Today I Blamed Myself

My kids were hard today. All three of them. Their different personalities and senses of humor and ways of communicating mean every day is different, but today everyone was hard. And so I blamed myself.

They yelled a lot at each other, and since everyone is always sharing articles about how damaging and unnatural yelling is, they must have learned it from me.

The tween got pretty disrespectful and mouthy, and since people love to say that kids are a reflection of their parents, it must have been something bad that I modeled.

Their patience was short, their words were harsh, their tempers were fiery, and their obedience was lacking, and since I’ve devoted almost every waking moment of the last 13 years to raising and caring for my kids, today I blamed myself.

We live in a time unlike any before it, when parents can share articles and philosophies and studies in less time than it takes to change a diaper. Back when we were being raised, our parents chose between Dr. Sears or Dr. Spock and had the occasional interjection from Dear Abby. Parenting experts were few and far between and the methods one could choose to employ in childrearing could be counted on one hand.

At some point between us growing up and us growing our families, parenting research took a turn. Forget NASA, experts threw themselves into the field of parenting and began churning out research and articles faster than people could even procreate. Now we have more opinions than children, and a mom can’t scroll through social media or a home page without seeing the latest in childrearing opinion and research… without being told that everything she’s doing is wrong… without being told that everything she’s struggling with is her fault.

My youngest child has a very long list of very severe allergies. Some are weird, like breaking out into hives when she’s cold, some are life-threatening, like losing the ability to breathe if she gets too close to peanuts. No one else in our entire family has so many allergies, let alone life-threatening ones. Our entire lifestyle was changed and I live in a state of constant hypervigilance now, constantly scanning the crowd for peanuts, tuna, cinnamon, anything that will cause a reaction in her. So much about our lives is different now and requires so much more work and research, just with something as simple as going grocery shopping. Yet when I’m explaining her allergies to someone new, 9 times out of 10 do you know what the first thing they say is? “Was it something you did when you were pregnant with her?” They blame me.

Allergies are largely a fluke. There are some genetic links, but many of the allergies she deals with are genetic anomalies, random cases of autoimmune responses gone awry. She was nursed for two years, never had a drop of formula or a flake of rice cereal. She was cloth diapered, swaddled, seen regularly by a pediatrician, and had a stay-at-home mom with her at all times. I can’t imagine any area where an anaphylactic food allergy could have snuck into her genetics, yet people almost always assume that I’ve done something to cause this life for her. Either I ate something I shouldn’t have or I didn’t eat something I was supposed to. Maybe it was because she was delivered via C-section (which, let’s face it, is something else to blame me for) or the fact that she lost a twin early on? Surely, there has to be some reason that she has these struggles, and surely, the only possible finger we can point must be at me. My daughter will die if she eats peanut butter, and society blames me.

I have a child with some special needs, a very difficult child. He is who he is, he is what he is, because that’s just how he was made. When his high IQ comes up people question my ability to keep up with him, never assume that was my fault, but when the tough stuff gets really tough, society blames me. Heck, I blame me. No matter how much I tell myself I’m a good mom, no matter how much I know that his wiring is a result of nature, not nurture, when he has a bad day I cry in the dark and I blame myself.

People talk about losing the baby weight after a child is born, but no one mentions the weight of motherhood that we put on every day after. No one applauds the celebrity for their public debut carrying the crushing self-doubt and responsibility of raising a person. There aren’t a lot of articles being shared that remind you that kids sometimes just act like jerks. That they yell without being yelled at, that they mouth off without being taught disrespect. We are constantly fed the sobering responsibility of motherhood without once giving thought to the reality of childhood – and that reality is that kids, sometimes, just have bad days, and it’s not always mom’s fault.

My kids also painted today, a lot. They gave makeovers to toys they weren’t playing with and created something new. They used their imaginations and their creativity, and I’d like to blame myself for that.

My oldest is learning to play multiple instruments, and as a band nerd myself I’m totally going to blame myself.

My youngest recently performed in her first musical and had the time of her life. She’s very dramatic, energetic, and outgoing, and I absolutely blame myself.

My middle one loves fiercely. He faces a lot of struggles, but he lives in a home where his parents love each other and love him deeply. He is modeled grace and sacrifice on a daily basis, and for that I will blame myself.

Our kids get so much more from us than just what we’re determined to feel guilty about. Our kids just do things that we have no right to feel guilty about. We mom shame the woman in the mirror and convince ourselves that their flaws, their struggles, their bad days are all something for which we are to blame. We have set such a standard of perfection for ourselves that we’ve begun to take it personally when our kids aren’t perfect, either.

My kids had a bad day today. They were rough, rude, loud, mean. They fought with their siblings, didn’t work through conflicts like pros. My kids whined, yelled, tattled and teased. My kids acted like kids today. And I had the audacity to blame myself.

Survival is Worth the Brokenness

I’ve watched a few medical dramas in my time. Okay, a lot. Without fail there is always a scene where a patient who was previously thought to be healthy and fine suddenly crashes. The room fills with medical staff, nurses are flinging IVs and needles and someone is sweating through chest compressions. The patient gasps, eyes wide, and everyone is relieved – he made it. Roll credits, time to go home, happy ending for all. Unless you watch Grey’s Anatomy, then your favorite character is probably going to be carried away by a protected bird of prey or die in some other incomprehensible way while in the parking lot.

The problem with these scenes of survival is that the story ends there. We see the patient pull through, grateful, strong. We see everyone relax and sigh that the crisis is over. We see loved ones laughing in the corner, basking in the glow of recovery as the camera pans past the room.

We don’t see the bruises.

We don’t see the broken ribs.

We don’t see the side effects of pushing a lot of powerful medications in a small amount of time.

Survival, sometimes, requires brokenness. CPR and other life-saving measures can be violent, painful. They may save you, but they will hurt you. Re-starting someone’s heart, electrocuting them ever so slightly, guiding a tube or a sharp instrument into someone’s body – those are invasive, painful moves, means justified by the end, but traumatic either way.

survival is worth the brokenness

Survival can hurt you. Survival will hurt you. Having scars or aches or some broken pieces doesn’t mean you lost, it means you survived. You just have to know that survival is worth the brokenness.

Sometimes there are toxic relationships that require you to break, to tear away part of your heart by ending the relationship or cutting off contact. When it hurts to love someone, when someone you love hurts you, survival is worth the brokenness.

Sometimes there are crises we face. Medical emergencies, job losses, financial disasters, car wrecks. Survival takes pain. You scramble, you hustle, you pray, you beg, you do whatever you have to do to make it through, and you survive. Your pride may crumble, you probably won’t smile much. Actual survival doesn’t look much like the determined heroine in the movies with ferocity in her eyes and gloss on her lips – more often it looks like the woman with her head down, crushed and tear-stained, desperate, depressed, and barely hanging on. She may not look like much, but she is surviving.

Having a child with special needs, that’s a lot of survival. Painful survival. Sometimes the moment of gasping after being resuscitated doesn’t come for 18 years. Sometimes there’s no known end and you just survive for a really, really long time. You try this therapy and that therapy, you gain hope from understanding and get crushed by the setbacks.

Living with depression is nothing but survival. You ache from the pain, both physical and emotional. Sometimes your body is a road map of what has worked and what hasn’t. Sometimes your night stand is littered with bottles of what worked and what didn’t. Sometimes you feel the broken bones and the bruised tissues of trying so hard for so long to just keep living, and you wonder if it’s worth this pain, if the life-saving measures are worth it.

Survival, friend, is worth the brokenness. You aren’t hurting because you’re losing, you’re hurting because you’re surviving. You are aching, stinging, maybe even immobile. But you are surviving.

