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.

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.

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.


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


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.