Kirsten Panachyda

Writer, Speaker, Singer-Songwriter

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Tag: mental health

ClimbIng

Hiking is my newest adventure. Over the years, I have set physical challenges for myself. This is partly for health, partly for fun, but also an act of gratitude. My body is capable of stepping and clambering and climbing, and I am so thankful. I honor it when I use it, even slow and clumsy. I honor the God who created me. And the more I hike, the more sure my footing becomes, the more my breathing evens out, the more I stride with confidence and joy.

Little Rock Pond, Appalachian Trail, Vermont

As a kid I was an avid competitive swimmer. “Athlete” was a major component of my identity. But between the ages of 12 and 15, this was stripped away, first by rheumatoid arthritis and then by severe Crohns disease, which eventually required drastic surgery. My later teens and early twenties were marked by the sense that I was a half-invalid and that debilitating illness could return any time. I feared anything that caused physical discomfort. My joints would still flare up with hot inflammation from fatigue or overuse. I thought this was how my life would be — “fragile” was my new identity.

But then I had a baby. And I was awed at what this body that I kind of despised could do. I noticed afterward that I felt healthier. Flare-ups came less often and less severely. I walked, one mile at a time, then two, then three. I climbed a (small) mountain in the Adirondacks. I had another baby, after a difficult pregnancy. A year after my second son was born, I ran —ran — a 5K. The next year I did a triathlon, a sport I continued for 10 years. When my kids learned how to downhill ski, I did too. What a joy it was to rediscover the athlete who had been waiting in the recesses of my identity. 

I’ve never been particularly fast or skillful at any of these things, not like I was as a swimmer. When I finished in the top half of the field, I felt like I’d won. If I made it down the hill without stopping or falling, I felt like a champion. Sometimes I have been put out of commission for a couple weeks because of a flare-up. Recently I posted a picture of myself hiking a segment of the Appalachian Trail, the first time I have set foot on it. I’m pretty sure I am not capable of thru-hiking the AT, but to do segments of it is a triumph.

Okay, so what? Nice story, but so what?

The way of the sluggard is as a hedge of thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.” (Proverbs 15:19)

What I’ve learned with my body applies to my spiritual life too. The word “sluggard” feels a bit harsh, especially for someone held back by illness. In my case, I had to face the fact that sometimes I cited illness to myself when really fear was the problem.  Fear could make me a sluggard, unwilling to push forward and put in the work. When I was doing triathlons, I made myself push past the fear so that I could actually listen to my body. Eventually, I found the limit when I trained for and completed a half-Ironman. I was proud of myself that I had finished, but acknowledged that the distance had been too much for my body, and backed off. But if I had listened to fear instead of my body, I would never have known that it was capable of the shorter distance races.

When my emotions and faith were tested in the fire of crisis with my son’s bipolar disorder, the same principles applied. I was capable of so much more strength, trust in God, and ability to fight than I ever dreamed. I also learned where my limit was, and when I needed to take action, in the form of counseling and medical intervention, to keep myself from breaking down. If I had listened to fear to determine my responses, I would never have found out how abundantly equipped I was in Christ. 

When the faithfulness required for caregiving looms like a mountain over us, it can seem easier not to climb. When the trail of practicing trust in God is a thicket in front of us, it feels safer not to venture in. If we follow the way of the sluggard, and stay unmoving at the foot of the climb or the edge of the thicket, the hedge of thorns grows around us, making everything harder, hurting us. The way of the sluggard, not moving, not putting in the monumental effort, is oh, so enticing. But practicing faithfulness begets more faithfulness. The path of the upright, the habits of work and trust, gets easier. This path leads us where we want to go.

Praise in Macedonia

I have never traveled to the literal land of Macedonia. It probably has lovely places, interesting culture, kind people. But, no offense intended, figurative Macedonia is a rough place.

