Me and my jewel of a sister, who flew out to help me during one of the darkest times of my life.
On Facebook, everybody’s having a good time. Do you ever feel like that? Sure, there are the occasional prayer requests and sharing of the passing of someone near and dear. And the traffic rants and complaints of bad food service. But it would be easy to look over the average person’s page and assume they are having a pretty good life. Pictures of happy kids, vacations, drinking craft beer at a cozy pub, pretty new shoes. On Facebook, we do not know each person’s personal struggles and pain under that happy profile. I don’t think this is necessarily wrong. We need to guard our hearts, be circumspect about who we share our deepest selves with. Sharing that you struggle with drinking too much, or cutting yourself, or that you spent the night shaking in bed over a flashback of traumatic abuse might not be the best thing to share with hundreds of friends. But we all need to remember… there is so much more to the person behind that cool profile picture, and it is unlikely their real inner life looks like what they post on Facebook. One hopes that they have friendships they can share that inner stuff with… not everybody does.
If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I am pretty honest and open. This is where I put the stuff I wouldn’t put on Facebook. A lot of it might seem pretty personal, but I write not just so that you can know what is really going on with me. I know that there are others of you out there that need to know that not everyone around you is living a picture perfect life. I’m a busy mom, so I don’t get to write nearly as much as I’d like. But I’d like to share with you the struggles that have been my life the past few months. They are not secret, I have no shame in them. And I am positive most of the people reading my blog will be able to relate to some of what I write.
I have struggled with anxiety for a long time. My closest friends know this. They’ve listened to how I worry over every ache and pain and the fear that it’s cancer, which does run in my family at rather young ages. I worry when Marc doesn’t get home on time and leap to the worst case scenario and see him lying in a casket. As my toddler comes down the stairs, I see pictures in my head of him tumbling down and blood and ambulances. I check on my children each night to make sure they are breathing. You can probably relate to some of this kind of anxiety. But I also have OCD- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I don’t have it nearly as bad as some of you do because I don’t have many compulsions- hand washing, checking locks, counting to 300 before you can leave the house, etc. But I do have the unwanted, intrusive thoughts (see examples above), which work nicely with my anxiety to form a never-ending feedback loop. I’ll go absolutely bananas sometimes, wishing I could please find the “off” button to imagining I have every sort of cancer or degenerative disease possible, even when I know that I have much more of a chance of dying when I walk outside and get into my car (do I ever obsess about that? No, thank goodness).
But I lived with it. It was annoying, but I felt like I could handle it. I had a terrible experience of trying Prozac when I was in college and being allergic to it and thought… never again. Counseling, yes. Meds, no. You know me. I’m such an organic, crunchy kind of girl, and I worry about the long-term effects of things. My grandmother lived till she was almost 93 and her life policy until the last few years was to go to the doctor on rare occasions, and if a prescription was written out she threw it in the trash on the way out the door with a “who needs this?” I thought that was a pretty good philosophy, and while not following it as stringently I tried to avoid meds as much as possible. And beyond that… I’ll admit it… I probably didn’t want to further consider meds because that would be admitting I have a problem.
You probably also know by know that I am a Christian. One of God’s purposes in our lives is to weed out all the stuff that’s not good for us… our sin, unhealthy habits, bad thinking… He wants to fill us with light and not have a smidge of darkness left anywhere. In His great love and mercy, He makes this a slow process and does not reveal all the crap messing up our lives at once. He knows that would be too much. He knows when we’re ready to deal with something (even if we don’t think so).
So apparently, in His timing, He decided it was time for me to be cut free of some of the heavy ropes tied around my ankles. Actually, this might seem weird to some of you out there, but in the past few years of people praying over me, several have seen a picture of a collar around my neck attached to a chain with a big ball at the end of it. I could feel that, but I really didn’t know what it was exactly or how to get free of except to wait for Jesus to cut me loose.
This past winter we decided to move to North Carolina to be near Marc’s family. At the beginning of June we drove down and found a great rental. Then it was back home to start the madness of packing up the house, finding a moving company, canceling and starting new renters insurance, setting up and canceling utilities… all that fun stuff. And since we scrimp and hoard Marc’s vacation time (and he’d be taking some for the move), it was going to be up to me to do most of this stuff, while watching three kids. With my superwoman complex, I geared myself up for the challenge. I could do this!
