Kirsten Panachyda

Writer and Speaker

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Tag: mental health (page 1 of 2)

7 Ideas for respite and fun

I rolled out of bed, gritting my teeth against the aches and pains of another restless night. Going downstairs to get my coffee, I could see the glow of Nicholas’s phototherapy light in the dining room. Good, he’s already up. I flipped the switch to turn on the coffee maker as I continued to the basement to get his medicine. Dose in hand, I checked on the progress of the coffee, grabbed pen and notebook, and went to where Nicholas sat in front of the light eating breakfast. Kissing top of his head, I set the little plastic cup in front of him, then sat down with the notebook on the table between us.

“Okay, let’s talk about today. The only appointment you have is with Susan at 1:00. So you should be able to make some good progress on schoolwork.” I started blocking out hours of time on the next blank page. “We can go to the gym once I’m done with breakfast.” I glanced at his nearly empty cereal bowl. “Meanwhile you can work on math.” I started filling in the boxes for the morning. “How far did you get yesterday?”

The coffee pot’s beep sang its siren song and I pushed back from the table, saying over my shoulder, “Grab your math and let me see.” I returned with my cup and he handed me the assignment.

I buried my nose in my mug, inhaling the rich scent. I willed the hot elixir to do its job. Give me the energy to do today. Every day we worked the plan, worked out, worked for wellness. But still I knew Nicholas was not working to his potential. We were all working twice as hard to barely maintain. Work. Tedious, exhausting, unrewarding. 

We all needed a break. We eagerly anticipated some upcoming time away from the grind. My husband Dan and I would drop Nicholas off at basketball camp, leaving Alex, our newly minted high school graduate, to hold down the homestead and work at his dollar-store job. Dan and I would then go to a bed and breakfast by the beach for four days by ourselves. Dan, who had been dealing with a lot of pressure at work as well as the ache of having a son who was so ill,  was tired and stressed and wound up. Alex looked forward to some peace and solitude.

We discovered by accident that Nicholas had mononucleosis. Because of some confusion with a blood test for his thyroid, the lab performed a full work up. We might never have found out about the mono if it hadn’t been for the mix-up, since he never really had the bad sore throat and fever, just fatigue. None of us noticed extra fatigue; Nicholas’s meds and depression already caused fatigue. The doctor instructed us to let him sleep as much as he wanted and to not let him play contact sports or exert himself too much, since mono renders the spleen vulnerable. No basketball.

Let’s just say — Disappointment.

Nicholas initiated the idea that he should stay with his grandparents so Dan and I could still go on our couple’s vacation. Of course I had concerns about how Nicholas would do away from us with his grandparents, feeling poorly, out of his normal routines and environment. Dan Sr. and Lillian love him very much, but living in different states has made it harder for Nicholas to have a close relationship with them. Still, I was also concerned about my husband and his emotional exhaustion and about our marriage. We badly needed time to relax, have fun together, rediscover our friendship and reconnect.

The morning after we brought Nicholas down to his grandparents’ house, Dan and I drove away with the windows down and the music loud. We were giddy with a sense of freedom. We had four glorious days of doing nothing more taxing than playing in the ocean, sitting on the beach, reading, napping, and lying in bed between these activities watching HGTV and snuggling. It was a very unusual type of vacation for us, and perfectly what we needed.

We need rest. We need fun. We need respite. 

This year, Dan and I would not have been able to make that trip. We have had to find other ways to nourish our souls and our marriage. Creativity, intentionality, and priorities are the three legs of the stool where we sit to find rest. 

Here are seven strategies we have used to carve out space for rest and recreation:

1) Schedule complete downtime. Put it on a calendar.

2) Listen to an audiobook, podcast, or radio show just for fun. 

3) Go for a daily walk. Even better if you can go somewhere beautiful, but around the neighborhood counts too.

4) Play music during chores. Sing along if you like that. Maybe dance a little.

5) Trade time off with your spouse or a friend. Even a couple hours when you don’t have to be responsible for anyone else can do wonders.

6) Create small rituals. For example, I like to light candles during my Bible-reading and journaling time, during dinner, and after I clean the kitchen.

7) Practice calming breathing and mindfulness exercises. My friends Dena and Jason Hobbes just came out with an excellent book When Anxiety Strikes in which they present gentle and easy exercises to introduce physical and mental calm into our lives, along with wonderful meditations on Scripture. You can get this book here or here. I highly recommend it.

Your ideas will be as unique as you. Make rest and recreation a priority for your wellness. Intentionally create space for fun and respite. Ask God to provide exactly what you need.

