Be the Turtle

I make no secret of that fact that my current body status is officially fat and out of shape.  I have been working on building better habits for about a month now, but I’m not doing anything strict or steep or sudden.  I tend to go all-or-nothing into things, and diet and exercise have always been two of those things.  Like most people who need to lose weight, I start a plan, and it involves working out every day and eating on a strict regimen of counting calories and/or macros (the amounts of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats in one’s daily meal plan).  I can maintain it for a few weeks, but then I blow it and binge.  I’ve started to recognize that I tend to binge eat on occasions that my emotions are a wreck or my stress levels are off the charts, so when I combine the tendency to binge eat with the stress of maintaining a perfect diet and exercise program cold turkey, I’m going to be “clean” for a few weeks, eat my weight in chocolate and cheese for a month, and hate myself for all of it forever.

It’s a cycle I’m working hard to break this time.  Instead of plotting out my exercise plan and expected weight loss and then being disappointed when I don’t meet my goals, I’m working on a single habit at a time.  If I happen to do something I plan to build into a habit before I can add it to my habit tracker, fantastic, but I’m not going to push myself to cultivate all the good habits all at once.  I’ve really never done this kind of plan before – I guess because I feel like I will either do it all, or none of it matters.  So, my habit tracker currently has three daily items on it: drink at least 100 oz. of water, clean the kitchen, and write.  I need to add a whole lot more to that routine, but I’m actually doing a good job of eating well, exercising, and trying not to let the house explode.  I’m just not pressuring myself to do those things until I’m solid on these three things first.

It seems to be working in that I’ve lost nearly ten pounds since I started tracking my water intake, my kitchen has been clean most nights except for one week, and I’m writing regularly, with a solid chance of completing NaNoWriMo successfully for the first time.  It’s super tempting to let my excitement over those things spill over into adding all of the things onto the daily habit tracker so I can see the progress on each of those routines.  But I know I’ll fail the second I do.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Progress not perfection.  Be the turtle, not the hare.  This is my new mantra.  In fact, I think I’ll just shorten it to “Be the turtle.”

I may fail in this endeavor, too, but I can at least say that right now, this time feels different.  The slow start lets me celebrate what goes well, and I am quicker to offer myself grace on the things that aren’t on my list yet.  Didn’t exercise today?  No problem: it doesn’t require a check mark on the habit tracker, so I’ll worry about that next week.  For a list motivated person and a perfectionist (I NEED all those boxes checked!), this is actually working.  The reality of why it’s working is that those habits are building blocks for other things, so if I drink a gallon of water a day, I’m not drinking anything but water and coffee, and I’m not eating as much.  It’s slowed down the binge tendency because I’m too busy drinking water to eat a pint of ice cream.  If I set the generic goal of “write” every day, I’m not setting a word count goal.  Some days I really don’t have the capacity to do more than just add a sentence to a WIP, and occasionally all I have done is typed a title for future blog post and called it a day.  But most days, I sit down to type at least one sentence, and my writing brain kicks in, and I’m at nearly a thousand words before I stopped to take a sip of water.  With my kitchen clean at night, I walk into the kitchen in the morning without thinking, “Uggh.  That’s gross.  I’ll do it later,” so I’m starting with a clean slate and sometimes manage to pick up or clean up in another spot so it will match the kitchen.

I just won’t make myself accountable on the checklist for those things all at one time.  Once they are second nature, then I can start tracking laundry and exercise and drawing.  Be the turtle.

I know I’m not the only one who goes after things like a fanatic only to fall and give up after a few rounds of the fanatic-flop cycle.  What works for you?  Comment and share your best methods of slow and steady change.  It’s tempting to go full hare, but science is on the turtle’s side.  We make and keep new good habits when we don’t try to do too many at one time.  Be the turtle.  I promise you’ll get there!

