Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anxiety Relief

For years, I have had anxiety about money. All of my life, really.

And then, of course, my husband's stroke added a lot of anxiety. I had generic anxiety about everything the future held, because I had no idea what the future held (and I still don't). However, we are 10 months "into the future" since the stroke, right? And we're still alive and making progress and learning how to live again.

There is still anxiety, but I try very hard to put the Lord's words into practice, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:6-7).

Also, when dealing with anxiety about money, I cling to this verse: "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?" (Matthew 6:26-27)

I think that, even though my children have never gone without food, clothing or shelter, it was a long and hard lesson for me to learn that God provides for His people. Always. Since the stroke, we have had some amazing "windfall" moments that I still can't even believe.

At first, Al was covered by short-term disability for 6 weeks at full pay. Then, for the remainder of the 6 months after his stroke, he received 2/3 pay.
Once the short-term disability discontinued, we were covered by long-term disability, and that was about the same time that Al's social security disability kicked in. However, it took MUCH longer for our dependent benefits to kick in, but LTD was only paying us the bare minimum, as if we were already receiving the dependent benefits. During that time, I had taken 6 weeks of FMLA leave (which is unpaid), and I had 4 weeks of unpaid vacation to use up in the summer. Money was tight to say the least, but we still made ends meet.

Now for the windfall moments. There were many, and I will simply list them because I am still profoundly moved by the generosity of people, and that God moved those people to care for us.

A friend of ours, who is suffering from MS and is confined to a wheelchair - and who undoubtedly knows what kind of trial we are facing - gave me an envelope. Al was still at the hospital and I was there every day, sometimes several times a day. Inside the envelope was a $50 bill, to which she attached a little sticky note, saying "for parking, meals or whatever." (She also told me that if I wrote her a thank you note, she would run over my toes with her wheelchair! She's a fiesty one, that woman! I could learn a lot from her.)

An envelope arrived in the mail one day from a person whose name I didn't recognize. I opened the card, and it was from a friend of my husband's brother, whom we had never met. But my brother-in-law told her about Al, and she was moved to help us. Her husband had passed away in the previous year, so she knew what it was like for me/us to be struggling with finances. She included a check for $100.

During the summer, with intermittent work and FMLA time at my back, money was tight once again, and I received a very much unexpected bonus of $750 from the company I work for. I had only completed one school year and had a vague memory of being told that I would earn a performance bonus each year. This one came at just the right time. And on the very same day, I received notification from Kohls that the balance of my Kohls card on the day of Al's stroke, was completely forgiven. They have a program called Account Ease, just in case a death or disability affects the family. I'm glad I chose to enroll in the program!

Toward the end of summer, after I had taken all of my unpaid vacation, and money was exceptionally tight, I had the brainstorm for a fundraiser. I really felt that it was an idea that came from the Lord, so I ran it by a few of my friends, who agreed that it was a good idea. I had a charity yard sale, and asked people to donate goods to the sale. My friend lent us her garage (since we don't have one) and she actually did much of the organization. By the time the sale started, her garage was completely packed with furniture, household goods, clothing, toys, etc. that people had donated. The sale was Labor Day weekend, and it was excruciatingly hot and humid. But from the moment we opened the sale on to the end of each day (Friday and Saturday), there was a non-stop swarm of people. I had no doubt that God inspired every one of those people to attend that sale.

That yard sale earned us an epic $1300! In addition, people who weren't able to donate or attend the sale sent us cash and checks to help out: $40, $50, $25, $100. One friend sent me a check for $500, and another group of friends - lay men who are living single for the Lord - had been saving up money from the day that Al had his stroke. They presented us with $500 in cash! In all, we were blessed with almost $2500 toward medical and other expenses.

Later in September, we received notice from Sparrow Hospital that they had "reduced our debt by 100%", meaning they had forgiven the remainder of our $4000 debt.

As I mentioned earlier, even though my husband received his social security benefits 6 months after his stroke, waiting for the dependent benefits was a grueling trial. Each month, we would make our mortgage and other payments late, our account would dwindle down to nothing, and the new batch of SSD would come in just in time. The dependent benefits didn't come in until this week.

This week, we received another windfall of 4 months worth of dependent benefits. Finally. Just in time for the holidays.

To top it off, we received another letter and a check from the group of men I mentioned above. They are celebrating 40 years of being a lay brotherhood and wanted to give a blessing to a needy person or family. Inside the letter was a check for $1000.

With that final check, I think God finally got through to me (I'm kind of thick-headed, wouldn't you say?). I really DON'T have to worry about money or material things. I don't have to worry about our mortgage payment and car repairs. God is enough and He is a God of miracles. Money truly is no object to Him, the Creator of the Universe. I think (I hope and pray) that I am finally done worrying about money.

