Show Yourself Friendly

My last post was about the correlation among mental health, loneliness, and friendship. This morning on my walk I was thinking about the subject again. I was trying to connect the dots from my own life of how and when those interactions took place. As a side note, a brain like mine doesn’t do well connecting dots inside of it. I have always been a visual learner. This is why writing things out helps me see problems and solutions much better than hearing or simply thinking about them. The only exception is audio books. For some reason I can listen to an audio book and follow the story or even glean something from a non-fiction piece. Of course, my natural instinct kicks in when I pause the book to write down information I desire to remember, or when I buy the book after listening to it because I want to go through and mark the important nuggets I desire to remember. Okay, that all aside, my thoughts that once again turned to the idea of friendship among what in the mental health community is known as neurodivergent. Simply put, that is the way those with varying mental health issues think differently than those without such issues. Science has actually proven that bipolar disorder changes your brain–physically alters it. Every manic episode as well as the bipolar depressive episodes change the structure of the brain in that it shrinks certain regions of it.

The most prominent region of the brain affected by the disorder is the gray matter. (I bet you didn’t think you’d get a science lesson reading this. Stick with me. I circle back around to the main topic) According to Medical News Today, gray matter is essential in enabling humans to function every day. It is present in both the central nervous system of the brain as well as the spinal cord. Gray matter is reduced by bipolar episodes, at least that is what imaging showed in the study of brains of neurodivergent people. I have done a ton of research on the effects of bipolar disorder and was fascinated to learn this little-known fact. The reduction of gray matter happened in areas of the brain associated with mood regulation, information processing, and awareness of bodily states. The gray matter reduction was seen most in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for mood control, cognitive control, impulsivity, and attention. Many people diagnosed with bipolar disorder also have additional mental health diagnoses related to the prefrontal cortex. ADHD and major depressive disorder are two of the several comorbidities. The third area scientists found affected by the disorder is the hippocampus. This region of the brain is responsible for emotion, stress response and memory formation and retrieval. This is why people like me often struggle to remember things without writing them down. Writing is a reinforcement that aids in memory for many people. If you looked in the backpack I carry everywhere I go, you would find several pens (okay, I have an addiction to pens anyway), a few pencils, and a spiral notebook. Mine is a full size, one subject notebook, but I have also carried similar notebooks in smaller sizes. It also explains why a person diagnosed with the disorder handles stress levels less well than many other people. There is no cure for bipolar disorder, and changes to the brain can be permanent. There is a plethora of medications used to treat the disorder, but they all come with side effects, and what one body tolerates another is unable to. This all makes treating the disorder extremely difficult. Plus, someone on medications who has memory issues are often affected in the medication department in the form of forgetting to take their medications. Things like alarms set and pill sorters can sometimes help but too often even these aids fail.

Okay, now that the science lesson is over, hopefully you have a better understanding of why a person who has mental health issues often struggles in ways those without such issues do not. One area greatly impacted, as I wrote last time, is friendships. As I walked this morning, I thought about the friendships I have had over the years. I reflected on how some of them ended. Usually, they just fizzled out, like fireworks that for a few seconds lit up the sky then begin to fade until all that is left is the smoke trail. Some ended because of a move. I could only remember a couple that ended because of a specific incident, and those were not completely caused by mental health issues although I have no doubt there was some influence of a damaged brain involved in these. I reflected on my dismal current status in the friend department. I remembered something my dad used to say to me because mental health issues have not been confined to only my adulthood. I went undiagnosed because, well, back in those days mental health was not discussed let alone acknowledged. If I was particularly lonely, and my dad saw me moping around because of it, he would say, “In order to have friends you have to show yourself friendly.” The irony is not lost on me now: my dad had no real friends, although he had many acquaintances, and he was as unsocial as they come outside of his business. I’ve written before about the difference between my mom and dad when it came to relating to other people, so I won’t go into it again. I have to say my personality is just like my dad’s. I am the most introverts of introverts. That really isn’t completely changeable. God created each of us with different personalities and temperaments. I could not be an extrovert if I tried to give it my all. This bleeds into my dad’s words about showing oneself friendly. Along with many mental health issues comnes social anxiety.

Social Anxiety Disorder is an actual, diagnoseable condition found in the DSM 5: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health. For conditions found in this manual, criteria have to be met in order for a diagnosis to be made. The problem with mental health as opposed to the majority of physical health issues is there is no blood test or X-ray that definitively shows a condition. It is based solely on symptoms and behaviors. It is why more often than anyone would want, patients are misdiagnosed. For example, one of the hallmarks of bipolar mania is extra energy high enough to be noticeable as well as being more talkative than others; in other words, one can’t stop talking or stop the racing thoughts. These same symptoms are also part of ADHD. Believe it or not, these two conditions are often mixed up and even missed since one can have both disorders. (Raising my hand here). Anyway, back to social anxiety. For someone who deals with it, (also raising my hand) walking into a room full of people, even people one knows, is often a terrifying experience. One look around the room to see people standing/sitting in smaller groups talking and/or laughing sends a sense of panic through the body of the socially anxious person. Who should you go up to? Will you have anything to contribute to a conversation whose subject isn’t even known to you yet? What if more people join the group? That’s getting overwhelming. Everyone talking at the same time is sending you into sensory overload, similar to what you experience at a grocery store or a restaurant. It’s way better for the psyche to just stay home. See why keeping friends is so difficult? It also explains why showing yourself friendly seems impossible to do. The safety of home is comforting even if the loneliness sometimes is crushing. It isn’t that the person wants people to ignore her or be mad; it’s a matter of the intense emotions that come from such invitations or, worse, required get togethers like workplaces often have.

Mental health disorders change a person. The same person who ten years ago volunteered at their child’s school or went faithfully every week to a Bible study has morphed into someone who would usually prefer staying home, often in order to avoid a possible panic attack that could happen. Being the person to make the first move is even harder than keeping friendships once they are formed. It only takes a couple rejections (or perceived rejections) to add a brick to the wall a person is constructing to protect his mind and heart. It doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Sometimes doctors hit the jackpot on a medication regimen that works. That has not happened for me nor most people in my Facebook mental health groups. I have learned to live with the loneliness that comes with multiple mental health diagnoses. I have found hobbies and projects to do that keep me busy, and even though sometimes it sends my anxiety through the roof, I am there when my family needs me. It isn’t that I don’t want to be friendly (admittedly, sometimes it is just that); it’s more a problem with my brain and how it thinks.

Posted in Change, chronic illness, Community, Culture, depression, Facebook, famiy, fear, loneliness, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Loneliness of Mental Illness

This will be a short entry. It’s one of those that may be too short for a blog entry but too long for a Facebook status. It’s a subject that is much talked about in the mental health groups I’m a part of. The subject is, as the title says, about friendships and people who live with mental health issues.

It goes something like this:

Roxanne, who suffers from relentless depression and anxiety, is friends with Belinda and Mary. Sometimes Brooke will join in on an outing or two as well. It is usually a struggle for Roxanne to do anything. It isn’t that she doesn’t want to, but she doesn’t want to, if that makes sense. Mary organizes a night out. Maybe it’s meeting at Applebees for appetizers, or maybe it’s catching the latest movie. Whatever it is, all four friends agree to meet at 7:00 PM. Roxanne is having a rough go of it lately. She can’t point to one single event that has caused the distress, but the distress is very real and quite debilitating. This time, Roxanne forces herself to go. She tries to join in on the conversation but is having a difficult time staying tuned in. Her mind just draws a blank when she starts to say something. Belinda, Mary and Brooke notice and do their best to draw Roxanne into the groove of the group, but this night their efforts just aren’t enough. Roxanne is aware that she is not the best company and makes an excuse to leave early figuring the other three will have a much better time without her sitting there dazed. The other three friends finish their visiting and agree to meet again in the next few weeks. Belinda reaches out the next day to Roxanne. She asks her what was wrong the night before and is there anything she can do. Roxanne tries to convey that whatever was wrong was on her and had nothing to do with the company of the other three. Belinda gives her the date of their next get together. Roxanne is sure by then she’ll be feeling much better and, as enthusiastically as her body will allow, agrees to go. The next few weeks Roxanne is frustrated with herself. “Why did I say I’d go?” she asks herself. “I’ll just bring everyone down again.” A few hours before their meeting time, she calls and cancels. She said she wasn’t feeling well, or maybe if she used that excuse recently, said her son came home from school not feeling well. Whatever the reason, Roxanne is faced with a mixed bag of emotions. On one hand, she is relieved that she could stay home where she could feel safe and be alone. On the other hand, she feels guilty. Her friends wanted to include her and she essentially snubbed their efforts. Eventually, after a myriad of cancelations and excuses, Belinda, Mary and Brooke stop asking Roxanne to join them on their outings. When Roxanne hears the other three had left her out, she feels extremely hurt. Why couldn’t they understand this was something bigger than her? That it wasn’t personal against her friends? Roxanne realizes once again she is pretty much alone. She tells herself it’s okay, that it’s better this way. She no longer has the guilt of saying no or canceling. But sometimes she finds herself lonely. She has family she can call, but she feels she has bothered them so many times she needed a calming voice that it’s best to give them a break from her too.

