For the last entire week, I have failed to post the daily Lent prompts. This evening, I will have the missing days posted along with today’s. The past few weeks have been mentally tough, and I have struggled to keep up with my normal routine, much less anything “extra.” At this point, my perfectionist streak says I should just let it go and try again next year, but I have been working hard on building new rhythms and grace for myself when my plans outpace my capacity. So, healthy brain (as opposed to depression brain) says it’s fine to pick up where I dropped off and just keep running the course.
I apologize if you were missing the daily posts, and I hope you will graciously pick up where we left off and run with me until Easter. (Also, sorry for all the race running analogies – the Tiny Human, the Best Friend, and I are getting ready for a 5k in a few months, so racing is on my mind.) I hope you’ll accept the catch-up and re-start as an example that it’s never too late to pick up the pieces and keep moving forward – because that’s what I’m hoping I remember from the last week.
Sometimes life is hard and stressful even when there are no big outside forces working on us. Sometimes it’s hard to stay mentally healthy even when you’re building solid habits and doing the work. That’s the hole I found myself in over the last week. Sometimes life is hard for no discernable reason, but we aren’t defined by that or how hard we struggle. We’re defined by how we react – whether we choose to get up and get back on track, or whether we choose to wallow in the failure and frustration. Honestly, when depression brain is trying to take charge, I struggle to move at all, even to do something I love like writing and sharing the Bible, and it’s just one of those cycles right now. If you’re struggling with life, you’re not alone; just know that I’m cheering for you and praying for you to get back up and get moving forward again. It’s tough work, but we can do it.
I have been planning for months to get myself together and start writing and posting here on the blog again in the New Year. I was all set to start tomorrow, but I feel like it would be tone deaf to today’s events to carry on like that mess in the Capitol didn’t happen. I also feel like I have nothing to add to the conversation at large that will be helpful and not just add to the cacophony.
I do feel like I can say no matter who you voted for, violently storming Congress is not the best way to be heard as anything but a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. I think a lot of hypocrisies have been exposed (again) in the powers that be that cannot be unseen and need to be examined. I think the true character of many politicians was on display, and I firmly believe that when people show you who they are, you should believe them. I think our country is resilient, but I know we have a lot of uncomfortable truths to stare down and hard conversations to have. I also know that no matter what happens on the national and international stages, I have the most impact in the communities I’m involved with, and I am to love my neighbor. That command is unconditional and irrevocable. Nations rise and fall, but the love of God and the word of God do not change.
When chaos comes calling, that’s the first thing I cling to: I have eternal hope, and I have a rock to build my life on that is unfazed by riots and party politics and pandemics. When the chaos feels overwhelming, I try to limit my exposure to news of the craziness, and then I try to do something productive. For the last month, that’s been baking bread.
We already tried and failed at the quarantine sourdough starter; no one at my house was eating the sourdough bread, and the same black thumb tendencies that kill most plants that come under my care eventually killed off the starter. But bread baking with yeast turns out to be far simpler than I remember it being, and we all like just plain-old-not-sour bread. (At least no one is complaining and refusing to eat it, so I’m going to carry on assuming everyone likes it as much as I do…)
Baking fresh bread is deeply satisfying on a lot of levels, so I’m not surprised it’s been a go-to comfort activity in the pandemic. Kneading dough is pretty physical, so it’s almost a “heavy work” activity that tends to calm our bodies and minds. Punching dough after the first rise turns out to be one of our favorite family activities – even my husband grinned when it was his turn to punch a bowl of dough. If you’re a tactile person, feeling good sandwich bread dough in your hands is pretty wonderful. I hate slime, and my daughter is obsessed with it, so there’s a metric ton of it gumming up my house, but bread dough feels like a therapeutic thing of beauty (it’s almost good enough to make me forget that slime exists).
There’s also something warm and boosting to your self-efficacy about making kitchen staples like bread – not to mention the heavenly smell of baking bread. When I made French toast with my bread, I was extremely proud that it was a meal made completely from scratch, down to the bread slices. I didn’t brag out loud then, so I’m doing it now.
