Wednesday, August 1, 2018

I Won A Contest

 From the writing contest I entered for Mother's Day: 
Hi. 
My name is Suzanne and although I am many things, warrior is certainly at the top of that list. 
I was a fairytale lover --- boy-obsessed from 1st grade until I graduated from high school. Fairytales taught me that I needed a man to take care of me and I believed from a young age that if I was loved by a man, I would have infinite worth.
I was married at the age of 19. And as we all do, I planned to spend the rest of my life building a future with my husband. I didn't expect it to be perfect but I expected it to always be our mess --- not his mess and my mess.
The thing is, my husband truly did love me. That part was not a lie. He was great at loving me when he wanted to. But he loved me conditionally. He loved me for certain parts of who I was and began to tear down the parts of me he didn’t like. I became a pawn in our marriage and learned that I was not the most important thing to him. But why? I couldn’t figure out what was more important.  I just knew things had shifted. He hardly ever wanted to be intimate with me and would stay up all night playing video games, claiming he had insomnia. I got used to marriage feeling mostly one-sided and found myself justifying the way he was treating me --- because at least he wasn’t physically abusing me. But I still wondered if the shift in our marriage was my fault.
I had given this man two beautiful children --- was it my body? Was I not sexy enough anymore?
For a girl who claimed to be strong and independent, I am surprised when I look back and realize how much I lost myself in my marriage. Then again, for a girl who claimed to be strong and independent, I had held the belief that my worth was dependent on a man for as long as I can remember.
Five years into my marriage, I was arguing with my husband one day when he told me he no longer believed in God and would not be attending church with us any longer. This shook me but I held my ground and poured myself into being a better wife and mother. I could fix this. I could mend this part of our world that felt bruised and broken. I felt our marriage falling apart but I wasn’t going to let it. I needed him and I felt he needed me too.
I found myself drowning while trying to save him. Often times, he came home from work angry and unresponsive and he would lock himself in our room or go outside to clean his guns or work on the car he was fixing up. The emotional abuse was weighing me down and I started to have panic attacks about seemingly normal things like what brand of food to buy. My husband would point my anxiety out and remind me how unstable I was and how I needed to continue therapy because I was causing hardships in our marriage. 
I thought it was me. I thought I was the reason things were falling apart. And so I tried to fix myself and allow him space by taking care of the kids with essentially no help. I didn't want to bother him. I didn't want to make things worse. I was sensitive to the fact that I was diagnosed with "mental health issues" and that it was ruining my marriage. 
And in the midst of me trying so hard to fix us, he abandoned our family in August of 2013, after seven years of marriage. Our children were only 5 and 4 years old and did not understand what was happening, so on top of being abandoned by my husband, I was left to tell my kids about the divorce by myself and deal with their heartache. And in turn, they knew I was their safe space and so they directed all of their anger toward me for months while begging me to bring their daddy back home. 
Throughout the 6 month process of separation and divorce, I found out that my husband was not the man he had claimed to be. I started to realize that I was not the only one struggling. He was addicted to pornography, among other things. I tried so hard to stay afloat throughout this time but I began to drown in the form of an eating disorder and severe anxiety. 
I felt so worthless. So used. So unloved. 
The trauma I experienced while learning about that betrayal is something I'm still healing from.
But I don't point that out to tell you how awful he is. Because the thing is, my ex-husband is not a monster. We don’t always get along and he certainly makes some poor choices when it comes to his treatment of myself and our children but he isn’t a monster. He is an addict that struggles with knowing how to treat the people he loves most. He pushes us away in fear of us rejecting him. Does that lessen my pain? No. But it helps me to understand that I was not the problem. I could not have been prettier, smarter, or more subservient. This battle wasn’t mine to win or lose. It was, and is, his battle to fight and he chose to fight it without me by his side.
I’ve endured a lot since my divorce 4 ½ years ago. I figured that the longer we were divorced, the easier things would get. And I guess, in some ways, that is true. But I still find that divorce affects myself and our children on a daily basis. I have endured some pretty awful fights, DCS reports, a difficult court trial, among the daily struggles that come when trying to co-parent with a person who has a hard time with communication. I struggle to help my children as they both deal with the trauma this has caused in their lives, resulting in general anxiety and separation anxiety. 
I was forced to find myself when my husband abandoned me. That event, although extremely traumatic for me, has shaped me into a person that I very much like. I did not curl up in a corner and die --- I fought for myself and my children. I graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree last summer. I am working two jobs to provide for my children. I got certified as a foster parent and was the mother of a sweet and sassy toddler for five months last year and last week, I was asked to take in a two-day-old baby boy and have been killin’ it in the motherhood department. My children are healthy and loved.
I still struggle with loneliness, especially when my kids go to their dad’s house but I know that my worth is not dependent on others. I will still live a beautiful life, even if I never remarry. I will continue to persevere when life slaps me in the face because I know for a fact that I can do hard things.
As the 5th anniversary of that traumatic August day creeps up on me, I wanted to share this letter I wrote a few months ago. I ended up winning that contest and was gifted a beautiful piece of jewelry that I wear often to remind myself how brave I am.

It's amazing to me how telling my story is healing, each and every time. This definitely doesn't contain it all and there are parts that will always be too personal but I am grateful that I can look back and remember the bad parts AND the good parts.

