When Life Hands You Lemons: Beth Stoddard

Words by: Beth Stoddard

As a parent, the health of your children is always at the forefront of your mind. When they're toddlers, it's often the little things: A cold here and there, a stomach bug, a skinned knee, or a busted lip. As the mom of five children, all relatively close in age, I managed to navigate these minor illnesses with relative ease. There were a few traumas, to be sure, like when my eldest, at the tender age of three, drank an entire bottle of cold medicine. We learned what it was like to have your stomach pumped (an altogether unpleasant experience). My youngest made annual trips to the ER for stitches- his forehead, his chin, his lip. 

Overall, childhood illnesses and injuries all fell, for me, into the category of Things I Could Handle. This was fortunate, I know, and I am grateful. But that fortune changed, and the reality of life appeared in all its power in early 2010 when my eldest daughter, at 19, had her first full-blown manic episode in what we would later realize was the onset of bipolar disease. This was something I did not know how to handle. 

My daughter and I have circled the past and the external and internal issues, and we know there will never be all the answers that we'd like to have- not this side of heaven. Looking back, there were signs; hints of something to come, manifesting itself in junior high insomnia, anxiety, and incredible swirls of creativity. Six years into acknowledging the powerful intermingling of personality and brain chemistry, we have learned the absolute necessity of relinquishing control and what-ifs, and leaning into the unknown. 

In considering the motive behind the question When did life hand you lemons and you made lemonade? , I am aware that we're looking for stories of encouragement, hope, restoration, and even resurrection. This is that story for our family, it is ongoing and it is daily. It is the anxiety of family gatherings and events that might be too stressful. It is wondering if meds are working and whether it's a good time to wean her off. It is worrying about saying the wrong thing and trying to say all the right things. 

My eldest daughter is the spark in our family. She holds us together and calls out our passions, even as she is forging her own path as an adult. Even as she says, I'm bipolar, she has the ability to see, hear, and feel creative sparks that fuel expressions of beauty and glory that astound and amaze us. Our story is one of inspiration and declaration, in our family, this is our truth, and we are not ashamed. 

Mental health issues live far too often in a place of shame. We hide, grieve in silence, feel embarrassed,  and are in despair of dashed expectations. We believe we've been handed a lemon, and the work required - adding some semblance of sugar to sweeten and change the sour, stirring and swirling to make something pleasant for others to sip, is too much. It takes time, energy, effort, and focus. All the things that are often in short supply when a family is navigating the ups and downs of bipolar or paranoia or anxiety or depression or schizophrenia. 

Sometimes, yes; it's hard. She is my child, and I worry; just like I worry about all of them. I pray they are healthy in every way. I ache for each child when they struggle to find their way. I nudge, encourage, and secretly even occasionally manipulate, just a little bit, trying to help them get to a better place. 

Honestly, for all of my kids even the one who owns the label "bipolar", I take a different approach to the idea that their hardships need to be formed into a sweeter concoction. When a mental health issue first becomes part of your family, it's normal to find everybody sprawled on the floor, trying to find a way to simply function. You can't quite find "normal". You aren't sure which side is up, and it's a challenge to determine the right next step. The last thing anybody should expect is to make lemonade. 

Instead, I've learned to appreciate the lemon. Allow me a few analogies: 

Lemons are strong. The rough, strong skin protects what's inside. Lemons are beautiful. The yellow color is bright and cheery. Yellow declares that something good is coming. Lemons have power. The acid of the juice can clean things, reveal things, clarity, and even disinfect. Lemons are natural, they grow on trees as part of God's great design. Lemons add zest, added to a dressing or vegetable they brighten the taste. 

I could go on, but I'm sure you get the picture. Frankly, I'm not really interested in making lemonade. I would rather keep the lemons. 

The proverbial "lemon" that comes with a difficult diagnosis has provoked me to see the strength and beauty in my daughter and to recognize the same in people around me I might have overlooked.

I appreciate the tremendous power that comes when you encounter the world differently, and the way that confronting and accepting the vast differences in how our brains work can cause us to view ourselves with more clarity. I accept now that those who are dealing with mental health challenges are part of the natural order of things that has always been, and always will be. 

Finally, I've had to learn to stand back and view my daughter for who she is and not who I want her to be. Accepting the entirety of who she is, and how she engages with the world. I love her in her manic times and in the depressed times. I love her when it's easy and when it's hard. And that's all good for my daughter, but here's a bigger part of that: I've learned to love others better, too. 

Maybe there is lemonade flowing after all. Maybe the sweet stuff is simply a more generous, accepting spirit, a more genuine fruit that can flow from me as I engage those in purview. 

One of my favorite phrases is this: We know that in all things, God works for the good of those who love him. The part I like best is not the working, not the good, not the love, but this: 

In all things.

Lemons; lemonade. All the things. 

So be it.