Posted in musings

walking by faith: because coping with mental illness is like striving for a virtuous life

When you live with a mental illness, you get a lot of practice at redirecting the pathways of your thoughts. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath when the first hint of an unhelpful emotion or mantra wafts in; other times it takes repeated corrections, minute by minute, guiding your thoughts out of the road they want to travel and into a different pattern.

“He’s angry at me”, my mind says – and I have to force myself to look at the facts of the situation, remember he didn’t sleep well last night, so maybe it makes more sense that he is angry at something else or just tired and not showing positive emotions well.

“I can’t do anything right”, it says again, and I have to list off the things that have gone right in the past hour, no matter how small they are, and put the mistake in perspective: I fed the kids a healthy breakfast, I got a shower, I got everyone to speech therapy on time with activities prepared, and it’s not the end of the world if they only have socks on and their shoes are sitting at home…

“You’ll never be worth anything, they’d all be better off without you”, it repeats, and I have to turn the feelings inside out, repeat what I believe in the core of my being about the innate worth and dignity of the human person, remember the irrational and inexplicable unconditional love of a child, pray for the strength to run my race with endurance as did the saints who suffered and died for their faith, lift up my head like a superhero knocked down but not out once again.

The emotions are harder to deal with, being by nature less specific of a difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is covered in a gray mist, blocking out the color and the joy and the reason to try, and all you can do is make your way from one task to the next, drawing on reservoirs of strength you didn’t know you had, waiting for the sun to break through again. Sometimes guilt (or self-loathing, or whatever the word for it is) attacks like a fistful of knives in your brain, and you hold your breath through the mental pain and then, somehow, inhale again and lift your face to the fight once more. Sometimes everything you take in is edged with inexplicable sadness, the inverse of a silver lining, and you embrace the beauty anyway, despite the bittersweet twist in your heart.

And what I’ve been coming to realize, lately, is that this turning away from the easier path into downward mental spirals and unhelpful thought patterns, and this setting of my feet so carefully and unsteadily in new ways of thinking, is really very similar to the process of living a virtuous life. Here is my fear, dissuading me from some act of charity or justice or faithfulness – now I must turn my thoughts aside from that path, from the rationalizing of my cowardice, and take an action I very much do not have the emotional support to make. And in the act, I make it that much easier to choose courageously in the future. There is my anger, snapping out at the people I love, roughening my edges to sharp and jagged lines, giving me hurtful words to hurl – now I must close my mouth, count to ten, pray for peace and gentleness and self-control, try to look through another’s eyes, and eventually even try to speak in kindness and in calm. And in the act – in every time I try, even if I do not entirely succeed – I train my mind and will to not fall so automatically into the pathway of that vice. It’s rather a daunting thought, knowing that I have both sanity and virtue at stake here 😉 – but on the other hand, what practice I will have at it! And with God near at hand with His grace and strength, and the community of saints present to encourage and guide me, I have hope that my practice (in both arenas!) will not be in vain.

Posted in family life, musings

getting through a bad day

Sometimes motherhood is the hardest thing I’ve ever set out to do. Sometimes I wake up already tired, already touched out from a night of nursing a sick baby, already talked out from a friend’s birthday party the day before, wanting to do nothing but bury my head in a pillow (or maybe a book) and isolate myself from the world around me until my equilibrium has sufficiently recovered. As everyone knows, of course, parenting doesn’t typically allow for such unplanned luxuries.

Sometimes every interaction is a battle not to yell or speak harshly. Sometimes the worst part of me wants to scream until everyone feels as awful as I do. Sometimes I can’t even handle the baby sitting on my lap with a book because I’m so sensorily overloaded that my skin crawls at the touch. Sometimes I pray for peace and gentleness and stumble again into anger the next minute.

Sometimes I look at my child and the tears in my own eyes – at my own imperfection, at the horrible way I’m acting – are mirrored in theirs.

Somehow we make it through the day anyway, with lots of apologies along the way. We get outside, if we can, and the calming influence of the outdoors leads to laughter and connection and positive strength. We read our bedtime books and the kids still ask for their “Pookie kisses” of Sandra Boynton inspiration. I tell them what I saw in them that made me proud, and apologize again, and we snuggle to sleep. And at last, the closeness of their bodies to mine can be felt as love by even my chaotic mental processor.

And I remind myself that these bad days are few, and that tomorrow is another opportunity to be compassionate, gentle, self-controlled, loving, present, and joyful with my children – to put in again the hard work of cultivating the fruit of the Spirit, and hopefully do a better job of it. I will fail, and the kids will fail, and I pray that we will in our failures learn both to be humble and to forgive, both to self-advocate when we are overwhelmed and to serve unthanked when we see others overwhelmed, both to grow closer to God who is alone perfect and who gives unending grace and to grow closer to each other even as our sin threatens to tear us apart.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – emotional self-regulation

In our house, we have big emotions.