If you need to isolate yourself for a little while in order to focus on your mental health or just to rest, do it. If you need to end a relationship in order to live your life, do it. If you need to take medication or attend daily therapy or do something really, really hard that will not be convenient in any way and will likely hurt, do it to survive. Take the broken bones that come from chest compressions to keep your heart beating. Take the scars that come from surgical procedures and keep yourself functioning. Take the pain from what you’re going through and know that it doesn’t mean it’s beating you.This pain doesn’t mean that something is wrong, it means you made it. This pain isn’t a defeat, it isn’t a sign you shouldn’t keep going, and it isn’t the only thing you’ll ever feel again. Survival requires brokenness, but brokenness, like you, will eventually heal.

You will make it. It’s going to hurt. It’s going to suck. It’s going to break you. But you will survive. And survival is always worth the brokenness.

survival is worth the brokenness


“Everyone is Mad At You.” | The True Weight of Motherhood

When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.

It was already a rough evening, not unlike most evenings. The tween was upset that I was – gasp! – making him do his school work. The 6-year-old was mad that I was busy with dinner and homework patrol and work and had my attention anywhere but solely on her. The middle kiddo was just mad at everything. And my husband was frustrated at my frustration. Again, nothing unique in this evening. No full moons, no impending holidays, no one had a sore throat.

I broke away for a second to sit in silence use the restroom, and of course my youngest wasn’t far behind. I sat there, shoulders slumped, head down, just really feeling defeated.

“Mommy?” she said with a shaky voice, “I just feel like everyone is always mad at you.”

That’s when I broke.

I’d been holding it in for hours, days, YEARS if we’re being honest. I started the ugly, shaking, snotty cry that doesn’t stop just because you will it to. My daughter started to cry, so I hugged her to comfort her. Note that she was standing close enough for me to hug while I was on the toilet.

“I feel the same way, baby girl. I’m trying really hard, but it sure seems like everyone is mad at me anyway.”

And that is the true weight of motherhood. Not sagging skin, not extra pounds around the middle, not the bags under the eyes or the mounds of laundry or the piles of papers schools keep sending home – it’s the weight of everyone else’s expectations.

We moms have a bad habit of comparing ourselves to others, to our own idealized selves. We hold ourselves to impossible standards and punish ourselves for not being perfect at all the things. We encourage each other to give ourselves some grace, we share pictures of messy houses to keep it real, we bare our flaws to remain authentic.

But those acts of self-acceptance don’t touch on the expectations of others.

Everyone is Mad At You

When you’re hosting a holiday and are expected to make every food exactly how it’s made at someone else’s house, keep up with everyone’s specific diet and what they can or can’t eat this week. When you have to plan it all to come out at a specific time so it fits everyone else’s schedule. When it’s all on you to plan, shop, prep, cook, time, and serve the meals exactly as everyone else insists they need it… and they’re annoyed because you need an extra 10 minutes after they get here to finish baking a side.

When you’re the one coordinating everyone to begin with – texting, calling, emailing, begging, praying, hoping it will all work out and everyone can come. Running the calendar to find a day and time that will work for 5 different schedules, and they get annoyed when you keep asking them to respond so you’ll have a better idea of just when this circus can even go down.

When a kid forgets a lunchbox, a change of clothes for PE, a water bottle, an assignment – they get annoyed at mom. Either mom didn’t remind them to take it that morning or mom didn’t bring it fast enough or – dare say – mom was too busy doing something else to rush it up there at all.

When a kid falls behind on an assignment, the mom is the bad guy who either let him fail or who nags him to catch back up.

When dinner isn’t planned, mom is the flake who dropped the ball.

When your family arrives late to a function, it’s mom who gets blamed, it’s mom who they’re mad at (even though it was THEM who wouldn’t wake up when MOM gently started rubbing their back that morning, telling them it was time to get up).

When there are practices, therapies, appointments, lessons, classes, dates, parties, games, recitals, due dates, lunch dates, release dates, deadlines, budgets, emails, meetings, IEPs, 504s, evaluations, explanations, park days, snow days, half days, bad days… we’re the ones who are supposed to have it all under control, running smoothly, always on time with nary a forgotten sheet of paper.

Our families – they’re really freaking hard on us. Really hard.

Sure, we’re the glue that holds it all together, but then who gets the blame when something falls off? Us. Mom. The glue. The lady who has spent the day feeling like she’s falling behind. The lady who stayed up late and woke up early to make sure nothing was missed. The lady who told herself it was okay when something was missed. The lady who hears all the other moms saying it’s okay to be imperfect, then comes home to a house full, an office full, or a whole network full of people who demand otherwise.

When a chain breaks, we rarely look to the weight that pulled it apart – we focus on the link that failed. We blame the weakness of the chain, the one spot that couldn’t hold it all, and never question if maybe that chain was just pulling more than it should have been. This is motherhood.

When I serve a favorite meal for dinner it’s not half as passionately received as when I serve a meal with tomatoes.

When there are clean clothes hanging it’s eerily silent, especially compared to when there are no jeans to be found anywhere (spoiler: they’re shoved in a corner under the bed). Don’t even get me started on when I try to pick an outfit out beforehand to streamline the process – no one EVER wants to wear what I select, yet they all strangely need my help when I tell them to do it on their own.

“Everyone is always mad at you.” And they are.

We work on gratitude and manners here, it’s not like my kids are barking hellions who sit on thrones and demand compliance from me. Their grades are their grades and their responsibilities are their responsibilities and this is not a restaurant so they’ll eat what’s placed in front of them. But my consistency and firmness and expectation that I be treated with respect doesn’t stop them from somehow expecting more. Much more. Too much more.

It doesn’t stop strangers from judging the mother whose child is experiencing a meltdown.

It doesn’t stop teachers from rolling their eyes at the mother who is trying to advocate for her child.

It doesn’t stop everyone, everywhere, from demanding and expecting just too dang much from us.

I’ve seen a quote floating around a lot lately and cannot shake the truth to it: “We expect women to work as if they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” It’s so true, but it’s also just the surface of the very deeply-rooted problem.

As we get older, as we become mothers, the baton begins to come our way and we start taking over the responsibilities of traditions, holidays, gifts, reunions. We’re supposed to keep everyone in touch – even though no one wants to stay in touch. We’re supposed to plan it all, remember it all, execute it all. Birthdays and anniversaries and cards and parties and laundry and allergies and dinner and lunch-packing and field trips and doctor’s appointments and grocery shopping and friends who really want to hang out and phone calls at the most inconvenient times. Note that I still haven’t even factored in mom’s possible work or any thought of hobbies. The weight of a family falls upon the matriarch, and little thought or appreciation is extended towards her as she sweats to hold it all up. Attention is paid to what is dropped, not what is maintained.

This is motherhood.

Everyone is mad at you.

And you are just really trying your freaking best.

Everyone expects a lot, and honestly, you do a lot.

Like the episode of Friends when Monica didn’t even want to host Thanksgiving but was guilted into it, then guilted into making multiple different kinds of potatoes because everyone wanted theirs to be the way they liked… that’s motherhood.

Their expectations will always be greater than our efforts… and we put a LOT of effort in.

So what do we do? Will we never please them? Are we doomed to live in a constant state of disappointing those around us? Is everyone always going to be mad at us?

Maybe.

I don’t really know for sure.

But I do know that I can say “NO”, and I need to start practicing. I can advocate for myself while everyone else petitions. They can demand, but I can deny. We can take stock of what we really have to do and what they can just buck up and do themselves.

Or we can go on strike and they can just fail their classes and make their own mashed potatoes.

Either way, I’m tired of everyone being mad at me. I’m tired of carrying this weight, these expectations. I’m tired of feeling like I’m dropping all the balls. Because honey, if it weren’t for what we moms do, they’d be drowning in a flippin’ ball pit.

We are rock stars. We keep this ship afloat. We run the world and pack its lunch. We are the glue, and we’re doing a really, really great job of keeping it all together.

