Pain is Pain

There are days (yesterday) when I wake up and know it’s not going to be a great day. Maybe I didn’t sleep well the night before. (I didn’t.) Maybe I opened my work email and found lots more stuff than I felt equipped to deal with. (Yes.) Or maybe it was the foot of snow predicted to fall. (No. I like work-at-home snow days.) Whatever the issue of the moment, anxiety appears, everything seems worse than it really is, and I start responding to everything in a way that I normally would not. I am anxious and more easily frustrated.

I feel it in my stomach and my head. I am not thinking clearly, or as kindly. If two things need my attention at the same time, I have a hard time prioritizing. Instead of two small issues, they become huge deals where I can’t decide which one needs to be addressed first. My head spins and I respond with my anxiety and not my heart.

That’s not how I like to work. It feels alien to me. Out of character.

And then I woke up today and, as I looked out at the beautiful, pure white snow, clear blue sky, and glowing sun, I realized that I felt better. More like myself. The anxiousness and crabbiness had subsided. In about 24 hours I went from being an anxiety-ridden, slightly depressed version of myself to myself again. That’s when I realized how my kids must feel.

All. The. Time.

It made my heart hurt knowing that they were so not themselves so often. But having that “off” day helped me have more compassion. More empathy. Thinking about it this way helps me understand that I really don’t understand. Because one day of what I call pretty bad anxiety and agitation is nothing compared to waking up every morning and feeling that way. But it also helped me see that the pain I feel for my children is no less than the pain they feel. It’s just different.

Pain is pain.

No parent wants to see or know their child is unhappy, not functioning well in the world, and without places to go and people to see. It is heartbreaking.

Mental illness is heartbreaking.

It is a dream-crushing disease that wrecks lives. Those who are tormented with it not only struggle with their own inner turmoil, but have to deal with the outside world’s sometimes unkind and unsympathetic comments, as well. And those of us who love people who struggle with mental illness agonize for them. We may not be the ones who can’t do, can’t be, and can’t live, but we are the ones who cry for those who can’t do, be and live.

For me, having an occasional bad day means knowing that the next day will look brighter. When I am in the middle of depression and anxiety, I know tomorrow may be better. I have hope. People with mental illness see things differently. One bad day is just one bad day in a long string of many, many bad days. Hope slowly gets chipped away and only despair is left. And no one should be despondent and hopeless.

So when I pray for my kids, for their mental illnesses and hopelessness, I pray for their hearts first. I pray that they look up and seek God. I pray that they regain their hope. I pray that they find something in the darkness that keeps them going.

I tell them that God hears us all.

And through all of my tears and prayers and the tears and prayers of others, things may not change a whole lot for my kids. They may still wake up tomorrow with anxiety and depression. But knowing God hears me helps me wake up every morning and see them through His eyes. And that brings empathy and keeps my love for them strong. Because no one hurts more for children than their parents.

Pain is pain.

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7 Things You Should Know About Me

I love a good list.

Whenever I come across an article that has a list of ideas or suggestions or tips, I always take a moment to read it. I always learn something from a good list. So that’s why it made sense to make a list of things that I think everyone should know. If you are related to or friends with someone who has an adult child struggling with a serious mental illness, this list is for you. And while you may already know some or all of the things on it – and good for you if you do – this list is still worth reading. It has been my experience that many people are, or act like they are, unaware of the following seven things.

  1. I love my child as much as you love yours. Not more. Not less. Living with an adult child with a serious mental illness is challenging and hard. My son acts a lot younger than he really is and his behaviors wear me out. But I love him. He is my son.
  2. Pain is pain. It doesn’t matter what you are going through. Life is hard and we all struggle. Who’s to say which is worse: a 24-year-old diagnosed with aggressive non-Hodgkin Lymphoma or a 29-year-old with a severe anxiety disorder?
  3. Happy is not always better than sad. When people who are close to me ask how my son is and I say that he is better, they immediately think he is, well…all better. With bipolar, anxiety, and depression, the lows are brutal. It’s excruciating to see someone not change their clothes for 10 days in a row. But the highs are hard to be around, too. As much as it hurts to see my son flat on his back, unable to get out of bed and more sad than any person should ever be, it hurts to see him talking obsessively and loudly.
  4. It’s not that I don’t want to make plans, it’s just that sometimes I can’t. Like most people, I enjoy going out with friends or having people over to the house. But working full-time and then spending every waking second I have left being the only person in my son’s life he can talk to is exhausting. So, it’s not you. It’s me.
  5. Mental illness happens. Just like a young adult would not choose to get cancer or multiple sclerosis, my son does not choose to have a serious mental illness. It’s time we recognize that all illnesses – whether they are from the neck up or from the neck down – are real. It’s time we stopped stigmatizing people with mental illness.
  6. My life is unpredictable.  Doctors, therapists, medications, and hospitalizations take up a lot of my time and energy. I live an unfocused life. Not a hour or two goes by without my thoughts wandering off. I never know when or how or what I will hear from my son. Or what to expect when I get home from work.
  7. I need you. I need you to understand that I don’t expect you to fix this. I need you to stand by me. I need you to love me and my adult child for who we are. I need you to know that I am a good mother. And sometimes all I need is for you to be there.

So, counting the fact that I love a good list,  I guess that makes eight things you should know about me.

Wait. I have one more.

Finding support and making the decision to support others makes all the difference in the world. The minute I found my people – the ones who are walking the same path I am – I felt safe and understood and free to share. And while that’s not a cure, it sure is the key. Helping others who feel the same way I do has done more for me than I can describe.

I love these words of Kay Warren, co-founder of Saddleback Church in California. After the suicide of her son in 2013, she and her husband returned to church with messages of love, forgiveness, honesty, and hope.

“Facing the darkness together is about making a decision. To express compassion is a deliberate choice. We are most like Christ when we choose to offer the gift of our presence and choose to absorb within ourselves the suffering of others. And this is true fellowship.”

And folks…this is how we get there.