It’s not too surprising, all things considered. Paul likes to attribute my temper to my “Cuban spice” (which is always highly embarrassing), and I tend to believe it is related to my autism (see an amazing article here which could have been written by me if only I were that insightful and eloquent), but wherever it originates from it comes on quickly and lasts indefinitely (forever really, unless I put in a lot of mental and emotional effort). Rondel is similar – flaring up like a match at an unexpected change or a trivial argument or finding out he was wrong about something he thought was a fact – although I’m not yet sure if he will be a grudge-holder like I was as a child. Limerick is constantly pushing himself, and will break down in frustration if he can’t accomplish something he feels he should be able to do. Aubade still uses shrieks and screams to communicate most of her (very strong) opinions and feelings, since she’s only just starting to take off verbally.

So right now, while academics are important and interesting and fun, I feel that emotional intelligence and self-regulation are also a very important area of emphasis for us. It may not come naturally for most of us in this household, but as I have learned over the years it is very helpful in life overall, so it’s something we’re consciously working on together: and these are some of the ways we’re doing that.

  1. Affectionate Physical Touch (e.g., hugs, snuggles, and read-alouds): Little kids are very physical creatures, and so making sure we have lots of time snuggled up together reading books, or letting them lounge on top of me while we’re playing with toys, or making a comforting hug the priority in a meltdown situation, is helpful in a number of ways. It acts as a preventative, helping keep emotional systems running smoothly so that crises are less likely to occur; and it acts as a balm, soothing and quieting the overwhelmed nervous system so that the rational brain can regain control and come up with a solution to the triggering problem. All three kids will come to me throughout the day for a hug when they are feeling sad, overwhelmed, or disconnected.
  2. Physical Play (e.g., running, wrestling, jumping on the trampoline): Going back to the physicality of children – but also appealing to research on the value of exercise for emotional health – wild, active physical play is also very helpful for learning to handle big emotions. Especially on days when everyone is struggling with irritability, and small triggers are escalating into large events, running and wrestling together seems to help us all shake off the mood fog and reconnect with each other in a positive way. So far this has been something I’ve had to initiate, as the kids seem to forget how good it feels to be active when they are grumpy and quarrelsome, but I’m hoping that as they grow they’ll be able to choose it on their own more often, as their bodies let them know they need it.
  3. Bodily Needs (sleep, food, water, sensory peace): This is kind of a broad one, but basically it is hard for a brain, especially a young developing one, to focus on managing emotional responses when a more urgent physical need is unmet. So meltdowns tend to happen more frequently when people are tired or hungry, or in overstimulating environments (crowds, loud noises, unpredictability, flashing lights, information overload, uncomfortable clothes, etc.). There are some easy physical ways to reduce the burden on your brain in these situations, such as never leaving home without snacks and water bottles, and never forcing yourself or your children to stay in an environment that is stressful and uncomfortable. For example, I let Rondel wear T-shirts and athletic shorts to church and take off his shoes in class, and the church has noise-reducing headphones that he can wear if the noise is bothering him. These accommodations reduce the amount of negative input his brain is dealing with, which in turn enables him to use more energy on social and emotional functions.
  4. Mindfulness: Ok, but sometimes you can’t prevent the emotions or avoid the triggering situation, and you still have to learn how to control your own reaction to the event. This can be so hard when your emotional reactions tend to hit you like a punch in the stomach with no prior warning… but what I have found to be very helpful for me is simple mindfulness practice. When I am present in the current moment and aware of my body, I can begin to detect clues that my negative emotions are building up, and try to take steps to defuse them before they explode. I can choose to close my eyes, breath deeply, and focus on the breathing for a few seconds, letting my diaphragm trigger my vagus nerve to calm my body, mentally stepping away from the situation I can’t truly leave in the moment, giving myself a space to think and decide how I want to react before the words leave my mouth. I don’t think my kids have quite figured out how to take deep breaths yet, but we’ve worked on taking that space before reacting (in real time with conflict situations) and it was helpful for them as well.
  5. Mediation and Modeling: Since my kids are still so young, I find myself stepping in when arguments begin to escalate into more emotional conflicts. My goal in these moments is not to solve their conflict but to walk them through the process of resolving it themselves. I hug them, I listen to each one of them tell me what is going on from their perspective, and I attempt to rephrase the situation so that they can both agree that I understand (my initial understanding is often incomplete, and they will correct my phrasing until they are satisfied I understand). Then I will ask each of them in turn what idea they might have for moving on from the conflict, and help them come up with ideas if necessary until they can both agree on one. Sometimes they are able to go through this process independently, and I am so, so proud of them when they do!
  6. Peacemakers Cards/Time-in Toolkit from Generation Mindful: This tool for emotional development has been more than worth the cost for us. Currently, we primarily use the peacemakers cards and the accompanying poster and stickers. I will hold out the deck of cards and let the boys take turns choosing ones, and we’ll spend time talking together about what the cards say: phrases such as “I am kind,” or “I stick with things and get things done,” or “I am adaptable – let’s move and dance!”
    The “Peace Dolphin” overview card, with the five individual cards from the poster. We recently did Peacemakers after a big fight and randomly pulled three dolphin cards in a row… they were extremely helpful in processing the event, handling the emotions, and planning for the future.