Over the last month I have tweaked the recipes I started with until I found a reliable, not too crumbly, not too mushy loaf. I’m an okay cook (never expect me to pan fry anything without charring it and/or catching it on fire, and if it’s complicated or involves separating eggs, I’m probably going to fail), but I am a pretty darn good baker. And it turns out, I’m getting pretty darn good at baking bread.
After watching the news today, baking bread tonight was good for my soul. It was a little (literal) slice of normal in the midst of chaos. I got to knead and punch, and I’m currently smelling the wonder of fresh baking bread.
When the headlines and life feel overwhelming and terrible, find something good and simple and true to remind you that the chaos isn’t forever, that nothing is too big for God to handle, and that butter on hot bread is one of the greatest treasures in the world. If you’re in need of some bread and butter therapy, come on over, and I’ll bake a you fresh loaf. You can even punch the dough.
For I am about to do something new. See, I have already begun! Do you not see it? I will make a pathway through the wilderness. I will create rivers in the dry wasteland.
Isaiah 43:19 NLT
Friends, this week has been a constant mess, from breaking an entire carton of eggs to fighting with the tiny human about school work and getting chili oil in my eyes. Normally at this point in a week like this, I’d be done – so over it that I would just cruise through with the minimum effort needed to get to the weekend so at least the schoolwork arguments would end for a few days.
I only cried when I got chili oil in my eyes. I didn’t even lose my crap when the dog took a nap in actual crap and tried to come inside with crap all over her shoulder. And all those eggs I broke Monday? We had delightful quiches for breakfast this morning. (Yes, I just said “delightful” about quiche, and I feel just as weird about it as you do now.) I feel okay in spite of all the mess, and that’s a new thing for me.
I finally feel like there is a very real pathway through the desert for me, and there is a river flowing through the dry wasteland that is depression brain (besides the chili oil tears from my eyes). So here are the three things you should know this Thursday:
1. There is always hope.
I know from my own experience that it doesn’t always feel like it. I haven’t ever really been suicidal, but I’d be lying if I said I’ve never thought the world would be better off without me. But that was a lie from the pit of Hell that is never something God would say to you or want you to say to yourself. We are each specially designed by God and valuable as his work of art and destined to fulfill his purpose in our lives. Never stop believing that.
2. I had to make changes for the better in every aspect of my life and be consistent with those daily actions to see this giant improvement.
I started with a few things and built on it, but God isn’t just interested in our spiritual health. He wants us to be healthy and strong in our bodies, our minds, our relationships, our work, and our faith. You may have to address the biggest fire first, but it takes a whole being approach to reap the biggest change rewards.
3. At some point, I will relapse and have depression symptoms again.
I’ve dealt with it long enough to recognize that I will not be one of those people who has an episode or two and then gets over it. I will need to treat depression like a chronic disease for the rest of my life. It sounds a tiny bit depressing just saying that like a fact, but it is a fact, and acknowledging the fact means I can manage it like any other chronic illness can be managed. I can expect good times, and I can expect relapses. It’s just a fact of life, so when it happens I can remember that it won’t last forever and it’s just part of the illness (not a mental or moral defect).
So, when life cracks all your eggs, make a delightful quiche. And when life cross contaminates your paper towel with chili oil that you then wipe your eyes with, may your tears form rivers in the dry wastelands and may your milk be cold and close at hand.
I try to show an art or writing related WIP when I share these, but this week, my biggest WIP is me. I try to be transparent about my mental health struggles so that other people may feel safer to share their own problems or at least know they aren’t alone, so this week the WIP is me.
Right now, after months of social distancing, it’s hard not to feel alone. The constant changes in our work and school environments, the stress of dealing with the threat of a mysterious illness, the ever growing cacophony of political posts and angry people on social media… It’s all taking a toll on me, and I know I’m not the only one. The tragic loss of someone I’ve counted as a friend several weeks ago reminded me that I need to take my mental health seriously as the potential life-threatening disease depression can be.
This summer I already made myself a list of things I knew my counselor would tell me to do, and I’ve been trying to do them daily. Last week, I added a diet element to it that’s shown a lot of potential in the few limited clinical trials that have been done. This week, I sat down and wrote out care plans for daily preventive care, acute symptom care (when I start feeling mental and physical symptoms of stress, depression, or anxiety), and rescue care (when it’s all a bit too much, and I need immediate relief).
