Archive for the ‘depression’ Tag

You Can’t See Your Own Nose Without a Mirror   Leave a comment

Isn’t it odd how we are often the last ones to realize the obvious about ourselves?  You may have spotted a theme that has been bubbling up through my posts recently, but I didn’t notice it until a few days ago: anger.   It is one of my defense mechanisms, so reflexive and short-lived that I often don’t notice it or I pass it off as a normal response.  In fact, it was a major piece of armor for my whole family, our shield against a sudden sense of danger, so quickly deployed that it even parried our sense of vulnerability.  Like so many family traits, it was carefully disguised–no shouting, name-calling, or slamming doors, but an intense burning that everyone felt without being able to name.  When I stumbled on Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger, it turned on the lights for me, so much so that I bought every sibling a copy for Christmas.

Many years ago I realized that an unexpected burst of anger is a telltale sign that I feel under attack, not from the incident itself, which is just a release valve, but from the pressure of turmoil building inside my heart, a festering wound that needs attention.  I don’t need a scolding, but a warm compress of grace–I need to locate the wound and apply self-compassion.

I have known for some months that my emotions were foundering, but it was a gradual, insidious tide that crept up past the gunwales without any alarms sounding.  Who doesn’t get mad at selfish drivers?  Who doesn’t get pissed at overbearing customers or lazy co-workers?  It seemed normal… except that it wasn’t.

The slowly building tension came from a big drop in income, a stressful job, and even an unsafe home (our cars have been rifled more than once, and I caught a burglar trying to get into our house).   The major soul cost has been a loss of even a minimal support structure–my low-wage job works me till 11 p.m. and on weekends, blocking me from making social connections here.  And when the scales are already heavily offset, even small weights added seem unbearable.  It becomes hard to do simple daily tasks, not to speak of the huge effort to overcome our current set of circumstances.

None of that is going to change soon.  It needs to change for life to be sustainable, but in the meantime I need to lean into self-support, be conscious of my pain in specific ways and direct compassion to myself as I would to any dear, suffering friend whom I love.

 

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Posted July 13, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Death Has Many Faces   11 comments

Dad died a year ago last Friday.  His passing was not an emotional jolt for me since I had spent a decade grieving the loss of our relationship.  My father could not follow me on my journey of genuine self-discovery over the last twenty years.  He tried as best he could to understand me, but always on his own terms, trying to fit me into his mental constructs with slight alterations–a more melancholy and ardent version of himself perhaps.  He instinctively knew, I think, that really opening himself to see things from my perspective would require a complete re-orientation of his own perspective and that was too radical for his carefully organized worldview.

His is a common human problem.  The first year of marriage was a huge struggle for me for the same reason–that my worldview made sense and Kimberly’s did not.  I tried listening to her and incorporating aspects of her perspective–trying to be more gentle and supportive, less critical and angry, tweek my worldview with cosmetic changes without moving any load-bearing walls.  I kept listening to her explain her struggle in our relationship, and I kept trying to adapt my behavior and avoid or use certain words while hiding certain attitudes.  I was basically saying to myself, “My worldview needs no adjustments, but out of love I will accommodate her weaknesses.”  It didn’t work.

Relational accommodation, making room for someone else’s differences, is much more loving than rejecting them as somehow “wrong,”  but it is a truncated love. When I continue to see others from my own perspective rather than trying to see with their eyes and understand them from within their experience, I cannot understand them in any deep way.  The relationship cannot be fundamentally supportive or transformational, but only touches the surface.  Our interdependence “being members of one another” is so much more than sharing our spiritual gifts.  Our interdependence goes to the core of who we are.  We need the corrective of the other’s point of view.

Most of us are willing to tweak our life map, add a street or railroad that is missing.  “Oh, I didn’t know that,” we say.  It is the natural process of learning.  As long as no one fiddles with the major features of our map, we won’t feel too defensive when they suggest changes because we basically have the “right” orientation.  But if the differences in our maps are profound–mine shows a grid of city streets where yours shows winding country roads–then we have no easy solution.  My initial reaction, emotionally and intellectually, is to reject your map, to assume you are wrong, confused, or misguided. When my father first heard I was struggling with depression, he was concerned and sent me a book that stated in the introduction, “Depression comes from a lack of faith.”  Thankfully, he did not stick with that perspective.