    We talk about ways the boys have recently lived out those phrases, or times when we saw examples of it in a book we love, or situations where it might be challenging to embody them. For card with an action, like the last one in the list above, we’ll get up and act it out (it’s always fun to start silly dancing around the bedroom, after all!). I realize this may sound dull but the boys ask me if we can do Peacemakers cards on a regular basis, and it has led to some great conversations. he other poster in the toolkit has a lot of suggested strategies for calming down in emotional crisis, as well as a few charts representing different feelings in comparison to each other, and those have been helpful as well. Sometimes it’s hard to think of a coping strategy in the moment, so having the visualization on hand can be useful.

  7. Prayer: Of course prayer. Always prayer. Prayer for the fruits of the Spirit in my life each day. Prayers for peace, almost as a mantra, over and over again in the worst times. I remember when Limerick was little and I’d be hit by a wave of anxiety or stress that I would pray “Father, give me peace. Jesus, give me peace. Holy Spirit, give me peace.” Simple enough to repeat when I had no head space for words or complex thoughts, powerful in its reminder to me of the Trinity in all His love and presence. Prayer for connection with my Father, just as important for me emotionally and spiritually as is my young children’s connection to me and Paul is for them. Prayer to the saints,to have their community and support with me when things are too overwhelming for me on my own. Prayer to Mary, the mother of the church, who loves me and my children and helps me to be a better mother to them. Scripted prayers when I’m feeling disconnected and my own words won’t flow; spontaneous prayers when my heart is crying or rejoicing. Emotional regulation is hard for me, and probably always will be – I can never seem to find the middle ground between keeping everything in and letting everything out! But as in every other area of life, God in His grace is sufficient in my weakness: loving me as I am and helping me to grow.

This doesn’t even go into things like self-care and quiet time and community, which are all so helpful for lowering one’s negative emotional baseline and raising one’s trigger threshold – there are so many ways to help develop these skills and create a protective buffer around areas of weakness to keep them from causing damage and regrets. But these seven are some that I found particularly valuable for our family in this season of life, and I hope that they are helpful for you as well!

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum today, so head over and read some of the other Quick Takes!

What are some strategies you use for keeping your emotions from getting out of control? What helps you the most in moments of overload or anger?

Posted in musings

the unknowability of parenting outcomes

When I was very small (no more than six years old), my mom had a serious talk with me about my temper. Anger, she told me, was like a dark spot inside me, and if I held on to that anger I would be allowing that dark spot to grow and spread (at least, that is what I remember of the conversation now, over twenty years later…).

I didn’t bring this story up with my therapist when she was asking me why I thought anger was such a negative thing… I didn’t want to be a parent-blamer when I have such amazing parents! But it did make me wonder – how many of the well-intentioned discussions I have with my kids now, trying to help them understand the world and themselves and other people, will be internalized in an unhelpful way?

For example, tonight Rondel was being incredibly loud for no reason at all while I was lying down with the boys for bedtime – he was just trying to keep himself in a high-energy state by making random noises non-stop. I had asked him to be quiet multiple times, to no avail. Finally I turned to him and said that I couldn’t make him be quiet, that it was his choice – and that he could choose between being selfish and inconsiderate or kind and helpful. “And the choice you make,” I told him, “will affect the type of person you are becoming. So think about what type of person you want to be.”

“You want to be helpful” he replied. And he was silent after that (aside from asking for more water), snuggling up to me and letting his brother fall asleep in peace.

In the moment, my explanation worked and the boys fell asleep. I think the overall principle is a good one as well, and one I try to use for myself; it is paraphrased from C. S. Lewis. But I don’t know how that will settle down into the mind and heart of a four year old – if it will be a healthy motivator or a source of anxiety and shame in years to come.

Oh well.

I suppose all one can do as a parent is to try the best one can in the moment and pray that it will turn out alright!

