Posted in family life, musings

therapy as playground ladders

On Monday, I took the kids to a park near our house and let Aubade sleep in the stroller while the boys and I played on the playground. It was a challenging playground, a bit above their skill level, and it was fascinating to watch them attempt the various ladders, steps, and climbing walls. They would climb up as high as they were comfortable, then climb back down, then come back and repeat the process, over and over again, until they finally made it to the top – and then they would climb it still more times, until that piece of equipment was no longer a daunting challenge but a mastered skill.

I’ve noticed the same things when the boys are building Duplos, or drawing, or various other activities – if they have a goal in mind, they don’t want to stop trying until they’ve attained it, and once they’ve attained it they’ll repeat it countless times until it is so easy and familiar that they lose interest and move on. (Right now, for example, our home is filled with large 3’s made out of Duplos… it was 8’s for a few weeks but those are no longer challenging for them to build.)

Seeing that drive for mastery and motivation to persevere has made a big impression on me. The boys aspire for perfection in the sense of having a goal and working towards full accomplishment of that goal, but they are more than ready to fail countless times along the path towards their goal. Each failure, each unsuccessful attempt, is seen as a part of the learning process rather than as a setback or a sign of inadequacy – which is radically different from the way I, as a dyed-in-the-wool perfectionist, tend to view my own failures, but much healthier and more rational! So as I struggle with the techniques my therapist has given me, to retrain my brain into more positive habits of thought, I am going to try to keep those playground ladders in my mind: as I climb toward joy, it’s going to be hard, and I might get scared, and I will probably have to come back down and start over a few times – but that’s no reason to give up! Every attempt will make me stronger and bring me closer to mastery of the skills I desire, and maybe someday I’ll be running up from my depressive triggers just like those boys were scampering up rope ladders and rock walls by the end.

Posted in sqt

{SQT} – seven things I’ve learned about depression and antidepressants

Now that I’ve been on antidepressants for seven whole days, I can consider myself quite the expert, right? (please note the sarcasm)

Please take this list with a grain of salt, and remember that I speak from my own very limited experience. I’m just trying to share from that experience, not replace the very thorough informational guides that come with the medicine, or the more personally-tailored knowledge you can get from your doctor.

