Kirsten Panachyda

Writer and Speaker

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Tag: Reading

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? 

Book Homes

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

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

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

Here is some of my reading list from that time:

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

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

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

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

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

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