You guys, there was so much good. For years, the bad seemed to negate the good but I'm learning to validate those good times too.

They were real. They are real. 

It is still a rollercoaster. I think it always will be. But this is the hand I was dealt. This is a huge part of my journey. And telling my story is not to relive the past and open old wounds---it is a reminder of where I've been and where I am now.

I am grateful for the pain that has dissipated as the years have passed. 

And I am so incredibly grateful for the life I am currently living.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Divorce Failed Us

We were lucky in terms of a divorced family.

Most of our co-parenting issues seem to pale in comparison to other stories I've heard.

When we divorced, there weren't lawyers involved. Just us.

For the first year after divorce, I was trying to figure out boundaries because I just wanted the kids' lives to feel as normal as possible. So their dad came over for movie nights and we went hiking as a family and I held it together for the sake of our kids.

It wasn't easy for me. Because I was still betrayed and angry and I tried so hard to show him how well I was coping even though I was NOT coping well at all.

But at least the logistics were pretty easy---even if the emotions were brutal.

After a while, we got used to our groove but it still left lasting scars. Because every once in a while, the kids would call and beg to come home and I would stay strong for them until the phone hung up before sobbing into my pillow. The contrast of going from a full time stay-at-home mom to having times where a court document told me when I was and wasn't allowed to see them was awful.

Awful.

The Mama Bear in me just wanted to keep them in my arms at all times to protect them from the pain this was causing.

And when their dad remarried last summer, I was slapped in the face with the "life's not fair" motto. Because not only did it hurt me personally, it came attached with court papers for a change in the custody that was already painful for us.

So when I walked into that court room on January 4th, 2018, our future now in the hands of a judge who did not know us personally, I knew he could change everything and that it had the potential to negatively impact our family.

I knew I would have to be brave to show him whatever bits and pieces of our lives he was going to grasp before making the decision of where our kids would live.

And I think that's why the resounding anxiety has continued, even if it's quieter than it was January through April.

Because I've learned from that experience that so much of my life is out of my control. I don't just get to keep my kids when they're begging to stay. I can fight {and fight, I will} for what's best for them but in the end, a man who does not know our family and our situation is the one deciding how we live our lives.

Let's put this into perspective a little bit---your child has anxiety and is begging to sleep in his own bed, even though he was invited to a fun sleepover. Not only that, the sleepover is at his very best friend's house whom he loves being around. But he still doesn't want to leave you because you are his safe person. He would love to have a late night but he wants you to come back and get him later because the longer he is away from you, the more nervous he gets.

You're probably not going to force him to go, right? Because you want to protect your boy when he is feeling uneasy in a situation. Your mama bear instincts are to keep him close if he's begging to stay close.

That's where divorce has failed us. 

My children love their father very much but until this past year, he wasn't as involved and they were used to sleeping in my home (their home) approximately 26 days each month. They were used to the consistency I've worked so hard to give them.

But then our lives were put in the hands of a judge. 

And all things considered, that judge did an incredible job. He actually kept most of it the same.

But divorce still failed us in the end. 

Because my children were considered too young to be given choices. Their voices weren't given the chance to be heard. And they are continually shown that their voices won't be heard. Because---court documents trump their voices.

On Wednesday, a few weeks ago, as I sat on the phone with my little boy, he begged me to just drive over and tuck him into bed or come pick him up. I told him I wished I could. And as he got more choked up, he said, "I know, Mama.". 

The thing is, he knows I'd be there for him if I could. But divorce makes it so that his very own mother is not allowed to give him a hug just because he is requesting one from her. Because there is a brick wall of court papers that divides us when it isn't "my time".

That is where divorce fails us most.

What was obviously necessary for two parents splitting up takes it's toll on any children involved. Divorce divides what once was a unit.

And even though that is common sense knowledge, until you live it, you cannot know how hard it feels to divide what once was a family.


This part of divorce is harder for me to voice my feelings about because
1 --- My kids love their dad and he loves them. Their pain of being away from me has nothing to do with hating their dad.
2 --- We have worked so hard to build a beautiful life from the ashes of divorce and I believe we are doing that pretty well.

So when I tell you divorce has failed us, I don't say that to tell you our lives are ruined forever. They aren't.
Instead, I voice those feelings to tell you how difficult it is to co-parent and have pieces of paper that tell you you're not allowed to see your babies.

Because when I held my precious newborns, I never imagined I would only raise them 75% of the time and not 100% of the time.

And they never imagined it either.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Leo

It was Easter Sunday 2018. 

The kids were with their dad and my brother had slept over at my house to watch General Conference with me that morning.

I was recovering from a stomach bug from the day before and my neck and upper back were painfully sore.

Hayley kept texting me throughout the day because she wanted to pull a prank on her dad---it was April 1st and she was sad not to be with me because "Mom pulls the best pranks". #winning

I practically ruined the deviled eggs I made for Sunday dinner but my mom helped me salvage them when we got to her house.

Dinner was delicious and I was looking forward to the Easter desserts. 

And then, after dinner, my phone rang. "No Caller ID". And I have learned in the past year to ALWAYS answer those calls because 99% of the time, they are coming from DCS. I didn't think much of it because for the weeks leading up to that day, I had been called a few times on weekends, asking if I could take in sibling sets.

