Kirsten Panachyda

Writer, Speaker, Singer-Songwriter

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Magic 20

20th birthday, surviving teen years

It was a stark moment. The kind that punches the gut and then swings for the head.

The whole mental illness journey was quite new; we were only a few months in. It felt like forever. We sat in the psychiatrist’s office. We were concerned about everything, but it was about to narrow to one thing.

We asked how to help our boy keep up with his schoolwork. We asked about his diet. We wondered if his energy would ever come back. We kept nosing around the periphery, while our son sat there dead-eyed and slumped. Finally the doctor stopped us. He leaned forward and looked in our anxious eyes.

“We are just trying to help him outlive his teens.”

As a way to center us, it could not have been more effective. The swirling worries coalesced into one powerful wind tunnel, sucking the air from our lungs and silencing our questions.

Last week, Nicholas celebrated his 20th birthday. It kind of spread over a few days: laser tag with his brother, chocolate chip pancakes at the diner, steak dinner another day, cake with candles at home on yet another day.

Does reaching 20 mean everything will now be just fine for Nicholas? No, of course not. Two days after his birthday, I had to bring him to urgent care for x-rays on a sprained ankle. When he returns to college in two weeks after a gap year, his first couple weeks will include meetings with a new counselor and accessibility services. Next year, when he turns 21, we won’t be bringing him out for a toast, because he should never drink alcohol with his medications. He has Bipolar Disorder. There are going to be times when his illness will take more care and management.

But, 20.

He did it. We did it. All the people on his care team did it. All the prayer warriors. His extended family.

We’ve been able to pay some attention to things further from center again. Does he need new shoes before school, or pens? How many times can I remind him to eat enough veggies before it’s nagging? (Not that many.) Will he be careful about his sleep habits? It’s all so weirdly normal.

My Bible reading on Nicholas’ birthday landed on this:
“I will extol You, O LORD, for You have lifted me up,
And have not let my enemies rejoice over me.
O LORD my God, I cried to You for help, and You healed me.
O LORD, You have brought up my soul from Sheol; You have kept me alive, that I would not go down to the pit.
Sing praise to the LORD, you His godly ones,
And give thanks to His holy name.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭30:1-4‬ ‭NASB‬‬

For those in a crisis time- God is hanging on to you. Do you need prayer? It would be my honor; please message me.

For those in a weird normal time- try to enjoy it! Spread out the celebration.

For those whose beloved kids did not make the milestone- my heart breaks for you. I know how close we came. You could not have done more or tried harder. I pray God will bring you the comfort only He can provide.

Not even Begun

The first time we brought Nicholas to the psychiatric emergency department, I thought I had used up all my courage. I could not imagine ever being able to exercise more fortitude than that act took, or overcoming more mental and emotional resistance. I had no idea God could keep deepening the well of bravery inside me. I didn’t know that the drilling down for more courage could eventually tap into a spring of water welling up from divine love.

In the Bible, the book of Exodus tells the story of how God used Moses, a disgraced prince turned shepherd, to deliver the nation of Israel from slavery in Egypt. When Moses first hears God’s call to free his people, he is less than enthusiastic. He doesn’t want to go. He feels unqualified. He doesn’t think anyone will listen to him or believe him. Finally, assured of God’s presence, though still unsure of himself, he goes. He appears before the ruler of Egypt. He demands that Pharaoh let the Israelites go.

It doesn’t work.
Pharaoh not only refuses, but he gets angry and oppresses the Israelites even more. The people are completely disappointed and mad at Moses.

“Then Moses returned to the LORD and said, “O Lord, why have You brought harm to this people? Why did You ever send me? Ever since I came to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has done harm to this people, and You have not delivered Your people at all.”” Exodus ‭5:22-23‬ ‭NASB‬

I sympathize so much with Moses here. Today, I can look ahead and see there are a bunch of chapters left in the story. But what looks like waiting to me must have felt like betrayal and abandonment to him. He thought he had done his big, brave thing and failed miserably. He thought all his courage and resolve had been poured out and wasted. But his acts of courage, the wonders of God, and the miraculous deliverance had not even really begun.

When we met with the doctor during the first visit to the emergency department, we were instructed to get Nicholas into the highest level of care as soon as possible. I felt just like I imagine Moses felt- that things were going from bad to worse and I had already used up every ounce of inner strength.

It wasn’t true for Moses, and it turned out to not be true for me either. Yes, there was a long, arduous, terrifying journey ahead. There were times we were stuck between an army and an impassable sea. But that first day, I had not yet even begun to see how God could and would provide. The courage and strength when I needed to do the next hard thing. The tenderness and love when my heart was broken. The patience and endurance when I was depleted.