 

Everyone is Mad At You

Let Me Call Myself Fat

It happens all. the. time. I’m having a casual conversation with someone, almost anyone. We’ll be chatting about clothes, sales, swimsuit season… you know, life-changing stuff. It will inevitably come up that certain stores or designers don’t carry my size, and I’ll refer to myself as fat. “Gasp! Don’t say that! You’re not fat!” Every. Time. Look, I know I’m not fooling anyone. Clever ruching and standing with my shoulders back will only get me so far. I’m here, there’s a lot of me, and I’m fat.
I know, I know, you’re trying to encourage me. You don’t want to hear your beloved friend talk badly about themselves, want to encourage them and lift them up and only say good things about them. The thing about that is, though, by not allowing me to label myself as fat, you’re telling me that being fat is awful. Is it fun? No. Would I wish it on myself? No. But is it the worst thing in the world? No. J. K. Rowling has a famous quote that is very dear to me: “Is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’, or ‘cruel’? Not to me.” Fat isn’t the worst thing someone can be. It’s not fantastic or something to strive for, sure. (It’s also not an indicator of health, before you pull that one out.) I’m not cruel. I’m not vindictive. I can be shallow and vain sometimes, sure. I’m not evil or manipulative or selfish. I don’t inflict pain on others, I break for squirrels, and I don’t put pineapple on pizza. Being fat is not the worst thing I could be. But when you shush me, when you tell me not to describe myself with such an awful word, you’re not protecting me, you’re projecting your own feelings about weight onto me. I am fat. It’s okay. It’s an adjective, a way to describe part of me. I’m also tall. Loud. Blonde (unless I haven’t been to the salon in a while). I’m a mother, a friend, a wife. I’m a photographer, a writer, a homeschooler, and a Twihard (yes, still). If I’m allowed to describe these other aspects of myself, why can I not also mention my size? Calling myself fat is just a description. Check the comments of any plus-size-related social media account and you’ll quickly see that the rest of society gets to call us fat, so why can’t we, the actual fat people, own our own word? You wouldn’t correct a thin person who called themselves skinny, and you wouldn’t stop me from referring to myself as loud, tall, or easily-excitable. So why am I denied the word “fat”? What is just so awful about one adjective that I cannot use it for myself? Again, the issue is not my appearance, it’s your feelings towards – your fear of – the word itself. “But Jen! What about those girls who aren’t really fat, they’re just fishing for compliments when they say it about themselves?” Give them compliments. Is that so hard? Do people need to earn compliments? If someone is feeling the need for accolades, then they’d probably really appreciate your flattery. There’s no daily quota on compliments you’re allowed to give out or a size profile one must fit to deserve them. Toss those things around like confetti. Compliment away without needing to negate part of someone’s identity. Speaking of identity, you don’t get to decide how someone else defines their body. If a skinny person wants to call themselves fat, you are not the size police who gets to determine whether or not their self-description is valid. If a fat person wants to call themselves fat, you are not the feelings police who get to try and save them from their self-description. Their body, their words. Curvy, fluffy, big, plus-sized, or fat, it’s just a descriptor and it’s not shameful to say. More than anything, what I think that’s happening is that you, the shusher, are uncomfortable with the word. You noticed I’m fat and you want to make sure I know you’re not disgusted by me. You may even have genuine compliments for other aspects of my appearance. But me calling myself fat makes you uncomfortable because you feel like you’re not allowed to say it. I’m calling attention to the elephant in the room (no pun intended), and your politeness has taught you that if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. I’m not saying you have to walk up and greet me with, “Hey, Fatty, how’s it goin’?” But if I want to call myself fat, it’s actually rude not to let me. Me calling myself fat is not the opposite of nice – hinting that being fat is bad definitely is, though. Listen, I have enough discomfort to carry on my own. Society doesn’t want to see me and doctors don’t want to hear me. Some chairs hurt me and most stores don’t cater to me. I have my own self-esteem to nurse every morning, and it takes COURAGE to leave the house some days. I cannot also bear the burden of your discomfort with a word. I cannot lightly tease and argue and convince you that yes, I am fat and yes, it’s okay for me to say it. I don’t want to draw even more attention to the most obvious thing about me by having an entire conversation surrounding the way it’s described. So please, let me call myself fat.

Please Keep Giving

The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going, but please keep giving. Because people keep needing.

I’ve seen a few posts going around since Christmas last week – some neighbor or friend has just witnessed a person making a massive amount of returns at Walmart or Target – toys, bikes, games… all Angel Tree gifts. All being exchanged for a store gift card, with nary a child in sight. Outrage ensues, mistrust abounds, and people second-guess their charitable contributions. Despite the fact that it’s pretty hard to tell
from standing near a customer service line if a returned toy was an Angel Tree donation, or even verify if your neighbor’s hair dresser’s cousin’s leggings upline actually saw this going down, people are quick to draw their breath and pocketbooks in.

“I can’t believe this! I feel so taken advantage of!”

“So many of those charities are scams, anyways.”

“That’s why we just give to people we know personally – you never know what’s actually going to a kid otherwise.”

People are already making plans not to donate next year based solely on a 14th-hand account someone may have pieced together off of assumptions and loose observations. But y’all, please keep giving.

Many years ago, when I was a Lisa Frank-era girl living with my single mom, I was an Angel Tree kid. My name, my likes, my sizes, all on display on a giant tree somewhere. I have no idea where the tree was or how many people walked past it. I do know that at some point a family saw my name and chose it. I didn’t ask for a Sega Genesis or one of those awesome clear phones DJ Tanner had, I’m pretty sure I just asked for a typewriter. Or a horse, since I was a young girl during the 80’s and 90’s, but I really probably only asked for a typewriter.

Instead, the family who chose me from the Angel Tree got me a dress. Not just a dress, a handmade dress. It was dark green with white lace at the neck, and pretty long. Maybe this family couldn’t give much financially, but they could give me their talents, give me the gift of knowing I was thought of, give me something to open on Christmas that said, “Hey, Jen, we wanted you to have this.” I hear a lot of people say that they don’t remember what gifts they got at Christmas when they were younger. Maybe I’m materialistic, maybe I’m sentimental, but I clearly remember that Christmas, in our little first-floor apartment with the donated shower curtain and towels, opening that green dress and knowing that a family somewhere knew I existed and wanted to give something to me.

I also remember, more than once, my mom returning something of hers in order to buy us food. A curling iron, a cordless phone… anything she still had the original packaging for she was willing to give up in order to feed us. So while someone might think they see a mom returning toys for gift cards, what they might actually be witnessing is a sacrifice for meals, for medicine, for gas, for diapers, for school clothes. Maybe a favorite aunt bought duplicates. Maybe the parent lost custody. Maybe the family just really needed to eat. And yeah, maybe someone was selfishly taking their child’s toys back without the kid’s knowledge. But whatever is actually happening in the hearts of those at the counter, please keep giving. Because people keep needing.

If you’re still having trouble with trusting a charity, if you still are wary of dropping items off and hoping they reach their intended destination, then please find other ways to keep giving. Volunteer with local organizations, contact churches near you and ask about families who may be in need, call the schools in your neighborhood and see if they have any kind of toy or food drives going on or students with felt needs. Food pantries and churches, in particular, are frequently approached by those in need – see how you can donate or help. Seek out an elderly, isolated, or struggling neighbor. Make regular visits to nursing homes with new socks and a smile. If you can’t give, help. If you can’t help, smile. There is always a way to do something kind for another person.

The truth is that you can’t always know where your charity is going. Is the guy at the gas station really going to use that money to get home to his sick wife? Is that woman on the corner really as destitute as she makes out? Will those toys you donated actually end up in the happy hands of a less fortunate child? Who knows. But if you can give, then do. If you need a guarantee that your gift will be used as you see fit then you’re not giving, you’re congratulating yourself. Giving with conditions isn’t charity, it’s not for the benefit of anyone else. Requiring someone to earn donations based on a set of approved criteria isn’t giving, it’s employment. Do a self-inventory and ask if you’re looking to bless someone or hire someone, to help the less fortunate or to boost your own morale for a while. Stop demanding a follow-up and please, just keep giving. It doesn’t have to be a Nintendo Switch or a salary’s worth of LOL dolls. Sometimes all it takes to make the difference to someone in need is a simple handmade dress.

