I’m reading a few books all at the same time which, for some reason, is what I like to do. There is one book, however, that I want to recommend to every person I meet.
This book is not another stress management book. It’s really a brain management book; a kind of How To Reset Your Brain To Thinking Clearly Even When Your Brain Would Have You Run Into The Bathroom And Curl Up In The Tub. So far, it is proving to be outstanding, and it’s confirming practices that I have spent a decade fumbling around in the dark trying to develop in an attempt to get my brain out of an acute PTSD response to stress. I might appear placid on the outside, but I can foam at the mouth with the best of ’em. In fact, I can work myself up to such high levels of stress and anxiety that only Xanax will bring me down. It’s not a good thing. I’ve been spending years learning to short-circuit my panic response because, let’s face it, it was getting old.
Stress and even panic can be a reality for all of us particularly if you have a child or a loved one with mental illness. As soon as suicidal ideation begins, the alarm bells start ringing in your head, and your amygdala takes over your brain. I’m actually a champion in a crisis. It comes from years of dealing with a mentally ill parent. What am I not so good at? Adjusting to normalcy. My brain thinks that everything is a crisis. So, the issue with my brain is that I must remind it frequently that I am not facing a crisis even though I might be. Grace has schizophrenia. There are days when we might be dealing with something comparable to a crisis. So, what I have to tell my brain is: “Thanks for alerting me to this. I can handle it. You can calm down now. I’m okay.” What I am learning from reading this book (which you need to read) is that this very kind of declaration is what an anxious, stressed, or panicked brain needs! We want to activate the learning part of our brain, and it’s that activation that calms the alarm centers in our brain–NOT deep breathing or attempting to relax. To me, this is a wonderful breakthrough because my husband and I live in an intense environment as do my children. This is something worth teaching. It’s empowering.
And, because this is our family, I had the opportunity to practice this very thing yesterday. Being quarantined by the state’s Department of Health simply wasn’t enough fun. Nope. My husband came home and said, “My car is making a bad sound. I’m calling Tony.” Tony is our lovable, straight-shooting mechanic. He named our family minivan ‘Beeker’ because the last time he worked on it, the van was making a whining sound much like Beeker the Muppet. Beeker resented this nickname, I think, and gives Tony a hard time whenever she needs attention. Her real name is ‘Bessie’, and she puts up with a lot. Anyway, my husband limped his car down to Tony and returned five minutes later. He looked pale. My heart started beating. I felt the adrenaline dump. “What did he say?” My husband’s mouth was just a flat line. “It’s toast. The engine blew.” I stopped breathing. I immediately started running numbers in my mind. I have our budget memorized. I know every bill, every due date, every creditor. It’s not intentional. It’s just how my brain works. The side effect of this kind of brain is that my budget likes to come alive at night and torment me. Have you ever seen Disney’s animated film “Winnie the Pooh”? If you’re familiar with Pooh Bear’s melodious nightmare “Heffalumps and Woozles”, then you now have a sense of what my Budget Nightmare is like except Wells Fargo isn’t as cute.
“But, it only has 70,000 miles on it! It’s still under warranty! We haven’t finished paying it off!” He sighed. He explained to me how the warranty worked because Tony explained to him how the warranty worked. Did we save every oil change receipt? No. Then, the “warranty” company wouldn’t replace the engine, and, even if they did, they would do an engine teardown to inspect it first in an attempt to prove that it was neglect on our part which we would pay for either way. “So…we are now left with a completely broken car that we essentially have to replace but still owe money on? And, Bessie is 10 years old. She’s going to need replacing soon. Aaaand…this means two car payments for one car? Wow. And, only one car in the meantime until we get this solved? How will that work?”
We live in an urban area with the worst public transit ever. Plus, my husband is a consultant. He needs a car. And, I can’t be housebound. We did the “one car thing” for three years. That’s another kind of nightmare that I won’t be doing ever again. So, this new situation gave us a great opportunity to put some “brain management” principles into practice. How did we do? We did well.
I did not lock myself in the bathroom, cry, foam at the mouth, or tremble. My husband did not turn into Lizard Man which is saying something. That man can transform into a Monitor Lizard faster than Clark Kent can rip off his Oxford shirt in a phone booth! There are, of course, decisions to make and numbers to crunch. I, however, have not panicked one time, and this is an achievement. I look at this as an opportunity. An adventure. I’m not kidding. It’s a choice really. I could freak out which is my habit, or I could reframe it and develop a new habit. I’m a person of faith. Why do I have faith if I’m running around freaking out all the time? So, I’m choosing to view it as an opportunity for God to intervene and act on our behalf because He’s really cool like that. I don’t mean that in a church-y, pious way at all. I’m very “rubber meets the road” where God is concerned because our lives are lived out in that space–right between the tires and the road. My faith has blood, bones, and tears. I digress…
What is another reason to practice better brain management? My kids are paying attention, and they don’t miss much. Grace is very sensitive to changes in my mood, and she was immediately next to me, asking, “What’s wrong? You look upset,” as soon as her dad came home with the bad news. She relies on me, in part, for her own stability. Mothers are powerful figures in the home. There is that saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, Ain’t no one gonna be happy.” Children with severe mental illness rely on their caregivers for stability. What am I saying? Children, in general, rely on their caregivers for stability! It is, therefore, very important that I learn to deal with high levels of stress because life is not going to suddenly become easy. In fact, I predict it will just get harder. Grace hasn’t hit puberty yet nor has Milly. Do you see where I’m heading with this? I must take responsibility for my responses to stress. Yes, I have PTSD, but I still have to show up with a brain that can function well and think under pressure. This is why I am such an advocate for self-care. If I’m hiding in the bathtub weeping and refusing to come out, then I’m no good to anyone (and, yes, I’ve done that before). Believe me, I know how hard it can be to walk the highway of Difficult Circumstances. I’ve adopted a part of that road, and my family and I are out there cleaning it up every month. We know it all too well. I, however, believe it can be trod with…humor, energy, and hope. At least that’s what I’m telling my brain because, I’ll admit it, there was a moment last night when the Wells Fargo Woozle and the Second Car Loan Heffalump came for me. It was a bit touch and go…
But I made it through. I didn’t even lock myself in the bathroom. Not even once. My husband was so proud. You probably think I’m joking…