GUEST POST By: Colleen, a wife, mom, homeschooler, missionary and writer. She currently serves alongside her husband and five sons as a founder of the non-profit St. Bryce Missions and is part of the ground team in Tayutic, Costa Rica. She wears a lot of hats in her daily life, but the most important thing to her is to love well, walk humbly and encourage others along the way. Colleen lost her sixth son Bryce to SIDS in 2009 (at just over 3 months of age) and hopes too to help other moms who have experienced the pain of losing a child to find hope and healing in her writing. She blogs at Blessed are the Feet: My Missionary Journey. @mercycovers
I’d like to personally welcome my guest writer Colleen, not only is she without a doubt all of the things above, she is also a friend from college at Loyola University New Orleans. Her strength and faith through the most difficult of circumstances has truly been an inspiration to me. Thank you for sharing your story with us today Colleen.
I have approached Cristi more than once about writing a guest post for her blog, and she, being who she is, has always graciously accepted my offer, but I have never followed through. A few months ago, I asked her if she might be interested in a post about the mental health issues I have experienced surrounding the traumatic experience of Bryce’s death to SIDS followed by four heartbreaking miscarriages over the last four years.
I confess, I have not yet found my brave when it comes to this aspect of my life. I blog pretty freely and openly about many aspects of my life and my heart. I have written often about the grief of my son’s death and how it has affected us. But I have never openly delved into how it has affected my mental health.
But the other day, our landlords did a walk-through of our rental house. During the visit I was curled in the fetal position on my son’s bed rocking back and forth begging it to go away. So I figured it was time I openly acknowledged something.
I am a different person after experiencing trauma and grief in many ways, and one of those ways is that my once very stable, even keel mental status is threatened by acute mental stress. I am triggered by experiences that evoke traumatic memories. I am plagued by generalized anxiety, especially over fears of my children’s health at much higher levels than I have experienced ever before.
I call it post-traumatic stress.
It is a self-imposed label and I have no idea whether or not it is clinically correct. But it certainly feels like the right label to me. It laces my days with a tendency toward imagining the worst. I see morbid things happening to my 5 living sons. I have sudden acute anxiety during events that evoke certain memories. The landlord incident is related to our neighbors terrorizing us in the immediate days after our son’s death, and an incident that involved sheriff’s cars at our home. I reacted to this exactly as described above. Now, finding ourselves renters in a foreign country where expectations about renting are different than what we are used to, I project that panic onto moments when I sense tension with our landlords.
When it is not that sudden panic, it is a constant nagging sense that my children are in imminent danger. I consent to them going out to ride bikes and then fight near constant thoughts of them getting hit by a car. My spiked anxiety when someone throws up or runs a fever, when they are near water or ledges, or, well, just about anything. Memories unexpectedly cause me to spiral into my own mental shell for hours or days depending on their severity.
I did not seek professional counseling after Bryce’s death. I was assured that the trusted spiritual counselors I had in my life would be able to walk me through the grief process. I knew I was surrounded by enough knowledgeable people that if I spiraled into a dangerous zone, they would recognize those red flags and insist I seek help.
I did intermittently use sleep aids to assuage the difficulty of night time flash backs. And, boy, do I miss those things. I don’t think we can ever underestimate how much inadequate sleep affects our mental health. I totally notice that when I am lacking sleep my anxiety levels and triggers are higher and experienced more often.
So how do I cope?
Well, like all of us, some days better than others. But I do have some strategies that I have learned over the years. The first, and the hardest for me, is to be honest with people about what I cannot do. I am not the kind of person to admit I can’t handle something. But I have learned that there are certain things which trigger my symptoms that are not worth battling. The emotional consequences are just too great. I handle a lot of our phone calls and business conversations because my Spanish is a little more fluent than my husband’s. But I have had to tell him that I am just not able to handle the stress of dealing with the landlords. It’s too hard, and it wreaks havoc on me mentally. Identifying situations that trigger acute mental stress and asking for help in those areas has helped lessen the occurrence of acute anxiety or panic. It doesn’t eliminate it obviously, but it certainly helps.
When it comes t0 anxiety surrounding my kids, I have learned to coach myself away from those thoughts with repeated reality checks. I remind myself over and over again that F.E.A.R. is “false events appearing real.” My thoughts do not match reality. I count the millions of times my kids have swam or ridden bikes and returned home fine. And give myself the luxury of being hyper-vigilant if it is the only thing that will keep the anxiety at bay. The consequence of digging in my heals to prove I am not afraid is not worth the fight. Sometimes, I just give in and make them stay closer than necessary. I figure I’ve earned the indulgence.
And lastly, I’ve learned to accept that this is me, and this is my life. I have lived through some really hard stuff. I bear the scars. I have a beautiful life. I strive to live to the fullest, love well and be fully present. Some days, the scars make that really hard and the best I can do is jammies, peanut butter tortillas, and letting others get lost in Netflix while I curl up in a ball. And I have learned to let those days come and then go, and just accept that this is who I am.
The bad days are few, and mostly I do pretty well. That is something I do not take for granted. Many times I have decided not to accept a “pretty good” existence, rather I look at all the broken beautiful of my life and decided it was worth fighting for. That is my brave. And on the bad days, I remember all the really brave days, and cut myself a little slack. That is my coping strategy.
I salute you brave mamas who fight through the hard stuff on most days. But I also salute you for the days you let go of the fight and just let it be hard. You are not alone.