Thursday, January 5, 2017

Yep, It's Morning Sickness

 Before I started having babies, I wanted four of them.  My husband (wisely) wanted to take things one kid at a time.  When he told me during my last pregnancy (#3) that it would probably be our last, I cried.  I wasn't ready to be done.

And then...10 weeks after baby #3 was born, I mentally crashed.  After coming through that valley, I decided that my body and mind were done, and that I would enjoy my three healthy, beautiful babies that we already had.  I told people that we were totally done.  I donated most of my maternity and baby clothes.  No more breastfeeding!  And finally, everyone was sleeping through the night.

At the end of November, my pants started to get tighter, which was really weird because I had started eating incredibly healthy (Eat to Live), I began to wonder.  Heartburn led to a dollar store pregnancy test which led to a digital test which led to blood tests at the doctor, and the answer was always the same: PREGNANT.



Please don't misunderstand me; babies are such a miraculous gift.  Even though this baby was not in our plans, it was definitely in God's, and we are very, very grateful.  This baby will be a much loved part of our family.  But...pregnant?!  A recurrence of postpartum depression is a real possibility.  And I'm nervous about managing four kids.  And I'm pretty sure I'm going to decline the offer of that leadership position I was planning to take in our homeschooling group.  And SLEEP.  And breastfeeding.  And, just...all of it.  It's overwhelming.

I've had OCD/anxiety/depression for long enough that I can recognize the signs of a coming valley.  And I was experiencing those signs (see this post) even a few weeks before the tests came back positive.  So I've been really on my guard these last few weeks, because I know that feeding the wolf just makes it grow.  The bigger it grows, the harder it will be for me to crawl out of the valley.  So I'm doing what I can to cope and manage it well.  Exercise (not easy with morning sickness),  Rest.  Connecting with friends.  Continuing counseling.  Exposure Response Prevention.

Pray for me, friends.  We've got quite a journey ahead.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Sliding

It's November - one whole year since the worst mental health dip that I've ever had, just 10 weeks after the birth of my third child.  My daughter is no longer a wakeful newborn/infant refusing to sleep through the night; she is now the 15-month-old definition of a toddler.

God's grace sustained me over this past year, and I can honestly say that I had more good days than bad ones.  This summer and fall have been especially good.  I'm so grateful that the anniversary of my mental crash didn't trigger another one.

sliding down the slide of mental health ocd anxiety depressionI have been struggling a bit over the last couple of weeks, though, although it has been fairly manageable.

  • Scrupulosity - doubting God and feeling awful about that, asking for forgiveness for my sins compulsively
  • Checking appliances, and (for some reason) now the water heater and furnace
  • Experiencing high anxiety out of the blue

Just today I struggled through thinking that maybe I had sinned and that I had to ask God for forgiveness or else He would be angry with me or maybe my salvation would be in jeopardy.  My head knows that He has cleansed me from all unrighteousness through Christ, even if I don't say the words "Please forgive me for..." or "Thank You for forgiving me for..."  I did end up praying about it and also asking God to help me not give in to compulsions.  My 5-year-old promptly interrupted my quiet prayer from the back of the van, which interrupted my compulsive behavior.  Thank God for His grace.

This afternoon, I saw that I had a missed call from someone I  was supposed to accomplish a task for weeks ago.  I instantly got anxious (and it hasn't gone away yet).  After putting the kids down for naps, I pushed through this task I've pushed off for so long and then returned the phone call.  Of course, it wasn't nearly as bad as I had anticipated.

My stress level has been higher the past few weeks - health issues of family members, joining the board of a nonprofit, possibly taking on a leadership position in our homeschool group, being too busy...  I think it may be time to pull back and just breathe deeply.  Because I know that these dips can come on so incredibly quickly, and I want to do everything within my power to avoid another one.

How do you handle the stress of life?  Do you thrive on it, or (like me) does it make things difficult?

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Is God Still Good?

Two weeks ago, my 61-year-old mom went zip lining through the mountains on a vacation with friends.  6 days ago, this same woman had a stroke.

Mom, my biggest supporter (along with my husband), not only in my mental health journey, but also in my life.

Nana, who enlisted my boys (ages 3 and 5) to help her clear out the raised vegetable garden just the day before.

My mom.


Our family is praising God for what can only be described as the best possible outcome of having a stroke - a very probable full recovery within a few weeks.  God is so good!