And I know I take on a lot of things that seem like too much for how busy we are but I also know my limits---and each time they called about a sibling set of 2-3 kids, my heart ached as I said I couldn't do it.

I figured this would be no different. 

So I answered the phone. "Hello, this is the DCS placement center. I have it listed that you would prefer a foster child under 12 months. I have a 2-day-old baby needing placement." 

I wanted to scream YES at her but I knew I needed to make sure I had everything set up so I asked if I could call her right back. "Sure. Just make sure it's in the next 10 minutes or I need to find another placement." 

So I called my people. I set up childcare. I prayed and felt so much peace. I knew he was supposed to come to our home.

I called DCS back and asked her when they needed to drop him off. She advised I get home soon because she knew they were coming from the hospital but she didn't know how long it would take.


Twenty minutes later, I was staring at a precious newborn that I had only just met---and yet, I felt like I already knew him.

It's been 4 weeks since that day and Leo [the name we gave him] is the perfect baby. In fact, my friend who babysits him makes fun of me because of the amount of times a day I call him perfect.

Leo came to our home at a time when my anxiety was still high. In fact, when I made the decision to put myself back on the 'open bed' list, I was torn because I wanted to be 1,000% ready but I also kept getting a prompting that it was time.

It was time.

Leo is 4 weeks old now. I really don't know how it's already been weeks. At the same time, being his momma has felt so natural and easy.

The kids are obsessed with him. In fact, when I set up babysitters for Leo while I teach dance on Saturday mornings, Andersen was SO offended that I would not just let HIM take care of the newborn baby.

Hayley wasn't too keen on the idea of another boy in the house but as soon as she saw Leo, she was head over heels as well.

And me? I'm in love all over again. I. Am. Attached. And I know that will make it hard when we say goodbye but it is worth it. Leo deserves to have unconditional love. He deserves to have a bonded relationship with our family. He deserves to spend his first months of life in a safe environment where he can learn and grow with a family of support.


And we are that family. 

We will give Leo everything he needs and we will love him for however long we can.

Foster care really is such an oddly beautiful thing. My eyes have been opened to how much brokenness exists in our world---but they've also seen the beautiful masterpiece that is capable of being created with those broken pieces.

Going back to the anxiety I had been experiencing since our court trial in January, the night Leo was brought to my home was the first of many anxiety-free days. I can't quite explain how having him makes me feel but it just feels right.

I went the first 3 weeks without experiencing ANY anxiety. This 4th week hasn't been as carefree but it has nothing to do with him. And in comparison to how I used to feel, this change has been miraculous.

I am more exhausted than I think I've ever been in my whole life. Waking up with a newborn all night and then working two jobs and doing online school during the day is completely psychotic. But I am happier than I've been in a long time.

Leo needed our safe home but we needed his beautiful soul. 

And that makes the future heartache all worth it. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

I Am Not Unbreakable

When I was fourteen, I went to a church camp called Especially For Youth. It was one of the best weeks of my entire teenage life and I owe that mainly to one person in particular.

Her name was Jalene and she was my camp counselor.

Jalene was one of those people who could make you feel special no matter what. And being a needy, awkward teenager, I gravitated to her from day one. I'm sure it was annoying to her but she never made me feel that way.


About halfway through that week at church camp, she shared a scripture with us during one of our devotionals and that scripture quickly became my favorite; partly because it really did speak to me and partly because it came from my new idol.

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1 Corinthians 10:13

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

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To this day, whenever that scripture is referred to, I am transported back to being an awkward teenager who felt unloved and unimportant and I am reminded of what that scripture did for my soul.

It gave me hope. 

It gave me hope because I was a teenager who hated my body and wondered if my life really had meaning. I was angry that my life felt hard and I compared the lives of my friends and wondered why I was feeling so devastated about the life God had picked for me.

I figured this scripture was God's way of saying, "I've pushed you to your breaking point and your future does not hold difficult trials." 

it'skindafunnytomenow

Because surely, a God who wouldn't give me more than I could handle would never let me struggle with a miscarriage or infertility or divorce or addiction or betrayal. All of those things would be too much and God would know it.

I didn't have enough faith in myself that I would be strong enough to handle anything harder than my teenage break-ups and constant fights with my family and eating disorder battle. And based on that reasoning, I assumed I would escape those "big" trials that I had watched other people enduring.

Because the way that I interpreted that scripture was pretty black and white. "I can't handle that so He won't allow me to go through that." Simple.


In the midst of divorce, I remember revisiting that scripture and hating everything about it. It was now a liar. I was a single mom and I was broken. Completely broken.

How could I have been so stupid? God couldn't make someone choose to stay married to me. I was so angry at myself for having false hope in that scripture.

And while trying to put my pieces back together from divorce, I experienced another traumatic event that hurt my children and myself. And although I thought I couldn't break any more, I did. Pieces of my heart that I had put back together shattered to an even greater degree.

Somewhere in the middle of this, I stopped trusting God. I didn't lose faith in His existence---I just stopped believing what I had trusted in that scripture. And in the midst of the darkest times, my only thoughts sounded like this: WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW?! I thought God wouldn't let me break! 

But God did NOT stop me from breaking. 

And I shouldn't have expected Him to. 

