Listen to episode 80 to hear how my guest, Kristen Walker Smith, has learned to think of weakness as a blessing as she has dealt with OCD and motherhood at the same time.
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Kristen experienced a sudden onset of OCD when she got pregnant with her first child. However, it wasn’t until two and a half years later, when her mom asked her about her excessive hand washing, that Kristen was officially diagnosed.
In the episode, Kristen shares how she navigated OCD and motherhood at the same time.
She talks about how she saw God showing up. In addition, she discusses how God didn’t fill in all the gaps but covered the most essential things.
Kristen says she wasn’t very open with others about her struggles. She shares how others saw her needs and helped and supported her even though she wasn’t opening up.
One of the biggest things Kristen has learned from her struggles is how to reframe her thoughts about weakness. Kristen shares how she came to understand that her weaknesses were giving her children exactly what they needed.
Kristen also shares advice for anyone struggling with a weakness (hello, that’s all of us!) to let others in and to list the blessings that weakness is bringing into your life.
Overall, Kristen shares her belief that you can’t have fear and faith at the same time. She chooses faith. Kristen shares her witness of how God helps us through our weaknesses.
- “I was so mad, but I took time to pray about it and I realized, you know what, God put me on the earth at this time when there is medication for what I’m dealing with. Why would I refuse that blessing that he’s put on this earth. And so the combination of a very good therapist and medication has made all the difference and that’s when things really switched.”
- “My weaknesses were blessing them to create strengths of their own through Christ. Christ’s strength was resting on them wherever my weaknesses were.”
- “It is impossible for gratitude and fear to live in the same space and I found that when times would get truly overwhelming, I just had to go back to that list and remember God is blessing me in this trial right now.”
- “And so even though so much of my motherhood fell to the wayside, God blessed me with the ability to do what was absolutely eternally vital.”
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SMM 051: Hope in the Arms of the Savior in Mental Health Challenges || Jamie Hutchings
SMM 037: How to Create Thoughts to Love Your Children Better || Lisa Funk
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Intro: Hi, this is Darla Trendler and welcome to Spiritually Minded Mom. My goal is to help you gain confidence in your ability to hear and follow God’s voice in motherhood and in life. Listen to hear interviews with all kinds of moms who are learning to navigate motherhood by partnering with our heavenly parents.
Darla: Welcome to the Spiritually Minded Mom podcast. This is Darla. Thank you so much for joining me today. My guest today is Kristen Walker Smith and she is a public speaker, a cheerleader for mothers everywhere and she’s also spoken at BYU education week, Especially For Youth and the Salt Retreat, just to name a few. She loves peanut butter and Elder Holland talks and can usually be found hiking or reading a good book. So welcome to the podcast. Kristen, I’m glad to have you here today.
Kristen: I am so glad to be here.
Darla: Thank you so much. So give us an idea of where you’re at in motherhood right now. How old are your kids? Where do you guys live?
Kristen: We actually just moved from Colorado. We’re in Idaho now and my kids are, my oldest is 11 this is so sad. I can’t remember how old my kids are. My kids are 11, nine and six.
Darla: Okay. Fun times. You’re about to enter that in between almost to the teenager years.
Kristen: Oh no, we’ve arrived in the tween in the tween neighborhood. We were laughing on the drive to church this last week. My husband and I were joking around and my 11 year old said, Oh, you guys are so weird. And we were like, yes, we finally arrived in tween age. Tweenager we knew it was coming and we’re here now.
Darla: You got those eye rolls going in the back seat and it’s all there. Okay, well good. I’m really glad to know a little bit more about you and excited to dive in and we are just going to dive in and talk about your story. So, one of the things that really intrigued me about your motherhood story is that you had a sudden onset of OCD that happened to you when you became pregnant with your first child. So I would love to know what that looked like for you. Like, because when we say OCD, you know there’s lots of different things that might come to people’s minds. So tell me about how you noticed it, how you got diagnosed and what that looked like for you.