The apostle Paul describes it as a place where “our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within.” (II Corinthians 7:5 NASB) I’ve had little pieces of Macedonia in my life. I suspect we all have some Macedonia. Sleepless nights, crisis following crisis, frayed relationships, battles with worry. 

How about you? Have you visited this land?

My worst times of Macedonia came when my teenage son was suffering a deep depression. Therapy, medication, and hospitalizations took over our lives, but seemed to never touch the problem. After three years of “conflicts within, fears without” I had  stopped saying I was “hanging in there.” Instead, when people asked how I was, I answered, “God is hanging on to me.” 

I wasn’t trying to be cute. I knew if I was okay at all, it was because God was holding all my broken pieces in His loving hand. I praised with heavy hands raised, songs rendered silent by an aching tight throat, lips moving with the fervency of my desire to cling to Jesus. 

In Paul’s Macedonia time, he received a visitor bringing news: “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not only by his coming, but also by the comfort with which he was comforted in you, as he reported to us your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I rejoiced even more.”

(II Corinthians 7:5-7 NASB) Titus’s arrival didn’t rescue Paul. It didn’t solve his problems or keep his fears at bay. Paul just received news about people he loved. And he rejoiced.

Paul was looking for, and willing to receive, good from God. It didn’t come from a lifting of his afflictions, but from a comfort that ministered to his heart. He accepted that God didn’t change his circumstances, and still praised because God loved him.

In my Macedonia, when it seemed the crisis might never end, God ministered to my heart. He sent people to comfort me. News of friends came from far places to cheer me up. Small mercies loomed large. 

When one set of dire circumstances was exchanged for another, Paul wrote from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! Let your forbearing spirit be known to all. The Lord is near.” (Philippians 4:4-5) 

When I am in Macedonia, I live praise by making certain decisions:

  • I will rejoice in the Lord.
  • I will not let circumstances steal my joy.
  • I will enjoy the people, provisions, and fun He gives.
  • But I will hold these lightly while I cling to Jesus.

How do you keep praising in your figurative Macedonia?

5 Reasons I’m writing a Hand outstretched

This is how I spent snow days

1) I love history. I mean, a passionate life-long love. Learning about history has been my favorite free time activity since I was a little kid. These are notes from when I was 10:

Yes I need history books in my kitchen too

2) I love strong females, and action/adventure stories. Everything from Meg Murray (in the BOOK!), to Mary Lennox, to Jane Eyre, to Bones’ Temperance Brennan, to Princess Leia.

My son said, “Of course you own that.”


3) I have a passion for connecting dots in history. Studying overlapping timelines and cultures is revelatory to me. In school I studied Egyptians, then Greeks, then Romans. I had no concept that they interacted with each other or that one rose while another fell. Or that they traveled. So seeing which things were happening at the same time, or which things may have had cause/effect relationships changed my view of the human experience. In this context, the what-ifs can blossom and spread underground roots.

4) The time and place that my characters live, 1st century Britain, is both known and unknown. I can dive into the history, but also indulge in speculation.

5) Exploration of the human experience is what makes fiction compelling. I read or write a character in a setting that is unfamiliar, sit with her wounds and loves, and then ask, what do I know now about God? This process teaches me about trust and mercy and God’s transcendence in parts of my brain I don’t access any other way. 

Are you a lover of historical fiction?

Nature: Tool for Destressing and Restoring

 

Rocky Mountain National Park

 

Tax season is upon us. Some people spend hours in their home offices doing the painstaking task of reading through all the tax booklets and filling in schedules. Dan and I think its enough work to organize and gather our documents and bring them to an accountant. Of course, Dan had to drive through a snowstorm to drop it all off.

We all know taxes are a fact of life. I choose to improve my attitude about it by deciding in my own mind what my personal taxes pay for. So when I fret over the withheld money on the pay stub or the check I need to write to the government, I tell myself, “I don’t know what other people are spending this money on, but I am funding libraries and parks. And sanitation workers.”