I’d love to hear your ideas!

5 tips for hard conversations

This is Mental Illness Awareness Week. For some of us, we can’t help but be hyper-aware of mental illness. Our kids, or other family members, or we ourselves have been struggling for a long time now. For others, though, the experience is new. But either way, we share the need for effective communication skills.

When we are the parents of a kid with depression, anxiety, or other forms of MI, a strategy for hard conversations helps move everyone forward toward recovery. Here are a few strategies from mental health professionals:

1) Containerize difficult conversations.

“Set up contained times to talk about it. Phase one is saying something like, ‘As a family we’re going to sit down every night at 7 pm and process, or come with an agenda, or be able to talk about how we’re doing today, what are we worried about, what are we proud about.’ That regularity of time doesn’t have to be every day. It could be once a week. It’s a simple container strategy, but it can make a big difference.”⁠1

2) Avoid ambush. 

“It can be really distressing for anybody, children, adults, adolescents, if anybody in the family can bring up a really hard topic at any point. It can feel like you’re walking through this emotional minefield. ‘I can’t completely relax in my own home because I feel like Mom or Dad could pounce on me at any time with a hard conversation.’ Obviously, if the child is symptomatic that’s going to happen, but if I’m just sort of hanging out after school and Mom or Dad has something on their mind from last week or an upcoming appointment, that’s not a conversation that will jump out of nowhere (when using the container strategy). It’s healthy for the parents too. (As a parent) I need to be able to move through my day knowing this topic isn’t going to ambush me at any moment.”⁠2

3) Create a culture of honesty.

Be open with your kids about looking in their rooms or checking their phones and computers. If you need to safeguard them in this way, tell them so, and explain why.

“There’s a point where you’ll say to your child, ‘I love you so much, we’re going to go through your room, not because I don’t trust you, because I love you. I want you to work with me and we’re going to find things that might be a temptation for you to cause yourself harm.’ Some kids, teenagers especially, are going to be very resistant, but just try to do it as reassuringly as possible. You’re going to need to pull out anything that could potentially be a weapon. And anywhere else in the house where there might be things which could be a weapon, you need to make sure that that is locked away from that child at all times.”⁠3

4) Face the hardest topic: suicide.

“You should not be afraid to ask if they’ve thought about suicide. That’s first of all. Most people are afraid to use the word. They think they’ll give the child a suggestion and the child will think, “Oh I never thought about that, but now I’m suicidal.” They’re not going to do that. If they’re not suicidal to begin with, mentioning it is not going to make them suicidal. So don’t worry about that.”⁠4

5) Notice the need of the moment.

All strategies have flaws. There are times when we need to set aside even a healthy communication plan to meet the situation at hand. “But this isn’t a perfect world. Sometimes there will be a lot of chaos and it will be impossible to contain it to another time.”⁠5 If a crisis arises, or you can see your kid needs support right now, then gently explain you are setting aside the usual method in order to help. 

Friends, pray with me for our hard conversations:

Lord, You are a God who goes to great lengths to communicate with Your children. You offer us unlimited access to You. You pursue us, but do not attack us. You make it clear that You will work for our good, even in ways that are uncomfortable, but You do it with compassion and wisdom. You call us to face our darkest places. You meet us exactly where we are and minister to our needy souls. Help us to be parents like You. Empower us with Your wisdom, love, and compassion. Amen.

What communication strategies work well for you? What areas of communication do you struggle with? I’d love to hear about your ideas and experiences. 

anImage_2.tiff

1 Sally Lott Miller, LMFT

2 Ibid

3 Tina Yeager, LMHC

4 Ibid

5 Sally Lott Miller, LMFT

following bubbles: finding air when you are drowning in stress

Find and follow the bubbles up to air and light. 

Following Bubbles

Do you sometimes feel like you are drowning in stress? Maybe you are caring for a kid with a mental illness or an elderly parent. Or the pandemic has ripped the financial rug out from under your family. Or the pain in our communities has reduced you to tears with every news broadcast. 

Are the lungs of your soul screaming for air? Does everything around you look dark and murky?

Once while playing in the ocean in rough surf, I misjudged a wave. I thought I was past the breakers, so instead of diving through, I just lifted my feet to float over it. Instead of bobbing up on the surface, I was crashed under with a force that upended me. My goggles scraped down my face and my eyes closed a moment too late. My contacts washed out to sea. I continued to turn underwater for a long breathless moment as the undertow met the wave. I wasn’t sure where the surface was. Air exhaled from my mouth and I remembered with sudden clarity: “Follow the bubbles.” Pulling and kicking in the direction of my breath bubble, I broke the surface.