Kristen: Yeah, so I, I didn’t know it was OCD for about two and a half years. And so it’s looking back that I realized what it was, but when I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I had this overwhelming urge to keep that baby safe. And so there are different versions of OCD. There is contamination, OCD where you have to wash your hands and you have to not be around things that are dirty or unsafe. And there’s checking OCD where you have to shut the door seven times to be sure it’s really shut or there’s perfectionism where you have to have things lined up just perfectly. I had a combination and I still do of contamination and checking where it is my responsibility, if I can make people safe, that it’s my responsibility to make them safe. And so I originally just thought this is normal pregnancy. This is normal motherhood. Of course you’re going to protect your baby. Of course. you’re going to do everything you can to keep this baby safe when it’s growing in the womb. And then when it comes out you still have to keep that baby safe.
And it was just this deep, deep sense of responsibility that if something bad happened it would be my fault and I couldn’t handle the weight of that. And so what it looked like was that I was a germaphobe. I was, but it was to an extreme. I actually timed myself once and I would wash my hands for two and a half minutes at a time and if I messed up my hand washing, if I touched the faucet, if I touched the counter on accident while washing my hands, I had to start over. So it would be another two and a half minutes and that was regular. That would happen multiple times a day where I had to wash my hands for five to 7 minutes and my hands would be raw. They would be red and bleeding and I would still be washing them like crazy.
It also looked like, it’s very interesting, but I had my things in the house. So I had my chair that I sat in. I had my spot at the table, I had my book that no one else could touch. I had my side of the bed that no one can touch. Those were my safe spaces and no one could be in them. And uh, about the diagnosis, it didn’t happen until my second child was born and I was at the sink washing my hands again for two and a half minutes. And my mom happened to be there and I love my mom. She’s so great. She is not dramatic at all. She just looked at me and she said, you know, Kristen washing your hands a lot. It can be a sign of OCD and a light bulb went on. I was like, Oh my gosh.
And it was a petrifying moment, but it was also such a hopeful moment because it was petrifying because the only exposure I had to OCD before was that movie What about Bob with Bill Murray and I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but he was totally like, totally nuts. I laughed at that movie because I’m like, man, this guy is insane. And I’m like, Oh my gosh Bob, you know, I don’t want to be Bob. But it was also wonderful to come. I was like, oh, I don’t have to do this. Like this isn’t normal and maybe I can get better because it was such an emotional roller coaster every day. I explained OCD this way to people. It’s like fighting a tiger every single time you have a trigger. Every single time something comes up, it stresses you out. It is life and death to you.
It’s like fighting a tiger. And I was fighting tigers all day, every day. Even in my dreams. I fought tigers and I would wake up in the morning and just be so disappointed that I woke up because I didn’t have energy to fight tigers anymore. And so that moment was really exciting because I realized maybe I don’t have to fight these tigers.
Darla: So this is two and a half years and so after, so you’ve had two babies in this time,. What, how did you deal with it day to day because a baby is going to introduce a lot of germs. It’s going to introduce a lot of unexpected things, so how did you deal with all of the motherhood things with the OCD at the same time?
Kristen: I didn’t do it. Well I’ll say that. So, in my mind whichever of my kids was the baby at the time, that baby was king. I had to keep that child safe at all costs. And one of the really defining moments of my experience with OCD happened during the time when I just had the two kids. And like I mentioned, I had my safe chair that I could sit in and my baby and I would sit in that chair. My toddler couldn’t sit in that chair. And so my toddler came up to me while I was sitting in my safe chair with my baby and asked if I could read a board book to him. And I couldn’t have him come up on my lap because he wasn’t clean because he had been playing with toys and with other things and he was dirty. So I said,, “You know what buddy, I can read to you, but you have to sit on the floor and leave your book on the floor.”
