Friday, August 29, 2014

7 Quick Takes: Depression and Robin Williams

My husband is a curate at an Episcopal church. As part of his job, he was looking through a pre-marital counseling article which advised couples to be wary of "fairy-tale syndrome." Trials and tribulations will come and test the merits of the marriage. Trials like... the wife having a weird laugh.

Excuse me while I laugh/ cry hysterically.

OK, can you think of anything less helpful for an engaged couple? If your wife's "weird laugh" is threatening the marriage, you need to reconsider life in general. God forbid you have a real crisis, or even the flu.

News events have been on my mind, and on everyone's mind, constantly. Between ISIS (or is it just ISI now?), Ferguson, US/Mexico border issues, Ebola, the Ukraine, Gaza -  what else am I missing, folks? - I've started avoiding the news most days. I guess this is wrong, and I do check on Iraq updates and send up prayers whenever I remember, but despair comes over me every time I do any in-depth searching. 

And then there's Robin Williams. Everything has been said that can be said, but tears start in my eyes when I contrast the joy he brought the world and the despair that devoured him. Depression is a real disease, which left untreated is FATAL. My one hope in all this is that his tragic death will wake up those who see behavioral health care as "optional." 

My own mental illness is wreaking havoc. It's like having a monster eat at your brain, taking away your personality, your energy, everything that makes you you. I struggle to know what is the disease and what is me, or even what are sins and what is the disease. It's easy to blame everything on myself, but it's also easy to blame it all on the disease. 

On a related note, I have yet to find a confessor in Savannah. There are so many conflicts of interest because of my husband's job, so even with the confidentiality oath I would feel uncomfortable. But of course, if it was a real priority I would have found someone already, so.... 

Pray for me.


Sometimes the little things in life save us. For instance, did you ever notice how pretty the inside of a red onion is?  

I was slicing produce for a salad last night and marveled at the beauty of red onion, deep-red Southern tomatoes, golden Georgia peaches, and bright-orange pepper. It's so nice to have real tomatoes and peaches again; I've been eating heirloom tomatoes like apples. 

Different things keep different folks from committing suicide. For me, the self-despair is too great to appeal to right to life or self-worth, unless I'm feeling well enough to NOT be tempted to suicide. What helps me is thinking about the good but simple things in life. I may not think my own self is worth much, but I can think to myself of ice water in the August heat, good-smelling soap, warm clothes from the dryer. Sometimes something that small will bring me off the edge. 

As a tribute to life, and a prayer for all who suffer from depression, here is a video of Robin Williams interacting with the famous gorilla Koko. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

To Jesus Through Mary

Mary is always looking out for me. How else can I explain that I had no plans of going to Mass today, but found myself following my husband's advice to attend an evening service, where the feast of the assumption was being celebrated?

The church was so quiet, full of incense. It was everything my soul needed.

Hail Holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
our life, our sweetness and our hope.
To Thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,
To Thee do we send forth our sighs,
Mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.

Turn, then, most gracious Advocate,
Thine eyes of mercy towards us.
And after this our exile,
Show unto us the blessed fruit of Thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving,
O sweet Virgin Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

As I walked up the aisle, I noticed a sign over the crucifix. It said "For God so loved the world."

I managed not to break down crying until I reached the pew again. It struck me in a way it never did as a child. I felt almost resentful, then, because Jesus' sufferings were thrust up in our faces whenever we doubted. How can you do that after all that Jesus did for you? It was the ultimate guilt trip. It meant that Jesus was tortured to satisfy the Father's wrath so that I could go to heaven. It felt so remote and cold to me then.

Now I see it so differently. Now I see a God who saw His creatures in pain, saw their hurt and agony and fears, knew that without the greatest sacrifice He would never be trusted. He suffered for our peace, to hold out his hands with the nails and say look, feel the prints, you can trust me. Rest in me, abide in me, you are safe my child.