  1. I was a proud and arrogant fool not to have sought help and started taking an antidepressant earlier in my life. Well, that’s probably too harsh, since depression does its best to talk you out of asking for help. But a lot of things in high school, marriage, and parenting would have been significantly easier if I wasn’t simultaneously trying to manage dysfunctional emotions and deal with faulty cognitive processes along the way – and it was my fear of appearing weak or insufficient or incapable that kept me from opening up or seeking medical guidance.
  2. The mental health system is incredibly challenging to navigate. It seems like every doctor who is liked and respected doesn’t take insurance… and every doctor who does take insurance either works for an inpatient clinic or has horrible reviews. And because of the personal nature of therapy and psychiatry, the doctor or therapist you try first may clash with you pretty badly – and when you’re feeling overwhelmed by everyday life, the thought of having to try multiple doctors and therapists is enough to shut the process down. If I didn’t have access to my Employee Assistance Office I probably would still be avoiding calling people.
  3. Antidepressants come with a pretty intense and rather scary list of side effects. I think what’s worth remembering is that they are potential side effects, not guaranteed side effects, and that the more serious ones are very rare – they just have to be mentioned because they are so potentially dangerous. I’ve had several different side effects that have come and gone already but mostly just headaches, and I would take a bad headache over depression any day. But I didn’t realize that before I started the medicine. I was so scared of the side effects that I held onto the prescription for a whole week before getting it filled (classic case of taking the evil you know over the evil you fear) – and I had been depressed for so long that I didn’t realize the extent to which it was draining my life of energy and joy.
  4. The Internet is full of all the worst-case scenario stories. I know those stories are true (they are more likely if psychiatric medication is prescribed by a general practitioner as opposed to an actual psychiatrist, by the way), but they are not the only part of the picture. If you have depression, an anti-depressant can help restore your energy, your hope, your light, and your life. In general I think it is better to find a good psychiatrist and take his or her advice instead of amping up your feelings of anxiety and hopelessness by endlessly scouring the Internet.
  5. Antidepressants DO NOT turn you into someone you are not. They will allow you to be  more yourself by removing some of the darkness and despair that have infiltrated your soul. I read, back in high school, an article in a Christian magazine arguing against the use of antidepressants, claiming that they dulled one’s sensitivity, empathy, and personality. From what I have experienced, I would agree that antidepressants may make you less sensitive and empathetic. But if you are sensitive to the point that a casual conversation brings you to tears, or empathetic to the point that you cannot help your crying child because his tears fill you with so much guilt and anxiety, you would be well served by having those qualities reduced to a functional level. Sensitivity and empathy are not virtues: it is the actions to which they typically lead, when they are healthy, which are virtuous.
  6. Depression makes virtue more of a challenge. I was amazed at how easy it was to be patient and gentle with the boys when I felt peaceful and happy inside! I suppose the silver lining of the depression is that I’ve gotten to practice pursuing virtue in the midst of challenge and even suffering (although that word always seems so extreme).
  7. I’ll reference that article from high school again to remark that, although antidepressants may be overprescribed (I would have no way of knowing), they are most definitely stigmatized. I have only told one person (besides my husband) in real life that I am now taking an antidepressant, and she is a friend who has been by my side through every episode of depression and every dark moment I’ve had. Frankly, I’m afraid of the reaction I might get, the responses I’ve read in comment sections as educated as that of the New York Times, that tell me what the depression said through all these years: if you only had more faith, if you prayed more, if you served/volunteered more to get your mind off of yourself, if you exercised more, if you ate this food or avoided this other food, if you stopped whining and moping about life, if you focused on the positive, if you practiced gratitude, and so on, you wouldn’t need that medication. It’s just a scam by Big Pharma anyway. It won’t help you much and you’ll do long-term damage to your mind and body. Just pull yourself out of that pit on your own – why are you acting like it’s so hard? And I can’t explain to everyone that I have tried all those things, that sometimes faith and prayer have been about the only things keeping me from suicide, that biking 60 miles a week and cutting out refined sugar didn’t cure my PPD the first time through it, that parenting three children 3 and under doesn’t exactly give a person much time to navel-gaze. Most people wouldn’t care to hear it anyway, because their opinion is already formed. In a way, I’m still the proud and arrogant fool I was for all those years, because I want this to be my dark secret, my shameful crutch; I don’t want anybody to know my weakness, as if it were something sinful. Revealing my hypothyroidism doesn’t change the way anybody thinks of me; revealing my depression (and the way I’ve chosen to treat it) might, and I’m too proud to want to risk lowering myself in their judgment.

Head over to This Ain’t the Lyceum for the rest of the link-up!

Posted in musings

presence and PPD

Back in January I decided that my word for 2017 would be “presence”, with the goal of being more present with my family, community, church, and job, instead of being disconnected or lost in daydreams. It’s not that I think daydreams or introversion are a bad thing – I just don’t want to regret the time I wasted or the things I did half-heartedly because I was distracted with meaningless things. And so I did my best, through the worst of my PPD, to be present with my family. When I could barely make myself get out of bed, I would try to play games and read books in the bedroom. I would try to fill the days with fun activities to keep us going so that the depression and anxiety wouldn’t drag me down and away from them. But I still felt so disconnected, so far away from them and from our life together. I spent hours reading just to escape my emotions, and in the process isolated myself from the people around me. I would watch my children laughing without feeling any corresponding happiness; I would sit with Aubade smiling at me and ache with heart-wrenching sadness. Look at these children, so happy and beautiful, the depression whispered, and look at you, so miserable, so unable to laugh and play with them and appreciate their silliness.

Getting an official diagnosis and some outside, objective perspective helped me see that this inability to feel present was not a moral failing or a character flaw, but a symptom of a disease, and that in itself was encouraging and reassuring; it didn’t solve the problem, but it gave me more strength to fight it. It was a shield against the barbed lies that are, for me, a hallmark of the experience of depression. And at each step, as I sought help and as the depression tried to convince me not to ask for help – that the risks of vulnerability or the potential of getting a bad therapist or the side effects of medication were too great – it was my goal of presence that kept pushing me forward. Because I could tell that I was not capable of being fully present in that state, and because I wanted to be fully present, I knew that I needed something to change.

