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"Our family's journey with mental health" by Christine Johnson (CatholicMom.com) Copyright 2018 Christine Johnson. All rights reserved.[/caption] Note: I asked my daughter to write this article with me, since it deals with her anxiety. We've written our parts of the story and woven them together to give you both a mother's perspective on discovering your child has a mental illness as well the child's own perspective. I've made the decision to simply use my daughter's initials rather than her name.
AM: It’s no secret that middle school is a hard period for every child, regardless of where they go to school, what gender they are, or what their personality is. I, personally, have probably had a touch of anxiety my whole life, but it wasn’t until eighth grade that I really began to be overwhelmed by it. After every youth group meeting, co-op meeting, or social activity I remember going home and sitting in my room trying, but inevitably failing, not to cry. The truth of the matter is, I didn’t like me, and I didn’t know how to change that. I felt like something was wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was or how to begin to identify it. So I turned to social media. Social media can be a wonderful thing. Sure, it’s dangerous because it allows access to things you might not want your children seeing, and it can easily damage a person’s mind, but I won’t get into that. It can be wonderful. Without social media, I’m not sure where I would be today. Sappy quotes on Instagram voiced my own feelings and fears in a way that I didn’t know was possible. I found that it wasn’t just me who was afraid of being alone, or messing up, or being hated. There were hundreds of thousands of other people who felt the same as me. However, because of the way that I am, I wanted to know what it was exactly that was making me feel this way. I typed the phrases “do i have anxiety” and “do i have depression” into Google way too many times that I can count. I’d heard the words thrown around and wanted to learn for myself what they meant. I read countless articles about symptoms of anxiety among teens, took tests, analyzed my thoughts, and was honest with what I was and was not feeling. I waited a good month to tell anyone about it, and, even then, I knew I needed a professional opinion. The only way to get a professional opinion at age fourteen was to talk to my mother. Before I launch into that story, let it be known that I love my mother. I have always felt so close to her, and she is a constant in my life. I knew she would always love me, because that’s who she is. (I’m not just saying this because I know she’s reading it. Hi, Mom.) But telling anyone you love about a problem you have kept close to you for so long is difficult. It will always be difficult. It’s normal for it to be difficult. I was afraid of what she would think and say and do, and my anxious brain half-convinced me she would ship me off to military school so they could yell it out of me. I knew that wasn’t going to happen, but I was still afraid. That’s what anxiety does. That’s what mental illnesses do. They don’t make sense, and it’s important to know that, because your child will not be able to come up with a logical reason as to why they feel that way. They just will. And chances are, they’re about as stressed about having no explanation as you are. Let them feel that. Let them be scared. It’s okay to be scared. I was folding laundry at about seven or eight o'clock at night. It was dark outside. We had eaten dinner. My mom was at the kitchen table, scrolling through Twitter. I snapped a brightly colored t-shirt and cleared my throat. “Hey, Mom?” I said, and I could barely get the words out. My heart was racing. I took a deep breath. “Yes, sweetie.” She didn’t look up from her phone, and I know it was normal and there was no bad intention behind it, but my anxiety jumped up. She didn’t care. She didn’t care.  Shut up, other me, I thought. So what if she didn’t care? I had do say this. Someone had to know. “I think I have anxiety.” The words rushed out like they tripped off my tongue. I breathed. I said it. “No you don’t,” Mom replied, now looking up from her phone. “I think I do,” I repeated, and now that I had said the hard part I was more brave. I was shaking, but the worst had passed. I was well on my way to whatever happened next.  CJ: A little more than two years ago, my older daughter came to me and told me that she thought her sister had anxiety. "I don't think so," I answered. "She's shy and introverted, but I don't see anxiety in her." She insisted that there were signs, things I didn't see -- things her sister was hiding from us -- that pointed to it. I brushed it aside, chalking it up to an overly-protective sister who was spending too much time looking at Google. A few months later, my younger daughter was folding laundry while I worked at the table in the kitchen. "Mom," she said, "I think I have anxiety. I think I need help." Again, I tried to assure her that she was probably just extremely introverted and shy, but she pushed me to look at some assessments online. "I took one and I think I have it. Please look with me." When we looked at one together, some of her answers absolutely surprised me. I had no idea what some of her struggles were at the time. "I've been hiding a lot of it from you. I didn't want you to worry about me.”  AM: We sat down and researched it together, this time. She asked me questions and I answered honestly, not making eye contact. I had wanted someone to know about this for what felt like forever, but now that someone did I was scared. What was she going to do? I think I told her I wanted to see a therapist, but I don’t remember from there. To this day, that is the bravest thing I have ever done. It was so so hard, and it changed my relationship with my mom. No one wants to admit that their kid has a problem, especially one that they can’t fix with a band-aid and a kiss on the forehead. No one wants to have to say, “This is out of my control, I don’t understand my child, and I can’t help them the way I want to.” But that’s the way life is sometimes.  