The Cliché Dice – For When You Just Don’t Know What Else To Say

Have you ever found yourself face to face with someone who was going through a hard time, someone who was struggling, maybe someone who had just poured their heart out to you and was now staring at you with wet, hopeful eyes? Have you ever thought to yourself, “What am I supposed to say here?” You don’t want to say the wrong thing, or maybe you don’t have any experience with what they’re dealing with. You’re out of ideas, out of words, and find yourself grasping for how to respond.

Fear not! The cliché dice are here! Now you can reply cleverly and earnestly to friends and loved ones with tried-and-true clichés, little nuggets of wisdom that will leave your pained pal feeling better, feeling like you really listened. But more importantly, just one nonchalant roll of the dice will leave you feeling like you helped, without all the hard work of actually having to empathize.

Ridiculous, right? I used to think so, too.

Struggle in our lives can bring out the awkward in those around us – heck, it can bring out the ignorance. Miscarriage, job loss, struggling with a child with special needs or even my own health, there is no shortage of dumb stuff and stale, incompatible clichés that people toss my way. I know I’m not alone in this experience. I’m sure you can think back to a time when you were struggling – or maybe you find yourself having a hard time now – and some (probably) well-meaning person said something just so utterly dumb, thinking they were helping.

Recently I had such a moment, crying to a counselor about a very big decision with regards to one of my children. I had just spend the last several minutes pouring my broken heart out, desperation spilling from my eyes, sharing my innermost thoughts and turmoil and insecurities. I needed this woman’s wisdom, needed her guidance, needed someone who could speak some truth to me that would help me, in any way. Instead, she rolled the dice.

“I mean, what have you got to lose?”

This was her response. Seriously.

MY CHILD.” Was mine.

She tried to backpedal, but the damage was done. She may not have ever been in the situation I was, and genuinely may not have known what to say. That wasn’t the way to fill the silence.

When we experienced our first miscarriage, people were rolling the dice left and right. “Let’s hope that one wasn’t a girl!” “At least you know you can get pregnant!” “You  must not have prayed hard enough.” “Eh, something was probably wrong with it.” “At least you have other kids already.” “Lots of people have miscarriages.” “At least you weren’t that far along.” “I wonder if you did/ate/breathed/looked at anything to cause it.” And the worse possible side of the cliché dice, the one you should never roll (but so many people seem to) – “I know exactly how you feel. Let me tell you about my experience instead of listening to you cope with yours.”

Guys, listen. There’s a time and a place for sharing our scars. We can grow together, empathize, relate, become vulnerable and find healing in each other’s pain. But right in the big fat middle of someone else’s suffering is not the time to share yours. It’s literally pouring salt into their wound. No matter how much you may understand from your own personal experience, listen to theirs. Unless you are asked for advice, keep your own experience to yourself. You can weep tears of understanding, cry prayers of compassion, but give the hugs you would have wanted and the listening ears you would have needed. Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, EVER, roll the dice and say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Because you don’t. At all. You’re different people. You have different thoughts. You have different ways of processing emotions.  You may have an idea. You may have experienced the exact same scenario. But your experience is your experience, and their trauma is theirs, and whatever they’re in the middle of is really hard. Don’t minimize their feelings by trying to mix them with your own. Let them have their own upset.

“When God closes a door He opens a window.” “God will never give you  more than you can handle.” Nope. These aren’t even Biblical. There are no Bible verses to back these things up, and all they do is dismiss the current pain by telling the sufferer it will get better later. The truth is, you don’t know if it will get better. You don’t know if something else awaits. The truth is that closing a door sucks, and that’s what your friend needs to process right now. The truth is that God will absolutely give us more than we can handle. The truth is that sometimes we willingly risk more than we can handle. The truth is that God is near to the brokenhearted. That’s  Biblical. That’s something you can share. You have no idea what God has planned for this person before you, but you do know that God won’t leave them, God loves them, and their tears do not go unnoticed by God. Besides, doors are way easier to get through than windows, so why would the idea of God opening a window make anyone feel better?

I lied. I said the worst response you could get from the cliché dice is “I know exactly how you feel.” That’s inaccurate. It’s still an awful, awful way to respond to someone struggling, but it’s not the most awful way. The worst, most terrible, most horrible, most painful way to respond to someone in the midst of a battle is…  ”                         .” Saying nothing. Rolling the dice and coming up in the blank side. Sure, you’re not expected to have a sermon and a 9-point plan each time someone pours their heart out to you, and there is absolutely a time for quiet, for listening, for hugs and silent sobs. I’m talking about when you walk past the woman who is going through a divorce. When you see the man who just lost his job. When you walk past the parents whose child just received a devastating diagnosis. The person who has buried a loved one, the woman overwhelmed with the sickness her family has been sharing the last few weeks, the guy who you know is battling depression, and yes, the couple who just experienced a miscarriage.

Don’t. Be. Silent.

If all other words and sentiments escape you and you really just don’t know what to do, look them deep in the eyes, open up a text or email, and say, “I’m so sorry.” Really. Do not let them walk past you, do not scroll past their name on social media, do not let them come into your view and your mind without offering your sympathy, without asking them how they are. Ask them how you can help. Ask them what they need. Ask them how they’re feeling. Ask them about what they’re going through. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t smile and hope it’s a bright spot in their stormy times. Don’t protect yourself from the discomfort of their pain by pretending it isn’t real.  Ask them.

I almost planned out a second, separate post on asking people how they are, and I still may, but this has to go here.  Ask people. If you know they’re going through a life change, a struggle, a battle, or just had a bad day, ask them about it. Don’t let them feel isolated. Don’t allow them to fall victim to the lie that they’re all alone. Even if you have no idea what it’s like or if you went through the very same thing last year, ask them. Take time out of your day, make them feel loved, and ask them.

Let’s be honest, a lot of the discomfort we feel that prompts us to roll the cliché dice comes more from us wanting to feel like we accomplished something rather than the pain we’re witnessing. Most people aren’t expecting an expert opinion when they’re sharing their struggles with you. They’re not looking to you for all the answers. They don’t think their success lies in whatever you say next. The pressure is off, y’all, you don’t have to have any solutions. You just have to make them feel heard, loved, and important. You don’t have to feel comfortable or accomplished when discussing someone’s battles. You will feel awkward and helpless sometimes. But don’t roll those dice and toss tired old terms at a person in pain. When it comes to broken hearts, uncertain futures, loss, pain, sadness, anger, desperation, and shame, clichés suck. 

Don’t roll the dice. Just care about people. If you’re worried about not knowing what to say, then say so. Tell this wounded soul that you don’t have words you think will help, but you have arms that can hug, a heart that can care, ears that can hear, and dice in the trash.

The Importance of Momming in Red Heels

Ah, mom clothes. They’re comfy, machine-washable, nondescript, and reminiscent of Mervyn’s department stores. Any Swiffer commercial is a good example of mom clothes.  Not yoga pants and LuLaRoe tunics, but Amy-from-Everybody-Loves-Raymond clothes. 42-inch zippers. Sweater sets. The kind of stuff that looks on the hanger like it makes a mean casserole and doesn’t mind your friends coming over after school, as long as you get your homework done. Mass-produced, asexual, most likely embroidered, and worn exclusively by moms and middle school English teachers.

