Charting Through Mental Illness
From the Family Foundations archives
One in five.
That’s the best estimate of the number of adults who suffer from a “diagnosable mental disorder” in any given year. Anxiety disorders are the most common, and often pair with depression. These conditions can make practicing NFP excruciatingly difficult.
Jenna Hines, a 31-year-old NFP user from Chelsea, Michigan, has battled anxiety since childhood, but 10 years ago she started having panic attacks. The condition worsened during pregnancy and the postpartum transition.
While Jenna and her husband of seven years, Michael, 29, like the closeness NFP brings to their marriage, they’re under no illusions. “It reminds me of breastfeeding,” Jenna said. “I thought, ‘Of course that’s what I’ll do!’ No one ever mentioned it was going to be hard. I wish people would have warned me of the roadblocks.”
Jenna, a mother of four who blogs at callherhappy.com takes Zoloft to help control her anxiety. Luckily, she hadn’t experienced cyclic complications, but her panic attacks respond to hormonal shifts. With user effectiveness hinging upon her observations, NFP itself can be a trigger. What if she gets it wrong? What happens if she has an unplanned pregnancy when her mental health is not in a good place?
After trying several methods, the Hineses have found greater peace of mind in their particular situation by learning the Marquette Method, but she noted, “It’s all about trusting God and letting those anxieties go, which is much easier said than done!”
The God factor
Rachel Gardner, a Catholic counselor at New Life Counseling Center in Austin, Texas, view the family, not the individual, as the building block of mental health. We’re accustomed to thinking of inter-relatedness in terms of natural ecosystems; in the same way, the problems faced by an individual don’t exist in a vacuum.
Gardner invokes the pedagogy of Father Joseph Kentenich, who founded the Schoenstatt Marian movement. Father Kentenich believed that the fundamental societal changes experienced by humankind in the 20th century led to a separation between humanity and the things that make us most human. Everyday holiness is an organic harmony among attachment to God, to fellow man and to work.
By contrast, modern philosophies separate body from mind and spirit, faith from life.
These divisions are part of why anxiety is such a common modern malady today, though of course, not everyone experiences it to the same degree. Everyone inherits a capacity to handle anxiety and stress, Gardner said, but even within families, that capacity varies.
If individuals work in a conscientious, thoughtful way to manage their experiences of stress, they can pull themselves along the continuum in a positive direction. That exerts a positive influence on the rest of the family.
Our brains react to stress by instinct, but we can never forget that we also have souls. “our relationship to God is the primary source for dealing with all mental illness,” Gardner said, and our model is Mary, “the perfect harmony of the natural and supernatural.”
Whether it’s everyday anxiety or the kind of mental illness that may require intensive medical intervention, the spiritual life is vital. It doesn’t take much, Gardner says. “If a mom is carrying a laundry basket and her child wants to help, it’s actually harder on the mom. But it’s so good for the child!” In the same way, whatever efforts we make, God will multiply tenfold.
For Jenny and Dave Uebbing, of Denver, Colorado, mental health and the practice of NFP have both required careful discernment. Jenny, the 34-year-old author of the blog “Mama Needs Coffee,” has struggled with depression and anxiety throughout her life She credits Dave, her husband of eight years, with helping her keep her equilibrium. Knowing her depression worsens in the postpartum, they plan ahead for childcare, household responsibilities, and getting medical help when necessary. She calls him “incredibly attuned to the warning signs of PPD.”
Before conceiving their fifth child, due this December, they found themselves discerning month to month more carefully than ever before, asking: Are we ready yet? What needs to be addressed first? “We found it really life-giving. It helped us get onto the same page in terms of ‘here’s where I’m still hurting’ or ‘I could use some support with this,'” Uebbing said.
It can be tempting to give up on NFP when other factors make it difficult. Uebbing urges couples to persevere.
“Women deserve better than the standard fare of gynecological care, and NFP is a vital part of getting the standard raised,” she said. “Your body and your marriage deserve better.”
Rachel Gardner invites couples to examine the root of their anxieties. When one partner has a lot of anxiety around charting, what relational factors contribute to that? Were their own parents anxious about having kids? What expectations do future grandparents bring to the situation? Are these to be the first children in the new generation?
How does a husband react when his wife gets anxious? Does he treat her as capable of managing her own stress? How does each partner respond to stress — with emotional withdrawal, anger or frustration?
Pondering these questions can help couples recognize the larger pressures that influence their lives and NFP use. Learning to address difficulties in a thoughtful, intentional way can help shift patterns of anxiety that have been in place for generations. Some people will be able to address mental health challenges with emotional support and counseling. Others will need medication, and that’s OK. (It can help to consult a physician who respects both NFP and psychiatry.)
We tend to think of mental health as abstract, says Hines — a matter of thoughts and feelings. But the brain is an organ with neuroreceptors and chemical interactions. “When your mental health isn’t stable, it’s because something isn’t working correctly together,” Hines said.
“In any marriage, there will be tiffs, arguments and major crises,” he said. “Anxiety can not only increase the frequency of those issues, but it also adds a layer of complexity to them. Michael has learned that “while everyone does need a kick in the pants sometimes, if I’m unsure about how to react to something I should err on the side of empathy.”
Jenna Hines compiled the techniques she has learned to combat anxiety into a book called Thirty Days To Calm. Each page includes space for journaling to help people take ownership of their health. She is thrilled that she has been able to channel her struggle into a way that has helped so many others.
The job of those who don’t suffer from mental-health challenges is to support families who do. “We should be willing to have all the conversations about NFP — the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Uebbing. We have to stop passing judgment on others’ reasons for postponing pregnancy. The Church doesn’t give us a list because every situation is unique. “She is our wise mother raising us to adulthood, not our preschool teacher trying to keep us from biting our classmates. What might be grave to one couple might be a blip on the radar to another.”
Rachel Gardner urges communities to stay connected. It’s tempting to avoid people who are struggling — suffering makes everyone uncomfortable. But if we can make peace with our own discomfort, how much more grace, mercy and love will we have to offer another?
On the other hand, we can’t fix someone else’s problems. It’s not our job to provide them a to-do- list. In fact, doing so does more harm than good. “People are capable of sorting through life themselves,” Gardner said. “it’s just hard to do when anxiety is high.” By all means, be present. Ask questions to hel pthem think through the root of their stress, but be content to be sounding board and support network rather than a Mr. Fix-It. Offer to help by watching kids or bringing dinner over. Thus we can be companions on the journey.
No one goes looking for crosses. “Even Even Christ was like, ‘Can I please just not do this, actually?'” said Gardner.
But God can lead us through the suffering. “We don’t do it because we like crosses,” she said. “We do it for the joy on the other side.”
— Kathleen M. Basi and her husband, Christian, are CCL teachers in Columbia, Missouri where they are raising four kids. Read more of Kate’s reflections on faith and family at kathleenbasi.com.
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