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!

What Are You So Afraid of?

I was asked to video myself giving a minute or so “Why you should attend…” talk a while ago.  I’m old enough that selfies are generally something my peer group mocks mercilessly, and I’m extremely unlikely to take a selfie unless it’s with a good friend or my daughter because I feel so self-conscious selfie-ing.  In spite of years on stage doing crazy things, that video was one of the scariest things I’d ever done.  The wild part about that is, if you put me on a stage to say the exact same thing to a room full of people, I would have felt completely at ease.  But to send a video out into the interwebs means that the bit was filmed without any live feedback, and I had to wait to see if anyone liked the post.  A live audience offers subtle clues before they throw rotten tomatoes, so that’s a gig I can handle.

The same thing happens when I write.  I feel fairly confident when I sit down to publish a blog post; it’s a short work, it’s easy enough to take down or edit if it bombed once I publish it, and there are really only a few opinions I worry about.  Blog work feels a lot like stage work.  It’s a fairly quick feedback loop.  Not too scary – just enough nerves to keep me frosty.  I feel a bit of terror for a few seconds after I click on “publish,” and some days I stalk the stats page when I’m searching for approval, but the anxiety vanishes pretty quickly.

I thought the selfie video was terrifying until I decided to ask about a dozen people for feedback on a book project I’ve been working on for several years now.  At that point, I had the entire thing roughed out as an outline, and the first chapter was pretty polished.  (As of Saturday, the first draft is officially complete!)  I’ve told a few people what I’m working on, but I haven’t been excitedly announcing that I’m working on a book.  Someone may ask to see it if I tell them what I’m doing.  If they see it, they may read it.  And if they read it, they may not like it.  If they don’t like it, they may not like me…  It’s the horrid adult introvert version of “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie!”

I was effectively paralyzed for the better part of a year because I’m afraid if I finish and publish a book, it won’t be good and no one will like it; therefore no one will like me.  It’s better to just say, “I’m working on a book,” and you’ll all think I sound very authorly, even though I’m not being the author God called me to be.  The most miserable part about that is that I’m telling God I don’t trust him to fulfill what he called me to do.  I know I’m supposed to be writing; he’s given me a wellspring of creativity for ideas; I have three things right now that are bigger works I know I am called to finish.  When I avoid working on the book, I feel pressure to work on it.  Sometimes I feel guilty, and I know it’s a guilty feeling from God because it comes with the desire to correct it and focus on the work he’s given me.  (Theologically speaking, that classifies this feeling as conviction rather than just guilt.  Guilt without a prompt to put yourself back under God’s direction is not from God.)

And so we come to a late hour, wherein I had decided to choose a group of people I trusted and whose opinions I highly valued and set up a Facebook message.  I had the group listed, and I was under the false impression that attachments in Messenger would operate like e-mail attachments.  I clicked on the attachment and prepared to write my message, then ponder whether or not to send it (and probably chicken out…).  Except Messenger doesn’t work at all like e-mail, so when I clicked on the attachment, it sent it.  I was not ready for that.  I may have panicked a little – enough that I couldn’t breathe for at least a minute.  And then I realized I sent a random attachment to a dozen or so people with zero explanation.  All my plans to carefully craft a request for feedback were out the window.  I furiously typed an explanation and went in search of chocolate to assuage my heart palpitations.

But nothing horrible happened.  I didn’t die.  No one ridiculed me or ended our friendship, no matter what they thought of my work.  I had let my fear control me until my Facebook Messenger ineptitude forced me to confront it.  That in itself was freeing.  Receiving several words of encouragement was incredible.

I’m always going to struggle with criticism because it’s in my perfectionist nature to take it personally, but if I’m writing from the ideas God gives me, I only need to worry about what he thinks; no other audience matters.

What about you?  What are you afraid to do but know you should be doing?  What’s stopping you from taking action and facing the fear?  How likely is it that the horrible scenario in your head will actually happen if you act?  What can you do to help you move closer to facing that fear?

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

Today, Depression Hurts. Tomorrow…

What does coping with mild to moderate depression look like in practice?  I can only share from my experience of what works.  I feel it’s important to put the both the good and the bad days out there, so maybe someone who doesn’t have a solid toolbox of coping tools can learn from my mistakes and my battle-earned wisdom.  This is something I wrote a few months ago but wasn’t ready to publish then.  It’s how a bad but not-too-bad day feels, and it’s what I do to make it through.