I became a mom at the tender age of 21. I honestly hadn’t thought much about what kind of mom I’d be before I became one. Partly because I’d been told most of my life that I most likely wouldn’t be able to have kids, partly because I was just so young when we were surprised by our first, partly because “mom” is used to describe some seriously uncool things (mom jeans, mom-mobiles…), and I am the cat’s pajamas. It wasn’t until I got pregnant and started binging on A Baby Story episodes that I began to fantasize about motherhood. As I tore through every pregnancy book I could find I was making mental notes and verbal declarations about what I would never do and what I would be a rock star at. When we finally brought our bitty baby boy home I practically devoured the baby development books and lost actual sleep over whether or not it was time to introduce colors or to keep stimulating his brain with black and white patterned images. I didn’t remember being a baby, myself, so not knowing what I’d preferred in a mother as an infant I took my cues from TV, full of baby wash and diaper commercials with moms who were fully dressed at home all day, moms who calmly rubbed lotion on their babies as they sang and cooed, who Swiffered in shoes and had tons of natural light pouring in as they enjoyed smiles in slow motion. These were what moms were supposed to look like, apparently.

I lost myself in these images. I was 21, had never been fully dressed at home unless company was coming over, barely remembered to wear shoes when I left the house, and my baby didn’t let me do ANYTHING slowly. I was already failing, according to what I was seeing.

I went to Sears – you can laugh – at only twenty-one years of age, just over a score. I couldn’t even rent a car, but I could find the mom clothes. I  bought pull-on, elastic-waist khaki capris.  Embroidered t-shirts with flowers and butterflies on them. Polo shirts, and not the kind with a little horse on them. SWEATER SETS. I, in all my glorious youth, emerged from Sears wearing something with a “one size fits most” tag.

I cut my hair. My long, thick, always-got-me-compliments hair. What’s more, I dyed it dark. I went from the picture of youth – long, flowing blonde hair and a smile – to a caricature, a stereotype, an imposter in polyester.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing old or wrong about haircuts, dark hair, or whatever style of clothes you like (except Crocs – those will always be wrong). There’s not anything wrong with growing older, looking older, or dressing for comfort. Where I went wrong was losing my identity in my new label as Mom. I allowed motherhood to overtake and overwhelm me, to tell me who I was rather than allowing who I was to dictate what type of mom I’d be. I didn’t consult myself in this makeover, only those dang Swiffer ads.

I was miserable.

I had a miserable, colicky, premature baby who screamed every moment that he was awake. I was so tired that I kept the curtains closed and lived without that beautiful natural sunlight pouring in. I hated my new clothes and they fit me awkwardly. I missed my long hair, the color made me look pale, and I was absolutely lost. My friends my age were still in college and the moms with kids the same age as mine seemed too together for my lack of self confidence. I isolated myself, in a dark room with dark hair, and being stuck with yourself when you no longer know who you are is rather disconcerting. I didn’t like me. I didn’t feel like me. I wasn’t me.

About a year later my mom took me shopping, probably for my birthday. Since I was a stay-at-home mom I didn’t have a lot of use for clothes that I wasn’t going to wear to church. I never wore those pull-on khakis, my curves made the embroidered shirts fit poorly, and I felt frumpy. We picked out an outfit or two, a new pair of  khaki capris (I still hadn’t learned), and headed over to the shoe department. You can sense the excitement building, can’t you?

I’ve always been tall so I’ve always avoided heels. I stand at just under 6 feet and have always had weird feelings about being even taller (especially taller than guys when I was in middle and high school, amiright ladies?). I owned one single, solitary pair of heels, sensible black ones, that made me feel like the fiercest of female spies but also made me feel like the sorest of thumbs, standing out above the crowd. Those beloved heels had worn down so we grabbed a pair to replace them – pointed toe, low heel, matte black heels. Just for variety’s sake, we also grabbed a pair of brown dress shoes.

Then it happened.

To this day I don’t know why I reached for them. I’d never before considered something like them, never lusted after anything similar in any fashion magazine. I couldn’t imagine what outfit I’d wear them with, and probably secretly felt like I’d never actually wear them, at least not without being embarrassed at how outlandish they were. Red heels. Red, patent, shiny, 4-inch heels. HIGH heels. They were not demure. They were not sensible. They pushed me well over into the 6-foot territory and didn’t go with anything. But I loved them. Oh, how I loved them. I wanted to wear them out of the store. I wanted to wear them while doing dishes. I wanted these red heels that screamed anything but “Mom!” And I got them. Bless my mother, she didn’t know what she was starting that day, but she got them for me and began my long-standing love affair with heels. High heels. Spikey heels. Outlandish heels. Heels with chains. Heels with animal print. Heels with ribbons, feathers, and crystals. Heels that are me. Heels that are fun.

I changed with those red heels.

My mom uniform sank to the back of the closet, then eventually to the garage sale pile. My hair grew back out. I was walking taller, in every sense of the word, in those red heels. Sometimes people noticed them, sometimes they were so at home on my proud feet that they didn’t even stand out. Sometimes I got compliments, sometimes I tripped and got laughs. But I felt great in my red heels… and I was still a mom. In fact, I was a better mom. I began to present myself for who I was, not who I thought I was expected to be. I didn’t Swiffer in shoes, but I laughed with my kids. I spent a lot of time at home and not at mommy-and-me classes , but I opened the curtains, let in the light. I went days in my pajamas at home, but I looked forward to getting dressed when I did go somewhere. I wasn’t a perfect mom, but I was me. I was having fun again.

I see a lot of mom-shaming these days. Celebrities pose in outlandish outfits, moms dye their hair pink, blue, green. They get tattoos, piercings, shave their heads and wear band t-shirts. “You’re somebody’s mother!” the comments exclaim, reinforcing the idea that  moms have to wear khaki capris and keep their pantries stocked with Special K bars.

But they don’t.

You don’t.

Unless you want to, but you don’t have to.

You can dye your hair. You can cut it as short as you want or grow it out so long that you sit on it, and you’ll still be a mom. You can wear flats or stilettos – or both in the same day – and still be a mom. You can wear jeans, leggings, dresses, jumpers, skirts, suits, ties, pants, sweats, or khaki capris, and none of those will change the fact that you are a mom. The only affect your clothing will have on you as a parent – as a person – is whether or not it makes you happy. Kim Kardashian and Michelle Duggar are both mothers, momming exactly how they want to in exactly the shoes they want to, and no matter what anyone thinks of their outfits the fact remains that they are moms, they are women, they are people. You are not what you wear, so wear what you want to be who you are. 

I get some flak still for my clothing choices. My love for heels has expanded into a love for accessories, and the bigger, flashier, and bolder, the better. My clothing choices are not practical. I own a necklace that could impale someone if they hugged me too quickly and more than a few heels that could be used as weapons. I don’t look like the other moms when I go on field trips, and often find myself swooning over a piece of clothing online only to discover that it’s meant to be a costume. I stand out, whether I want to or not. But I feel better. My red heels elevate me above the lowly image I have of myself, remind me that I am still feminine (when I want to be), still fabulous, still full of sass and life and C-section scars don’t get to take that from me. I’m a mom, but before that I’m a woman, I’m a person, I’m me, and adding a job description didn’t rob me of my personhood. 

Last week my son and I were reading about Eleanor of Aquitaine, a seriously kick-butt lady. She was a queen, a duchess, a business woman, a political leader, a strategist, a woman who refused to behave in ways that were expected of her, and a mom. We learned of her marriages, of her intelligence, of her ten children, and then – wait for it – of how she wore cherry red boots into battle.

Eleanor got it.

The Wicked Witch of the West got it.

Red heels are powerful, symbolic, and just so freaking fabulous.

We moms do it all, carry it all, and bear enough guilt and expectation when we’re barefoot… So why not do it wearing some really amazing shoes? Go be you, moms, Swiffer commercials be darned.

