Kirsten Panachyda

Writer, Speaker, Singer-Songwriter

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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.

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 among lions

I’m sitting on the lanai (a screened-in patio) outside my parents’ house in Florida trying to work. It can be hard here not to feel like I’m on vacation every day. But I’ve been here a while, escaping the Syracuse, NY winter, and I can’t just lounge by the pool and nap.

Actually the past couple of months have been productive ones. Besides improving my health and fitness and attending the wonderful Florida Christian Writers Conference, I’ve put in many hours writing. I have several articles in the works in addition to this blog. But the biggest chunk of time has been spent on two book projects. The first is nonfiction, working title: Among Lions: Fighting for Faith while Parenting a Kid with Mental Illness. The second is historical fiction, working title: A Hand Outstretched.

When my older son was grown and my younger son was becoming more stable and able to manage his bipolar disorder, I sat down to write. Writing has always been the passion and the plan. At first, I was waiting until the boys were more independent in their work in homeschooling. I figured they would be about 14 and 16 when I really settled in to serious endeavor. But then Nicholas got sick, and priorities shifted. When Nicholas was 18, I finally hunkered down to write the novel set in first-century Britain that I had been tinkering with for over a decade.

Somehow another book kept coming out of my fingers. One for all the parents who were like me — scared and sad and trying desperately to care for their kids suffering from emotional or mental illness. So I set aside the novel, and wrote Among Lions. 

Five Reasons for Writing Among Lions: 

1) There are at least 8 million adolescents age 13-18 in the US currently diagnosed with a mental illness. All of these have parents or caregivers struggling to navigate a very difficult life. One in five kids will need help with depression or other mental illness. This ratio is the same in the church.  Parents need help.

2) Stigma against mental illness keeps families isolated and without support. We need more voices reaching out saying, “This is my experience too. You’re not alone.”

3) Beyond the question of “Can my kid get well?” there are other questions: “Will my marriage survive? How will my other kids be affected? Can my faith withstand this pain?” Parents need more than information on how to help the kid who is sick. They need to know how to defend against the beasts which will attack their souls. 

4) Scripture, stories from other parents, professional input, and new ways of looking at life as a caregiver infuse courage into the soul-weary. This has become my privilege and my mission.

5) This is the book I wish I had when Nicholas got sick.

Among Lions has won a first place Tapestry award and has attracted publisher interest. Would you pray for this project to reach the hearts for whom God intends it? 

Next post: Why am I writing that weird historical novel?

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.

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?

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