And I sat in my chair and I held my baby and I read a book to my toddler while he sat on the floor by himself. And I turned the pages with my foot. It was one of the most demoralizing moments of my life as a mother because I was almost looking at myself from the outside and like I am a shadow of a mother to these kids. I’m sure I can feed them. I can take care of them during the day. I can change diapers and I can read to my son, but Holy smokes, I am not the mother that I feel like God wants me to be. And so motherhood was very hard. My kids had a hard childhood. We were home bound a lot. I couldn’t leave the house for, you know, days and days and days at a time.
I would mostly just leave the house to go to church and that was a nightmare. And so I feel like I felt like a failure as a mother for most of my kids’ early lives.
Darla: So was there, was there a defining moment because you, I know you told me when we were prepping that this, this went on for seven years, so you obviously had another baby so you had three kids in this time. And was there a defining moment where you just were like or was it kind of over time that you, you’re like, I’m just going to figure this out and I’m going to get out of this. I’m going to, something has to change. Was there anything that happened to them like that?
Kristen: You know, I started to see my oldest child behaving in ways that I modeled and I realized that he was learning from me that the world wasn’t safe and that life is scary and that you can’t trust God to keep you safe. And so you have to do it all on your own. And I knew I did not want him to grow up feeling what I was feeling. So that was it. That was a big motivator to get help.
Darla: So, one question I have, were you getting help all along or was it just like you’re suffering in silence trying to do this on your own?
Kristen: So, since I was basically homebound, the first thing I did was to get from Amazon what is called the OCD workbook. Highly recommend it to anyone who’s struggling with this or has a kid who’s struggling with it. And it was so ironic, actually, I don’t know the correct definition of ironic. So you can tell me if this is correct, but it seems ironic to me that when I got the OCD workbook, I took it out of the package, put it on the table, and then I had to go scrub my hands and then I got my pen, my clean pen, and I was turning the pages of the OCD workbook with my pen so I wouldn’t have to touch it. And I, you know, looking back, I’m like, if you wonder if you have OCD and you’re turning the book with a pen, you’ve got it. So my first help was from that and then my husband was like, you know, you should go see a counselor.
And I went into a counselor. Yeah. Was not specialized in this at all and it really wasn’t helpful and it wasn’t until my third child was born and I was at rock bottom. I felt absolutely worthless. I felt like my family would be better off without me. I was not suicidal, but I certainly considered getting in a car and driving away because their lives would be much easier without me. When those feelings started to come in, I decided, okay, I’m going to try therapy again. And I got with a good therapist. I also met a doctor who I got so mad at because he said, your OCD, well never get entirely better unless you start taking medication. And I was like, you don’t know me. How do you know it’s not going to get better? I was so mad, but I took time to pray about it and I realized, you know what, God put me on the earth at this time when there is medication for what I’m dealing with. Why would I refuse that blessing that he’s put on this earth. And so the combination of a very good therapist and medication has made all the difference and that’s when things really switched.
Darla: So, you mentioned you’re praying about taking the medication and getting an answer that this is okay. What were the other ways God helped you during that time that you saw him? I know you told me He filled in the gaps. How did you see him showing up?
Kristen: I should clarify. He didn’t fill in all the gaps and I learned why later, but he filled in the really necessary gaps and one of those is that he blessed my husband to be unnaturally nurturing with the kids. I could not hug them or kiss them. I could not snuggle with them in bed. I could not bring them into my bed to snuggle with them. When they were sick, I had to send them away because, Oh, can’t get the baby sick.
And, my husband was blessed that he was, he’s naturally nurturing. But during this time time period, he was especially so and was able to love the kids and care for them in ways that I couldn’t. I also had visiting teachers. Now during this time, I didn’t have really close friends because I pushed people away. People would try to be my friends, but I pushed them away. My visiting teachers in particular would not let me push them away and they would force me to get outside. They would force me to take my kids to the park and I hated the park. You guys, that place is covered in germs. It needs to be Purelled all over every day. So gross, but they would force me to get out. I had a miscarriage in between my second and third and they were there taking care of my kids and just holding and loving me and uplifting my family.
