The Art of Mental Health

I’ve been thinking some about mental health. Our family has been going through a lot of big transitions these last couple weeks as my kids have all started back to school. My oldest son is getting ready to head off to Montana for a year, my oldest daughter is home for a quick visit after her summer in Alaska and then she heads back to Alaska for another year. 

Trying to adjust to a new schedule, new routines, new family dynamics, has been exhausting. My body’s response to lots of stress and change is to kick in the insomnia. So, lately, somewhere around 3am, I wake up and can’t go back to sleep for hours. I think I probably could go back to sleep easier if my thoughts would just stop. Racing thoughts. Anxious thoughts. Little worries that quickly turn into life-threatening tragedies. And I’m laying there just wishing my brain would shut up and go to sleep. 

I have been fighting anxiety and panic attacks since I was nineteen years old. I’ve learned some things over the years. When I’m in a full-blown panic attack I find that reciting my Creed of Beliefs out loud helps things to calm down. Writing down all the things I’m afraid of and then writing on top of those things scriptures where God has promised to take care of these particular worries is also a big thing I can do. But usually my anxiety doesn’t reach those levels. Usually I can keep it under control. 

It was only this week that I connected some dots with my behavior. I suddenly realized that some of my life-long habits are actually ways of controlling anxiety. This week I have been carrying around a book of Sudoku puzzles (very fun math puzzles!). When I’m sitting in a room with all my kids clamoring around me, telling me about their days at school, playing with each other, asking for me to watch them do a trick or look at this picture they colored, I sit there and work on my Sudoku puzzles. Whenever they want my attention I look up and give it to them, but as soon as they’ve moved on, I go back to my puzzle. So, this week, I suddenly realized that when I’m doing Sudoku all my racing thoughts go on pause. It’s like, somehow, doing Sudoku uses enough brain power that it distracts those thoughts, but I can still listen to the conversations around me. 

After this major AH-HAH moment, I started wondering what else I do that has the same effect. Playing the piano definitely does that, though it takes too much brain power to be able to still listen to other people in the room. But playing Bach is kind of like pouring soothing oil on a raw wound. It creates order out of chaos. 

Reading books is also a huge one. I have been a bookworm since I was in Second Grade. But, I can read a book in the room with my family and still hear what’s going on around me, and stop reading and engage and then go back to reading. 

Then there are the times when I can’t do these activities because I’m driving or in a meeting or some other place where those things would be frowned upon. Well, then I usually have some story that I’m creating in my head and I run the story in my mind, kind of like a movie, making it up as I go along. 

I’ve always thought I was a little weird. Why do I do these things? I have to admit, realizing that these habits are actually ways that I manage anxiety is actually a bit of a relief. I feel like instead of being a bit weird and anti-social, I have actually just stumbled on ways of being a bit more mentally healthy. And it didn’t involve any illegal substances or harmful practices. Yay! 

Of course, it would be nice if those racing thoughts would just stop. And I find that I engage less in my Habits when I’m doing well spiritually, physically, mentally. But, I’ve also discovered that I can’t control everything that happens in life. Sometimes I have lots of time and energy to focus on being healthy. But other times life starts throwing a bunch of curve balls and instead of “living victoriously” it’s more like holding on to the roller coaster with an icy grip and just waiting for those big flips and turns to be over before you hit another straight stretch. 

I thank God for his mercy and grace that helps me to soar high, living the Great Life. And I thank God for his mercy and grace that helps me to just hang on and survive when life is hard. And I’m thankful for the coping mechanisms he’s helped me to find without my even realizing it. 

 

 

Boredom is a Wonderful Thing

I read somewhere that boredom is essential to fostering children’s imaginations. It’s only when they are bored that they are then forced to come up with their own entertainment. They are forced to start using their imaginations. This past Friday I turned off the wifi at our house. I had several reasons, but one of them was to help my children foster their imagination. No more instant entertainment from a screen. Use your imagination.

So, obviously, I have set myself up for some trouble. Have you ever had a houseful of children all using their imaginations? It’s a dangerous thing. Using your imagination means taking your helium balloon (leftover from the graduation party) and letting it loose into the ceiling fan. (I just wanted to see what would happen!). It means taking a crayon and writing out a Yes/No quiz on the wall by the toilet. (I suppose so that people who are using the bathroom will have something to do?) Today one child took a bunch of our socks and gloves and made sock animals for all his siblings. (Who needs socks, after all, it’s summer.) It also means taking the hose and spraying it all over a pile of dirt so you can have a good mud hole to play in.  And while we’re at it, lets take these old bricks and stack them on the porch in a rectangle-box shape, and then try and fill it up with water, our very own swimming pool!

Of course, my kids have been doing these things all along, with or without wifi, it just seems that they now have even more time to devote their energies to these great ideas, instead of it being a once-in-a-while activity. And it makes me happy. Yeah, we’re going through a bit of an adjustment phase while we work out a new schedule. There’s been some whining because we’re not turning on some shows…but, I’m already seeing good fruit. Like the whole herd of children all running outside in the evening to catch fireflies. My teens gathering around a laptop to watch an old dvd together. (Still a screen, but at least they are doing it in community!) Little children are coming up to me with books they want me to read them. My older kids are delving into new book series. Boredom is a wonderful thing.

I myself have been experiencing boredom a bit more. It’s led me to start reading my Bible in the morning again, play the piano more, start thinking about some cleaning projects I need to tackle, pray more, listen to my kids a bit better. Boredom seems to have a roundabout way of making life feel sharper, more in focus. And yes, we do have plenty of fun things planned for this summer, there’s just going to also be lots of downtime.