Dear friends, I pray today for all of us- the courage to do what today requires of us, and the trust that God will provide fresh courage for tomorrow.

Need a Hug? Reassuring a Kid with Mental Illness

We are kind of a huggy family. “Good morning” and “Good night” and “See you after work; hope you have a good day” are all accompanied by a hug. My six-foot man-children regularly give me a hug just because, even in public.

I know this isn’t the norm for all families. I know there are some moms out there who wish for more hugs. Some people just aren’t comfortable with a lot of physical contact and a hug feels intrusive rather than affectionate. But for me, I like the easy exchange of hugs and shoulder pats.

When my older son was a baby and I was nursing him, I came across passage in the Bible that seemed odd:
“O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty;
Nor do I involve myself in great matters,
Or in things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭131:1-3‬ ‭NASB‬‬

“Why,” I wondered, “does David talk about a weaned child? How could a child be any closer than my little one is while I’m feeding him?” But when at 23 months he had decided he was done with nursing, I began to understand. When he climbed into my lap and cuddled close, we experienced a new level of relational intimacy. He wasn’t coming to me to get his physical needs met, but his needs for security, comfort, love, belonging.

I never thought I would worry about too much hugging. When Nicholas was at his most symptomatic, though, I did. His deep depression was resistant to treatment, and on the worst days, either at home or when I would visit him in the hospital, his need for physical affection seemed over-the-top. Hugging every few minutes, sitting with an arm around me, putting his head on my shoulder, holding my hand. Was it normal?

I decided not to worry about it. With some kids, this attachment can veer into inappropriate behavior, but that wasn’t the issue. Nicholas needed extra reassurance. His illness made it hard for him to experience peace, or the truth of God’s love. I was right there, tangible. I became a conduit for the things God extends to us all:
A break from the matters too difficult for him.
Quietness for his soul.

As Nicholas got better with therapy and medicine and maturity, his need diminished. We are still a huggy family. Nicholas still reaches over to give my hand a squeeze and a swing when we are walking around somewhere. I love that.

And I love that he, and I, can climb into the lap of our Father in heaven, not because we are desperate for all the stuff He provides, but because we need to be close to His heart. We can rest against Him like a weaned child rests against his mother.

Kiss of Righteousness and Peace

“Lovingkindness and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” Psalm 85:10

So many time I have been stymied by how to respond to my kid with mental illness. Actually, my difficulties began way before his illness emerged, back when I had littles and was trying to learn how to discipline them. Does he not understand or is he disobeying? Does he need a hug or a timeout? Later, I stumbled over: Is this lack of character which ought to be challenged, or is this part of the illness? Does he need tenderness or consequences?

Looking to the example of our heavenly Parent, I realize-
The hug, the tenderness.
The consequence.

God practices the caregiver balance of love and compassion, and boundaries and health. He gives us the lovingkindness of His mercy and care, but still tells us the truth about ourselves and about Him. He shows us righteousness- His perfection and holiness and abhorrence of sin- and offers us peace and reconciliation through Jesus.

Putting God’s example into practice is pretty hard though. It requires wisdom and self-control. For me, the best way is to have some stuff thought out ahead of time. Boundaries already in place and clearly communicated make a good response so much easier. I’m rarely at my best in the heat of the moment. But referring back to a rule or boundary that was communicated when feelings were cool and calm helps not only my kid, but me, to see that anger or fear is not ruling the situation.

What boundaries do we need to set in place to serve both love and truth?

#1 I Don’t Know What to Do- Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

The warrior stands on the crest of a hill. Although already wounded and tired, she is committed to the cause and ready to rush to the defense of her people. On her left, the valley is filled with the sounds of mayhem as her people are slowly pushed toward the raging river. Looking to her right, she sees her people losing the high ground as they are overrun by the strength of the enemy.

Which way should she run? Which battle needs her most? Which strategy will win the war? Which decision will prove a disastrous mistake? Choosing is impossible, but not choosing is unthinkable.

I don’t know what to do.

Of all the painful feelings experienced by parents whose kids have mental illness, this is the cry that sounds most often.

Do we go to the emergency department? Which one?
Do we try this medication, with these side effects? Or that one, with those?
Do I call the police?
Should we keep her in school? Which school?
So many choices, and often all of them seem bad.

