not be overflowing. It may not even be to the top. But at least I will feel like I have something in there to pour out for others. Because you can only run on empty for so long.

I hope that you will make the time and take the time to make sure your cup is filled, too.

Choosing Grateful

A couple of months ago, I got to take my daughter on a quick trip to Florida to visit my parents. The first full day we were there was thankfully the most beautiful, perfect day ever. Blue skies, white sand, a little breeze, and a very excited 4-year-old. Watching her run back and forth to get water for the sandcastle her Daddy O was building for her, getting to chat with my Mom, and feeling the sand between my toes was a little slice of Heaven on earth.

We had just gotten settled on the beach the second morning when I got a text delivering heartbreaking news about a good friend. As hard as I tried, I couldn’t hold back the tears and began thinking of what I could’ve said or done differently to give her more help and support. After talking to my mom about it and accepting that there was nothing I could do from where I was at other than pray, I decided to take a walk. Josie and my mom went with me, and it didn’t take long before Josie’s endless chatter and excitement over finding shells and running after seagulls helped me to feel better. After a bit, Josie and my mom headed back while I kept walking and looking for shells. The waves were a little more rough than the day before so finding shells was a little harder, but then I found a little tide pool that had some of the tiniest shells I had ever seen and I spent a good amount of time hunting for them and clearing my head.

On my walk back, I saw another pretty shell and when I picked it up, I was so excited at how beautiful it really was. It was a small lightning whelk, one of my favorite types, whose shape was perfectly intact and the most beautiful shade of soft white. If was like the Audrey Hepburn of shells. It was like finding the perfect pair of red high heels when you weren’t even shopping for shoes. Or finding your favorite bottle of Pinot Noir on sale.

And then it was gone.

When I put my hand back in the water to get the sand off of my elegantly beautiful shell, the pull of the wave pulled it right back into the surf. Immediately frustrated and devastated but still hopeful, I frantically looked for the shell while trying not to look like I wasn’t playing with a full deck of cards. After about a minute, I knew the chance of actually finding it was extremely slim, but there was that part of me that kept thinking, “If you keep looking just a little bit longer, you might find it.”

So I did. I kept looking for another couple of minutes. And then it hit me, like the wave that robbed me of my find: by focusing all my attention and effort on that one small shell that slipped out of my hand, I was completely disregarding the handful of beautiful shells that I was still carrying. Not to mention the ones I had found the day before.

How many times have I done that? Focused so much on what I didn’t have anymore, or even what I didn’t have in the first place, that I lost sight of what I do have. Finding people or things to blame instead of finding people or things to thank or be thankful for. Choosing to be ungrateful over grateful.

I think back to finding out that my baby would have Down syndrome. How easily I could’ve chosen to be mad at God for taking away my “perfect” baby or focus what my baby wouldn’t be able to do in his or her life. To find all of the negatives that were likely going to flood my life because of that extra chromosome.

If I had done that, would I have been able to rejoice in all the ultrasounds and tests afterwards that showed a healthy, growing baby? Would I have been able to feel the excitement that came with each passing week that brought me closer to meeting the newest member of our family? Would I have been able to through my hands up in victory when the doctor announced that I had just given birth to the boy I had prayed for?

Probably not. Because an ungrateful, negative mindset does not lend itself to finding positivity, let alone joy, in such things.

Having a grateful, positive mindset doesn’t mean that you aren’t affected by the wide-range of hardships that life brings. It doesn’t protect you from feeling the hurt, disappointment, sadness, or frustration that comes with life’s downs, such as losing the most perfect lightning whelk shell or learning of an unexpected and life-changing diagnosis.

We all know that life is far from perfect. Everyday brings challenges and obstacles that can rob us of our sense of safety, security, happiness, etc. Some of those things are small, some are ginormous. Some affect us for a minute, some for the rest of our lives.

Unfortunately, we cannot control the next snag we hit, the next hurdle we have to jump, or the next tragedy we face. We can, however, control how we respond. It doesn’t mean that we can necessarily snap our fingers and poof! change our feelings, but it does mean that we can choose to be grateful for what we do have. And that will be different for everyone. For some is might be a relationship, for some it might be their memories, for some it might be a prized possession, or for others it might be the hope for a better tomorrow. I don’t think it matters what you choose to be grateful for as long as you choose to be grateful.

One thing I’ve learned about having a grateful, positive mindset is that it doesn’t just benefit you. It will also absolutely have an impact on those around you, especially the people closest to you. If I had continued being frustrated about losing a shell I had in my possession for all of 30 seconds, I would have been sure to affect Josie and my parents. I mean, how would they not be affected by a pouting 38-year-old woman?

