Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What to Do When You are Anxious about Your Child

Recently, I went to a seminar on the topic of "The Future of Housing for Autistic Adults".  It was free and being held about five minutes from my house so I thought, why not?  This could be helpful information just to keep in mind as I think about my eleven year old son's long term future and I've got the mental bandwidth today.  Oh, how wrong I was.

As soon as I walked into the auditorium, I realized that I had made a mistake in coming with so little emotional preparation. The anxiety covered the room like a thick layer of peanut butter.  Parents of adult individuals with disabilities had that familiar look of exhaustion and desperation.  The few people that I tried to interact with at the refreshments table seemed to be carrying a thousand pound burden with them.  As the panel began to discuss, things went from bad to worse as the panel members (governmental leaders and activists) ping ponged in their presentation from defensiveness to bitter anger about the current housing situation for adults with developmental disabilities.

I tried to concentrate on the information that I was gleaning from the handouts about the history of housing for the developmentally disabled in our state and understanding the complex system of power and bureaucratic authority in this realm.  However, I couldn't block out the disturbing and disrespectful ways that the people on the stage were interacting with one another.  I found myself upset and, more than anything, anxious.  What does this mean about Josh's future when I can no longer take care of him?  Am I going to have to deal with a broken and dysfunctional governmental system that won't help me to meet his needs?  Am I going to be able to have any service providers that I can trust?  The anxious thoughts swirled around in my head until I finally decided that I needed to get the heck out of there, spilling coffee on my neighbor as I scurried out of my row.

In my almost 12 years of being a mom, I have observed that it is very natural to struggle with anxiety now and then about things having to do with our children.  After all, we have responsibility for these creatures and, whether your child has a disability or not, they all have complex needs and challenges.  The road ahead is fraught with danger and threats.  Our children have weaknesses in their bodies, minds and character.  We worry about what this might mean for them in their future.  To some degree, anxiety causes us to engage, to think ahead and to fuel us to solve problems.  Some might say that anxiety is a blessing.

Yet there are times when we see anxiety for what it is, a way that we say to ourselves, "This dark scenario that I have for the future is too scary,  too big, too bad for anyone to handle, including God."  At the root of anxiety is a belief that God's love for us will not be powerful enough to give us a good future and that we need to be in control.  Ultimately, unchecked anxiety will not be a useful tool but it will rule over us, crushing our peace, joy, and trust for God and other people.  Anxiety feeds on itself and on our anxious behaviors.  It will make  our minds unable to rest, our souls unable to worship freely and our bodies unable to function properly.

Therefore, as a veteran in the battle against anxiety, I would like to share with you some wisdom about how to not let anxiety rule your life.  When you realize that you are gripped by a dark scenario about your (or your child's) future that does not include the hope of God, I suggest the following:

1.     Talk to someone.  Tell someone exactly what is making you anxious.   Don't rehearse it over and over.  Don't chew on it like cud.  Just get it out of the warm, moist environment of your own head and let the antiseptic power of fresh air and sunlight start to do it's job on your anxiety.  If you don't have someone to talk to, journal it out.  Just get it out.

2.     Pray.  It doesn't have to be complicated.  I like Anne Lamott's suggested prayer, "Help!"  If you are too anxious to pray, ask someone else to pray for you.  At the root of prayer is the declaration that we need help and that we are not in control.  This is an excellent place to start.

3.     Give it over to God.  When I am feeling anxious, I often pray with my hands open as a sign that I am giving to God the heavy things that I am holding.  I also find it helpful to name the thing that is burdening me and praying out loud, "God, I give you my fear of ____" or "I want to trust you with ____".  It's helpful to renounce our perceived control over the uncontrollable things of life and to hand it over to God in a specific way.  Another word for this process is "repentance".  This word does not have to do with "burning in hell" as much as "letting go".

4.     Repeat.  Any significant spiritual and emotional process is usually not "one and done" but rather a process of continually relinquishing.  If the anxiety comes back, repeat steps 1-3.

5.    Remember, your child belongs to God.  Go.  Look at your child or a picture of your child.  This gorgeous person was made by God and is, right now, being parented by God.  His love for your child eclipses your own. Your job is to do your best to nurture and provide for this child but you will have limitations . . . big, fat limitations.  Your task is to do the best job that you can do while being a human being.  God gets this.

6.    Commit to living a non-anxious life as much as you can.  Take time to rest.  Take time out of the swirl of life to make simple plans for moving forward.  Feed the your soul with messages of God's love for you.  Today, I did this by cutting some roses from my garden and putting it on my desk just for me.

7.     Locate areas of avoidance and seek out help and accountability.  I find that avoidance and anxiety are dance partners.  For example, I have an ugly, mean ol' stack of papers on my desk right now that I am avoiding (out of the anxiety that I have about them) yet it's presence daily fuels my anxiety.  I have shared about this stack of papers with two friends who are praying for me and supporting me as I try to clean out patterns of avoidance in my life.  I'm taking one step at a time and it's working.

8.   If anxiety is having a long term, immobilizing grip on your life you may need to get help from a professional like your doctor, a therapist or a pastor/ leader of your spiritual community.  If you find that anxiety is affecting your sleep, eating, relationships over time please do not be afraid to address deeper needs of your life with more significant resources.

By the way, I am highly aware that battling anxiety about our children, our lives, our future, anything is not a simple eight step process. It is truly a battle.  But it's a worthy fight.  Don't give in to anxiety. It's a rabbit hole of darkness and you don't want to live there.  We were not meant created to walk in anxiety but in dependent trust in God.  He cares about you and He cares about your children. He has a good future for your life if you can trust in Him with it.

Finally, I would like to remind you that anxiety is not love.  One mom shared with me that after her child got very ill, she stopped sleeping for days embracing vigilance as a sign of her love for her child to the point where she sacrificed her own health.  God spoke to her that she does not need to prove her love for her child or to prove that she's a great mom by giving herself to hyper-vigilant worry.   I've known and prayed for many children who have been very adversely affected by the leakage of their parents' burdensome anxiety.  We don't love our children by being anxious. We love them by trying to walk in spiritual health and freedom.

How are you doing as you battle anxiety in your life?  What are you finding to be helpful?