For us, the hardest choice came when we had to consider sending Nicholas to a residential treatment facility for a year or more. By the time we reached that decision-making process, I was unsure of my own judgement. I knew that I felt it was not the best thing to do, but I didn’t know why I felt that way. Was I thinking rationally? Could my instinct be trusted?

In the end, he did not go, because we had finally hit on a combination of med cocktail, therapy, and maturity that enabled him to be stable and move toward wellness. But it was possible that it would not have gone that way- that we would have kept him home and lost him to suicide. Of course, we could have sent him and lost him anyway.

My heart aches for all the moms and dads out there who have to make the hard choices with no guarantees.

Feeling so helpless to succeed at the thing that matters most.

Bearing the crushing weight of responsibility.

Depending on a roll of the dice when the stakes are so high.

What can help?

• Recognize that all the choices may have flaws and there might not be one that is the magic bullet.
• Do the best you can and let the rest go. Forgive yourself for not being able to keep all options open.
• If your choice yields difficult consequences, remind yourself that the others probably had equal dangers. You don’t actually know what God has protected you and your kid from.
• Practice, and practice again, bringing your agonized worry to God.

“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians‬ ‭4:6-7‬ ‭NASB‬‬

“Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews‬ ‭4:16‬ ‭NASB‬‬

Go to that throne every day, every hour, every minute if you have to. The way is always open and you will always be welcomed. God is wise and He is able. He loves you and yours. Entrust yourself to His tender care.

Can I pray for choices you are facing right now? Please leave a comment or email me through the contact page at

#2 I Feel Defeated- Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

I had a recurring fantasy. If I happened to be by myself with the car (which was not often), I could picture it. Stopping at the bank and withdrawing the maximum amount. Going to the gas station and filling the tank. Popping into the grocery store and stocking up on unperishables.

And then just taking off.
Giving. Up.

I had tried and tried, fought and fought, but was still losing the war. My kid’s mental illness beat me at every turn. I felt so defeated.

Years ago my husband and I attended a workshop called Growing Kids God’s Way. We didn’t agree with everything in the program, but we learned some helpful lessons. Mostly, it helped us decide we wanted to do this parenting thing with and for God. And ever so subtly, we swallowed the idea that if we did everything right and tried hard, we would win at the parenting game.

But then came depression, self-harm, hospitalizations, suicidal ideation, then attempts… How were people of faith supposed to parent a kid with mental illness? We didn’t even know what winning looked like anymore, but we sure knew what defeat felt like.

What can help?
• Change the definition. When I knew, deep down, that to God winning at parenting meant faithfulness and not a “successful” outcome, everything changed. My sore heart began to mend. Keep walking, depending, and trusting in God. Faithfulness is victory.
• Take a break from social media, especially around Mothers and Fathers Days or graduation.
• Enjoy small moments of joy or progress.
• But don’t take the blame or let your peace be destroyed by setbacks. Even when you-know-what hits the fan again. Lack of crisis is not victory. Faithfulness is victory. One step in front of the other.
• Let your soul soak in this instruction and assurance: “Therefore if you have been raised with Christ [to a new life, sharing in His resurrection from the dead], keep seeking the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind and keep focused habitually on the things above [the heavenly things], not on things that are on the earth [which have only temporal value]. For you died [to this world], and your [new, real] life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Colossians 3:1-3 Amplified Version)

You belong to the One who faithfully walked this earth, who had “success” with very few, and who now lives, making all this stuff work together for our good.

Faithfulness for the win.

#3 I Can’t Get my Kids the help they Need: Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

I learned in a webinar the other day that there are only about 8500 pediatric psychiatrists in the U.S. Since I was familiar with the statistic that about 8 million adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 suffer from mental health problems, I found the small number of doctors hard to believe. Yet a quick search yields the same alarming fact from such sources as the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Washington Post, and Psychology Today. Most family doctors are not trained to handle these issues, and can only refer. Some areas of the country have almost no coverage at all.

Almost as hard to find are counselors and therapists. Still harder are those trained in the best evidence-based treatment for certain illnesses, like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy for those with Borderline Personality Disorder. When a kid needs a higher level of care, finding a bed in an appropriate hospital can involve a long wait. Finding a treatment team who takes your insurance can be a huge issue.

IEP meetings and follow-up meetings to ensure the IEP is being implemented can be a nightmare, depending on the school and the training and resources of the staff. It can all add up to the overwhelming conclusion:

I cannot get my kid the help she needs.

That frantic feeling of helplessness can break our hearts and crush our spirits. Society and the medical profession have let us down. Teachers and administrators can seem like enemies. We can even be tempted to believe God has abandoned us in our dire need.