When I read that scripture at age 14, I interpreted it to fit my anxious mind. If God wouldn't tempt me above what I was able to endure, He would know I'm definitely not strong enough to endure "x, y, and z".

But there was a key piece of that scripture that I was looking past. The very last part of that scripture states "that ye may be able to bear it". And if the scripture ends with that phrase, doesn't that mean none of us are actually exempt from pain and suffering in this life? Why would God tell us we would be able to bear hard things if He was going to shield us from all of the hard things?

So it finally clicked. And I didn't really like that it clicked. Because that meant I wasn't exempt and that I had no right to be angry at God and that I was, in fact, capable of breaking.

God would let me break. 

But as promised, He would provide a way for me to put my shattered pieces back together. He would help me escape the very depths of Hell if I would reach my hand out and hold onto His.

And as I put those pieces back together, differently each time, He shows me where certain pieces belong in my ever-growing soul. He heals me, not by erasing the pain but by strengthening the shattered pieces so that in the end, I am a better person.

When God promises us that we are stronger than our temptations, He is quick to add that WITH HIM we can handle them.

It isn't that God won't let us break. It isn't that we will never experience temptations that we fully believe are out of our control.
The truth is that God meets us in those dark alleys and says, "Follow me", and when we do, we realize we can bear ANYTHING with Him by our side.

I no longer believe I am exempt from trials just because I may not be able to handle them. 

Instead, I try my best to trust in God so that when I break, I can allow Him to help me put myself back together again.

It doesn't always happen easily. There is still some small part of me that feels anger toward God when I'm faced with something difficult. And ironically, that is because I have faith that He can heal me. It isn't because I doubt Him. It is because I'm over here having panic attacks and thinking, "I know You have the power to heal me so why is this still happening?"

Although it seems like a negative thing, to talk about how I am NOT unbreakable, it helps me. Knowing that I can break reminds me that it is ok to feel the way I need to feel and grieve the way I need to grieve. It reminds me that this type of break isn't permanent but that my timeline doesn't have to be rushed.

It's ok to break. 

Everyone does. 

And everyone has the capability of putting those pieces back together, to create a whole new masterpiece.

I love my breakable life. I hate anxiety but I love my life.

And I think what I love the most is that it's possible to love life, even when the sun is hiding behind the dark clouds and the rain seems never-ending.

In the middle of this struggle where my anxiety is almost always overactive in my brain, I still have some of the most beautiful days and I'm still capable of making really amazing and brave choices.

Anxiety doesn't ruin my life. It can't---because I won't let it.

This week has been full of choices that have left me in awe of my own strength. I got to start observing at my old high school on Thursday.
On Friday, I got to teach my very first 15-minute lesson (planned all by myself) to a classroom of 10th graders and I wasn't even a little bit anxious. It went really well and I found myself excited, knowing that I will soon have that as my every day career.
On top of that, I am one month into my teaching certificate and decided to take FIVE classes---all of which I currently have 100% in.
My house is NOT a disaster and I've already done all laundry from our vacation last week.
Anxiety hits my eating habits hard but I've chosen healthier options multiple times in the past two weeks (sounds like baby steps, feels like giant steps).
I've gotten multiple calls (no placements yet) for foster care and I'm just chillin' over here like, "Bring. It. On." Because if I didn't think it was the right thing to do in the midst of all this crazy, I wouldn't be doing it.

I love the life I'm living. It gets lonely, sure. But it's pretty darn great.

And I am grateful that God allows me to break so that I recognize just how strong I am with Him by my side.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Our Invisible Scars: Mindy's Story

I once wrote a piece on my old blog about invisible scars and the validity of fighting battles that no one else can see.

And at the time, I was battling my eating disorder and referring to the emotional scars from my divorce.

Since then, I've been trying to figure out this new me, this person who has invisible scars that don't really make sense to anyone else. I've tried loving this anxious, paranoid person that I've become because she is still me and often times, she is the most prominent part of me.

And it's been hard. 

Loving this part of me is not easy at all. 
I get really impatient with my anxiety and I often feel stupid for feeling the way that I do. It takes a lot for me to be able to step back and validate my anxious feelings instead of dismissing them or shaming them.

Because in reality, there is usually a reason I can come back to that validates the way that I'm feeling.

For example, I have pretty irrational anxiety when it comes to losing people I love. And sometimes I'm really impatient with myself about this. Because spending time worrying about whether my kids are safe at school or whether someone I love will leave me does not actually stop bad things from happening.
And sometimes it's hard for me to validate the fact that my husband left me because I don't want to 'just be the victim' but in reality, those choices have left some pretty intense scars on my heart.
So it makes sense why I struggle with separation anxiety.

Living with these things has really caused a lot of speculation about life and what the people around me are going through.

When I 'people watch', I wonder what has made that particular person who they are. I wonder what they've been through and how they're doing right now.
I imagine their invisible scars---the really tough things that they've lived through---and I wonder if they still feel those scars or if they have been able to move past the most heart-wrenching parts of their lives.

I wonder who has anxiety, who is depressed, and who is feeling self-conscious that day. I wonder how many of their stories involved thoughts of suicide or other self-hate/self-harm.