The next step in a positive direction is for me to stop rejecting your map as defective and simply assert that our views are incompatible and so we cannot understand one another.  The third step (with a smidgen of humility) is to see how I might learn from you, fit some features of the your map into mine, add a river here or a corner store there… but a river going through the center of a city, polluted and obstructing traffic, is very different from a river that is bordered by meadows.  When I squeeze this element into my map, the whole essence of it is changed.  I have distorted your view to fit my own, and though I may speak of a river, we see it so differently that we still cannot understand one another.  How you experience that river is completely shaped by your overall map, and until I can see that, I am blind to who you are.  “Okay,” I say to myself, “He likes pollution and traffic jams.  To each his own.”  Dad came this far with me on my journey, acknowledging that it was possible to be full of the Spirit and still suffer depression, though he could not conceive how that fit into his own theological framework, he at least allowed for it, a kind of exception to the rule.

But he was never able to get past this stage with me.  I spent years trying to explain to him my own experience and how I was coming to realize that his map of life did not work for me, but he always saw my experience as an aberration from the norm.  He was convinced that his theology and spirituality and values were spot-on and needed only slight tweaking to accommodate people like myself, maybe add a mission hospital to his map for that small segment of broken people like myself.  He instinctively knew that to open his worldview to my experience–using it to challenge his worldview instead of adding it as an addendum–would mean a complete revision of his thinking, a worldview that he had spent a lifetime perfecting and promoting through his preaching, teaching, and writing.  And thousands of testimonials proved that his worldview worked… at least for those who found it beneficial.

So I spent the last years of his life slowly accepting the painful reality that my own father would never know me, that our relationship would never get past the superficial.  In many ways it was like my mom’s slow decline into Alzheimer’s when she eventually did not know who I was or even that I was in the room.  Trapped inside her own mind, she could not relate to us.  That long grieving process seems to me more gentle on those left behind than a sudden death of an intimate.  Truly here “we see in a glass, darkly.”  We let them go with the joyful expectation that when we embrace them again all the obstacles to our relationships will be gone, and we will “know even as we are known.”

 

Postlude: Kimberly tells me no one will understand what I have said without an example.  So let me very briefly point out one serious difference in our maps.  Dad, being a choleric, grounded spiritual growth in behavioral choices and made God responsible for his subconscious mind–if he was not aware of it, he was not responsible for it.  As a result, he tended to see emotions as secondary to our spiritual lives.  This might work for people who are less self-reflective, but it is a scheme that is largely unworkable for us melancholics who are in touch with a great part of the tides of our hearts.  If dad had been able to fully accept this discrepancy, he would have had to rework his whole paradigm of spiritual growth, either suggesting different processes for different people or working out a new approach that fully incorporated the processes of those different from him.  This is a very tall order for anyone, especially in the latter part of our lives, so I do not mean to fault him for it.  He quite possibly did the best he could with what he had–and we cannot ask for more.  I only share this as an encouragement for us all to work at broadening our viewpoints.

Posted June 7, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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Understanding Depression   4 comments

I awoke yesterday feeling depressed, before I had done or thought anything.  It was the misery into which I opened my eyes and over which I had no control, as tangible as the rumpled sheets under my body.  I still meditated on my morning verse and wrote down my thoughts about God’s deep grace, but unlike the several days before, it was academic and cold.  The ideas were true, I knew they were true, but they did not warm my heart.  Life continued to feel like a heavy burden that I longed to cast off.  A tasty breakfast was no better than cold oatmeal.  Simple tasks, like paying bills, felt insurmountable, so I put them off for another day.