The first months of the battle with my son’s mental illness were about survival. The crisis had pushed me underwater, crashing over my head. My view of the world had been knocked off and my vision was clouded. I had been ambushed when I thought the water was calm and I was safe. Instead I was roughly tumbled and I couldn’t even tell which way was up. Those first months were about trying to get my wits about me enough to find and follow the bubbles up to air and light. 

 My first bubble was a return to physical fitness. I was ready to surrender the easier comfort of food and escapist TV and return to the the athletic pursuits that had brought me pleasure and satisfaction in my life “before.” I downloaded a fitness app, started running again, and followed that bubble up toward the surface. The first thing about this process that made me happy was that I was defiantly pushing back, kicking my legs, refusing to stay under. James tells us “resist the devil, and he will flee.” (James 4:7) I was resisting the devil with every mile I managed to huff my way through. It didn’t matter how slow my pace was, he was fleeing every time my foot struck the ground. Sometimes standing firm looks like sweaty, breathless, determined trotting.

The next bubble was reading. To be accurate, re-reading. Healing is still a fragile state, so I turned to books I knew would engross me, but would not disturb. In that season, I self-medicated with every book and novella of James Herriot, Mary Stewart, and Jan Karon. I immersed myself in friendly literary places and chatted with quirky, lovable characters, and laughed at gentle absurdities and antics. Reading was a bubble back to soul oxygen that didn’t require kicking and struggling. It enveloped me and floated me up.

The last bubble was odd-shaped. Years ago we had told our boys that they could each choose a family trip in their senior years of high school.  We love to travel and have trekked around Greece, Italy, and many places in our own awe-inspiring nation. Alex had chosen for his senior trip: Disney World. When we asked him incredulously why there, of all the places he could choose, he answered, “I want the focus to be on all of us having fun together, instead of on a place.” Who could argue with that? Fun together had been in short supply.

Planning a Disney trip became my new hobby. I discovered there are approximately three kajillion sources of information, and I took to reading forums and blogs with alacrity. I found it to be great amusement. It was also an exercise in hope. That Nicholas would be well enough to go (although I made cancelation-friendly reservations). That we would all be able to enjoy ourselves (although I kept reminding myself to keep expectations low). That depression- and medication- induced fatigue would not prevent Nicholas from being able to keep up (although I planned a slower-paced schedule with lots of downtime). Planning something fun for the future felt like a mighty dangerous bubble, possibly a deceptive one. Would it lead me not to air and light but deeper into drowning? But with cautious optimism, I followed it anyway. The Mickey-shaped bubble delivered, and at the very end of the first crisis year, we saw sun and breathed oxygen, all of us alive.

How about you? What bubbles can you follow back to light and air? 

Cultivate your inner life

Spending time with God nurtures our souls

For a person who longs to face life courageously, with a soul that is whole, the ability to cultivate a vibrant inner life is crucial. Thieves are the problem. They press in on every side, stealing the time and breathing room necessary for soul growth. Distraction. Crisis. Tasks. The needs, wants, or demands of others. Weariness.

Sometimes the sneakiest thief of all is a secret doubt that soul wholeness is possible.

Even though I have been a Jesus follower since age thirteen, those thieves wreaked their havoc on me too. When my son had been suffering from unmanageable bipolar disorder for a couple years, I got to a place where I was tired, burdened, and yes, doubting. My habit of nurturing my soul with prayer, journaling, and Bible study had fallen away. The time it took to do those things was certainly an issue. But the bigger obstacle was my hidden question: could God mend a soul as wounded as mine?

One sleety day I went to an Ash Wednesday service. The short sermon challenged me to spend Lent “fasting from despair, feasting on hope.”(Author Unknown) When I came home, I looked at the wall-length shelf filled with years’ worth of journals, Bible studies, class notes. I asked myself if time with God had ever failed to nourish me. I took out the most recent journal, which had about 20 pages used, the rest blank and waiting. I sat down and wrote, “A long time since I have sat with pen and journal — a lifetime of heartache in the last couple of years.”

I began to read Scripture passages every morning and to write a little.  Nothing magical happened. A few days later, I wrote, “The thing I must believe now is — to put it crudely — that this will work. That I really can live through pain and disappointment and grief with joy and peace by resting in God, obeying Him, and soaking in His Word. God, I ask for confirmation, although I fear it diminishes my faith.”

God came through.

There is so much more to the story. Deliverance from depression*, an awakening of joy, a deep settled peace.