What can we do?
• Network: Call people you know in the medical field and ask for advice. We were eventually able to get an appointment with a pediatric psychiatrist in our area through the personal request of a doctor friend of friends.
• Get in touch with advocacy groups like National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) who can give information and advice about mental health care in your area.
• Find out about resources through your local Office of Mental Health. Between the ages of 14 and 18, our son made use of four different long-term programs through our county.
• Ask other parents. Support groups are great for this, but even just approaching someone can yield a wealth of often hard-won knowledge. Sometimes you can go to a pastor and ask if there is someone in your church who has been through it with their child. The pastor can ask that person if they would be willing to talk to you. This method works with other friends and groups too. Many people “know somebody who.”
• Pray and Trust. This one may seem like the least practical item on the list, but it the most powerful. Trust in God’s goodness. Believe that He loves you and your child and cares what happens. Know that He is able to accomplish what concerns you. Don’t give up, but follow every lead, trusting that He will guide you to the right path.

“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, You will revive me; You will stretch forth Your hand against the wrath of my enemies, And Your right hand will save me. The LORD will accomplish what concerns me; Your lovingkindness, O LORD, is everlasting; Do not forsake the works of Your hands.”
‭‭Psalms‬ ‭138:7-8‬ ‭

Can I pray for you while you seek the help your kid needs? Leave a comment or contact me through the contact page at

#4 I am Exhausted and Burnt Out- Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

It may not be the worst pain, but it is the most persistent. Exhaustion. Burn-out. Sometimes it’s physical, sometimes emotional, and often both. We pay out energy in every direction. The extra appointments squeezing our schedules. The toll of agonizing decisions. The energy spent trying to respond well to crisis and conflict and chaos. The loss of sleep to grief or worry. The neglect of healthy habits in favor of comfort food and escapist TV (maybe that’s just me). And it all just seems to go on and on.

Dear friends, there are many places to find advice and even help in caring for yourselves. One of my favorites is an organization called David’s Refuge, whose mission is to care for parents whose kids have special needs or life-threatening illnesses. Their goal is to assure these parents of three truths: You are not alone. What you do matters. God loves you.

Maybe you need and can get help from a wonderful organization like David’s Refuge, and be renewed, refreshed, and pampered for a bit. But even a welcome respite is just a taste of what is available to you. Yes, an overnight retreat can rest your body and soul, but the real value of any self-care or comfort given by others is that it points to the unlimited love and compassion God has for you and your child.

He knows. He sees you. You- with your eyes red from weeping and sleeplessness, your stress headache, your hair in desperate need of a cut and style, your extra pounds (maybe that’s just me), your shortened temper.

God loves you.

What can we do?
• Look for and seize those opportunities for rest and refreshment. Read the self-care articles and try to put one or two things into practice. Look for people or organizations that can help. Ask friends and family.
• Nurture your soul: read, do crafts, hike. Just a little of something you love.
• Make sleep a priority. I know, everybody says it. But really. Do it.
• Also, Kirsten, try to eat right and move your body. (And anyone else. But maybe it’s just me.)

These are all good and necessary strategies for dealing with our exhaustion and burn-out. But the biggest thing I have learned is that my deep weariness comes most noticeably when I am carrying loads that are not meant for me.

Jesus said,:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” Matthew‬ ‭11:28-30‬ ‭

Sometimes this passage is used to induce guilt: “If you’re tired, you must not have enough faith!” Jesus was not saying that at all. He became tired. He sought rest in lonely places, away from crowds. He collapsed on the way to Calvary. He had perfect faith, and that cross he dropped was certainly the burden He was meant to carry.

Jesus offers, not a saccharine promise of an easy life, but the true sweetness of rest in Him. He knows we will be weary and burdened. But He lifts the heavy end, He leads us to the oasis, He binds our wounds. He walks with us. And He promises that it all matters to Him.

I pray for each of you rest in the long journey.

#5 I Worry about my Other Kids- Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

“She sleeps over at a friend’s house every weekend so she doesn’t have to be home with her brother.”
“I had to install locks on their bedroom doors so they could protect their own stuff.”
“I heard him crying after his sister said hateful things to him.”
“She was going through a really hard time at school, but didn’t tell me, because she didn’t want to give me more to deal with.”
“He’s lost his sparkle and hardly talks to the rest of the family.”

When one of our kids has a mental illness, a large portion of heartache is reserved for the way the struggle affects our other kids. Depending on their personalities, they might act out or withdraw, become the “good kid” or rebel.