May 3, 2018: Today is a full-on depression day.  I don’t want to move.  I don’t want to sleep.  I desperately need a shower, but that feels impossible to do.  Honestly, the whole last week has been some version of this that I have generally been able to overcome.  Today, though, is ridiculously hard for some reason.  I feel like screaming or crying or flopping on the ground in some sort of catatonic state.  But all of those require an initial effort, and today I just can’t.

IMG_0804Maybe today is harder because I didn’t sleep well last night or because my period started, and it feels like my uterus is trying to kill me.  Maybe my hormones are out of whack.  Maybe pollen is God’s greatest curse on Adam and Eve, and so snot is also trying to kill me.  Maybe.  There could be a million reasons why, but none of them matter.  Because I just can’t.

So how do I get through today in some moderately adult fashion (since throwing tantrums is frowned upon at my age)?  I will pray a lot.  None of my prayers today will sound very dignified.

This morning I muttered and grumbled because I couldn’t find clean underwear for my child since it seems all her clothes are either dirty and scattered all over her room or in the washer, which I forgot to transfer into the dryer and must wash again.  And then I said, “God, you could just find me a pair of underwear,” as I searched through a pile of unfolded clean clothes all belonging to me.  Behold, a pair of tiny human underwear was in the midst of the pile.  I will hope today that God answers all my obnoxious demands so perfectly to my liking, but the reality is, he will get me through it, pretty or not; how prettily will mostly depend on my attitude.img_0805.jpg

Besides praying undignified, muttered, short and snappy prayers, how will I cope with today?  Mostly I will just keep talking to myself and reminding myself to breathe in.  Breathe out.  Take the next step, whatever it is.

One minute at a time isn’t so huge, so I can walk to the bathroom and start the shower.  I can wash my hair and cry where I won’t scare the dogs or tiny human, and then I can get out and do the next thing.  I won’t think about the whole day or my to-do list or what’s coming up this weekend.  I will gently tell myself that I did something great by bathing, and I will tell myself that I can do more great things today, like brush my teeth.  Even though I desperately want to eat my weight in ice cream or peanut butter or chocolate, I will eat good food in moderation, and I will celebrate by telling myself, “we can do this; we can make it through the day.”  And even though I feel like kicking people in the shins and sticking my tongue out at them while I run away, I will smile instead, and I will hold my feet still, and I will celebrate by reminding myself that on a normal day my smile is my secret weapon.  I can coax a smile out of the grumpiest of folks if I look them in the eye and smile – it’s my best and favorite superpower.

Everyone has some superpower, and a sparkling-eyed smile is mine (procrastination is also one).

But I’m not a nice and friendly person when I feel this depressed.  Generally, I shut down and avoid all contact, but when I don’t, I am sharp-tongued and angry.  It’s not pretty.  I actually take pleasure in the mean things I think – and sometimes let slip – and then I feel awful for being a jerk.  More self-loathing to add to the heap of horrible I already feel.  And even though I know it’s fleeting – this will pass in a few days – it feels like I will feel like this forever.  I almost edited that last sentence because I overused the word “feel,” but then I realized that’s the key to my self-talk coping.

I speak truth to my feelings.

It turns out, feelings can lie.  My depression feelings are depraved liars because they tell me I’m worthless.  They tell me it doesn’t matter what I do because no one cares.  They tell me it’s okay to skip my life and wallow in self-loathing and self-pity.  None of that is true, and in my heart I know that I am a creation of God; I have intrinsic value as his child.  I am a worthy daughter of the King.  I have to tell myself the truth over and over, and even when my feelings make it impossible to believe, I can still act on the truth.  Once I make that first move into the light of truth, I start to feel better.  Each act builds on that momentum until I realize that I made it to lunch without falling into my pit of despair.  Then I made it to dinner and through the tiny human’s bedtime, and then it’s my bedtime, and I made it.

Tomorrow may be just as hard, but I can tell the truth tomorrow, too.

What truth do your feelings need to hear right now?  Listen in your soul, and hear the voice of God tell you this: you are precious and valuable.  You are loved.  You are worthy of love.  Today may be hard, but the load will get lighter the more you listen to his truth, the more his truth lives in you and fills you up.  Jesus is waiting to carry the load for you if you’ll let him.  There is an army of people surviving depression who are cheering for you and love you and want nothing more than to lift you up.  My door is always open.  Join me in the Mabbat FB group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks or e-mail me at mabbatblog@gmail.com if a group feels too scary.

