When Prayers Aren’t Enough

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About a year ago or more, feelings of panic, anxiety and sadness started to bubble up inside of me.  I figured I was exhausted and overwhelmed from having three children, one of which has some special needs.  However, when I look back now, with the help of a therapist, I realize that I was suffering from a mixture of postpartum depression and grief.

I often don’t feel like I have permission to grieve, which has compounded those feelings of grief. My son isn’t dying.  He doesn’t even have a potentially terminal illness.  But still, I’ve been grieving. Much like I grieved the loss of my family as I knew it when my parents got divorced fourteen years ago, I have been grieving the loss of the “typical” childhood that I expected my son to have.

For a long time, I resisted anti-depressants.  I just did not like putting any possibly unnecessary drugs into my body.  I had put myself through many physical challenges in the past – playing Division I soccer, running marathons, delivering babies with no pain medication.  Why would I need medication to help my mental wellness? I felt I was too tough for that.

Along with some denial that I was even grieving or clinically depressed, the other factor that played into the resistance to medication was my faith.  I thought my panicked feelings of desperation and loneliness were due to some sort of spiritual laziness and that maybe if I just prayed the rosary with more reverence, or (ahem!) prayed it at all, or went to confession more frequently, then perhaps I would get back to feeling better.

So, I went to confession.  I admitted, through streaming tears, that I felt like I had let myself fall into despair. I told the priest that I didn’t know if I was truly depressed or just wasn’t praying enough but that I feared that I really had an issue and needed help.

The priest told me that the fact that I could see this was a gift from God.  (I remember him gently pointing out to me,  “you can’t stop crying….listen to yourself.”) The Holy Spirit was giving me the gift of self awareness.  He told me that there was no shame in asking for help and that it’s a blessing that we have medication to help us when we need it.

I felt a sense of relief because for too long I had thought that I was under some sort of spiritual attack that could only be warded off through prayer.  But, before going straight down the medication route, I decided to seek out a Catholic counselor.  Unfortunately, we didn’t click. (Rather than feeling better, I left one of my sessions crying and feeling worse.) I decided that I didn’t have time to seek out another therapist and I made the appointment with my doctor who prescribed an anti-depressant.  Counseling would just have to wait.

It was around this time that I heard about a book called The Catholic Guide to Depression.  This book confirmed what the priest had told me in confession, showing me that what I was going through was not just a lack of piety, but actually depression.  With the help of what I fondly referred to as my “chill pills”, much of my anxiety and despair subsided.

A couple months later, I was feeling so good that I decided to wean myself off the medication.  For a month or so, I was doing alright.  But little by little the panicked feelings returned.  Stress increased as my 3 1/2 year old son’s aggressive behavior increased.  I started to feel out of control.  And the tears returned.  Every day.  Many times a day.

My son’s aggression along with my anxiety and feelings of inadequacy as a mother continued to increase until they finally came to a point that pushed me over the edge.  One Friday last fall we had a horrible morning.  So much hitting, so many tears.  They weren’t just my tears.  My daughter was crying just from watching what was transpiring between me and her brother.

I felt low.  So very low.  I went to a very dark place.  Motherhood was looking very different than what I had expected.

Now, believe me, I know we all romanticize motherhood before we actually have children of our own.  But, I see other people with their children.  And I’m reminded that our family has extra challenges.  And on that particular Friday, those extra challenges just seemed to pile up, weighing me down.  I cried almost all day.  I started to feel like I was never going to stop crying.

I felt like a horrible mother.  What was I doing wrong?  Why did my son hit and punch and kick me?  I even googled “Mothers of children with autism who commit suicide”.  I’m a numbers gal and I wanted to know the stats.  (I already knew that parents of a child with special needs have a higher chance of getting divorced.)  Truly, I didn’t feel suicidal.  But intellectually I knew that I could be going down a very dark path if all I could do in a day was lay on the couch crying.

I looked around at my beautiful house, my lovely backyard and I felt guilty for crying.  I had so many blessings but I was just so sad and feeling so lonely.  I realized that something was wrong with me if I couldn’t truly see the beauty in my life.  And, the fact that I was crying even though I knew I had so much made me want to cry even more.