Those images of suffering are not a guilt trip anymore. They are assurance of His love, assurance of His tender care for us. My mother knew what I needed to see before I could believe it.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

7 Quick Takes: What I've Learned in Group Therapy


While recovering from mental illness (which means learning to manage it, as opposed to hunting for a non-existent cure), I'm attending group therapy 5 days a week. It's been awesome, and I highly recommend it, though most people would only do a once a week deal. Some of what we've learned is so obvious, and yet some of it goes against everything I used to think. For instance....

Self-esteem is a good thing. 

Self-esteem is one of those words that I used to mock. Only the feel-gooders, the liberals, the secularists wanted self-esteem. Self-esteem was what kids had when all participants got trophies. Self-esteem was what fueled adolescent rebellion and disrespect. In my fundy days, self-esteem was equated with arrogance. 

My Calvinist background was especially derisive. After all, we knew that all humans were scum, that our good works were "as filthy rags," and that God Himself could only stand to look at us dirtwads if Jesus' righteousness was covering us. Turns out that self-esteem is simply how one estimates one's worth. Turns out that a Calvinist background doesn't help you when you're predisposed to suicide. Other folks (I'm guessing) can hit that old depression monster in the teeth when he says you're worthless and need to die already. They can say naw man, I have worth as a human being, even with all my mistakes. Calvinism jerks that rug right out from under you. 

What I'm trying to learn is that simply by virtue of being a person, I have worth. It is hypocritical of me to tell others that they have worth and a right to life and then turn around and deny it of myself. Self-esteem says nope, you're human too, and being human is OK. 

You are not the depression 

Another "duh" statement that nevertheless eluded me. When you're depressed, it envelopes you, takes over your life, and before long you can't even find yourself in the mix. Your interests, hobbies, skills, energies, faith - poof! gone. It helps to personify the mental illness. Give it a name even. My depression is Bob Loblaw (from Arrested Development) and the PTSD is Nelly, as in Nervous Nelly. I'm Caroline, not Bob or Nelly. Bob may want to hide indoors all day looking at blogs, and Nelly may intensify that desire because it's "safe," but Caroline would rather go out tonight. 

Past, future, and "should have" are not reality

CS Lewis talked about eternity in one of his books (I apologize, I can't remember which). He describes living in the present as "dipping your toe into the river of eternity." That's the idea: eternity is real; the present is real. The past has already happened, can't nothing change that. The future isn't even here yet, and who even knows if you'll be living. "Should have" is the most insidious of all, the most deadening thought you can have. It's not real, so don't even entertain those thoughts and regrets. Speaking of the past.... 

What happened to me is not my fault, but my present is 100% my responsibility 

I didn't deserve the things that happened to me in the past. However, if I live in misery today it's no one's fault but my own. That may sound harsh, but what's the alternative? To give authority to people in my past? To hand over my soul to those who have hurt me? No thanks. 

I judge others based on my own past mistakes 

Thanks to my awesome group therapist, here's what I learned about myself this week. The reason why I fear abandonment so much is that in my past, I have poured myself into people that were needy. Then, when I got resentful (because I stopped taking care of myself) I dropped them like hot potatoes. Therefore, I go around expecting others to drop me the minute I get too needy, because I expect that others will similarly take care of me without taking care of themselves until they get sick of me. Boy did that explain a lot. 

I'm grateful for the PTSD

Not for the depression - I'm not quite there yet. But without the PTSD, without the panic attacks and irrationality and dissociating episodes, I wouldn't have gotten the help I need. I would just drag myself along with depression, existing but not really living. The depression alone didn't push me, didn't provide the consequences that the PTSD did. So thank you anxiety, you done good in spite of yourself. 

Have you been through mental illness or group therapy? What have you learned in the experience? 

Monday, August 11, 2014

When "The World" is better than "the Church"

I wish I didn't have to write this post. Truly. I wish that my experience was so singular that no one could relate, that everyone else felt truly at home in a Christian setting.