 

Related posts: Where Did My Fun Go?, The Cinderella Mom, Don’t Live Life in the Shallow End 

 

The Righteous Wrong – The Flawed Handling of Mental Illness in the Church

Before I get accused of hating the church in any form, and I know that’s the first reaction of some, a little background on me. I met my husband in church. I didn’t grow up in church, really, but I’ve been a Christian for most of my life now. When I met my husband he was a children’s pastor, and about a year later I began volunteering to help out in elementary services. He became a full-time minister  before we were married and has remained in full-time ministry ever since. The entirety of our 13-year marriage has been spent in devotion to God, His people, and the local church in the form of full-time ministry. I also hold two degrees – one in counseling, and the other in general ministries, both earned at a Christian university. I literally went to college to learn how to serve the church. I hate no one. I love the church. I love people. My passion for both have led me to learn all that I can so that I may help all that I can. The post you’re about to read is more concern than criticism, for the people who make up God’s church, for the people who have not yet walked through the doors, and for the people who may never come inside.

We have to do better.

Mental illness is a scary term. It encompasses a wide range of experiences, from anxiety to psychosis, so simply labeling someone mentally ill can conjure up a number of images and assumptions – most of them wrong. Whatever the diagnosis, whatever the terminology, the fact remains that mentally ill people are as deserving of the love of Jesus Christ as anyone else. I don’t think anyone could argue with me there, right?

Then why do we treat those who struggle as though they have chosen to suffer in place of salvation?

I will say this now, and likely hundreds more times for the rest of my life – mental illness is not a choice, mental illness is not a lack of faith, mental illness is not a sign of weakness.

I’m getting a little ahead of myself in my fervor, let me back up.

To understand how the church is getting it wrong, the church has to understand what it’s dealing with. Mental illness is just that – an illness. Sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance, sometimes it’s a miswiring or misfiring of the brain, but whatever the cause there is an organic, physical disorder that exists within the mind of the sufferer. It can’t always be seen the way a limp or wheelchair can, but it remains a struggle nonetheless. For some reason, the invisible battles that are waged are often viewed in the church as more spiritual than physical. Yes, we war not with flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12), and there are often very real spiritual battles and oppressions that occur, but this has never been intended as a dismissal of all things unseen. One of my favorite professors in college told the story once of how he, while pastoring a church, was approached in loud desperation. A group of church members were carrying a woman and laid her at his feet, pleading with him to cast the demons out of her as she was surely possessed. The woman was writhing, moaning, foaming at the mouth… and had a seizure disorder. She was experiencing a medical emergency, but the church, in their ignorance of the psychological and insistence upon the spiritual, was of no help.

A woman I knew from church was experiencing a mental health crisis. She was deeply depressed, overwhelmingly anxious, and her social media posts made it obvious she was struggling. Those who attended church with her reached out, with the best of intentions I’m sure, but instead of offering her help or hope, they only hurt and hardened her. Rather than approach her with empathy, those on the outside who enjoyed the good fortune of stable mental health began with the assumption that her struggles were chosen, were spiritual, were the result of a lack of faith rather than a lack of serotonin. None of these were true. She was battling mental illness, a chemical imbalance much in the same vein as type 1 diabetes. Yet the diabetic is not told their insulin is a sin, is not frowned upon for turning down cake at a birthday party. This woman who was struggling, who already felt weak and overwhelmed, was told by people who did not understand her illness how she should handle it. “Pray more!” “You should try fasting!” “Have you asked God to show you where in your life you’re weak?” “Do you have any sins or open doors in your life that would bring this on?” “Read your Bible every day!” “You should find some good verses to tape to your mirror that will uplift your spirit.” “Really go after God!” “Turn up that worship, girl, and praise your way out of this!” None of these helped, obviously, as she was facing a very real disorder that they were minimizing down to a personal faith issue or a simple bad mood. The woman, while absolutely in need of God, was not in need of clichés – she was in need of medication.

Here’s something else the church has to understand about mental illness – it gums up your brain. Someone who is mentally healthy does not and cannot think in the same way that a mentally ill person does. Just as you may breathe more freely than someone with asthma, you cannot expect a mentally ill person to think in the same “logical” sense that you do. To someone overwhelmed by invasive, pervasive thoughts, those thoughts make perfect sense. To someone paralyzed by fear or anxiety, every worry is justified. No person in the midst of a psychotic break, manic episode, or fugue state chose to act the way they do when affected. It is all too easy to view the dark posts of the woman wrestling with depression and think, “What does she have to be sad about? She’s so negative, why doesn’t she cheer up and ask God for some joy?” It’s all too comfortable to use your logic to negate an illogical mind, but it does nothing to heal or help them. We can pray for these brothers and sisters, and we absolutely should, but our listening ears will go a lot further than our “logical” advice.

Which brings me to another area where the church is failing the mentally ill: the lack of licensed professional counselors and the absolute overrun of well-intended laypeople. I know, I know, you’re mad at me for this one. You know of some fantastic ministries led by volunteers who offer “counseling” and see lives changed. The people are genuinely loving, wise, and want to help. But they are playing with fire. Biblical knowledge is not a substitute for mental health training. The best of intentions will never take the place of a license from the state board of examiners that says you know what you’re doing. I feel a mixture of fear and anger when I see these volunteer “counseling” ministries advertised or suggested – fear for the person who is placing their mental health in the hands of someone wildly unqualified to care for it, and anger at the rate at which the layperson offers their advice as counseling. It is not the same. Legally, it’s not even counseling. We allow Biblically-sound but psychologically-illiterate people to care for the most fragile of persons, and it’s a dangerous, dangerous game. Churches need licensed, professional counselors at the ready, and if no LPCs are available then they must be humble enough to pass on the number of one who is. Addiction, anxiety, and depression are some of the most common struggles that bring churchgoers to the altars, and every one of them is serious enough to need a professional’s guidance, not a church pillar’s good intentions. Financial advice, life wisdom, general encouragement, and testimony are all welcome and valuable services offered by church members around you, but when it comes to mental health issues, a professional is not only respectful, it is necessary. It does not matter what life experiences you’ve had, if you are not trained in mental health care then you have no business offering services in the field, and you are rolling the dice on doing more harm than good.

Now that I’ve lost a few friends after that paragraph, I’m sure to isolate a few more with this one: the church fails its mentally ill members by supporting the notion that mental illness is the result of a spiritual lack or physical sin. I once sat in on a very well-known conference, one that is held several times a year in churches all over the country. It has been around for years and comes with very high praise, and at the risk of pitchforks and lawsuits I won’t name it, but I still feel a fire in my belly when I hear it mentioned and consider every church that welcomes it willfully negligent. On the inside of the handout everyone receives, literally one of the first things anyone in attendance sees, is the image of a tree, with illnesses and maladies drawn into the leaves and the “causes” written into the branches and roots. You guessed it – mental illness was “caused” by a spiritual fault, by sin, according to this “ministry” that claimed to want healing for all. Very real, very quantifiable, very devastating diseases and disorders were reduced to the fault of the sufferer and assumed to remain because the mentally ill person chose to keep them.  I walked out.

Mental health is health of the mind, just as oral health is health of the mouth, or heart health is health of the heart. Being unseen does not leapfrog it past the physical and into the spiritual. Mental illness is a sickness. It is real. We can pray for all illnesses and all disabilities, absolutely, and we should believe for healing from a God who is still very much alive and able to offer it. BUT, we cannot and should not dismiss every sufferer of a mental illness as a sinner whose lack of faith keeps them suffering. We cannot toss some prayers towards a bipolar person and consider it enough. We cannot shrink away from the schizophrenic in fear and cannot offer verses in place of therapy. God can do it, but that doesn’t mean He does every time, and a lifelong struggle with mental illness is no more indicative of someone’s relationship with God than their height or hair color. It’s in their genetic makeup, a physical issue, and the sooner the church stops mishandling the mentally ill people the sooner they’ll stop leaving the church in droves.

Quick attitude check – when I mentioned the woman earlier who was struggling with anxiety and depression, I said she didn’t need clichés, she needed medication. How did you feel when you read that? In my work and my every day life I meet a lot of people who are faced with mental illness, either their own or that of a loved one, people who will take ibuprofen for a fever, Nyquil for a cold, and yes, insulin for diabetes, but will view medication for mental health struggles as weak, unnecessary, or even optional. “What a shame,” they think, brows furrowed, when they hear of medication, of therapy, “If only they could fight a little harder.”