WIP Wednesday 10/17/18

This is one of my sketchbook entries this week. I most often write when I need to vent emotions, but I seem to process them on a different level when it’s a visual process rather than verbal. I’ve felt the weight of a lot of little things threatening to roll over me and crush me. It took seeing it in my sketchbook to realize that I have not been praying about most of those things like I know I should.

Sometimes my art work in progress reflects that I am very much a work in progress, too! Do you ever find that worrying over a gazillion little things weighs you down? What do you do to let go of the fear and anxiety that weight represents?

Sideswiped

I wrote this in September, but I wasn’t ready to share it I guess.  Today feels appropriate on Pregnancy and Infant Loss Memorial Day:

Eleven years.  Our first pregnancy loss was 11 years ago last week.  On Labor Day weekend 2007 (You see the wretched coincidence, too, right?  Believe it or not, it only just occurred to me.), I checked into the hospital for surgery, my husband protecting me when I was too small to speak up for myself, a pastor friend praying with us before the procedure – like last rites for a tiny soul we won’t meet this side of eternity – and then me looking up at my doctor’s masked face and hoping that it was all as unreal as it felt.

Eleven years ago, I woke up from anesthesia and went home to recover from surgery, and eventually over the last eleven years, I’ve recovered emotionally and spiritually, too.  At least I think I have.  It’s hard to feel “recovered” when I feel like I do today.  I usually feel the weight of the magnitude of our ten loses on that first baby’s due date, which is April 1, so to feel the sudden heaviness of it now was an unwelcome surprise.  I can prepare for what I know I’ll feel each April.  I couldn’t be ready for this fresh hell.  I don’t know what else to label this depth of sadness and grief.

It felt important to write out and to share, even though it hurts, and even though I may short out my laptop if I cry on it any more.  I don’t really want to talk to anyone about this moment of pain, but I know I must express it, or it will fester and kill me slowly from the inside.  I’ve locked away the grief before, and that’s a miserable way to exist.  So I am letting it go.  I am letting myself feel the pain so that it can run its course and heal up again.  I am not letting myself wallow in it or letting it stop me from living; retreating for a day or two is fine, probably even healthy, but more than that and depression brain will take over.  I am at least in a place that’s healthy enough to recognize that what I’m feeling now will pass, and that I know living in a fleeting feeling for too long will put me in an unhealthy place.

I’ve been saying that we have dealt with the pain of loss and grief for ten years, but to realize that it’s now officially over a decade is… hard.  I’m a writer – I know there should be more words, better descriptors, something more than hard… But that’s all I’ve got.  Right this minute, it makes my brain go numb to think about.  It feels like every emotion associated with grief pops up at one time, so my brain shuts down.  That’s why it’s taken me almost a week to even mull it over long enough to write down the bones of this current pain.  Writing it out, now that I can, gives me a skeleton frame to flesh out as I purge the emotions.

I’m not naïve enough to think that I had finally conquered the grief, so it would just live in it’s little corner of my heart and never come out of its cage.  I know it can escape and jump into my consciousness at any moment.  I guess I just felt like I knew when to expect the regular intervals of escape attempts, so being sideswiped when I thought I had my crap together is… hard.  I honestly feel pretty broken.  What I don’t feel is defeated.  I know that feeling the hurt all over again isn’t a sign of weakness.  It doesn’t mean I’m losing ground.  It only means I’m human.

I’m a human who has experienced horrible loss and pain, just as many of you have.  It’s not more horrific than anyone else’s pain, but it is unique to my experience.  And my experience of learning how to heal the gaping wounds is what tells me I’m going to be fine in a few days.  It may hurt like hell, but I can use the tools I have assembled to cope with this fresh outbreak, and I can grow through it.  I can use this reminder that time won’t erase grief to feel deeper empathy for the people around me who are struggling through a new loss or mired in an old wound like me.