If you find yourself nodding along with Roxanne’s plight, then you understand how mental health takes its toll on friendships. One of the recurring sentiments in the mental health support groups I see is the lack of close friends sufferers of mental illness have. Most find that it’s them against the world 99% of the time. Being around someone who is depressed is not easy. Another common theme in the groups is how distant even a spouse can become during a depressive episode. Let me just interject here that if you have a friend like Roxanne, someone you find difficult to be around or who you are fed up with after cancelation after cancelation, imagine how difficult it is to be the one stuck in depression, anxiety or likely both. I see myself in Roxanne. I can honestly say I don’t really have close friends anymore–at least not any who live close by. I’m blessed to at least have my sister (who lives in another state) who I know will pick up the phone and listen to the same thing over and over. Even that wasn’t always the case; not because she was sick of me but more like the age difference for most of our lives put us in very different stages of life. If you identify with Belinda or Mary or Brooke, I would say keep reaching out to Roxanne. Even if the answer is no for the hundredth time, it is still comforting to know someone cares enough to ask especially assuming their offer will be rejected. The one hundredth and one time might just be when Roxanne desperately needs someone to talk to, and you may be the person that helps her in some way.

Now before you think I am blaming my loneliness all on others I will say that is not the case. I realize I don’t exactly make a huge effort either. I realize that people I once got to regularly see are busier than I am. Perhaps they are in a different stage of life, or maybe they are comfortable in larger groups–a setting I definitely flounder in. Maybe there isn’t any one reason to point to. Whatever the case may be, I am learning loneliness is a common theme among those of us who live with mental health issues. Also, from what I see, it doesn’t tend to improve much as time passes, at least not for the majority of people. Once a close friendship begins to fall apart, it is nearly impossible to glue the pieces together so the picture looks like it did before. For the most part, I scroll social media and see others I know living a full life. I tell myself it’s just how it is when one suffers from crushing mental health issues. I’ve lived like this most of my life, and while I would say I’m used to it and mostly okay with it, there are also times I wish I had more of a life worth living. I wonder how different my life might be if depression hadn’t been a part of my life starting in childhood. Those thoughts lead nowhere though. As my dad used to say, “It is what it is.”

The bird in the picture at the top of the page? That’s pretty much how I live my life: surrounded by a storm but not other birds. And since I’m sure someone is thinking about commenting, I know God is always there. I know He promised to never leave me. Sometimes, though, it would be nice to have another bird to latch onto. “Two are better than one,” the Bible says.

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The Other One

I have written much and have written honestly about mental illness and my battle with it. I have shared some of my worst moments dealing with depression, including the fact that twice I attempted suicide. I have shared about living with bipolar disorder, the ups and downs that come with that, the difficulties in getting a diagnosis, and the seemingly never-ending attempts at getting the right medication cocktail to keep the mood scale balanced. I have written about my battle with chronic physical illness as well: the pain that comes with rheumatoid arthritis, the difficulties of living with MS flares, the discomfort of Sjogren and Raynaud’s Syndromes. Although I haven’t written much about them, I also have official diagnoses or adult ADHD and an eating disorder. One diagnosis I maybe have mentioned but don’t believe I’ve written much about, though, is actually one of the most difficult disorders I live with. It is getting worse as I get older and affecting my life more and more in negative ways. It has started to feel like being in a prison in my own body and mind, and it is affecting, negatively again, relationships that are extremely important to me. What is this illness?

GAD, officially known as generalized anxiety disorder.

I’m not really a fan of that wording. To me, the word “generalized” seems to downplay the severity of the condition. The field of psychiatry has started to implement varying definitions of anxiety. Most people, though, still use the terms “anxiety” and “panic” interchangeably. While that isn’t really the case, the bottom line can be the same. Both can be, and often are, debilitating. This I know from experience. A little bit of education just in case you aren’t aware…there are 6 types of panic disorders listed in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders):

*panic disorder (characterized by anxiety or panic attacks)

*generalized anxiety disorder

*obsessive compulsive disorder

*phobias

*social anxiety disorder

*post-traumatic stress disorder

If you live with anxiety you know it is way more than worry. I say that because I can’t begin to count the number of times I have been pointed to the Bible verse that says “be anxious for nothing”. There are certainly times I could have, and should have, applied that verse to my life. I am a worrier. I grew up with two worrying parents. I worry about my kids, grandkids, health, husband, mom, the weather…the list could go on. When I sit and ruminate about all the harm that could befall my grandchildren or imagine one of my kids in a car accident because they are on the road with all the crazy drivers, that’s worry, and those are areas I should practice being anxious for nothing. Anxiety and panic, though, are very different. I have given a great deal of thought to my anxiety because, well, it is a constant, unwanted companion. It has more control over my life than I want it to, yet it is enough of a beast that I can’t just push it aside and go on with life like it wasn’t there. No, it really is a part of me. Not only can I not just push it away, it stops me dead in my tracks way more often than I wish it did. Anxiety, for me, feels like a boulder in the pit of my stomach. The boulder emits a heavy sensation of doom. It’s a bit like the old Roadrunner cartoons when the coyote is trying to trap his prey but instead finds himself running for his life as a large boulder barrels towards him, eventually catching up to his flight and flattening him like a pancake. That’s anxiety. Panic feels as though someone has a bungee cord around my chest. They pull it tighter and tighter, squeezing me to the point where my chest hurts from the pounding of my own heart. I sometimes struggle to get a breath. I cannot sit still for fear I will drown in my own body. There have been a few times I came close to going to the emergency room because I truly believed I was having a heart attack. A few times during an attack I have checked my watch for my heart rate. There are times I feel like I am being buried alive, but my heart rate is only slightly elevated. Other times my heart rate is double its normal rate. The best way I am able to describe a panic attack is like when you are in the ocean and you see a large wave coming. It feels like the wave engulfs you and takes you under. It tosses you around under the dark water sometimes to the point that you are certain you are going to die. Then, it washes you up on the shore. The exhaustion of the fight is real. You are completely depleted from fighting that wave, from trying to right your bearings, and from fighting to breathe while not breathing in the water. Sometimes I have felt this while looking around me at the people in the room. Some of them I probably know and some I do not, but all of them are living life as normal unaware that I am drowning before their eyes, or maybe being aware of my plight but not caring enough to step in and offer me a saving hand. The truth of those statements is a moot point; the point is that is what it feels like. Those feelings are real, and I’m learning they are valid.

In the beginning I mentioned that panic and anxiety are affecting me in many ways. One of the scariest ways I believe the affect is having is on the relationships this disorder is trying to destroy. If you know me or have read much of what I have written, you know family is one of my highest priorities. My own kids are grown, and I have been promoted to the status of gramma. My goal as a gramma has been to invest heavily into my relationships with my grandkids. Where allowed, I have done that. The mistakes I made as a parent I know not to repeat as a grandparent. For example, I was not patient when it came to messes, especially messes in the kitchen. It was easier to do things myself rather than let my kids help, thereby giving me the opportunity to pass on the skills I had. My daughter-in-law is the exact opposite of this. She has always welcomed my grandson into activities she is doing. He has been baking with her since he was old enough to stand on a chair. Since baking has been the one talent I believe I have, I wanted to be sure to build memories with him in the kitchen. I have learned a mess is really not a big deal. Frosting can be wiped off a counter. Sprinkles can be swept off the floor. Five extra dishes really aren’t a big deal to wash. Batter can be cleaned from adorable little faces and even washed out of t-shirts and pants. I love to spend time with my grandkids and for a while I did that as often as possible. I have made many memories with them. I treasure them even if they were too young to remember those times. Then, anxiety started taking residency in my life. It was subtle at first, but too quickly it grew into this monster that is debilitating. My grandkids don’t live super close to me, but they aren’t far enough away that I need to hop on an airplane to see them (at least not anymore). The above-mentioned grandson for the last year lived 2.5 hours away. Another lives an hour away. I had visions of driving to visit, even staying a few nights when I could. You know how many times I made the 2.5 hour drive alone so I could spend time with my family?

