Kirsten Panachyda

Writer, Speaker, Singer-Songwriter

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Tag: mental illness

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.

The Long Dark

It is coming. The longest dark. I was born into it, just a day before winter solstice. My ancestors lived for centuries near the arctic circle in Finland, where the long dark gathers up a great swath of the year and holds it in a cold embrace.  I should be built for it; I should handle it better.

Instead I sleep, even longer than the dark lingers in the morning. And again when dark creeps toward the house in the late afternoon. I sit in front of a therapy light. Vitamin D capsules accompany breakfast. Boxes on a calendar grow a pattern of  X connecting X, filling in toward the red circle marking the day I leave for south and sun.

Dark makes me vulnerable. For others, different triggers scrape away at defensive layers. The raw spots are prone to infection from doubt, weariness, a sense of losing the fight. The triggers may differ, but vulnerability is universal. 

For parents whose kids struggle with mental illness, the defensive layers may be thin. A relapse, a post on social media about someone else’s child’s accomplishment, an unhappy anniversary of illness- all can reveal our hurt places. Unpacking the Christmas ornaments with their reminders of happier times, attending festivities while feeling numb, hearing about hope and joy and peace when these seem so far- these can wound as well.

I find wisdom in the old manner of celebrating Christmas. Advent, starting four Sundays before the big day, used to be a meditative approach to the celebration of Christ’s birth. Like Lent, it was meant to be a time of reflection, fasting, and prayer. I love that Advent can be seen as an acceptance of the long dark. Before the celebration of the Light.

At the time of the first Christmas, the Jews in Israel lived in vulnerability. They were at the mercy of the occupying Romans. Four hundred years had passed since the last prophecies. They understood the long dark. Zacharias, his wife Elizabeth, and their son John showed us how to celebrate Advent: with expectation, faith, and acknowledgement that the light was not yet. 

Zacharias, a priest, foretold the role his son John the Baptist would play in preparing the way for Jesus, and then he sang out his great hope:

Because of the tender mercy of our God,

With which the Sunrise from on high 

Shall visit us,

To shine upon those who sit in darkness

And the shadow of death,

To guide our feet in the way of peace.

(Luke 1:78-79)

Thank You God, that in Your tender mercy You don’t ignore the long dark. Thank You that You visited us when Christ came. Thank you that You are the Sunrise who remains with us. Thank You for Your peace soothing our hurt, guiding our way. Shine on us, Light of the World. 

A Simple Birthday Card

                        Unsent

Unsent

Do you procrastinate ordinary things? And the more time that goes by, the more the thing looms and gains importance? A simple birthday card, waiting for a stamp. Now it’s late- you can’t just send it like that, so you open it to add a handwritten letter. Now it needs a stamp and a new envelope. More time goes by- you can’t just send it like that. It needs a small gift, so you set aside the card, letter, and torn envelope until you can shop, wrap, package, and go to the post office.

Your friend never gets her birthday card. Or so I’ve heard.

My dear blog friends, this is your birthday card. The longer life pushed off writing, the more I felt that the next post had to be profound. Life-changing! The Best Thing I’ve ever written!

Would it be okay if I just let you know that God is still holding on to me- and I know He will do the same for you?

There have been lots of ups and downs in the last month. Crisis returned to visit as Nicholas’s stability crumbled. He did an incredible job of seeking help, and ended up staying in a psychiatric facility near his college for a week. He’s doing much better now, but his semester took a nosedive. Dan and I went on a couple’s vacation and had a wonderful time. We spent Thanksgiving break working through options for Nicholas and supporting him as he tried to make up missed school work. Things were looking up. A couple days after he returned to school after break, he called for another intense conversation. He’s decided to salvage as many of the credits for the fall semester as possible, and then… not return to college.

There are many paths, and college is only one of them. I fully acknowledge that reality.

Also real: discouragement, disappointment, concern for the future, a teeny bit of selfish regret that empty-nesting only lasted three months, a deep longing that Nicholas will find his path, sadness that mental illness will probably always be a factor.

More real than any of that:

“For I am convinced that neither death, nor life,

nor angels, nor principalities,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers,

nor height, nor depth,

nor any other created thing,

will be able to separate us from the love of God,

which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans‬ ‭8:38-39‬ ‭NASB‬‬

How are all of you doing?