I am thrilled to be part owner of the city, county, state, and national parks. Regular use of these resources improves the quality of my life. There have been many times when sitting on a public beach or walking a lakeside trail has made it possible for me to face the hard circumstances waiting for me when I left. I feel a loosening, a freeing, when I spend time in nature. God speaks healing into my soul through His creation.

More and more research bears out the beneficial effects of the natural world on mental health. I started looking into these studies first with the intent of finding new ways to support my son in his recovery. But I believe the benefits are for everyone who seeks to improve mental wellness, not least the stressed and distressed parents of kids with mental illness.

How can connections with the natural world help us, and how can we make use of them?

1) Nature helps improve attention and focus. 

In studies, time in a natural setting has been found to improve attention both in people with and without disorders like ADHD. This is not the effect of extra physical exercise, which tends to increase when people are outside. Subjects were tested doing the same activities (eg walking, soccer) in indoor and outdoor settings. Also,the positive effects on attention, concentration, and memory continue even after the the time in nature is over. (“Why ‘Getting Away’ in Nature is Good for your Mental Health,” Ellen Hendricksen Ph.D Savvy Psychologist, Scientificamerican.com, 11/7/18)

2) Time in natural settings aids emotional regulation.

Did you know city-dwellers have a higher risk of anxiety and mood disorders and even schizophrenia? Lack of access to the natural world may be a factor. A study by Stanford researchers discovered that brain scans show decreased activity in the part of the brain that produces repetitive thought focused on negative emotion after 90 minutes spent in a natural setting. (“Stanford Researchers Find Mental Health Prescription:Nature,” Rob Jordan, news.stanford.edu, 6/30/2015)

3) The setting is flexible. 

Experiments in using nature-focused programming in the UK to specifically treat people with mental illnesses have shown great promise. One interesting facet to the work is that programs have been conducted in a variety of settings, from wooded areas, to beaches, to urban green spaces. All seem to offer similar benefits. This is encouraging because it tells us we can seek out the most convenient and accessible settings to receive the positive effects of time in nature. (“What Makes Nature-Based Interventions for Mental Health Successful?,” Dan Bloomfield, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov, 11/14/17)

4) Even a little can be beneficial.

For stressed and overbooked parents who need to care for their own mental health, this one is important. We can benefit even from little doses of nature. A houseplant. The tree next to the driveway. A view out a window. Even watching a nature program can help us. The key is to give our attention to things not made by humans for a while. Can’t go to the park for an hour? Notice and appreciate the plantings in the road median. Stuck in a long winter? Spend a couple bucks on a hard-to-kill plant, then spend a few minutes taking care of it and looking at it each day. (Go ahead and talk to it if you want — I won’t tell.)

Robert Treman State Park

For people of faith, it should come as no surprise that science shows connection with nature is good for us. 

Consider:

Romans 1:20 tells us that “since the creation of the world (God’s) invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made…” 

Psalm 23 reminds us that God restores our souls by making us lie down in green pastures and leading us beside still waters. (Psalm 23:2-3) 

And in his Gospel, John writes: “All things came into being through (Jesus, the Word), and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” The same Jesus who loved me enough to die for me, who conquered death for me, and who lives to intercede for me (Hebrews 7:25) made all of the natural world. 

If you are looking for ways to battle stress and find restoration for your soul, try looking to nature. 

Both Sides Now

A couple weeks ago I ran across the phrase “ambiguous loss.” Coined by Dr. Pauline Boss, it refers to a sense of grief over something undefined. Dr. Boss originally used the term to to describe the experience of either losing a person who is still physically present, as with dementia, or someone whose physical absence in unexplained, as with a soldier missing in action. The concept of ambiguous loss has extended to something never possessed, or an event that may happen, but doesn’t look likely. For example, the child of immigrants might feel homesickness for a country and culture he never knew. A woman nearing the end of childbearing years may feel the absence of babies she never had, but always assumed she would. The loss is something they never had, and also something that has not quite become an impossibility yet.