But friends, what I want you to know is that God came through and healed my soul. 

I know that carving out time to spend with God is a challenge. Here are some ideas:

Practical Pointers: Spending Time with God

  • Set aside just a few minutes. Even this may be hard to find, so be creative and don’t wait for perfect moments. For example, you could leave for work or an errand five minutes early and sit in a parking lot. 
  • Keep it simple. Ideas: Read one short passage in the Bible. Write down one thing you are grateful for. Pray with honesty, even if it’s just, “I don’t know what to say, but I need you, God.” Try using a devotional.
  • Try thinking “instead of,” or “before I.” When you have a few minutes to relax, do you scroll through social media? Do you turn to other hobbies, even good, healthy ones like reading, gardening, crafting, or exercising? I am NOT suggesting you give those up. But try building some soul cultivation into your relaxation. And put those practices first. 
  • Enter your time with God without expectations of yourself. Just rest in the quiet. 

Your soul is precious. You deserve to have an inner life connected to God. Make it a priority, trust God will do beautiful work in you, and find the time.

Tending to your soul will keep fear at bay and prevent you from weakening in the face of difficult circumstances. Nourishing your inner person by spending time with God allows you to be strong and brave because of the experience of God’s love and power. 

*The practice of spending time with God healed the spiritual aspects of my depression, which were significant. For the physical and emotional aspects, He also provided medication, therapy, and exercise.

Preparing yourself for your kid’s appointment

When a kid has an appointment with a mental health professional, the parent can prepare for peace and productivity.

Hello friends. I would love to know how you are all doing. How is school-at-home going for you? How are your kids handling things? What challenges are you coming up against these days?

This week’s topic may seem a little out of touch, as there are few in-person appointments happening these days. But the very word “prepare” gives the reason why tucking some pointers into our toolboxes now is good idea. “Pre” literally means “before.” So the time to think through an upcoming appointment is well before the moment you enter the building.

Appointments for our kids can be emotionally charged and intimidating. This is true whether we are at the beginning of a journey or the kid has been struggling with mental or emotional health for a while. How can we make the appointments as effective and helpful as possible? Also important: how can we parents navigate the appointment while guarding our peace?

Before the Appointment:

  • Write down a list of topics/questions you want to address.  
  • Check over medications: do you need renewed prescriptions? Are there any changes you think should be made?
  • Mentally prepare. There might be distressing surprises. Your kid might make you the object of blame.
  • Bring a pen you like. (There are always more forms.) This one little thing makes me feel better. For you, it might not be a pen. It might be your water bottle, or a hard candy, or your comfortable shoes.

During the appointment: 

  • Know the provider will probably speak with your kid alone first.
  • Be honest and share anything you think will be helpful.
  • Remember it’s not your appointment; save your therapy for your therapist.
  • Don’t press the provider or your kid to divulge what they talked about in private. The provider will tell you (if your kid is a minor) if she believes there is danger, but most will otherwise keep confidentiality if the kid requests it.
  • Respect the provider’s professional opinion and expertise, but don’t be afraid to ask questions or disagree with a course of treatment.
  • Don’t answer for your kid or your spouse.
  • Listen to everyone in the room with the goal of understanding. It’s easy to get defensive; try not to be overtaken by that feeling.

Can you help expand this list? What do you do to prepare for an appointment? Are there things you wish you had done/known? Please share your thoughts to help everyone else.

When Parents and providers disagree about treatment

Caring for a Kid with Mental Illness or Special Emotional Needs Takes Teamwork

A Team Sport

Helping a kid move toward wellness when struggling with a mental illness or behavioral disorder is a team sport. We need the help of their therapists, prescribers, and other supports.

But what if the team disagrees about a course of treatment?

What if the doctor wants to prescribe a med that you have concerns about? What if you think the diagnosis is inaccurate? What if you think your kid needs a higher or lower level of care but the professionals don’t?

Conflict on our Team

When my son Nicholas had been sick with treatment-resistant depression from bipolar disorder for three years, we reached an impasse with his care team. After five hospitalizations, they were pushing hard for residential treatment. My husband and Nicholas himself were unsure but willing to consider it. I felt strongly (strongly!) that residential was not the right fit for Nicholas.

I need to pause for just a moment here to say:

This post is not about the pros and cons of residential treatment. I believe that for some kids it is the best treatment option and the most loving choice a parent can make.

Our group of caregivers no longer felt like a team to me. Every appointment felt dangerous, like discovering enemies where I had thought to find friends. I needed to trust them; Nicholas’ care depended on them. I truly believed God had provided them in our hour of need. But our serious disagreement about the next best thing put us at odds.