Zero.

None.

Zilch.

Every time I thought about getting in the car, driving alone, being gone from home and routine, I would feel that ocean wave building. Even planning the trip with my husband going brought (and brings) panic. I can’t say strongly enough how much I hate it. There was a time I thought nothing of getting in a car and driving hours away, even if I wasn’t familiar with the area I was going to visit. I was confident I’d figure it out. Now, the thought of driving 15 minutes to the mall and being there by myself induces the beginnings of that wave. The pit in my stomach grows more menacing. My heart rate increases, sometimes to the point I’m sure it will pound out of my chest. I imagine all sorts of horrible things happening along the way. I often count the days until I get home even before we’ve left. I am missing time with my precious grandsons because of this stupid mental illness that I did not ask for nor want as a major part of my life. Anxiety has kept me home from even a simple trip to Target to pick up prescriptions. I will put it off day after day, either waiting until my husband can go with me or letting it get to the point the pharmacy tells me they are going to send the medications back and I am forced to go pick them up. Anxiety keeps me from taking a walk outside in nature. I know people who go to state parks or county parks to walk. It takes all I have to make myself walk even on a busy street in our safe area. My anxiety seems to grow bigger and bigger as time goes on. Add that anxiety to the mix of depression, mania, lack of focus, food issues, life’s stresses and phobias and I am one big hot mess.

How I wish I could end this with a surprise statement declaring that I have found a way to win the battle over the anxiety that cripples me. Unfortunately, I cannot do that. Every day is a battle to try to find even a small way to make my life seem worth living. Too often I give into the crippling fear, panic, and anxiety that grip me. I stay within the safety of my home, behind locked doors and a gated community. I sit and think about all I am missing out on. The guilt of knowing I am letting down people I love can sometimes be unbearable. The repeated trials of medication and medication combos cause a weariness each time one fails. It should be no surprise that people who live like I do often feel the only cure is to check out of life. After all, what good am I to my grandkids if I can’t even see them? For now, my only choices are to keep fighting the beasts of mental illness or say goodbye to this world and hello to the one where none of these diseases will exist. Many, many times, the latter sounds tempting. Who wouldn’t want to live free of chains that shackle? But for now, at least, I stay. I stay because I want to make even more memories with my grandkids and future grandkids. I want to watch my kids be parents. I want to make memories with my husband, to do things now we weren’t able to do as younger people who had four kids. I want to find new things to learn (especially since baking is mostly an off-limits thing now due to diet restrictions for my husband). I’d like to be able to check things off my bucket list–yes, I have a physical bucket list. Maybe this can all happen. Maybe it won’t. Maybe I’ll be shackled by the chains of anxiety for the rest of my days. That is a daunting thought, and one I won’t ruminate on right now.

Posted in Change, Children, chronic illness, depression, empty nest, faith, fear, Grandma, Grandson, Parenting, peace, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One Way Ticket

In my years on earth, I’ve worked several different types of jobs. I worked as a gas station attendant, I taught elementary school, I worked in department stores, I delivered newspapers and phone books, I scored standardized tests, and I worked as a receiver in a bookstore (this one was by far my favorite, book discounts for the win!) Of all the jobs I’ve worked over the years, there is one that stands out as the most difficult: being a mom.

Moms and dads have such important jobs. They created a little human and are given 18 years to prepare that human to function in the cruel, unforgiving world of adulthood. In thinking about this I decided to do some research on moms and babies across several species. A mama songbird spends 2-3 weeks with her babies before they leave the nest for independence. Hedgehogs stay with mama until about 4 weeks of age. Kittens and puppies can leave mama usually around 8-10 weeks. In the wild, wolf pups leave the pack at about 18 months of age. Tiger cubs leave home around the age of 2 or 3. This time frame is the same for polar bears. The animal that stays with its mom the longest is the orangutan. It will stay with its mom for 7-8 years. Human offspring, however, are not considered eligible to leave the nest and be considered as an adult until 18 years have passed. If you are a mom of a toddler, like my daughter is, that magic number seems very far away. Your days are spent entertaining, cleaning, feeding, changing, bathing your little human. He is totally dependent on you or some other adult you leave him with. A two-year-old is not capable of making his lunch all by himself. He can’t clean the bathroom or do the laundry. Day in and day out you do the same things. If you have a good sleeper you probably look forward to the time he finally is off in dreamland. Maybe you take that time to read, watch TV, spend time with your spouse, or do all the dishes that gathered in the sink throughout the day. Perhaps you’re the mom of a ten-year-old. Your child can make a simple sandwich or a box of mac-n-cheese for himself. Maybe he is good about picking up and putting away his things. He still needs you but in different ways. Then the teen years come. Now it is crunch time. You may start to realize that the years actually did go faster than you thought they were. You have to get your human ready to function in the world without your constant presence. Does he know how to do laundry? Cook something healthy? Balance a checkbook? Purchase car insurance? Of course, it’s impossible to prepare your little human for every scenario he may face in life, but can he at least do the minimum to function as a responsible adult? Things like have and keep a job and regularly clean his living space are just as important, maybe even more important, as passing Calculus and Biology.

About the time your kid hits those middle to upper teen years, you realize the days were long, but the years were really short. Once your child reaches official adult age, you have worked yourself out of a job. Have you ever gone somewhere and needed just a one-way ticket? Maybe you are making a big move. You’ve sold a bunch of things and packed the rest in the back of a moving truck. The driver drives off while you and the family catch an Uber to the airport. You plan to meet your stuff there, buy replacements for what you sold and settle down to a new area. You don’t need a plane ticket to come back to the town you are leaving. That would be senseless since there is no place or reason for you to return. No, you buy one-way tickets to get to your new destination. Parenting is a one-way deal. When your little human becomes a big human and moves out to live on his own, your role changes dramatically. I often say I am not needed anymore. To some degree, that is true. Gone are the days of 20 loads of laundry, gym bags on the floor, piles of dishes in the sink…all a memory. Each person’s role looks different at this stage, but the truth is you can legally say you are no longer responsible for that child’s meals and health visits. Your one-way ticket has been punched. You can’t go back and change anything you did. Believe me, you will realize many things you wish you had done differently. I could sit here and write a list that would make this blog post ridiculously long of things I would love to go back and change if I could only have my kids little once again. That just isn’t possible though. The only round trip now is the one the earth takes around the sun over 365 days. The calendar years go forward, and there is nothing and no one who can change that.

I know young parents who read something like this brush it off. They’ve probably heard it a thousand times: “Enjoy them while they were little.” “They grow up so fast.” Young parents are told phrases like this from well-meaning old people so many times they barely register anymore. The young parents know there is no way that is true. It sure seems life will always be a crazy rat race of busyness. But I promise you, each day is closer to the day when your ticket is finally punched and surrendered. You can’t get a return flight to live it again. Teach your little humans well. Teach them to read, add, research, and spell, but don’t forget to teach them life skills like money management and the importance of hard work no matter what job they do. And as if this wasn’t enough, be mindful to teach them important character traits: to be kind, to forgive, to love, to be patient, to try to see from another’s point of view, to give back. The weight of responsibility on parents is heavy. Remind yourself each day that you can only travel forward, for some day you will look around and realize your birds have flown, your nest is empty, and your one-way journey is done.

Posted in Change, Children, Community, Culture, empty nest, famiy, Parenting | Leave a comment

A Yearning

I grew up on an island. It is a porkchop-shaped piece of land that is surrounded by the Niagara River: the same Niagara River that feeds Niagara Falls. There’s a set of bridges, one at the north end of the island and one at the south end, to travel on and off. Of course, nothing is free, even for residents, but residents do get a discount rate to get home. The south bridge takes you into the city of Buffalo. The north bridge takes you to Niagara Falls. It is more densely populated now than it was when I grew up in the 1970’s. My parents moved to our home when I was two years old. I grew up in that home, not leaving until I got married. My husband and I tried twice to move off our Island home, but both times we came back because most of our time was spent there anyway. I was thirty years old when my husband, our four little kids, and I packed all we had in the largest moving truck Budget Rental Company had and moved to the Midwest leaving behind my family. It was a shock to my system in a few ways. I had never lived away from my mom, dad, brothers, and their families. There was a mixed joy. On one hand, I missed the Sunday dinners all together, the chaotic fun of Christmas and Thanksgiving gathered in my mom and dad’s house, and birthday dinners and celebrations we all gathered for. On the other hand, it was nice to not have to pack up the kids on a cold, Christmas afternoon and head to my parents’. It was nice for them to stay in their pajamas all day on Thanksgiving and Christmas. We definitely missed the cuisine found in Western New York. The massive number of chain restaurants in our new state couldn’t hold a candle to the Italian and Polish dishes we spent our childhoods growing to love. The biggest deficit in our books was, and continues to be, the lack of good pizza available to us now compared to the deliciousness that comprises Western New York pizza.

