Anxiety, Depression, Academics, and Faith

Life has been busy and exciting. We are at the tail end of our summer vacation and we are gearing up for our next homeschool year to start in just a little over a week. The girls have spent many long summer days with friends, enjoying camps and the pool, as well as afternoon backyard games with the neighbors. My husband and I even got the chance to take a beach vacation by ourselves.

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The Great Southern, Seaside, Florida

It thrills me to see the girls soaking up their childhood with such free spirits, exploring and forming new friendships. Although we have packed away the books for the past couple of months, the learning has never ceased.

Hiking  photo courtesy of Melanie Atkins

Hiking, Photo Courtesy of Melanie Atkins

     We are handling things much differently this upcoming school year. For one, we will have our youngest joining us for Kindergarten. Also, I’m putting my 4th and 6th grader on completely different curriculum paths. One needs a more structured, pre-programed approach that mimics school at home, while the other needs a more self-directed learning path. I feel confident that each child is getting a program tailored to their specific needs, which will be an ongoing process as I become more engaged with how their specific minds work.

     I have high hopes for the upcoming year. Ironically, I contribute that hope to how badly our previous year ended. The girls all finished with good marks and in a timely manner, but I was battling an unexpected illness that left me debilitated for the last several weeks of our school year. It’s hard to write about, but it is necessary to be transparent due to the fact that so many moms out there struggle with the same issues, yet fear being open and honest about what they are going through. Us moms have so much weight on our shoulders, whether we homeschool, or not. Now more than ever in the history of parenting have mothers been under so much stress to do everything right. It all stems from a deep love for and wanting the best for our children, but the problem is the plethora of information on the internet that seems to be constantly contradicting the article before it. Do I need to hover, or do I need to let go? Is this over-parenting, or not parenting enough? Is there an ideal in-between that even exists? 

     In our struggle to do everything right, us moms are crumbling inside. Facebook is a dangerous place to visit when you’re stressing out about being a good parent. We must all know that posts are carefully constructed and life is beautifully edited for social media. Nevertheless there is that one mom whose body is more perfect, whose kids make better grades and win more awards, and whose social life seems to be perfectly balanced between diapers and MNO’s. Sigh.

     This constant pressure I put on myself to do everything correctly hit me full force this year. I struggled to relax. I was always worried from day one that I wasn’t going to do something right and that my children would pay severely for it. If it wasn’t their curriculum being just right, it was making sure they got enough exercise, that they had plenty of social time with friends, and that their extracurricular classes were enriching enough. I tried to give my girls my all, which I did, but in the meantime I was slowly stripping away pieces of myself that I desperately needed to hold onto–mainly my sense of self and my own sanity.

     As the school days piled up and my worry never ceased, I came to a breaking point. In March I suffered an abdominal wall injury that left me unable to enjoy my normal active lifestyle. As a precautionary, I decided to visit my family doctor. Little did I know that within a three week time span I would be sent through a series of tests that would throw me into one of the worst bouts of depression and anxiety I have ever faced. In that time I had an ultrasound, a CT scan, a transvaginal ultrasound, a pap smear, an ultrasound on my liver, an MRI, and a colonoscopy. For what I figured was simply a muscle strain, suddenly I was being scanned for cancer and other life-altering diseases. Although, thankfully, all of those tests came back negative and it was ruled that I did indeed just suffer a muscle strain, my psyche paid a huge price. I became so fearful and nervous that I started experiencing debilitating panic attacks–up to three or four a day–that sent me three different times to the emergency room. My anxiety and the associated panic attacks sent me into a downward spiral of deep depression. For many days all I could manage was to lie in bed. The physical effects on my body weren’t helping matters any. I experienced extreme nausea and muscle aches, which didn’t help the fact that I was also worrying constantly about my health. What if they missed something? I will never be the same.

     I felt permanently altered and broken. My husband worked from home many days just to be nearby. He, too, had suffered a severe bout of anxiety and depression in his college days, so he was able to sympathize with what I was going through. “It will take time,” he would tell me. “You will get back to your old self again, but you have to be patient. It takes time to heal from this.”

     My children were sweet and responsive. I hated for them to see me so differently than they knew me to be. I am active and engaging. I smile often, goof off, and laugh. Being outgoing, I’m always up for a good outing into the city, or to visit with friends. However, during this time it was like I had become someone else completely. I couldn’t smile. I was so scared all of the time. I never felt like I was going to get better. Looking back now, I’m grateful my children experienced this with me. I believe they got to see that even though your hero can come in the form of a strong mother, everyday heroes have weaknesses that make us very human. As a result, the girls have seemed to be a little more empathetic to the fact that I simply can’t do it all. They have since been more apt to embrace their sisterhood without me having to settle constant arguing. They have also started helping out more around the house. They have realized that Mommy can’t steer this ship alone; it takes all of us working collectively with the same goals in mind to get things done.

     It was the weight of stress that pulled me into a state of instability, but all of the doctor visits and referrals that seemed as though they would never end until they found something horribly wrong with me, was what sent me over the edge. I have always struggled off and on with mild depression and anxiety, but this was an entirely new beast. Thankfully, I was referred to an amazing psychiatrist who has offered me some of the best counseling, and who suggested that I take a medication at this point in my life to help me through a stressful time. He said that he sees a lot of women my age–mid to late 30’s–who are starting to enter a new stage of life. We are seeing people our age getting sick and some of them passing away. Our children are getting older and with that parenting is becoming more complex. It didn’t help that I had also suffered under severe stress for so many years with a child with special needs and my own struggle with perfection. It was only a matter of time before I would start to physically and mentally feel the negative effects. I protested at first, but ended up taking his advice; at a small dose, the  medication he recommended for anxiety and depression has helped me extensively.