Posted in musings

the effects of anger on a marriage

If you’re immersed in the Christian subculture, the emphasis is such that it can seem like pornography use or other sexual sin is the worst thing that can happen to a marriage. But really, you know, a marriage can weather that kind of storm, if both partners are willing to come together in humility and forgiveness and rebuild the trust that was broken. I’ve actually been privileged enough to witness this a couple times, not in people I’m particularly close to, but in friends of friends, and it is a truly powerful image of grace.

What I think is more damaging to a relationship, in the long run, though it doesn’t have the shock and awe moments of an affair or betrayal, is smoldering, simmering resentment, bitterness and contempt in one spouse towards the other (or even worse, in both partners toward each other). When there is this kind of baseline negativity towards one’s partner, they can do nothing right, there are no kind words, forgiveness is grudging, casual misunderstandings turn into fights, and the duties of sharing a home are carried out passive-aggressively. This marriage may look fine on the outside, but the inside is being eaten away by a cancer of unrighteous anger.

As the apostle Peter wrote, “love covers over a multitude of sin” (1 Peter 4:8) – and so, if a marriage is grounded in and sustained by love, the failings and imperfections of each spouse can be overcome in forgiveness and grace. But if a marriage lacks this deep and unconditional love, a love that bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things, then it will be shaken to its core and in danger of destruction. It is hard, but essential, for us as married people to reset our baseline emotions toward our spouses, from a default of bitterness and resentment to the commanded love and mercy that analogizes Christ and the Church. Only by so doing can we hope to maintain the joy and beauty of our marriage, make our homes a holy and happy place for our children to grow, and reach out to our communities with genuine hospitality. Our attitudes toward our spouses ripple outward in their effects to touch everyone we know. May it be a ripple of love and abundance and joy rather than one of loneliness, hurt, and anger.

Posted in musings, quotes

the politics of anger

I have been trying not to post much overtly political content on this blog, because it’s not my area of expertise and because it’s not what I typically enjoy writing about.

However, I wanted to share a quote from Mitt Romney’s recent speech condemning the candidacy of Donald Trump, because I thought it was particularly eloquent and historically informed.

I understand the anger Americans feel today. In the past, our presidents have channeled that anger and forged it into resolve, into endurance and high purpose, and into the will to defeat the enemies of freedom. Our anger was transformed into energy directed for good.

Mr. Trump is directing our anger for less than noble purposes. He creates scapegoats of Muslims and Mexican immigrants. He calls for the use of torture. He calls for killing the innocent children and family members of terrorists. He cheers assaults on protesters. He applauds the prospect of twisting the Constitution to limit First Amendment freedom of the press.

This is the very brand of anger that has led other nations into the abyss.

When I was younger, and would think about the beginnings of WWII, I always wondered how the leaders of those nations had risen to power. What was there about Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, or Adolf Hitler that appealed to the average citizen in their countries and enabled their positions? Believing (naively, I suppose) in the basic decency of humanity, I couldn’t understand the draw of a strongman manipulating society’s anger and discontent for hateful and violent purposes.

To be honest, I still don’t understand. I know that Germany was broken after WWI, poverty-stricken, ripped of her national pride, and that there was an easy opening for a leader who could ride that anger to power without the constraints of conscience. But that anger could just as well have turned to national reform, to the iron strength of will needed to accomplish the slow and difficult task of national transformation – as in fact it did in the years following WWII. Did the anger lead to all that evil simply because one man decided to use it for his own advantage, for the fulfilling of his own twisted ideology and vendettas?

This election cycle is forcing me to admit that my people, my fellow Americans, are not at heart such a good people as I had always hoped and believed them to be. They are angry – maybe justly, maybe not – and they are letting that anger carry them away, without watching their feet, without taking care to stay within the boundaries of morality and good conscience. The strongman is playing off their emotions, using and manipulating them for his own purposes, and they don’t see it. Or maybe they do see it, and they don’t care, because it feels so good to be able to openly blame someone else for all their problems and struggles, whether or not that scapegoat has any rational basis. So anti-Mexican rhetoric is spewed forth in the southwest, anti-Cuban tirades in Florida, and anti-Muslim attacks on a national level. What happened to liberty for all, my racist conservative compatriots? Does freedom only extend to those who look and think like you?

I used to think that America was a great nation because her people were great, because her people held a basic set of principles that were good and noble. Maybe she was, once, but she is not anymore, because her people have forsaken their calling and their creed. Maybe she will be again, if enough people care enough to begin rebuilding the traditions and principles that gave her beauty and strength through the centuries, but when the siren of the strongman sounds so sweetly in the ears of her people, I fear for when it comes time to pay the piper.