I started having symptoms of various sorts. I went to the eye doctor because my eyes were really bothering me and he said no, he didn’t see any tumors back there but I did look awfully tired, and given my circumstances he thought it was probably stress-related. Sleeping was getting harder too. The last week before moving I cried a LOT. Some of you reading this in Baltimore probably remember a few of my overwhelmed, tearful moments. Marc and I drove separate cars to NC and I just felt sad. I was leaving a place of dear friends, the longest place we’d lived in our marriage, a place where we’d put some roots down.
Not long after arriving in NC I started feeling shaky. I thought… blood sugar, maybe? Need to eat more frequent meals? It started worrying me and I found a doctor. She ran all the labs and they came back normal, and she also thought I was probably suffering from stress and anxiety. She made a few suggestions about how to calm my lifestyle down (she must have seen the “I can do it all and don’t try to stop me tattoo” on my forehead), I nodded and and filed her advice under “ridiculous.” She gave me a prescription for a fast-acting anti-anxiety med to try and see if that helped resolve my symptoms. I didn’t fill it right away. Just thought I’d see how things played out. Well. Things went from bad to worse. I started waking up in the middle of the night for hours with my heart pounding. Horrible irrational fears pursued me wherever I went. I’d have moments of respite, thinking I was coming out of it, and then boom! back to square one. My only relief was in times I spent with God, praying, singing worship music, reminding myself with the truths of His love for me and that He is always holding on to me, no matter how I might feel. Finally, I decided to fill the prescription. And wow, it worked! I began experiencing some great relief. But since it is only a med you are supposed to take on a short-term, as-needed basis, I went back to the doctor ready to try a more long-term anti-anxiety medication. I had decided it was worth a try.
The problem with some of the long-term anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds is that they can take several weeks to build up to the levels needed to be effective. You have to start with a small dose and slowly work your way up. And sometimes, you start feeling worse before you feel better. Your brain over-reacts to the presence of the meds and unleashes more anxiety. Guess what? This happened to me. And the short-term anxiety med that I was also taking only lasted about two hours before wearing off. So I was on wild rollercoaster ride. After having started sleeping again, the horrible fear, the sleepless nights with pounding heart came rushing back. I began to feel I just could not function. I was exhausted and feeling like a shell of myself. In short, literally, a nervous wreck. Dark, unwanted thoughts haunted me, terrifying me even more that I might try to harm myself. I later learned that this is very common with OCD- and that people with this condition do not actually act on the violent images in their mind of doing things they don’t want to do, and I sure didn’t want to harm myself- I wanted to live, thank you!
I emailed my dear sister in Omaha at 2 am with a SISTER SOS and begged her to fly out as soon as possible to help me, because I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I was scared that I was losing my mind. She said she had a few things to wrap up but would get on a plane ASAP. As soon as business hours started, I called my doctor’s office and they put me in the very first slot. I cried all the way there. I cried in the waiting room. I cried in the exam room. My doctor determined that my best course of action was to voluntarily check myself into the local psychiatric hospital. I agreed. I would do anything, anything, to feel like myself again. Marc put the kids in the car and drove me into Raleigh to Holly Hill Hospital. I kissed them all goodbye and walked through the doors that locked behind me.
I’m not going to go into all the details of my experience there (you can talk to me if you want to know- I’m more than happy to share). The truth is, I started feeling better very quickly. They put me on some very effective medications and that night I slept like the dead, despite the fact that a staff member opens your door every fifteen minutes and shines a flashlight in to make sure you are safe. I was there for several days, and my sister Hannah was able to get a flight out very quickly to help with the kids. I was very happy to get out in time for my sweet toddler’s birthday- and actually feel like ME again for it! I enjoyed all the family coming together for it so much. I cried- in relief, and thankfulness.
The next Monday I checked into Holly Hill’s Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), which is basically group therapy course learning healthy life management skills and about all sorts of different topics related to the conditions of the people participating. It lasts more or less 2 weeks, 9 to 3.
