Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Explain to Your Children and Teenagers that Pain Can Lead to Compassion

I recently read an article by a woman who confessed that she had “hated” being a teenager, and was now unsure how to both warn her children of the stressors of adolescence while letting them make their own mistakes. She wondered how to get them through adolescence in a positive way when her own past was so difficult. This article sparked a conversation between me and my own mom about the past and regrets. I had an extremely tumultuous adolescence, but I shocked my mom when I told her I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Over the years, I’ve learned to not just move past that difficult time in my life, but to embrace it. As a counselor, my past struggles with self-harm make me more sympathetic to the teenagers struggling with the same issue. My conflicted adolescent romantic relationships make me compassionate towards teens who are trying to find self-worth from the opposite gender. My past experiences with drugs make me gracious towards my clients who struggle with addiction.

Even as an adult, my past is riddled with painful situations that I’ve learned to embrace. My past miscarriage makes me empathetic to my clients who have had one, as well as the family members who don’t know what to say. My struggles with infertility make me sensitive enough that I never say things like, “You’ll get pregnant soon enough, just relax” to other women.

My daughter whose acid reflux meant she screamed endlessly for the first few months of her life makes me sympathetic to moms who are overwhelmed. Wrestling with my bipolar disorder makes my heart tender towards those who are also struggling with mental health issues.

Every difficult situation I’ve been through, whether it’s self-induced or not, has been a way for God to open my eyes towards someone who is hurting. As I’ve grown older, Romans 8:28 has become more poignant: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God has literally taken my hurts, bad decisions, and painful dark moments, and used them for good. When I was in the depths of depression or the crisis of faith that my infertility threw me into, I sure didn’t feel like God was working for my good, but as I get older and the puzzle pieces of my life fall into place, I know that I’ve needed that pain to be a more compassionate counselor and human being.

So, I challenge you as parents, instead of “warning” our children about how awful adolescence can be or trying to erase their hurt feelings that come from broken hearts, bullying or unhealthy friendships, what if we helped our children identify the good that God can do in those situations?

What if instead of getting angry at those who are mean to our children, we encourage our children to use those hurt feelings to assist others? What if we taught them about Natalie Hampton, the 16-year-old teenager who created the Sit with Us app to combat bullying in schools after she was bullied for two years?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work towards protecting our children and giving them the tools to navigate adolescence. However, in those moments when they run to you crying, validate their hurt and speak Romans 8:28 into their life. Let them know that God can take all of it - the awkwardness, the social stresses, the broken heart of a first love - and use it for good. They may not see it now, but they will someday. I am often blessed when I hear adolescents who have been abused say they want to grow up and help other children who have been abused. They know that this current pain will make them more effective to help others who are struggling, but how often as parents do we discuss that concept?

And for those of you parents who have regrets about your past and feel overwhelmed when you watch your own children struggling, remember 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT): “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Those cringe-worthy situations you dealt with in your own adolescence will allow you to effectively comfort your own teenagers as they navigate this complicated, tech-driven, chaotic world. It can be uncomfortable to remember those past experiences, but when they allow us to teach our children that compassion that can arise from suffering, I promise, it is worth the discomfort.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finding Peace with my Bipolar Disorder

Recently, a friend of mine asked me a simple question, "How do you keep it all together?" As someone who struggles with Bipolar Disorder, there is no simple answer to this question. There are days where it is difficult to get out of bed, to shower, to clean my house, to do simple tasks like get dressed. There are other days where I come home, utterly and completely exhausted, and I beat myself up. How come I am so worn out? I didn't do that much today, I don't have a physically exhausting job, am I just that lazy?
Psalm 139:14
But then I remind myself. When you are struggling with depression, getting out of the house, getting to work, smiling and joking with my coworkers and listening and counseling people is a lot of work. No wonder I'm tired.

I have dealt with Bipolar disorder for the last 17 years, I have been medicated for my entire adult life, I have had up and downs, good moments and ugly moments. So how have I been able to accomplish things? How do I raise children, work as a counselor, support my husband, write, teach and serve at church?

At the risk of sounding cliche, it's one word: God.

There are days where I am worn out emotionally, but the moment that first client steps in my office, I am animated, engaged and present for them. I can see eight clients back-to-back, and feel excited and involved as a counselor. The verse from Phillipians 4:13 goes through my head often as I drive home from work: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (ESV). I can literally start my day completely depleted, and leave feeling strengthened and energetic. I know that is God's strength, not my own.