So, my summer blessing…May we plenty of time to be bored and may that boredom lead us to great feats of creativity!

 

Can You See Me?

It’s a beautiful February day here in Tennessee. Temperatures are in the 60s, a stark contrast to last week where we had snow, ice and temperatures in the teens. (To all my non-fahrenheit readers, not sure how to help you since Celsius is a mystery to me. 32 degrees F is when ice freezes, a super hot day in summer would be in the 90s.) I returned from taking my kids to school and then collapsed on the couch, not fully awake. My four year old immediately launched into a plea for me to take him to the park. Right away. Let’s get our shoes on right now Mom! Uggh. I managed to put him off until 9am when I finally gave in and got the boys ready to go out. We walked out onto the front porch and I looked around for my double stroller which has been parked on my porch for the past six months. Not there. I called my husband, thinking maybe he had put it in the shed? He said no, it should be on the porch. Still not there. I finally had to come to the conclusion that someone had walked off with it. We haven’t had stuff stolen in a while, especially since our dog does a pretty good job of scaring strangers away. Double uggh.

Ok, fine. We’ll just walk without a stroller. The park is only two and half blocks away, surely the two year old can make it. Well, about half way he decided that, No, he couldn’t make it. We had a showdown in the middle of the sidewalk for about five minutes. I insisted he could walk. He insisted I should carry him. I told him I would hold him, but I wasn’t walking with him, he had to walk to the park. So, he would refuse to walk then hold his hands up for me to pick him up. I would pick him up and then refuse to walk. He would urge me forward and I would tell him that if he wanted to go the playground he had to walk there. He finally figured out I wasn’t moving on this and so he wiggled back down to the sidewalk and proceeded to run the entire rest of the way to the park, which solidified my theory that he wasn’t tired, just lazy. I also knew that by the time he was done playing on the playground he was going to be truly exhausted and then I was going to have to carry him all the way home. I needed to conserve my energy for the return trip.

The entire time on the playground the kids kept turning to me, “Mommy look!” “Mommy come help me with this!” “Mommy! See!” “Mommy!” As I trailed around behind them on the playground I thought about how important it was that I see them. They had an insatiable need to be seen. In fact, all my kids have this need. A big chunk of my parenting is simply giving my kids attention. Listening to their stories. Looking at the things they make. Watching the new tricks they’ve learned. Finding out about their day. When my kids get home from school I sit in my chair or on the couch and I just listen. For a couple hours. It doesn’t look like I’m doing a whole lot. Just sitting there. But, for this introvert, it’s actually the most exhausting time of my day. The time when I see my kids. See who they are. See what interests them. See their hopes and dreams.

I just started rereading a book called Taken by Dee Henderson. It’s about a woman who was kidnapped when she was sixteen. Eleven years later she finally manages to escape. This fictional book is about her return to freedom. It’s about the people who gather around her and help her make the transition, help her get justice, help her start the path of healing. I’ve read the book a couple times and I started wondering what it is about the book that keeps drawing me back. I finally figured it out this morning, while I was watching my boys play on the playground. The book is all about being Seen. It’s about a woman who has undergone trauma and pain and the people who see her and her need and who gather around her to provide her community and friendship and a strong hand to hold on to.

No wonder I keep coming back to this book. The desire to be seen doesn’t seem to go away after we leave childhood. I still have it. I still want to be noticed. I still want someone to have an interest in me and what I like and don’t like. I still want someone to come alongside me and just do life with me. I am happily married and my husband does truly see me. He cares about me and my interests and our life has completely entwined into one single life instead of two separate ones. You would think that was enough “being seen” for anyone. Somehow though, it isn’t. We long, as a couple, as a family, to be seen by others. We long to be part of a larger community. For whatever reason we find it really difficult. I know a lot of it has to do with our culture that is very self-sufficient and private. Everyone has moved off their front porch and now sits in their climate-controlled home being entertained by TV and the internet. While I have a wonderful church family, we go to a commuter church and all the people that I would love to spend more time with all live about a twenty minute drive  or more on the interstate away from me. Honestly, I could sit here and write a giant list of all the reasons it’s difficult to be in community. I’m not going to do that though, because really, I don’t think that’s the root of the problem. I think that I am the root of the problem.

We have had community before. Right here in Tennessee, despite all the obstacles that exist. We have had community. Looking back, I can tell you that the reason we had community was because we opened our home and invited people over. Regularly. Every week. We invited old friends over, and new friends over. We had big birthday parties and invited all our kids’ friends and their families. We reached out to everyone we saw and said, Hey, come on over. We’d love to have you. Come spend time with us. I would call people on the phone and just talk. Catch up.

I’m not sure what happened. Somewhere along the way I got worn out. I got tired. I got depressed. Overwhelmed. And I retreated.  Into my immediate family. Into myself. For a while there I had a hard time even interacting with my immediate family. I am a lot better now. I am embracing being with my husband and children again, but I find myself longing. Longing to be seen, to be known by a wider circle. And I’ve just figured out that in order to do that, I’ve got to start seeing other people. I’ve got to start noticing them. I’ve got to start reaching out again. It’s hard. I’m a little afraid of being burned. Rejection. But I need it. My family needs it. We need community. We need to see others and be seen by others. So, I will pray for the courage to try again. Put myself out there again. Go look for people that I can see.