Food aside, there have been other areas, especially as I’ve gotten older, and my kids have grown and moved out, that I’ve noticed a gnawing lack of satisfaction living where we live now. It was only one part of my time spent in Western New York, but that time was during my formative years, which may be why I look back with longing instead of always with open eyes to the fact that nothing is ever really as perfect when living it as it seems when looking back on it. I know this is most certainly true of this particular area, yet I also know there is a part of me that will never be satisfied as I remember the years spent there. That area, that place, is church. My parents didn’t start out at the little brick church with the red doors and the tall white steeple that I remember from my childhood. The wooden pews with red cloth covering, the knotted pine walls and beams of the sanctuary, the stained-glass picture at the front of it…I can still close my eyes and see them as if I am nine years old again sitting with my dad eating a peppermint Lifesaver while the pastor seemed to drone on and on. I remember like it was yesterday the dread of communion Sundays. You see, at the end of communion, the congregation would hold hands across the aisles, and sing an old hymn, Bless be the Ties That Bind. I always tried to position myself between my mom and dad so I wouldn’t have to hold anyone else’s hand. Some things never change by the way: I would still skip out on something like that if I were to ever encounter a church who did it.

If I’m honest, it isn’t all sunshine and roses when I look back on my days spent at this church where everyone knew my family well. My dad drove the blue Sunday school bus, Big Blue was its name, and my mom navigated for him every Sunday. I hated that bus. I had to be up at 6:30 every Sunday morning so we could get to church and get the bus ready for the pickup run. My mom was very organized. She had a clipboard with names and dates on a graph. If a child got on the bus, his/her name would have a check next to it on that date. When the bus got to church, no one would be allowed off until the number of checks matched the head count done by my mom. Before leaving for its return run after church, another head count would be done. If they matched what was on the paper, we were good to go. If not, then a calling out of names would be done. Sometimes a mom or dad met the child at church and took them home. Sometimes, after a second bus was purchased, a kid would have boarded the wrong bus. I don’t think we ever lost a kid. When a child reached home, he/she was given a piece of candy as they exited the bus. Sometimes mom would present a challenge to the kids. For example, if you bring a friend within the next three weeks, you get a special prize. These weren’t anything great and spectacular, but things were different in the 70’s. Kids didn’t have video game systems and two hundred TV channels to watch. Something extra was a fun thing to look forward to. After the run was done, we would head back to the church, the bus would be swept, windows closed and locked, lights checked again, and all locked up until the following week. Everyone else had been home from church for at least an hour if not more by the time my family got home. Many Sundays I was the picture of ogre when I was finally able to get home and change out of the stupid dress my mom always made me wear to church. For as popular as my parents were, especially my mom, I didn’t have any real friends at church. I knew everyone, everyone knew me, my mom even got together several times a week with “the ladies”, but I was an awkward kid (who turned into an awkward adult). I didn’t have much to say. I also didn’t go out of my way to try to make friends. When my parents no longer drove the bus, my dad would leave the church as soon as it was over to go sit in the car, have a cigarette, and wait for my mom. I would always go with him. Sometimes he would send me back in the church to find her and hurry her outside. She felt the need to talk to everyone it seemed.

Still, even with the difficult aspects of growing up in a church on an island, there are many present-day Sundays I find myself yearning for that familiarity. There is a sense of belonging that is hard to explain since I didn’t feel like I belonged there growing up. Summer days, especially, leave me longing for that little brick church. I remember coming out of church at the end of a summer service. If I was feeling brave, I would head over to the playground at the elementary school that was next to the church. I would tuck my dress under me and swing until I was called to come back. Some kids played tag on the front lawn of the church. On summer days when we were still doing bus runs, we would open all the windows on the bus that had grown very hot during the service and let the wind blow in our faces. I don’t pretend to know what it’s like to grow up in the South but having heard a lot about the “dinner on the grounds” that many Southern churches have, the feelings invoked by memories of summer at the little brick church seem to be close to what those must be. I knew the hymns by heart, and even though singing wasn’t (and isn’t) a gift I’d received, I sang along with the congregation every week. I had my favorites and was especially excited if one of those was listed in the bulletin as one we would be singing. I fondly remember my Sunday School classes. The stories I heard over and over never really got old. Each week there would be a memory verse to be recited the following week. I still remember many of those verses that I learned in those young years spent in the hot rooms of that church. Every year July brought summer camp. This was a week at a camp called Grand Valley Ranch in Ohio. We took the two church busses, and yes, my dad drove Big Blue every year. My mom would follow in our car. She carried tools in case there was bus trouble (my dad was a mechanic). She also sometimes had kids who for whatever reason couldn’t ride the bus. I remember one year, a teen named Billy rode in the back of our station wagon. He had a broken leg and wasn’t able to sit in a bus seat. He didn’t want to miss camp though. The first Monday night of every month during the school year was a roller-skating outing. The rink was rented by the church, so it was only our youth groups that got to be there. We would leave the church at 6:00 PM and get back around 10:30 PM. There were Saturday outings to a place in the city of Buffalo called Youthtime where we could bowl, swim, or shoot basketball.

My husband and I recently watched a TV series. The theme song went like this:

“I’m twisted up inside but none the less I feel the need to say,

I don’t know the future, but the past keeps getting clearer every day.”

I know that is how I am seeing the days spent at that little brick church. Even the hurts that are bound to happen when one spends twenty years as part of the same organization pale in comparison to the warm memories evoked by those same years. The past gets clearer and clearer as I grow older and older. I see how maybe not everyone actually hated me. No, it was my own awkwardness and self-esteem issues that contributed to the feeling of being an outcast. Ten-year-old kids can’t be expected to know how to be a friend to a kid like me–one who for sure would now be diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum had the world been aware of such a diagnosis back then, or a kid who should have been diagnosed and treated for major depression at a time when mental health was not talked about openly. But I also see how the years spent there shaped me. How at times I still recall a certain Bible verse when it is most needed. How there were people there who truly loved me for who I was. I can still recall their names: Mrs. Frey, Mr. Coleman, Mr. Topps, Mr. and Mrs. Welsford, Mr. and Mrs. Alberts, Mr. Skinner, Pastor Ben…the list could go on. There were a few kids who didn’t mind hanging out with me: Cal, Rich, Tom, Kris, and Jen are the few that come to mind. The words to those old hymns have stuck with me for fifty years. Sometimes I long to be part of a church congregation where those hymns are sung with the enthusiasm that was present in the church of my childhood. I’m certainly not against modern worship–my son was a worship director and songs by Phil Wickham, Elevation Worship, Red Rocks Worship and others make up one of my playlists. But those old hymns? They hold a special place in my heart. Their words are powerful. The message they convey is hope, awe, majesty, and love. They can be theologically deep–something that is often missing from modern worship songs. Looking back is often clearer than looking at present or in the future. The rose-colored-glasses syndrome is real. This emotion may be exacerbated by the fact that church for us is now online for several reasons. There is little sense of community when the only sermon heard is the one coming through the speakers of a laptop, and no worship is sung. It is what it is for now, and change has always been my enemy.

I wouldn’t return to the little brick church even if I went back to that island. Too much has changed, and in my opinion, not for the better. Still, on an early summer Sunday, when the morning sun is shining and there is a light breeze in the air, I swear I hear the bells ringing in the white steeple that sat on top of the little brick church where so many memories hide within the walls. And I wish I could transport myself back in time, just for one Sunday, and feel all the feelings one more time.

“There’s a church in the valley by the wildwood,

No lovelier place in the dale.

No spot is so dear to my childhood

As the little brown church in the val”…

Posted in Change, CHURCH, Community, faith, famiy, moving, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My Mental Health Shadow

When I was small there was a little rhyme I picked up from somewhere:

“Me and my shadow, my shadow and me,

We’re always together as close as can be.”

