Baby Juggling. Brooklyn, Sept 2010
As many of you know, I am not one to shy away from talking about my struggles with anxiety and depression. I’m always glad to talk to someone who has dealt with similar issues, so I figure it’s helpful to others, not just therapeutic to me, to share my experiences. I also think society as a whole needs to suck it up and start being comfortable dealing with mental and emotional health issues, just like it is with medical issues. We shouldn’t feel embarrassed to acknowledge that we struggle with anxiety any more than we should feel ashamed to tell others we have high blood pressure. Privacy I can understand. But shame, never.
BJ, the Rebel and Emily, the Good Child. California, High School-ish
Over the course of my adult life, I’ve sought help through psychotherapy a number of times. I started in college, my freshman year, when I was having a really hard time making the transition. I also sought help on my mission, when I was in Texas, waiting for my visa to allow me to go to Venezuela (which never happened but that’s another story.) The anxiety was so bad, that it was all I could do to put one foot in front of each other as we’d walk the streets near UNT. It took me six months and a transfer to Florida (and the subsequent sunshine and friendlier folk) to feel slightly normal again. The commonality of these and other events in my life that caused me to seek professional help is that they all brought on anxiety and depression.
Blurry Mission Pic. Florida, 2003
If you’ve ever experienced either, and maybe you didn’t even know that’s what it was, you’ll know what I’m talking about. The feeling of nameless but impending doom. The tightening of the chest. The aching pain of nausea in your stomach. The numbness. The feeling of walking through water. And the despair. The complete and total despair—that no one understands; that God has abandoned you; that you’ll never feel good again; that you are going insane.
In my time in therapy, I’ve figured out that a lot of my anxiety comes from an irrational, though deeply rooted fear that I am not worthy of love. Or, to put it another way, I am not a good ______ and therefore not worthy of love. So all my life I’ve tried to be a good daughter, a good student, a good missionary, and now, a good mother.
So now, here I am, the mother of four under four, and my life is filled with stress. And I get angry. Very angry. All the time. In fact, it was only recently in therapy that I figured out that the anger is almost constant because I am almost always anxious. It’s not the crippling anxiety I felt on my mission; it’s not anxiety attacks that come and go; it’s more of a baseline anxiety that simmers just below the surface and boils over anytime I get provoked. And living with toddlers is, in case you didn’t know, very provoking. So I lose my temper, I do something I regret, and then fall into the pit of shame and despair over how terrible a mother I am. One time, it got so bad that I had to put all the kids in their beds, for their own protection, and then had to talk myself out of taking the pile of sleeping pills I held in my hand. (Google helped. You can’t kill yourself with 12 sleeping pills. You can only make yourself violently ill.) At any rate, that’s the depth of the pit of shame and despair.
The “Good” Mom. Brooklyn. 2009
Several weeks ago, when I was telling my therapist about this incident, I was saying something like, “I used to be such a good mother! With Elizabeth, I was such a good mother! Now I’m a monster!” followed by a lot of sobbing. But then I stopped as I thought about what I’d just said. Wait a minute. I was a good mother? That sounds … actually … really prideful. And that’s when it hit me. I wasn’t a good mother when it was just me and Elizabth. I was just a mother with more time and more resources. Now that I have the triplets, I am still a mother, but with less time and less resources. OH. MY. GOSH. You mean, all my accomplishments, all the things in my life that make me feel like I’m so awesome … THEY DON’T MAKE ME A “GOOD” PERSON!??!?! I just am!?!??!?!?!? I. JUST. AM! It’s ironic, but it took me looking at all my successes, not my failures, to realize that they do NOT define me! Think about it. I graduated from college with honors. Does that make me a “good” person? NO! It means I made good choices, yes. But it doesn’t increase my worth in any way. I lost my temper and yelled at my daughter. Does that make me a “bad” mom? NO! It means I made a bad choice, yes. But it doesn’t have to throw me into the pit of shame and despair, because, it doesn’t take away from my self worth!
Graduating with Honors. BYU, 2006
Another way of looking at it is through the Atonement—the sacrifice Jesus Christ made for us. God loves us—every last sinner of us—and his love doesn’t depend on how “good” or “bad” we are. He loves us. Period. End of sentence. And by falling into the pit of shame and despair, I was only telling myself, “You are BAD. You can NEVER change. You are not worthy of God’s love.” What the WHAT?! That’s not true! That’s a LIE! Jesus gave his life and suffered for our bad mistakes—our sins—so that we can change and improve and so we’ll have the chance to make our actions match the incredible worth we ALREADY HAVE.
BJ, Em, and Reb. Utah, ca. 1985
Sitting in the therapy session, figuring all this out, I felt a physical weight lifted off my shoulders. And it didn’t end there. When I got home and I, once again, got angry and lost my temper, I didn’t fall into The Pit. I took a step back, saw my mistake for what it was—something wrong I did, not something bad I was—and could move forward from there. Incredible.
This, my friends, was an awakening. It’s set me free. Stay tuned for Part 2.