I never thought that I would take an antidepressant. Those are for weak people, the depression had always told me, and I don’t really like the idea of taking a daily pill (I’m still slightly resentful of my daily thyroid hormone replacement, to be honest, to the point where I once tried going off it cold turkey to see if I’d be ok without it… let’s just say that wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had). And yet, for this past week when I’ve been taking it, I’ve had more internal peace and happiness than I’ve had for a long time. I’ve watched my baby sleeping or cooing up at me and been filled with deep, deep love instead of the ache of inconsolable sadness; I’ve sat with my boys at the table and laughed at their silly antics instead of ignoring or snapping at them. I’ve planned and cooked healthy meals and cleaned up the kitchen every night, and helped my husband with the laundry, and packed diaper bags and taken the kids out without feeling scared or overwhelmed. I feel like I’m living my life again, instead of just observing it through a dim and melancholy glass: I am present. I hope it lasts but I’m not going to waste time worrying about that; I’m going to enjoy this while I can.

Posted in musings

learning who I want to be; remembering who my foremothers were

On Friday my therapist asked me who I wanted to be: what positive self-image I wanted to move towards. If we’re going to make a therapy plan, after all, it helps to have a long-term goal.

I couldn’t think of anything.

I have a very clear mental image of who I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be the one with the chronically messy/dirty house because she’s too lazy and undisciplined to get things cleaned and organized. I don’t want to be the mom who lets her kids watch TV so she can get some quiet time or a nap in the middle of the day, because she cares more about herself than about her kids’ developing brains. I don’t want to be the mom who over-schedules her kids’ lives so they have no time to free play and explore; I don’t want to be the mom who lets her kids wander around in self-directed ways so much that they bother the neighbors and never learn manners and miss out on awesome events and opportunities. I don’t want to be seen as discourteous or ignorant. I don’t want to admit that I can’t handle the beautiful and blessed life I’m living because other people handle lives that are so much harder with so much more ease and grace. I don’t want to be who I am, because my self-image is all wrapped up in shame.

So I’d been thinking about her question since the appointment, and as my daughter smiled at me that evening I remembered the women who have always been my inspiration, the women who made me want a daughter of my own so I could pass on their memories someday:

The great-grandmother who passed away when I was six, who shines so brightly in my mother’s memory that I wish I could have known her myself, who knew a poem for every circumstance (and wrote her own as well), who always had an open door and good food, who saw the world through rose-colored lenses that enabled her to believe the best of everyone she loved – whose faith in God, in humanity, in her family, was deep and strong.

The grandmother whose life has been full of challenges, who endured miscarriage, mental illness, and a string of alcoholic husbands after her first marriage fell apart, but who never lost her heart for helping others or her buoyant optimism and goofy joy, who managed a warehouse of donated goods for those in need as a volunteer when she herself was quite poor, who got down on the floor and played with my boys with energy and zest for life, who as a young white woman in the 50s and 60s wanted to adopt children of all different ethnicities, who has such a love for children that she fostered more in addition to raising her own – whose hope through suffering and trials never died.

The mother who always seeks to honor her family and friends with her words and doesn’t let a disagreement or a quarrel turn into bitterness or lasting anger, who taught me the joy of baking and cooking and watching people enjoy the fruit of your labor, who gives of herself unceasingly to the people she loves and the responsibilities she takes on, who is never sentimental but always supportive, who defied the odds of her upbringing to earn not only a bachelor’s but a master’s degree in engineering, who has a song for every situation, who thoroughly gets into the competitive clash of board games and card games and teases us mercilessly – whose love for her family is self-sacrificial, unwavering, unconditional.

I am not any one of those women, nor could I be some amalgam of their best qualities alone; I’m as human as they were, and I have my faults and weaknesses as well. But I see in them the full ripeness of seeds that lie buried in my own soul also, which I would be honored and privileged to have blossom in my life. Can I have the generosity of spirit which made them spring up like a fountain of blessing for their families and communities, or the exuberance with which they approached life, or their ability to find joy and see beauty in the little things, and thus hold on to hope and faith and love when the big things are hard and broken?

