Wednesday, September 10, 2014

My journey with an anxiety disorder

(Preamble: mental illness is real illness. Like some illnesses, its severity can be experienced on a spectrum; unlike some illnesses, its causes can be varied. For some, medication is the best treatment option. For others, no amount of medication will treat what therapy must work through. For others, a combination is needed. By recounting my own experience, I am in no way prescribing a solution or making a statement on 'choice' of mental illness. This is simply my story, up to this point. May it bring you encouragement, in whatever way. And may your own journey be filled with peace.)


I've wondered for a long time how to write this post. I've wanted to write it for months, but it felt too intimate to share, and to be honest I've felt afraid (which is probably humorous on some level considering the title of this entry).

I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder almost exactly one year ago. It side-lined me. It was the mental and emotional equivalent of being physically side-lined by a professional athlete. One day I thought I knew my ways of thinking and feeling, and the next day they held me captive in a way I never knew was possible. And now, one year later, I am so grateful.

I've spent the past year pulling out what I hope are my most-burrowed thoughts and beliefs about myself, the world, and God; examining them, putting them to the test, keeping some, acquiring new ones, and discarding many. I've spent the past year weeping, and it has washed those burrows clean. They aren't spotless, but they are now habitable. And a year later, I am lighter.

The older I get (and I know, I'm not old - but I am older than I was. That is very true.) the more firmly I believe we are meant to do life together. Closely. Intimately. Honestly. Our stories should be shared, our burdens should be shared, our joys should be shared, and our fears should be shared. I couldn't have done this past year if I had been alone.

So often we let our fears and anxiety be alone in our deepest burrows (I may even gently suggest we stuff them there out of compulsion, guilt, or self-perceived inadequacy), and when the burrows fill to the brim, they come spilling into our every day. Even then, we can leave them alone while we busy ourselves with other things - ignoring our burgeoning burrows and hoping when the dam breaks, it somehow turns into a gently flowing stream. Well, my plans for a gently flowing stream were cataclysmic-ally overtaken by a rushing torrent of fear bursting out of the recesses of my being and I had two options: try to re-stuff the burrows and drown in the process, or point my feet down stream hoping to bounce off of any debris, trusting that eventually the flash flood would spread out across an open space and turn back into a stream.

So bounce I did. I spent many days counting minutes, terrified of being alone, and afraid I'd never find courage. I learned many great breathing exercises, tried *and failed* hot yoga (what mother has 2 hours to give to working out on a regular basis!? please), and learned to give 95% of my courage to my kids and make due with the other 5%.  I drank a life time supply of ginger tea to easy my queasy stomach - weekly. I called my mom - she came. I called my mother in law - she came. I wept in my husband's arms almost daily - he held me. Friends brought me food, watched my children, folded my laundry. I mourned the loss of my strength & courage - not yet knowing its loss was the only way for pride to be chipped away and make room for compassion.

I came to a place where I read the familiar verse, 'do not worry about tomorrow, for each day has enough trouble of it's own' and no longer thought "come on, Sarah, don't worry' but instead thought, "oh, shoot. Today is going to be really hard...remember grace and self-compassion." I learned how to re-calibrate the success of a day: a day is defined as the Earth's rotation on it's axis - so far, every day in history has been a successful day. So - today was a success, and there's a really good chance tomorrow will be, too. Recognizing one's own smallness is either terrifying or absolutely freeing - for me, after years of my smallness causing me fear, it finally set me free.

I suddenly had permission to not have it together, and was almost mandated to need others. I was small. I am small. (potential spoiler- so are you) With each mom/mother in law visit, meal brought, children watched, tears absorbed, and laundry folded a flotation device was tossed my way as I bounced down the river - eventually I had enough to build a buffer against the debris. And I continued my way down the river.

I came to a place where I was willing to live with an anxiety disorder, to have it be a part of my daily existence, but not my dictator. I came to a place where I was at peace with the knowledge we all have struggles, and this may be mine. I came to a place where I began to find peace. Where the hours of therapy began to show results. Where the pages filled with scrambled thoughts slowly showed the thoughts come untangled. I came to a place where I no longer needed to have big dreams, only my compass pointing to attainable goodness: to keep my faith, to love my husband and children well, to be an honest and kind friend, and embrace the world around me however far my arms could reach that day. And some days my arms don't reach farther than a morning cuddle with a tousled-head-of-sweaty-toddler-goodness. On others they reach around the woman looking for bus money outside of Target, her body bruised from a man, and her only request to get to a shelter she knows downtown. However far my arms can reach today - that is far enough.