Or this evening when my darling son pulled the plate of deviled eggs off the counter this evening and I immediately expressed my frustration by loudly saying, “NO! NOT NICE!!!” and giving him my best disappointed-mom look while I cleaned up the mess. But then instead of staying mad about the six delicious eggs I had to put down the garbage disposal, I chose thankful for the 4 that were salvaged. (And for the 3 that I had eaten when I was making them.) The result? A pleasant, enjoyable family meal was had by all.

Life is hard. There will be ups and downs. I hope that you will choose to be grateful for your ups.

Figuring It All Out

I can remember being younger and thinking that 38 was old. I also thought that by the time someone was that “old”, she would have her life figured out. She would know who she was, who she loves, what she loves to do, what works for her and what doesn’t, and so on.

Yet here I am, 38-years-old and still feeling young and dumb. I mean, I have a few things figured out – who I love, what I love to do, what doesn’t work for me – but I’m still trying to figure out so much and how it all fits together: How to be a good wife. How to be a good mother. How to be a good daughter. How to be a good sister. How to be a good friend. How to be a good counselor. How to be a good person. How to take care of everyone and everything in my life and take care of myself, too. I’m doing my best to do all of those things the best that I can, but I still find myself feeling like I’m floundering through it all. Probably because when I’m giving more attention to one role for whatever reason, I feel like I’m letting the other roles down. Specifically, I feel like I’m letting the people involved in those other roles down. Especially when I’m doing something to take care of myself.

I am very aware that I put a lot of pressure on myself. I always have. When I do give myself a break and give myself permission to give less than what I feel is my best, I typically end up feeling disappointed in myself rather than feeling relief from having done less.

I am also very aware that the people in my life who love me would do anything to help me where I need it. I do like to think that I do ask for help more now than I did before, especially when it comes to my kids. However, I know I don’t ask for as much help as I should because asking for help usually comes with feelings of guilt. I feel like I’m putting the others out or keeping them from doing other things that they would like to do or have on their own list. Plus, I feel like I should be the one taking care of others, and it’s uncomfortable for me to have others take care of me.

Then I internalize it all. All the stress, all the uncertainty, all the pressure. Sure, I’ll vent to people here and there, but then I end the vent session with something like, “I’m okay” and then try to shift the conversation to them. And then I usually end up feeling bad for dumping my problems on them. I’ve even apologized to my counselor for pouring out all of my troubles onto her. I also internalize the stress, uncertainty, and pressure I experience from listening to other people’s stressful situations. (I guess that could be called secondary stress?) I don’t want to tell them that their stress stresses me out because I don’t want them to feel like they can’t talk to me and I also don’t want to add to their stress. But it affects me even though I try not to let it.

Then I find myself running on empty – physically, mentally, and emotionally. Like I literally don’t have anything else to give to anyone in any capacity. That is not a good state for anyone to be in, but that exactly where I found myself Friday morning. As I listened to the sound of my husband playing with the kids, I was lying in bed crying and telling God that I needed a break and that I needed someone to take care of me for a minute. I’ve learned that God’s timeline for answering prayers is not always the same as what I think it should be, but He always answers them at the right time. Friday was one of the quickest turnarounds ever. Not even an hour later, Tyson was hugging me and telling me that I was going to take a break and that I had to let him take care of me for the next few days.

Last year was the first time I realized that taking time to myself is one of the best ways I can take care of myself. Of course, I’ve spent the last 9 months wondering why it took me so long to figure that out. (It finally dawned on me that up until Josie came along, I had a lot of time to myself that I didn’t have to ask for.) Thankfully, I have a husband who loves and understands me and knows what I need before I can figure it out myself. He knows that I get to a point where I need some time off. Some time away to rest and read and sort through my thoughts. That’s why he booked a hotel room for me last night. That’s why he got frustrated when yesterday morning took an unexpected turn and I didn’t get to start my mini-vacation until 11:00 a.m. instead of 9:00 a.m.

When I woke up this morning, I felt rested and refreshed and ready to sort through the sea of thoughts that had finally calmed down in my head. I’ve come to realize that I’m 38 and don’t have it all figured out, and that’s okay. For me, it’s probably very likely that I won’t have my life figured out for a very long time, maybe ever, because my life is not static. It is constantly changing. Sometimes change comes fast and unexpectedly, sometimes I can see it coming and have time to prepare. Sometimes change brings happiness, sometimes it brings hardships, sometimes it’s barely a blip on the radar. Some change brings stress, some change brings relief. Regardless of what’s coming with the changes that will happen in my life, it’s up to me to keep myself physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy so I can be ready for whatever.

