Posted in musings, sqt

{sqt} – spring will come again

As the seasons fall toward winter, my emotional center falls with them. Even in the midst of good, happy things; even when I feel genuine gratitude for the blessings in my life and joy for the beauty around me; even when I have hope for the future and time spent in prayer – even in all those things, guilt, insecurity, anxiety, and sadness well up within me in this season.

a single stalk of grass fluffy with seeds about to fly

I’m not sure why this is – it could be the drop in temperature, the slowly shortening days, or the impending holidays (which for me really start on Halloween – we don’t have a week without something extra from then through Epiphany, since four of our birthdays are added to the mix).

But at least this year I am aware. I remember the way the wave of depression carried me away last fall, how it caught me unawares and vulnerable, how much I struggled through the next few months as a result, and was unable to lift my head up to see the beauty and feel the wonder and share the joy of Christmas. (I’m really much more of an Advent person – the waiting, the longing, the expectation, the melancholy and sorrow at the brokenness of the world tempered only by the hope of the coming Savior – but I think Heaven is going to be more like Christmas, the fulfillment of hope, the fullness of joy, and I ought to be preparing my heart for that eternal home – )

Looking towards the sky through the changing leaves of the maples

And now – I am being intentional. I am taking time to pray (more than before, but still far short of what I ought, what I need.) I am making time to exercise. I am pacing my efforts with the kids, letting good be good enough instead of demanding perfection from any of us. I am growing green in my garden, the rich riot of life a balm for my soul (yes, our seasons are all different here). I am resting in the beauty and freedom of nature, bringing the kids where they can explore away from the structure and restraints of the city, where we can learn to love the earth we live on, where we can find the secret treasures of the untamed spaces.

Limerick walking along a mountainside trail with a walking stick, like a hobbit journeying through the Shire

These things do not make the struggle go away. They do not lessen the pull of the undertow. But they help give me the strength that I need to keep my head above the water. It is an interesting strength, that I find in these times, through this intentionality, not a strength of fire and sparks, of passion and heat, of bold courage and drawn swords. It is more the strength of the tree, that bends in the face of the wind so that it will not break, that learns to grow sideways to endure the forces against it.

Wild grass, golden in the autumn sunlight, seed heads full and ripe over green stalks

It is even, I hope, more the strength of the grass, that sends down its roots deep into the soil, and its runners far-spread around it, and its seeds to every corner on the wings of the wind: by every means ensuring that when the fire blackens the land it will rise again from the ashes, that when the snow cuts off the sun it can wait for spring to come again.

I’m joining the SQT linkup today even though I don’t actually have seven things, but hey, Kelly is bending the rules too and it’s her blog party so I think it’s ok ๐Ÿ™‚ Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum to join in!

Posted in family life

dealing with childhood anxiety

When a parent realizes their child is struggling with anxiety, there is most likely going to be both sadness and relief: because while no one wants someone they love to live with high levels of anxiety, knowledge is much more helpful than ignorance.

With young children who don’t have the vocabulary to express their feelings verbally, it can be difficult to correctly read their behavior to see through to the underlying anxiety. Maybe a child is just sensitive, or reserved, or organized – in moderation, those are all perfectly normal personality traits, after all, and can appear superficially similar to symptoms of anxiety. And a lot of parents just want their kids to be normal and healthy and happy, and don’t want to admit that something might be wrong. But if the anxiety is there and not seen, it can worsen until the symptoms spiral out of control, into extreme clinginess, or irrational aggression, or refusal to engage in everyday activities. (Here is a helpful list of potential signs of anxiety in very young children ).

With Limerick, I had concerns about potential anxiety issues from before he was two years old. He would notice when lightbulbs were blown (say, at a restaurant or at my parents’ house) and not be able to relax until they were fixed (so he’d have trouble eating if we were out, and would pester my dad about it until he replaced the broken bulb if we were at their house) – and that could just be a desire for things to be the way they ought to be, or it could be more. He always wanted me to sleep with him, and would act very scared if I were not there or if the room were too dark – which is fairly normal at two, but became less so as he grew. While Rondel and Aubade would want to go places, even if just to run errands, Limerick wanted to stay in the house – and I thought, maybe he is just a homebody and a quiet kid. But I knew enough to keep my eyes open, at least.

And then recently Limerick started struggling in class at church, needing help to stay focused and calm (tracing numbers on a sensory pillow helped, but he would tell the teachers he just wanted me). At home, I noticed in increase in angry and aggressive behavior: angry words, threatening gestures, and actual scratching, kicking, and even biting – and Limerick was never a biter, even as a baby. Talking to him about anger didn’t help the way it has helped Rondel, and I gradually realized that his problem didn’t lie in controlling anger, but in controlling anxiety. His brain, for whatever reason, felt threatened and unsafe, and he reacted with out-of-control aggressive behavior that looked angry from the outside.

