Taking Care of My Mental Health

If I’ve learned anything in my (so far) ten years as a mom and (so far) eight years as a business owner, it’s that I need to take care of myself.

I’m blogging today in honor of National Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 5-11) and participating in a synchroblog with others who have stories to share about mental illness and mental health.

My friend and former editing client, Sarah Lund, is hosting the synchroblog to raise awareness and to launch her book, Blessed are the Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness, Family, and the Church. I’ve placed links to all the other participating blogs at the bottom of this post.

NAMI green ribbon

Let me start by saying that I’ve never experienced full-blown mental illness first hand. Others close to me have, but I didn’t ask permission to share their stories. So for now I will simply say that their experiences have informed my own stories about how important it is to care for yourself and tend to your mind.

Second thing you need to know: I’m going to say a lot about God in this post. I do not believe that God or prayer is all you need when you have mental illness. Sometimes you do need medical care and the guidance of a trained, professional therapist.

The actual content of what I believe changes daily, and some days I don’t believe in God at all. Some days I think prayer is an empty ritual, if not a downright waste of time. But I am a churchgoer. And the reason I continue to attend church—at least the one reason that has remained constant over time—is this: I need community.

Life changes are important times for self care.

These life transitions, in particular, were tough tests for me (and my admittedly stress-prone, perfectionist) personality:

  • First semester of college…which included a friend’s suicide attempt
  • First job in my chosen profession…which I discovered was a terrible match for me
  • Deciding that two children was enough…which was, surprisingly, much harder than the transition from no children to one and from one to two. And even harder than miscarriage.

Here are the strategies I found to take care of myself and manage my stress. I hope they will help you too.

1. Intentionally spending time in a diverse community

Now, I’m introverted by nature. I’d much rather curl up with a book or hum quietly while folding laundry than hang out with other people, given the choice.

But during my first semester of college, I realized I’d need to be with people in order to survive. A friend of mine, faced with a few hours of alone time at a moment when she was missing home, anxious over her course load, and maybe also tipsy, had attempted suicide. She was unsuccessful. Still, I didn’t want that to be me.

Getting myself out of the circle of 18-to-24-year-olds was critical. I craved a broader perspective. I needed old people and children around me to help me remember that life isn’t all about finishing the next essay or acing the next test.

I went to church. Not the college chapel, and not the contemporary service at a nearby megachurch, as these mainly catered to my age group. Instead I found a small congregation that counted only a few other college students among its membership.

I also got a job my freshman year. I worked for Aramark food service on campus. The work itself was not so fun. The smell of decaying carrot peels lingered under my fingernails long after I’d scrubbed up—ugh!

But back in the kitchen, in between trips to the walk-in fridge, I talked to people outside of my normal social group. They told me about their kids, their money problems. We listened to conjunto and norteño music, cranked all the way up.

kitchen workers preparing food

Photo by tpsdave on Pixabay

In addition to giving me a grounding perspective, church and my 15-hour-a week job kept me occupied. Without those things to give shape to each week, I’d have had way too much empty, ambiguous time on my hands. Where do I go next? What do I do now? Should I study? Work out? Party? Not having structure made me anxious.

I admit that I did party, a little, and experimented with sleep schedules so erratic I was almost as addled much of the time as I would have been if I were drinking a lot. But going to my job and church helped keep things in balance.

2. Asking for help

This one might seem counter intuitive. How is asking for help self care?

Asking for help is a habit, just like eating well and exercising. It’s a habit I’m not really good at. But it’s something you can practice, especially if you’re part of a community that regularly shares “joys and concerns” such as a church. I rarely speak my needs out loud, but I do listen to others and repeat the refrain, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

When I did speak up in church about needing a new job, it was only after I’d been through months of throwing up every morning before work, and shaking with nerves such that I couldn’t write legibly on the chalk board sometimes. I was a teacher, with an MA in Secondary Education and hundreds of extra internship hours over and above what was required for certification.

But I hated my job. And I was furious with myself for hating the job I’d invested so much in. Moreover, I was ashamed to be feeling all of this right in front of the students I was meant to serve.

So I finally spoke all this to the small service group I was part of, the church deacons, after I’d been advised that my teaching contract wouldn’t be renewed.

companionable candles

Companionable candles. Photo by dpaphotos75 on Pixabay

They showered me with prayer. Many people shared contacts and job leads. One friend mentioned that he had done audio recordings for a publishing company in town, to allow people with visual impairments to take various educational and psychological tests. His tip, offered in kindness, with no expectations I’d return the favor, led me into a career I love.

3. Making music

About a week after I decided not to have any more children, my friend, who’d joked with me about it over a lighthearted dinner and wine, found out she was surprise-pregnant. She had two kids too, and had also decided with her partner that two was plenty. Well, now there was a third on the way.

Wait a minute. Maybe this was some sort of sign. Maybe I SHOULD have another child after all, and this is God’s way of telling me!

