Updated: Apr 6, 2018
I’m no stranger to mental illness. Growing up, I saw the effects of depression first hand. Yet it took years after I got married to acknowledge that I, too, was faced with my own mental health issues.
Two or three years ago I finally realized that I had anxiety. The buzzing in my veins, the increased heart rate, the short temper, the sudden emotional breakdown. The immense feelings of worry and fear I’d been experiencing on a regular basis since my oldest daughter was born were clearly all signs indicating anxiety, but I didn’t know it at the time.
After a particularly rough patch, I remember sharing with someone about a recent episode I’d had. I explained how I'd locked myself in my bathroom so the girls wouldn’t be able to come in, and sat on the edge of the bathtub, rubbing my thighs with my hands, sobbing uncontrollably, feeling completely trapped. A panic attack, she told me. That was a panic attack.
Aha. So that’s what a panic attack looked like - or at least for me. With that knowledge, I started to look into anxiety more and reflected back on my life. Everything I read resonated with me. The irrational fears, the debilitating feeling of being trapped, the panic attacks - all of it. I had experienced it all in some form or another throughout the years, but more so since having my first baby.
That was the beginning of my personal journey with anxiety and mental health. It opened my eyes to a new understanding of how my brain functioned, my limitations and the boundaries I needed to establish. It required a lot of forgiveness and grace for myself, from myself. I had shamed and berated myself for my emotions for nearly a decade. Now it was time to give myself grace and acquire tools and techniques to help me cope in moments of anxiety.
Last year I sought counselling when I realized I was in another dark season. Depression was added to the mix and I knew I couldn’t go on like that. I’d become lethargic to a degree. I stopped taking care of the house, stopped cooking (thank goodness for Costco and pre-made meals), and spent most of my time on the couch watching Netflix.
It took awhile for me to diagnose myself because while this was all happening, I was still running two businesses. On the outside, I looked like I was doing just fine. On the inside, however, my heart was always racing and the world around me felt very loud and overwhelming. I sought counselling in the spring and he assured me that I was going to be alright. I was definitely struggling with anxiety, but I was high-functioning.
We spent the next few months breaking down details of my past and figuring out different triggers, etc. By the end, I had gained some clarity and I could manage myself better. I still had panic attacks and episodes of intense anxiety, but my body always warned me to slow down before it got really bad.
I realize now that my own journey with mental health has equipped me for a greater purpose. My eldest is much like me in many ways - her emotions are worn on her sleeve, she empathizes so deeply, she’s creative and driven and inspired by everything. But she struggles. Since the day she was born she has struggled, and as her mother, I have not always been the safe harbour she desperately needed.
Her constant cries, her big expressions of frustration, her persistence and perfectionism were all triggers for my own anxiety. When she was upset, my insides would curl into tight knots, and I’d feel my heart’s rhythm increase and sirens go off in my head. Run, run fast. Now. My mind would urge me. You can’t, she’s your daughter, there’s no one else here. She needs you. My heart would cry. I struggled with this internal battle almost on a daily basis, if not more. It was the worst feeling.
After my time in counselling last year, I felt like I was finally able to see my daughter’s struggles as separate from my own anxiety. I was finally able to separate the two. I was finally strong enough to be her safe haven. I began to see the innate workings of her mind and her emotions - often it felt like I was holding a mirror in front of me - and I fell in love with her, the real her, not the meltdowns and the outbursts, but her.
God’s timing is always perfect, isn’t it? The first three years of elementary school for her went somewhat smoothly. There were a few little issues here and there with friends, but nothing serious. Grade 3 has been a whole different story. September started off terrible. She came home crushed and defeated almost every day. Kids said and did mean things, and she was feeling so sad. I didn’t blame her. It sounded terrible to me, too, and I would cry in my bathroom after leaving her bedroom at night, having just heard all the heartbreaking moments of her day at school. But I was ready and able to support her the way she needed me to.
These last 6 months have been the hardest months for me as a mother. It’s one thing to have to parent your toddler, with their tantrums and endless food throwing, but it’s a whole other world having to walk alongside your child who is being bullied, and emotionally supporting them through it.
I see her spirit fade in environments where she doesn’t feel accepted or understood and that breaks my heart. Some people have asked if she’s been diagnosed with any kind of behavioural disorder or mental illness. I have a hard time answering them. No, she doesn’t fit into the normal “box” most children do. Her mind works differently, her emotions work differently. Take that box away and you’ll be amazed. She is smart, and not just with numbers. She has taught herself to do so many things, things most kids her age aren't able to do. She can solve problems like no one else can, and she’s resourceful in doing so. She can sense emotions and empathizes with them. She has such a close-knit relationship with God that would make even saints envy her. She has a photographic memory like her mother. She finds unique ways to memorize how to spell certain words, or to solve math equations.
She’s something else, this daughter of mine.
This has been the year of advocating for her. I sense it’s only the beginning as I’ve already had countless meetings with teachers and counsellors on her behalf. But as I always tell her, I will not stop fighting for her - for her to be understood and accepted. For her to not be squished into a box she doesn’t fit into. To be appreciated for the gifts and talents she offers.
She may have some form of a mental illness, but guess what? So do I. Like mother, like daughter. And luckily for her, she’s got one feisty mama who will move mountains to make sure nobody makes her feel less worthy of love and acceptance just because she sees and processes the world differently.
. . . .
The photo on this post was taken this week. This is where she has slept for the last two nights, on the floor in my room beside my bed. This is where she slept for most of her life, up until about two years ago when we transitioned her into sleeping in her own room.
I used to feel so much shame or judgement for allowing her to sleep on our floor. "It's not healthy for a marriage." "Kids should be in their own room." "That's weird." "You're being too soft. Just make her stay in her room." These comments may sound familiar to you, too. It is the voice of society. A few weeks ago I read a post from another Mama whose older child slept in their room on the floor, in their own little nest, too, and I nearly bawled my eyes out. It made me feel normal, and not alone.
As parents, we make the best decisions for our children, based on our gut and our knowledge in every given situation. We are doing our best, and you need to trust your intuition. Lately Girlie has been so distraught and has been begging to sleep by my side because she "loves me and feels safe knowing I'm right beside her." Enough said.
Anyway, I just wanted to share that last part because it's been on my heart this week. Mama's you're doing amazing work as mothers. Keep doing your best, keep following your heart and intuition, and keep loving your children. You can't damage a child from loving them too much. At least not in my opinion and experience.