In the meantime, Marc and I started searching for Christian schools in the area. Now all of you who messaged me asking me why I decided not to homeschool this year probably get it! I couldn’t write to you all at once and that is partially why I decided to write this. We decided as a family that this Mama needed time to rest and heal. It was hard for me to accept, but I knew in my heart that it was the right thing to do. We were able to quickly find one that had openings and we felt very comfortable with. The school year had already started so we had to hop quickly to get through the enrollment process and testing. The first few days were hard but the kids are settling right in.
Back to PHP. I was skeptical at first. The topics didn’t seem that meaningful to me. I had heard and knew a lot of the stuff already- most of the principles they were dealing with were very biblical in nature despite it being a totally secular program. But slowly some very powerful things happened. First of all was the coming to grips with the fact that I really do have a mental condition. I have General Anxiety Disorder and OCD. I learned the actual details of what is happening in my brain and that this is something I cannot fix myself. It’s somewhat possible that with intensive therapy and brain training I might be able to function without meds someday. But coming to a place of acceptance of my condition was a great relief. Yes, there is something wrong with me, but it is treatable, and wow, I was beginning to feel better than I have felt in years! I had no idea of the high level of anxiety I was living with daily until the dam burst and I was forced to get help. Today, as I write this, I feel a hundred times better than I probably have in the last five years.
Secondly, I was very skeptical about “group therapy.” How could sitting around with a bunch of strangers talking about our problems be very helpful? Well, it was. By the end of the two weeks I loved every person in that room and I was praying for each one by name during the half-hour drive into Raleigh. These were broken people (just like me!) from all sorts of backgrounds, with a whole slew of different anxiety/depressive/manic types of diagnoses. People who have seen the darkest and the worst of life. To be honest, people I probably would not have ever gotten to know deeply except in such a situation as this. And, being so burdened with my own problems, probably wouldn’t have wanted meet or be friends with because I had gotten to the point where I was going to collapse if I took on anyone else’s problems. But in group therapy, there we all were, with a competent counselor in charge (so I didn’t feel like I had to rescue anyone), on a level playing field, all broken, all needing healing and change. And as I grew to love these people, wow, did I feel excited and proud along with them when they made break-through realizations about the habits and ways of thinking that had been messing up theirs and other people’s lives. And by the end, I too was learning plenty about my own behaviors and thought-patterns and perfectionism and rescuing-people-from-their-problems-tendencies that have played a major role in ramping up my anxiety and OCD. I may not be able to help the fact that my brain is wired the way it is, but I certainly can contribute to how much it acts up!
I was actually sad by the time the program was over and a little nervous to “get out on my own” again from that safe and loving little bubble. But I’ve done just fine. As I said, I am feeling better than ever. I start working with a Christian therapist one-on-one this week. I feel like a far better parent- mommy is not irritable and grouchy all the time. I have so much more patience, and I feel like I can “enjoy the moment” and be present to it so much more easily (versus being continually distracted by the worrisome thoughts raging through my brain). I sit back and enjoy my kids being kids. I have only lost my temper (and that pretty mildly) once in the last two weeks (used to happen daily).
So, you know what? I experienced several weeks of living hell this summer, an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But I come out of it deeply grateful to God for bringing me to this place of healing. Yes, He could have miraculously placed his invisible hand on my head and healed my anxiety instantly. But then I would have missed out on so much good stuff that I have gained from this process. I feel like my eyes have been opened to really see people around me, with an understanding that no matter how extremely different their lives might look from mine, in the right scenario we could really, deeply know each other as human beings regardless of race, nationality, religion, economic status, or mental health. I’ve gained the ability to much better assess what is going on in my mind and determine if my thoughts are coming from my disorder or the real me. I’m thoroughly enjoying this new ability to take an anxious thought and say “highly unlikely” and send it on its way. And I can rest in God’s promises that the real me knew was true, but my anxiety constantly pounded with doubts.
If you’ve read this far, I’m proud of you! Thank you for looking into my life and my experiences, and thank you for caring. One of the things that sustained me during my trial was the knowledge of the many, many people that really love and care about me. I am open and happy to discuss further questions you may have. Blessings, Kirstie