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the long term benefits of an emotional crisis

By Michelle Lehnardt

inside-out-qa-joy-sadness

On a long-ago camping trip, we arrived late and scrambled to find bedding and situate everyone in rather close quarters. As young kids do, my small son placed his sleeping pad, bag and pillow in the center and reclined happily. When his older long-limbed brothers tried to adjust him,  he gazed up in complete innocence and responded, “Why? I’m fine.”

Since then, “I’m fine.” became shorthand in our family for any situation where someone lacks an awareness for others. It works for all kinds of scenarios, especially in church settings and when dealing with mental health. Just because “I’m fine,” doesn’t mean I should ignore others who are stumbling in the dark, trying to get comfortable, searching for rest and ultimately peace.

A few years ago, a perfect storm* blew into my life and tossed me into the waves. I didn’t weather it well; I didn’t show tremendous fortitude. Rather, I cried every day for a year  and had terrible thoughts (especially at night when I lay awake ruminating until the small hours). The only thing I did well was take care of my family. And for that I’m grateful and amazed and aware of all the prayers sent my way.

One phrase that irked me in those days was, “You’ll be grateful for this trial someday.” I can think of a whole lot of trials that might lend themselves to gratitude, but this was ugly and wrong and what tiny speck of good could come out of bitter darkness?

But as the pain started to recede, I caught glimpses of jewels in the deep, truths I’d gained. I learned we never know anyone’s full story, we can never judge others pain. We are all such complicated creatures. If you’re hurting, I don’t need to know every detail, I will ache with you, mourn with you, listen to you, love you and pray for you. Oh, I know I’m being frustratingly vague* when I talk about what happened to me, but that’s the point, we don’t need to know the particulars of every situation. If a mother asks us to pray for her son, does it matter if he’s fighting cancer or struggling with depression? Do we need to judge or assign blame? Of course not. (but in a horrifying side note, I do have a friend whose fifteen year old daughter died of cancer and people told her all the things she did wrong from treatments to foods to living too near a power line).

There’s something beautiful in feeling vulnerable, in knowing you can be broken. It’s made me more careful with myself and patient with others. Still, even with my increased capacity for compassion, I didn’t feel exactly grateful for what happened to me until a perfect storm entered my son’s life and he started suffering panic attacks this past year.

I wrapped my arms around him and told him he’d be OK. We called a doctor; we called a therapist. We took long walks and talked and talked and talked. I told him he was normal; I told him he’d get better.

At home, we talked about mental health openly– how we all have ups and downs and when to seek help. As we discussed coping skills, my husband revealed his penchant for games like solitaire and 2048 as his way of controlling stress. “Sometimes my mind gets on a loop of worries and those things break the pattern.” Working out hard, really hard, also cleanses his mind. With that knowledge, I’m not as resentful of the times he plays Angry Birds while I’m cleaning the kitchen or his need to attend CrossFit six days a week.

These open discussions were and are invaluable to my younger kids. In the same way that we need to teach our children how to take care of their bodies, we need to teach them how to care for their minds. Have you seen this TED talk? Why We All Need to Practice Emotional First Aid. He compares telling someone with depression to “just shake it off” the same as telling someone with a broken leg “just shake it off.”

My son already feels grateful for his brush with mental health, he’s been able to counsel friends and offer help. I believe he’ll be a better husband and father because he understands the fragility of human emotions.

Now, here’s where my sympathy lags: when someone has mental health issues; when they hurt their family and loved ones with their behavior; and still refuse to get help. I’m especially annoyed when they look down on others for taking medication– as if remedies represent weakness. Pharmaceuticals are like a lifejacket- you still have to swim to the shore, but the medication keeps your head above water.

As Saints, we should extend extra compassion towards missionaries sent home for mental health issues. We’ve all heard derogatory whispers about an elder or sister coming home early. It’s our job to shut down rumors, to offer help and make everyone feel loved in our neighborhood, community, ward, etc.

I’ve been broken. I’ve been ugly and hurt and scarred. And I’m grateful.

How can we extend love to those suffering from mental health issues?

How do you teach your children emotional first aid? (links welcome!)

What are your favorite coping techniques?

About Michelle Lehnardt

(Blog Team) I'm the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I'll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ will heal the earth. Founder of buildyourteenager.com, scenesfromthewild.net and rubygirl.org.