Please remind me of that the next time that I am tempted to worry. Instead, please tell me, and please be reminded in turn, to
"Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you." 1 Peter 5:7

Glimpses of "Normalcy"

Al has been inspired on several occasions to hobble outside and grill some type of animal carcass. In mid-September, it was hamburgers on the occasion of Faith's birthday. She had made out a menu for every meal on her birthday, down to the beverage. Breakfast: crepes with syrup and powdered sugar, orange juice and sausage. Lunch: extra cheesy macaroni and cheese with chocolate milk. Dinner: hamburgers (on the grill, NOT fried or broiled), ketchup & pickles, chips and root beer. And dessert, of course: Vanilla cake with chocolate frosting, and dirt pudding with gummy worms instead of ice cream. She's a little particular, can you tell?

So, Al was happy to oblige by grilling the burgers. It's something he enjoyed before the stroke, and now he can enjoy it again, and was able to all summer. I remember one particular night in February, as Hope and I visited Al in the hospital, we had gone down to the cafeteria to get dinner. We walked by a display of burgers, and they smelled so rich and smokey, as if they had just come off a charcoal grill on a hot July evening. I turned to Hope and said, "I can't wait until Dad can grill in the back yard again." She agreed and we both stood there and enjoyed the smell for a few more minutes.

That night, as Al was grilling the burgers, Faith wandered outside to keep Daddy company. It was one of those late summer evenings when the house was stuffy from the heat of the day, but the evening was refreshingly cool and breezy, so we opened up all the windows to let in a new supply of air. As I worked in the kitchen to get some food ready, I could hear Faith happily chatting with Daddy outside. It struck me that Al's responses to her were so fluid. His voice sounded normal for the first time since the stroke.

Once in a while, I'm happy to glimpse the "old" normal. However, I am sure that a new normal will move in at some point, as I'm finally beginning to accept the fact that much of the old normal may be gone for good.

Bring it on.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Sometimes It All Piles Up!

Since Al's stroke just over 10 months ago, I've experienced a tremendous amount of grace to deal with it. You know how people say, "I don't know if I could handle that", when they hear about a death in someone's family, or someone's child facing a life-threatening illness. I used to say that, and hope that I would never have to face such a challenge. And others would reassure me that I would have the grace in the moment to go through such a thing.

Well, that is exactly what I'm talking about. If someone had told me ahead of time that my husband would have a stroke at age 37, I would have freaked out and tried to figure out any possible way that I could prevent it from happening. I would have spent lots of energy worrying about when, how, and why it would happen. Instead, it came very unexpectedly, and God's grace met me at that very first moment when Al called me to tell me that his boss was calling 911. God's grace surrounded me and sustained me for many months afterwards as I was a single mom, and I took over every single detail of our household, including car maintenance and paying bills, which up until then, were solely Al's jobs. His grace was enough for me, so that I actually walked around with a smile on my face, and I floated a bit above the ground as he carried me through some really challenging times. I was able to tell people that God is good and that I fully trusted in Him.

Ten months later, I have no doubt that God's grace is still enough for me; He is still sufficient for me in my weakness. But some days, like today (the past few days, actually), it all catches up to me and overwhelms me. I succumb to everything that makes me feel sad and helpless about the situation.

I miss my husband's old walk. It sounds weird, but he had a distinct gait, with a funny little spring in his step that he doesn't have now that he has to lumber around with a half-obedient leg and a cane. And I doubt he will ever have that same walk again.

I miss my husband's smile. Half of his face is still numb, so he has to really force it for the left side of his mouth to smile, and when he makes that much of an effort, he looks like a goofy kindergartener saying "cheese" for the photographer instead of the man I married.

I miss my husband's laugh. He used to have a guffaw that I can't really describe, but it would come out when he thought something was especially funny. Now, as he so affectionately describes it, "I sound like a dumb-ass." He still knows HOW to laugh and has a great sense of humor, but the old laugh is gone. I hope and pray that it's not gone for good.

I miss having my husband wrap both arms around me. Only one is functional at this point. His one-armed hugs are still pretty strong, but there is something so secure about being enveloped in both of his arms.

I miss having my husband take care of me: little things like driving when we go somewhere together, or running to the bank to get money, or getting pizza on Friday nights, or picking up a few things at the grocery store when I didn't have time. Now I do all of those things.

I miss our sex life. Yeah, we're all adults here (I hope). I miss the closeness we used to share when his body was capable of doing what he wanted it to, and when he still had some libido. But that is on hiatus for a while, and I don't like it! We have other ways to express our affection and to be intimate, but there is nothing quite like the real thing.

There you have it. A few of the many challenges we face. I am always trying to give thanks for what I do have: my husband's life(!), my children, a job, provision for all of our needs. I am trying not to fall into a habit of feeling sorry for myself. But some days, it overwhelms me.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Family therapy

Now that I've "introduced" myself and my husband, now it's time to let you into a little bit of our family story.

