This is a deeply personal piece. I wish it weren’t. I wish I had skipped over these genes in the gene pool. I wish mental health struggles didn’t ravage families, shooting out shrapnel like loaded cannons to anyone and everything around them trying to help.
And yet—they do.
My mental health journey started before we had children. Round One for me was setting right in my head what my heart mislearned along the way for a lot of reasons. At age 27, I was simply trying to make sense of adulthood and childhood, and mesh it all together. I needed to pull out the good I learned and discard the rest, like anyone else does at that age. That time, a therapist was helpful, but chemically I remained untreated.
Round Two was third-child-post-partum. It was short-lived, and I was fairly well supported by friends and my husband. It was a brief re-dip in a dark well. I had a lot to live for. My hormones simply were not cooperating.
Round Three almost killed me. We were on a tiny South Pacific island with three young children for two years. I spent my evenings biking around looking for a place to change my sense of desperate.
(Let me emphasize that I still had a lot to live for then. Three amazing, beautiful, spunky children and a loving husband. That had not changed.)
I was all the way around the world from all that I knew, living a fish-bowl military base, ex-pat lifestyle in a beautiful setting—only leaving my house was almost crippling. I had significant social anxiety. I made up every excuse under the sun to not attend social events. I relied on my small son’s food allergies to get me out of obligations. I lived across the street from the ocean, and I daily longed to jump in and be swallowed whole. One night I heard the ocean talk to me. I do not have any medical conditions informing those voices (no psychosis). I was simply hearing the devil tell me I was worth nothing and needed to swallow the waves forever. I wrestled the early hours of the morning with God that night on a cold stone bench just inches from the angry water. I told Him to tell me a reason why I should stay. We had a long night together. My pain was unreal.
There was no prescribing psychiatrist or even therapist on the island. A therapist would visit for about six weeks at a time for a temporary post. I guess the rest of the time we were on our own. Nobody told me my chemicals may be off. Mostly I just heard: “You should be happy. You have supportive family.” I’m not sure how I should have been expecting support from 2, 5, and 8 year olds. Family around the other side of the world couldn’t possibly know. And my husband worked all day. It was paradise, after all. What on earth did I have to be sad about?
I eventually won that battle. We came home after two years. It took me almost a year to tell people I had almost killed myself. I carried that secret in shame for a good, long while. I did not find solace in my church at the time. The standard line there was one of the following: “Mental illness was from my sin, there’s a Bible verse to fix that, or pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Trials are hard. Jesus will be glorified.”
Three years past almost taking my own life, I left that church. I didn’t leave the people. I left a broken pastor with a very dangerous message and fistfuls of judgment to pass around. I found safe harbor and healing in a new church, where I still am to this day. I sought a therapist, who turned out to be too entwined in my Christian network and old church to be of any help. She more or less belittled my history. She stuck up for the bullies in my life. I walked away without telling her one day. All done. Ba-bye now. Never looked back.
It wasn’t until my youngest child was in the throes of a second childhood depressive episode at age 7 that true help came. We were in the middle of our struggle trying to help him when I wrote Not Just on Sundays. Much of his story can be found there and also at Espressos of Faith. Because we thought great harm had come to him based on how scary his sudden withdrawal and phobias were, we pursued a Christian play therapist who could not only unlock his mind but recommend other therapies and tests. It was a long journey. By the end of his first grade year, we had a lot of support in place, but it was years before his mood disorder was under control. You would never know it today. He has amazing coping mechanisms. He knows himself very well. He is on the cusp of adolescence, though, and I know full well how hormones can rip through an otherwise stable child. I’m proud of who he is and what he has already overcome. Depression, anxiety, and ADHD/ADD are in our genetics. It was only a matter of time.
As we helped him, I was hearing things about giving him, my then 8 year old, an anxiety medication. We already had him on one for ADHD. It’s not that I thought medicating him was wrong, but I am a mother first, and if anyone was going to take the heavy hit of a psychopharmacology drug, it would be me. I knew I had always been anxious. I remember my fears of not making it to the bathroom in kindergarten. I remember the Fundamentalist school I went to for kindergarten and first grade where I was one of the few kids whose parents did not permit the staff to hit us, but I would hear the cries of my classmates in the hallway.
So when anxiety meds were being passed around, before I had my son try them, I volunteered to take them first, working with a psych nurse. I wanted to be a calmer mother so that when his anxiety went out like a heat-seeking missile, I could hold him steady through the storm. I’m happy to say it worked! We were working with a team of mental health specialists who shared our Christian faith but also made sure to follow the law. Given my suicidal history, I had to report in with the psych nurse regularly to rate on a scale every feeling under the sun. It was the first time in my life medication was offered as a possibility for my struggle and my chemistry was set right. It took some tweaking, but I got there. And I started therapy once again as another layer of support. That was 2015. I experienced massive devastation (situationally) surrounding my father’s death just a few months later. I am very blessed to say that by then, I had everything I needed both in terms of my prescription and my coping mechanisms to weather one of the biggest storms of my life. It’s not lost on me that I’m still here. I want to say it again to myself:
I’m still here.