26 thoughts on “the long term benefits of an emotional crisis”

  1. Thank you. I appreciate this reminder and perspective very much. Right now my favorite coping technique is to listen to (read by Pres. Hinckley) or read Pres. Benson's address "Beware of Pride." This process has been a balm for my sometimes weary/wounded soul.

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  2. Thank you so much for sharing your story and that of your son. You are such amazing people. I love how proactive you have been in guiding your son to healing and in opening up a dialogue about mental well-being. I have wrestled with panic attacks and extreme anxiety myself at different points in my life and have sought help in a number of places: doctors, blessings, therapy, acupuncture, books, and friends. Often, a multi-faceted plan of attack is required! I practice yoga, get time outside most days, and have to be vigilant about how much downtime I get each week. Sometimes it takes a span of time to see patterns when I am most vulnerable and then change life expectations accordingly.

    I love the deep compassion you have! The nonjudgment and the listening ear you have given to your son are two of the greatest gifts you can give to someone in pain. You gave him hope and joined with him in getting help.

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  3. And tell your son that I am so proud of all the work he has done to work through this!! It takes so much strength and courage to face something so hard. I wouldn't wish panic attacks on my worst enemy!

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  4. Ah AnneMarie, just when I was about to take this post down because it didn't seem to resonate with anyone… thank you for your kind words. This was hard to write and required a great deal of bravery from my whole family, but I know speaking up can help other people.

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  5. Thank you for opening such a personal part of your family's life with everyone. What a powerful way to help everyone develop a language for discussing mental health. I am sharing this story with my boys. Thank you, again.

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  6. I think recognising and being open with the realities and our experiences of mental health issues is important, especially leaving judgement out of it. For me, I've had friends stubbornly keep in touch when I've fallen aeons away in depression… they keep on keeping in touch, trusting that one day I will be able to reach back.

    It's something that I wish I didn't have experience with, but it helped when my own son started his own mental health challenges because I could both recognise and support, and I try to do the same for others. The Red Tree by Shaun Tan is wonderful, and I've found The Arrival (also by Tan) reads differently when I'm trying to regain my balance or perspective emotionally and mentally too.

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  7. Dear Michelle, thank you for starting this dialogue. I am so grateful. I hope mental health will be discussed more and more in church settings, in conference talks, by our leaders and teachers and friends. I understand the complexity and diversity of everyone's unique situations and needs, why it can be difficult to speak to a broad audience about such personal, individual things, but there is also danger in silence.
    Mostly, I want everyone to know how common it is for all of us (most of us?) to experience anxiety or depression at some point in our lives. And by writing common I don't want anyone to read 'normal' and minimize those extreme feelings, but I want to emphasize the power of connection. When we are willing to share our pain and past and present experiences we give others the gift of our vulnerability, we invite a connection that can be healing. It is speaking truth to admit when things are hard, and that is a first step towards relief.

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  8. As for coping techniques, I really, really enjoy having down time. I function much better with less on my plate. Lots of sleep and lots of good, healthy food. (Do I sound pregnant? I am.)
    I take 'mental health' vitamins and notice a big difference when I do vs. don't. I love to swim, the water, the solitude, the rhythm of it, moving forward. Probably my best coping mechanism is taking walks with friends.

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  9. Thanks for this. Depression and anxiety disorders are hereditary in my family. I thought I was a pro at dealing with mental health problems in a matter of fact, "this is a disease" way. I thought I was totally non judgmental….that is until this past summer/fall when my own anxiety reached peak levels beyond what my normal coping strategies could deal with. Sitting in my doctor's office, tears in my eyes, realizing that medicine was the next logical step was far more difficult than I ever anticipated it to be. I realized I did have some prejudices to work through. But I've come to terms with the fact that, for now, I need the tools of pharmaceuticals to help me. I don't think it will be forever, and I still practice good self care, but I am learning to not be ashamed.
    Have you seen the #iamstigmafree campaign? Here's an article: http://www.ldsliving.com/LDS-Women-Talk-Addiction-Mental-Illness-in-Brutally-Honest-Video-Campaign/s/80431
    I LOVED these videos and what they are trying to do: get us talking opening about mental illness.
    My number one coping mechanism is daily exercise. It is an absolute must for me and my mental health.

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  10. Oh no, Michelle! I look forward to your posts. I'm so glad you didn't take this one down. It was just what I needed at this very moment. I've been feeling like I've been going a hundred miles an hour for the past year and there have been signs that a storm is brewing, but I haven't figured out how to make myself slow down without feeling guilty. Just a couple days ago I had an incident that let me know something needs to change. Now.

