There are many things that come with parenthood. Lack of sleep, lack of privacy, lack of money, lack of time and lack of energy. And yet in exchange for all that is taken, parenthood rewards us with an impossible amount in return. A kind of crazy love that chokes you up, and leaves you wondering how such a noisy and gross little person could fill you up with so much joy.
We would do anything for them, wouldn’t we? I would take a bullet, walk through fire… sell my soul in exchange for theirs. It’s our instinct to protect them from anything that might harm them. But what happens when their greatest enemy is inside?
I’m talking about depression and anxiety – insidious, vile and silent torments that they are. In all honesty, it frightens me. I’ve watched dear friends lose sons to suicide. Boys from good, warm and loving families. Boys you’d never suspect were carrying pain inside.
I’m certainly not an expert in mental health, however I made a decision recently to start having conversations with my sons about depression. I guess I’m seeking to open the communication channels early. I realise that there will come a day when they will do little more than grunt through conversations, and that whatever is going on inside their heads will be a total mystery.
It will be too late then, to invite them to pull up a chair and discuss their woes. How we talk (just like how we walk) is a habit; built through years of practice. It’s about creating room in a relationship- reinforced through positive experience- to safely exchange our feelings without judgement.
The other day I received a call from the school to tell me that one of my sons was in sick bay vomiting and needed to be collected. At first, it appeared that he may have eaten something off, but since I made all four boys the exact same lunch, I decided to keep digging. It was only later on that night, when we were cuddling at bedtime, that I discovered the cause of his ‘illness’ was not physical, but mental.
My poor boy was suffering from extreme anxiety. It had been the first day back at school, he was worried about his teacher, about not having the right books, his dad has been away overseas, I was leaving the next day… SO many changes, and for him, the stress of it all just became too much.
I scratched his back and asked him to describe exactly how his feelings had escalated. He recounted how the worry had started small, but then more worries piled on top of each other, and before he knew it, he was pivoting down a spiral that he couldn’t stop.
I reassured him that it was normal to get overwhelmed sometimes. God knows it happens to me. So I asked him if he wanted to hear a story about two guys in a room, that might help him catch his scary thoughts early, before they became too big to control.
He turned around to face me in the dark and nodded.
So there’s a house on a hill; it’s a really special house. Walking up the road, come two guys- they aren’t friends. They walk up to the door and knock- they both want to come inside. One of the guys is happy and the other is negative. Now, the thing is, only one of them can come into the house at a time.
If Mr Negative is in the house, Mr Positive has to wait outside. It’s like your thoughts- you can’t really have a positive one AND a negative one at the same time. (I invited him to try it: pretend you’re biting into a donut and try to imagine that it’s both the YUMMIEST and the WORST donut you’ve ever had. Can’t be done, right?)
Back to the guy in the house. The only way to get Mr Negative out of there, is to push the good guy in through the door. Sometimes, you have to take charge of your mind, and actively force your thoughts in a different direction. Because if you just leave Mr Negative in there to hang out, he’ll get lonely and start inviting his friends.
You’ll start thinking of all the worst things, and all the other reasons you should be sad… and soon the whole house is filled with a bunch of Mr Negatives and it’s too late to find room for the nice guy.
So… you’ve got to do it quickly! As soon as one of the bad guys shows up at your doorstep, you need to kick him out. It’s easy when he’s on his own. It’s even easier if you bring along some good guys to help you out: thoughts that make you happy, things you’re grateful for and look forward to. If you keep your house filled with good guys, you’ll find it easier to chase off the baddies when they come knocking.
The story seemed to make sense for him as he dozed off to sleep…. although this morning, he had managed to build himself up into a state again. When it comes to mental health, I don’t think the goal is to ‘fix it’, but to find strategies to cope better.
In that light, I do take some solace from observing that my son seemed to recover a lot faster today. I could hear him trying to talk his way through it, whereas yesterday he was talking himself into it. I know for him this will be a journey; but I’m grateful that he feels safe enough to express himself. At least maybe that way, he won’t have to face his bad guys alone.