Except that: No. Hell, no.

Would God would put my friend through the misery of all-day “morning” sickness, not to mention new financial worries, just to tell me not to abandon my fertility? No, She would not. That’s ridiculous!

But…should I at least think this one over before making any permanent decisions? For nearly a year I struggled over the question. I cried at commercials. I cried in church. I cried at awkward moments and even in front of my kids.

Maybe, I tried to convince myself, this is delayed grief? I’d had a miscarriage while trying to conceive my second child, but had kept so busy that I never really let it sink in.

I can’t claim to know the pain, the ache of longing, of someone experiencing infertility. But my feelings were something akin to that. And again, I felt ashamed. Guilty. My kids are healthy and wonderful. How dare I ask for more children, when some people would be happy if they could just have one?

Music kept me whole during this phase. Breathing in and out with my church orchestra group, or just standing in the pews singing a hymn, I’d mentally calculate how much breath to take in, how to measure it out to make it last to the end of the phrase.

woman playing clarinet: close up of hands

I actually play flute, not clarinet, but I love this close-up photo. By cojul on Pixabay

Taking collective breaths, adding up each individual’s air contribution…how much is needed to make up the whole? The mental math of music distracted from the pain.

Playing “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity” from Holst’s The Planets—in that stressful phase of life, also kept me present with others.

Others who could help absorb the pain and even transform it.

***

Here are links to the other participants in this synchroblog:

Sarah Griffith Lund – Stronger Together –http://sarahgriffithlund.com/2014/10/06/stronger-together/

Robyn Henderson-Espinoza – When ‘crazy’ is a distant relative –http://irobyn.com/?p=4441

Leigh Finnegan – The One I Love –http://simpleigh.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-one-i-love-synchroblog.html

Liz Dyer – Finding the Courage to Break the Silence –http://gracerules.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/finding-the-courage-to-break-the-silence/

Stacy Sergent – ‪#‎BlessedAreTheCrazy‬: No Longer Protecting Secrets –http://stacynsergent.com/2014/10/07/blessedarethecrazy-no-longer-protecting-secrets/

Patricia Watson – Grace Amid Crazy –http://graceamidchaos.wordpress.com/2014/10/07/grace-amid-crazy/

Glenn Hager – When Mental Illness Strikes Home –http://www.glennhager.com/2014/10/06/when-mental-illness-strikes-home/

Crystal Rice – Looking Well on the Outside –http://wordsmatterfaith.blogspot.com/2014/10/looking-well-on-outside.html

Cara Strickland – Making Peace With My Mental Illness –http://www.littledidsheknow.net/2014/10/06/making-peace-with-my-mental-illness/

Jeremy Myers – A True Foot Washing Service –http://www.tillhecomes.org/foot-washing-service/

David Hosey – The church, the psych ward, and me: a #BlessedAreTheCrazy synchroblog-ama-watzit –http://www.foolishhosey.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-church-psych-ward-and-me.html

Ona Marie – Mental Illness, Family, and Church: A Synchroblog –http://onamarae.com/2014/10/06/mental-illness-family-and-church-a-synchroblog/

Carol Kuniholm – A Prayer for the Broken –http://wordshalfheard.blogspot.com/2014/10/a-prayer-for-broken.html

Eric Atcheson – #BlessedAreTheCrazy –http://revericatcheson.blogspot.com/2014/10/blessedarethecrazy.html

Joan Peacock – “Alice in Wonderland”, a Bipolar BookGroup Discussion Guide – http://celticjlp.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/alice-in-wonderland-the-bipolar-bookgroup-discussion-guide/

Justin Steckbauer – Mental Illness, Awareness, and Jesus –http://lifestyleofpeace.blogspot.com/2014/10/mental-illness-awareness-and-jesus.html

Kathy Escobar – Mental Illness: 3 Sets of 3 Things –http://kathyescobar.com/2014/10/06/mental-illness-3-sets-of-3-things/

Leah Sophia – Synchroblog: Mental Illness/Health Awareness –http://www.desertspiritsfire.com/2014/10/synchroblog-mental-illnesshealth.html

Josh Morgan – Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health –http://jacobscafe.blogspot.com/2014/10/peace-between-spirituality-and-mental.html

Tara Ulrich – Breaking the Silence –http://prayingontheprairie.blogspot.com/2014/10/breaking-silence.html

Sarah Renfro – #BlessedAreTheCrazy – http://www.revrenfro.com/sarahs-blog/blessedarethecrazy

Steve Hayes – Blessed are the crazy: Mental illness and the Christian faith –http://khanya.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/blessed-are-the-crazy-mental-illness-and-the-christian-faith/

Michelle Torigian – A Life of Baby Steps –http://michelletorigian.com/2014/10/06/a-life-of-baby-steps/

Bec Cranford-Smith – Mental Health and the Pastor (vlog) –https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=847020722688&set=o.945367335493240&type=2&theater