Thursday, February 19, 2009

Depressed (and sometimes angry) Mormon Mommy

A reader emailed me and mentioned something about anger and three kids and how did I start to deal with it. Well, boy howdy, I wrote her a dissertation! Actually it got so long I cut it out of the email and decided to post it here so all of you could have the joy of reading it. Hopefully it's helpful.

Dear Reader,

Having three kids is like running a marathon one day and waking up to run it again the next. It is SO HARD. I never knew I could feel so tired--physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Most days just keeping them alive feels like success. It's discouraging to set the bar so low, but, honestly, keeping three kids fed and dressed and out of harm's way is full time work. After my third was born I remember praying and praying that guardian angels were real because there was no way I could shepherd my children through one day, let alone the rest of their lives.

I say all this for one reason: don't short-change the enormity of the task you have taken on. It IS hard. For everyone. It means the world to me any time someone at Church points out the four year gap between their third and fourth child or when they shake their heads at the memories of how difficult it was or when they just reach out and say, "It does get better." I cling to those seldom uttered honesties. (I think I just made that word up. Oh well. Whatever.)

I used to scream uncontrollably at my kids. And that was when I only had two. Actually, I remember doing it when I only had one. I would unleash these wordless screams that would leave my throat burning and aching. Sometimes I would scream about how frustrated I was. Sometimes I threw things. Sometimes I broke stuff--a kitchen chair actually fell victim to my anger. It took a long time for me to start to take control of it and there are still days that I struggle. Here are some things that help:

*Yelling and uncontrollable/sudden anger is absolutely a sign of depression. For a long time I thought I was just sinning or that I had no self-control. The truth is that people react to depression different ways, one of which is anger. I think depression manifests that way a lot in women with small children because small children won't/can't leave you alone. If I had had the option I would have stayed in bed all day but my kids wouldn't let me. So I yelled and I broke things. Not too proud of those moments. When anger is linked to depression it is IMPOSSIBLE to change your anger until you have managed the depression. I am always surprised at how effective antidepressants are when it comes to cooling my anger.

*How we handle anger has everything to do with how we were taught to handle anger. When I was having my worst angry episodes I would have memory flashes of my mother screaming at us kids and throwing things. She looked exactly how I felt. (I think she was depressed when all us kids were little. She is definitely a warrior mommy who survived some very difficult times.) Anger is a natural, protective response. It is not a sin (most of the time). It is a warning signal and in order to get a handle on it you have to learn to understand the signals. And, as women, a lot of us were taught that we were not supposed to be angry. Repressing anger doesn't make it go away. It only puts it in a pressure cooker.

*Part of that last point bears repeating: Anger is not a sin. I know that in the scriptures Christ tells us not to be angry. President Hinckley even gave a talk about angry. Elder Bednar has covered it too. BUT that doesn't mean anger is a sin. Like all of our emotions, it is part of this this mortal life. Angry responses are strongly linked to bodily conditions. Hormones that we don't control (the fight or flight hormonal rush is just one example) trigger anger in our bodies. The problem is most of us don't notice those bodily responses (like tensing our jaws or our backs, grinding our teeth, clenching our fists, hunching our shoulders, pursing our lips, etc.) before the anger explodes. The Savior's injunction, and President Hinckley's and Elder Bednar's, are, I think, more about learning to work with and overcome the "natural" man. Anger turns into a sin when we refuse to acknowledge its problematic potential and when we let it propel us to hurt others. But feeling angry is not wrong. It simply is.

*One thing that helped me understand the roots of my anger was a really great book:
She's Gonna Blow!: Real Help for Real Moms Dealing With Anger by Julie Barnhill. Barnhill is a Christian who approaches anger from a no nonsense point of view. She is honest about how her anger hurt her family. Even how it led her to hurt her kids. She encourages the reader to be equally honest with themselves through journaling opportunities and scripture study (prompts are offered at the end of each chapter, if I recall correctly). Her book is also chock full of good information about anger. I wish I had bought this book so I could lend it out to people. It is so good.

*Of course, no discussion about my mental health would be complete without mentioning my therapist. Having a dispassionate, third-party guide can make all the difference. My therapist helped me identify the anger triggers and the warning signals that my body was trying to send me. She helped me increase my self awareness and develop coping mechanisms to stop the anger before it exploded. I think the word she used was "mindfulness". She is also an invaluable source of encouragement when I suffer a setback.

Anger is one of the most revealing things about our psyches. Understanding it is the journey of a lifetime and I wish you luck as you set out. You can do it!


Lura said...

Laura, thanks for this. It is very interesting and helpful. I struggle with anger, too. My question is, how do you know if your anger is a result of depression or if it's just a part of life? I sometimes have angry outbursts, which occasionally lead to screaming, slamming doors, and throwing things. Does that mean I'm depressed? Or is it only depression if it happens on a regular basis?

The Miz said...

Thank you for this. I had no idea that anger was a sign or symptom of depression.

Charlotte said...

Honest AND informative - doubly good post. Thanks for this!

Laura said...

Lura--your question is a tricky one but the answer probably lies in two words: severity and frequency. If your anger is severe (like you can't control it and it scares your kids) and you have severe outbursts frequently then it could be depression.

Anger is tricky, though. It is the strong face of many different vulnerabilities. The book, She's Gonna Blow!, does a good job of distinguishing between different types and levels of anger. You can probably get it at the Logan Library. They also have cheap used copies on Amazon.

Misty Lynne said...

Great post, Laura, and thanks. I never realized before how tied in my outbursts were to my depression binges, but boy, they really are! Something new to chew on.