A Small Series on Mental Illness & Motherhood

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“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?” Psalm 42:5
Last week a missions team from Sydney spent the week with our church to serve us and help us run some evangelistic events. One of those events was for mothers called “The Joys of Motherhood”. It consisted of a panel, three from our church, two from the missions team plus a speaker. I was humbled and privileged to be asked to be a panelist, representing young mothers in the trenches of raising littles.
Leading up to the event, I felt both excited and conflicted. I felt conflicted because there are so many other amazing mothers at church with young children. One of my friends has four children and another has three {with one adopted}. I have been a mother a mere two years, with two under my belt {and likely only two, unless God brings an adopted child into our quiver}. So often, I feel incredibly inadequate, confused and overwhelmed in my day-to-day mothering so I couldn’t imagine that I had many “pearls of wisdom” to offer. But for some reason, several people thought I could have something to offer, and for that, I am grateful for their confidence in me and God’s kindness in my weakness.
The few nights leading up to the event, with questions now in hand, I wracked my brain wondering what on earth I could say. There were general questions as well as questions specific to my stage in life. What could I say that would encourage other mothers? What could I say that might show God’s reality in my life as a mother to any there who did not know Him? The night before, I still hadn’t decided on my answers so I offered my words up to God.
I woke up the next morning at peace. I knew what God wanted me to share. There are many things I could have shared about motherhood because so much happens from the day you become one. But what is unique to me? What is my story in motherhood that I know well, from the heart, that I could be honest about and share to unite other mother-hearts with similar journeys?
One of the questions was “what didn’t I expect about motherhood”? Well, I didn’t expect to be a mother with a form of mental illness.
I should have had a clue since it’s been a “friend” of mine since my mid-to-late teens. Unfortunately, I never knew that was what it was. I didn’t even know it was something, it was just…me. It was only until I fell into one of my deep pits after the birth of my son Josiah that my doctor, who had seen it in me since the separation of my parents, kindly let me know that I have a cyclical anxiety disorder and that I would be okay.
It took me awhile to accept that this was true. But once medication started working and I could actually think with conscious action, I looked back on my life since my anxiety began and I could see this was true. Several major events triggered off difficult episodes and in between there were various episodes to lesser degrees.
Extreme anxiety, inability to think clearly, dark thoughts {both spontaneous and conscious}, tense muscles, emotional highs and lows, perpetually fearful of the future, a foreboding that couldn’t be explained, insecurities blown beyond proportion, irrational, stuck inside the mind.
This is, in general terms, what I am like when I am in one of my episodes. It’s a horribly dark place to be and, though not full-blown, is on the periphery of mild depression. And just like most forms of clinical depression, it is something beyond my control. Something clicks or “comes over” me, and for several months, inexplicable anxiety is the state I am in.
Motherhood is difficult on it’s own and no-one who is a mother can dispute that. But only mothers who struggle with mental illness {and any sort of illness} can attest to the incredible difficulty it is to be the mother you know you want to be when you can barely function as a person.
 
When I spoke at our “The Joys of Motherhood” event, I knew one or two women who struggle with something similar. I can empathise with their story, their courage. But I also knew that there were probably more women in that room that were like me before I was diagnosed – those low feelings, that anxiety, the uncontrollable fear, isn’t that just me? There could be more to this?
It’s hard being vulnerable to a group of women about something quite unknown and stigmatised. But it is also empowering: it helps me own my illness and it helps me give encouragement to any women who might not know, or who might be hiding, in a place of loneliness and fear.

Ways to Get Through

I am by no means an expert in mental health. And I haven’t experienced full-blown depression, whether clinical or experiential. I do however, have a cyclical anxiety disorder. This basically means that something within my brain changes – hormones, chemical balance, cortisol {etc} – and I become highly emotional and anxious.
It isn’t something I can make go away. It passes naturally within a few months. In one day it can “come over” me and as easily in one day can “lift off” me. It’s unexplainable. But, I promise you, dear friends who experience the same, it can be managed. Here are some thoughts to help you if you are struggling in a similar place:

1. Seek medical help.

I cannot emphasise this enough. In many Christian circles, the medical world is often derided or rebelled against or only to be sought as a last resort. In my own personal opinion, seeking the advice of one or two wise, kind and experienced doctors should be at the top of our list.
The reason I believe this is because it is essential to determine what exactly is going on in our brains. Depression/anxiety is not merely a spiritual {though it is part of it, I believe}. Just as our brain {and body, for that matter} fails in other ways – epilepsy, cancer, retardation – so it does when it comes to how our moods are effected.
When I finally sought my doctor after Josiah was born, he recommended medication. He said to me, “You have been through this before and I know that you can get through it. But because you are so tired and so new to being a mother, let us try some anti-depressents to help give you the kick start you need”. And he was so right. The moment they started working, it was like someone physically pulled me out of a dark pit in my mind and set my thinking-feet on solid ground. I felt me again.
Just beware that sometimes you may not get along well with the initial medication you are put on. Because I was breast-feeding, I was first put on Citalopram {considered the safest} but I reacted terribly to it. My skin felt like it was crawling and I had one of the rarest reactions to it – it made my brain more anxious and propelled it into a hyper-state {it was seriously one of the worst weeks of my life}. But, thank goodness, I trusted my instincts and went back to my doctor who put me on Fluoxetine {a form of Prozac} and my “little happy pills” became my best friend.

2. Be open and get support.

For me, during that dark post-partum time, my husband, parents, in-law’s and brother were the people who got me through. Both my mother-in-law and sister-in-law had suffered through post-partum depression and knew that I couldn’t just “pull my socks up” and get better. My mother-in-law let me ring her {from out of town} any time of day or night so that I could cry and ask questions about how to care for Josiah. She helped me feel normal. My sister-in-law gave me words at times that I just needed it, like, “Things will get better”. My mother prayed amazing prayers over me and let me visit her at her work even when a snow storm was on it’s way and Josiah was grumpy, all so I could see someone and have company and get some prayer. And my father and brother came round to keep me company, even if it was in silence, so I wasn’t alone.
It is so essential, dear friend, to know you have people who love you and care for you. They may not always understand, but they will try. Allow them to make mistakes too, even if you feel you can’t bear mistakes at this present time. They’re trying their best and if they have never experienced mental illness in some form, they can’t understand why you can’t make yourself better.

3. Understand the importance of your thoughts.

God made our brains to have incredible power over our bodies. We don’t realise how much control our own thoughts have over our minds, our moods, our heart condition, our physical well-being. It is vital to start claiming autonomy over your thoughts rather than allowing those arrow-thoughts to break you down and send you spiraling into a deeper pit.
I am not saying that this is all in your head. It isn’t. And until medication is used, there is very little one can do to break the cycle of anxiety/lowness that you are in. I remember my husband saying to me, in loving frustration {because he couldn’t understand}, “Just think about something else.” But I couldn’t. But once my pills began to work, I could actually think – for myself! And this is when you need to start focusing on what you are listening to in yourself.
“Don’t you know what most of your unhappiness in life is because you are listening to yourself instead of speaking to yourself?” Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression.


4. Seek God’s Word for hope and for help.

There is nothing like the comfort of a scripture that speaks to your soul when you are at your very worst.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:1-2
Get the eyes of your mind and heart on God, not on yourself, He is your helper.
“He lifted me up out of the pit of despair, out of the miry clay, he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” Psalm 40:2
He will rescue you and place you on firm ground, you will be stable again.
“Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions they fail not; they are new every morning, great is Thy faithfulness.” Lamentations 3:22-23
You won’t be consumed by this, God is keeping you and is faithful.
“Why are you in despair, O my soul? And why have you become in despair within me? Hope in God, for I will yet praise him, the help of my countenance and my God.” Psalm 41:11
 Recognise your state and feelings, speak to them and turn them towards God.

5. Pray.

Let whatever is on your heart and mind fall from your lips like tears to your Father in heaven who is right there. Jesus is praying for you, right where you are, do you know that? “He is able to save forever those who draw near to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them” {Hebrews 7:25}.
If you doubt that God cares or that He is listening or that He can possibly understand where you are, read about Jesus in the Garden and see his agony, his pain, his mental state so that he wept blood. Jesus knows what it was like, and he still chose it, and he died for your condition. Speak out your heart in every moment, even if it is a mental cry of “Help me!” He will hear you and help you. There were countless times where I just got through dinner time, a night feeding, a church service only because of the grace of God and my continual conversation of need to him.