However, I don't want to minimize the struggle. For me, it is not as simple as just being "a good Christian." Any one of us who struggles with Bipolar disorder knows that managing mental health is complicated. To be able to function and live a thriving life is a delicate balance of God's strength, a strong support network, good medication, counseling and tons of self-care. As I pondered the idea of "keeping it together," I was struck by three things that have helped me over the years:

1. Acknowledge your limitations. I almost cringe while writing this. I don't want anyone to feel like I'm implying that people with mental health issues are limited. There are many amazing people who have diagnoses that do incredible things. However, for me, I have learned that due to my mental health, I do have limitations. I have been blessed to be able to work, and I think that my own mental health issues make me a very empathetic counselor. Self-harm? I've done it. Terrible self-esteem? Been there. Poor choices that hurt others? Check. 

When I look at my clients, who are struggling with self-doubt and frustration about their mental health, I get it. However, I have also learned that I can really only work part-time. I am an extrovert, and I love my job, but if I overextend myself, I end up completely shattered. 

I have learned that overextension leaves me depressed to the point of not being able to function, and I end up stuck coping with mood swings and irritability towards my family. I used to beat myself up for not being to "do more," but the reality is I have to work within the parameters that my mental health gives me. There are periods of my life where I can do more, there are other periods where I have to turn down opportunities and practice lots of self-care.

Now, this is different for everybody. Don't run to a family member with Bipolar and say, "limit yourself." Some people can do more, some have limits. However, for myself, I do feel like accepting those limits and asking God to let me be the most effective woman I can be in a part-time manner has been helpful.

2. Accept yourself. I often tell clients that there is a grief process that occurs with a diagnosis. When a client is diagnosed with a chronic medical issue like diabetes or fibromyalgia, there is an acknowledgement that it takes time to accept that diagnosis. Many people with mental health issues have to go through that same acceptance. There is a grieving process, a sense of "I may never be 'normal' again." That is a painful process, one I spent most of my twenties dealing with. I grieved having to be on medications that often have funky side effects, I felt incredible guilt that I took Bipolar medications while pregnant, meaning I also couldn't breastfeed (off my medications, I get incredibly suicidal and depressed, so we decided that the risks were outweighed by the benefits). 

In my twenties, I went through all the stages of grief:
  • Denial. I thought "maybe I'm not really Bipolar" which led to going off my medication, which led to crazy mood swings and my spouse asking me to go back on them.
  • Anger. I wondered "why would God make me this way?" and struggled with a crisis of faith.
  • Bargaining. "Maybe if I just pray more, or am a better Christian, I'll be healed and be fine."
  • Depression. "This is it, I'm always going to be a mess."
  • Acceptance. It took a decade to get here, but I am at peace with my diagnosis. I believe that it allows me empathy for my clients, I love my creativity, and I know that Psalm 139:14 is 100% true: "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Bipolar disorder is the thorn in my side, but it is who I am. I do believe that whether God created me this way, or it's simply a side effect of bad brain chemistry and a fallen world, I am wonderfully made and I know that God has a beautiful plan for my life.

3. Redefine healing. I spent most of my twenties wanting to be healed from Bipolar disorder. I resented medication, I resented grieving, I resented being terrified through two pregnancies that the medication I take would cause side effects in my unborn babies. I cried out to God to heal me, but still struggled.

This changed a few years ago. I was driving home on a beautiful night from my job where I had been able to help others who were struggling, and Chris Tomlin came on the radio singing, "My God is healer, awesome in power, my God, my God." And it hit me like a stack of bricks.

I was healed. No, I wasn't free from my disorder, but I was a functional, happy, blessed human being who God had allowed to do some pretty awesome things. If someone loses a limb, we don't expect healing to be that they grow a new leg. Instead, we view them with awe that they have been able to get through something incredibly difficult, then do awesome things!  I realized that instead of waiting for complete healing, I could view it as I was doing incredible things with Bipolar. 

And just as someone who is an amputee runs a race inspires us, I hope that even when I have days where I can't get out of bed, where my irritability makes me prickly, or I can't sleep because I'm hypomanic, my peace, acceptance, encouragement and empathy for those who are hurting inspires others.

I've learned to shift my focus from feeling resentful and angry to incredible joy. God has given me great medication, an awesome psychiatrist, the most understanding husband ever, a support network beyond my wildest dreams, a beautiful home, wonderful children and incredible life. One that is rich  and in spite of my mental health, or maybe because of my mental health, I don't take it for granted. 

It is only because of my limitations and weaknesses that I can appreciate God's work in my life. Paul (who struggled with a "thorn" in his side as well that kept him humble), wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV), 

"But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

It is when I am "weakest" that God allows me to be strong. Some day, God might heal me completely, and I would not complain. However, for now, I am just incredibly grateful and can proudly say, "I am wonderfully and fearfully made." Bipolar and all.

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