Category Archives: Mental Health

The call that changed my life and broke my heart

grief pic 1

I will never forget where I was when I got the call.  My breath was labored and I held on to my stomach tightly as if it were going to escape out of my body, my hand serving as the last line of defense.  The voice on the phone, a female police officer, filled me in on procedural matters since I was the one who made the initial report.  As she talked, I searched for hope in her voice. I yearned for her to use the word “attempt” or “false alarm”.  I didn’t know if it actually happened, only that it could have. I prayed it didn’t, but deep down, I knew.  The officer was talking with such sterility and dispassion, even annoyance.  Just another day at the office, I thought.  I needed to hear her say the words.

I mustered up the courage to interrupt her detached protocol and interject the question I never wanted to ask.  “Wait. I just… Are you saying she’s dead?” My voice was filled with a desperation I could not mask despite my efforts at remaining professional. “Oh, I’m sorry.” she replied in an embarrassed tone.  “I should have… Yes, her attempt was successful.  She’s dead.” I doubled over in pain, my hand once again trying to push my insides back in my stomach.  I wanted to fall down.  I wanted to throw up.  I wanted to disappear.  This can’t be a real, I repeated to myself over and over again.

Wake me from this nightmare.

But I wasn’t sleeping.  It was real.  And it was excruciating.  Everything felt like a fog, but one thought rang out through the haze.  I will never be the same again.  I never wanted to be the same.

 


 

There are moments in life- frozen seconds of time- that define and change us.  Experiences that cause life to be divided into two parts: before and after.  The day my client committed suicide was one of those days for me.  As the three-year anniversary came and went a few weeks ago, my body remembered the feelings I felt that day.  So much has changed since the day when everything changed. The memory of it feels like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while, but once reunited, we fall right back in step with each other.  Familiar, but aged and weathered. Comforting and excruciating simultaneously. Grief is like that. Unwelcome and painful, yet sacred and intimate. I long to forget, but I fear forgetting because I need to remember. To feel.  To honor.

I imagine the person I knew. I picture her standing on the cement wall by my old counseling office, looking into the stream below and swaying slightly to the music blaring through her headphones.  No more.  I hear her voice greeting everyone in the waiting area as she enters, eager to connect. Desperate to be heard.  No more.  I see the other side of this person, the darker side, sitting on my couch unable to pretend any longer.  Broken.  No more.

As a counselor, I witness the desperation and grief of others often. I find myself asking, “How could this happen?  Why would a good God allow people to suffer to the point that death feels like the only relief?  Is there anything anyone can really do to help in the presence of such hopelessness?”  I don’t know the answers, but I do know this.  There is no time when I feel more dependent on God and more desperate for a Savior than in the face of grief and tragedy.  I don’t want to avoid pain because that would mean I am avoiding connection and relationship. And it would mean missing out on an opportunity to participate in the most powerful collective experience that exists- human suffering.

In light of our nation’s recent collective grief experience as we mourn the death of Robin Williams, I hold my own grief tightly and remember.  Suicide impacts so many, and this very public grief of a legend and dear friend from afar connects millions to the grief of losing someone to suicide and dealing with the aftermath and the questions and the confusion.  I pray for his family, his friends, his fans, his counselor if he had one, and all those who feel hopeless and trapped.  There is a psalm (34:18) that says, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those that are crushed in spirit.”  I can’t understand why things happen the way they do, but I take comfort in believing that in our darkest moments, the Lord is close.  And there are people who care and want to walk beside you.

Thanks for letting me walk beside you, C.  It was an honor.

Facing your fears- Honoring anxiety and courage in children and grown-up children

A New leaf part 3- Facing Fears

 When I was 8 years old, I heard a story on the news about a man contracting HIV through a needle left on a seat in a movie theater.  Panic struck me, and nothing felt safe.  Of course, going to movies was out.  There was no way I would fall victim to the same trap.  Eventually, it went beyond a fear of going to movies to a fear of public places.  If someone could be sick enough to put an infected needle on a movie theater chair, what’s to stop someone from putting a needle in the sand at the baseball field or in my backyard?  The fear became so consuming that one day I found a sewing needle on the floor of our garage, and I started panicking and shaking.  I asked my mom through tears and heavy breaths, “Why would God create a world and allow it to be filled with so much awfulness?” (Still a question that stirs me deeply.)

I was a scared, anxious kid.  When I heard about something bad happening to someone else somewhere else, I immediately assumed it would happen to me, too. (This could also have been the beginning stages of narcissism now that I think about it.)  Once I had a fear in mind, it became consuming and would lead to irrational scenarios where I would be doomed and there was nothing anyone could do to help.  Looking back, I empathize with my mom and siblings. It must have felt so helpless to watch me panic inconsolably.