Say yes if the following fits your experience:

1. You ask for "silent" or "unspoken" prayer requests/ intentions because you worry that your prayer group will gossip about them

2. You have received more empathy and compassion about mental health issues from "secular heathens" than you have from Christians

3. You have endured or witnessed bullies in church environments who were either ignored or encouraged by leadership

4. Those bullies were the leadership

5. You have a "church smile"

6. You have been to revivals or discipleship events or camps or retreats which acknowledged these realities, but when the emotions died down nothing changed

7. You feel shame about your lack of Christian friends, afraid that you're not good enough for that ever-elusive fellowship, afraid that your spiritual life suffers as a result

8. You feel extra shame if you are perfectly able to find friends outside of church/ Christian settings

Here is the typical response to this problem: well, the church is full of sinful people. What do you expect? When people get in groups you naturally get gossip and infighting and favorites.

Friends, are you as tired of that excuse as I am?

Here's why that reason isn't good enough: because I've had better friends and support in non-Christian environments, almost without exception, than I have in Christian ones. Those groups were also filled with people, non-perfect people who make lots of mistakes. And yet, the fellowship was better. Those friendships were made without the fear, perfectionism, and one-upmanship that plagues most Christian groups. Not to say life was perfect, because of course not. However, most of my truly supportive friends are not "believers." They aren't crazy heathens - they are law-abiding citizens who make plenty of mistakes but try their darndest to live peacefully with others. But they also are not Christians, or they are burned Christians who keep their distance from religious organizations.

What's the answer? I don't know. I'm struggling with church locally, for reasons too private to put online, but I'm also struggling with church in general. There is only one thing that I can do, and it's one of the hardest things to do.

I can be honest. I can refuse to put on the church smile. I can tell anyone who asks how I'm doing that I'm battling depression. I can be honest about my recent sojourn in a mental hospital.

If we aren't honest about our real selves, the problem will persist. As someone whose husband is working for a church full-time, whose life is wrapped up in things related to "church," that's not a viable option for me. At bottom, I'm simply tired of hiding.

Friends, let's stop hiding. As long as we hide, nothing will ever get better. And if we reveal our true selves and are still disliked... Then we make friends with those on the outside, like we always did. At the end of the day, we are responsible for living authentic lives, not for how others talked about our truth.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Dear Fashion Designers

There seems to be a disconnect going on. Clothes are currently designed for those of prepubescent sizes - or, perhaps, athletic 16-18 year olds. Meanwhile, the only people with money to spend on clothes have bodies that are... larger. (Of course, there are us unfortunate folk without money to spend or figures, but that's another story). 

Fashion is a business, correct? As in, your entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to make money. Then start designing clothes for people with money! 

These outfits cannot fit normal-sized people. The problem is not size per say; it's that unless you are the shape of a popsicle stick, these articles will look devastating. Not in a good way. 

Can anyone explain what's going on here? If you need long sleeves, then your shoulders and tummy and legs will get mighty cold in that outfit. And the way that belt is riding up says there's a fit issue with the shorts, the acid-washed distressed shorts. Is this a hoax? Did someone say hey, let's have an 80s party and just let people think it's really in style again? 

And "rompers," otherwise known as baby clothes for grownups. Who is still buying things? They've been in stores for years now, and someone, somewhere still buys them. Whoever you are, please stop. Surely you have enough by now. The rest of us want to dress like adults. 

Or not. Since this look is from 2014, the rompers grew arms and legs. Sorry, this does not fix the problem. Better, but still no. Leave the jumpsuits in prison and the rompers in the playpen. 