I think I learned it in kindergarten. Anyway, those lines will now be stuck in my head for the day. I was thinking about the idea of my shadow always being with me. When the sun is shining, others can see my shadow as I can see theirs. We used to play shadow tag when I was a kid. It was the same as tag (which apparently is now banned from recess because being “it” might make a person feel bad: insert eye roll here) When it is overcast and gray, though, my shadow does not show itself. It’s still there; it just can’t be seen. My mental illness is like my shadow. It’s always there whether or not it is visible. Sometimes others can see its shape and size; other times, only I can feel its presence. It affects both the physical and mental parts of me in the following ways:

Energy: This ranks high on the list of problem areas due to bipolar disorder and mental illness in general. Just getting out of bed on many mornings is a chore. If you’ve ever heard of the spoon theory, the process of getting up in the morning, walking the hall to the bathroom, showering (when that is even possible), brushing my teeth, and getting dressed uses several spoons before I’ve even made it to the kitchen for my morning can of Diet Coke. A shower is one of those activities that uses multiple spoons for most people with mental health issues. Think of it this way: a typical person can walk through a grocery store with little effort. It’s a natural activity and it doesn’t take much out of the person. For someone like me, though, walking through the grocery store, even on a Tuesday morning, feels like walking the entire Disney World Park. By the time I’m nearing the last aisle, I am leaning into the cart to help support me while I walk. Standing in line can be excruciating. (Yay self-checkouts!) For me, grocery shopping costs a minimum of four spoons, and that’s a conservative number. If it is a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, it would be five or six. If it’s Costco on any of the weekend days, the cost is even higher still.

Thought Processing/Memory: Studies have shown that the bipolar brain is actually altered each time a manic episode occurs. Did you catch the depth of that statement? Bipolar disorder actually causes brain damage. Research published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry reveals that people with bipolar disorder tend to have smaller and more shrunken parts of the hippocampus. Once the brain is damaged there is no way to “fix” it so it works like it did prior to the episode. This can present itself in different ways. Some experience deep depression. Bipolar depression is different than Major Depressive Disorder. It can also show up as memory problems, concentration issues, and impulse control problems. It affects communication between the person with mental health and others. Sometimes the brain is just unable to process conversation and effective communication. Most people take offense to the silence and give up on the person with the mental illness.

Relationships: I’ve never been one to have a large circle of friends. I think back to when I was a kid. Every Monday my mom would have some church ladies over to work on ceramics. The living room and dining room were packed. I was banished to my room during these get togethers, but I remember sitting on the stairs listening to any church gossip I could pick up on! ūüôā Through middle school and high school, though I had a circle of people I had known nearly my whole life, I had two best friends. As an adult, friends have come and gone. There have been very few I have gotten close to. Of those who I have allowed in, few remain. Some because of distance, but mostly it is due to the effects my mental health has had on relationships. Depression and anxiety cause me to cancel plans. I make plans with good intentions, say, to meet someone for lunch. A few days before I start to get anxious about it and often end up canceling. Even familial relationships have been affected by my mental health. I know I could do more with family at times, but my anxiety wins too many times. Even when my husband and I tried to plan a get away, I was too anxious to follow through on finalizing everything This wasn’t always the sole reason for not going, but it definitely played a part. My mental health means too often I don’t return phone calls, or text messages or Facebook messages, or even answer the phone because talking would just be too taxing at that moment. This all manifests itself in my life: I feel like I mostly face this world alone. Moses had Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms when he got tired and the Israelites started losing their battle. Sometimes I wish I had an Aaron and a Hur close to me. The problem is when one is tired, no one wants to be around that person. Recently an old friend of my mom’s went to visit her in the hospital. My mom wasn’t feeling up to visiting that day. Her friend just sat with her and held her hand. She didn’t allow the silence to make her uncomfortable. She stayed even as my mom drifted in and out of sleep. That’s a true friend. Most people with mental health issues don’t have friends like that. Silence is uncomfortable for most people.

Emotional Toll: Having mental health issues brings an emotional toll both on the sufferer (and it really is suffering) as well as others around him/her. Imagine you are at work and two of your coworkers are not getting along. Both of them put you in the middle every day, all day. They even call you at home at all hours of the night to try to get you on their side and against the other person. Imagine the toll that would take on you. This is exactly what someone with mental health issues struggles with on a daily basis. It doesn’t necessarily end when night comes. Insomnia is common among those with mental illness. Even as I type this, I have been awake since 3:30 AM. I even have medication to help me sleep. It helps me fall asleep for sure, but usually I wake up. Once my brain realizes I am awake, it begins its torment. Suicidal thoughts are most powerful in the overnight hours when one is exhausted. Others also have emotional toll thrust on them. My husband has to live every day with me. Some days I am “up”; I’m overly talkative, to the point he wishes me to shut up so he can have some peace. Other times I don’t do anything but growl and complain. There is no predictability to these cycles. They can happen even in the same day.

Community: This is similar to several of the effects mentioned above. Having a mental illness often means loneliness. Sometimes it is a lack of motivation. Depression can cause exhaustion so badly that even thinking or concentrating on a TV show is impossible. Anxiety can be crippling keeping one home from activities such as going to church. Raising my hand on this one: I haven’t physically been to church in over a year. My husband and I listen faithfully online each week, but actually going to church is terrifying for me right now. I hate the way I look. I hate the way I think. I basically hate everything about me, and while I’ve never really liked myself, it is ten times worse since my mental health has steadily declined. It can also be a focus issue as mentioned above. On a day where my ADHD isn’t controlled, it is impossible for me to sit in one spot very long. Just last night I was so restless I couldn’t sit and watch our current television show with my husband. I got up and washed the dishes while glancing at the TV. I got on the floor to finish a domino run–an activity I share long distance with my four-year-old grandson. I put the footrest up on my chair. I put it down. I grabbed water then a Diet Coke. I opened my computer but closed it when I couldn’t focus on it. It isn’t always like this. Some days I can’t make myself move out of my chair for anything. It’s hard to have a community around you when mood and actions are unpredictable. This goes back to the discomfort our society has with those in the mental illness community. People generally want to “fix” the person. This is completely understandable. They care. The problem is it isn’t a simple solution. It’s often a chronic illness. I take a biologic medication for my RA. Still, there are days, like today, that it flares enough to make walking painful. The same holds true for mental health medications. They can make some days good, some just bearable, and others like one isn’t even on any medication. There is no cure for RA. There is no cure for Sjogren’s disease. There can be remission, but no one can say if that will last a day or twenty years. I take several medications for my various mental health diagnoses. Some days they work. Some days it is like they don’t even exist. For me, I have way more of the latter situations. Others I know have been stable for years. You can imagine how all of these effect community.

Mental illness is a complicated beast. There is still a great deal of stigma surrounding it. To be honest, as much as I have written about my experiences, I struggled when writing this with using the words “mental illness” rather than mental health issues. “Illness” just has a higher degree of negative connotation compared to “issues”. I am a work in process in all areas just like everyone else. No one is completely exempt from the possibility of mental illness whether it be temporary or chronic. It can be present in childhood (like mine) or it can attack for the first time at 70 years old. My mental health is more unstable than most people I know but is more stable than some people in this world. It is a spectrum with people at every point along it. It is often the root of problem behavior (but not always). It effects every facet of a sufferer’s life. It leaves one feeling alone a lot. For me, it leaves me feeling purposeless. This makes it so hard when I see people around me finding their purpose in life. My brain tells me every day that those around me wouldn’t care if I were here or not. I have to fight every day and every night, 24/7, to make sure the beast doesn’t win. I’m tired. Exhausted. Sleep doesn’t take away the exhaustion. It is of a different sort. There is no easy fix for it. If you have someone in your life who suffers from mental illness, don’t try to fix them, explain the issues away, or even ignore the person. That last one is hard for most people. It is much easier to write the person off as too much of a burden. I can understand why people have done that in my life; still, it hurts tremendously. Loneliness is one of the worst situations life brings. To be lonely when surrounded by people is twice as hard. The guilt of knowing you pushed people away, all be it unintentionally, is devastating. It fuels the depression and anxiety that fuels the lack of community that fuels the loneliness that fuels the breakdown of relationships that adds up to a person wondering why they continue to exist.

Posted in Children, chronic illness, CHURCH, Community, death, depression, famiy, fear, loneliness, RA | Leave a comment

Life is Short

“Teach me to number my days so that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:12)

I’m in the book of Psalms again this morning as I wrestle through some intense emotions. As a side note, Psalms 90 and 91 are two of my favorites. Anyway, a friend’s post on Facebook this morning reminded me that life is short. It doesn’t seem that way for the first part of life. For me, elementary school seemed like an eternity when I was in it. Middle school and high school were even worse as I struggled socially. I’ve said before, I had only a couple close friends during those years. When I was in the throes of motherhood, I didn’t think it would ever end. Having 3 in diapers at the same time, 4 in car seats at the same time, 4 in elementary school at the same time, 4 homeschooled at the same time, 4 all needing rides to sports practices and games at the same time, me coaching one or more of them most of those years…my days were LONG. My nights were short since I had one who struggled with sleep issues (still does sometimes even as an adult). I spent years waiting up until late into the night, making sure all had made it home from wherever they happened to be. I thought it would be endless and I would die being so busy I barely had time to breathe.