When It Comes Again

This week I have been reminded that I live in a frail and fallen body. It’s easy, when things are fine, to fool myself into thinking that I have it all together, that I am strong and able to cruise through life independently and alone. And then, something happens and medication isn’t enough to keep my anxiety at bay: once again, I’m thrust into the whirling pit of a speeding mind, the sense that something is very wrong, intense emotions and a body wound up like an old-fashioned toy.
I have been “fine” for so long. It’s two years since my last pregnancy and post-partum struggles. It’s been well over a year since I have tried to wean myself off my medication, only to have my old friend come creeping back through the brain stem of my mind. Life has trundled along – busy, routine, safe. I’ve been okay.
Then last week Tim was suddenly put on night shifts {who knew builder’s could be on night shifts?} and everything was turned upside down. I was sole parenting day and night; I was stressed trying to keep a toddler and preschooler quiet during the day in our small house so as not to wake Tim; therefore, we went out and about everyday. It was a struggle. By the end of the week, the muscles around my shoulders were sore from being tense all the time and, by the weekend, I could feel the unnamed panic starting to creep over my heart, my mind like a deer in headlights.
Now I wasn’t handling things as I normally do. Squabbles, disobedience, dawdling filled me with irritability at best, rage at worst. Long days in sole charge of the kids from sun up to sundown {Tim has night classes several times a week and is gone for work by 6.30am} built that pressure of responsibility to bursting point as I struggled staying on top of it all.
Finally, by Wednesday, I acknowledged to myself that I wasn’t well and needed to stop trying. This brought a sense of relief. It usually takes me a little to face my anxiety; I often keep going as before, productive and ignoring my rising tension. I think I don’t need help. And then, I realise I can’t – –
and I throw myself before God and simply ask for help. “Give me grace, O Lord. I just can’t do this without you.”
And that is what this thorn in my side is really for. God knows me so well. He knows I love comfortable and, more than physical comfort, I crave idolise emotional comfort. And He knows that when I ask, in trepidation, to help me need Him and desire Him more than anything else, the thorn shifts and I’m reminded that it is weakness that keeps us within the safety of His refuge.

Peace and safety certainly don’t come from striving for the perfect life or being the world’s best mother. These are the goals of my flesh. They war with the God-directed spirit in me – the new me – that only wants Him and His ways and His will. These two parts of me grate against one another like the plates of the earth, and it is my anxiety that is the earthquake, shaking me around a bit, keeping me at the foot of the cross.

Nothing in my hand I bring, 
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to you for dress;
Helpless, look to you for grace;
Stained by sin to You I cry –
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

I used to plead this illness away. I used to fight it and deny it and crucify myself for being so weak. I feel shame that I need such a quiet and uneventful life to keep me steady, that such a minor thing like Tim working night shifts can throw me off “my game”.

But part of the valley I experienced after Josiah’s birth helped me see it with a humble heart. I saw this world and our broken bodies differently, for what they are – tents, that flap in the wind a bit, and which pegs sometimes get ripped out of the earth. We are clay vessels, we’re easily broken.
Our culture emulates perfection – perfect bodies, perfect jobs, perfect families, perfect wealth. But what a lie. We will always come against the fallen. This world is not meant to be it.

“But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is perfected in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. That is why, for the sake of Christ, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” ~ 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

… So the power of Christ may rest on me. Did you hear that? We aren’t meant to strive in our brokenness. Rather, we are meant to rest in His grace, His power, His mercy, His blood. We can acknowledge who and what we really are, and divorce ourselves from perfection. We are to pursue holiness, but that is not the same as pursuing perfection. We are to pursue being a set apart people, who trust and obey God.
Now, however much I hate my illness, I accept it. I embrace it. I acknowledge that it is a gift from God. Yes. A gift. I would rather be sick, on my face before the throne of God in desperate need of Him, than cruising through life thinking I’m awesome and invincible. I would rather see myself as a weak wife and mother, than sit on my high horse, not able to be real and in the trenches with other needy women. I would rather experience the Gospel in pain than understand it in perfect theology, sitting comfortably, unscathed by broken. I am really, really grateful I’m broken. It makes me need Jesus.