So, God filled in the gaps with people who refused to let us go. Even if I pushed them away. These people kept coming back and helping even when I tried not to let them,.
Darla: I think that’s amazing. I’m interested about the visiting teachers because I always try to understand when someone’s going through something hard, how can we help? So, were they people that you confided in? Did they know all your struggles or they were just the kind of people that just loved you and just wanted to help? Even if they didn’t know all the details?
Kristen: You know what they, I think they are the reason that the church finally switched over to ministering because they are the original ministering sisters. Mmm. They insisted on being my friend and they had no idea what was going on. Actually, I’m sure looking back, they could probably tell something was going on, but I didn’t tell anyone about what was happening.
I was so ashamed that only my doctor and my husband knew. I didn’t even tell my mom, my sisters, nobody. And so I was not open with them about my struggles, but I think that they could tell and they probably prayed about it and were inspired. But they could tell that there was something wrong and they just needed to be my friend. And so that’s what they were. They would come over and bring lunch. They, like I said, forced me to go to the park with them. They would take me out to get ice cream with my kids. They were my friends. They were the only friends I really had. And they filled that gap so so well. And I’m so grateful.
Darla: That is, that is really amazing to have people in your life who follow the spirit and all the more reason that we should, you know, we should have the spirit with us so that we can, we can help other people like that in those same ways that they helped you. I love that. One of the things that really intrigued me about your story is that you talk a lot, you’ve talked about weakness and you talk about weakness in a way that we don’t normally talk about it. So I would love to know what did you learn about weakness during this trial of dealing with the OCD.
So, I had two pivotal moments with weakness and one was very personal and one had to do with my kids. The first one, this was after child three was born. This was my super, super low point. And one of the blessings of having OCD and not having any hobbies or any friends is that you have lots of time to study your scriptures. So I was reading the old Testament, I was reading the new Testament, I was reading everything. And I came across, uh, what Paul says in second Corinthians about his thorn in the flesh and how he had prayed over and over and over for God to take away that thorn in the flesh.
And God said no. And in this, in these verses, Christ says to him, “My grace is sufficient for thee, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” And then Paul says, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities for when I am weak, then am I strong.” And that was a huge light bulb moment where I realized everything in my life feels like it’s falling apart except for my relationship with Christ. I am so much closer to Christ and my heavenly father in this moment, I am relying on their strength literally every moment of the day to get through. And if this is what I have to do to gain this relationship with them, then that’s okay. And I hoped very much in that moment that this wouldn’t be a lifetime experience that I would have, that God would have required me to feel that fear and anxiety and panic all day every day for the rest of my life. But in that moment when I read it, I realized I would do it and that if my weakness was what I needed in order to feel Christ strength, then I would do it. The second instance came when I made a friend, uh, who again, she was one of those people who refuse to let go of me and I’m so grateful for that. But we were driving together and she had a very rough childhood. She had a childhood that I would not wish on anyone. And, as we were driving in the car together, she said, “You know what, Kristen? I have come to realize that kids need their parents’ weaknesses.” And when she said that, I was like, you can really say that after your life. Yeah. She started talking about how all of the junk that she had gone through as a child is what made her who she is today.
And I started looking back at my own life and I was like, you know what? Yeah, I grew up without a dad. My dad died when I was seven and that has impacted me hugely. I grew up with a mom who was a school teacher, so we couldn’t afford a lot of stuff and that influenced me so much. I am the person I am today because of the things I lacked as a child, not necessarily because of the things that were perfect or great. It was because of things that were not perfect. And I looked at my kids and I realized, you know what, they were God’s kids first and he would not send them to me if He didn’t know that I could bless them with both my strengths and my weakness to help them return home to him. I couldn’t hug them. I couldn’t love them. I couldn’t care for them. I couldn’t take them on great adventures because we were stuck at home all day. I couldn’t bless them with friends because I couldn’t go to the park or anything. My weaknesses, we’re blessing them to create strengths of their own through Christ. Christ’s strength was resting on them wherever my weaknesses were.