After several months of intentionally doing my “preventive protocol,” I can definitely say it’s helping me stay on more equal mental footing. The addition of the diet angle and the mental safety net of having plans written out with behavioral triggers to put them into action has been a huge and quick improvement, enough so that I’m committing to sticking with the diet plan for the foreseeable future.
Sometimes, the WIP is me.
And that’s a good thing. I am a valuable creation of God, and I am worthy of taking care of myself. Depression brain wants to tell us that we have no value, no worth, nothing to offer. That’s just not true.
You are valuable, you are loved, and you are worthy of being your own WIP, too. What do you need to start doing today to grow and feel better?
Today will not go as perfectly planned. In fact, it’s already off the rails. Do your best. Don’t quit. Good is good enough.
I am horrible with schedules. Being on time is ridiculously hard for me (and harder for the rest of my family, so you can imagine getting out the door with our crew is LOADS of fun), which everyone who knows me well has experienced. I wish I could be one of those people who could shrug it off, but I also feel it deeply like a moral failure. (It’s also SUPER fun to be a perfectionist but not also a Type A organized person…)
When I’m being an organized person and using my daily planner, I rough out the time allotment for each task in half hour increments, and I shoot for that as I work through the day. BUT, I have yet to ever complete a perfectly planned day perfectly. It never happens. It probably never will happen. BUT, it doesn’t stop me from trying.
I know the definition of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different outcome, so I tweak my approach once in a while. I’m not completely crazy – just a little nuts most of the time…
No matter how hard I try, something is going to derail my perfect planner day.
I’m generally resilient enough to adapt and still get the big things done (see last week’s post about prioritizing tasks), but one of the worst perfectionist personality traits is the desire to just chuck it all if it can’t be done perfectly. I have those days once in a while, and I have to make myself finish the day. It’s usually not pretty. I probably act more childish than my child about it.
Most of the time, a quick gut check is enough to remind me what’s important, and I just roll with it. Wherever you go, there you are. So if the derailed perfect plan train takes me hallway around the world, that’s fine: I’ll see new sights. I have been described more than once as “unflappable.”
Some days, I am flappable. I need to be reminded that not quitting may be the best I can do, and that’s okay. I just need to do the best I can in that moment, even if it’s not the best I could have done in other circumstances. I keep trying to work my way to being perfect, but I can’t be. The truth is, without grace, my whole life is a runaway train, and there’s not a thing I can do about it.
That’s a tough pill for a perfectionist to swallow, but it’s the grace that Jesus taught over and over.
“But the Lord said to her, ‘My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.’” Luke 10:41-42
“Then Jesus said, ‘Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.’” Matthew 11:28-30
I’m not saying we shouldn’t work hard or pay attention to the details – God wants us to offer our best when we work – but I am saying sometimes we get wrapped up in the wrong details. I can get honed in on a particular set of circumstances and miss the big picture.
In the next few weeks leading up to school start dates (or not starting, or partial weeks, or whatever the plan is today), we’re all going to need grace to make it work. Some of us may need a lot of help to make it work. My teacher and school administrator friends are going to need so, so, so much prayer from us and grace from their classroom parents just to stay sane. We’re all going to need resiliency and (say it with me this time) grace to make it through the semester when the only constant is change.
I’ll be telling myself over and over to step back and find the one thing worth being concerned about and going hard after that. Here’s a secret: it’s always going to be loving God and loving people. That’s always the big picture, and it never changes. Let’s hang on to that while our perfect schedule trains ride off the rails into new territory. I bet the scenery will be worth it.
#1. I haven’t been very active here on the blog for several months, but I was getting the final editing and design touches completed on “A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief.” So I may not have been very productive at writing much else, but I’m ALL DONE WITH THE BOOOOOOOOOOOK!!!!!
#2. I think the most constant childhood dream job I ever had, whether I admitted it to anyone or not, was that I wanted to be an author. I feel like I’ve been able to call myself a writer for quite some time because I write a lot even though most of what I write will never see the light of day. But the title of “author” felt reserved for special people who actually publish books. Well, today is a special day for me because the print edition is now live on Amazon. (A few days early!)
