Walter White: Well technically, chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change…Did you learn nothing from my chemistry class?
Jesse Pinkman: No, you flunked me. Remember?
Chemistry is the only class this former straight “A” student flunked in High School. It’s funny how each of us, when we hear lines from a drama series, can think of something personal that reminds us of something that has absolutely nothing to do with the intended T.V. message. My first thought, when I heard the chemistry reference, was about my making my first “D” in chemistry (turns out I’m a social services type – chemistry is too black and white for me). And like most of us, we know a good bit about life until a subject hits us that we know so little about that we flunk the first test.
Being human (especially women), we tend to do life by using our gift of empathy and emotions, which has great reward unless we allow it to rule without logic when we face crisis. If you read Breaking Bad Part One, you’ll note that any of us can get to a breaking point when we are overwhelmed by life situations. Each stage of life has good and difficult seasons (our childhood and teen years, then raising our own family), but the last one, changing roles with our parents is a doozy.
We can get really out of whack, but there is a way to climb out with education of what is going on in our bodies (and our brains). There are real chemical changes going on due to stress overload and many different ways to fix it. Now, having made it back to normal (sort of), I have come to appreciate quotes like the following (I plan to use it every chance I get):
“The good part about having a mental disorder is having a valid reason for all the stupid things we do because of a damaged prefrontal cortex. However, the best part is seeing someone completely sane do the exact same things, without a valid excuse. This is the great equalizer of God and his little gift for all us crazy people to enjoy.” ― Shannon L. Alder
The prefrontal cortex regulates our thoughts, actions and emotions through extensive connections with other brain regions, and stress can affect it. So technically, when I was acting like a crazy person, I really did have an excuse! Some would say I was a little daft to begin with, but I’d counter that with crazy (no excuse) on top of crazy with one is something they might want to consider before making goofy comments. But, I digress.
After the Walmart episode, I made an appointment with my doctor. I described the story from the beginning to the present, noting each emotion, inability to rest my mind, the physical wear and tear and lastly, my hormonal and brain functions, bringing myself to a place of daily anxiety. He said,
“I see someone who has 50 thoughts swirling around her head and she can’t find a place for them to land. Then, when they do, they land all at the same time”.
I was having a hard time listening, because, quite literally, I had scarcely slept in three days. He explained some of the effects of stress on brain function. Chronic stress increases the stress hormone cortisol, and affects many brain functions, putting a person at risk for varying types of mental conditions.
My head had a hard time listening, but my heart heard every word, as I sat there and shook my head affirmatively to each one, moment by moment, not feeling as crazy as I did going into his office. As my constant stress increased, so did the manifestations of what was going on in my brain. The debit card was only the end result of many issues that led up to that now infamous day in the Walmart parking lot where I decided to call it quits.
I didn’t have to share the details where there were other episodes of my losing things and having lapses in cognitive thinking and judgment. He knew. I just thought that with my Dad losing some of his cognitive function as he ages, and my being menopausal (stressed out menopausal, no less), that we are like the blind leading the blind and just needed to muddle through as best we could. It might have helped had I known that some actions were due to chemical changes going on. But it happens so gradually, that you sometimes don’t realize it until you have an aha! moment of truth where you have no choice but to turn to outside help.
Anyway, he gave me something to help me sleep, sleep being a way for the body to repair itself over time. He also gave me something to block the things that were blocking serotonin from doing the job it was intended to do. I’ve never been one to advocate medication, but this was an instance where my body quite literally could not function as it was supposed to. What a godsend.
Now that my body and brain are returning to normal, I can take the advice that I give others and put it into practice.
Here are 10 things that I have learned:
- Focus on the things you can control – Rather than stressing out over things you can’t control, focus on the way you choose to react to problems. You can’t MAKE things work the way you want them to, you can’t wish the problem away.
- Face the reality of your situation – Accept what you can’t change and change what you can. Remember the episode of Andy Griffith where they had to learn to love the pickles Aunt Bee made? Find ways to appreciate the ministry you have towards those you care for. This is a mission for you at this stage of life. Those who honor their parents will find that honor doubling back to them later on. Once you do this, you can move on with purpose.
- Find things to be thankful for – I have learned new coping skills that I didn’t think I was capable of before. Think about being thankful for what your loved one can still do, rather than dwelling on what they can’t. Some things I discovered about myself through this:
- I have become more organized.
- I have rediscovered talents that I had forgotten (ie: writing, paint and wallpaper)
- I really do enjoy my time with my Dad and am thankful to have him still here at this stage.
- Grieve your loss in whatever way works for you – Remember, we too are suffering from a loss. We are having to let go of our ideals of the superman role our parents played for us. It’s hard. Cry if you want to.
- Find a way to express your feelings – For me, it started with a diary and ended up as a column called Out of the Ozone. For some it is finding a trusted friend to vent on and talk things through. There are also support groups out there.
- Finish or create some projects together – Hang curtains, paint a room, read a book together, etc… It depends on your common hobbies.
- Take a sabbatical with your loved one – Drop everything – leave the dishes and go get an ice cream, sit on the swing and drink coffee. Laugh.
- Find something to look forward to each day – For me, this is the purpose for hobbies and projects. I leave a good book at his house to do a little reading when I am there. This month, it’s buying curtains for the bedroom that we’ve already painted together.
- Let your weaknesses serve as a point of contact for growth – I am certainly not the same person I was two years ago. I’m better. Also realize that bad days are inevitable and good days are to be savored for what they are.
- Educate yourself every chance you get – Knowledge really is power – power over how you approach your circumstance. My good friend Edie, mentioned the scripture that talks about being strong in our weaknesses. I was reminded of many years ago when she loaned me a tape by motivational speaker Patsy Clairmont titled: God Uses Cracked Pots. Mrs. Clairmont talked about God’s light shining through the broken places. I was going through a tough time then, and my friend gave me the best gift she knew how to give: her undying friendship, and great advice from a lady who had gone through what I was going through. Thanks Edie!
The next article will delve into the many issues involved with taking care of aging parents. I hope to be able to interview others going through this to get some insight. Please respond if you have anything to share!
Here is a good help guide for caregivers:
To help educate on the processes that occur in the brain:
More interesting info on the functions of the brain (all you ever wanted to know about the prefrontal cortex but were afraid to ask):