Fine, whatever. I don't care what ridiculous get-ups people wear. But if bras can be worn over shirts and be considered "trendy," then I have a few reasonable expectations when I go clothes shopping: 

1. There will be shirts that cover my waist

2. Some of these shirts will fit instead of floating a foot out in all directions 

3. Still other shirts will have sleeves (remember those?) 

4. There will be shorts that hit that sweet spot between boodylicious and grandma

5. There will be shirts and dresses made of quality fabric that do not require camisoles (because some of us live in 90 degree weather most of the year) 

6. There will be full articles of clothing without a single rip or tear that have not been "distressed" 


The rest of us 

What's Your "Rubbled Heart" Experience?

From the South African Times online, May 22, 2014, after bombing in Jos, Nigeria

My latest devotional find is the 1997 translation of Karl Rahner's The Need and the Blessing of Prayer, which I discovered in the church library. Rahner was Jesuit theologian who was highly influential at Vatican II, but before that he was just another German trying to survive the Nazi regime. Speaking to his fellow Germans, he recalls the common experience of bomb shelters, as my parents' generation might say "Where were you when you heard about JFK?" And just as we might say "9/11" without explanation, he begins without preamble:

Do you remember the nights in the cellar, the nights of deadly loneliness amidst the harrowing crush of people? The nights of helplessness and of waiting for a senseless death? The nights when the lights went out, when horror and impotence gripped one's heart, when one mimed being courageous and unaffected? When one's innocently bold and brave words sounded so strangely wooden and empty, as if they were already dead before they even reached the other person? When one finally gave up, when one became silent, when one only waited hopelessly for the end, death? Alone, powerless, empty. And if the cellar really became buried by rubble, then the picture of today's man is complete. For such are we people of today, even if we already have crawled out of the rubbled-over cellars, even if our everyday has already begun again.... As such we have already entered into an exterior destiny, because the exterior destiny - by God, it is so even if it sounds so fantastic and romantic - is only the shadow of events which have occurred in the depths of men: that their hearts are rubbled-over. 

He goes on to explain that we cannot escape the rubble in our hearts as they had escaped the cellars, no matter how much we try to ignore it by a constant stream of work and entertainment. Rahner, you just didn't know - imagine a world so plugged in as ours, trying even more desperately to shut out the pain in our hearts.

I was fascinated by the cellar passage, and it even took me a minute to piece together the exact circumstance, given the author's time and place. All over the world people crouch in make-shift cellars, or in refugee camps or immigration detainment centers. But what of us who live relatively safe lives, who don't wonder when the next bomb will drop? Where does our rubble come from?

As I write, I am hyperaware of every noise, even though my anxiety level is fairly low. That is life with PTSD - in my case, due to experiences working at a rape crisis center. Being with rape/ assault survivors mere hours after the trauma seared my brain in a dramatic way, and I am still trying to recover. I have buried those memories, tried not to think about them let alone talk about them, until I was finally unable to function in daily life and am forced to deal with it. There's a lot of rubble to dig through. In the process, I bump up against random bits from the wear and tear of life: from believing God would damn me to hell and there was nothing I could do about it, among other things. Denying the existence of the rubble in my heart doesn't make it magically disappear.

According to Rahner, I'm one of the lucky ones because I cannot ignore it. I can't pretend that everything is OK, and the God of joy has not allowed me to believe that despair is somehow Real, that innocence and laughter are fake. This position hurts, but what is the alternative? To think that despair is a sign of strength, to become a nihilist? To ignore the pain, "suck it up," and model myself after the man in the grey flannel suit?

What about religion? Rahner calls Christianity the best possible way to escape true salvation, for those so inclined:

One can be a Christian, not because one believes but because one wants to hide one's unbelief for and from himself because this would otherwise frighten oneself too much. Indeed, from the nature of the matter, Christianity is the best disguise of unbelief for man's deceived heart, the best facade to hide the rubbled-over heart. 

What is the rubble in my heart? What weight has the inner part collapsed under? What facades do I build to hide, even and especially from myself?

God, are you here with me under it all?

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Random Collection of Cool Things

Links, articles, and a video.... Here we go!