This morning I awoke with a sense of contentment.  The sun was shining and fresh snow coated the trees on which a cardinal perched.  It is my day off, so I lay back on the reclining loveseat drowsing–naps always feel good… if I could just figure out a way to make it through life comatose, I believe I could be happy.  Just now I read over my Scripture reflections of yesterday, and they uplifted my heart.

Let me say here very plainly that the sun and snow did not change my feelings.  Rather, my feelings were in a better place and so I could appreciate the beauty of the day.  If I had awakened with the same misery as yesterday, the snow would have looked like so much shoveling and scraping to do.  And though I feel better right now, I know that depression is just under the surface ready to push up through the thin crust covering it.

If you do not know depression first hand, let me dispel a common and damaging presumption: “happiness is a choice.”  A depressive cannot “count your many blessings” into a better place.  Negative thinking is not the source of our misery, so positive thinking cannot resolve our misery.  Positive thoughts may cure grumpiness or self pity or minor losses, but it cannot fix depression any more than a screw driver can fix a tree through the roof of your house, and to suggest that it can feels heartless to the one suffering.

Please listen to this next sentence very carefully and thoughtfully, because it is the key to understanding us.  Depression does not come from negative thinking; negative thinking (and feeling) comes from depression.  Depression springs from genetics or biology or PTSD or some other deep source, and putting it on a diet of positive thoughts will not cure it anymore than dumping a gallon of clorox in a river daily will un-pollute it.  In fact, it can make things much worse, since it suggests (even unconsciously) that the one who is depressed is somehow at fault for it or has the power by sheer will to overcome it.

For the most part, I do not know what makes some days (or hours) better than others.  I cannot predict it or control it since I don’t have direct access to my subconscious mind.  I know the general sources from which it originally springs in my genetics and childhood, and I work deliberately to remedy those root causes, but it is a very long journey and likely will not be resolved this side of the grave.  Like a missing arm, it is a condition which affects everything, and I must find a way to live optimally within those limits.  The patience and understanding and empathy of friends goes a long way in helping me cope.

Posted March 12, 2017 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Long March   8 comments

When we face life honestly, bravely, and resolutely, it slices us with a thousand little deaths: truths we are loathe to admit, securities that have blocked our growth, long-fostered hopes that end with a sudden blowout or gradual leak against every effort to re-inflate them.  As Kimberly and I prepare to move to Asheville, NC, we are “downsizing,” a smooth word corporations use to put a positive spin on frantically casting everything overboard to save a sinking ship–more like foundering than streamlining.

I had no trouble giving away excess clothes and unused dishes, but when I sold my weight set, it went out the door with my dreams of a buff body still draped over it.  To my wife it was a dust-collecting eye-sore, but when I sold that bench, I gave up on a promise and hope.  It was my final concession that this frumpy body is the one I will take to the grave.  I finally admitted honestly that it was a wasted dream, sitting idle for so many years because my real values lay elsewhere.  And that’s okay… it’s even good.  I want to live out my true values and not be distracted by false ones.  But the good road often forks away from the desirable one.  Being good and being happy are often incommensurable.

Stripping away possessions can be a stripping off of dreams and securities, groundings and trajectories, plans and expectations.  This morning as I drove my pickup filled with ministry books to donate to a local college, one phrase pounded through my head: “I hate my life!”  Those particular books sat in boxes in my basement for ten years, waiting, full of hope for a revived ministry of preaching or teaching or leading, some role to play in bringing God’s goodness into the world.  They hung heavy with past joys long gone: the delight in studying and sharing truth with others, the deep satisfaction of experiencing spiritual usefulness by sharing gifts to benefit others.

I have pursued the truth as relentlessly as I can, and it has brought me so much more insight and freedom, self-knowledge and character.  I know now that much of what I did before was streaked through with blindspots and immaturity and ungodliness.  I had a deeply flawed understanding of God.  I am in a far better place personally and spiritually because of all the breaking, but I had hoped to come to the other side of the struggle, to rediscover joy and peace and fulfillment at a new, fuller, more meaningful level.  But I am only tired, deeply tired, and crushed and broken-hearted.  I feel as though I am on a death-march, lifting one foot after the other in my hopeless, stubborn faith.