     In one of our sessions, my doctor asked me if I knew what it meant to find the silver lining. “Yes,” I told him. “In the middle of any storm you have to look to find some good in the situation that will not only help you through, but will also teach you something that will allow you to positively impact the future.” At the time when I was explaining this, I felt like a fraud because I was sure that in this particular situation, I would not only never find the silver lining, but that I would never again see a glimmer of light beneath the dark cloud that wouldn’t cease to hover over me. God, however, had much different plans.

     In sheer desperation, I started praying every single day, several times a day. “God, please help me. I’m here, wide open. I have nothing left. My sense of control, which I always counted on, is gone. You’re in control. Take the lead. Put your hand out on the path and I’ll take it. My way doesn’t work. It leaves me panicked and rushed, always measuring myself up to what I feel I should be and where I feel I should be going instead of loving every piece of myself exactly where I am.”

     Slowly, I started feeling a little better, not only mentally, but physically. I noticed that my body started to ache less, my nausea started to go away, and my hope was starting to return. During one prayer session, it came to me that I should start praying the rosary every day. I suppose this is what happens when people say they “heard” the voice of God. I didn’t in the literal sense, but when I was quiet and still enough, I just knew this is what I needed to do. It’s what God wanted me to do.

     Suddenly, my prayer life became transformed. Praying the rosary allowed me to identify with Christ’s suffering on the cross. It allowed me to understand the importance of finding my strength in Him. It also has taught me a great deal about humility, as my prayers have slowly become less about my getting well, and more about praying for others in need. No longer was I praying alone because by meditating upon the mysteries of the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I was seeking an intercession of prayer from Mary herself and in doing so praying with her for the needs of others. My reward is the development of a deeper devotion to Christ through the sacraments and the Eucharist.

     Finally! I had found the silver lining to my own suffering. There was a purpose for me to have gone through a period in my life–albeit short-lived–that literally brought me to my knees with no choice but to pray while I was down there. Sometimes we have to lose it all in order to gain something much more valuable in return. I lost a sense of control and perfectionism, but in return I have graciously received the gift of humility. I had to lose something in order for room to be carved out for the Holy Spirit to enter and transform me. All I had to do was hold my hands up and let Him work within me so that His light could fill the void and shine outward with an outpouring of love. I realize that I sound like one of those crazy evangelicals, but I just can’t help myself. It’s too good not to share, and in doing so, I can’t possibly downplay the beauty of God’s redeeming grace.

     Never before have I faced a school year with so much excitement and hope, but it’s very different this time. Although I have always identified with Catholicism, I always wanted a secular curriculum. “I don’t want too much Jesus in our materials,” I would say.

     The truth is, Christ is the foundation of everything, and we should start and end every school day with a prayer and adoration for a Creator who brings us a sense of peace in a chaotic world–a peace that material things and achievement can’t give us alone.

     My anxiety about homeschooling and parenting has mostly ceased. I could care less about what the public schools are doing. I no longer think about what the private schools that we can’t afford are teaching. This is about us and no one else. This is our choice and these are our convictions. This is what we must do for our family. I also feel less intimidated by the accomplishments of others that I once felt I should be aspiring to–worldly pursuits that involve pleasing others more than receiving sanctifying grace. I am fully aware of my vocation, which is what homeschooling is:  a calling. There is absolutely no way for me to do this without integrating Christ into the very marrow of every single day, lest I become so overwhelmed by the sense of responsibility that I can no longer bear the weight. I can either crash down, or integrate the strength of God to help me carry the load.

     Surely we will teach our children about the world around them, introducing them to opposing views and keeping them informed more than sheltered. However, at the core will always be focusing on the importance of coming home to Christ where we can rest for a while and gather the strength to go out into the world again. My goal is to teach them not by force, but simply by example that going to Mass every Sunday, receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a regular basis, and having an adoration for the Eucharist provides the blessed fruit of life that our soul needs in order to not just survive, but to thrive. In the midst of teaching mathematical skills and writing, I can also teach them about the importance of virtues, and that no matter where they are led in life and whatever they decide to do, at the core needs to be a desire to do God’s work, simply by having a reverence for the gift of life in a humanitarian effort to impact the world around them in some way, either big or small. With that in mind, I’m fairly sure each day will compile with the next to set our footpath in a promising direction upon solid ground.

     There are no guarantees in life. I can’t hold the weight of the household on my shoulders, let alone the weight of comparing myself to others. The time that I have is now, and I know that to focus on each day instead of worrying about the next five years is essential to my own peace of mind and appreciation for the gifts I have been given. I can’t please everyone, but I can do my best to serve others through prayer and assistance. I can be a good example to my children each and every day, which is a better goal to have than to pick all of the best homeschooling materials and then worry incessantly that there could have been a better way. The only guarantee is today. There is no choice other than to embrace each morning without fear, and to do so with my rosary in hand.

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3 thoughts on “Anxiety, Depression, Academics, and Faith

  1. So eloquent as always. Always love reading your stuff and seeing your sweet, smiling face! Glad we are friends.

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