Darla: So, so two things I’m pulling out of that one is that weaknesses bring us closer to Christ. So they, they are important. So important. And two, what you said that your friend said to you, kids need the weaknesses. I’ve said it on this podcast. We hear it all the time. Everywhere. That, you know, we’re the mom that our kids need. Like they need us. And that is so true. But I’ve never thought of it quite in the way that you just said it. That they need our strengths. Yes. They also need our weaknesses. And I’m just sitting here, you just gave me this whole, this moment of thinking about how I grew up in the things that I experienced and yes, they made me who I am. They, they were important and it wasn’t this perfect life. And that is okay. So, you’re just giving hope to a mom who’s feeling like they are such a failure and really they might be giving their child exactly what they need.
Kristen: Right, right. And I don’t, I don’t take that thought as permission to slack off and be, well, I don’t even have to try it because my kids will be blessed if I’m weak. But I do take comfort in knowing that while I’m trying, God is taking care of what I can’t. That He’s filling in those gaps that need to be filled in. And that’s what I talked about. He didn’t fill in all of the gaps during the worst of my OCD years. He filled in the ones that were truly necessary and let there be gaps where my kids could grow closer to Christ because of them.
Darla: I really love that. So have you ever, have you noticed any things in your kids that because of your weaknesses they are learning things from that and it’s blessing them?
Kristen: So, it’s very interesting. That was a defining moment for my life because yes, it gave me permission to own my weakness and it gave me permission to talk about it. I mentioned that I never told anyone about my mental illness. Once I felt that and once I really felt the truth of that statement that my kids need my weaknesses, I felt the freedom to share my weaknesses and to talk about them.
And it has created a beautiful openness in our home. I have multiple kids who have struggles with mental illness, with anxiety, with depression. And we just talk about it because my kids know that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. You don’t have to hide it. You can share your story. And a weakness is not something to be ashamed of. It’s just part of your story.
Darla: Yes. I love that. That you come from a place and that they know where you’re coming from because they lived it. They know you’re going to understand and that you can be open about it and start sharing. So, so you, so you started talking about this. What does, what does life look like for you today? I mean, do you feel like you’re totally cured? Do you keep it under control with medication? Do you still have times where it comes back and how do you deal with it?
Kristen: So, the thing that I’ve come to understand with OCD that actually the first therapist I had who I didn’t really like explained it in a way that has helped me. She explained it as OCD is like a tinder box that just sits dormant until lightning strikes it. For me, the lightning strike was finding out I was pregnant. And that fire can either be raging or it can be just a dull like, okay, it’s in one little controlled area. And it doesn’t usually for most people who have OCD ever fully go out. So I’m at a point in life where I am feeling great. The main thing with OCD is how disruptive is it to your life? And it’s hardly disruptive to my life. Sure. I bring hand sanitizer with me everywhere. But you know, most people do. So it’s not too socially awkward.
And since I’m very honest about it, I tell people. I have just moved into a ward and made new friends and I’ve just told them, been like, you know what, great, thanks for inviting me over for food. I’ll probably bring some of my own snacks because I’ll be comfortable eating those. And so learning to be open about it has made it much less awkward to handle it in public situations. So life is pretty good. Good medication is great. Love that stuff. Therapy is great. I keep on going, but things are pretty under control.
Darla: Okay, that’s good. Well I think you’re giving a few tips in what you’re saying to someone who is dealing with something hard, even if it’s not exactly the same. One is to be open and to talk people. What else would you say to a mom that’s dealing with a mental health challenge, OCD or just any kind of weakness in their life? What else would you give them as a way to, to cope to really make it something that they can manage and be a blessing in their life.