I am sure those things will take on a different form in my life than in my mother’s, my grandmother’s, and my great-grandmothers, because I live in a different time and place and am a different person. The hard work now will be in discerning exactly how they might look for me, here and now, because I know now that their image, their fallen human image reflecting God through brokenness and redemption, is the positive image I want to work towards.

Posted in family life, sqt

{SQT} – up in the mountains

Taking advantage of the overlap between my husband’s last spring break and my maternity leave, we went on our first vacation ever as just our own little family this week, renting a cabin up in the mountains. It’s been a bit cold for us desert rats, but overall really great. So my seven quick takes this week are from our trip!

  1. I’m lucky my husband is a logistics master 🙂 He found the cabin online, he contacted the owner and scheduled the rental, he bought and packed all the food for the trip, and he calmed me down and gave me specific tasks to complete when I melted down in the overwhelming mess of packing everything for the kids and worrying that I’d forget something essential.
  2. The drive from Phoenix to Payson is gorgeous. I had forgotten just how beautiful the Sonoran desert can be, especially in the spring time when wildflowers are popping their vibrant heads up in every corner and the mountains are shaded green among the saguaros. And Payson itself, perched just below the Mogollan Rim with the high pine-covered, snow-topped ridges behind it, is breath-taking even when the deciduous trees are bare. It has been reminding me that, despite all the brokenness in the world, there is still quite a bit of beauty in it as well.

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    Our cabin backs up to a creek!
  3. The simplest things are full of wonder and joy to a child. The boys have spent hours throwing rocks and pinecones into the water, digging in the dirt, and lugging sticks and logs across the yard. It is that pleasure in the everyday and elemental that I strive to hold on to as an adult, now that the cares of life are capable of dulling my senses entirely to the beauty of the small and mundane.

    (Limerick is wondering, in this picture, why he can no longer see the other pinecone he threw into the water. It took him a few trials to understand how the moving water carries the floating pinecones away – what a good way to begin understanding the physics of the natural world!)

  4. A two-year-old in a hoodie is one of the most adorable things in the world, especially when he sticks both hands in his pockets and wanders aimlessly around giving things sideways glances…
  5. A baby who happily lies there watching her brothers play, gazing at the interplay of sun and shade, observing the trees stark against the blue sky, is also high on the adorableness scale. As long as it isn’t too cold and windy, she’s quite content to just take it all in.
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    Lying on the wrap by the river

     

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    (Aubade is rediscovering her favorite sucking hand after having lost it to the IV bandages during her second hospital stay, and can get very focused on it!)
  6. Time away from normal routines and away from all the other people we normally see during the week seems to have brought Rondel and Limerick even closer together as brothers. They’ve begun to play much more interactively, instead of just in parallel: they deliberately make sounds or movements that they know will make the other one laugh; they make plans for digging or building and help each other with them; they prefer playing with each other to playing alone; they fight, but are figuring out how to make up and keep going together. They follow each other around, entertain each other, and generally fall apart laughing at each other most of the day. And one of the nights here we found them both snuggled up in the same bed ❤
  7. I realized how beautiful it is to watch a child explore the natural world, in his own way, at his own pace: running, jumping, climbing, digging, building with sticks, baking mud cookies, collecting pinecones, or throwing rocks into the river. IMG_6682

Visit the link up at This Ain’t the Lyceum!

Posted in family life

aubade, the pacifier, and the little purple hippo

Aubade has been a very different newborn than her brothers were (which is probably a good thing for the peace and sanity of our home). Aside from her bout with RSV earlier this year she’s been a remarkably easy baby – she sleeps 4-6 hours straight at night, she doesn’t need to nurse to sleep, and she is able to find comfort in a variety of different things (as opposed to just walking or nursing, which were the only two options with the boys).

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sleeping peacefully all on her own 🙂

These sources of comfort have included, in part because of her hospital stay and the no-food-by-mouth rule she had to follow when her breathing was over 70 breaths per minute (or when the high flow oxygen was over 4 liters), the pacifier and its accompanying hippo.

