Depression. Anxiety. Two words that sometimes leave us cringing, feeling like no one will understand or we will be judged and possibly not taken seriously. As an adult, I have struggled with depression far less than I did as a teenager and college student, but sometimes it still strikes unsuspectingly. However, the difference between my current self and who I was ten years ago is that I now know how to cope where, before, I had little to no idea of why I was feeling so down or what could be done to change those feelings of helplessness. Anxiety, on the other hand, has possibly increased and I honestly think that has to do with the constant stimulation of being a mother, with little down time to really process my emotions and feelings and all that is happening around me. I am an internal processor and painfully introverted which means, in order to be at my healthiest, I need a lot of time to myself to think, recharge, and heal from the emotional stressors of every day life. But that’s not always an option in this current, wonderful, busy season as a mother, so in this blog, I want to talk a little about how I used to respond when my depression or anxiety would hit, compared to how I now respond.
Without prior warning, I found myself wrapped securely within a blanket of suffocating depression, not really knowing when or how it had started or what I was even feeling at the time. In reality, there probably were a thousand red flags that could have led anyone trained in spotting oncoming signs of depression to know that I was in the early stages of developing it. But, there was no one watching and the many angrily, slammed doors and afternoons of shutting myself away in my room soon turned into something a bit more detrimental than your average, hormonal teen. In the beginning (the VERY beginning) I dealt with my sadness through words and singing. After a while, I started trying to reach out to my friends at school and sometimes adults that I had met through my parents or through the local theatre that I was a part of. But, when those methods seemed to not change how I was feeling I turned to self injury and anorexia/bulimia. It’s obvious of course that choosing methods such as those did nothing good for me; if anything, they made my depression worse, but at the time it really felt like they were helping. I was finally able to pour my feelings out in a way that seemed to give me the extra boost that I needed to get through my day and it was something that I was able to control when everything around me felt very much out of my control.
It’s a funny thing the way our mind seems to tell us that if we are feeling too much or going through something too hard to process, we should punish ourselves because maybe the problem lies within us…rather than in our circumstances. Sometimes the problem does lie within us (like if we keep losing jobs or friends because of a bad attitude) and sometimes it really doesn’t (having family members or friends or coworkers that consistently belittle us). But, regardless of if we need to change something personally or we need to simply relocate ourselves to a new environment, having hard feelings doesn’t equate to deserving to be punished. Right? You feeling me here?
Punishing ourselves will never heal our brokenness. If it did, Jesus wouldn’t have come down to forgive and love and serve; he would have come down to finish the job of obliterating all of mankind. But, he didn’t do that. Rather, he said that all of us is good…not just some of the pieces, but our whole being; even the hairs on our head. (Luke 12:6-7)
Now, I definitely do not consider myself a victim of depression or anxiety any longer. Do I sometimes struggle with either? Yes. On occasion, but I am equipped to handle those situations in a healthy, compassionate way. Showing empathy to myself was one of the hardest lessons I have ever had to learn but I am so grateful to no longer view myself as an obstacle, but rather, a place of rest and gratitude.
During my early season of re-training my mind and heart to react in love and compassion (and not in anger and self-deprecation), I did the classic act of hanging kind, empowering words up around my bedroom. I put them on my door, on my mirror…really just anywhere that I thought would be a place I might frequently look at. And it surprisingly helped. Whenever a negative thought would seep into my brain, I would read the quotes and think of a few things that I truly liked about myself. I also tried to stop comparing myself to others and the less that I focused on how my physical appearance didn’t match up to who I thought I should be, the less I hated my reflection.
I began a gratitude journal (something I should probably take up again) and I started re-discovering hobbies and things I enjoyed doing. I began reading books that left me feeling tingly with joy (try Cold Tangerines by Shauna Niequist) and I began to take care of myself in a way that I before had not. None of these actions are monumental in and of themselves, but they slowly began to work through me, allowing me to open myself up to Jesus enough that I could start letting Him go through the pain with me; instead of trying to hide from it. I stopped believing that I had to start over every time I messed up and instead started counting how many days I had gone without cutting or starving or purging, with a mistake or two in between. Because a few mistakes never cancels out progress.
Really, so much of it came down to changing the little thoughts and actions that at the time had seemed so inconsequential but made all the difference between loving and hating myself. And being able to finally understand that no feelings are bad feelings. It is so important that we let ourselves feel, rather than constantly pushing those feelings aside (think stress eating, or drinking because of stress, or distracting yourself with tv, etc)
When anxiety takes hold of me, it typically happens during high stress situations (not every time, but often) and I start to shut down. What I do to handle myself in those situations is either leave the situation until I can calm down, call someone who can talk me through some of my feelings (if that’s an option), pray, or do something physically good for my body (workout, walk, eat healthy food, take a shower…). There are times that I have limited options when it comes to handling the anxiety (like if I am in a store with my kids by myself…that gives me chills just typing it. lol) so I just do what I have to to survive.
A few weeks ago, while I was still unable to pick up any of my kids and still fairly sore from my stomach surgery, Gabe and I went to the store with just the little boys. Indigo fell asleep in the backseat before we got there and Leif needed to pee when we arrived. So, Gabe stayed in the car with Indigo (because I typically do the grocery shopping) and I took Leif in. It was intense, guys. For one, I hadn’t been shopping for groceries since before I had surgery and not being able to hold or keep up with Leif was scary, to say the least. The kid was just running all over the place (staying with me, but you know that kid swerve where they run from side to side across an aisle, not giving anyone room to actually get through?) and for some reason I had agreed to let him use the little shopping cart they had for kids. Usually Leif is okay in stores, but that day…he was asking for every single thing and then having a meltdown after each said item was put back on the shelf. I was fairly under control with my voice and actions and feeling proud of my ability to appear calm…but inside I was raging with anxiety.
After a much longer than expected trip around the store, a few tantrums later, and one dramatic crash between Leif and his shopping cart, I came outside to meet Gabe with my shopping cart full of groceries while wondering what on Earth I had just gone through. Somehow I had ended up being manipulated into buying the kid granola bars, a hotwheel, special kid yogurts, and I think a few other items. I am SO good at saying no to extra, unneeded items while shopping but that day, my anxiety won over and in an effort to stay calm, I gave in just a bit. I probably shouldn’t do that every time I experience an anxiety attack, but it definitely helped to allow him some wins (instead of always hearing no).
There are options. We don’t have to sit in our anxiety and depression, letting it form our identity. Yes, maybe you struggle with depression and maybe you struggle with anxiety (or both)…however, they do not need to define you or keep you from living a normal, fulfilling life. You get to decide if you are going to be a slave of your fears and sadness OR if you will accept that they are a part of you and then take the appropriate measures to handle them as they arise. I realize that healing doesn’t happen over night, but there are small steps to be taken that can make all of the difference with time, as you continue to implement more and more healthy changes.
Be brave. Ask for help. Allow time for change to make a difference.