But you know what? It did end. Four pretty much all moved out at the same time. Man, was that a shock to my system. I think I cried for months. A couple of them came back for a very short time while in life transitions, but it wasn’t nearly as busy as before. I didn’t have many friends, and given my aforementioned social awkwardness, I wasn’t involved in anything. I got a job for a few years. I loved working at the Christian bookstore. I was also watching my grandson several days a week all while battling chronic illness. Then, I decided work had gotten to be too much, and my son and daughter-in-law needed me more to watch the baby. I quit work in early December–and found out in mid-December that my son, daughter-in-law and little grandson were moving to California. I was devastated. After they left I really began to flounder for a while. I couldn’t work anymore due to worsening health issues. They’ve since moved two more times but neither of them back to the 5 minutes away they once were. Then our beagle had to be put down. Then one of the cats, and the following year, the other cat. I now have another little grandson and a new one on the way, but they live an hour away, so I don’t see him as much as I would like to. To sum it up: my life feels purposeless. The years have picked up speed and are rushing by me. There are things I really want to do, but between my health, my anxiety, and the crappy economy we don’t really do much of anything.

I realize the above verses refer to the spiritual side of life. The psalmist recognized life was short and wanted to be sure to use his days in the service of God. I’ve wrestled with that a long time. At one time I was very involved with a church. I taught Sunday School for years, served in VBS every year, served in AWANA, used my baking for a church’s first time visitors, helped in the nursery…you get the idea. But for the last few years I have foundered spiritually. I don’t feel I really have a place. I look at all the things other people do–especially my mom. I know when she gets to Heaven she will hear the words, “Well done”. I think I may hear the words, “What did you do?” This morning, though, I thought of the words of this verse in terms of the plans I had for my life here on earth. There is a place I desperately want to go. It is a place of peace and healing for me. Part of me says the time is short. We should go while we can. The state of my mental health tells me those words too. No one knows how long they will walk this earth. Death takes no preferences my dad used to say. He’s been gone 18 years. My mom is still alive in her 90’s. Others I know have lost little children, and too many families I know have lost older children to things like car accidents or suicide. Think of the many shootings that have taken place in our nation, and those are just the ones we hear of. In cities like Chicago shootings are a regular occurrence. No one wakes up knowing that will be the day they die. My dad was very sick for 12-ish years. Still, the morning God called him home, no one knew that would be the day.

If life is short, shouldn’t we take the time while we can to make memories? To build relationships? How does one do that when there are powerful factors working against him/her?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. If I did, I would be on a plane tomorrow to my happy place. My days are numbered. It could be today or next week or 30 years before my time on earth is up (though I actually hope this last one isn’t the case. This sounds like torture to live that long with the mental anguish that terrorizes me every day). I have gained much wisdom in the many years since childhood. I’ve said many times I wish I could go back and do it over knowing what I know now. I have messed up my life beyond full repair at this point. Living out my days as I have had to do the last several years does not sound appealing. Time is short. Days are numbered. I understand the sentiment to do things you want to do when you are still able. But, there are so many factors against me right now, it feels pretty hopeless.

Posted in Change, Children, Community, death, depression, empty nest, famiy, fear, loneliness, marriage, Parenting | Leave a comment

Deep Waters

There is a song that most people who listen to Christian radio have most likely heard. It is titled Oceans by Hillsong United. (If you are turned off by Hillsong, please keep reading. This isn’t about them but rather some of the words from the song) The idea of the song is often we find ourselves in situations that are overwhelming. We feel as though we will not be able to overcome. The ocean is one of my favorite places to visit. There is a calmness in hearing the waves roll in and a healing quality in the salt air and water. I would love to live on the Atlantic Ocean’s coast. I’ve walked into the Atlantic. I’ve bodyboarded in it. I’ve also found myself caught in a spot where my feet could not find the bottom of the water. It was a terrifying feeling, knowing I was out there alone, struggling to find a way to right myself and walk to the safety of the shore. I’m still here, so obviously I was successful in my efforts. Still, the waves crashing over my head instilled a greater respect for the power of water. In a way, I find myself once again in a perilous situation. I have lost my footing in “waters” that are deep and dangerous. I am weary from trying to find a way out. When I find myself in such a situation, I turn to the book of Psalms.

The writers of the Psalms, especially David, honestly portrayed the despair perilous situations can bring. I have been drowning in deep waters for some time now. It seems just as my feet find the firm ground, another wave crashes in on me, sending me back to the disoriented state I worked so hard to find my way out of. David’s enemies were real. They hated him, and their goal was to kill him. I also am facing enemies that are very real. These enemies hate me and would love nothing more than to see my demise. David’s enemies had names such as Saul, Absolam, and Adoniyah to name a few. The names of my enemies include depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and a few others.

This morning I read Psalm 69. I recognized the Psalmist’s words as words that I could have written. David wrote the following:

Save me, O God,
    for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
    where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
    the floods engulf me.
I am worn out calling for help;
    my throat is parched.
My eyes fail,
    looking for my God.
Those who hate me without reason
    outnumber the hairs of my head;
many are my enemies without cause,
    those who seek to destroy me.

In these verses David is pouring his heart out to God. He needs to bring his predicament to God’s attention. Of course, God already knew the peril David was facing. We know David as a man close to the heart of God. God had great love for David and saved him time and time again. Still, David is not shy about approaching God. He doesn’t know where else to turn. Perhaps he had tried to confide in friends and confidants, but he found no solace there. Perhaps he tried to “suck it up”, to work through his problems on his own and in his own strength, but he found that to be a dead end. In fact, all of David’s efforts only left him in deeper waters. Struggling will do that. The more we claw at the surface unsuccessfully, the deeper we make the place in which we are stuck. God must not have answered David right away. He goes on to say:

13 But I pray to you, Lord,
    in the time of your favor;
in your great love, O God,
    answer me with your sure salvation.
14 Rescue me from the mire,
    do not let me sink;
deliver me from those who hate me,
    from the deep waters.
15 Do not let the floodwaters engulf me
    or the depths swallow me up
    or the pit close its mouth over me.

16 Answer me, Lord, out of the goodness of your love;
    in your great mercy turn to me.
17 Do not hide your face from your servant;
    answer me quickly, for I am in trouble.
18 Come near and rescue me;
    deliver me because of my foes.

Can you sense the urgency in David’s words? The honesty?

Rescue.

Deliver.

Do not let.

Answer.

Do not hide.

Come near.

David isn’t beating around the bush here. He is in trouble, and he knows it. He calls on the only One who can help, the only One stronger than the enemies that pursue him. The end of the Psalm gives us a glimpse of the faith David had in his God:

33 The Lord hears the needy
    and does not despise his captive people.

David prayed. He cried out to God. He pleaded. He was honest. And then he acknowledged that God heard him. He trusted that God did not despise him despite the fact that he was nearly drowning. I can relate too well right now with the panic David felt as his enemies pursued him. My enemies have set a trap for me repeatedly. I am in pain I can’t even describe. I feel very much alone, abandoned even.

Just before writing this, David spent a time honestly asking God to punish his enemies. He was not shy in expressing his anger for the situation, his hatred for those who sought to take his life. Then he asks God again: “protect”. I am right there, right now. My enemies want to destroy me. They would love nothing more than to see me wiped off the face of the earth. You know what? I agree with them right now. I have been battling for a long time. Not just days. Not just months. But years. I have been in deep waters for years. I am tired. I have asked God to rescue me. I have asked him to save me, deliver me. I have asked him to destroy my enemies. They outnumber me. They are stronger than me, and so often I just want to give in, allow my head to slip under the water, and be free from the pain being inflicted. That sounds so relieving to me right now.