Inspiring Blog Posts: 

Jesus Might Have Sung Out-of-Tune at It's OK to Fail. Sarah is quickly becoming one of my favorite bloggers, and it's because of posts like this. (Also because her picture is so delightfully happy and quirky). This post is a big kick in the ass to those of us (Episcopalians especially) who measure the worth of a church service by its level of musical professionalism. Sarah is talking mostly about contemporary worship services, but the same can be said for traditional services as well. Those of us who love music are very susceptible to judging others who can't "perform" to our standards. Remember the letter in which Screwtape explains how to ruin the patient's experience of church?

When he gets to his pew he sees just that selection of his neighbors whom he has hitherto avoided.... You may know one of them to be a great warrior on the Enemy's side. No matter. Your patient, thanks to Our Father below, is a fool. Provided that any of those neighbors sing of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous. 

(By the way, if you haven't read The Screwtape Letters, what are you waiting for?)

All Because We Said Yes at These Walls. In addition to the gorgeous photos, Julie wrote a beautiful celebration of her marriage and children. Part of the beauty of being married is seeing the fruits of that initial "yes," whether that's children or hospitality or friendships or charity. Love begets more love.

Easter: In Search of Grace at A New Song to Sing. Easter has always been my favorite holiday, even as a child. And yet, I instantly related to Rebekah's pain as she looks at Easters past and wonders where the message of grace was hid.

But I dare say I've never heard a message in which the pastor dove head-first into the muddy waters of grace.... The kind of grace that doesn't simply argue "God's not dead," but looks me straight in the eye and says "Because He's alive, you can be too!" The kind of grace that simultaneously screams and whispers, "you are worthy."... I want to know that Jesus lives for and loves the worst of us. 

Five Things You Can Do Right Now as ISIS Threatens Christians and Shiites at The Anchoress. What I love about this piece is that Elizabeth doesn't just speak to Christians - she speaks to anyone with faith in something larger than ourselves, even if that "something" is the fact that we're all in this together. In the face of unbelievable persecution and violence, what can one individual do? This is the pain in our hearts as we read about the bombings in Gaza and the violent persecution in Iraq and the stream of traumatized children at the US border of Mexico. It can crush you, easily, and there's something to be said for shedding some tears on behalf of the innocent. It means we're human. What Lizzie offers is an action after we dry our tears.

NOTE: please do not read the comment section. Lizzie had to close it because trolls were bombarding her comments with vulgar, hateful, and dishonest bullshit. The actual piece is well worth the read, however.

And now, as a light-hearted palate cleanser, a message from Neil deGrasse Tyson concerning our failure to locate alien life:

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Other Side of Leaving Fundamentalism

Leanne at Provoking Beauty was writing about her reading plans for a retreat, and among them was a book by NT Wright. We talked a bit about how he was taboo for me growing up due to his controversial take on Paul's theology.

Later that day, I discovered a Rachel Held Evans post about Wright in which she ponders the meaning of "Calvinism." You see, NT Wright considers himself a disciple of Calvin and even some of his theology as "Calvinist," though his ecclesiastical home is Anglicanism. (I'm beginning to think that Anglicanism is more of a liturgical and ecclesiastical lens than a theological one, but maybe that's because I'm new to the thing). The famous German theologian Karl Barth, while more Lutheran than Calvinist, was also working within the Reformed framework, but his definition of election is vastly different from John MacArthur's. Rachel has the same issue with this that I do: how can you claim to  be Calvinist in any degree when you don't believe in individual predestination of souls to heaven or hell?

And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with growing up fundamentalist (whether you claimed the label or not - it's more a way of thinking than it is a belief system. Some have argued that Richard Dawkins is an atheist fundamentalist, which I'm sure gave him the vapors). In the fundamentalist framework, everything must fit neatly into categories. It's not really about rules; that's one of the misconceptions of fundamentalism. I inadvertently fed into that with my "Catholics Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Fundies" post, which was born out of irritation. As Samantha at Defeating the Dragons argues - from vast personal experience - it's not the rules that make fundamentalism toxic. It's the mindset. Ankle length denim jumpers are a symptom, not the disease.