    I consider it a tender mercy that you decided to post about this very subject now. I've already printed off "Beware of Pride" to study and ponder and it has helped tremendously already. I'm anxious to work my way through the rest of the helpful suggestions in the comments.

    I am so grateful your family had the courage to share their story. It comforted my weary and broken heart. Thank you.

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  11. I live with depression and anxiety. Medication is what enables me to be functional. It can take several tries to find the right one and can also take several weeks for it to work but it is so worth the struggle!

    I can sympathize with your friend who was told everything they did wrong in caring for her daughter. My son and I almost died when I developed HELLP Syndrome when I was pregnant with him and I had people tell me what I should have done differently so as not to develop it… when there was nothing I could have done differently
    and just happened to be that rare person who develops it. Ditto for when my son was diagnosed with autism — it's genetic for him and I still had people telling me about how I had failed because of it.

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  12. Michelle, will you wrap your arms around your son for me? I have dealt with anxiety stuff since I was young, and I think for me the hardest part of it is that it can make the Spirit hard to feel or recognize or trust. It feels like a cruel double-punch when you are trying so hard to do everything right and still lacking peace.

    I know I've said this before, and it probably won't resonate with many others, but 12 steps have helped me immensely. I also have benefited from the principles in yoga and meditation, which are about realizing that I am not my thoughts…I am the one observing them. The benefit of having lived with this for so long is that I have a lifetime of experience of what God's voice DOESN'T feel like, and now I'm finally getting tools that are helping me engage my mind more actively to identify the false beliefs I've carried around for a lifetime. The anxiety shows me the 'not' and the leap of faith is to believe what I can't yet feel in my body and brain.

    The other reason I love 12 steps is because the rooms are full of people who've realized that pretending you can have control in life is exhausting. To come to grips with mortality and your own fallen nature — whatever its way of manifesting — and to be surrounded by people learning to actually rejoice in that fallenness rather than wishing it away or trying to fix it…and find the Atonement because of (not in spite of) the weakness…it's stunning, really.

    Anyway, I will always, always be grateful for those who are real about the stuff of life. It doesn't always have to be detailed, but sometimes, like you do here, sharing enough detail helps knit hearts together. Tell your son he is not alone. And golly, he is just so blessed to have you as a momma.

    p.s. Don't listen to those voices in your head that tell you what you write won't resonate. Your gift and big heart are such a blessing to so many. I love you.

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  13. Too close to home.

    1) You posted this on Children's Grief Awareness Day. Although grief is not a mental illness, many of its manifestations overlap (and can become full-fledged) symptoms of depression. In children and adolescents it may be harder to identify when grieving progresses into depression than it is in adults. Here is one resource: http://www.nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org/.

    2) My late husband struggled with mental health issues most of his life, though he was not diagnosed until after we'd been married a couple of years. Education about his condition (and hindsight) showed us his symptoms had directed much of his decision-making through adolescence and early adulthood. But he was so good at hiding what he knew was "different" about himself that only someone who knew what they were looking for would have been able to diagnose it earlier. From the time I realized the degree of his dysfunction — he couldn't hide everything from his wife as well as he'd hidden it from his parents and me (as his bride-to-be) — to the time we found an accurate diagnosis and he began (mostly, somewhat) effective treatment took about three years.

    We made decades of visits with his therapists and psychiatrists. I wish someone, anyone would have told me about the National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/. It would have been helpful to know I wasn't the only spouse living with the challenges of a mentally ill partner.

    My top lessons in coping (for the patient as well as the caretaker), in no particular order: shop around for a therapist who is a good fit, use hymns and other music to soothe and calm, read everything you can about the diagnosed condition, plan and follow through on giving the caretaker time apart (I SHOULD have done this!), invest time in meaningful and enjoyable hobbies, find a friend you can confide in, pray A LOT for guidance and patience and understanding and enlightenment and capacity.

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  14. Thank you so much for starting this conversation! I, like the Michelle who commented above, am a huge fan of meditation. I read a book called Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation (by Sharon Salzberg) a few years back, and I consider it one of the most important books I have read in my life (up there with scriptures). She explains meditation in the simplest, most accessible way. My meditation practice has really helped save me from the speed and swirl of my thoughts (work in progress on this!).