Church, the mentally ill are fighting. They’re fighting harder than most. And medication is just one tool in their arsenal as they wage war against a disease that would claim their relationships, their jobs, their lives. The mentally ill have to work harder than we do to make it into church. They have to fight harder than we do to make it out of bed some days. They walk into a church full of people who don’t understand them, who judge them, who offer little real help. They get forgotten about or talked about. They’re prayed for but not visited. The mentally ill are those who need our help and love, not our opinions. We can and should pray for them, but we cannot dismiss their continued battles as lack of faith or time with the Father.

God is the Healer, He is Jehovah-Rapha. He can heal people, deliver them of their afflictions, and by His stripes we ARE healed… but what if that healing doesn’t come until we are made complete in His presence, if healing on this earth eludes us and some among us suffer until Heaven? Are they any less faithful? Are they any less Christian? Are we better, stronger, more righteous than those crushed by depression? Is our faith more prized than that of someone paralyzed by anxiety? Is bipolar disorder a lifestyle we’d rather not associate with because we disagree with the actions of the person with the diagnosis? NO! I cannot say it emphatically enough – NO! We are not granted only salvation or mental health – God’s children are allowed His grace in any mental state as much as they are in any physical. 

The church must stop viewing mental illness as sinful, optional, fleeting, or even nonexistent. We must implement real programs to help the people around us who are suffering, and if we can’t implement them then we must refer to those who can. We must up our empathy. We must be as concerned for the depressed as we are for the impoverished. We must cease to view any human imperfection as the fault of the imperfect running off the perfection of God. We must shut the heck up about our own opinions and experiences when faced with someone we can’t possibly relate to, and just love them.

Mental illness is in your church, friend. Don’t shudder, don’t judge, just go love.

 

Related Posts: Loving the Mentally Ill , The Church is Not Our Mirror

You’re Probably Wrong About Anxiety

Anxiety.

You keep using that word.

I do not think it means what you think it means.

“Anxiety” is a bit of a buzzword right now. I’m seeing it in a lot of memes, a lot of people are sharing their experiences and struggles on social media. I see it in headlines, in casual conversation, and in my own home. All of the talk has brought anxiety out of the mental health closet and into the more accepting light of the mainstream. People are more comfortable with admitting their inner battles and are acknowledging that they’re fallible. Anxiety has become increasingly discussed, increasingly common, and, I dare say, increasingly misrepresented.

In all of our freedom to discuss anxiety, we’ve watered the true meaning down from a diagnosis to a discomfort. 

So what is anxiety, really?  Well, first I’ll tell you what it’s not.

Anxiety is not just worry. It is excessive worry. Consuming worry. Worry to the point of terror or impending doom. Worry over situations that may happen, that haven’t happened, that will probably never happen. Worry over seemingly innocuous situations. Worry over the most catastrophic of situations. It’s dread. Anger. Hypervigilance. It’s not nervousness. Butterflies are not anxiety. Anxiety is being unable to stop the fear, oftentimes without anything having triggered the fear… or even anything specific to fear.

Anxiety is not stress. Anxiety causes great stress, and it is distressing. But feeling the weight of an upcoming project or bill does not an anxiety diagnosis amount to. Anxiety and stress are not mutually exclusive, but one can very much exist without the other. Whereas stress fades with the task at hand, anxiety is a chemical reaction or imbalance that will remain long after clicking the “submit” button.

Anxiety is NOT insecurity. Who knows if it’s the rise of social media, Photoshop, or the general public getting ahold of contouring, but we have become an image-obsessed and insecurity-driven society. Confidence has become such an exception that it’s often met with contempt. We have come to accept insecurity as such a norm that we joke about it, bond over it, and rather than build one another up we often resort to comparing our perceived flaws. This isn’t anxiety.

Anxiety cannot be turned off with happy thoughts. I cannot stress this enough. This is the main difference between situations that can cause anxious feelings and actual anxiety. Someone in the throes of anxiety cannot just “cheer up”, “find the silver lining”, “have a little faith”, “trust that everything will be alright”, or – and especially – “calm down”. When someone can’t breathe because their body is in the midst of an anxiety attack or when a child is overtaken by a fear they can’t explain, telling them to “calm down” is about as helpful as throwing a bucket of water on a wildfire. If only an anxious person had that kind of control over their reaction!

So what is anxiety?

It’s many things.

There are different types of anxiety. Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, various phobias…. Did you know hoarding is an anxiety disorder? Did you know children can be diagnosed with any of these anxiety disorders? Anxiety is not one specific thing and is rarely the same for any two people suffering from it.

Anxiety can be triggered by anything… or nothing at all. Anxiety can be chemical, a misfiring of the brain – or even an imbalance of hormones – that causes an anxiety reaction. It can be situational, such as the fear of heights, crowds, spiders, germs. There are various techniques, therapies, treatments for anxiety, and results will vary by individual. The beginnings and ends are often unknown.

Your anxiety may not look like my anxiety. Some sufferers are able to calm their bodies with breathing exercises and distraction. Some are in need of medication to slow their body’s response to perceived danger. Some meet with professionals frequently, some require in-patient therapy, and some are so overwhelmed by the paralyzing fear that they have built their lives around avoiding any and all potential triggers. Some anxiety is eventually outgrown, some sticks around and wages war for a lifetime.

Anxiety often doesn’t look like what you think it does. My own counseling degree still left me completely taken by surprise when I encountered anxiety in someone who wasn’t just rocking in a corner, breathing and counting to 10. Especially in children, anxiety can manifest as anger, rage, irritability.  My son’s principal described him as walking through the halls looking like a wounded dog, ready to snap in defense.  What you see as a defiant child can be a kid whose body is telling him he’s in danger and he is instinctively lashing out in self-preservation. Where you see a pack rat, someone with a hoarding disorder sees all of the possible bad things that could happen if they let go of an object, all of the what ifs and eventualities they have covered by keeping something they may need or by giving in to their desire to acquire. What you may perceive as laziness, flakiness, or indifference to a friendship could very well be someone who is crippled by social anxiety or agoraphobia, who is terrified of going new places, crowded places, any places. Anxiety doesn’t always look like someone shrinking back against a wall or breathing into a paper bag. It looks like someone who feels a total loss of control over their world, like someone whose body is telling them to fight, like someone who feels the urge to run, or freeze, or avoid. It looks like someone who is exhausted, who can’t rest, who only wants to rest. Someone who makes frequent trips to the bathroom or who doesn’t want to leave it altogether. Anxiety can look like stomach aches, restlessness, rage, chest pains. It can look like a child who makes frequent trips to the nurse or the mom who can’t turn off her brain long enough to fall asleep. Anxiety is a shapeshifting, deceptive cloud that can masquerade as many things – no paper bag-breathing required.

Anxiety is one size fits all. While some populations and people are more likely to experience anxiety, none are immune. Anxiety affects men. It afflicts Christians. It travels down generations or pops up unexpectedly. Diet, age, weight, social class, gender, race, faith, level of education – none of these are safeguards against anxiety. Young people are often dismissed as “being too young to worry” or “not having anything real to worry about”. Wealthy people are often regarded as having nothing to worry about, as though you could pay anxiety off. Church members suffering from anxiety can be thought of as having little faith. Men experiencing anxiety can be viewed as weak. The reality is that anxiety can strike anyone, anywhere, from any background, and anyone’s opinion of their experience does nothing to help them overcome it.

Someone’s disbelief in the sincerity or seriousness of anxiety does jack squat. You can’t disagree someone’s anxiety away. You can’t tell them to stop worrying and expect it to work. Reminding someone of all the good in their lives doesn’t heal them, either. “Calm down” doesn’t negate anxiety. Listing off facts about non-venomous spiders doesn’t quell arachnophobia, nor do statistics about plane crashes when flying. Your words and beliefs can’t and won’t dismiss anxiety, but….