I am officially an author, which is such an incredible feeling, though I’m arguably no more or less special than I was before. (Some of you who know me well can attest to the fact that I often act like a special kind of goober, and that is unchanged – now I’m just a goober author.) As an official author, I have an official author page now on Amazon, too, which you are welcome to check out here. “A Psalmist’s Guide to Grief” should be linked on that page, or you can click through the title, too. Right now it’s only on Amazon’s platform, but I will be looking further out now that the heavy lifting is done.
#3. I have one giant favor to ask. If you do read the book, I would be extremely grateful if you would leave a review. It will help the book’s rank in searches. To be completely transparent, it would hopefully help sales, but the bigger picture is it would widen the field of people who might actually see it on Amazon (and eventually beyond) who might need to hear the same things I needed to hear from God. I honestly don’t care much about the sales, but I do hope to help as many people as possible walk through grief with better coping tools than I had.
There’s still a lot of work to do to keep promoting and finding good local places to sell and all those things that go along with actually selling a book once it’s written, but today is a day to CELEBRATE! Since real parties are not exactly happening right now, let’s party virtually – share your favorite happy dance/party/anything fun GIF in the comments.
Thank you, friends, for all your support to get to this point! These extra exclamation points are for you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Salaam Green, maybe more than anyone I know, recognizes that we are all works in progress, and she uses her gifts to help others heal and grow. I first found Salaam’s writing work in a Facebook group for writers, the See Jane Write Network. I instantly fell in love with her storytelling and the images her words spun up in my head.
As a writer who loves to encourage people to be creative and use that creativity to grow, I dearly love Salaam’s work of using journaling to heal. She founded the Literary Healing Arts Foundation as a way to help people write their healing into reality. Please check out her web site for the Literary Healing Arts Foundation. You’ll find her blog and a page with prompts as well as a way to submit writing for healing feedback.
I stumbled upon a celebrity social media post about doing the #AmplifyMelanatedVoicesChallenge this week. (I saw it on Glennon Doyle’s Facebook page, and it was created by @blackandembodied and @jessicawilson.msrd) The idea is that you mute your own voice and amplify the voices of black women. I can think of no better way to process what’s happening in the nation right now. Writers write to understand the world, and I will journal like crazy, but what I should share publicly is something that could actually make a difference rather than add more words to the cacophony of the moment.
I think the best place for me to start is to amplify the women in my life who have helped me, who nurture me with their talents or acceptance or friendship on a daily basis. Monday is usually when I write about a mental health mindset tool, so today is all about a friend whose life work is the mental health of others.
Danna Perdue-Melton is one of the kindest, funniest, and smartest women I know. I love every minute we get to spend together. She’s also a licensed counselor who works with children, adolescents, and adults with issues related to anxiety, depression, toxic stress, trauma and PTSD.
You can find information about Danna’s counseling services here:
You can also follow her on Instagram @dannamp or Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/danna.perduemelton) for daily encouragement. I love her posts, and she encourages me every day through them. Her friendship is a gift I treasure, and her counseling work and encouragement is a treasure for everyone.
See the mountain once a day; then focus on the trail in front of you.
I don’t know about you, but I tend to overwhelm myself when I get into a big project. I make two equal, yet differing mistakes. First, I think too hard about the end result and plotting the perfect course that I often fail to take the first steps needed to make it to the top of the mountain. Then, once I finally get to work, I plot a timeline/schedule for my perfect course, but it’s a breakneck pace that’s only possible if I can work through the schedule perfectly every day without interruptions. Brilliant, right?
Many moons ago I suckered my best friend into training for a triathlon with me. We worked really hard, and we planned a trail run/walk as a fun training day. We were very smart and packed a fabulous picnic lunch, which we put in a cooler in one of our cars at the top of the mountain trail we were going to tackle. We drove in the other car down to the trailhead to begin. We had even studied the trail maps for the park and picked the one that was closest to our distance goal. Brilliant, right?