Mental illness in one family member affects the whole. Our other kids are dealing with so many mixed emotions. They love their sibling who is ill, but also resent the attention and chaos the illness brings. They want to support their obviously distressed parents, but also want to hide from the situation. Their own real needs for love and care may be neglected or put on hold during a crisis, and they understand, but…

And even though caring for the ill child seems all-consuming, we parents agonize over the effects on the others. We miss the cuddle time, the one-on-one outings, the cheerful family dinners that aren’t happening to make their lives full of parental love. We wonder how being raised in less-than-ideal circumstances will affect them in the long-term.

What can we do?

1) Consider seeking counseling for your other kids, so they can process, vent, and learn how to be healthy themselves.
2) Try to spend one-on-one time with each of them when you can, even if it’s only a walk. When our younger son was in the worst crisis years, our older son Alex was finishing high school and starting college, commuting from home. It took him a long time to get his driver’s license. While it would have been a lot more convenient for him to be able to drive himself to and from campus the first year, I now think of it differently. Maybe God knew he needed 20 minutes of uninterrupted time with a parent twice a day, just to chat and for us to listen.
3) Pray. Ask them what you can pray for them. Tell them you are praying for them. And pour out your heart to God on behalf of all your kids.
4) Remember that God redeems loss. Alex lost some of the personal attention I would have loved to give him. But God gave him unexpected blessings in return: the “gift” of a mom who needed support. He learned an empathy which didn’t necessarily come naturally to him. God can do something like that in your kids’ lives too.
5) Trust that God loves your kids and can work all things together for their good as they choose to love Him and He calls them to His purpose. (Romans 8:28) The same God who sustains, strengthen, teaches, and molds you is for them too.

Can I pray for you or your family in any way? Please leave a comment or reach me through the contact page on

#6 I’m Worried about my Marriage- Counting Down the Painful Top Ten

“I’m ready to give up trying. I don’t want to care anymore. I’m ready to build my happiness next to you but not with you… I don’t know if this can be healed. I’m not even sure I would be up for it. I’m not saying we should end our marriage. I just need to be less desperately unhappy. If that means having no expectations of anything from you then maybe that’s my answer.”

This is an excerpt of a letter I once wrote to Dan. It was after years of constant stress, crisis upon crisis with our son. For most of that time, we had been an effective partnership. But the stress had taken its toll, and I came to the end of my rope. Dan didn’t have the inner resources to hold Nicholas’s rope and mine too.

I was deeply hurt and furiously angry, which pushed my husband away into self-reproach and defensiveness. He withdrew. I chased him with bitter demands. It was a mess.

It’s no secret that marriages can crumble under the pressure of parenting a child who needs special care. But we are not doomed to fail in our most important earthly relationship. We can shore up our defenses.

Further down, the letter read this:

“In my Bible reading the other day, Jesus said that to follow is to deny oneself, take up a cross and follow Him. So I am going to try. I just hope that eventually you will not want to be a cross. If Jesus matters to me then I have to try to keep my vows to you.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but along with the bitterness flowing from my pen came a thread of truth, of hope. The beginning of healing for our marriage came when I stopped looking at all Dan was or was not doing, and focused on following Jesus.

At first it was an angry throwing up of hands, giving up. But under God’s ministration it morphed into surrender, enabling an eternal perspective, and eventually, a compassion for my husband.

I never gave Dan that letter, although later I showed it to him, after a lot of counseling and working on reconnection. Writing it didn’t save our marriage. God did that, through a wise counselor, time, work, and His Holy Spirit. The letter helped me see what was going on in my own heart. It opened the door to God’s work in me.

Every marriage is different, but there are some actions that can help in nearly every messy relationship:

1) Get help from a godly counselor. Sooner than later.
2) Acknowledge the stress of caring for your kid with mental illness and recognize the toll it can take on your marriage.
3) Place your confidence in the only One who can bear the weight of your expectations. That is not your spouse.
4) Pray with honesty abut your pain, write it out in a letter (unsent), cry and grieve over the fractures in your most important earthly relationship. Don’t deny the hurt; process it.
5) Practice kindness and compassion for your spouse, especially when you don’t feel like it. Believe it or not, he is going through this too.
6) Be careful and wise about venting. Confide in those who are the cheerleaders and supporters of your marriage. I’m not advocating putting on a happy face and pretending all is great. Just choose your close confidants with caution.

Dear friends- this is such a hard one. If I can pray for you in a struggle with your marriage, please leave a comment or contact me through my website I would count it a privilege.

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