You can help. Someone who is overwhelmed with anxious feelings or thoughts is hurting. They’re panicked. They need to feel safe, grounded, and heard. Whether you understand their fears or not, it’s important that they not be made to feel like a sideshow for them. The best thing you can do for someone you care about when they’re in the middle of an anxiety attack is to say, “I hear you. I’m here. You can keep talking to me if you want.” Not everyone remembers their breathing exercises (in the nose, out the mouth) when they’re crippled by dread. Medication can take a while to take effect. If you can help the person leave the situation that is triggering their feelings, do it. Keep them talking, keep them breathing. Don’t force anything, don’t rush anything. If they need to stay and put their back against a wall, shield them from judging eyes. If they need to talk about their worst fears, don’t cut them off with your rebuttals and statements of how unlikely they are. If they need a hug, give it. If they need space, provide it. They won’t die from the fear, but they’re not always convinced of this, so stay with them, breathe with them, be an anchor so they know they’re not going to float away.

More than anything, anxiety is not weakness. It is not an inability to control oneself, it is not a lack of faith or gratitude, it is not a measure of intelligence. It is not the fault of the anxious and cannot be dismissed by the disbelieving. Anxiety is hard. It’s a battle, and those fighting it are warriors. To live in fear and still step out takes a lot of guts, a lot of work, and sometimes a lot of (perceived) risk. Be proud of those you know who are fighting their battle, who are honest about their feelings, who work so dang hard at just getting through the day sometimes. It’s not easy living your life when your body is convincing you it could end at any moment. Anxiety is not weakness. It’s not trendy. It’s not made-up, attention-seeking, or frivolous. It’s real, it sucks, and someone you know is suffering from it.

It Hurts to Listen to You Sometimes, Child

My dear, sweet, child, the fruit of my womb, the tapestry of my husband and I woven together with unique purpose, my mini-me, my legacy, my charge, my heart, my pride – sometimes it really freakin’ hurts to listen to you.

It’s not your voice – you sound like a heavenly harp (albeit sometimes a harp plugged into an amp turned up to 11). It’s not the adorable way you still mispronounce a few words (it’s one of my “fravorite” things about your stories). It’s not even that sometimes you want to talk 4 hours after you were supposed to be asleep and I’m still only 12 minutes into my 50-minute Netflix show (okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that). It’s that sometimes, as much as I truly, madly, deeply love you, I just really don’t care about Minecraft. Or cars. Or that YouTube vlogger. Or the nuanced differences between Shopkins. Or the Rubik’s cube algorithm you came up with that is just ever so slightly different from the one you used before. Or the combination of buttons and triggers that help you land an Ollie on that skateboarding game. I love you, dear child, but it hurts to listen to sometimes.

I spend all day listening. I listen to you. I listen to podcasts. I listen to the tv, the radio, the honking horns and squealing children in the pick up line. I listen to how your day was. I listen to how your dad’s day was. I listen to my family, my surroundings, my kitchen timer, and my gut. I am constantly listening. Spending so much time in the state of receiving audio input means that by a certain point in my day, I’ve reached my quota . I’m full. I’d like to talk. I’d like to sit. I’d like to be afforded the opportunity to listen to something of my choosing rather than remain in the state of vigilance that parental listening requires.

“Uh huh” won’t work. “Neat” doesn’t cut it. You are so deeply passionate about what you’re saying, child, that I can’t offer up half-interested automated responses when you pause to study my reaction. Your eyes are wide with excitement and your body is coiled with anticipation. You are so exhilarated by whatever paragraph you just monologued that an offering of “wow, that’s cool” may as well be a slap in your eager little face. No, your speeches require listening. Lots of listening. More listening than I want to offer, and seemingly more listening than I feel I can give.

Yet I listen.

There will be those who remark that the years are short, that someday you won’t want to talk so much, that I should treasure the Lego talk because too soon I’ll have closed doors instead of open mouths. I’ll be chided by mothers who would give anything to hear their child’s voice again and waiting mothers who would give anything to have a child at all. I’ll be met with criticism and judgement and disbelief, but no matter anyone’s feelings about me, it doesn’t make it any easier to listen to you describe – in detail – every single Hot Wheel you have that I can plainly see right before me with my own eyes.

Take note, child and naysayers, I did not say that I don’t listen. I said it hurt. I don’t ignore. I don’t dismiss. But I do give deeply of myself when the day should already be over and still I am asked to listen. It is a sacrifice to listen, yes. Whatever anyone thinks a mother’s ears should be for, they have a limit, and mine meet it every day. I can only feign so much interest in rubber band bracelets, and once I’ve given you all I have, you ask for more. It hurts.

I do not listen because I should. I don’t listen because I have to. I don’t listen because I’m your mom, I don’t listen because I have nothing else to do, and I definitely don’t listen because I care that much about different breeds of turtles. I listen because I love you. I listen, though it hurts, because you are special to me, though your chosen topic may not be. I listen because someday there will be topics you won’t want to talk about and I need you to know you can say anything. I listen because someday, as cliché as it is, you won’t tell me much. I listen because it helps me know you, because you are your own person and I want to encourage you to like what you like without any outside input telling you that you shouldn’t. I listen because I want to model for you, want you to see that caring about someone doesn’t mean being selective in your interest level. I listen because you have to know that we don’t have to agree to be kind, that you can sometimes learn things you never knew you never knew, just by staying quiet. I listen because it’s important to you, and because I remember the disappointment in your voice when you could tell I didn’t want to. I listen because children are not meant to only be seen and not heard, because you have unique things to say in the most magical ways sometimes. I listen, my dear, even though I don’t want to, because I know you want me to.

That last paragraph sounds a little more noble than it feels when I’m thick in the quicksand that is one of your stories. It amazes me how only 26 letters can combine to create so very many different words, how you can weave together a seemingly infinite explanation or take 5 1/2 minutes to answer a yes or no question. You have so many words, so very many words, and you’ve gone from the cooing little infant to the child who wants to make sure I hear all of your words.  I cannot imagine being interested in some of the things you are and I definitely don’t think Pokémon card trades are nearly as consequential as you do. It hurts to listen sometimes, baby, because sometimes your stories bore me. Sometimes they interrupt me. Sometimes they come at the end of the day when I have so far exceeded my listening limit that the line is a dot to me. Sometimes I feel my chest tighten in panic as I realize that your story truly does have no end. Sometimes I feel irritation flare up in my gut when you begin yet another discourse over American versus Italian sports cars. Sometimes I just want to sit in a comfy spot with a cup of caffeine and scroll mindlessly through Pinterest. Sometimes all 3 of you, dear darling children, want me to listen at once. And by sometimes, I mean every dad gummed day.

It hurts to listen sometimes. Pregnancy hurt. Delivering you hurt. Breastfeeding and first days of school and burning myself while cooking bacon this morning hurt, but these things were all worth it, and all were acts of service I took on as a way to express my love for you. I humble myself, don’t tell myself that everything I hear in a day is meant for my enjoyment, I suck it up and listen. I usually end up hiding in the closet for a while afterwards, but I listened, made sure you were heard.

So please, dear child, don’t take it personally when my eyes glaze over, when my breathing turns into sighs, when my face turns heavenward in a desperate plea to your Maker to distract you with something else long enough to silence your oration. I love you more than words can say – though I’m sure someday soon you’ll find enough words to get close – it just hurts, actually hurts to listen right now. Instead, appreciate that I’m trying, recognize the sacrifice that my love is offering you in the form of attempted interest. I love you, sweet one, and you often tell me the silliest, most interesting things. I love hearing about your day, love knowing what makes you laugh. I love your nerdy interests and creative ideas. I can only know you by listening to you, and I want to know you as deeply as I can, my child. It’s just that if it’s after around 10PM, I’m gonna need you to shut your pie hole because mama’s done for the day. Now go ask your brother about black hole theories.