When the Fog is Thicker than Normal

I have a history of depression.

Lately it’s been more of a current event.

Some people wonder what it means to have depression. How is it different from just a “normal” bad mood? Doesn’t everyone go through low points? Is it really a medical diagnosis? Sometimes I even ask myself these questions, even though I should know better. My brain knows how to internalize even the slightest hint of disapproval or questioning in another person’s eyes or tone of voice. Sometimes everything seems to point to the fact that “depression” is obviously just a fancy word that someone came up with to shut those of us up who can’t accept that we are really just melodramatic, overly sensitive and lazy.

When my sanity returns, I remember that I don’t have to win a philosophical argument on psychiatry or defend the vocabulary of mental illness to speak about my personal experience. And speaking up is important, not only for my own mental health, but because there are so many others out there who think they are alone and need to hear a word of encouragement and hope from a fellow sufferer.

Depression is a hard thing for me to open up about. I’ve been burned before for revealing too much. I’ve realized the hard way that some things are better shared with more private audiences than on a public forum. Even in a safe, private setting, I often struggle to summon the humility to discuss where I’m at openly and honestly. It all feels like something I should be over by now. It certainly wasn’t on my life roadmap to call the doctor complaining about fatigue and other symptoms I thought must be hormonal and have HIM be the one to suggest that perhaps we should switch my antidepressant. I mean, for years now, any adjustment to medication has been at MY suggestion, not the doctor’s. I thought I was the expert on this thing, but somehow, this time, I missed the key signs.

For me, the biggest clue should have been the apathy. Nothing is really that important when I get depressed. Lots of things start to slip because, you know, who cares. And then, all of a sudden, my normally manageable tendency to procrastinate turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy of never being good enough. I try to tell myself that I AM good enough even though a lot of my behavior is not really my best. Or that I’m not good enough, but it’s okay. I mean, that’s why we need Jesus, right? It’s okay to be perfectly imperfect, right?

These affirmations fall flat, because at the end of the day, things are not okay when you’re depressed. And coming out of depression requires you to admit that first.

Yes, I need Jesus. We all do. No, I’m not perfect, and I don’t have to be. But depression isn’t about making good or bad choices. Depression removes your power to choose and clouds your judgment. It becomes a fog that is impossible to see through without help.

Help for depression involves doctors and therapists, because mental illnesses really are medical conditions. I’m not sure there really is a “normal,” but I do know depression is more than just a bad mood. And while everyone may go through low points, and everyone certainly has her own burden in life, not everyone’s lows qualify as depression and not everyone’s burden is mental illness. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t mine, but it is.

Even though it can still creep up on me when I’m least expecting it, today I know I don’t have to walk through depression alone. God is with me always, even in my lowest points. Even when I doubt Him, He is there. I just have to keep trying to seek and strive for God in honest and real ways. Sometimes that means turning my prayers upside down.

Instead of asking to be filled with the knowledge that everything’s okay, sometimes I need to cry out to God that everything is NOT okay. This admission of powerlessness and acceptance is often exactly what I need to start to see God again through the fog. Sometimes I see Him through the people He puts in my life exactly when I need them. Other times, it’s through moments of clarity He gives me deep inside my soul. It is in those moments that I have come to realize that none of us are ever truly alone.

If you’re struggling with depression, know that there is a healthy way out. You are not alone. Things might not be okay right now, but you can still just put one foot in front of the other and do the next right thing, no matter how hard that is. And trust me, I’m not going to suggest that the next right thing for you to do is to exercise! Even though that seems to be a popular recommendation for depression, for me, it usually has to start much, much smaller!

Like, with getting out of bed.

Sometimes it’s just getting one FOOT out of the bed. Maybe even just one TOE!! It might be brushing your teeth. Or taking a shower. Or making an appointment. Or reaching out and texting a friend. Or a million other baby steps that feel like they might as well be giant leaps between two mountains. Things might not be okay right now, but if you just keep trudging along, reaching out and looking up, things will be okay.