It was not an easy journey to get to that place. There were days every moment was a struggle. Truly every moment. There were days I thought I couldn't do another single day. There were days I prayed for sleep, and felt only dread at the morning sun. There were moments of full blown panic and moments of utter defeat. But in those moments, I had just enough for that moment - and the moments blended together and became a year, and the year has held healing - some out of new habits formed and old thoughts discarded, and some out of the truly miraculous, only-possible-through-prayer healing I'd never experienced in my life until one evening early this summer. I did hard work this past year, I drew on courage within myself to do it, I had the best support team anyone could ask for, but ultimately, my total release from mind-gripping anxiety came only through powerful prayer. And as I begin to settle back on my flotation devices, face to the sun, as the river slows to a crawl, and heads toward a stream, I am eternally grateful.

I got home from the ER late Thursday night with my little 3yr old Mika, tongue stitched back up. My physical therapist heard Mika was having a princess birthday party, and offered to drop off a trunk of hand-me-down princess dresses. The trunk was waiting for us when we pulled in the driveway at 11:30pm. While making Velveeta Mac-N-Cheese (the only acceptable post-ER meal, in my opinion), my husband and I showed Mika the dresses. She pulled them out of the trunk one by one - they were beautiful, but to my eyes obviously used - tattered ends, stretched elastic. After she pulled them all out, she put her hands over her eyes and said quietly, filled with overwhelming positive emotion,  "I can't believe this is my life". Her head remained down as she leaned it against the drier. My husband asked if she was ok. "Oh, daddy," she looked up with huge green eyes, "it's just too much goodness."

She is right. When we are riddled with fear, when anxiety pulls our heads close to the bills and the screens, when panic jolts us out of our beds in the middle of the night, when we fell stretched out and tattered by life there is still a 3yr old buried somewhere deep within us - there is just too much goodness. We must start seeing with our souls and not our minds. For the goodness whispers, and the fear shouts. The beauty sits still and unimposing, and the ugly-horrible performs loudly at each turn. So we have to stop seeing with our mind, and train our mind to consult our soul before interpreting our sight. There is beauty and goodness all around - it is often small in physical size or almost silent in physical noise - but it is all around.

Testifying to the goodness of God is not something my words do quickly - I am better at showing it to you in my kitchen. At giving you a cup of tea and sitting with you while you talk, or grieve, or dream. But that goodness of His is all around us, and deeply in us (all of us - whether we know It or not), and when our eyes begin to be controlled by our soul and not our mind, we begin to see more clearly.

You are not alone. Never. No where. You're not. And neither am I.

Today is probably not the end of the story - it's just the color of the page today, even the words are still to be written. Choose consciously. A book can write itself if one doesn't pay attention.

You have courage and brave and enough for this moment. And that is all you need. You'll have more for the next moment. But for now, you have it.  Even if you can't feel it.

The greatest peace you'll find will be outside of yourself, but you must be willing to go deep into yourself to recognize it. Go deep into yourself, there is goodness yet to be discovered and burrows to be cleaned.

Wherever you are in your journey - whether you can relate to anxiety or not - may your eyes be ever searching for goodness. And may your encounters with goodness fill you with gratitude - for gratitude is a strong and mighty shield.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A series of thoughts related to parenting: Body Image

I'm so sorry it's been so long since I've written, perhaps at some point I'll share more with you as to why I've taken such a long break, but for now I'll sum it up in this: some periods of life lend themselves to slow and gentle learning. Others dash you against the rocks of self-awareness, shattering any ideas of who you thought you were and revealing your naked self. In such a season, I believe we have two choices: look at ourselves honestly, with humility and willingness to grow - or with such immense terror and shame we spend our energies pulling our 'clothes' back on before learning to appreciate our figurative nakedness. I've been, and in some ways still am, in such a season. I've chosen the first option, and it's a daily choice, and a slow process. But one I am grateful for. If you're in such a season, know you're not alone - and quit trying to put your 'clothes' back on...give yourself a moment to rest, recover, and consider your outfit selection before you pull it back on.

Since I moved to Seattle just over a year ago, I've done a lot of thinking about body image. My body image, 'her' body image, the 'ideal' body image. I've also done a lot of thinking about what I want to pass on to my daughter as she considers her body and the bodies of others. And I've considered what I want to pass on to my son as he considers his body, and the millions of bodies of women he'll see (hopefully all clothed, but statistically that's unlikely. So I figure my best shot is to instill deep, strong, healthy values and talk straight from day 1....ok, day 650ish-1000ish). I've read some great articles, and I've seen some truly terrible ones (um, Barbie as the cover model for Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, anyone??). I've also realized I live in one of the most health-conscious, exercise-driven, 'fit'-oriented places I've ever been. Ever. And I've been a lot of places.

I'll save you the long details of how I arrived at the following conclusions, but here are the conclusions I've come to:

1. I want to always, only, work out because it is good for ME. Not because anyone says I should, not because it makes me look a certain way, not because I'm so disgusted by some part of my body - but because it is good for me. Just like I eat veggies, shower, drink water, get enough sleep. I want to pass this idea on to my daughter, I don't ever want her to hear me say "I'm headed to the beach in a month - better hit the gym!" or "I have to work out this week, I just have to." I also don't want her to hear me say "I'm so glad I'm a size ___, I used to be a size ____" instead I want her to hear me say "I'm so glad I have more energy now, and can play with my kids longer than I used to be able to" or "I'm so glad I went for a run, I was really grumpy before I went and now I feel better."