But you know what?  God would still be good even if her stroke outcome was not as positive.  Even if she lost use of one side of her body, He would still be good.  Even if she never regained her speech, He would still be good.  Even if she would have died, He would still be good.

Because God is good all the time, not only when the sky is blue and the sun is shining.  He is also good in the storm.

Not only when I feel "normal," but also when my brain spirals into anxiety that feels unshakable.

Not only when the kids are healthy, but also when they throw up in the middle of the night.

Not only when I get a full night of straight sleep, but also when the kids are up (and so am I) multiple times through the night.

Not only when our neighborhood feels safe, but also when a violent crime happens just three houses down the street.

Not only when the bills are paid, but also when finances are scary.

Not only when the kids obey the first time, but also when they meltdown in front of strangers or (worse) in front of people we know.

Not only when everything goes to plan, but also when nothing goes to plan.

Not only when a friendship runs smoothly, but also when it gets awkward.

Not only when my husband is home on time, but also when he works overtime.

Not only when the kids are eager to learn, but also when they would rather do anything but school.

Not only when I rest in His grace, but also when I am fully entangled in the vines of legalism and the strive for perfection.

Not only when I complete a task successfully, but also when my efforts fall short.

Not only when I feel joy, but also when depression settles like a suffocating blanket.

Not only when my brain is free, but also when it latches on to obsessions and refuses to let go.

Not only when I have abundant childcare available, but also when childcare is scarce.

He is overwhelmingly and unchangingly good: Not only when my mom zip lines in the mountains on vacation, but also when she has a hemhorragic stroke two weeks later.  He is good.


I would love to hear about your experiences with God's goodness.  If you'd like, leave comments structured like mine that are based on your life: "God is good not only when _______________, but also when _________________________."  

Because God certainly is good!  

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Anxiety, Fast and Furious

Adult Coloring coping with mental illnessThe coloring books made an appearance this afternoon, a sure sign that I've been struggling.  Even though I enjoy coloring, I tend to only do it as a coping mechanism when my brain swirls.

After four really great months, the high anxiety reappeared Monday afternoon.  The onset was quick, and I've been working through the effects of that first episode since.  The physical symptoms of a dry mouth, lack of hunger, diarrhea.  The dread that maybe I'm falling back in to that pit of despair.  The fear that I won't be all that my kids need me to be or that I won't be able to sleep again.

I should have seen it coming, really.  I've slacked on some things that have proven in the past to help me maintain my mental health - exercise, getting enough sleep, stress reduction, not giving in to compulsions.


What Happened?
I recently finished reading the New Testament and am now making my way through the Old Testament.  A few hours after reading yesterday morning, I heard Brant Hansen on the radio speaking Truth about God's grace and us not being able to be good enough on our own.  I thought back to what I read that morning, and I got very confused by how different the God of the Old Testament seems to be from the God of the New Testament.  He is the same God, so how can that be?  Immediately my head began to spin with the obsession that I needed to reconcile this or maybe I was missing something that affected my salvation.  The paradoxes of the Bible confuse me - God's judgment and grace, His compassion and holiness, His justice and mercy, His kindness and anger.

High anxiety covered me like a blanket.  I haven't felt that way for months, and the familiar feeling was not welcome.  My natural response was to start the compulsions - to continue thinking about it (ruminating) in this case.  Instead I spoke to my husband and sister, had some coffee with pretzels and chocolate chips, and chose to not think about it (easier this time than in times past), and by doing that I was able to trust God.  He is who He says He is, and He is able to change the way that He deals with people.  He has never changed, but His methods have.  I choose to believe that He is good, and that His love endures forever.  He has saved me through Christ, and I have been made holy through Him.  The end.

After a couple of hours, the anxiety calmed down and I felt normal.  Until yesterday afternoon when it again hit out of nowhere.  It was like a switch turned in my brain and I was immediately anxious and irritable.  This time the feeling lingered through the evening and more familiar feelings returned (like everyday tasks feeling daunting).

And this morning I woke up afraid.  Afraid that I was going to slip down the slope in to the major depression and go back to that place of intense suffering and extreme difficulty functioning.  The place where doing anything feels daunting.  The place of uncertainty in my faith.  The place of feeling like my kids deserve better.