That means I have to keep working on giving myself permission to not have it all figured out and that all I can do is my best. I also have to remember that my best might look different from day-to-day. I have to make regular appointments to see my counselor even when I’m feeling mentally well so I can maintain that. I especially have to remember to ask for help and leave the feelings of guilt at the door when that help arrives and just be thankful for it and accept it. Basically, I have to do the one things I’m constantly encouraging other people to do, and that’s to take care of myself so that I can take care of others. One day, I really might get it all figured out.

My Own Story

Currently, I have 10 blog drafts saved. Ten times I’ve started writing, and ten times I haven’t finished a post. When it comes to writing about my family, especially my children, it’s really not hard. The words to describe them and my experiences with them come to mind easily and it doesn’t take much for me to type them out. When it comes to writing about myself, on the other hand, it’s hard. It’s hard to get my thoughts straight in my head, and it’s even harder to type them. Sometimes I find myself thinking that if it’s so hard, maybe it’s a sign that I shouldn’t write a post about myself. But then I think of why I started this blog in the first place – to not only help myself, but to hopefully somehow help others through my experiences.

Then there’s the issue of where to start. I know I could stick to writing about my experiences as a mother, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being a parent is hard and I know I can use all the support I can get when it comes to raising my children. The thing is, I’m not just a mom. I’m a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, and a school counselor. Sure, I could write about my experiences as being any one of those things. But there is one thing that has been weighing on me to write about for several months.

Mental health.

I know mental health has been getting more attention lately because of shootings and suicides, and I am thankful for it. It’s a topic that I’ve become increasingly interested in and passionate about. However, mental health still has such a negative cloud surrounding it that most people are very hesitant to talk about it on a personal level – including myself. When it comes down to it, mental health is a topic that people seem to be willing to talk about when it is applicable to other people, but it is because of that that I think that there is a lot of misinformation and misunderstanding. For me, mental health is deeply personal because of my work as a school counselor but more because of my experiences. So before I write any other of my thoughts about mental health outside of myself, I feel that it is important to share my own story, as hard as it may be.

So here goes nothing:

This past spring I started going to a counselor. I had thought about going to a counselor a couple of different times over the past decade or so but never did, and after a while, the things that were bothering me and the hard feelings I was having seemed to get resolved.

This time it was different. I knew that I needed professional help. It’s like the difference between a summer cold and a sinus infection – when the over-the-counter medication isn’t enough and you know it’s time to go see a doctor to really take care of the problem.

Before I continue, let me be clear on one thing: My life is wonderful. I have been blessed with amazing people whom I love and I know love me. I have a strong Christian faith, go to church as regularly as I can, and pray daily for myself and others. I have a loving, supportive husband and two healthy children. I have a strong circle of family and friends that love and support me. I have the best dog in the world. I have a career that is fulfilling in so many different ways and also provides financial support for my family’s needs and wants. I have the security of a safe home and reliable vehicles. I have an almost-full wine rack. I have a lot of great things in my life. Aren’t all of these things enough? Shouldn’t all of this be enough for me to be happy? Why did I need to go see a counselor?

Because life is hard. It’s busy and stressful and overwhelming. Over time, I found myself feeling like I was drowning in the sea of being a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and counselor. I love all of the roles I play in this life, but to fulfill them well takes time and energy – mostly mental and emotional energy.

And because I have depression. It’s not an excuse, it’s a fact. It’s no one’s fault, just like it’s not my fault that Moses has an extra chromosome. Just like someone who exercises regularly and eats healthy foods might still have a body that doesn’t produce the correct level of insulin her body needs. I’m not a bad person because of it no more than a diabetic is a bad person. Even with all of the blessings in my life, my brain doesn’t just “do” happy easily. It doesn’t mean that I need to be committed to a mental hospital because of it just like Moses doesn’t need to be institutionalized because he has Down syndrome. It just means that I have to do things differently so that I can feel and be happy and fully enjoy my life.

I was first diagnosed with depression when I was around 21. I can remember going to the student health center at college and telling the nurse practitioner that I wasn’t feeling okay. After telling her about how I had been feeling and filling out a questionnaire, I was told that I had depression. I was scared, sad, and relieved. Scared because I didn’t quite know what that meant for me. Sad because there was something “wrong” with me. Relieved because I was finally going to get help to feel better.

I was prescribed an antidepressant and left with an appointment to see a counselor. The medication worked like it was supposed to. The appointment with the counselor did not. Part of my depression was low self-esteem and body image issues that I had been battling for many years. The first counselor I went to was beautiful and thin and proceeded to tell me about how either she or her daughter had been models. The next counselor I went to gave me some worksheets. I’m not sure I even talked much to him that day, and I never went back. I was done with talking to counselors. Besides, the medication seemed to do the trick to help me feel mentally healthy. I didn’t know it then, but I still had a long way to go.