Those of us who grew up in this mindset find it hard to shake. We retain the fundamentalism but change our loyalties. We become fundamentalist Episcopalians (oh yes honey they exist), fundamentalist Catholics, fundamentalist Muslims, fundamentalist secularists. We find a cult to join.

(To be clear, this fundamentalist mindset is distinct from passion or even passionate disagreement. Dawkins himself argues that other atheists object to his passion for science. Hardly. Neil Degrasse Tyson has plenty of scientific passion, but he readily acknowledges the rights of others to practice their own faith traditions, so long as he has the equal right to disagree.) Check it:

One of the hardest thing to shake about growing up fundy is the belief that Real Christians Think X. Catholics, the reason why many evangelicals find it hard to accept you as fellow believers is that Real Christians believe in once saved always saved, or justification by faith alone, or Sola Scriptura. These are not trivial matters: these are the core doctrines that we grew up believing as the foundation of our faith. When a Catholic says in one breath "I'm a Christian" and in the next breath espouses belief in Purgatory, the evangelical has a massive cognitive dissonance headache. (If you really want to have fun, tell them that CS Lewis also believed in purgatory. Mind Blown.)

Well, I thought I was past that. I had accepted that Catholics are Christians - that Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics are our big brothers in fact, and it might behoove us Johnny-come-latelies to listen. But there was another side of the "Real Christians Think X" that I had not shed. There was a still a part of me that turned away the minute someone calls themselves Baptist or Presbyterian or Reformed or (God forbid) Calvinist. Why? Because Real Baptists think that my baptism was invalid. Because Real Presbyterians are most certainly not PCUSA (posers). Because Real Presbyterians are the ultimate insiders, always talking about their Shorter catechisms and Book of Church Order and General Assemblies and expecting the world to care. Because Real Calvinists listen to Mark Driscoll podcasts (if they're young and hip) or read Spurgeon. And at the minimum, a real Reformed Christian believes in the TULIP as applied to individual persons. Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and all that.

Well, butter my butt and call me a biscuit (Southern speak for being shocked). The world just isn't that simple, go figure. It's far easier to be a fundamentalist thinker than it is to actually think. If you're a fundamentalist, you know exactly where you stand and exactly where everyone else stands. You can pinpoint someone's beliefs and drop them in your mental filing cabinet behind the Creationist label or the Secular Humanist label or the Pentecostal label. Once the person is filed, everything he says gets placed under one of the subheadings in their main file. When you get really good at it, you can watch out for buzzwords and sayings. That way, you can file away the person without having to listen to an entire conversation. And now you get to talk, which is what you wanted all along.

This comes naturally to children. For the purposes of language acquisition, it's even crucial that children learn to match labels with objects. However, eventually we grow up, and the process is painful. Did you ever wonder why high school students work so hard to label each other as geek or freak or jock? It's just too damn hard otherwise, when you're dealing with pimples and periods and sexual tension, to suddenly unlearn the labeling process. That has to wait until college or adulthood in general, when we learn that people are complex individuals who can't be plopped into filing cabinets.

Fundamentalism is intentional arrested development. Parents, horrified that children go to college and learn that their liberal roommate is not the devil incarnate, seek to abort the process with Worldview Camps and books and conferences. It's crucial to fundamentalist parents that their children remain children, that they never listen to another person without their labeling pens. The well-trained fundamentalist college student knows that biology professors are anti-faith, that feminist professors hate men, and that everyone is out to get them. Best to plug up your ears and join a like-minded fellowship group on day one, for solidarity.

Some of us manage to escape. Unfortunately, those of us who are proudly "post fundamentalist" are not, perhaps, as grown up as we think. So you don't believe in 24 hour 6 day Creationism anymore? Hurrah, here's a cookie. The hard part is throwing out the filing cabinet and learning to listen.