Which way to Turn?

These were not, however, enemies. They were trained, professional, caring people who had known and worked with Nicholas for years. Residential treatment was their emphatically expressed, best recommendation. And truthfully, I feared that my instincts might be untrustworthy after the years of stress.

I was prepared to fight to the death to make sure the right thing happened for Nicholas. But if my instincts were suspect, then I didn’t know what was the right thing.

I had no idea which battlefield to charge. Which fight could end the war?

What do the Professionals Say?

When we were past our crisis years and I began to interview mental health professionals in a quest to help other parents, I asked about disagreements over treatment. 

The Reality of Liability

One therapist explained that sometimes a provider must push for a higher level of care to protect herself:

“Part of it is my own liability. And that isn’t a compassionate answer maybe, but that’s something I’m always running in my background. If I don’t push for this, am I then liable for the safety of this child? If some harm comes to a child while they’re in my care, someone’s coming to ask me questions. Have I presented this treatment option in such a way that I’m covered regarding liability?”

Concern for the Kid

Mostly, though, the providers who have talked to me about this issue say their responses are born from a place of deep concern for the family. One counselor said:

“If I’ve determined they need residential care, that’s a pretty extreme step, so usually there are some reasons I’m leaning in that direction, either for the child’s safety or for the family’s safety. It can be frustrating for the professional who wants what’s best for the child to say, ‘Look you’re putting yourself and your child at risk.’”

Concern for the Parents

Those I interviewed also talked about their concerns about parent guilt, burn-out, and shame:

 “Sometimes (parents) just feel they don’t want to go that route of residential care because they think that means they’re giving up on their child. And that isn’t the case. If it is what your child needs, it may be what’s best for your child right now. Residential care isn’t usually a permanent solution, so it doesn’t mean you’re warehousing your child and you’re leaving them. You’re putting them in more capable supervisory care. They can do that vigilant care without getting fatigued. When their needs are beyond what you can provide as a parent in that situation, then getting them care that actually provides for those needs is doing what you can do as a parent to help your child the best you can.”

One even expressed unease about the role of some mental health professionals in a parent’s distress:

“Mental healthcare providers can be a part of blaming and shaming. ‘Why didn’t you know? Why didn’t you see the signs?’ That can be really tough. When kids are diagnosed with a physical health problem, parents aren’t necessarily getting that heat. Then they say, ‘Clearly, you’re not a doctor, you wouldn’t pick up on thse difficult health signs.’”

Back to the Team

None of the providers I spoke with insisted that they always knew better than the parent:

“The other part is, it can be just a disagreement. The parent might be right. There have been times I’ve recemmended a course of treatment and the parent said, ‘I’m 100% not doing that.’ And I say, ‘Okay. I get that. You’re the parent and I’m not.’ I’m going to honor that, maybe offer for them to go get a second opinion.”

How to Deal with Disagreement over Treatment

  • Request detailed reasoning for why the provider recommends a course of action. What does she see as the pros and cons? There are always cons. Be wary and press for information if your provider doesn’t share any with you.
  • Make a list of what you see as the pros and cons. Talk to the provider about them. Try not to only focus on cons.
  • Assign weight or value to the items on both lists. For example, the con of a medicine causing nausea for a couple weeks is not as weighty as a pro of bringing psychosis under control.
  • If you can, slow the process down. Give everyone time to work through emotions and analysis. In an emergency situation, this may not be possible, so use any skills you have to reach a state where you can consider all information while also honoring emotions and intuition.
  • See if you can get other professional opinions. Your provider should be open to this.
  • Ask God for wisdom, guidance, and unity on the team.

All the items in this list have one thing in common: Communication. Engage honestly, respectfully, and fully with the providers, your kid’s other parent, yourself, and God.

Nicholas’s Team

Nicholas did not end up going into residential treatment. We agreed to enroll him in our state’s Waiver program, which is the highest level of care outside residential. Waiver can provide a faster track to placement in a facility. It was a compromise solution, because it moved him closer to residential. However, during the time it took to fully get him going in the program, his condition improved. As a result of a second opinion, he was able to access a twenty-week program of Dialectical Behavior Therapy. A change in his medication regimen proved helpful. Physical maturity calmed some of the storm. By taking the time to really work through issues with his providers, considering all options and opinions, and being ready to do whatever it took to serve Nicholas’s best interests, his team of parents and providers helped him achieve stability.

What About You?

Have you experienced conflict within the team of people caring for your kid? What issues did you face in working through it? Do you have advice for other parents?