And although it isn't any of my business what their deeply personal stories are, I do this to remember that everyone has fought battles and everyone has reasons for why they are passionate about certain things or why they are in a negative mood or why they seem so tired today.

I don't believe people are just mean or angry because they thought that'd be a fun mood to try out for the day.
I believe there are reasons. 
In fact, I've been hurt on more than one occasion by people who had promised to love me and although my pain was and is real, they had reasons. There is more to the story than just a, "He left me because he's a jerk and now we're divorced."

People have stories and reasons for their choices. 

And whether their choices are right or wrong, I believe that most people, in the situations they have found themselves in, have tried to do the best they can with what they know.

I don't think it is our job to condemn others for all the ways they are failing.

I believe it is our job to build them up when the world tries to depict them as a failure. 

Sure, we need a judicial system and boundaries and protection. But that is not the level I'm picturing right now.

I'm talking about our coworkers, our friends---even our family members. 

Isn't it so easy to find the flaws in other people? When they mess up at work or they didn't put away their dishes or they bowed out on a girls night---our first thought is often annoyance and we often sneak some judgement in there too.

But sometimes, the people we love are fighting invisible battles too and when we point out their mistakes, all it does is show them that their heart is not safe with us. And so maybe they stay quiet when they would've spoken up.

Last year, I had to do a project in one of my classes that involved interviewing a woman who either worked in the healthcare industry or had a diagnosis that caused them to need a higher number of doctor appointments.

I chose to use my friend, Mindy, who has Multiple Sclerosis.

Mindy was one of my closest friends in high school. She always understood me and had my back, when I often believed that the world had turned against me. She almost always had a huge smile on her face and I have never seen her treat another person unkindly.

In high school, Mindy had some health problems but nothing major. She just seemed to get sick easier than most kids do and I remember her complaining of headaches and other pains sometimes. The thing is, this was my perspective---things I actually remember from high school---which means, it was probably much worse than what I had heard or witnessed.

Mindy is now married with two young children. And a few years ago, she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis after a portion of her body went numb and she pushed doctors to do further testing. And since that diagnosis, I have seen a completely different side of my friend.

I have seen someone who is brave enough to talk about their bad days so that other people know they are not alone. I have seen a mother do everything she is able to for her children while also showing that needing help is not a sign of weakness. I have seen her {still} smiling in pictures more often than not. And I have learned more awareness for those struggling with MS.

Mindy has invisible scars. Her body doesn't always work the way she wants it to. It doesn't take more will power or trying harder or praying more.

And when I think about Mindy's situation, about the pain she is probably in each time I see her (although her face shows a huge smile), I try and remind myself that there are so many people I interact with whose stories I do not know.

So while I've asked for your patience personally in the past, I'm asking for your patience with everyone else in your life.

Because stating I have anxiety out loud might bring about some awareness but I can't change the way you view or treat other people. And I think if you knew their stories, you'd probably react differently toward them.


**********************

If you'd like to read the essay portion of my project to learn a little more about MS and Mindy's struggles, keep on reading!