The trail was beautiful and shady enough that we didn’t feel like dying in the Alabama heat and humidity, and we were making great time, maybe even running ahead of schedule based on our goal pace. And then we came to the end of the marked trail we had planned to follow. There was no parking lot with our parked lunch cooler car. Instead, there was more mountain to hike and a sign pointing to another trail that would take us to the lunch cooler car. And we had no idea how long the new trail would be because we thought we had already accounted for that distance. Brilliant, right?
We were somewhere between trailheads with no plan because our perfect lunch plan had just been obliterated by this sign and the new colored trail marks it told us to follow. We had to decide if it was better to keep going up, or turn around and go back to where we started. We took a look up the mountain, and we decided to go for it. If we had focused on the fact that the map was weirdly drawn and had delayed our lunch by at least another two miles uphill, that mountain would have taken forever to hike because our attitude would have made things miserable. We focused on the trail markers and where we were headed, and those extra miles weren’t so bad.
Long story, short: It’s easy to get discouraged when you see how much mountain you still have to climb to get to the top, no matter how brilliant your plan was to begin with. By concentrating on the next step that’s directly in front of you, you’ll be able to feel less pressure from the enormity of the overall goal and focus on the task at hand. You still need to see the big picture, but it doesn’t need to hang over you like an oppressive shadow. Let it be motivation to keep moving and a reminder of why you’re taking this particular trail. Don’t let it scare you into never leaving the parking lot.
Additional moral to the story: sometimes you have to change plans mid-trail, or maybe you have to find the next trail when the one you just finished didn’t get you all the way to the endpoint you wanted. That’s not failure. That’s being resilient and adapting to the situation on the ground. That’s a solid marker of mental health, and it’s a good thing.
What mountain are you planning to climb? What does the trail look like that puts you on a path to accomplishing that goal? How can you narrow your focus to just that trail in front of you?
I am a naturally empathetic person. It’s one of my INFJ personality type superpowers. Empathy makes me a great listener, a good friend, a compassionate leader, a solid writer, a generous giver…
But it’s also my kryptonite. I internalize the mood of the space I’m in, the people I’m around, the news I hear and read. All of it goes straight to my heart. When I’m not my healthiest spiritually and/or mentally, I have to create buffers between my soul and the ”real world,” or I can’t watch the news without crying over how broken the world is – how the pandemic is affecting the entire world – how heavy the losses are for families affected by the crime and poverty being reported – how divisive and angry our politics are – how even the good news stories are often colored with shades of loss or hardship, even if it’s a story about a loss restored.
It’s all so oppressive that joy, even the deep and abiding joy of living in Christ, is hard to muster. I tend to retreat, to build so many buffers that I can hide in comfort food and craft projects. Sometimes I volunteer too much as a way to compensate and keep my brain too busy with stuff to do to be able to focus on how I feel. It’s a really dumb way to handle all the feels, but it typically happens on such a subconscious level that I don’t realize it until I’ve taken on too much work to handle and there are abandoned crochet projects all over the house (and the house is a wreck).
As I grow, I get better at spotting the cycle. I’m certainly better at recognizing the moments when I’m feeling all the feelings, and even knowing when they’re not mine.
But the letting go part, that’s not my strong suit.
I’m great at planning my way out of mess and thinking I can generate just the right to-do list that will fix all my perceived problems. Overweight and out of shape? Yes, but if I follow this diet plan and this exercise regimen EXACTLY, then I’ll be at my goal weight and peak physical conditioning in less than a year. Behind on my quest to be a “real author?” Absolutely, but if I write this many minutes per day on each writing project, and I send out this many book proposals in the next two weeks, THEN I’ll be on my way.
It’s all malarkey. Not that I shouldn’t make plans and set goals, but I am still learning the lesson that I’m setting insane goal paces as a way to avoid some of my feelings. The irony, of course, is that setting unattainable goal deadlines sets me up to disappoint myself and kick off a whole new wave of uncomfortable disappointed feelings.
I’ve been aiming instead to feel the feeling for a bit, and then I have to move on. Stress is definitely the hardest for me to let go of, and it’s probably the most indicative of where my faith is in any given moment. It’s also been the most common feeling of the last few weeks.