Are You an Artist?

I had the joy and privilege to serve as the art teacher for the sports camp our church does the week of Vacation Bible School.  We have sports camp directly after VBS, so the kids who sign up for that have lunch after VBS and go to two sports activity sessions.  Arguably, art is not a sport, but it makes me happy that we include it, and it makes me even happier to finally feel competent as a coach.  I have coached Upward basketball several times now, and the only thing that qualifies me to coach is my love for kids.  Even my mom laughed and asked why I couldn’t coach something like softball that I was pretty good at or soccer that I at least know and understand the rules.  I was born to coach art – basketball, not so much…

One of my campers last week was a little awestruck at something I demonstrated and then helped her with, and she asked with wonder, “Are you an artist?”  I’m not going to lie; I would have struggled to answer that question in the past.  It’s a lot like when someone asks if I’m a writer.  I have a bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to both of those questions.  Neither writing nor art is my occupation.  I’m not sure they could be my day job, and even if they could, I don’t think that’s the path I’m meant to take.  I feel somehow that to call yourself an artist or a writer that it should be your occupation, as in, “I am an artist,” “I am an architect,” or “I am an office manager.”

Obviously, one doesn’t need to be a professional artist to be an artist.  I don’t have to write full time or publish books to be a writer.  I am an artist.  I am a writer.  God gave me those talents, and he created me to be those things, as well as a teacher, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a housekeeper, a Chief Compliance Officer, a dog wrangler…  Like most people, I wear more than one hat.

But what great joy it was to be able to declare to my student, “Yes.  I am an artist.  It’s not what I do for a living, but creating art is something I love to do.”

I often doubt myself and where I am, what I’m doing.  Is it enough?  Am I wrong – is this supposed to be my day job?  Should I be trying harder to make money as a writer or as an artist?  These are all the wrong questions, though.  I should instead be asking if I’m doing what God placed in my heart to do.  Am I developing my skills on a regular basis?  Am I using the talents he gave me to reflect his light and bring glory to him?

When I can answer “yes” to God, then I’m on the right track, whatever that track is.  Hopefully one day soon that path will lead to publishing a book; maybe I will sell a painting someday; now, every day, I will work to be the writer and visual artist God created me to be.

What about you?  Are you an artist?  Most of the people I present with this question say “no,” and they say it rather quickly.  “I don’t know how to paint.”  “I can only draw stick figures.”  “I can’t write a sentence, much less a poem.”  We focus the word “artist” a little too narrowly, maybe.  Or maybe I should be asking, “Are you creative?”  I have a feeling I would still get the same quick “no” most of the time, even if I changed the question.  If you don’t think you’re creative, expand your focus: what are you really good at?  You have something in your life that you excel in or love to do because it feels easy and natural to you.  Now narrow your focus there; I’ll bet you’re creative within that passion.

Congratulations, you are an artist.

So, what is your art genre?  Are you a mathematician?  A baker?  An organizer?  A singer?  An actor?  A pilot?  A basketball coach?  Whatever you have been gifted to do, that is your creative space.  God calls us all to create and thereby reflect his creativity.  Innovate.  Sing a new song.  Praise him with your talents.

If you would like encouragement in finding and developing your God-given talents, join the closed Mabbat FB group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/773975689656609/?ref=bookmarks  I’ll be posting prompts to get you thinking about your creativity and how to use it to grow spiritually and emotionally.  Also, starting this weekend, I’ll be posting a serialized Bible study journal for the book of Colossians if you’d like to read along with me.  There are drawing and writing prompts to help you experience God’s word through creative expression.  I’ll post a new study prompt each week, and we’ll continue the discussion through the week in the Mabbat FB group.

If an online group terrifies you, here are a few suggestions: you can always e-mail me at mabbatblog@gmail.com, and you can join (or start!) a small group to help you discover and use your talents.  Every church I know of has small groups (or life groups or Sunday school classes or…) of people who meet on a regular basis to study God’s word together and to encourage each other to live out his purpose in their lives.  Find one and jump in.  The best way to be consistent on your creative journey with God is to be connected to a community of believers who will lift you up and also hold you accountable.

