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. BrenĂ© 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.