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What If It’s Not a Character Problem?

Updated: Jun 15, 2022

…your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:8b NIV)

I have a really short temper, which got a lot shorter after our second baby was born. I would yell or cry for no reason, hide in the bathroom to be alone, fantasize about running away.

When even my incredibly patient husband said one day, “I don’t know how much longer I can live like this,” I knew something had to change. I began going to weekly counseling. I reduced my job to part-time, then quit altogether. I hired help with cleaning and cooking at various times. I changed my birth control.

Things improved, but I still had big ups and downs. My thoughts tumbled together into a “spiral of doom”: Why can’t I be a better mother? Why is it so hard for me to calm down? What kind of person has to struggle not to hit their kids?

Through it all, I also struggled with guilt and shame. No one ever came out and told me, “Oh, if you had enough faith, Jesus would heal you,” but I just assumed my character wasn’t godly enough. After all, “fits of rage” is right there in Galatians 5:20 as an act of the flesh.

I prayed for the fruit of the spirit—especially peace and patience—while still sending desperate emails to my best friend about how I ruined my life by having kids.

When the pandemic struck, I lost all of my coping strategies at once. I cracked. My heart started racing for no reason. I’d breathe deeply and calm down, and then it would happen again—every 15 minutes or so- for two straight days. I was able to get a virtual appointment with my doctor in record time (since everything else had just been canceled). She prescribed some anti-anxiety medicine, then she also asked me about my general mood. After listening to me—I probably sobbed—she said, “Oh honey, we can help you.”

I didn’t think I was depressed. I was still getting out of bed, going to work, doing things around the house—that’s not what you expect from post-partum depression disorder. Clinically speaking, it’s “agitation,” but to me it felt like uncontrollable anger.

Unfortunately, the first-line anti-depressants (SSRIs) take four to six weeks to reach full effectiveness. What followed was a long summer of trying medicine, suffering side effects while waiting for the desired effect to kick in, and when that didn’t work, trying a different combination of meds, all while navigating the early (chaotic) pandemic school-from-home, life in a “social bubble,” and two weeks of smoke levels so unhealthy we couldn’t go outside.

However, for the first time in five years, I felt like I actually had a chance to choose how to respond when my kids misbehaved or upset me. I could take a deep breath, count to ten, walk away if needed.

When I expressed dismay that I hadn’t turned to medicine sooner, my doctor assured me that almost everyone who gets helped by an anti-depressant feels the exact same way. It’s reasonable to try counseling and self-help first because medications are never fully without risk, and knowing that does reduce my regret a little.

The realization that I was once again in control drove home to me that without meds, I simply couldn’t stop my anger. I didn’t have that half-second window to interrupt my thoughts and choose not to yell. When other people talked about feeling the impulse to hit their kids, they didn’t realize I meant every time the kids threw a tantrum. I had been expending so much emotional energy just keeping myself under control that I had had no margin to do anything else. All the coping strategies in the world couldn’t fully overcome the chemical imbalance in my brain.

Fortunately, my story has a happy resolution for now. Of course I still lose my temper sometimes; medicine doesn’t fix everything (alas). But I’ve found a drug and dosage that give me that one split second to choose how I want to react, so that I can exercise the self-control and patience for which I’ve been praying.

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