I have a history of depression. And lately it’s been more of a current event. But having depression also means I have a history of incredible spiritual awakening and renewal, and I’ve learned to be grateful for that. My depression can create a pretty thick fog in my little corner of the universe, but when I do see the light shining through, it is all the brighter in contrast to the darkness. No matter what, by God’s grace, the future looks bright.

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Progress Not Perfection

Someone asked me a couple days ago if my son was getting “better,” and I couldn’t articulate an answer. My first thought was no, but then I realized that I had completely forgotten (again) a fundamental truth – success is best measured in terms of “progress not perfection.”

Will’s biggest issue right now is that he is afraid to be alone.  All I have to do to know if there is progress in this area is to look at his “experience points.”

Daddy came up with the brilliant idea of experience points. Will earns them when he does things by himself. To be clear about what this means, I need to explain a bit more what Will is and is not afraid of. He doesn’t fear being left alone nor does he have “separation anxiety.” He is actually quite comfortable in a sea of strangers and even has a tendency to wander off in public. Like those few terrifying moments we lost sight of him at Disneyworld. Or like when he was four and we were paged at the airport. Or like last week, when I almost had to page him at Walmart until running around like a crazy person screaming his name finally did the trick. We are always very emotional over these experiences, but Will is usually just startled and confused as to what all the fuss is about.

I asked him last week how he could be so far away from me at a store but can’t leave my side at home. He explained matter-of-factly that he could see other people at the store, but at home, he can’t see anyone. This was a big “aha” moment for me. Will’s fear isn’t being away from a familiar face, it’s being away from any face. Or any voice, come to think of it. He can stay calm if he can’t see me as long as I talk or sing non-stop. I guess that’s the only way he absolutely knows I’m still near.

Basically, my almost-seven year old is terrified of being physically in a space where he cannot see or hear another human being. Even if he knows someone is just in the next room, that knowledge isn’t enough to provide the comfort he needs to face his phobia. And without that comfort, all hell breaks loose.

When Will gets in a place where his fear takes over, he completely loses it. He sobs uncontrollably. He screams as if he’s trapped in a container with spiders, or snakes, or something equally terrifying. Eventually, he turns red and hyperventilates. I ask him what he is afraid of and he doesn’t know. When he calms down, I try to talk to him about why he got so afraid, but he just says “Mommy, you know I’m afraid to be alone” like he’s telling me something that everyone in the world knows about Minecraft. He owns his fear without any shame.

In his therapy sessions, he talks about how the toilet overflowed once. About how the Xbox overheated and make a loud noise a few months ago. This seems to imply he is afraid there will not be an adult around to help him if there is a big problem.

But why would he not be comfortable when he knows that I am literally 20 feet away? Just because he can’t see or hear me, why would he think that he might end up unable to call on me for help?

We have never left him alone in the house. We have never given him any reason to think for one second that we might leave him alone in the house. We have never been unreachable in the house for a long period of time. Or for any period of time. We have never played hide and seek and hid in a really hard place. I just don’t get it.

After we saw a couple of his epic meltdowns, we gave in to his requests for someone to be with him. We hoped his anxiety was a phase that would pass, and that seemed to be the case last year when we got a brief reprieve. All of a sudden, he had no issue going to the bathroom by himself or playing upstairs by himself. Even sleeping by himself wasn’t a consistent issue.

But then, for some unknown reason, it all came back with a vengeance. Now we don’t indulge his every request. If he has to go to the bathroom, he will do the “pee pee dance” for hours just so he doesn’t have to go by himself. When someone happens to walk the same way as the bathroom, he takes the opportunity to go, hoping it means that person will stay close while he does his business.

We’ve been working really hard to get him to sleep in his own bed. Right now we are on “phase 3,” which means someone stays in his room until he’s all the way asleep but doesn’t spend the night. It’s not quite going how I thought it would. Every night, Will wakes up screaming bloody murder because he’s alone. Every night, he wakes up his sister with his cries, she becomes beyond irritated, and we are all up well before Will finally busts into our room and climbs into our bed. I think it’d almost be better if there was a monster in his room, because then at least he would have someone in there with him.