Neither of the boys ever showed interest in the pacifier, so I am new to its ways, but the medical aide during our second hospital stay showed me how a beanie baby can be used to help hold the pacifier in while they’re still learning how to keep it there, and sometimes I think Aubade likes the hippo just for its own soft snuggly weight. And even if she doesn’t, it’s pretty adorable to see her cuddled up with it.

His name is, I think, the perfect name for a hospital gift of encouragement to travel home with a girl so joyful and content: Happy.

Posted in musings, Uncategorized

thoughts upon meeting a therapist

So, I rather suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly made an appointment with a therapist through the Employee Assistance Office at my place of employment (how lucky am I to have an EAO with full-time therapists and even a psychiatrist on staff? With a wait time of less than a week?), after contemplating it on and off for the last 6 years. I’m not sure what I expected, but we basically just talked about all my problems for an hour 😛 Actually, it’s a sign of how down I have been feeling that I couldn’t think of anything to say when she asked me what my strengths were…

Overall, the appointment was far less emotional than I feared (thanks to my therapist’s supportive and professional demeanor, not the probing questions that triggered some tears on my end) and far more encouraging than I anticipated. At the end of the session we came up with some long-term goals for the therapy and some short-term assignments for me to work on during the two weeks before my next appointment, which in and of itself gave me a lot of hope about how I’ve been feeling. As I’m just beginning to realize, I do much better in life when I have a plan for how to deal with things. When I was a teenager, I always struggled with cleaning my room because I never knew where to start and all the details of the task fell on top of me at once and overwhelmed me. When I was in the hospital with Aubade earlier this month, especially during that first night just waiting and watching without knowing what I was waiting and watching for, the nebulous pressure of the desire for progress without knowing how to define that progress was the hardest aspect of the whole ordeal. And so it makes sense that having a path forward illuminated for me, with defined steps to take, is going to be helpful now in the pursuit of hope and healing in these emotional issues.

The long-term goals are mine, so they aren’t exactly measurable or professional; I just want to be rid of the irrational anxiety and to feel happier in general. The short-term assignments, however, are incredibly specific. Every day my “homework” is to get out of bed, shower, and get dressed in something other than pajamas (before my husband has to leave for school), and five days a week I need to spend some time outside. These are very doable things, even if they aren’t always easy things, depending on just how bad I’m feeling when I wake up, and that’s the point. Setting a goal and meeting that goal is going to give me quantifiable substance to refute the negative self-talk of the depression, and it’s also going to help me build a routine of self-care to help mitigate the negative emotional effects of the depression. While they may seem incredibly trivial to someone who isn’t struggling mentally or emotionally (they’re things I’ve definitely taken for granted in the past), they give me an attainable standard for my day and supply some “knowns” to fill in the horrible vast stretch of time that is each day in which I’m responsible for myself and my children and all of our activities.

I was explaining this to my husband by saying that if I get up, shower, get dressed, get outside, and make a healthy dinner for the family, I can define that as a successful day. I can lower my standards, in essence, to something definable and attainable, instead of reaching for an unknown and ever-changing perfection. Obviously the less measurable metrics of success are more important, as my husband pointed out: did I love my children? Did I live by faith? Did I seek God? Did I live an abundant and beautiful human life? etc. And those are things I strive for. But those are things I can never do perfectly or completely. I can always love my children better! So if that is my metric for success, I will always fall short, and I will always look back on the day with guilt for the sharp words and the missed opportunities instead of with happiness over the fun shared and the relationships built.

Could I have created this set of goals and standards on my own, and reframed success this way without help? It seems simple, but I probably couldn’t have. Having an outside source help formulate the plan validates it in a way my depression can’t so easily attack – if it had come just from me, I’d probably work it into my depressive tailspin by bemoaning how pathetic I was for needing to stipulate such small and trivial things. So I am quite glad I finally stopped worrying about whether or not I actually needed help, and stopped caring about what it would mean about me that I did need help, and actually went and got help. I would recommend it to anyone out there who might think some help would be nice – you don’t have to be non-functional or suicidal to benefit from a listening ear and some experienced guidance.