This moment is reminding me that my only hope is in Jesus.  He is very literally the only true hope I have that I will not only see my lost children in heaven, but that they are safe and loved and cared for in his arms.  The are whole and perfect and wonderful, and one day we will praise God together.  Their lives, however briefly they physically existed are important to God, and their story matters.

I can express all of this through the artistic skills God has given me, which turns this clump of words here into catharsis, healing, and a way to shine the little light I have on the path for anyone else who needs to find their way through grief and depression.  If that is you right now, reach out and grab a lamp; find a foothold, no matter how tiny, and climb up a little.  Ask God to send you more light, more air, and go seek it out.  Write out your pain to release it.  Draw whatever emotions are running under the surface so you can address them.  Bring them out into the light and tell them the truth: you are stronger than the pain because God is for you.PILM Graphic

Not Today, Satan

For several weeks, I feel like I am in a slow-motion time warp – everything around me is moving at regular speed, and I am moving through glass, seeing everything flash by while I fight to just get one foot in front of the other.  I honestly felt so defeated after fighting with my tiny human about tooth brushing tonight, that I just sat down and cried.  Because everything feels like a fight.  I’m spinning my wheels in so many places in my life, that the only thing moving me forward right now may be time itself.  As in, I have to have the tiny human at school next week, on time, and it’s just a matter of the calendar.  That happens on Wednesday whether I’m ready or not.  Tomorrow will come because time is moving at regular speed whether I move or not.

I can feel the depression brain whispering that I should just give up because I’m not accomplishing anything I’ve set out to do, and no amount of work is making a dent in the house getting cleaned.  No amount of work is going to get me caught up at work or on my writing or on the dozens of projects dawdling in craft purgatory on my dining room table or on getting back in shape or….  The list feels infinite, and I feel incapable and overwhelmed.  Depression brains tells me to just sit down and eat, maybe watch some television or go to bed.

I recognize that depression brain is a liar.  I’m not stuck, and I’m not incapable of change or progress.  Depression brain is literally a voice from hell, and tonight, it felt like Satan himself was whispering to my soul.  The difference in tonight and so many other times is that I could see it for it was: a lie designed to stop me.  Stop me from what?  I’m not sure exactly.  I don’t know if it’s pride or just the same clarity of vision that told me tonight’s depression brain was whispering directly from Hell itself, but I feel like it was to try to stop me from writing.  I have had a gazillion important things to get done that have taken my focus and time away from writing.  The time warp is happening because I am overwhelmed by  the things that keep stacking up on me at home and at work.  Satan doesn’t want me to move, which must mean that God has something important for me to do, someone important for me to reach.  I have no idea what that is or who that will be, but I do know that if I sit down and eat and shut off my brain, I won’t be doing anything except dying slowly and painfully and miserably in the clutches of depression brain.

That won’t be happening tonight because God heard me when I cried out to him and showed me the truth that depression brain is a liar and that I can get up and get moving.  It still hurts like hell.  I want to quit, and I want to move forward.  Right now I want to move forward more, but that doesn’t stop the part of me that wants to quit.  No matter how badly I want to ignore depression brain and just get going, it’s still there, and I still have to fight it every day.  I want to fight, and I need to fight.  I also desperately need to remember that I’m not fighting alone because God is with me, in me, and fighting for me.  He has already won the only battle that matters, but this battle is still important to him because I am important to him.  Tonight I could see that this particular battle with depression brain was a spiritual one.

If you have read much of anything I’ve published on the blog, you know that I am not often going to speak about spiritual warfare because it sounds a little crazy, and we humans, especially church attending humans, tend to give the devil a little more credit than the devil is due by attributing everything negative to spiritual warfare.  I’m also never, ever going to say that depression is a spiritual battle than one can overcome with enough prayer and faith – that is malarkey on a level I can’t express with mere words.  God can absolutely heal anyone of any disease, but he most often doesn’t without the use of earthly medical interventions.

