Friday, May 2, 2014

Mind Matters

The other day I looked at Chloe and wondered when we should get her pictures done for the first time. Then I was plunged into a memory of Ethan when he was just a month or two older than she is now.

We'd had a lot of luck with Anna getting cheapie portraits taken at the Target photo studio nearby. I'd been pretty happy with the results, so I thought I'd take Ethan there. At the time I was in my "something seems off with him" phase, but it was the Target visit that sealed the deal. The photographer could not get him to smile. He didn't cry; he didn't wail; he just stared. At first I tried to tell myself it was because this guy, who couldn't have been more than 20, seemed to be a total green goof-off who was constantly fumbling around and consulting the book about what to do. But down deep, I knew that couldn't be the only reason. Babies were babies, and normally, they like to smile at people, at least after a maximum amount of cajoling.

I went into a tailspin. For days I pondered: Call the pediatrician or not? If so, what to say? Finally, I took the plunge and did it. Ethan was about five months old; we got in with my favorite pediatrician, the woman about my age with young kids of her own. I had a plan going in, and it included being straight-out honest that things didn't "feel" right about Ethan; that he wasn't that responsive to his name or other overtures; and also that I was worried about one foot that seemed to turn out more than the other.

She did her exam, and apart from the foot, which she wasn't really concerned about, she didn't have much else to elaborate on. "It's just too early," she told me, gently pointing out, for example, that most babies his age didn't yet respond to their names. After a few minutes of discussion, her tone grew even more tentative, as she turned her attention to me. "Have you considered.." she asked slowly, "...Have you considered talking to someone about your anxiety?"

I walked out of the office miffed to be leaving not with answers about Ethan but a paper in my hand with the scribbled names of two nearby psychiatrists. For the longest time, I stewed about that. They couldn't help my son but wanted to ship me off to some shrink. At some point I crumpled up the paper and threw it away.

But I didn't stop thinking about it. This little voice in the back of my mind would whisper once in awhile: No matter what is or isn't going on with Ethan, maybe she has a point. Down deep I knew, all my life, I'd greatly struggled with fear and worry.

For the longest time, I didn't want to take action. There were lots of reasons. I recalled the snide remark a few years before from someone at the moms group I attended, who, when I mentioned I sometimes felt stressed when I had to make conversations with strangers, sneered that I should get on some anxiety meds. I thought of the anxiety, bipolar and depression that ran in my family, of stories of family members having "breakdowns," whatever that actually meant. Am I a repeating pattern? I wondered. A failure? Getting help felt like weakness, like giving up.

And in my head danced the voices of "if you just have enough faith" Christians. It's sad but true: there's still a lot of controversy and confusion when it comes to the church and mental health issues. I guess it's not surprising. Some people want to attribute everything to a demon or to unbelief. Some people want to shy away from a "pill" solving everything. And honestly? I don't have all the answers. Like most issues in life, there are no simple explanations. I do believe there can be a spiritual component to depression. But in some cases there are biological factors as well. We're fallen people. This is life, and not everyone has their issues immediately whisked away by a prayer.

It took me months, but I finally made a phone call. I knew I wanted someone who shared my belief system, so I found a Christian psychologist, and we started to talk. For quite some time, Peg became my lifeline. She didn't wave a magic wand and make it better. She didn't hand me pills and send me on my way. She helped me understand myself, others, and that how I reacted to a situation was infinitely more important than the situation itself. She broke through the Christian hocus-pocus, the voice that said there must be something wrong with me. My struggles with anxiety, she used to like to say, were not a "curse," they were genetics.

Today I don't look back to five years ago and that day in the pediatrician's office with a mixture of embarrassment at my frantic behavior and disgust that it took another year and a half to get Ethan a diagnosis from that point. I know now that it was something that needed to happen, for me. Ethan's issues were just the catalyst. There were things simmering under the surface there were going to come to light one way or another.

You know, in my MOPS group, the same one where that person (long gone now) so callously threw out a reference to anxiety issues years ago, the theme this year is A Beautiful Mess. We are encouraged to be open and share about our failings; missteps; weaknesses. It's our vulnerability, our authenticity that helps others, not the facades we put up or the games we play. If I can be real, if you can be real, we take a giant step towards alleviating shame. No one already tormented by their mind should feel as if they are any "less" of a person if they admit they need help. That's an unwinnable game that only keeps you in the downward spiral. It's time to stop the cycle.

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