Back to the experience points, Will has been earning them for about three weeks now. Going to the bathroom when Mommy is in the kitchen earns 1,000 points. Going upstairs to get something while everyone else is downstairs earns 2,000. You get the idea. He now has 27,000 experience points.

So even though some things are not going exactly as I had envisioned them, there IS progress. What’s more, this weekend we were all outside swimming when I looked up and saw Will coming outside with a drink. He had gone inside all by himself and gotten a drink, without even batting an eyelash. That is HUGE progress!

So often I forget to look for progress and only focus on perfection. I’m grateful today to be reminded once again that, at least while we’re here on earth, progress is all there is and all that matters. Sometimes progress is slow, but it’s still progress.

I pray regularly for Will, for God to relieve his fear and give him a spirit of strength instead. But I have to remember to thank God for the progress. And I have to remember that God’s timing isn’t always my timing. Most importantly, I have to remember that God doesn’t always completely remove all of our fears, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. My fears give me depth, and they help me relate to and help others. Most importantly, my fears and insecurities bring me to my knees on a regular basis where I always find God waiting for me. And that in and of itself is a beautiful thing. Will might just have a similar journey.

So from now on, here is my prayer for Will:

God,

Thank you for my sweet son. Thank you for how much he has grown. May his steps today be part of the journey you have set before him. May he make progress in facing his fears at your perfect pace.

As his mother, show me how best to guide him. Show me when to listen and comfort and then give me the strength to trust my gut. Show me when to push and be stern and then give me the strength to follow through. Above all, Thy will be done.

In Jesus’ name,

Amen

Home is where Love Resides

“Home is where Love Resides”

That’s what our new sign says. It doesn’t have the word “no” anywhere on it. Not like the old one, that featured the word “no” more prominently than any other word. The new sign emphasizes the word “love” the most.

I love the new sign.

My favorite part of the sign isn’t that it has a more positive tone than the old one. My favorite thing about it is that it was a gift from my six-year old son. He picked it out all by himself and gave it to me as a Valentine’s present.

This is the same little boy who had an epic meltdown about a year ago in front of the old sign. He was devastated when he realized he was expected to live up to so many “Family Rules.” He knew he had to make good choices at school, at church, at other people’s houses, but he thought that in his own home, he could let his guard down. Then he read our “Family Rules” sign, which says most prominently “NO WHINING,” and he lost it. Only when repeatedly reassured that it was okay for him to make mistakes and that he was loved no matter what was he able to calm down.

This is the same little boy who now regularly goes to a pediatric neurologist and play therapist for his “issues” – apparently, it isn’t “neurotypical” to react so strongly to criticism or feel things so deeply. This, combined with a sudden onset of motor tics, social awkwardness, intense interests, physical clumsiness, crippling anxiety, giftedness, and sensory and other issues, has many people convinced that our son has the neurological condition commonly known as Aspergers Syndrome.

In hindsight, I guess this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it did come as a surprise, at least to me. When Will’s Kindergarten teacher first brought up her concerns in April, I was in such denial that my initial response was to say we should just take a wait and see approach… that this was probably just a phase. It wasn’t until she called me to press the issue one Thursday evening that I realized I had somehow missed what was right in front of me. Once she finally got my attention, it was impossible not to notice the virtually non-stop exaggerated blinking, winking, squinting and face scrunching. The occasional shrugging and face slapping seemed mild in comparison but were also cause for concern.