2. I want gratitude, not guilt, to be my driving force in all things appearance related. I want to put mascara on because I am grateful for my eyes and think they are beautiful, not because I feel gross without any make-up on. I want to wear heels and a cute top because I am grateful for my femininity, not to solicit a certain response or to conform with what 'beauty' is.  I want to exercise because I am grateful for my body and all it has done in 28 years not because guilt and shame compel me to change some very reasonable portion of my appearance.

This last thought has been profound for me - our culture positively screams for people (especially women) to criticize their bodies - are you tired of you wrinkle lines? grey hair? cellulite thighs? double chin? muffin top? pear shape? stretch marks? age spots? saggy buns? Are you? Are you? Cause you should be.

At least that's what we're told. But I want to fight against that: to live with gratitude and not guilt, shame, or disgust.

I want to see my stretch marks with gratitude - they mean when I was an adolescent I wasn't hungry, and that my stomach stretched to hold two children who now transform my life on a daily basis.

I want to see my wrinkles with gratitude - the smile ones for the memories of joy and the stress ones for the reminder God has been gracious.

I want to see my grey hair as a sign of aging into a wiser woman, and be full of gratitude for the many years I've been given. Because even at 28, I recognize the fleeting nature of life. And I am grateful for 28 years. So, so grateful.

 I want to see the cellulite in my thighs (ok, I hate this one, but I'm working on it) as an admission of my humanity, my focus on things other than cellulite, legs that work, and a body that is still not hungry.

I want to see my double chin as how I'm made, as a guarantee I'll be an adorable grandmother, and as a major benefit when making 'funny faces' with my kids. And no, I will not show you. Because your shrieks of glee won't fill my soul like theirs do...some things are just for kids. But I'm sure glad I have a double chin than translates into soul-filling giggles.

I want to see my muffin top as a sign my pants are too small and therefore my vanity too big - and see it as a reminder to be gracious with myself. I want to see me, all of me, with gratitude.

3. I want my daughter to love every part of her being, and to see her physical body as only one small part of her being- I want her to love her mind, her emotions, her spirit, her sexuality, her soul, and her physicality. I want her to see each one of them as integrally, and immeasurably, important. I want her to appreciate the health of all of them when she has health, and be kind to herself and rely on areas of health when one or more areas fail. I am positive I must begin teaching this now, and I am also positive my attitude towards myself will be her/their biggest teacher.

4. I want my son to appreciate his body - to pursue health and not macho man status, I want him to be confident in whatever size or shape his body may be (if his daddy and I are any indicator - he will not be the tallest or broadest guy in his class...). I want him to see greatness as internal, and see a huge part of his greatness in how he views/treats/engages with others. I want him to love his sexuality, to embrace it, and to be master of it not it of him. I want him to compliment women with genuine respect - to compliment their appearance, their minds, their values, their risks. And I want him to receive the same compliments with grace and confidence. So, I will ask that of him, his dad will model it, I will model it, and we will teach it, praise it, and shape it. With great, gargantuan, intentional effort and prayer.

As I've started pursing this holistic and gracious way of viewing myself, I've had to put a couple things in place: I try not to look at sizes when I'm shopping (almost impossible, but at least something worth keeping in my mind), I work out at home and do what I want, when I want, and feel great about modeling health to my children - but I don't have to compare myself to anyone else around me, or meet a quota. I've stopped saying negative things about my body - if I do feel bad about some aspect of myself, I call it just that  "I feel bad about my tummy, my thighs, etc". And I recognize it as a temporal, fleeting feeling. I use my energy level, mood, and ability to carry my  35 lb son to the bathroom at 3am without hitting any doorways or furniture as a measure of my health, strength, and balance.

This is still a process for me, and maybe always will be - but I want to pass on a strong belief of respect, value, and worth to both of my children. I want them both to engage with the world, comfortable (even confident) in their own literal skin, and for them to never, ever see another being as an object for visual pleasure or criticism. I want them to define beauty as much more than skin deep, and pursue lasting beauty - not some society-set unrealistic standard. And if that's what I want to pass on - then I better believe it myself. And who better (or harder) to believe it about than myself?

I'd love to know your thoughts on this: if this is already something you figured out a long time ago, if you just accepted yourself but stopped at acceptance and never moved to appreciation & gratitude, if you're teaching your kids one thing or another about their relationship with their and others appearance. I figure the more of us who engage in this conversation, the better chance we have of raising kids who view themselves kindly and healthily. That's a goal worth working towards. 

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