I’m not a super strict schedule person, because even when I try to be strict, something blows up and pushes all my meticulous plans aside. To go from a loose schedule to something new entirely with a child home from school who’s definitely used to a routine has turned my brain onto permanent “AAAAGGGHHHH” mode. It’s not that I have a lot more to do – it’s the same amount of work, although I’m doing more consistent housekeeping and actually clearing out some clutter – but there’s a lot more emotional and mental and spiritual work to do to keep my empathy superpower from killing me. The unknown and nebulous menace of dealing with a pandemic is also adding a layer of stress that’s harder to identify.
I know that I feel stress less acutely when I am consistently spending time praying and studying the Bible. I use a prayer app to keep track of requests, and it also has a meditation and preparation prompt that uses Bible verses and devotional writings to direct your time before you begin praying through requests. Some days, that’s as far as I can get (and very honestly, some days I don’t make it to an intentional time of prayer, and it’s just scattered bits when I remember something or start to lose my mind). On my best days, I also spend time reading the Bible and taking notes. You don’t have to take notes to study the Bible, but it’s very much how my brain processes information, so I hand write notes when I’m really studying. It’s also good to just read without the expectation that I need to do anything deeper.
I know that my diet and water intake will also have a huge effect on how I handle stress, though that knowledge doesn’t always translate into the wisdom of action. Same story with exercise. That’s on my list to work on this week.
You may wonder why I started with prayer and Bible study as the best stress buster in my toolbox and spent so much space talking about it. There are two reasons I think it’s the most effective tool. First, focusing on God in a way that seeks to learn more about his character and channels my prayers towards others shifts my focus entirely away from myself and towards an infinitely larger subject. My worries fade in comparison, and I lose the weight of my stress in that time of meditation. Second, meditation is a highly recommended cognitive behavioral therapy tool because it teaches us to calm our thoughts and shift our perspectives and thought patterns. Prayer and Bible study is my mode of meditation.
Managing stress and learning how to let go if it is one huge feeling we can practice the “feel the feelings and then let them go” mantra on that we’re all experiencing to some degree right now. Sometimes just managing stress makes managing other emotions much easier. When that’s not enough, how do we let go of other feelings that want to linger, like anger and sadness? I don’t have a perfect answer, but I have model.
Feel the feeling. Acknowledge that it’s there and know that whatever the feeling is, it’s okay to experience it and that you are not defined by your emotions. If you’re in a safe and appropriate setting, vent it. Cry or shake your fist with rage or write down what you’re feeling. If you’re not in a space that’s conducive to expressing the feeling, note it, and let yourself come back to it when you can. Realize that expressing emotion doesn’t mean you have a free pass to act any way you want without consequence, so think before you act. If an emotion is so strong that you’re not going to behave well, give yourself some time and space.
Once you acknowledge the feeling, examine it. What exactly was the emotion? What triggered it? How did you react? What foundational beliefs affected your reaction? Was your reaction appropriate to the situation? What information would change the intensity level of the emotion you experienced? How could you react differently if you have the same experience again?
Most of the time, taking a moment to examine the feeling lets us take a step back and look more impartially at the situation, and we find that our emotional reaction is less intense than it was in the heat of the moment. Downgrading the emotional intensity is a big step in letting go.
If you’ve examined the emotion, and nothing seems to take away the edge, decide if it’s a situation you can change or not. If you can, make some changes. If you can’t change the situation, you need to change your thought pattern. Whenever the lingering negative feeling pops up, actively counter it with a positive thought or action. For example, with depression, I tend to get cranky when I’m not in healthy condition. When I realize the anger is creeping up, I try to actively avoid confrontations that I know will end ugly, and I remind myself to breathe slowly and remember that whatever it is, it will be okay. Find something to redirect in a positive way the negative thought/emotion pattern that works for you. It takes a lot of practice, and it feels a little silly when you first start, but it’s a game changer.
Even with this model and a ton of head knowledge about what I need to put into action to let go of things and feel better, sometimes I suck great wind. But good mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. As long as you’re moving forward, or at least not wallowing too long when you fall down, you’re building the endurance you need to be healthy.