I texted my husband to pray for me because I had no desire to pray myself.   I started feeling that I was pointless because I didn’t know what to do to help my son.  My husband suggested that it was time to put him on medication.

Then, I had a lightbulb moment that I assume was a gift from the Holy Spirit.  My son didn’t need the medication.  Not yet, anyways.  I needed it.

Theo is incredibly sensitive to light and other sensory inputs.  He is extremely sensitive to the emotions of others, particularly mine.  Typically, if I stay calm, Theo will stay calm.

I had to fix myself before I could even attempt to help him.

I still had some leftover anti-depressants.  I promptly popped a pill and called a new therapist, a therapist who had been recommended to me months beforehand.  I had waited way too long to call her.

Today I’m still seeing that therapist.  And after going on and off…and on and off again..I’m back on my medication.  For so long I had way too much pride to get the help I needed.   I battled depression on and off years ago and I know that it will always be something that I will have to look out for in my life.

My hope in sharing this story is that if you are struggling in a similar way, that you will reach out and find the help that you need.

It’s OK to ask for help.

It’s OK if that help comes in the form of a pill… so long as you’re also talking to someone (whether they are a professional or just a close friend) about your struggles.

It’s OK to acknowledge that sometimes prayer alone is not enough.

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Loving a Challenge

Several months ago, my little guy was evaluated by an occupational therapist.   During the evaluation, one of the many he’s had in his little life, Theo had a bit of an outburst.  It was the kind of violent outburst that he typically saves for the comfort of our home.   I was relieved that the therapist was witnessing the episode.  It’s difficult to describe certain behaviors without feeling paranoid that I’m being too dramatic and not giving an accurate description.

“Was that normal?”  I blurted out the question that goes through my head on repeat on a daily basis.  And, oh yes, I know, no one is NORMAL.  We are all different….blah blah blah.  (Side note: the new buzzword replacing normal is neurotypical.)  When it comes to children, however, I often have a hard time differentiating between that which should be addressed with some sort of intervention and that which should just be considered neurotypical behavior for a certain aged child.

“No, that’s not normal,” was her respectful response.

When I’m assured that something is not normal about my little guy, I get a strange sense of relief mixed with sadness.   I almost feel like I’ve received some sort of permission to be struggling, permission to feel overwhelmed.  I’m reassured that I’m not overreacting, that I’m not just a totally inept mother.  But, the sadness comes when I stop selfishly thinking about how his current particular challenges affect ME and start thinking about how they affect HIM.

Then, the confusion settles in when I recall that, according to his teachers, he does not exhibit these violent outbursts at schools.  So, of course, I question what I’m doing at home.  My house must not be clean enough.  I yell too much.  I should be eliminating gluten from his diet again.  Did I accidentally give him food containing artificial colors?   My head spins with all that I must be doing wrong.

So, I asked the therapist, “Why doesn’t he show this side of himself at school.”

She didn’t have an absolute answer.  (How could she?)  She suggested that school has a more controlled environment with not as much visual stimulation reducing sensory processing issues.  Then she offered up a more compelling reason,

“They might not be challenging him enough.”

It was the best answer, not because it made me feel better, even though it did, but because it made sense.   The fact that he acts out at home and not at school has caused me much consternation and self doubt.  And this simple statement just turned it all around for me.  It’s possible that he’s given a certain level of comfort at school.  But, at home, I’m forcing him out of his comfort zone.   My soccer coach used to say that the best way to improve your game was to move out of your comfort zone, go play with another team, go train with players who are better than you, take some risks.  He was right.

I push Theo out of his comfort zone because it’s a way to encourage growth and change.   And likewise, I can’t help but think that God is allowing some of these challenges and the sufferings that come with them to push me out of MY comfort zone.  We, my husband my other children, are all being pushed out of our comfort zones, so that we too, along with Theo, can grow and change.  And we have to have faith and hope that we are growing and changing for the BETTER.

When Theo’s struggling, when I’m struggling, I’m TRYING to remember that I’m growing.  Growing in faith, growing in courage, growing in patience, growing in love.   Oh, it is so tough.

But…a voice in my head that just has to be God reminds me:

Courtney, my daughter, you’ve always loved a challenge.