Mindy Hermann is a 29-year-old female, married to her husband, Mike, and mother to her two young children. She was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in June of 2017 at the age of 27. Mindy had gone to the hospital with right eye pain and had been diagnosed with inflammation in her optic nerve. At this time, she was referred to an ophthalmologist, who she was able to see the very next morning. This ophthalmologist confirmed she had optic neuritis and got her in to see a neurologist that afternoon. The neurologist she saw was not familiar with pain when it comes to Multiple Sclerosis and ordered an MRI but Mindy’s insurance did not cover this procedure so she did without it. Exactly one month after this experience, Mindy began to go numb from her rib to her knee on the left side of her body. Days later, she found herself back in the emergency room, this time begging for them to give her an MRI because she suspected it was Multiple Sclerosis. Doctors gave her the MRI and her diagnosis was confirmed.
             Mindy’s struggles are far from over and as she described in her interview, the symptoms of her Multiple Sclerosis have escalated throughout the past two years. Currently, Mindy deals with trigeminal neuralgia, foot drop, Multiple Sclerosis hugs, and optic neuritis. She has been numb from her chest to her toes since the month she was diagnosed, back in June of 2015. She also states that her struggles include depression and anxiety, two effects that coincide with an article I read while preparing for this essay, entitled Depressive and Anxiety Symptomatology amongst Multiple Sclerosis Young Women: The Occupational Therapy’s Perspective. This study, which was done in Greece at the Association of Multiple Sclerosis, found that 25% of the women experienced depressive symptoms and that 14%-41% were experiencing anxiety symptoms. (Ioanna, Margarita & George 2015) Living with Multiple Sclerosis is especially difficult on Mindy, as she is raising her 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. Mindy stays home with her children and often feels guilty because she cannot do some of the seemingly normal things like taking her children to the park or walking them around at the local zoo. Because of these struggles, Mindy is extremely lucky to have a pretty strong support group. Her husband, Mike, and her mother are her biggest supporters and help her with the things she needs. When she gets transfusions, her mother has sat with her for hours and played games with her. Aside from the people who can physically be there for her, Mindy has also found support in an online Multiple Sclerosis community and feels comfortable asking them questions and being able to vent when she is having her low days. Mindy also talks about the support her friends have been. Although it might seem like a small way to support someone, Mindy has said that when she posts articles on social media and finds out her friends have read and/or shared them, she feels a deep sense of support from them and appreciates that the people in her life are trying to be more aware of the effects of Multiple Sclerosis.
            The obstacles that Mindy has faced in the past two years have been very difficult for her. This started with her first doctor who did not want to do an MRI. Mindy had to push to get an MRI at the hospital because she knew this was serious and wanted to get answers. This same neurologist had put her on 50mg of steroids before leaving town for two weeks, leaving Mindy to continue the steroids for a month. This was not good for Mindy’s health and when the neurologist returned from vacation and she was able to see him again, he let her know he does not treat patients with Multiple Sclerosis. Although this would be absolutely frustrating for anyone to experience, it isn’t all that uncommon. In an article entitled Access to Preventive Health Care in Severely Disabled Women with Multiple Sclerosis, we can learn that healthcare access for women with Multiple Sclerosis is not always easy due to these particular patients experiencing impaired mobility, cognitive difficulties, and mood disorders. (Dobos, Healy, and Houtchens 2015) These sometimes-difficult symptoms to treat can negatively impact the type of care women with Multiple Sclerosis receive and also make it so that particular doctors will not treat them, as we’ve seen firsthand in Mindy’s case.
            Mindy has also had to face obstacles directly related to her treatment for Multiple Sclerosis. She started on a medication called Tecfidera, a pill she takes twice a day which causes severe flushing. When Mindy described this, she said to imagine a horrible sunburn feeling all over her skin that lasts for an hour every single day. She also states that all of her spinal lesions have progressed. Because of this, she started on Tysabri, which is a monthly infusion through an IV. This causes her body to feel awful for 3-4 days after each infusion and more specifically, causes fatigue, nausea, and body aches.
            When Mindy was asked whether she feels her diagnosis has caused others to perceive her differently, she states that, yes, she feels she is perceived differently now. When she was first diagnosed, Mindy had a 2-year-old and a 6-month-old and felt that everyone was looking at her with pity. After some time, she has realized that each of the people who reaches out to help are doing so because they care about her and truly want to help her family. This has helped her to recognize how people perceiving her differently doesn’t have to be labeled as a negative thing. Mindy is different since her diagnosis and that is merely a fact.
            When asked whether Mindy felt her care was ever affected by her race/ethnicity/gender/income/status/age, she simply answered no. While this answer was very positive, it is not always the norm for people in Mindy’s situation. Judith Lorber and Lisa Jean Moore state that women with disabilities are less likely to find a life-long partner than their male counterparts. This has to do with the fact that women are expected to be caretakers and when they may not be able to do this, it goes against the gender norm of what men expect and want when looking for a partner. (Lorber & Moore 2002)
            In Mindy’s ideal world, she states that there would be a clinic specifically for Multiple Sclerosis patients, where a higher knowledge of Multiple Sclerosis and treatments would be available to patients. Mindy started having symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis in high school and started with an ultrasound and x-ray of her chest, which brought no conclusions. She also got a CT scan to try and find an answer to her headaches, which again, brought no conclusions. If Mindy had been able to find someone who knew enough about Multiple Sclerosis and order an MRI when she was younger, she would have been able to start her treatments in the beginning stages of her Multiple Sclerosis. Another point that Mindy brought up was regarding the medical bills involved with Multiple Sclerosis. Although Mindy is on an insurance that fully covers her medications, she states that many patients in her same situation can be expected to pay up to $7,000 per month on the medications they need to treat their Multiple Sclerosis.
            While interviewing Mindy, I found myself wanting to become more aware of the things going on around me. I have known Mindy for over 12 years and remember her having symptoms in high school that no one seemed to be able to figure out. The healthcare system is advancing and with that, I have hope that we will be able to change situations like Mindy’s to hopefully treat these types of diagnoses better.

References:
Dobos, K., Healy, B., & Houtchens, M. (2015). Access to Preventive Health Care in Severely
Disabled Women with Multiple Sclerosis. International Journal of MS Care, 17(4), 200-205. doi:10.7224/1537-2073.2013-046
Ioanna, T., Margarita, A., & George, Z. (2015). Depressive and Anxiety Symptomatology
amongst Multiple Sclerosis Young Women: The Occupational Therapy's Perspective. Health Science Journal, 9(3), 1-5.

Lorber, J., & Moore, L. J. (2002). Gender and the social construction of illness. Walnut Creek: AltaMira. 

Friday, February 23, 2018

Dealing With Anxiety

In high school, I started having these little episodes where I felt like my heart was racing or skipping beats. I chalked this up to genetics because when I was younger, my mother had experienced some minor heart issues.

I asked her if we could go to the doctor because I was pretty sure I was experiencing the same thing she had experienced.

Much to my surprise, my heart ended up being healthy. Instead, I was diagnosed with panic attacks.

Wait, what?

The "attack" verbiage sounded a little too intense for what I was feeling. Sure, I was hiding an eating disorder and was constantly measuring myself up to the people around me. And yes, I was extremely temperamental with my family members. And my life sure didn't feel easy at the time.

But I didn't feel like my chest pains felt like an attack.

In fact, most of the time, these "attacks" would happen when I was doing something I loved like in the middle of a dance class or during choir or just hanging out with my friends. They would last a minute or so and as I breathed through them, the feeling would go away.