As I mentioned in my post about my struggle with depression, I always wanted to be a wife and a mom. Therefore, I thought I was most well-suited to take on marriage and motherhood as my "career." The marriage part was fairly easy for me - I love being married, and our relationship has never had any major difficulties.

It was the motherhood part that took me totally by surprise! I always want to be 100% clear about this: I LOVE MY FAMILY and MY CHILDREN ARE FANTASTIC. But nothing in my life had really prepared me for the absolute sacrifice and laying down of my life that parenting entails. I came face to face with my own selfishness in a way that I never had before. It was hard to be in complete demand 24/7 by a tiny little human being who needed me more than anyone else in the world, even more than her daddy. I think that, in a way, I realized that my life would never be the same again, and I would never again have the same "freedom" I did before I had kids.

Having 2, then 3, then 4 kids right in a row definitely drained me physically and emotionally. I lost my temper a lot. I escaped a lot into video games or TV. I even hid from my kids from time to time.

I began homeschooling my first-born the same year that baby #4 was born, and it was kind of like a fresh start. Homeschooling a Kindergartener was e.a.s.y. Even with a newborn. I loved the schedule, and everyone seemed to get enough of mom.

I started schooling my second daughter the following year. It was still fairly easy, but child # 2 had a more challenging personality. And trying to find time to love, educate and mother 2 homeschoolers, and pre-schooler and a toddler was becoming more overwhelming. It was in December of that year when I was finally diagnosed with depression. I started taking Zoloft, and things became manageable again.

Two or three years into homeschooling, as I had more to teach the kids and eventually added one more student to the mix, I became overwhelmed once again. In all, I taught homeschool for 5 years, but during the last 2 years, I was "escaping" from the kids a lot more, i.e. sleeping in late, canceling lesson plans, taking 2-3 hour naps in the afternoon while my kids ran the roost. At the time, my doctor and I were on the verge of calling it chronic fatigue syndrome for lack of any better way to define what was going on with me. In retrospect, I'm sure I just didn't have my depression under control. I had stopped taking Zoloft due to the weight gain. Effexor XR kept me at a baseline that prevented me from wanting to die or do anything drastic, but I just wanted to escape because life was overwhelming and I felt like I had no control over anything.

I was doing what I always wanted to do. And I felt like a failure at it.

And all the negative stuff I felt about myself was fairly apparent to my kids. So, my young kids had a mom who was often depressed, occasionally screamed at them out of frustration, and once in a while told them "Just get away from me." Needless to say, my kids may have learned some less-than-healthy ways of dealing with emotions. The biggest issue in our house is anger and rage. None of us have a very good reign on our temper. We are all very good at speaking our minds and expressing ourselves, but sometimes a little too well as we have let many angry words fly (in the form of yells, screams, hisses, bellows, roars, and cries). And not only has the exchange of words gotten out of control - there are dents in the walls and holes in our interior doors due to the fury often expressed by our precious little munchkins.

For years, I had asked my husband to agree to family counseling. He never really thought our issues were serious enough to warrant counseling. Until now.

Since Al's stroke in January, the kids have done remarkably well. But they have, understandably, had a hard time with the fear and anxiety that came with it. They saw Al one day as their fearless, capable, strong Daddy, and the next time they saw him, he was lying in a hospital bed with slurred speech and completely unable to move half of his body. It was a very scary time, but he often reassured them with his whacky sense of humor. He was at the hospital for 6 weeks, during which time I was a single parent.

Once Al returned home, it wasn't much different since Al rested a lot and wasn't able to handle much commotion. Our son even asked him, "Now that you're home, do we still have to obey you?" I think there was a real lack of understanding of who Dad had become. He was still speaking slowly, so it may have seemed as if he wasn't as mentally competent as he had been.

One night, our daughter and I had a long, heated discussion about Daddy helping her with her homework. She was in 2nd grade and she wanted me to help her with math. I was doing the dishes, so I asked her to have Daddy help her with her homework. I told her it would be good for him to help her. She insisted that he wouldn't know how to do it. Second grade math! I still don't quite understand if she was just a little afraid of how Daddy had changed, or if she seriously thought he couldn't do 2nd grade math.

Al has tried to become more involved in our parenting efforts, but he remains quite limited by his physical disability - he can't even physically best our 6-year-old. And he can only take so much chaos. It seems the kids still aren't taking him seriously.

A few months ago, Al finally agreed to pursue family counseling. We have only met with our counselor 4 or 5 times, the first few times as a couple, and then one time with Hope, our oldest. The counselor wanted to meet with her first, and then gradually meet with the other kids.