One of the reasons why I became a child and adolescent counselor is my deep understanding of how small and vulnerable a child can feel and how big and scary the world can seem.  Although I still experience acute fears and high levels of anxiety at times, I no longer exist in that place of constant fear that consumed much of my energy as a child.  As I got older, my fears took on more of an existential focus.  Who am I?  What is my purpose?  Does anything I do really matter?  Are we all just a speck of dust on the top of a flower being carried by a clumsy elephant named Horton?  You know, the little things.  Although these questions could consume me if I let them, I have found ways to re-focus myself from them by connecting with others, engaging in purposeful activities and embracing faith so that the unanswered questions could coexist with what I believed to be true.

I asked my college students to write down alternative words for common emotions like sadness, anger and fear.  A descriptive emotion that came up to quantify fear was the word petrified.  Literally paralyzed; frozen with fear.  Think of the curse “Petrificus Totalus” from Harry Potter.  The victim’s body goes rigid and the only thing he can move is his eyes.  I know that feeling.  And as I incorporate my thoughts and beliefs about fear with my passions and visions for my life, that word seems to be a common reaction to moving forward with my dreams.  Sometimes, I literally feel stuck where I am out of fear.  Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of change… Staying still feels safer, but in actuality, it perpetuates the state of fear- the petrification.

As a parent, it is remarkable to watch your child overcome fear.  My son has a beautiful blend of a cautious and adventurous spirit that I really admire.  I can see his initial concern and fear when he is presented with something he doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced before, but it is followed by a desire to try.  It’s like he  knows he will regret it if he lets his fear take over.  He has a bit of a formula for how he handles his fears.  He starts out tentative and stays close.  He checks things out for a minute or two and takes it all in.  Then he slowly engages.  He tries this new activity for a few seconds, then looks back and smiles.  *This is my cue.*  “Stay close, but I am going in.”  After participating for a little while, he runs over to me with excitement in his eyes and asks if I saw him.  I answer “I sure did!”, and he returns to the activity, not as a novice anymore, but as a student who is catching on and ready for more challenge.

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

Josh learning to ride without training wheels

josh karate

Josh’s first day at Karate

josh jumping on trampoline

Josh jumping at a trampoline playground

josh climbing

Josh climbing his first rock wall

I want to experience life that way.  I don’t want to miss out on adventures because of my fear.  And I don’t want to model for that my son.  I want him to know that fear is normal and appropriate and even necessary, but that it doesn’t have to win.  Some things are more powerful than fear- like love.  In the third book/movie in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, one of my favorite characters, Eowyn, niece of King Theoden, wants to fight with the men. When talking to Aragorn about fear, she says that she fears neither death nor pain, but rather a cage“To stay behind bars until use and old age accept them and all chance of valor has gone beyond recall or desire.”

ewoyn in battle

Eowyn does fight.  In fact, she defeats the witch king, who  touted that no man could ever kill him.  (To which she responds, “I am no man!” Love it.)  And she doesn’t do it for valor or for pride or even for her country.  She does it for her friends.  Her family.  Love.  I have things to fight for.  People to face fears for and take risks for and even get hurt for.  As she rides to battle with the childlike hobbit Merry riding with her, she says the words that I hold on to any time I feel weak and petrified in the face of of my fear.  “Courage, Merry.  Courage for our friends.”

The next time you think about avoiding your fears, ask yourself, “Who needs my courage right now?” And “Who could suffer if I don’t stand up and fight?”

Why I am giving up multi-tasking for Lent

multitasking

A New Leaf Part 2- Minimizing Distraction by eliminating Multi-Tasking

I am beginning to believe that multi-tasking is just a fancy way of saying “I do several things at one time because nothing is worth my undivided attention.”

Yesterday morning, I was sitting on the couch with my son.  He was watching Garfield (his new obsession), and I was half-watching/half-checking emails while snuggling in our pajamas.  The title crossed the screen for the next segment of the show, and Josh excitedly asked me to read it out loud.  I looked up, but the title had already come and gone.  “I missed it, honey.” I said.  His response was a gut check and a reminder of why I am writing this post.  “You missed it because you were on your phone again.”

Technological distractions are insidious for me because I am not even aware I am engaging in them sometimes.  It has become instinctual for me to to pick up my phone and mindlessly scroll to fill any moment of downtime I have.  I feel compelled to check my emails and text messages in my car at stop lights because those moments feel boring and unstimulating, just sitting and waiting.  And here lies the root of the problem.  I feel entitled to be entertained and stimulated at all times.  This mindset impacts every area of my life, from my relationships to my productivity to the fulfillment of my passions and life visions.