If you have depression, you are not suffering with the disease because you weren’t faithful enough.  You may or may not be able to pray hard enough to get over your depression, just as someone with cancer probably won’t merely pray and be made healthy.  I do believe that illness of every kind exists because the world fell into sin with Adam and Eve, and we will only be made whole and healthy in the presence of God.  So very clearly understand that not all of my depression has been this “easy” to fight.  God gave me the tools to get to a healthier place through counseling, medicine, and strong relationships, and those are the tools that made it possible for me to see Satan at work on me tonight.

It’s not overstating it to say that he was the voice in my head telling me to just give up.  I would be overstating his power if I decided to listen and quit.  Once I could see the truth, the decision was mine and Satan’s power was gone, even if I made the wrong choice.  I would certainly have been enlarging his influence over my depression brain if I gave up, but I couldn’t have said, “The devil made me do it.”  I’ve given up plenty of times.  Only recently do I seem to be standing up more quickly more often.

I wish with all my heart that God would take my depression brain completely out; just take it away.  Haven’t I dealt with it long enough?  This turmoil is so painful, and I don’t make excellent decisions when I’m feeling wounded.  I eat too much.  I get cranky with the people I love.  I stop writing.  I stop arting.  Sometimes I physically ache.  But sometimes I win.  I write.  I paint.  I laugh with the people I love and hug them tight.  I exercise and eat normal human portions.  I talk to God and listen to him.  I’m actually off my antidepressant and not wanting to kick people in the shins all the time.

I know that I will struggle with depression all my life.  It’s not because I wasn’t well loved as a child, or because I’m not well loved now, or because some need isn’t being met.  None of that is true.  I have a chronic mental illness that flares up from time to time but is generally under control now – as long as I keep doing the work to keep me in good mental health.  It may at some point in the future require medication again.  I can beg God all I want to miraculously take it from me, but I know he won’t.  He will provide me with the tools, and he will give me flashes of clarity like he did tonight when I need to see a glimpse of him – to just hold on to the hem of his robe for a moment, as it were.  I saw tonight, heard it almost as clearly as if he had spoken the words out loud: my path is to continue to stand up and fight and to keep writing about it.

Years ago I heard him speak the same thing to me in the midst of all of our pregnancy losses, “I can give you what you want now, or you can wait and have exactly what I planned for you.”  We have the most amazing tiny human now, and if you’ve ever met her, you know she is something incredible.  I don’t know where this path ends exactly, but I trust God to take me to something greater than I could ever have imagined for myself.

If you have depression, how does your depression brain lie to you?  Maybe you don’t struggle with depression but you’ve felt like something drags you down, too.  What do you struggle with?  What things hold you back?  How do you recognize that depression brain or whatever is holding you back is lying to you?  Do you trust God to fight for you and to lead you to something incredible?  If not, what do you think it would take for you to move forward?  If you don’t want to comment here but need a friendly pair of eyes to “listen” as you work some of those things out, my inbox is always open at mabbatblog@gmail.com.

Colossians 2 – How the Bible Can Help with Depression

In the Mabbat Facebook group, I’ve been posting a Bible study guide each week, and right now, we’re in Colossians chapter 2.  (Here’s the link if you want to check that out: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks  It’s going up in weekly installments in the Facebook group, and then I’ll post it as an e-book after we’ve completed it in the group – more on that to come next month!)  Each week, there are a few notes, and then there’s space on the page for you to do some creative assignments to deepen your study of God’s word.  I’ve discovered as I write the Bible study prompts that there are some things I would love to add but don’t really have the room for if I stay focused.  So I decided to share those here on the blog.

Oftentimes as I’m reading the Bible, I find ideas that correlate with things I’ve learned in therapy.  I don’t know why that surprises me, because I firmly believe that God gave us the Bible as a blueprint for living the best lives we can.

