By Emalee Gillis, NAMI Spokane Blog Editor.

Ten years ago or sixteen years into parenting two children with mental health conditions, Jennifer Morgan of Spokane realized that all the stress had taken a toll. She had developed chronic anxiety in addition to chronic pain, chronic headaches, exhaustion, and intrusive thoughts of worrying about her children. At that point in 2014, Jennifer realized that she had to make herself a priority and put her health at the front of her awareness.

Jennifer said, “The largest part of my healing at that time came through NAMI.”

Jennifer regularly attended the NAMI monthly support group for those who love someone with a mental health condition. She needed social support from those who understood how stressful it is to care for someone with a mental health condition. She needed to be around people who were passionate about mental health issues.

Jennifer added, “Prior to connecting with NAMI, I felt isolated. On the rare occasions when I spoke about mothering children with mental health conditions, I felt judged and experienced the stigma associated with mental illness.“

At the NAMI group, Jennifer didn’t feel judged, she felt supported.  She felt accepted. Jennifer also took NAMI’s eight-week course called Family-to-Family aimed at families of those with a mental health condition. She gained a great deal from that course.

In addition to working with NAMI, Jennifer went to counseling. One tool her counselor used was Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR. That technique helped release some of Jennifer’s anxiety. EMDR helped her self-regulate and helped remove some of the thoughts that produce anxiety, so she could bring herself back to a calm state. Another tool Jennifer learned in counseling involved an imaginary container. Jennifer imagined a container in her mind and then imagined putting her worries about her children into that container. If she felt worries start to come up when she was at work or some other place where she didn’t have time to process feelings, she would imagine putting those worries back in the container and leaving them to worry about later. Her counselor also used guided meditations to help Jennifer imagine a safe place like walking along the river with her dog. Her counselor recorded that guided meditation and Jennifer could listen to it as a calming strategy.

For about a year, Jennifer also worked with another organization called Partnership to End Addiction which helps family members of those with substance abuse issues including those with concurring mental health issues like her children.

Jennifer said, “When I started working with the Partnership, I was very focused on trying to get my children to access services that I thought would help them feel better instead of relating to them as their mom.”

With the help of the Partnership and an approach known as CRAFT, she learned to focus more on what was important to her children. She focused on finding out how her children were doing and what was going on with their life instead of telling them what to do. She learned to focus on their priorities and what they were going through.

Jennifer said, “What I really wanted was to be in a relationship with my kids. I stopped trying to force them into doing something before they were ready.”

For Jennifer, recovery is a lifetime journey. Sometimes her anxiety is at a manageable size, but sometimes it expands like an expanding ball and is more difficult to manage.

“There doesn’t even have to be anything going on to make that ball expand. A memory of a hard experience my children went through can make it expand. I have to depend on my resources to make it a more manageable size.”

She added, “Recovery is not something I am done with. It’s something I have to deal with every day for probably the rest of my life. Recovery is a lifelong commitment. Before, I thought I would do a year of therapy and be done with recovery. It doesn’t work like that for me.”

However, Jennifer noted that as her recovery progressed, there were more times when her anxiety was manageable.

Part of her motivation for being in a recovery process for herself was that she realized she needed to change if she wanted to keep showing up in the way she wanted as a mother.

“Being so wrapped up in my worries and anxiety was not sustainable,” she said. “This is a marathon, not a sprint. This is a lifelong endeavor.”

One turning point in her recovery journey happened during the pandemic. The lockdown in March of 2020 occurred when her son came home from his last inpatient stay. She was working from home and he was recovering from home.

“We were together for months. It turned out that was what the both of us needed. The world stopped long enough for me to realize that I can live the way I need to live.”

During the pandemic, Jennifer realized that as an introvert, she needed a break from being out in the world all the time. The pandemic gave her a safe bubble to be okay with who she is. She became more balanced as she gave permission to herself for solitude and to do the things she needed to do as an introvert.

In 2020, Jennifer trained to start co-facilitating what was at the time a NAMI virtual group for those with loved ones who have a mental health condition. She has been co-facilitating that group ever since. She co-facilitates with her friend who also has a child with a mental health condition.

“To have that built-in friendship was a nice support. In addition, I feel like I’m giving back to my community to offer the support to others that has been so helpful to me. It is motivating to see how brave and caring so many people are when facing hard experiences in life.”

“One thing I want to stress,” she added, “is family members can get so wrapped up in helping their family members, that they don’t get the care they need. It is so important for caregivers to take care of their own recovery.”

The NAMI support group for family members of those with a mental health condition meets in-person on the third Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at the NAMI offices at 152 S Jefferson Street and virtually on the third Tuesday from 6:30 to 8:00 p.m.. Jennifer regularly co-facilitates the virtual group and occasionally co-facilitates the in-person group. To register for the in-person group, click here, although you can go to the in-person group without registering. To register for the virtual group, click here. The groups are offered free of cost.

Jennifer Morgan is a social worker with an MSW. Currently, she works full-time in a support role with children and families. She also has 26 years of lived experience as a mother of children with mental health conditions. She has facilitated NAMI family support groups for four years.

Emalee Gillis is a writer and blog editor. She is the author of the memoir Adventures on the Path to Living Well with a Mental Illness and has a related TEDx Talk.