Until recently, I may not have put this together, but now I see that the core issue of wanting to be entertained and stimulated at all times is directly related to the fulfillment of my visions and goals.  For one, these distractions have become huge time-wasters in my life.  What starts out as a quick scroll on Facebook becomes 20 minutes of my life that I can never get back.  Secondly, these distractions cloud my mind with thoughts, images and values that are not connected to my passions and visions, leading to psychological distractions.  Instead of thinking about the needs of my local community or the character traits I hope to instill in my child, I am thinking about the best way to style my hair or what Downton Abbey character I am most like (it’s Sybil, by the way).  I am focused on the exotic trips my Facebook friends are taking rather than the beauty of the park down the street.  I am psychologically distracted from my visions, which makes it more difficult for me to stay focused.

And then there’s television.  I love tv.  I always have.  It has served as a medium for meaningful conversations between friends and a fun way to experience community when others are invited to participate in it with me.  It is not all bad.  In fact, watching tv throughout my life has honed my ability to empathize, modeled healthy and unhealthy communication and interactions, and generated thoughts and insights about life and relationships that have helped shape who I am.  “And that’s why everyone should watch television!”

Wow, I just made tv sound like a day at the soup kitchen.  Okay, it’s not all good either.  Television has become a psychological and a relational distraction in my life.  After a long day, I look forward to spending some time with my tv.  When I am bored, I mindlessly turn it on instead of engaging in the world somehow.  As a child, if I couldn’t sleep at night, I remember taking comfort in having the television on because I felt a connection to the outside world, making me feel less alone.  But it’s a tease.  It’s an almost-connection, not a real connection.  The characters on my beloved shows don’t ask me how I am doing or pray for me or tell me to turn them off and go to bed.  And often, they serve as a distraction from deepening relationships with those in my life who could do those things.

So where does this leave meI am not prepared to give up technology completely or move my family to an island.  Even if I did, I would still find ways to distract myself from living my life and fulfilling my dreams because it’s just in our nature.  The psychological and relational distractions will find us wherever we are.  So if it’s not total avoidance, it must be something else.  I think for me it comes down to this- be intentional.  About everything.  All the time. Don’t give mindlessness any room to run.

It sounds exhausting, being intentional all the time.  But here’s the thing.  I think it may be more exhausting not to be.  Being mindless makes me lethargic, tired and numb.  So being the opposite of that may just lead to energy, focus and engagement.  It’s worth a try.

What does it mean to be intentional?  I need practical things.  I am too abstract for my own good, so let me try to be specific.  I am going to try to only do one thing at a time.  It sounds simple enough, but think about how often you actually do it.  Our society’s values of being entertained and being productive often lead to the pressure to multi-task. Why stop at killing two birds with one stone when you can kill a whole flock of birds with a grenade?  There is a time and a place for multi-tasking.  But right now, as I evaluate the distractions in my life, I realize I have put too much emphasis on this term and used it as an excuse not to be intentional.  So I am going to try to go the other extreme for a little while.  Multi-tasking is now my enemy because it leads to distraction and distances me from my passions and visions. My hope is that if I can focus on being intentional (abstract) and only doing one thing at a time (practical), I will be more prepared to combat the temptations of technological distractions and stay on task.  What keeps you from just doing one thing at a time?

To help me minimize relational distractions, I have two phrases I want to tattoo on my hands- be present (abstract) and minimize background noise (practical).  This may mean turning off the television when I am trying to connect with an actual human or  when I have work to do (I am the queen of doing work on the couch with the tv on), but it can be other things for me, too.  If I am in a room full of people and a friend is trying to have a conversation with me, I often get distracted by the stories and interactions of others, keeping one ear up and one ear in the conversation.  I may need to ask that friend to sit down with me away from the crowd.  Minimizing background noise may also mean turning of the music in the car occasionally if I need to spend some time with my own thoughts.  What are some ways you have trouble with background noise and being present?

Coincidentally, today is Ash Wednesday, which marks the start of the Lenten season for those who celebrate Easter.  When it was first observed in the fourth century, its focus was on self-examination and self-denial in preparation for Easter.  In honor of Lent this year, here is my commitment:

No multi-tasking.  I will spend this season being intentional by only doing one thing at a time and being present by minimizing background noise By denying myself the ease of multi-tasking, both practically and relationally, my hope is that it will be a season of self-examination and reflection that will lead to a clearer focus about how to honor my passions and fulfill my visions.  Feel free to join me.