CJ: I was completely shocked, and I started looking for a psychologist that she could talk to. I tried to put on a brave face and get about the business of trying to help my daughter get well, but inside, I was suffering with her. Not only that, but I felt guilt over the entire thing, too. The internet can be filled with all kinds of wonderful information, including that which helps a mother identify when her child is suffering from anxiety. But it can also be filled with well-meaning but damaging information on the very problem you're identifying. As is the case with anything you are suddenly involved in, I started to notice more and more articles on anxiety. Along with the ones aimed at helping to manage it, there are also a slew of articles that discuss ways to prevent it (if it's even possible). I recall seeing one article that said that more and more kids are diagnosed with anxiety because their parents aren't allowing them to take risks any more: no outdoor playing and exploring, few chances to problem-solve on their own, too much sheltering, and so on. I can't tell you how many times I've cried after reading an article that seems to point fingers at parents when discussing our children's anxiety. When we found a therapist that fit my daughter's requests (female, mainly), I called to make an appointment. Before seeing our child, the psychologist wanted to see my husband and me first, alone, to talk a bit. After that, she could see our daughter. Our appointment was two months away, and her next available appointment for our daughter was another month after that. So we waited. AM: While I still consider myself to have a strong faith, it can be a challenge with anxiety disorder to maintain it – not impossible, but challenging. A lot of people think that when you have anxiety, you should be able to pray it away. I tried that once, when I was first diagnosed, and let me tell you, it didn’t do a thing. That’s not to say that God wants me to have anxiety, or that I deserve it because of my sins. It’s a burden that I have to carry – my own cross – and I can help others through God’s help. The challenge comes with how much I let it get to me. Jesus says countless times, “do not worry,” and while it’s easier said than done, sometimes it feels like I don’t even want to follow that advice. It’s comfortable for me to worry about anything, as strange as it sounds. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of trust to surrender things to God’s plan, and I’ll be the first to admit that I rarely have the strength to do so. Then there’s sometimes the added worry that it’s a sin to become so consumed by it. And while it very well might be, I’m human, I have a mental illness, and I’m bound to become overwhelmed and succumb to the repetitive and destructive behaviors of anxiety. It’s inevitable. What matters most is that I pick myself back up and keep striving to overcome. God doesn’t keep score of how many times I’ve let myself go. He is endlessly merciful and endlessly good.  CJ: When we finally got to the appointment, we filled out paperwork galore, and prepared ourselves to meet the woman who might be our child's therapist. I was extremely nervous about the entire thing. What if she was hostile to our faith? What if she was hostile to homeschooling, and pinned everything on that? What if she felt that we shouldn't homeschool, and she wound up calling social services on us? There were clauses in our contract that talked about court and her obligation to report abuse, and that only heightened my fears. Looking back, I'm sure she was used to and prepared for dealing with parents who were defensive, but she definitely put us at ease during our one-hour meeting. We talked about our involvement at our parish, our homeschooling, our co-op, and our new discovery that our daughter had been hiding her anxiety from us for a long time. She assured us that we were not the kind of people those clauses had been written for: oftentimes, she dealt with parents who weren't as supportive as we seemed to be. She told us that it was obvious to her that our family is close and that we wanted to help our daughter. We also talked about the idea of avoiding medication, if possible. "I want to see if it's possible to help her deal with this, to learn to get past it, without drugs," I said. (And this was true. We'd talked about it as a family and that was our goal: learn coping skills to lessen the anxiety; avoid prescriptions as much as we could.) AM: Starting therapy was nerve-wracking for me. It was about three months after telling my mom about my anxiety that I finally got in to see the doctor and I didn’t know what to expect. What if I wasn’t comfortable around her? What if she judged me? What if it did more harm than it did help? A million thoughts raced through my head. The whole first session was a blur; I was so anxious. But as time progressed, I grew more and more comfortable with my psychologist. She supported and didn’t judge me, and she gently reminded me of things that I had forgotten in a moment of panic. Most importantly, she’s Christian. Not Catholic, but open to my faith and willing to share her own. Just today, as I’m writing this, I had an appointment and she reminded me of Bible verses to uplift me. It’s truly been a blessing to be able to see someone who puts God as a priority. I would highly suggest seeking out a Christian psychologist if faith is of the utmost importance to you. Even outside of the faith-oriented perspective, therapy has been wonderful for me. From learning how to get through my first heartbreak (ah, young love) to helping me diagnose why I feel down or anxious or mad, I believe I would be a wreck without the help of therapy. Of course, while it takes a load off my shoulders, it can’t fix everything. I only have appointments about every other week, and they’re an hour long each time. Especially in the winter, due to my Seasonal Affective Disorder, it can be pretty hard for me to get out of bed every day and make the most of it. Recently, my motivation was running thin; I could barely spend time with anyone without wanting to break down, and everyday felt like the same formula with no real soul-stimulating activities. I considered for a long time if I should take medication, but I had reservations, as anyone would. CJ: After her first session, I went back briefly to talk to the therapist about how it went. "She's delightful!" she exclaimed. (I know! I thought to myself.) She told me that she imagined we would only need occasional sessions, probably for a year or two, and then she would be able to cope with her anxiety if it started to get bad again. But that's not how things have gone so far.

Look for part 2 of Our Family's Journey with Mental Health in August.

If your child (or you!) are suffering from anxiety or depression, please seek professional help. Prayer can be a help up to a point, but chemical imbalances aren’t fixed with prayer alone. Many insurance plans cover some kind of mental therapy, and if you’re in need and your insurance doesn’t, a good therapist should be able to work with you. It’s important not to neglect your health – physical or mental. If you’re not sure where to start, speak to your family physician for a referral.

Copyright 2018 Christine Johnson