But…

The song Oceans doesn’t end with the sufferer slipping into the great unknown forever. No. Instead, there is an acknowledgment that God is more powerful than the waves that crash around her:

“Your grace abounds in deepest waters
Your sovereign hand will be my guide
Where feet may fail and fear surrounds me
You’ve never failed and You won’t start now”

Like David, the singer declares that God is there. She reminds herself that God has not failed in the past. Why should she think He would be any different now? God has shown Himself to be stronger than my enemies in past years. He rescued me from death, from addiction, and from myself. He put me in places where I would have no choice but to acknowledge Him. Many times I fought it. I shouted angrily at Him. I think that happened even yesterday. I have accused Him of abandoning me when I needed Him most. I was sure He didn’t love me. I think that was as recent as yesterday too. I admit, my feet are beyond where I can touch right now. The waves are crashing relentlessly. I often feel as though I am drowning as I am getting hit on every side. When life is this bad, when circumstances seem insurmountable, I can only try to remember these words from the song:

“And I will call upon Your Name
And keep my eyes above the waves
When oceans rise
My soul will rest in Your embrace
For I am Yours and You are mine”

I can keep my eyes above the waves by lifting them to the One who controls the waves. He sees. Even when my head is covered with rolling waters, dark waters, He sees. Is this an easy thing to do? I know it seems that way for many. For me, it is taxing. When strength is depleted, it makes it more difficult to do the thing to keep afloat. Still, right now, although the waters roar above my head, though my feet cannot find sure ground on which to stand, I will do my best to tread water, relying on the grace God promises to provide in such a situation. If you are there right now too, know that there is a God who sees your struggle. He doesn’t promise a life of rainbows and sunshine. What He does promise is to fight the waters with you. He promises deliverance. It may not come in the form you want it to. Believe me when I say I am wrestling with that fact even as I type it. In His way, though, it will come. I am beginning to think I will fight these dark waters as long as I walk this earth. That is a scary thought when it is those dark waters that tell me to end my life on earth. Still, God promises grace in times of trouble. I pray we both find that grace, that strength to keep looking above the waves, trusting the only One who can calm the storm.

16 As for me, I call to God,
    and the Lord saves me.
17 Evening, morning and noon
    I cry out in distress,
    and he hears my voice.
18 He rescues me unharmed
    from the battle waged against me,
    even though many oppose me.
19 God, who is enthroned from of old,
¬†¬†¬†¬†who does not change‚ÄĒ
he will hear them and humble them,
    because they have no fear of God. (Psalm 55: 16-19)

Posted in Change, chronic illness, Community, death, depression, faith, fear, grace, loneliness, peace, persecution, prayer | Leave a comment

Two Sides

Most of what we find around us has more than one dimension.

Many pools have a deep end and a shallow end. The pool I had growing up was all one depth, but it definitely had a warm side and a cool side.

A tree has branches and a trunk.

Umbrellas go up and down.

Cars can go fast or slow.

Sounds can be loud or quiet.

The weather can be hot or cold.

A coin has two sides: heads and tails.

You get the idea. In thinking about examples to include in this entry, my mind was flooded with possibilities. You can probably come up with several of your own without exerting too much mental energy to do so. There’s one important one I did not include, but it is one of the most important to remember:

A story has two sides.

Now, I’m not referring to a story that you would pluck off of a library shelf and sit down in your summer hammock to enjoy, although many of those kinds of stories also have two sides. One is viewed through the eyes of the protagonist. This is the character that works toward the goals of the story line. The other is viewed through the eyes of the antagonist. This is the character working against the goals of the story line. Often, we see them as good versus evil. Outside of a book, the “story” may not be as clear cut. Take, for example, a couple in the process of divorce. Depending on who you are closer to, the wife or the husband, you may only see and hear what that person says and does. It’s common to take sides in situations like that. Mary says all Jack did was waste money on beer. Jack says all Mary does is nag him about all the stuff he needs to get done around the house. Both statements may actually be true to a certain degree, but Mary’s friends just hear what a jerk Jack is, and Jack’s friends encourage him to not give into her demands in the divorce. The full truth is most likely somewhere in the middle. My dad used to say, “There are two sides to every story.” This, of course, was usually said in the context of something either my brother or myself tried to blame the other for. He often cautioned us, as we grew up, to not jump to conclusions. Doing so may not end up being what you want to see happen. In fact, sometimes not hearing both sides of a story and jumping to conclusions can lead to unintentional hurt and/or harm. I wonder how many relationships could have been different if all parties took the time to get both sides of the story, without the biased emotions we all have whether we want to admit them or not? Once both sides of a story are heard and understood, it is fair to form an opinion and/or take sides. Perhaps, it becomes evident that there is merit to both sides, and one has gained perspective and empathy. From the outside looking in it is easy to judge someone’s actions–or lack thereof. The problem with judging harshly someone’s decision is usually a result of only hearing one side of a story.

I am currently working through a type of therapy known as Dialectical Behavior Therapy–DBT. It is an undertaking to say the least. I had to make a year commitment to 3 hours a week. The basis of DBT is that two things can be true at the same time. I can feel too tired to work yet do the work anyway. I think everyone has experienced a love-hate relationship with someone or something. These are simple examples of dialectics. One important skill taught is checking the facts. Simply put, when I have a thought about someone or something, it is important to “check the facts”, i.e., make sure what I am thinking is really what is happening. As an extreme example, the thought of suicide because “nobody would care anyway” needs to be checked against the facts. Would nobody really care? It feels that way but is probably not true. Some people may not care, but the blanket term “nobody” renders this a non-fact. It is just a thought. It doesn’t always work, of course. Suicidal thoughts can plague a person, sometimes even driving them to end it. Nothing is 100% foolproof when it comes to mental health, but it does relate to the fact that unless someone has talked to every party involved and heard their perspective on the subject, it just isn’t possible to be non-judgmental. I have had to, many times, make a decision that has been criticized by someone, someone who didn’t bother to ask why I felt my decision was correct.

One of my favorite children’s books is The True Story of the Three Little Pigs. Everyone knows the traditional story of how the wolf terrorizes the pigs even though in the end he eventually loses. In this book, though, the story is told from the wolf’s point of view. It goes without saying that Mr. Wolf saw the whole exchange differently from the pigs. In the same way, when someone makes a decision or says something about a situation, remember that person may be seeing the situation from a totally opposite perspective. A two-headed coin is only found in pretend magic kits.

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Mental Health Awareness Month

Mental Health Awareness month is just about over. I wish I could be one of those people who buy a t-shirt with a green ribbon, showing solidarity with those who live every day with a mental illness but have not really experienced it myself. Truth be told, I have a couple t-shirts like that. They display the green ribbon symbolizing mental health and sport slogans such as:

“Mental Health Matters”

“No one fights alone!”

“You don’t know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”

“End the stigma”

You get the idea. The thing is, for me, mental health awareness doesn’t just come around every year when the calendar page turns to May. No, mental health awareness, for me, is also in January and February and March and every other month that makes up a year. I am more than aware of the difficulty living with mental illness presents. I live it. Every. Day. No day is safe for me. Even days that are “supposed” to be happy, like Christmas, are shadowed by the ever-present darkness of mental health difficulties. It is not a seasonal disorder for me. There are occasional days that the light almost pierces the clouds, but it never really clears enough to give me a break. If you saw the movie Frozen, you may remember at the end when Olaf gets to live through summer because over his head is a little cloud that brings constant snow and cold to him. I feel that, except mine is a constant cloud of darkness and sadness and serious things like suicidal thoughts and plans. It is not a seasonal issue. That is the case for some people, especially in the winter time in the north. They get a fancy light and it seems to help. I could sit under every kind of light invented and it wouldn’t help. Mine is a brain chemical issue. For some, this can be treated with medication. So far, medication has failed me. I have been on so many different ones that I have lost track. Some took the edge off for a little while but eventually stopped working. Of course, there are SO many medications out there, it takes a great amount of time to try multiple meds. Also making it tricky is the fact that sometimes a medication paired with another medication works for Person A but not for Person B. We are all the same, yet we are all so different at the same time. The other issue is often a person has more than one illness. I have severe depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, bipolar 1, ADHD and a few others very few people have been allowed to know about.

Explaining any mental illness is difficult, but the depression part of it presents a special challenge. This applies even more so if the one suffering is a Christ follower. There seems to be a belief among Christians that someone suffering from mental illness is simply not doing the “right” things that Christ followers are supposed to do. Certain admonitions have either been said to me directly or to someone else I have talked to. They include the following:

“Your __________ (depression, anxiety, delusions, etc) would go away if you just trust God more.”

“Many people in the Bible were depressed and God healed him/her. Just look at Elijah and Job.”

“You are able to do all things through Christ. This includes getting over depression.”

“Everyone has a cross to bear.”

“This is spiritual warfare, no doubt about it. Put on God’s armor and Satan will leave you alone.”

“By His stripes you are healed. You just need to claim that.”