The Madness and Sanity of Parenting

josh in tree

While sitting in a research meeting on campus yesterday, my phone rang.

Oh no. My son’s school. 

“Josh is fine, but there was an incident, and we want to meet with you.  Today.”  My heart is beating out of my chest.  I am told that I don’t have to come now, but that it needs to be before pick-up.  “Wait…But hurry.”

Uggh.. This part is so hard.  The waiting.  The uncertainty.  The fear.  That out-of-control feeling when you realize your kid, however young he may be, is a real person capable of having his own thoughts and making his own decisions.  She wouldn’t give me any details over the phone, but after hearing the director’s tone and choice of words, I was pretty sure my son was the offender.  This filled me with a range of emotions from fear to guilt to concern to helplessness.  “What if it’s really bad?”  “How will I respond?”  I realized that allowing my imagination to run wild was not productive for my stress level or sanity, so I tried to quiet those voices and pray.  I prayed that I would handle the situation graciously and thoughtfully.  I prayed that I would be receptive and not quick to judgment or anger.  (Both toward my son and toward others involved).  But mostly, I prayed for my son.  I prayed that he would know the love and forgiveness of God and trust in the love and forgiveness of his parents.

I didn’t know how I would feel when I found out the specifics of the incident in question, but I knew this.  I wasn’t going to reject my son, no matter what the school told me or what he had done.  I know my boy.  He is sensitive and empathic and intuitive, and he knows the feeling of rejection so acutely already.  My mind was imagining the worst possible scenarios, and as I played them out, I pictured myself moving toward my son in love and grace, reminding him that even when I am mad and disappointed and hurt (which I will be at times because that is a part of relationships and the impact our actions have on others), his offenses will never be greater than my love and commitment to him as my son.

In typical Karin fashion, I have now built up this story to an anti-climactic point where I tell you that, although the offense was definitely disobedient and even dangerous, it was not among the worst of the fears that bounced around my head on my drive over to the school.  That is a technique I use as a counselor, too.  Think of the worst case scenario.  Process how you would handle it and what it would feel like.  Now imagine an equally plausible scenario that is not so horrible.  How does that feel?  Okay, if I am being honest, my approach in the car may not have been as therapeutic as I just described.  But the relief I felt was palpable nonetheless.  And for the record, I can say that his sweet and intuitive teacher handled it superbly, and I am grateful for that.

After a positive and encouraging interaction with the director and teacher, I was eager to walk down to my son’s classroom and receive him with grace and love.  When I came in, he gave me a sheepish smile and wavered before walking over to me.  He was trying to read my face and body language to see if I knew, and he was watching me to see how I would respond.  I smiled and said, “Let’s go home.”  He walked slowly next to me, looking at me every so often, then looking back down.  I didn’t make much small talk, but I didn’t give him the cold shoulder either.  I just walked with him.  I put him in the car, then came around and sat next to him in the back seat.  He was surprised and kind of laughed, not knowing what I was up to.

I looked my son in the eye, told him I loved him, smiled slightly but intently, then asked him to tell me what happened today.  As we sat there together, I watched my son wrestle through the events of the day painfully in his mind, telling me bits and pieces, then withdrawing.  This cycle went on a few times, then finally, after most of the story had been retold from his perspective along with remorse and guilt, he said the thing I had been fearing and praying through since I first got the call.  He said he was afraid I wouldn’t forgive him.  He spoke the words with such raw emotion and genuineness, and he wouldn’t look at me after he said them.  I turned my son’s face to mine, kissed his nose, and told him that I forgive him and I love him, and I always will.  Always.  Then we had a serious conversation about obedience, respect, and thinking about consequences before acting.

There is a line from the movie Spanglish that reminds me of my feelings yesterday.  The main character says, “Worrying about your children is sanity.  And being that sane is enough to drive you nuts.”  In the midst of all the stress and anxiety I felt yesterday afternoon, I also experienced a deep sense of gratitude.  I have wanted to be a parent my whole life.  Now I am a parent, and sometimes my child drives me nuts.  I love this little person so much and so deeply that it makes me feel crazy sometimes.  But in those moments when I get wrapped up in my own craziness of worrying about my child, I also remind myself that I cannot control him or protect him from the world’s problems or make all of his decisions for him.  He is his own little person with a will and a mind and a heart and a body and a soul.  I have been given the privilege of being his mother.  And with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility and diligence.  But every day, whether we put our kids on school buses or home school them, whether they live in our house or have a house and a family of their own, we have to release our children into the world and hope and pray they will be okay. (Mom, I get it now.)