All of a sudden, we became experts in everything that could possibly cause tics, from Tourette’s Syndrome to brain tumors. The “medical school of Google” provided a thorough education on all the possibilities but little in terms of actual answers. This would prove to foreshadow our experience in the real world – the one with real doctors who went to real medical schools. Our neurologist flat out told us on our first visit that his area of medicine just isn’t black and white. It’s not like my chosen profession, where there are bits and bytes and definitive answers as to why things work the way they do. When I managed a team of computer programmers, if they couldn’t find what was causing a defect, I would remind them it wasn’t magic. The computer always does exactly what a programmer coded it to. Nothing more. Nothing less. You can always track down a software logic error if you look hard enough. The human body, and particularly the brain, on the other hand, are not so cut and dry. While there are most definitely elaborate systems and laws at work, things just aren’t quite as predictable. There’s no debugging tool that can locate the exact root cause of Will’s tics and other issues with absolute certainty.

What we do know is that it’s actually quite common for children to have tics. And while they usually resolve on their own without any medical intervention, when they are severe like Will’s – causing emotional and physical distress – medication is advised. My husband and I used to joke that, given our shared history of mental illness, it wasn’t a question of “if” but “when” one of our children would need medication. Still, I didn’t expect it to happen at quite such a young age. I wasn’t ready for things to be happening so quickly. Given how bad things were for Will though – he was having headaches and eye pain and was completely withdrawn and unable to focus in class – we hesitantly agreed to try medication.

Sure enough, just as the doctor said, the medication stopped Will’s tics overnight. And not only does it have little negative side effects, it has had some incredibly positive ones. It makes him sleepy after he takes it, which means he actually goes to bed at night, instead of staying up until all hours of the night. It seems to have relieved some of his anxiety, although we still have a long way to go in that department. His teacher was dumbfounded at the difference in the classroom, and another mom said he seemed more relaxed and comfortable around other children.

We are in no way out of the woods, and actually, I don’t think we will ever be “out of the woods.” I’m just hopeful that at some point we will be able to identify which forest we’re in. It’d be nice to have a sign post to guide us.

For now, we’ll have to just go by our new sign, the one that says “Home is where Love Resides.” The one that is unlike the old sign, which features the word “NO” so prominently. The one that’s a joyful statement rather than a list of rules and demands. The one that features the word “LOVE” above all else.

When I asked Will what made him pick out the new sign, he said he just thought I would like it because it talks about love. When I asked him if it had anything to do with the old sign, he said no. But to me, the new sign has everything to do with the old sign. Especially now.

When I first got the new sign, it was before we started our journey with play therapists and pediatric neurologists. Before the tics had started. Before all of the random, little things about  Will’s personality were more than just random, little things about Will’s personality.

Back then, the new sign had everything to do with the old sign because of the stark contrast that reflected the difference between the Old and New Testaments in the Bible. You see, I’d written a blog post about how the old sign was a reminder of how God originally set out an unattainable law for his people in the Old Testament. In that blog post, I wrote about Will’s emotional reaction to the sign and how that mirrored our own despair at the prospect of being measured according to God’s original law.

When I got the new sign, I was blown away by what a perfect reminder it was of the new covenant that God made with us in the New Testament. It was especially moving that it was a gift from Will, who had such a starring role in unveiling the symbolism of the old sign! I even wrote a Facebook post about the new sign and how it represents that we are no longer bound by harsh rules and regulations. Because of what Jesus did for us, we are set free. We all have a new home that is governed by love and forgiveness. Home really is where love resides.

If I was blown away when I first got the sign, there are no words to describe how I felt when I came to start this blog post about our journey with Will and noticed a draft post I had forgotten about, called “Home is where Love Resides.” I never published it, because it didn’t have enough content. It was waiting for me to pick it back up again and add more depth to it. It was waiting to refresh me with the truth.

The signs in my house now serve as reminders about the Old and New Testaments, and they are symbols about my old and new paradigms for parenting. Instead of making demands and following a set of one-size-fits-all rules, my approach as a mom must be one of unconditional Love. Especially with my hypersensitive, unique, beautiful six-year-old, home must be where love lives, not an endless list of demands and expectations.

With the new sign, my six-year-old gave me the lesson plan for guiding him, and it in turn became a reminder of the most basic, core tenet of my Christian faith.

I really, really love the new sign.