As of yet, we don't have much insight to share from family counseling. This is just a short tale of the journey that has led us here.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Introducing ME

The first several posts of this blog have been devoted to my husband's stroke. Now it's time to introduce myself and my own therapy (of which there has been only a small amount).

I have dealt with depression since I was a teenager. However, I wasn't diagnosed until 2005. I had given birth to my 4th child in 6 years and I was exhausted. I remember clearly having a meltdown with my husband - I told him I couldn't handle all the demands of my life any more and I was probably accusing him of not helping me enough and not being sensitive enough to my feelings, blah, blah, blah. Then I left to go to a meeting. Instead of fighting back, my husband simply let me leave and then called up a good friend that we've known since college, who also happens to be an MD. Al spilled all of my issues to Dr. P., who candidly said, "She's depressed, bro." Al promptly made an appointment with our family Doc who concurred that I was indeed suffering from depression. (Dr. P wasn't our family Doc at the time, but he is now.)

It was a mystery to me as to how I could suffer from depression, but I always knew something was "wrong" with me. I have a very blessed life - I'm married to my best friend, we have 4 amazing kids, and I truly love being a wife and a mom. We have a great, supportive Christian community that we are involved, and in general, our life is very fulfilling. How does someone who is so blessed get depressed?

I've discovered over the past 6 years that there are a lot of causes for depression, and it seems I have a little bit of each. First of all, I grew up in a home with a father who was angry almost all of the time. In retrospect, I'm quite sure he was suffering from depression, too, and probably still battles it on a regular basis. My mother was always very even keel, but our family didn't talk about "deep" things very much. So I battled with the natural emotions of adolescence, and I didn't have a way to talk through them. I kept them in and thought that I was abnormal for feeling sadness and mood swings. Well, maybe I didn't keep them in as well as I thought, since I have a distinct memory of crying while I was doing the dishes, and my dad asking me, "What the hell are you crying about???" (Disclaimer: my dad is a great guy and I love him; he just didn't know how to respond to girl emotions.) So between normal teenage angst and living in a home with depression, depression got into my system.

I am also a vicious perfectionist. But I'm also kind of a slacker, so I let myself down a lot! When I went off to college, I didn't really have a vision for what I wanted to do with my life, so I was a mediocre student at best. And then I felt guilty for not pursuing a high-powered career.

To be honest, all I ever really wanted to do with my life was to be a wife and a mom. In 1996, the first part of that dream came true when I married my best friend, Al. In 1999, the other part came true with the birth of my first baby. How, then, could I still be depressed???

Having 4 kids in 6 years is a little stressful on the body, as well as the mind, since I was a stay-at-home mom with 4 young'uns, ages 5 and under. So, as much as I loved my kids and my home and being the wife & mom I always wanted to be, there was constant stress on my body and mind for 6 years straight. The way Dr. P described it to me was that my brain really was fried, for lack of a better term. Chronic stress = brain frittata = lack of ability to deal with normal stuff of life = depression. Hey, my doc could explain it better, but that's because he went to med school for 8 years and I didn't. To make a long story short, I was very much relieved that I actually had depression and that I wasn't just failing at life.

Since having been formally diagnosed with depression, I have tried a few different antidepressants. The first and best was Zoloft. It worked wonders, but I quickly gained 20-30 lbs., which I have yet to lose! After 6 months, I went off the Zoloft, hit rock bottom, and then tried again with Wellbutrin (didn't do anything), Lexapro (curbed my appetite, but made my moods kind of flat - not much up and down), and finally Effexor XR, which is what I am taking now and have been for a few years. It does the trick and has probably led to a little more weight gain - I am now about 50 lbs. overweight and I really need to get on track with the weight loss thing - BUT, it's better than being chronically depressed and suicidal, right?

Even with all of the possible causes of my depression - family history, perfectionism, chronic stress, etc. - I have always known that I myself needed to work on one thing to get better: my thought life. Clearly, perfectionism involves a lot of skewed self-talk like, "I have to be perfect," "People won't love me if I'm not perfect," "If I can't do something perfectly, then I have failed at it." etc. So, I know that I need to teach myself positive (and truthful) self-talk.

About 2 years ago, I started seeing a Christian therapist so that I could talk through some of my thought life with her and try to develop better thought patterns. However, I stopped going when my husband had his stroke, due to sheer lack of time and ability to get away.

Oddly enough, I haven't experienced much depression since Al's stroke. I know for a fact that it was due to a LOT of grace from the Lord, and probably lack of time to actually become depressed. Oh, sure, I've had my moments of anger, grief, frustration, sadness, etc. and yes, some depression, but not nearly as much as I've experienced in the past. There will be many more posts to flesh out all of my depression and anxiety issues, but this is the start.

This might sum up where I am at the moment:

(Credit goes to whomever posted this on Facebook - wish I'd come up with it myself!)