Being a parent is the most maddening and sane thing I have ever done.  And even though yesterday was a tough day, it was important.  Josh needs those moments.  He needs to make bad choices and mess up sometimes.  And I need those moments, too.  I need to be reminded of my lack of control and trust God in my parenting.

The poet Kahlil Gibran sums up the complicated and beautiful mystery of caring for your children and releasing them at the same time.  Here is an excerpt that is meaningful to me.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

I pray that I will be a stable and glad bow for my son, the adventurous and spirited arrow.

And I hope for no more school phone calls any time soon.

Broken Wallflowers

This weekend, I spent some meaningful time with three close friends from grad school.  Reunion weekends are a nice break from normal life, which has been pretty chaotic with friends moving, family visiting and all the beginning of summer transitions.  Our lives have changed significantly since grad school.  We have attended each others’ weddings and celebrated the arrival of our children.  For two of us, the journey to motherhood was more complicated and painful, making it even more precious to celebrate with each other.

I love having close friends that are in the counseling field.  It enriches me and challenges me to keep growing as a counselor.  Since our lives have changed so dramatically, our reunion weekends have also.  Instead of beach days and late dinners followed by nights out on the town, we spent this reunion weekend at my friend’s house, swimming in her pool with our children,ordering pizza and watching a movie while our children slept. We decided to pick up a movie at Red Box, and, after much deliberation and teasing about our limited exposure to good entertainment now that we have children, we chose The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  There were a few reasons for this choice.  My friend Eileen and I both read this book while in grad school, so we felt nostalgic about it.  Also, since it has a mental health bent, we thought it was appropriate for a bunch of counselors.

As soon as the movie began, I was captivated by the characters, the innocence and passion that accompanies adolescence, and the realistic depiction of the impact of abuse and mental illness on individuals, families and communities.  The main character, a high school freshman who spent time in a mental hospital after his best friend shot himself, delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of the struggle to belong and be happy while living in fear of the next time he “gets bad again”, as he calls it.  The audience also learns by the end of the movie that the main character had been repressing memories of sexual abuse by a trusted family member.

As my friends and I were processing the movie afterwards, we tried to determine his mental health diagnosis. (A twisted game that counselors play.   I love it when people ask me if I am psychoanalyzing them.  Of course I am.)  As I thought back to his character and the layers of pain and hurt he had experienced, the first word that came to me was broken.  There are different connotations for this word, and the mental health community at large may not support my calling someone with mental illness broken, but to me, being broken is a natural part of being human.  In fact, sometimes we have to recognize our brokenness in order to truly heal.  It’s like breaking a bone.  It is painful and damaging, and the bone needs to be re-set in order for it to heal.  If the bone is never re-set, then the person will go through life with a broken bone and probably some intense side effects, like excruciating pain and limited use of that part of the body. (Or worse, total numbness.)  As mental health professionals, sometimes the goal is to help our clients re-set their broken parts.  As a Christian, we are told that their is beauty in the brokenness because it forces us to rely on God instead of ourselves.

When I was driving home from my friend’s house that night, intense grief came over me. Almost two years ago, after walking through intense brokenness and pain with one of my clients for a long time, she made a decision to stop fighting her daily pain and constant torment by ending her own life.  She reached out to me before she did it, not so that I could stop her, but to have someone to connect with.  I knew when I heard her voice that it was over.  That was the worst day of my life.  I was filled with my own grief and regret and confusion, but more than anything else, I felt angry.  I was angry that God would have allowed the abuse and pain to happen to this woman, and I was angry at all of her abusers for contributing to her pain.  After a lot of grieving and processing with God, my husband and a select group of friends, I realized that, although I could not save her, as hard as I tried on several occasions, I gave her something that few others had given her.  I provided her with a safe place to feel and think and say anything.  Also, I loved her.  I mean, I really loved her.  And she knew it.

I can’t begin to understand why things happen the way they do.  A part of me was broken that day when this dear person took her own life.  There are so many people around us that have experienced deep, disturbing, life-altering pain.  Many of them are wallflowers, unsure how to reach out or take the first step toward genuine connection.  There is a quote from the movie that really impacted me.  In this scene, the main character is at a party with some of his new friends, and maybe for the first time, feels accepted.  One of the other characters raises a cup to him and says, “To Charlie!” The shy, awkward main character responds, “I didn’t think anyone even noticed me.”  And his new friend replies, “We just didn’t know there was anyone cool left to meet.”

Reach out to wallflowers. They might need a friend.  And they may be the friend you didn’t know you were missing.