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Muddy water: Thoughts for a muddy mental health awareness month

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In general, the beaches in the Houston area have ocean water that is not clear. When I was young and didn’t see danger everywhere (sharks, rip currents, god-knows-what-else), I would stay in that murky water for hours, unbothered by thoughts of what was under the surface. Now that I’m older, I prefer to sit in a chair at the water’s edge with a novel.

One day, we were at the beach and a fisherman walked over to show us the small shark he had caught on his fishing line. The kids were minimally freaked out and stayed out of the water for about 15 minutes pondering sharks, but they soon forgot about the shark and ventured back out into the muddy water.

When my daughter was stung by a jellyfish, all the kids came out of the ocean again to watch her cry and make sure she was OK. Once her pain had settled, they were all back in the water again, blissfully unaware of their proximity to other jellyfish, thanks to the turbid Gulf Coast water.

Every now and then, one of the kids will be bumped by something (fish? seaweed?) and come running out of the water, but most of the time, they stay on their boogie boards, riding the waves, throwing sand at each other, knocking each other down in the water, tossing a football. All the while, they do not know what lies beneath the muddy water beside them.

Have you ever stepped into clear water, though? I remember the difference when we stopped in the Bahamas on our Disney Cruise a few years ago. In that ocean water, we could all see to our toes, and I loved it. I could’ve stayed in that water much longer. Something about standing in clear water made it less anxiety-producing.

In the clear water, I didn’t have to imagine what dangers were out there, since my vision was clear. And just like the water was clear, my thoughts and emotions were clear as well. In muddy water, I don’t know what to fear, I just know that I feel unsettled, and fearful, and anxious about what could go wrong.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Fifteen months into what has become one of the strangest and most devastating and confusing years of our lives, I think it’s fair to say our collective mental health is not at its best.

I came across a quote from Lao Tzu recently (Tao Te Ching 15) that gave me hope that it’s not going to be like this forever.

Do you have patience to wait

Till your mud settles and the water is clear?

Can you wait unmoving

Till the right action arises by itself?

This year is kind of like perpetually being in muddy water. It’s been one muddy wave after another, and it’s wearing on us, and it’s wearing on our kids. The mental health providers are swamped. It seems impossible for them to keep up with the demand of children and teens and families who need their guidance.

When the mud hasn’t settled for months, one simple thing we can do as parents is to start asking our kids how they’re doing. Ask them what’s making their water muddy. Another is to be still long enough to ask ourselves how we are doing?

It helps children to offer them words for what they are feeling. We can talk to them about our own mental health, and ask them about theirs. The first step toward clear water, I think, is destigmatizing being in muddy water. Each of us, at one time or another, is not OK. If your children are in muddy water this year, you are not alone.

Normalizing the conversation makes it more likely that kids will pay attention to and respect their own mental health as they grow.

This has been a hard year. Think of all the emotions that you have felt as a grown semi-functioning adult, and then realize that your children are having the same emotions, without the benefit of a lifetime of experiences behind them. We all need to lift each other up to get out of this muddy-water year we are in.

So hopefully these times are more like clear water that is temporarily murky. Like we’ve stepped into the clear turquoise waters of the Bahamas but stirred up the mud and sand with our feet. It feels reassuring to imagine the mud settling, and the water becoming clear again.

When your newborn won’t quit crying, wait for the mud to clear.

When the toddler takes an angry swing at you, wait for the mud to settle.

When the tween starts mouthing off and the teen rolls her eyes and the college student is not doing well, wait for the mud to settle.

And when you’re not doing well either, wait for that mud to eventually settle, too.

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