20180716-Colossians 2 on DepressionIn Colossians 2:2, Paul expresses a desire for the church members to be “knit together by strong ties of love” before he expresses his desire for them “to have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan.”  As a lifelong church member, this felt backwards to me until I spent time thinking through it.  Aren’t we supposed to have Jesus first and only?  Isn’t he sufficient for all our needs?  Yes, but… Our standard church answers leave a lot unexamined.  Jesus gives us the tools we need, and he will faithfully meet our needs, but we aren’t absolved from investing a little elbow grease in the process.

Paul wanted the church at Colossae to be bound together in love to provide an environment that fosters learning, trust, and care for one another – an environment that will encourage confidence in the knowledge of God.  As I breathed in that verse, I understood that we can’t see Christ’s love unless we are expressing it and receiving it, and that is the primary function of the church – to be a network of Jesus’s love and grace.

How does this fit in with depression coping skills?  I’m glad you asked.  Strong relationships are key in combatting depression.  There are plenty of scientific studies (as well as every therapist I’ve seen) that tell us the more connected we are to other people, the lower our risk of depression and substance abuse.  If you have depression, think about your symptoms.  Do you find that you pull away from people and, however unintentionally, isolate yourself?  Do you drop out of activities with other people that you enjoy?  Do you back out of engagements with family and friends?

Paul knew it was vital for the church to have strong, loving relationships to understand the fullness of God’s love, and it’s vital for our daily lives, too.  Especially if you battle depression.

So how do you do this when you are in the throes of grief and depression?  First, let someone in.  Find at least one friend that you can trust, and open the door.  Share with them, and listen when they need to share.  Then add another friend.  Then join a group – maybe go to a class you enjoy and start meeting the class members, or go to your local church and join a small group or Bible study class.  Slowly expand your circle and invest in those relationships.  In my experience, the more connected I am to my family, to my circle of friends, and to my church, the better I feel and the easier it is to get out of a funk when I fall into one.

20180716-Colossians 2-7Another verse that grabbed me in Colossians 2 is verse 7.  It’s a beautiful image to think about: “Let your roots grow down into him…”  It’s also a solid way to build a foundation for faith.  First, establish roots, then build, then grow, and then overflow.

That’s not just a solid way to develop faith, but it’s also a solid way to build mental health.

You need roots – some basic skills to recognize depression in your life and some basic skills to combat your symptoms (a treatment and/or maintenance plan).  Once you have that, then you can start building up your coping skills and work towards a “new normal” as your symptoms stabilize.  Then you will grow stronger, and then you’ll be able to share and help others.  The thing about this setup is that you can never neglect any of the stages; they’re all continual and build on each other.  As soon as you skip a step (ignore your roots, say), the entire thing (your mental health) comes crashing down.

This may be less dire for episodic depression and acute grief that will pass once the circumstances shift, but if you struggle with depression as an ongoing issue, you know you need to keep your eye on the ball and not ignore the things that keep you healthy.  I have recently been able to stop my antidepressant medication, but I can feel it when I let stress build up and skip the things that make me feel sane, like exercise, eating well, writing, and art.  When I see my cues – a short temper, complete lack of motivation, and a desire to eat all of the chocolate in the world – I know it’s time to evaluate and get back to basics of self-care.  Sometimes, I know it’s time to check in with my therapist.

What does your root structure look like?  Do you have a solid foundation of self-care and coping skills?  What does your life look like when you are “overflow” stage?  If you’re not there, what will it take for you to get on the right track?

*I am not a professional therapist or counselor, so I don’t offer this as a replacement for professional care.  If you are dealing with depression, please talk to your doctor and make a plan to begin healing.  I believe that Jesus can heal us, but I also know that he gave us tools like doctors and psychologists to help us when we need it.  If you are not getting better through prayer and healthy habits, please seek professional help.  I hope if nothing else, I hope my example can help remove the stigma that so often shadows mental health issues in our churches.  If you don’t know where to start, contact me, and I’ll be happy to help you locate resources in your area.