Parents whose kids suffer from mental illness feel this ambiguous loss, often without being able to put their fingers on why they feel it. The typical hill-and-valley nature of most mental illness journeys adds to the experience. If a star student athlete endures a devastating injury and can no longer play his sport, he and his family grieves, but the loss in unambiguous. With healthy processing, acceptance can be achieved. It’s different with an injury that may heal and allow the athlete to return, or may never get well enough.

Mental illness usually resembles the second example. Our kids may someday be able to graduate high school, or hold a job, or go to college, or live independently, or have a healthy romance/marriage, or … but they may not. We can’t accept the loss of those things, because that would be like giving up. But we can’t let ourselves dream about those futures either, because how many times can we let our hearts break? We may cry when our friends’ kids start getting married and having babies. We may stay home from church the day all the graduating seniors are honored. But then we feel guilty for assuming we will never have that joy. There is still the possibility that the meds will work, that recovery will continue, that our kids will have full lives with sustainable stability.

When we can’t acknowledge grief, then the process is stunted. Dr. Boss believes that more we can learn to live with two clashing realities, the more the stress of ambiguous loss is lessened:

“We like finite answers. You’re either dead or you’re alive. You’re either here or you’re gone. And let’s say you have someone with dementia or a child with autism, and they’re there, but they’re not always there. So once you put that frame on it, people are more at ease and recognize that may be the closest to the truth that they’re going to get.” (Dr. Pauline Boss, interview, “On Being with Kristen Tippett,” air date June 23, 2016)

Are you struggling with ambiguous loss? Just being able to recognize it is the first important step to lessening its damage to your soul. We can find similar paradoxes in the Christian faith. We are living in both the “now” and the “not yet.” We are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” (Ephesians 2:6) but “in this world (we have) trouble.” (John 16:33) Can we learn to rest in knowing that both are truth? Likewise, can we look into the faces of maybe and maybe not, and allow them to coexist?

A tree shedding its flowers or pinecones or whirling seedpods may or may not have offspring. But the in-between of unknowing can still be beautiful. I pray we all find peace with the unknowing.

9 Ways Having a Newborn Prepares us to Parent a Kid with Mental Illness

Newborn Lessons

I remember when my kids were babies. Parenting was overwhelming, especially when the first was a newborn. There were so many things to learn, from which direction the tape on the diaper was supposed to go, to how to cope with the total responsibility for a helpless little human. But I did learn, slowly and imperfectly. When I felt lost in the uncharted seas of my son’s mental illness in the teenage years, it was empowering to know I had already learned so much. Some of the lessons from his infancy were timeless. I pulled out the old mental files and used them again.

Nine Lessons From the Newborn Days:

1) Sleep when they sleep.

Just as it was exhausting to give birth and then nurse a newborn every few hours, it really drains us to care for a kid with extra needs. We need to rest! Also in this category: drink more water, get some sunshine, try to eat the foods your body needs to thrive.

2) Recognize different cries.

One of the most confusing things about parenting a kid with MI is discerning between typical behavior/response and the illness. Teenagers are going through a volatile time of their lives. Through close observation and experience,we can learn when our kids are experiencing extra distress that needs special attention.

3) Encourage them to self-soothe.

When our babies’ needs are taken care of, we can help them learn to settle themselves. When they wake in the night, we can pat them to let them know they are safe and loved. Then, instead of nursing or rocking them all the way to sleep, we can let them try to drift off in their cribs. When our teenagers are in distress, we can ensure they are not in crisis, then give them the chance to use healthy coping skills.

4) Swaddling is calming.

Sometimes. One of my babies would calm right down when a blanket was wrapped tight around him. My friend’s baby liked to be wrapped as long as his hands were free. My other baby would cry until he was unwrapped and could kick his legs freely. With our kids with MI, we can try different levels of closeness when they are in distress, then watch to see what works best.

5) Symptoms should be taken more seriously.