“Have you examined your deeds? Unconfessed sin leads to consequences.”

“You don’t need medication. You just need Jesus.”

I could go on. I hate the analogy that puts a person experiencing mental illness next to someone experiencing a physical one, but it is an effective illustration. Imagine you start having severe trouble breathing while sitting and watching television on a normal Tuesday night. Your spouse rushes you to the emergency room where doctors discover you have asthma. Yes, you’ve felt “off” before but never enough to warrant a mention to your doctor. You just assumed you were out of shape and that’s why walking up the stairs caused some heavy breathing on your part. Next, the emergency room doctor tells you a home health care company will be bringing a special machine called a nebulizer to your home. It is important that you do the breathing treatments with the medicine that goes into the nebulizer three times per day. He also prescribes two inhalers. One is a steroid inhaler to be used twice a day every day. The other is a rescue inhaler to be used if you suddenly find yourself unable to breathe. You go home somewhat in shock at all you will need to learn. Using the nebulizer, making sure you always have your rescue inhaler with you, remembering to use the steroid inhaler every day plus the nebulizer treatments every day. The next day a good friend comes over. She heard about your scare the previous evening and wants to make sure you are okay. You explain to her all that happened, how scary it was, and all the new things you will need to learn and get used to. Then, imagine your best friend telling you that you are taking this way too seriously. You don’t really need all that stuff; you just need to have more faith in God. After all, Jesus’ death has already provided all the healing you will need. You would probably look at your friend and wonder what would make her say something like that. You may be hurt, thinking she is not taking your illness seriously. You may be angry believing your friend doesn’t believe you! All of these are what a person suffering from mental illness goes through when someone, even though they may think they are encouraging you, makes light of how serious your condition is. I will never forget one of my appointments with my psychiatrist. Circumstances in my life were at an all-time, high-stress level. I honestly wasn’t sure how I’d get through the night let alone live a full life. He looked at me quite seriously and said, “You have a life-threatening illness. It is considered to be rare since it affects only 2% of the population. If those around you do not believe the seriousness of this disease, then it is important for you to either make sure to help them understand or just step back from those relationships for a while.” That was difficult for me to hear. I had not considered my illness to be life-threatening, but after he said that, and I looked up statistics, I realized how right he was. I also wrestled with losing even more people in my life. I had already lost relationships due to the isolation my mental illness creates. The thought of upsetting those closest to me coupled with the embarrassment that came with it all seemed way too much to handle. Even though I’ve dealt with these diagnoses for a long time, and I have come far in overcoming the stigma associated with mental health issues, I still struggle at times with the fact that my survival depends on medication and will for the rest of my life. There is also a high probability that eventually a mental health medication will cease being effective, usually because the body builds a tolerance to it, and the whole trial and error process will start all over again. I should not be surprised when, given all that is put in front of me in dealing with just mental health, I entertain the thoughts of suicide. Actually, that is surprising me less and less, maybe because the thoughts have come closer and closer still. How can I say I have faith in a God who heals, yet I still wrestle with thoughts of ending my own life?

If you know me well, you know I love to read. I particularly enjoy historical fiction, but I do not limit myself to simply pleasure reading. I also read about things that will educate me about something. Over the years, I have read a great deal about my mental health diagnoses and mental health in general. Since the pandemic, the subject of mental health has exploded onto the literary scene. Self-help books about all kinds of mental health issues abound in bookstores and on Amazon. I have also found fiction books that center around mental health. One in particular I enjoyed this year was titled, Dancing on Broken Glass. The book was about a guy named Mickey who lived with Bipolar disease. So much of Mickey’s experiences were similar to mine, and more than once I found myself stopping to reflect on what I read. One of the best non-fiction books I have read on the subject of mental health is a book by Sarah Robinson titled, I Love Jesus, But I Want to Die. It is one of the few Christian books I have come across on the subject of mental health that in no way shamed the sufferer for his/her battle against this quite formidable foe. If I wrote here everything I highlighted in the book, it would be way longer than any blog entry should be. What I appreciated most about the book, if I had to sum it up, was the way the book approached the subject without inducing any shame on the reader. People who say well-meaning platitudes most likely don’t realize their words hurt. Those words are dismissive to the real suffering that accompanies mental illness. Robinson says,

“It’s gut-wrenching to have our experiences and pain so quickly belittled, invalidated, and tossed aside. It also misses something important when we’re talking about the most serious challenges in life: sometimes they just don’t pass. Cliches like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘choose joy’ don’t speak to the crushing reality of mental illness.”

Robinson acknowledges both the importance and the benefits of a walk with Jesus. She is clear that it is only Jesus who can adequately comfort in affliction. He meets us where we are because He has been there. He has experienced rejection, sadness, pain, even death. He does NOT cause pain. (This concept is one I have and continue to struggle with) God grieves when we grieve, but the fact is we live in a world that is imperfect. Regardless of how far science has advanced–and it has come a long way over the last decade alone–there is still no cure for death. Whether it be from a sudden event like a heart attack or injuries from a car accident or any other way that would cause a person’s heart to stop beating, doctors can only do so much. Death is a reality of the world we live in. Much of the time it is mind boggling. I know a couple right now walking through pain that is unfathomable. Just a week ago they had to say a final goodbye to their newborn baby, a baby born seemingly healthy who suddenly, on the day they were scheduled to go home, had trouble breathing. He went downhill quickly, and despite the efforts of multiple doctors, was just not able to overcome the infection that raged through his little body. There is no human explanation that can make this less painful for his family. This will be something they will grieve for the rest of their days on earth. It is a pain known only to those who have walked similar paths. Would you even think about telling these broken-hearted parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, to just choose joy? Of course not! Yet, those who live daily with the excruciating pain mental illness can bring, hear words like that repeatedly. I’ve prayed many times for God to take away my depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, and physical pain. So far, He has answered, “No”. Sometimes God does say no to His children. Just as a parent tells their child no when he or she asks to do something dangerous, say climb over the fence to the lion’s den at the zoo, because the parent knows that would not be good for their kid, God sometimes says no to us for reasons we don’t understand. The lions look so fluffy to a 5 year old, but mom knows looks can be deceiving. I don’t know why God has said no to my pleas. It has caused years of stumbling as I have wrestled with wondering though. I’ve doubted His love for me most of my life. I’ve felt abandoned–that is actually my current feeling. I have also been driven to God because of my suffering. For me, that takes the form of devouring the Psalms. David experienced immeasureable pain and heartache. He writes honestly, questioning God on why he has been abandoned by Him. I feel that. Deeply into my core, I get that. One of the Psalms I go to repeatedly, among many others, is Psalm 139. In it, David is recounting the ways God has shaped him since before birth and reminding himself that he is ultimately God’s child. One verse that struck me several years ago during a particularly low point in my mental health is verse 8:

“If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.” (NKJV)

Making a bed in hell was, and is right now, a fitting description of where I found myself. What else can it be called when one is so weary that thoughts of death entice repeatedly day after day? What else can it be called when reserves are depleted? When I have to admit I have fought with everything in me, but I cannot continue the fight? I don’t think I have ever lived without some level of darkness enveloping me. The older I get, though, the longer and more intense the darkness is. There is a mixed bag of reasons for that: genetics, brain chemistry, and trauma are among the biggest.

So, as we end the month of mental health awareness, the question becomes, is there a way to erase the stigma that comes with mental illness? I don’t think there is an easy answer to that question. I know the conversation about it now is more positive than it was thirty years ago. I also believe there is still a lot of work to be done. I believe it will be a chain reaction type process. One person impacts a few other people who impact a few more people and the field keeps growing. I also think the church needs to do a better job in this area. Shaming Christians because they aren’t always walking around happy and cheerful and whistling is harmful in addition to being not helpful. Instead of using Bible verses and platitudes against the person suffering under the weight of mental illness, offer the most basic of all things: unconditional love. Yes, sitting in the darkness with someone can be uncomfortable. It is tempting to need to fill the silence, to make it seem like you are doing something to help by talking. Often, though, sitting in silence with someone is exactly what is needed. Also, try to remember that mental illness can look like many different things. It’s not a one size fits all diagnosis. I know people that are probably not as low as I am right now who are in the hospital for treatment. I also know people are probably even lower than I am across this planet right now. The range it encompasses is massive. There is no easy answer, but even changing one small attitude can have a huge effect. To use an over-used analogy, a small pebble thrown creates numerous ripples across a still pond.

Posted in Change, chronic illness, CHURCH, Culture, death, depression, faith, grace, loneliness, peace, trust | Leave a comment