Parent Stress when a kid has mental illness

Stress can fray us physically, mentally, and emotionally when we are parenting a kid with mental illness.
Image by CJ from Pixabay

Kirsten Panachyda

The stress of caring for a kid with mental illness can take a significant toll on a parent. This experience can weaken an immune system, exacerbate existing conditions, and retrain the brain to respond in unhealthy ways to any negative stimulus. This toll, all too often, comes as an unexpected cost to a parent. I know it did for me.

We live in a suburb of Syracuse, New York. I spent twenty winters there. I thought I was somewhat inured to winter conditions, beyond the typical, mostly good-natured grumbling with strangers in the grocery store line. February and March of 2015 just about did me in. Even in a city grown used to its place on every “worst winter weather” list, people were ground down by that winter. The average temperature in February that year was 9 degrees, the coldest on record. Snow fell every single day from January 29 through March 9. Besides the constant accumulation, the snow clouds also meant limited sunshine. 

It’s hard to find enough adjectives to describe how I felt during that endless winter. Desperate. Defeated. Insignificant. Failed. Battered. Crumbled. Fruitless. Weak. Sick.

Besides the weather, we were enduring the depths of a crisis season which had lasted for over two years by then. Our son Nicholas came home from his most recent hospitalization somewhat more stable, but still suffering from daily suicidal ideation. We never left him alone, and most of my time was spent on his care, either appointments or homeschooling, or even just thinking, praying, and researching. I would never give up on hoping and working for my son’s well-being, even though some days I almost wished I could. But there was a real possibility my body would give up on me.

I started finding the shower drain clogged with clumps of hair. I was wrapping the elastic around my ponytail an extra loop. Googling “hair loss” led to a little questionnaire asking about stress six to eight weeks back. The life cycle, or whatever, of hair follicles meant that stress could show in hair loss after that length of time. Oh. Well. Yes. Maybe it had been a little stressful to agonize over whether Nicholas would be going into residential treatment.

“Did you punch me in the chest while I was sleeping?” I asked Dan one day, teasing but a little worried. “It aches when I take a deep breath. It hurts to the touch.” My fingertips felt my sternum and the pain like a tender bruise. 

Later, Dan sent me an email with the subject line “Maybe it’s this?” I opened the attached link. It led to a medical site with a short article describing costochondritis, an inflammation of the joints between the ribs and the sternum. Symptoms: sore to the touch, pain upon coughing or deep breathing.  Often brought on or aggravated by, yes, intense stress.

A week later my doctor confirmed my internet diagnosis. I was in her office for headaches, which turned out to be a sinus infection and double ear infections. I brought up the pain in my chest. Although she ran tests to make sure it wasn’t a heart problem, she agreed that it was probably costochondritis. Plodding through my days in a fog of pain and low grade fever, I waited for the antibiotics and ibuprofen to do their jobs. All I wanted was to stay under the covers in a quiet darkened room with the door shut.

Within a couple weeks, I was back in the doctor’s office. “I have this rash,” I told her. “It’s really irritated. I’ve tried putting lotion on it, but it’s spreading and kind of blistery.”

She looked at the angry blotch on my rib cage, then moved around the table to look at my back. “Ohh,” she said.

“Oh what?” I craned my neck around trying to see what she had noticed back there.

“You have shingles.” Her face was sympathetic. 

Later I was back in front of the computer, going to the few medical websites I trusted to inform accurately. An outbreak of shingles is commonly linked to a weakening of the immune system. This can sometimes be traced back to, yep, stress.

As a last straw, one morning as I put away laundry and straightened up my bedroom, I blacked out. I was turning from my dresser to get something else to put away, and then my face hit the floor. I wasn’t aware of losing my balance or falling until I hit. For a stunned few moments I could not tell if I was okay.

After some skin glue to patch up a heavily bleeding cut, a CT scan, and another prescription for painkillers, I went home from the urgent care clinic. When the bandage came off, I had a strange-looking eyebrow and a deep purple bruise that looked like goth eyeshadow. 

I wish I had known that the stress of caring for my son would require real attention, especially during the crisis years. We can be much healthier as people, and much more effective caregivers if we expect, and plan to mitigate, the effects of stress.

Tina Yeager (Licensed Mental Health Counselor)* says,  “You need to restore yourself. Adrenaline overload will cause you to get knocked out in the process whether you want to or not, because you’ll get sick.

“(Chronic stress) can cause chronic illnesses or exacerbate chronic illnesses. It can cause digestive problems, heart problems, even something as severe as stroke. People can develop fatigue syndromes or fibromyalgia. It can cause you to be unable to concentrate. You can get insomnia. Stress is not good for any of our physical, mental, or emotional systems. 