When my newborn had a temperature over 100 and was uninterested in eating, the doctor sent us to the emergency room. When my seven-year-old had the same symptoms, she advised fever reducers, rest, and watchfulness. Likewise, certain behaviors or moods are indications of more danger for a kid with MI than a typical kid.  It’s appropriate to be extra cautious.

6) Don’t tiptoe around.

It can be tempting to adjust the noise and activity level when new babies are in the house. However, if they become used to only hushed voices and lullabies, then any unexpected noise will wake or startle them. It’s better to carry on the rhythms of normal life. Our kids with MI need to live in this world and among people. They need to learn resiliency and how to function in situations that are not crafted to accommodate them. This is not to say we should not be considerate and sensitive to their needs. But we should not act as if they are the only important souls in the family.

7) Cheer for smiles and first steps.

What is easy for big kids is hard for babies. We celebrate their milestones and don’t expect first attempts to be perfect. When a kid with depression takes steps toward wellness, whether it’s a homework assignment, sitting and watching a movie with the family, changing his sheets, or going for a walk, let’s not dwell on how much more or better he could be doing. Enjoy a quiet moment of celebration and respond positively to his efforts.

8) Expect messiness and don’t take it personally.

Babies are messy. For every adorable moment in ruffled ankle socks or a fuzzy bear hat, there is a blown out diaper or sweet-potato-spit-up on the sweater Grandma knit. We may sigh, but we don’t take it personally. Life with mental illness can be messy too. Steps forward and back. Progress and relapse. Meds that work, then inexplicably stop working. Ensuing relationship conflicts. Our weariness and grief can make it all feel personal. It can help to keep repeating, “It’s the illness. It’s the illness.” 

9) Ask for advice, but trust your instinct too.

As a new mom, I read soooo many parenting books. It was helpful to have that wealth of information and I used a lot of what I learned. But it didn’t take long to realize that some of the advice was contradictory. Sometimes, none of it pertained to my unique child. There’s also a lot of advice, some great, some pretty awful, about parenting a kid with mental illness. We need to sift through, use what’s helpful, and then recognize that we know our kids best. Teachable, but discerning.

BONUS:

Dedicate them to God. 

In our church, we practice child dedication, where we acknowledge our children are gifts from God, and we are just stewards of their lives. We offer our parenting to Him, to seek His way and His wisdom. We express gratitude that God has shared the gift of these souls with us, and recognize that they belong to their Creator. We pledge to faithfully do our part and entrust the rest to Him. This mindset has been the most important road to peace for me when the parenting journey got tough because of my son’s mental illness. I pray it helps you too.

Book Homes

A part of one of the dozen-plus bookcases in my home.

Books have always been one of my great escapes. I was the kid who brought a book to the Superbowl party. My math teacher routinely confiscated books during class (I wasn’t as sneaky as I thought), and returned the stack on Friday. When I spent months in a hospital with Crohns Disease at age 14, I slipped away from the pain and homesickness in the deeper home of my books.

Three decades, my heart was in a hospital again, a piece of it anyway, the part that is called Nicholas. Books came to the rescue again. I went back to old favorites, because I needed to make sure they would do their job- uplift me, rather than bring emotional upset. My emotions were already plenty upset.

Here is some of my reading list from that time:

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot, and then all the sequels.
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon, and then all the other Mitford books
Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Although I preferred to read to escape, I also read to help me with the steep learning curve of parenting a kid with mental illness. There are many, many books for this. Some that helped me the most:

You are Not Alone by Dena Yohe
The Novelist by Angela Hunt (this is fiction exploring the parent’s heart when a young adult son first develops a mental illness- creative and healing)
Stop Walking on Eggshells by Paul T. Mason and Randi Kreger

Full disclosure: I also watched a lot of TV. I remember watching many episodes of Bones, which ran in 3-4 hour stretches during the times in between visiting hours. All those experts and interns became my TV friends.

How about you? How do you escape and soothe when things are overwhelming?

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