But then I realized that what I was feeling were the effects of having that high anxiety a couple of days ago, and I wasn't intensifying it by giving in to compulsions.  With that realization came the reminder that the anxiety never lasts forever.  It passes every single time, and I'm okay.  I'll be okay.  And I felt better.

Frustrating Liberation
I've found that I can't handle the things that other people seem to be able to.  Being busy leads to stress which has a direct influence on my mental health.  This is both frustrating and liberating.  Frustrating because there are so many things that I would like to do - get my doctorate, adopt, maybe have another baby, join the board of a non-profit, teach more college classes.  Liberating because I have a reason to say no.  All of those extra things I'd love to do - the doctorate, adoption, non-profit - they have to take a back burner so that I can be healthy for myself, my husband, and my kids.  They need a healthy wife/mom, and for that to happen I have to limit my involvement with outside activities.

I also need to reduce stress in potentially stressful situations (dragging all three kids to two grocery stores in one morning is a bad idea) and take care of myself physically - exercise and get enough sleep.

Keep moving forward, one step at a time.


What do you do when thoughts seem to get the best of you?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Perfection: A Masquerade


How people view me has always been a priority.  Since total perfection in this life is impossible, my high school self did her best to create the next best thing: a facade so that others in my Christian school/church community would think I was perfect, or at least close to it.  Maintaining this facade of perfection has become less important to me as I've gotten older, but the drive is still there.

The Facade

A.J. is:
  • successful; a high performer who does things to an excellent standard
  • someone to be counted on
  • a faithful wife who submits to her husband
  • a mom who focuses on all of the right things
  • someone who has had an easy life
  • a dependable friend
  • a strong and involved Christian
  • a faithful daughter who is part of a respectable family 
  • a wise decision maker 
  • a vocally happy person who doesn't get frustrated easily
  • physically healthy
Is it bad for people to think that this is who I am?  No, I don't think so.  I want to be these things, and to an extent, I am.  But it isn't the whole truth.


Who Am I Really?

A.J. is:
  • insecure, especially when someone sees mistakes that have been made
  • terrified of disappointing people
  • not good at submitting to her husband
  • a sometimes failure 
  • someone who hides mental health struggles well (all the way back to childhood - lots of practice)
  • terrible at getting back with people 
  • a doubter who has focused on being good enough instead of on grace
  • a worrier that others will think poorly of her
  • a fisherman of compliments
  • a fake-it-until-you-make-it person
  • a lover of dessert twice a day

Truth Conclusions

Some things are impossible.
Perfection outside of God is an illusion, no matter how hard I try.  It's impossible in this life.  So is complete avoidance of disappointing others.  It's just going to happen.  Jesus is perfect, but I cannot be until I am in heaven with Him.

Jesus died for this.  
He died for my imperfection...every sin I've ever committed and will ever commit - my insecurities, my issues of pride and judging others, my difficulty with submitting to my husband.  All of the lies I've believed and the striving to maintain the facade of perfection.  He died for that.  He died for all of the messiness that is real life as a result of sin, and because of Him, I will be made perfect in heaven.

Gratitude, not Obligation.  It's okay to strive for excellence, but not for it to become an obsession. God shows us grace, and it's okay for us to give ourselves some grace, too.  Our goal should be to glorify God through our lives while understanding that He does not expect perfection.

Community matters.  On vacation this past week, my sister-in-law saved me from some pain.  We were talking while other family members were playing Frisbee on the beach behind me.  As we talked, she moved quickly and knocked the Frisbee away just seconds before it smacked me in the head.  This, my friends, is a true picture of community.  We are present in each other's lives, and we look out for one another.  We share authentically about our true selves and let go of the facade of perfection.  We are real with one another, not in a way that glorifies our weaknesses, but in a way that says, "I am human, and I need help."  We are able to show each other tangible grace and model with each other how God shows us grace.  We have to be okay with talking about the brokenness even while pursuing something whole.

What steps have you taken to throw off the facade of perfection?

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Just Breathe

Gasping for Air
I used to think that I liked to be busy.  Then I got married and had a kid.  And another one.  I functioned pretty well with working, a marriage, two kids...and then my daughter was born one year ago.  After her birth, I quickly found myself gasping for airstruggling more deeply with my mental illness, trying to keep up with work and family with a newborn + two young kids, maintaining a facade of perfectionism, struggling in my relationship with God...I mean, really gasping.  Air was in short supply.  I was depressed, anxious, and giving in (a lot) to OCD obsessions and compulsions.  I functioned okay on the outside, but I was suffocating on the inside.