Kristen: If I was going to talk to a mom who was facing any sort of mental illness, I would probably give two pieces of advice and the first one is to own it and we’ve talked about that. But the more you try to hide it, the more painful it is. God put you on this earth with other people because they’re here to help you and I have been amazed at how people support and love and bless me through all of this mental illness craziness. You think that people are going to look at you differently but they just love you differently. They love you more and they love you in ways that you need to be loved and they support you in ways you need to be supported.
The second piece of advice would give you, and this is going to sound crazy and go ahead and get mad at me. I got mad when I read it in the self-help book I was reading. I would challenge you to write down the blessings that are coming because of your weakness. Not in spite of, but because of. I read this as advice, in a book during one of my very darkest times and I read that advice to write down blessings that were coming because of my mental illness. And I got mad. I thought this lady has no idea what my life is like. She doesn’t know what it’s like to read a book to my child while he’s on the floor and I’m turning the pages with my foot. She doesn’t know. But, I’m stubborn. And so I was like fine, I’ll prove her wrong.
And so, I started writing a list and it was one of those spiritually overwhelming experiences I’ve ever had because that list just kept going and going and going and going. There were things like my relationship with Christ as I mentioned to you and how I didn’t have hobbies. And so I was learning the scriptures like I had never learned them before and my kids were eating extremely healthy and their bodies were all healthy and strong because I was so stressed out about what they ate and they were coming to rely on their dad and create great relationships with him because I couldn’t be there for him. All of these things, I just created this huge list. It is impossible for gratitude and fear to live in the same space and I found that when times would get truly overwhelming, I just had to go back to that list and remember, God is blessing me in this trial right now. I don’t have to wait until after it’s done to look back and be like, that was a good one. I’m glad I learned from that. I could learn from that right now.
Darla: Gratitude and fear can’t live in the same place. That is so good. That that is really something to hold onto and to remember. I love that. So own it and then look at all the blessings. I love that you wrote them down too, because sometimes we can think of in our mind, but you had something to go back to. You had something tangible to look at in those hard moments and no doubt that was you being guided by the spirit to do that, to give you the strength to keep going. I really love that. Well, Kristen, I have loved talking to you and I think I can look at someone from the outside looking in and see your path and your journey and the way that Heavenly Father has guided you and molded you. And now you’re able to go out and help so many other people through your speaking and the things that you’re doing and bring hope. And I’m really grateful that I get to be a very small part of that in sharing this interview. So my final question is how have you seen and felt your heavenly parents as your partner in motherhood?
Kristen: I like that you said heavenly parents. I think that my heavenly parents blessed me with an upbringing that established a very strong belief in and need to connect with God and for my kids to be connected with them. And I’ve talked a lot today about my weaknesses as a parent.
But one of the things that God filled me with an ability and a desire to do was that I read scriptures every day with my kids and I prayed every day with my kids. And we had family home evening every week. And so even though so much of my motherhood fell to the wayside, God blessed me with the ability to do what was absolutely eternally vital. What he helped me do was to establish patterns that have continued to bless our family. And I’ve seen that, I’ve seen that what matters most to me, God has blessed my kids to notice that. And they know that their mom loves the scriptures and they know that their mom prays every day and they know that their mom absolutely trust in God perfectly and he’s blessed me to be able to show that even when I was at my weakness weakest and he’s blessed my kids to be able to see that so that they know that above all else, mom loves God and she loves us and everything’s going to be okay because of him.
Darla: I can see how we’ve talked about weakness and you did have all these things that were lacking that you felt like you know were not right and were lacking, but you had so much strength as well in that time of teaching your kids things that really mattered most.
Kristen: Thank you.
Darla: I love that and I really, really loved hearing your story and thank you so much for sharing it.
Kristen: Thank you for having me.
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