“Finding some small stress relief things is really good for a parent. You can pray while you’re doing relaxation breathing exercises, invite the Holy Spirit to bring restoration and healing. Also some exercise is really, really good. Exercise helps restore serotonin levels. And it doesn’t always take a lot of time. You could probably even do that with your child. And if they’re right there, you don’t have to worry about being vigilant about what they’re doing while you exercise.”

Remember:

  • You will experience heightened, sometimes extreme, stress while parenting a kid with mental illness.
  • Chronic stress can cause negative physical, mental, and emotional impact.
  • You can take steps to keep yourself healthy by limiting the effects of stress, if you are intentional.

Take care of yourselves and each other, friends,

Kirsten

Infusing Courage into the Soul-Weary

*Tina Yeager, who was gracious enough to be interviewed for this post and my future book, is the author of Beautiful Warrior: Finding Victory over the Lies Formed against You (click here to learn more) and the host of the podcast Flourish-meant. You can find her at TinaYeager.com.


A Home environment for mental health

Create a home that is conducive to mental wellness and recovery
Image by Krisztina Papp from Pixabay

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.” Maya Angelou

When my sons were little, after evening stories and a lullaby rendition of “Jesus Loves Me,” after one more drink of water or scurry to the bathroom, after the final kiss good night, I would close their bedroom door and pause. Laying my hand on the door, I would pray for them, thanking God they were tucked up safe under their covers, asking for them to become the men God created them to be.

Years later, I would go to bed after my “door prayer,” and wet my pillow, because Nicholas’s room had become a place where he was not always safe. The danger in his brain from bipolar depression sometimes made it the place of his greatest temptations, as he struggled there with dark thoughts running in a loop, insomnia, self-harm urges, and suicidal ideation.

I’ll never forget the ache I felt at the thought that my boy was not safe in our home. 

While we waited and prayed for treatment to do its work and help Nicholas stabilize, we tried to learn how to make our home a haven as much as possible. We wanted to provide an environment where wellness could increase and be nurtured. Nicholas’s condition was our motivation, but taking steps to make our home more conducive to mental health benefited all of us.

Tips from The website Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing, from the University of Minnesota:

1. Go for comfort

We humans all have a strong need for safety and security and look for those attributes in our environment. We also look for physical comfort, such as an environment with the right temperature, and psychological comfort, where there is a mix of familiarity and stimulus.

2. Cut the clutter

Visual “noise” increases stress. A cluttered, dirty, or confusing environment can cause us to feel worried, sad, or helpless. 

3. Delight your senses

Choose colors that you find appealing for your walls and furniture. Place photos and objects with special meaning to you where you see them often.

4. Enhance the light

Natural light is associated with improved mood, enhanced morale, lower fatigue, and reduced eyestrain.

5. Bring nature in

Studies show that even a short contact with nature can significantly reduce stress, reduce anger and fear, and increase pleasant feelings. 

6. Reduce the roar

Be mindful about your personal noise production.

7. Don’t forget the garden

Research point to the many benefits of having a garden, and the closer it is to your house and the more you visit it, the more positive effect on stress. 

8. Start small

One way to start is to choose a room or corner that you can make into a healing space. If you already have a favorite place that you can use, wonderful. If it has good natural light and a view of the outdoors, even better. Then consider what activities you find most healing and adapt the space to them.”

Read more here:

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/personal-environment

extra measures to keep our kids with mental illness safe when they are symptomatic.

With the advice of our kids’ therapists, we may need to consider:

1) Locking up “sharps” (knives, scissors, razors, some tools, rope, pencil sharpeners, etc.).

  • Recognize that locking up sharps is a deterrent and commitment to helping kids take time to choose better coping techniques or other help. It is never a guarantee that they will not hurt themselves. If they are determined, they will find a way, and that’s not because we didn’t try hard enough.
  • Rubbermaid and other companies sell sturdy cabinets that can be secured with a padlock.
  • Try to find a location that is accessible but out of the way for this cabinet.

2) Removing firearms from the home.

3) Moving all screens, phones, computers, iPods, etc. to communal areas of the home. 

4) Revamping kitchen and eating environments for kids who struggle with disordered eating.

5) In more extreme cases, installing cameras or locks to keep family members and their belongings protected. These should not be secret, but part of a holistic plan that includes everyone.