Something had to give.


My Oxygen Tank 
My life needed a major overhaul.  The chaos was more than I could handle, and I was in desperate need of learning what it meant to just breathe like Jonny Diaz sings in his song of that same name ("Just Breathe" - it's worth a listen).  But learning to breathe wasn't going to just happen on its own.  I needed an oxygen tank - an arsenal of things in my life that would make breathing just a little easier.  Here are some of the things that fill my oxygen tank.

The Ability to Say "No"
The American culture seems to measure success by how busy we are.  We can be involved in a lot of good things, but as a result we can totally miss the best things - relationships, personal health, spiritual growth - due to being busy.  Church involvement, Classical Conversations, and homeschooling seem to be enough for us right now.


Organic Homeschooling
I over complicated homeschooling at first.  It became stressful and overwhelming and didn't go so well.  Then I read The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis (I highly recommend it).  The overall point of the book is that kids in preschool and kindergarten most need is to spend time doing things with people who love them.  Their environment - whatever it happens to be - is their curriculum.

My son is now in kindergarten.  We do have formal school time, but I'm learning that life is a great curriculum in addition to working on literacy and math.  Here are some recent real life experiences that we turned in to learning opportunities:
  • Cooking dinner - we made salsa and learned how to bake chicken
  • Buying things with cash - The boys brought their own money to the grocery store.  We talked about what items they could afford and how to read the price signs.  After choosing sour gummy worms, they took their item to the cash register, got money out of their wallets, paid the cashier, and got change and a receipt back.  
  • Authentic writing - my kindergartener wrote a list of things he wants to take on vacation (we leave Monday) and a birthday card to a friend.  

Simple, Unemotional Discipline
Kids are hard.  Our oldest son was recently exhibiting behaviors that left unchecked would make life very difficult for him (and us!) in the future.  I read The Well-Behaved Child by John Rosemond.  I don't agree with everything in the book, but based on the information found in it, we have made some major simplifications to what we are doing to help our son with his behavior:
  • Identified target misbehaviors to focus on
  • Communicated clear and simple consequences for when he exhibits one of the target misbehaviors
  • Followed through on the consequences
  • Stopped saying "okay?" at the end of a directive...for example, "don't hit your brother, okay?"  I'm making a statement that he must obey, not asking for his permission.
  • Acted as a referee without emotion instead of becoming angry at the drop of a hat...for example, "You did _____________, and the consequence is ______________.  It's too bad you made that decision."
My son knows exactly what is expected and what will happen if he chooses not to follow the rules.  He is a much happier kid, and our relationship with him has improved.


Forgiven Focus
OCD has greatly affected my relationship with God.  I've struggled with obsessions of making God angry and compulsions of asking for forgiveness for my sins over and over and over.  Now, instead of asking for God's forgiveness over and over, I thank Him for forgiving me for all of my sins.  I'm still working through what it means to confess, repent, and be forgiven, but simplifying my prayer life has been a good start.


Decluttering
I have a problem with disorganization.  I know this flies in the face of what people usually think of when they think of someone with OCD, but it's true.  We have too much stuff.  And it's easy for it to take over our lives.  I've been sorting, donating, selling, and organizing so our lives can be enhanced by our stuff - not enslaved by it.

School Room before:


School Room after:


Bullet Journal
This method of organizing tasks and information seems to be growing in popularity.  A bullet journal is nothing fancy.  Mine is a blank notebook that I use to keep track of whatever I need to write down.  Here's the current content of my bullet journal:
  • My ongoing to do list
  • An old grocery list
  • Notes from a phone call to the pediatrician's office
  • Bullet points of things to talk to my sister-in-law about as we prep for a family vacation
  • The name and author of a book I should read
  • A vacation packing list
  • Daily to do lists
  • A catalog of items I donated this week to write off on our taxes

Routines and Processes
Simple Morning and Evening Routine
Morning: Feed my daughter, read my Bible/pray, drink coffee, fold laundry/straighten up, boys get up
Evening: Fix and eat dinner, start a load of dishes and a load of laundry

These simple routines help the rest of our day run smoothly, and everyone is well taken care of.