Wonders of Old

When I tell our story, I often say that for now, we are on the other side of the “crisis years.” During those three plus years of teetering on the edge, it seemed like we would never be okay again. There were days when I was sure Nicholas would not outlive his teen years. But even in those dark times of endless stress, God shed His light on our way. He brought unexpected comfort and fun, even a (carefully managed) family vacation. He sent people to guide, educate, and be part of the care team. Most of all, Holy Spirit spoke to our hearts about our security in God’s love.

During your crisis time, has there been light on your way? What are the moments and provisions that point you back to the love of God?

For me, living in the for now, fear is something to battle. It likes to creep around on the edges of my mind and pounce when I’m feeling tired or something has triggered painful memories. Fear itself is not real, in that its object is not part of my current situation. However, it’s not based on unreality either. Nicholas has a chronic illness. Bipolar Disorder needs to be managed, and relapses are possible. The fact is we might actually be in between crisis times, and there’s no way to know.

Circumstances can change at any time, but God never does. When we are again in the day of trouble, there is a way to peace:

“I shall remember the deeds of the Lord;
Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.
I will meditate on all Your work, and muse on all Your deeds.
Your way, O God, is holy;
What god is great like our God?
You are the God who works wonders;
You have made known Your strength among the peoples.”
Psalm 77:11-14

Did God perform wonders for me in the crisis years? Yes- my whole heart, my intact marriage, my close relationships with my sons, and especially my magnified trust in God all testify to what He did in and for me. Remembrance battles fear now, and will help me survive future crisis. The writer of the psalm emphasizes the principle with a call to muse, to meditate.

How about you? Go back to what came to mind about the light, moments, and provisions God brought you during crisis. How has He shown His love and faithfulness to you? Challenge yourself to make a list of people, resources, glimpses of beauty, spiritual insights, personal growth and whatever else you are grateful for.

When the light seems dim, go back and meditate on God’s wonders of old.

My Boy from Before

Missing my Kid
Artist:Giotto

I miss my kid.

A few months ago I did a ten-part series on the worst pains of parenting a kid with mental illness (you can find that here). There was one I left out, not because it didn’t belong, but because it seemed like it needed its own space.

The mourning over the kids who used to inhabit our lives aches in us. So much can be stolen away: laughter, silliness, moments of growth, flashes of new insight. The “awww” moments of peeking in on them while they sleep. The messy, chaotic, normal interactions with siblings full of play and squabbles. The way they enjoyed their hobbies or sports.

When Nicholas was really sick, he seemed gone from me. It wasn’t that I didn’t love the boy who was there. I did, fiercely. He was still mine. But the Nicholas from before mental illness seemed to be present only in briefly glimpsed shadows. Sometimes I spent long hours looking at photographs of him and other times could hardly bear to think about him, my boy from before. It wasn’t that he had grown up and moved away. He had not died and left this world. He was just gone.

Sometimes when I left visiting hours at the hospital, I would get back in the car and turn on songs about loss. Volume up, almost to pain, I would sing along with force and rage. I would get to the end of a song, press repeat, and sing it again. I wrote one too:

“In a paper gown in the sonogram room
The door clicks shut and I wait.
If I stay in bed, can I keep you safe
Or am I losing you today?
Four months later I hold you close
As I meet you face to face
Glad I brought you this far
But every mama knows
She’ll lose her baby someday…”

I’ve heard that being being a parent helps us understand God’s heart toward us. I find this true- the protective, do-anything-for-you, unquenchable love that I have for my kids echoes the love of God. My grief over my boy from before also echoes this love. When Israel had turned away from their God, He yearned over them:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
But the more they were called,
the more they went away from me.
They sacrificed to the Baals
and they burned incense to images.
It was I who taught Ephraim (Israel) to walk,
taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize it was I who healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love.
To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek,
and I bent down to feed them.”
‭‭Hosea‬ ‭11:1-4‬ ‭NIV‬‬

God understood my heart. More, I had a window into His.

Dear friends, maybe you are grieving your gone-but still-here kid. I pray God will comfort your sore heart. If I can pray for you, please let me know in the comments or through my contact page.

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