If this rings true for your own experience, may you be encouraged that you are not alone.  Let us call out to one another in the dark.

Posted April 4, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal, Uncategorized

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Finding Peace within Pain   4 comments

“Be gentle and kind to yourself” I blogged two weeks ago.  “Take full measure of your pain and with compassion find a way to give the help your weary, struggling heart needs.”  Great advice, and as it turns out, useless.  I was suffering acutely, but didn’t know why.  How could I relieve a pain that I could not locate?  Loneliness may be remedied with a friend, loss may be resolved with healthy grieving, but the phantom pain of depression is often untraceable to any source.  I was completely stuck.

For a long time now I have been struggling to find relief from my pain… or at the very least find the best way to cope with it.  Should I follow a plan or be spontaneous, should I read or write, should I sleep in or get up early–what would be best for my soul?  I kept taking my emotional temperature, trying to figure out what helped or didn’t help, but the solution was a will-o’-the-wisp, dancing just outside my insight and control.

“And then somehow it came to me,” I journaled the next morning.  “What my heart needed was not support to find and apply a solution (friends, good job, insight, etc.), but just support as an end in itself. What my heart needed was simply that gentleness and kindness, for me to have an attitude of constant gentleness and kindness in how I saw myself, thought of myself, felt about myself. I needed self-compassion for my own pain and struggle and fear and confusion and sense of worthlessness—not to find a solution, but to just be on my own side through it all.”

I am a fixer from way back.  When I see others in pain, I want to help, give them suggestions, offer them a way to find relief.  This often backfires, unintentionally causing more hurt.  Kimberly wants me to listen with compassion, understanding, and empathy rather than solutions, but I’m a very slow learner.  I keep defaulting back to problem-solving even though I’ve discovered through her how greatly I also need to just be heard and not fixed.

If the best a friend can offer is not to stop my pain, but to hold my hand through it, then why have I never thought to practice this with my own heart, to be my own best friend?  What if I walked through each day with a tenderness towards myself, an empathy for my struggle, an awareness and responsiveness to the fluctuations of daily events and how they impact my heart?

I feel as though a new way of being has started to open up in my mind. I’m just learning the initial steps, but it seems to hold real promise for the next leg of my spiritual journey.  It does not mean my misery will lighten, but that I will be sensitive and caring about my ongoing pain.

Posted January 19, 2016 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Hope within Depression   7 comments

I have little time before work and only 9 usable fingers, having chunked off the flat of my thumb in my belt sander–a story for another day–so this will be quick and rough, but I have thoughts I want to put down.  I watched an old episode of Joan of Arcadia recently and remembered why I liked it–the constant reminder that God does not play by our rules and often leaves us in the dark, even (or rather especially) about our own lives.  That is, I hate the experience, but I am grateful for the camaraderie of someone who also feels slapped in the face by life… every day… and cannot find a way to duck the swing.

I have been struggling more deeply with depression for the last few months (which is the reason for my absence here–depression reduces life to survival and little more).  It feels awful, so much like an actual physical trauma that I find myself catching my breath with the pain, and more recently grasping my head in my hands as I double over.  So I dig through my piles of options for some way to reduce the misery, but while I’m looking, my feelings change.  How do you address something which is  unpredictable, indiscernible, uncontrollable.  I don’t mean I don’t have any influence over my feelings, but it is like driving with a knee around mountain curves… in the fog.  So my feelings are constantly in the ditch–it is all I can manage to keep from going over the embankment.

Some days I wake up feeling okay… as long as I just lie there in a drowsy stupor.  That makes me think that naps might be a way to avoid my misery… which is true, but not helpful since I can’t live the rest of my life in a coma.  It just delays the returning blackness, it doesn’t lighten it.  So basically any strategy for avoiding life and its attendant feelings–loving on my dogs, watching TV, reading Facebook–is only a distraction from feeling anything deep or meaningful, it doesn’t resolve or heal or soften those bad feelings that come flooding back the moment I come out of the circus show.