Luckily, they were few and far between. And as time went on, I got used to them. Anxiety became a part of me and quite frankly, it didn't bother me that much. I never labeled myself as an anxious person or really gave much thought to these little episodes because they were just that---little.

Fast-forward to today. 

Anxiety has become a stronger and more prominent struggle in my life. 

The things I've experience in the past 12 years as an adult have been pretty difficult and have come with many big decisions and changes.

I lost a baby three months into my marriage. After my son was born, I was diagnosed with infertility. My marriage was filled with challenges and lies. My husband left me 'out of the blue'. I struggled with my eating disorder. I lost friends. My children were hurt by someone I thought was safe. I lost my faith. I had to go to trial to fight a change in child custody.

My brain tells me I keep losing things and that things keep shifting no matter what I do to try and stop them.

So based on that logic, I'm often MORE anxious when things in my life are going well---because I'm just waiting for another bomb to drop.
And surely this is not a productive way to live my life.

And to most, it wouldn't even seem like I live my life this way. I try to keep things real while also keeping things positive.

In fact, as I went back to counseling recently, my therapist asked how my life was going and I replied, "It's fabulous! On paper, everything is going great right now! I am an empowered, badass single mom. I graduated this past year from ASU. I just reopened my foster availability. My faith is stronger than it has been in a long time. I love my job. I love my kids. I love my coworkers. BUT---I am having trouble controlling my anxiety." {And yes, I really did refer to myself as a badass multiple times during our conversation.}

I don't show it often. But the reason I talk about the reality of my anxiety is because I know I am not alone. And I know that there are a lot of people who don't speak up because they think they will be perceived differently---more negatively. And I know I am still a stable mother who is capable of doing great things.

BUT---anxiety

A lot of my days move like this:

The second I drop my kids off to school, my chest feels a little heavier. And to deal with this, I start speaking out loud to myself in the car. "Suzanne, they are going to be fine. You can leave them. Breathe. Life is good. Everything is good right now. Nothing bad has happened."

I then get to work and have a hard time focusing because I'll zero in on my pen not writing evenly or I'll obsess over how I'm going to tackle everything that needs to be done after work/school or I'll get anxious that I haven't been a good enough friend lately and what if my friends desert me? Chest tightening. Heart pounding. Sweaty palms. So then I'll pep talk myself again but this time, in my mind. "Suzanne, you are doing great. Nothing catastrophic has happened. Your pen is fine. You will get everything done that you need to. The kids are safely at school. The school would call if they needed you. Trust your friends. Nothing bad has happened."

When my doorbell rings---instant anxiety.
When I get a text message from certain people---instant anxiety.
If an email comes through that has to do with the trial I just went through---instant anxiety.
When I sign into my bank account---instant anxiety.
When I walk into the chaos that is currently my house---instant anxiety.

And although I could keep painting you a picture, I think you get the point.

My brain often feels like it's working overtime just for me to act normally in every day situations. It is absolutely exhausting. And yet, for the most part, it is invisible.

When I was first diagnosed with an actual anxiety disorder, I was a married, stay-at-home mom. I had been in marriage counseling with my husband for a few months when my brain started sending panic signals for little things.

At the grocery store, I would become anxious over picking the right brand or spending the right amount of money. I would struggle when I knew I could not justify buying an even number of a certain food. My 'even numbers' obsession got pretty strong and I had no idea why. {As I've mentioned before, I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.} 

I was afraid of my husband but not because he physically abused me. (He NEVER did.) I was afraid of his mood swings. His disbelief in God was painful for me. I didn't feel like I knew him anymore.

But I didn't believe those things were capable of causing anxiety when making a decision as menial as what brand of food to buy.

My struggle with anxiety at this time was pretty invisible to anyone other than myself, my husband, and my therapist.

In fact, during a marriage counseling session, my husband brought up my OCD (which was his way of deflecting the topic off of him) and although at first, I was hurt that he was blaming me, I am really glad he did that because it opened up a topic that had been making me feel crazy. Our marriage therapist warned me that OCD is often heightened after a traumatic event. And maybe she had accepted that our marriage was on the rocks more than I had at the time. That made it so that I felt safe talking about how my OCD really was becoming harder to control and was taking on some unusual habits, including anxiety over germs, something I had never dealt with before.

I poured myself into being a better homemaker, a more patient wife, and I took on the majority of our parental responsibilities on my own. I wanted this to fix my husband, to fix our relationship.

I tried being submissive. I tried standing up for myself more. I tried to lose weight. I tried to leave him alone more.

And when he left me, I had this sudden realization that I could not control this situation. Nothing I said or did would've changed his mind at that time.

This is when the anxiety hit hardest. 

I felt so out of control, realizing that I could not fix the very thing I was trying to fix. I worried about how my kids would grow up and whether anybody could ever love post-pregnancy-body Suzanne.

I was stoic. I pretended to be strong. And maybe just the mere fact that I was able to put on a brave face was actually brave.

But on the inside, my anxiety was controlling me. 

What were people going to think of me? Whether they knew he chose to leave or heard "the other story" of how I kicked him out, were they going to hate me? Would they look at my body and blame it as the root of the problem? Would they find flaws in my character? Would I ever get remarried? Would my kids be ok? Would I actually make it financially and emotionally and physically on my own?