6) Going through the kid’s room with him or her. Tina Yeager, LMHC says:

“There’s a point where you’ll say to your child, ‘I love you so much. We’re going to go through your room, not because I don’t trust you, but because I love you. I want you to work with me and we’re going to find things that might be a temptation for you to cause yourself harm.’ Some kids, teenagers especially, are going to be very resistant, but just try to do it as reassuringly as possible.”

None of these tips will cure mental illness that needs medication and other treatment. But a home environment can support healing and recovery. Home can also help parents maintain our own wellness while caring for our kids. 

Remember that even when, despite our best efforts, the place we live feels chaotic and stressful, we still have a home in the arms of God. We can always run there for peace, healing, and a loving embrace.

The subtle temptation of special

“Now when all the people were baptized, Jesus was also baptized, and while He was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove, and a voice came out of heaven, “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.””

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry.”

Luke 3:21-22, 4:1-2 NASB

“This is My Beloved Son.”

The Voice confirmed Jesus’ identity and commissioned His calling. Jesus came up from the waters of the Jordan river to that benediction and went away into the wilderness to begin the next stage of His life. 

I always thought when Jesus went into the wilderness, the forty days he spent fasting were a time of communion with the Father. Yes, I thought, the fasting was probably hard, especially at first, but that time of fellowship must have been so sweet. I thought the devil waited until that time was over, and Jesus was done praying and was hungry and tired before he made his move.

But a little detail jumped out at me in my last read of Luke 4. Jesus wasn’t sitting in some nice cave, talking to God. He was being “led about by the Spirit in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil.” (Luke 4:1b-2a) His retreat was less about His time with the Father and more about His time with the devil. Matthew tells us that He was led into the wilderness “to be tempted by the devil,” but this phrasing is ambiguous compared to the Luke account or that of Mark, who gives even more details of the forty days, saying, “He was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and angels were ministering to Him.” (Mark 1:13)

“Being tempted.” I’m a word person, so it actually gives me a little thrill when the grammar matters so much. “Being tempted” means that it was a continual process, not a one-time event. In Jesus’ wilderness, the communion with His Father and the ministry of the angels mingled with the wearing, wearisome work of the enemy. Jesus was worn down by more than hunger when the big showdown occurred at the end of the forty days. He had been niggled and jabbed with temptation even as his physical strength ebbed. 

The devil’s attempt to derail Him coalesced into the final three temptations. These were the essence of what Satan thought would work on this Incarnation of God. He appealed to Jesus’ human desire for physical comfort: “Tell this stone to become bread.” He offered to fill the human craving for purpose and approval from people: “I will give you all this domain and its glory.” 

But the third temptation was the deepest cut. Satan enticed Him feel with His flesh His own specialness. 

“And he (the devil) led Him to Jerusalem and had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here; for it is written, ‘ HE WILL COMMAND HIS ANGELS CONCERNING YOU TO GUARD YOU,’ and, ‘ ON their HANDS THEY WILL BEAR YOU UP, SO THAT YOU WILL NOT STRIKE YOUR FOOT AGAINST A STONE.'” And Jesus answered and said to him, “It is said, ‘ YOU SHALL NOT PUT THE LORD YOUR GOD TO THE TEST.'””

Luke 4:9-12 NASB

If it were me, I would have longed to make that test. “I am so hungry, Father. These last weeks have been so hard. I just want to feel, really feel, the tangible reassurance of Your love and care for me. Remind me that I am precious in Your eyes. Show me the strength of our relationship.”

In fact, words like these have come out of my mouth. Sitting on a dirty kitchen floor in the middle of the night. Grieving, raging, desperate for relief for my wounded heart. “It hurts so much, God. My boy has been sick and suicidal for so long. You say You love me. Please, please show me. Fix it. Prove You love me.”

Fix it. Prove you love me. This temptation can wreck us.

Yes, this temptation can wreck us if we let it. It is the pull, not to do the wrong thing, but to believe a lie. To believe that circumstantial good is the proof of God’s love, when the worst evil in history, the cross of Christ, is the true proof. To believe that pain is the absence of God’s love, when actually we find our fellowship with Him in suffering. 

So how do we respond? The devil didn’t use this temptation on Jesus because it was outrageous. He knew it appealed to human logic and emotion. That’s why he uses it with us too. It is so very natural for us to want God to prove His love. Our defense is the same as Jesus’ answer: “It is written.”

“Now faith the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

“God demonstrated His love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Friends, let’s cling to our faith in the love Christ demonstrated on the cross. Let’s press in hard, especially when we are tempted to seek the “proof” of having things go the way we want. It’s hard, I know. But God is love. It is written.

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.

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