Finances
Ideally (which is another way of saying that it has never once been perfectly done), our money management process looks like this.  My husband gets paid, I immediately tithe and pay all bills due in the next two weeks.  We then know exactly how much money we have left to buy groceries, gas, clothes, etc.  We use Dave Ramsey's budgeting software, EveryDollar, and that has been very helpful.


Meal Planning/Shopping
  1. Make a list of meals for the week (I use my bullet journal) based on ingredients we already have and what is on sale.
  2. Write out ingredients and amounts needed for each meal, and a place to mark whether or not we already have each one.
  3. Make a grocery list of only ingredients we need.
  4. Buy everything that I can at Aldi.


Deep Breaths
The result of using my oxygen tank has been huge.  I no longer feel hurried and frazzled most of the time.  My brain feels more at peace.  I feel SO MUCH MORE relaxed.  I'm enjoying my family.  My efforts are focused on caring for the people around me instead of feeling divided and spread too thin among different commitments.  We are spending time around the dinner table eating good food.  The house is still a mess (I don't have a good process for that yet!), but there is lots of love under this roof.
I'm able to...breathe.  And that has made all the difference.

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What are some things that you do to help you breathe freely?  I'd love to hear about them!

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P.S.  If you're interested in hearing more about the need to slow down and rest, take a listen to an interview on the God-Centered Mom podcast with Shauna Niequist, author of Present Over Perfect.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A First-Birthday Letter to My Daughter

Dear J,

a letter to my baby daughter first birthdayTomorrow, baby girl, you turn one year old!  Some mommies and daddies get emotional when their baby turns one, but I'm mostly just excited.  What a year it has been!

You were a gorgeous newborn - that mass of dark hair, beautiful little face, and those darling tiny ears.  And you've been such a healthy eater!  You breastfed immediately and often, and you quickly became a very healthy (and chubby!) baby, and still are.  I love it.  Your brothers adore you, and I know the feeling is mutual.  Your quick smile and precious giggle bring joy to all around you.

Even with this marvelous adventure of your first year, it has undoubtedly been one of the hardest of my life.  You changed things, J.  While I wish that I hadn't struggled with postpartum mental health as I did, I would not change the outcome of my changed mindset.

God used you to break some long held lies in my life:

1.  I will remain unforgiven unless I verbally ask God for forgiveness for specific sins.
2.  I can maintain my health while working and taking care of Daddy, you, and your brothers.
3.  I need something - namely, work - outside of our family to be healthy.
4.  Giving in to compulsions is okay if they don't interfere too much with my daily life.
5.  Intrusive thoughts are who I am.
6.  I know better than other moms.  Ugh, this is a bad one.  :(
7.  I can handle a preschooler, toddler, and newborn in a busy public place alone.
8.  Stress and being busy don't negatively affect my health in a major way.
9.  Having a straightened up house and organized basement is not that important.
10.I don't need to meal plan.

So, thank you, J.  Even through your infancy, God used you to change me spiritually, physically, and relationally.

Speaking of change, we have some coming up with your first birthday.  It's time to wean!  You're able to drink cow's milk now, and you won't be totally dependent on me (and solid food) for sustenance.  Now if I need a medication change (hopefully I won't), breastfeeding will no longer be something I have to consider.

We are also that much closer to being past the most vulnerable time for a mom who already struggles with mental health (18 months postpartum).  I'm believing that my biggest postpartum struggles are behind me!

Another change is that your chance of dying from SIDS is drastically decreased (or so I hear).  Most victims of SIDS die within the first year of life (like the five-month-old niece of my friend).  As you approached 5 months old, I became increasingly nervous.  It was very easy to obsess over your safety in your crib, and I compulsively checked the neck of your footie pajamas to make sure it wasn't too tight around your neck.  And for awhile I also ran my hand over the whole sheet in your crib before I laid you down for the night to make sure that your brothers hadn't dropped Legos in there that you might put in your mouth and choke on.  There is a balance between being vigilant and being obsessive.  I've struggled to figure out that balance...but I haven't slept on your floor to protect you yet (and, yes, I have thought about it).  :)

I love you more I can express.  You are a complete joy and a gift from God to me, Daddy, and your brothers.  How fun to be able to watch you grow over this next year!

Love,
   Mommy