For my religiously minded friends with the easy and certain solution–yes, I keep trying prayer and Bible reading as I am able, I keep looking for a church that doesn’t make me feel even worse afterwards.  These have not brought any fundamental relief or changed my experience of life.  And for my friends who have found some relief in medicine–I’ve tried several iterations, no luck so far.

Honestly it is not my staggering emotions that are the fundamental soul problem so much as the lack of control and confusion.  If I believed that my depression were God-ordained and inescapable, it would relieve me of desperately seeking solutions (which puts a great deal of pressure on myself, and temptation to self-blame).  I could settle for learning how to manage the life I am given.  But since I have small influences on my emotions, it keeps me actively engaged.  Were I to conclude that I had no real control and that my emotional experience of life was wholly in the hands of God, I could accept my lack of control, but that would exacerbate my confusion, not only over why this was God’s choice for me, but how I am to respond to it.

Regarding the first, the very values God promotes are undermined by my depression, not simply because of the inherent self-focus needed and the sapping of all motivation, but because of its intense draining of energy: I don’t have the normal resources from which to draw to be generous-minded, hard-working, other-oriented.  Patience looks more like resignation, hope seems more like stubbornness.  Wisdom seems to be stymied–if I have too little insight for my own life, what do I have to give to others?  And to find any joy present in this mess would require a complete re-definition.

Regarding the second, my response to intractable emotions, it is hard enough to find a rhythm for the dance of life when one’s emotions are consistent, even consistently miserable.  A strategy, plan, step-by-step approach can be developed when the playing field is stable, but when it constantly changes, it throws off all efforts to establish patterns, learn dynamics, and create a workable approach.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

That was yesterday.  I ran out of time before I could post.  But the gears started to spin as I wrote.  To suppose that patience as resignation or hope as stubbornness is somehow a poorer, weaker form of the real virtue is to undermine the very breadth and variegated beauty of each virtue, to stereotype, slot, and truncate the vast panoply of experience and expression of each facet of goodness.  We have often tried to distill attributes into some pure or regnant form, a person that most exemplifies some particular value, say of courage or discipline.  So the essence of real love is seen as mother love, as though there is only one kind of love and everyone should emulate it.  But what if there are many unique and invaluable forms of love that are missed by this reduction, that look different from mother love but have their own irreplaceable value: what of the simplicity and humility of a child’s love, the equality and intentionality of a friend’s love, the intensity and intertwining of a spouse’s love… and so even those of us under the heavy weight of depression have a unique offering of love, one of deep understanding and empathy and acceptance.  Perhaps depression does not inherently limit, sap, or dull our virtues, but instead refines, strengthens, sharpens them with a special coloring.  Our virtues have their own beauty and power, unique role and expression, a glory all their own.

 

Posted December 21, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Inescapable Shadow   Leave a comment

Living with depression changes one’s whole experience of life, making every engagement with the world a hard struggle as though one is tasked with fixing the pedestal fan after the lights are turned off.  But supposedly, although difficult, one would expect that with daily practice one might get slowly better at fixing fans in the dark, figure out work-arounds, develop new skills, develop new expectations of how long a given task will take.  This never happens with depression.  Each day is just as hard as the day before, just as stressful and dark and hopeless of any real change.  There is no new normal to which to adjust, so perhaps a better analogy would be someone who has severe arthritis and each twist of the screw-driver shocks the hand with pain, and yet the task cannot be laid aside, there is no hope for pain relief, and it does not seem to be directed at some greater good, as it would if, for instance, all the energy were directed at escaping a sinking ship or creating heaters for the indigent in freezing climates.  It is simply a way to make money so as to stay alive to experience more pain the next day–the reward for faithfulness and perseverance is continuing suffering.  It is as though someone lost in the middle of the ocean has been treading water for days, swallowing and choking on water, face burned by the sun and throat burned by dehydration, and with no hope of rescue.  I send out my sympathy for those of you struggling one more day in this dark place.

Posted November 8, 2015 by janathangrace in Personal

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