Now that I realize what’s actually going on, I have a lot more hope that I’ll be able to help Limerick, both to reduce the behavior and to help him stabilize and calm down internally. It’s already started to be helpful, actually, just in the past few days, to have a more accurate perspective and a different toolbox of strategies to try ๐Ÿ™‚ When Rondel or Aubade get angry or want to state their opinions, they get loud, and Limerick reacts quickly and violently, so I’ve been stepping in right away, telling Limerick that he’s safe, giving him words to use to talk through the interaction, and coaching his siblings on how they can help defuse the situation as well (mostly be speaking more quietly, and by shutting up long enough to hear what Limerick is trying to say to them). When we needed to go to the grocery store and Limerick was starting to get physical with his refusal, I took some time to talk with him and found out that the store is pretty overstimulating for him (noise, bright light, undefined length of time, etc.), and I let him bring the iPad so he could focus on his current special interest (the Solar System!) when things felt overwhelming. It was the most peaceful errand we’d had in a while.

I found this website to be quite helpful with regards to anxiety-reducing strategies – it’s where I got the idea to use his love for the Solar System to help counteract the anxiety caused by the grocery store, actually! I appreciate that it has multiple ideas, since it can be unhelpful to be too dependent on a single coping mechanism and since some strategies are not ideal for certain situations.

I’m not surprised that at least one of my children has anxiety to the point that it interferes with their everyday life – it’s a pretty common thing in my family. But I am hopeful that by identifying it so early in Limerick’s life, we can help make sure that the neural pathways to address, calm, and stabilize are just as tightly woven into his brain as the pathway of anxiety. It’s much harder to rewire those networks after years of traveling down them in every tense or emotional moment, when you don’t realize the anxiety is there until after you’ve spent your whole childhood being controlled by it. Limerick doesn’t have to take that road, because his anxiety is no longer a hidden or ignored reality, but a present issue that he can learn to cope with in healthy ways from the beginning.

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 toย 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 toย 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 ๐Ÿ˜‰ – 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 musings

turning thirty

I suppose turning 30 is as good a time as any for contemplating my twenties and looking ahead to my thirties, since we use a base ten system. Ten years is such a long time, when I sit down and think about it – I mean, ten years ago I was single and in college, and ten years from now I will have two teenagers…

It is interesting how time passes, how so many things change about life and circumstances, and how yet, inside, I still feel like the same person I always have been. I suppose I have grown and matured since childhood; but I still feel like the preteen who couldn’t put feelings into spoken words even when she was bursting with them, like the teenager who was haunted by feelings of inadequacy and failure, like the college student who knew how to excel academically but could never maintain social connections, like the young adult who tried to bury her insecurities by attempting to be perfect at absolutely everything. I suppose that is part of being a complete person: carrying a self that at its core remains one thing, one entity, despite the processes of maturation and the effect of time.

And what have time and maturation done for me, these last ten years?

Superficially, I graduated college; got my first non-student job (which I’m still at 8.5 years later!); lived with roommates for a year; recovered from a break-up; lost a treasured mentor; dated and got married to my husband; bought two homes (we moved); and had three kids.

Not so superficially, I struggled a lot over the last ten years with my inner companions of depression and anxiety. The first year of our marriage was especially hard because it felt too good to be true, I suppose, but in the long run our marriage has ended up being one of the most helpful things for that struggle since I have a partner I can trust to unconditionally love and support me through hard times. Also in this decade I sought out professional help for the first time and found it incredibly helpful. I’m realizing that depression and anxiety are fairly loyal and steadfast traveling companions, so I know I’m in for a more struggles still to come, but I’m also realizing that having them around doesn’t make me any less valuable or worthwhile as a person.

Along with mental health and marriage, parenting and neurodivergence have been the two big players in my life over the last decade, particularly the last five years. I have been learning that difference is not necessarily negative, in either myself or in others, that perfection is not the goal (and is ultimately a subjective goal anyway). I have been (and probably always will be) learning to be patient ๐Ÿ˜› I am learning how to draw boundaries for myself – even with my children – and how to teach my children to draw boundaries for themselves. I am learning that a bad day or a difficult season does not make me a failure as a parent. And I am learning not to compare myself or my family to other parents and families, because the differences of personality, neurotype, and circumstance are so vast and varied.

Most days, honestly, I feel like an imposter at this whole adult-ing thing. Inside I’m just a teenager, nervous and insecure, with the added pressure of having more years of mistakes to look back on ๐Ÿ˜› According to my husband this is fairly common, though, which is somewhat consoling ๐Ÿ™‚ My hope is just that, however many years are still to come, I will keep growing in wisdom and holiness, and that I can be a blessing to the people around me instead of running away from them.