Fast-forward almost ten years to when I started the counseling program. In the decade before starting the program, I had been through A LOT of ups and downs (I’m talking mountains and valleys). During my time in the program, I was not only learning how to help others, I was also able to learn more about myself and work through many of the issues that I struggled with. I learned so much about mental health and even more about how counseling works, especially that there are different approaches to counseling. That’s when I realized that the counselors I had seen previously used approaches that just weren’t a good fit for me. I learned how to talk about and work through some of the issues that had been haunting me. It was also during this time that I met a person that provided me with the sense of love and security I had been searching for since leaving my parents’ care.

For a while, my depression seemed to be in remission. I was able to stop taking medication and was able to maintain a healthy mental state. After Josie was born, it was as though she was my antidepressant. Watching her grow and find excitement and happiness in the little things of everyday life was every bit as good as Zoloft.

When I went back for my 6-week check-up after having Moses, I already knew I had postpartum depression. No, it was not because he had Down syndrome. If anything, my new little baby boy was just another light in my days. It wasn’t even because of the fiery pain of having mastitis multiple times within a 3-week period. I had postpartum depression because that’s how my brain reacted after having a baby.

It wasn’t until this past spring that I knew I needed more than medication this time. Yes, medication helped me be able to function like a more or less normal human being. What medication doesn’t do is get rid of the daily stressors of my hectic life. It doesn’t solve problems for me. It doesn’t listen to me and then help me figure out changes I can make to actually get rid of sources of stress or solve problems.

Unfortunately, saying, “I’m going to a counselor” is almost like saying, “I’m crazy”, and not in the fun, adventurous way. I know that mental health is a very real thing, just like physical health. However, it’s also often dismissed or minimalized or stigmatized in such a negative light that many people do not fully address it, perhaps out of fear of being labeled for going to see a counselor or psychiatrist, or maybe because they don’t know how to go about improving their mental health. If I tell someone I went to see the doctor, there’s little to no reaction outside of asking if I’m feeling okay. When I say I went to see my counselor, there’s a very different reaction – it’s almost like people panic because they don’t know what to say although they could respond with the same question of if I’m doing okay. That in and of itself actually put more stress on me, but in the end, I knew I had to go talk to a mental health professional.

As much as I love my husband, my parents, my siblings, and my friends, they couldn’t help me with those things, either. Not because they didn’t want to, but because they aren’t counselors. They aren’t trained to listen to me ramble on with unconditional positive regard. They listen with unconditional love, but that’s not the same thing. Listening with unconditional positive regard means that no judgment is cast about what I’m saying or feeling. It means that I don’t have to censor my words out of fear of hurting the person listening. It means that I don’t have to cut out certain parts of the story out of fear of disappointing the person listening.

Talking to a counselor is also different because she doesn’t say anything to intentionally or unintentionally minimize my experiences or feelings. She doesn’t tell me that I should just accept things as that’s how they are or tell me what works for her which should also work for me. She doesn’t get uncomfortable when I talk about very personal issues and try to change the subject.

She listens. She points out things I say repeatedly or inconsistency in my thoughts. She reframes what I say in a way that helps me to understand how I really feel but couldn’t (or didn’t want to) pinpoint it on my own. She helps me as I start to figure out what I could do to get myself back on track. She doesn’t solve my problems for me, but she helps me figure out how to find the solutions that will work for me.

I think what helped me as much as talking to my counselor was knowing that I was taking an active responsibility and role in helping myself get better. No one else can do it for me.  No one else can “make” me happy. That’s all on me, and I’m working on it every day. I think that’s where mental health takes such a personal turn – it really is up to the individual to make improvements whether by taking medication as directed by a doctor, talking to a counselor/therapist, exercising regularly, meditating, praying, getting enough sleep, or a combination of multiple things.

I hope that mental health will become more understood and positively accepted as part of a person’s whole health in the coming years. I’m not saying that everyone who has a mental health issue broadcast it for the world to know. I do hope that anyone who is having a hard time mentally or emotionally look to get professional help and know that it’s no different than going to a medical professional for a physical health issue. If someone you know is taking steps to improve his or her mental health, give that person all the love, support and encouragement you can.

Finally, I didn’t write this so that anyone will feel sorry for me any more than I wrote it so that anyone would label me as crazy. My genuine hope is that it might help to normalize and prioritize the subject for mental health for more people. If you want to feel sorry for me or call me crazy, I obviously can’t stop you, but I will ask that you pray for me while you’re at it. 😘