It took me a few months to adjust to this new adult life where I made decisions on my own and slept alone and paid bills alone.

And since that horrible day four and a half years ago, I have learned a lot about my anxiety. Most of the time, I have done incredibly well at not letting it control me. But sometimes, there seems to be nothing I can do short of surrendering to God and begging him to help me stay calm.

And sometimes even that doesn't take my anxiety away.

It's pretty hard to control right now. Probably harder than it has been in years. When I lay in my bed at the end of the day or let my mind wander at work or while driving, I start to feel the weight pressing down on my chest. It isn't always easy to talk myself through it but I've been trying new techniques like music, meditation, and extra prayers in those difficult moments.

And something HUGE that I've learned is that when my anxiety hits and I'm in a situation where I can remove myself, I do it.

If there is contention that I can walk away from or if I need to take a short walk around the building at work or if I need to turn on The Office when I wake up in the middle of the night, I do it.

I am so grateful that 'life is good' right now and that this is usually just a phase that comes on strong after a really traumatic event has passed. Because as I said above, life being good is sometimes my biggest trigger because I fear the unknown of what bomb could drop next.

Anxiety does not define me but it is a part of me. 

I might sound crazy to you or I might be describing something you deal with. Either one of those is ok with me. I am comfortable speaking about my anxiety because I know I am a good person and that I have good intentions and am doing amazing things with the life I've been given.

If you've been around me lately, you've probably seen the more anxious side of me and I want you to know how thankful I am for your patience. Because when anxiety hits me hard, I know that I have to let certain things go. I know I need space. I know I won't answer texts as fast or answer my phone as often. I know I need to walk away and ask for help more often.

And if you have anxiety and you need a safe space to talk about it, please don't hesitate to reach out to me. Because if helping others is the one good thing that comes from this, I'm ok with that. :)

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Little Things ARE The Big Things

It's the little things, really.

Singing loudly to a song on the radio.
Giving in to "just one more snuggle" before bedtime.
Getting weighed at the doctor's office and not freaking out.
Going to lunch with coworkers.
Being able to step in and help someone else.
Teaching dance and watching your tiny dancers improve.
Talking to a friend on the phone.
Full on belly laughing while watching The Office for the hundredth time.
Hearing the words "I love you" without prompting from your children.
Getting a surprise visit from your sister and her kids.
Being invited over to dinner at someone's house.

All of the little things add up and they become quite big.

I'm feeling all of that this week.

The kids have been adjusting to the new co-parenting schedule and it was touch and go there for a while. The changes seemed small to me but when it includes different people dropping them off or picking them up at school, it feels huge to the kids. I lamented to my mom a week ago how hard it is to parent without yelling or losing my mind but that I truly believe that is what my kids need from me so I'm working hard at it---BUT IT'S SO DANG HARD! The kids had both been on a streak of disrespectful behavior. I heard phrases like "I hate you", "Shut up", and "I don't care" more than I've ever heard out of their mouths before.

In fact, I can count on one hand how many times I remember the phrase "I hate you" coming out of either of their mouths.

It lasted almost a full week and I was feeling extremely defeated. I know they're struggling to feel stability. I know they react like this when they're scared.

But it still hurts.

I was nervous for the weekend because I didn't want it to keep getting harder.

Each time my children had lashed out, I had reacted with compassion---although sometimes I was faking that compassion and holding back hurt feelings and anger.

But as the weekend rolled in, there seemed to be a calmness in our home.

We spent a lot of time together doing some of our favorite things:

Watching National Geographic movies on elephants, white wolves, gorillas, and polar bears.
Playing games together.
Turning cleaning into various different races and games.
Going to the movies.
Eating out.
Separate date nights with each of them.

It was probably the best long weekend we've had. Ever.

And as the week progressed, it started to feel a little bit more normal in our home and less hostile.

But the growing pains are still there. On Wednesday, there was a mix-up and Hayley was almost an hour late for dance which resulted in meltdowns throughout the next 3 hours of dance. I went and got her favorite snacks and let her teachers know what was going on and everyone was patient with her. Oh how grateful I am to her teachers for understanding. In fact, one of them took her out in the hall and braided her hair and talked her through her emotions before taking her back to her class. I will forever be grateful to Miss Melissa for doing that for my girly, knowing they have competition in a week but making sure Hayley's feelings were a priority.

The fact of the matter is, none of this stuff is their fault. The kids didn't choose divorce or co-parenting or schedule changes. They don't choose who picks them up or whether they're dropped off at the correct times with the correct things they need for dance or play practice.

Co-parenting is often messy at it's best. 

But I am so thankful that my lingering anxiety hits hardest when the kids are gone. And I'm so thankful that they're not gone from my side often. And I'm so thankful that I have friends and family and therapy to help me through the times when they are gone.

Because it makes it so that I can enjoy those times that they are with me. And I'm learning to practice self-care when they are gone.

And all of those little things that make me happy are truly not little.

They build me up and remind me that life is so beautiful. They remind me that there are always multiple things to be thankful for.

And most importantly, they remind me that my Heavenly Father knows me personally and is looking out for me.

I'll get through this rough patch of anxiety because I have support. And my children have support. And those things mean the world to me and remind me just how blessed we are.