If you would ask me to look closely enough at my own teenage years, my poetry was dark and sad. There was an ongoing theme of abandonment. By nature, I was prone to brood and overthink, and I’m definitely a deep-feeler personality, but I’m guessing the chemical warfare in my body had started even then. When I look at the storms in the lives of family members and the various struggles, I know now much of the causation is rooted in depression and anxiety. No doubt in my mind.
Hello, Genetics. How do we learn to treat you as a friend?
Two years ago I started seeing signs of coping struggles in yet another child. That story can’t be fully told right now. It’s not my story to tell, and those waves are still crashing over and onto us. We have been through several systems of the body to seek causation. In this case, it wasn’t as simple as ADHD and the comorbidity of anxiety, depression, or OCD. It is a complex puzzle. The symptoms are similar. Support is in place laying the same foundation as others of us who have struggled. The shutdown and social isolation are staggering. It’s a living nightmare for the person and everyone associated with the situation. There’s no quick fix. While we wait on appointments with the educated “gods” of Mass General to see us on their tight schedules, a naturopath is helping us investigate nutrition, inflammation, and hormonal regulation. Prescriptions in this case have been scary. They had to be abandoned. And even after medications known to cause teenage suicidal ideation were recommended and tried, the answer of the general practitioner medical community was: Dope yourself up on psychopharm meds until you are a young adult, and then try to get off them one by one.
Unless there are measurable goals and results proven to correct some of the symptoms, I’m very weary of the “pull another Rx out of a hat” routine.
I genuinely have a love-hate relationship with Big Pharma. I believe in my own chemical imbalance and appreciate the researchers who made the drug for that possible. But those medications are not one-size-fits-all.
As a family, we try to correct our nutrition, we take supplements, and we regularly use essential oils. All of those practices are bringing measures of relief and definitely a healthier, more chemical-free lifestyle (even in terms of household cleaning products).
But, I wonder: How much of this generation we are all currently raising will even know how to cope anymore? What happens when there’s a shortage of a drug we’ve all come to rely on?
So, we push back and set small goals. We allow rest (I call it “Be Still”), time closed in with family to heal. We pray. We seek counsel within the context of our Christian faith as well as health professionals, and we wait it out.
And it sucks. It sucks the life and joy out of everything. It sucks our finances. It sucks our energy and our calendar with appointments. It sends out sparks among family members waiting for the sick one to heal. It wreaks havoc on relationships and decreases our activity level (the latter is not all bad, I have to admit). It isolates. It rips through small progress made in family dynamics like a fire set to a dry field. It tests and squeezes every emotion I personally have as a mother until I am a dry rock at the end of the day, shattered, torn, tempted to give in to hopelessness at times, but never giving up.
There is absolutely no comparison to what Jesus did on the cross for us to save us from the sin that we could not redeem ourselves from. But He told us to die to self, and every day that a parent helps a child find the light in a dark world, we lay across two planks and take the consequences. We can’t sacrifice for salvation’s sake, of course; that belongs to a holy, perfect Christ alone.
But we take every hit to help this person to better health and functioning. We choose every day to get up and push the hopelessness back across the line. We suck up misunderstanding, loss of connections, and even our sense of self for a while. This is true of a parent or anyone walking alongside a loved one in crisis. When anger and frustration come, we take it full on, we keep loving, we continue seeking answers, we live on our knees in prayer, and we bleed heartache through our very pores. We live in a state of hypervigilance wondering why the bathroom door is closed so long, did we hide all prescriptions, is this a good day or a bad one? We bust in to see an empty stare looking back up at us from the bathroom floor. I’ve been both the one on the floor in fetal position and the one looking down toward the scary sad.
Hebrews 4:15, ESV
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
See, Jesus was and is glorified in my struggles, past and present. He’s even glorified in the ones in my future. But He didn’t send my pain as a punishment, as my former pastor implied. He knew every emotion we did, even unto the cross. Loneliness and abandonment were perhaps His last emotions on the cross when He asked the Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” but His very last words were: “Into Your hands I commit my Spirit.” While in that moment His surrender was unto death, it’s ultimately our surrender as well even in life.
See, He knows our bathroom-floor defeated self, but He offers hope of what God has planned ahead of us, both in this life and in life eternal in Christ.
Maybe you don’t believe that yet. Perhaps you don’t think you ever will. I want to ask you: Where else do you reach out to from that bathroom floor?
I remember everything about it: its cold tiles, my salty tears pooling around my face, the indentations of the grout on my cheek. Whether I, or everyone in my house, is balanced chemically or not, hope has to ever be before us. For our family—whether we are on the floor or the one coming alongside the one who is—our hope is Christ.
I may experience more depression in the future. I am not naïve that any battle is over. A loved one in my house may call from his or her own apartment or home one day and say:
“I’m back on the floor.”
I’m not gonna lie and say I’m not scared of that. That fear can certainly keep me up at night. What I do know is that our High Priest is on the floor with us, loving us, and putting hope ever before us.
I’m not ashamed of our struggle. It has let us feel the close breath of Christ on our faces, even when they are smashed down along the tile and grout.
It’s in the struggle and the getting back up again that we know He lives.
And when we know He lives?
We are no longer afraid or ashamed of our time on the floor.
Philippians 2:8, ESV
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.