    I also adore Tara Brach, a psychologist who focuses on mindfulness. On YouTube she has dozens of talks available to watch. Sheer brilliance! I love how she reminds me to give space for my feelings without judging or resenting them.

    Thank you again for sharing your experiences and those of your family! Like others have said, we heal best through connection.

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  15. Thanks and love to all of you for your kind comments. Every family deals with mental health on some level whether we talk about it or not. But when we talk about it we can all be so much healthier and enrich our relationships. Our family isn't happy because we've never had trials; we're happy because we work through those trials together.

    Some things we’ve learned for both ruminating and panic attacks:

    When you start to obsess over something or feel panicky, get up and move. Do something else. Anything else. Bake cookies, play Angry Birds, listen to an audio book (my personal favorite).
    Make exercise a priority. Every running group I’ve ever joined joked that it was group therapy. I always took that free therapy for granted until I couldn’t run anymore and learned it was real.
    Get help! Discuss your feelings with your family and friends. If you feel progressively worse, call a doctor.

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  16. Thank you for sharing this. My 13 year old daughter is struggling with depression and anxiety in part due to very stressful continuing events in our family this year. I am grateful for teachers who stepped in and recommended she see a counselor and I am grateful for any and all suggestions I read about helping children find coping strategies. Thank you for writing openly about this subject.

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  17. I've dealt with fairly mild anxiety my whole life, but I've learned so much from trying to help my 9-year-old daughter, who was diagnosed with anxiety earlier this year as well as adhd. My daughter never seemed fearful (other than the frequent nightmares at night), so it was easy to miss her symptoms. Instead, she was angry, belligerent, sassy and defiant, hyper, and had massive meltdowns all the time. I did not recognize these things as being related to anxiety. Her therapist explained to me that this is part of the "fight or flight" reaction that we all have to fear. I had considered only the "flight" part of it, forgetting that adrenaline spurs on the urge to fight as well. Therapy has been extremely helpful for her, and I was just reflecting earlier today on how far we've all come in the last year of counseling.

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  18. I'm super late coming to this conversation (just read the post today), but I just wanted to share a couple of insights I have found as I've struggled with depression/anxiety on my own personal level.

    First, I have not had great experiences with medication (of any kind), but I have sincerely tried to be open to that being the right solution for me, and as I've prayed and searched, it has just never felt right. So it was difficult when well-meaning friends/neighbors would toss that out as THE solution to my challenges.

    I hit my worst point probably in early September, and just kept saying to my husband, "I'm broken and I don't know how to fix myself." I feel so fortunate that at this same time, I had a "perfect storm" of things I needed come into my life. The first was a random FB post (that I've tried but haven't been able to find again since) that outlined (supposedly based on brain research) 5 steps to take during an anxiety attack, that can shift how your brain is (dis)functioning. 1-say a quick prayer, 2-express gratitude, even for just the tiniest thing, 3-name the emotion (strips it of much of it's power), 4-make a decision (again, even the tiniest one–"what shoes am I going to wear today?"), 5-physical contact (give someone a hug).

    The key change for me came during a church class when I felt impressed to set aside my (LONG) list of mental health to-do's (exercise, diet, etc.–about 12 things to do EACH DAY, that had become completely overwhelming), and indeed any to-do list, and focus solely on my personal relationships with my Heavenly Father and my Savior. Based on a conversation with a friend, I used this book (He Did Deliver Me From Bondage by Colleen Harrison http://www.amazon.com/Did-Deliver-Bondage-20th-Anniversary/dp/1930738226/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1449502026&sr=8-1&keywords=he+did+deliver+me+from+b) based on the 12-step program (Michelle commented about 12-step above) as a framework, and it has made a HUGE difference for me. Seeing my anxieties and other emotional responses as "addictive," I could almost visualize the neural grooves I'd worn into my brain, but I felt more hope than I had in a long time, that my brain could be healed. I hope that makes sense. Within days of beginning to work through the program, I was able to sleep through the night for the first time in years, wake without the familiar (yet undefinable) feeling of dread, and even my chiropractor (who's been working with me for years trying to manage my stress) commented that he could tell my stress levels were significantly lower than they'd ever been.

    Please, please don't read this as me trying to tell anyone how to do anything, or discounting methods others have found that have brought them peace. But I feel so grateful to my friend who opened up to me about her struggles and where she found help that I want to do the same in case these ideas resonate with anyone else.

    Thank you for your post!

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