How are you an artist?  I would love to see your answer in the comments!

Wasting Time

Have you ever known you should be doing something – something that calls you, begs you to give it a voice – but you just can’t.

20180611 Wasting Time-PicI can’t even put words to why I am procrastinating, but in spite of hearing God call me to write and paint, I will often actively ignore that gentle nudge and do something else.  It may be a good thing I’m doing (decluttering the house, catching up on work, solving crossword puzzles, searching Pinterest for tiny human craft ideas…), but it is not what I should be doing.  And I know it because whatever I’m doing doesn’t satisfy the longing I’m feeling, and I add to that longing a small unsettled feeling in my soul.  I need to keep house and work and take care of my people and myself, but I also must answer God when he prompts me to write or draw or glue (just as long as he doesn’t tell me to glitter – pretty sure glitter is the tiny human’s spiritual gift anyway).

The thing about me avoiding what I know I should do is ridiculous in so many ways because I love “to art.” (Why isn’t art a verb??  It is now for me.)  I love writing, I love creating, and I love putting all of that together.  Yet I have put off relaunching the blog for over a year.  I’m just getting back to completing paintings I started over a year ago, and I have two books that I need to sit down with and finish so I can decide how to proceed with publishing.  Why am I putting off these things that I love and very much want to do?

I have two answers that both apply to my procrastination.  First, I am afraid.

You may not believe me, but I am very much an introvert, and I fit very neatly into the INFJ category every time I take the Meyers-Briggs personality test.  I take criticism super personally, so putting anything out for public viewing is nerve-wracking every time.  Every post.  Every sketch.  Every word.  They all become so easy to obsess over and put my value in: if people like this blog post, then they like me.  I know it’s a mental and spiritual trap, but it’s an easy one to get caught up in.  Which leads me to…

Second, I get caught in Satan’s plans to distract me from what really matters.

If I’m not arting when I know I should, I’m not using a gift God gave me to glorify him.  If I hang any of my value on what someone else thinks of what I create, I am letting Satan take away my God-given value as a child of God.  And I am wasting the time I’ve been given here on earth.

When God gives you a gift, you will be called to use it; everything you do to avoid it is just wasting time.  Very carefully notice that I am not saying that everything else that you do is a waste of time.  If you are a functional adult, you know that there are other things that will occupy your time – earning a paycheck, for instance  – and none of those things are a waste of time.  All of us are given a gift of some kind to use, and we will all be accountable to God for the way that we used them.  If you just read that and thought, “I don’t have a gift,” or, “I’m not good at anything,” STOP.  Stop it.  You have a gift, and I will be dedicating some time to helping you discover your gift in future posts.  But for now, rest assured that you are gifted.  You may not be a painter or a writer or a musician, but you might be an engineer, a baker, an organizer, a mathematician, a runner, a listener…  God made us each unique, and the gifts he gives are as varied as we are.  Don’t let comparison convince you that you are not equally gifted because your gift is less publicly obvious than someone else’s.  That, too, is a waste of time.

If you’ve noticed that I so far am mostly confessing that I’m currently guilty of wasting time, you’re right.  Now that I’ve written this far, I realize that I’m not offering any solutions or practical admonitions or observations.  I am simply confessing.  And committing.  I commit to change the way I approach my arting and blogging, and I am asking you to join me on the journey.  My commitment to you is that I will art somehow daily, and I will be working on the blog continuously as I do so.  I have a few plans ready to implement now and a few ideas that are kind of huge and scary.  I want you to keep me accountable.  I am publicly proclaiming these plans so that I will be bound to complete them, having now committed to doing so.  If you notice me slacking off, please call me on it – hold my feet to the fire, as it were.  I’m tired of wasting time.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

This wasn’t the topic I had planned to write about today, but I know I can’t shake this without writing it out.  This week has been full of loss all around me, and, even though I have known none of the people who died personally, I find myself grieving nonetheless.  Several of my friends lost fathers.  Two famous creators died of suicide.  I feel the weight of grief in my communities, both locally and online, and it is heavy on my soul right now.  The bell is tolling for me.

For Whom the Bell Tolls - Web SizeTwo of my friends who lost their fathers are Christ followers who are comforted by the fact that they will see their fathers soon enough in heaven with Jesus.  They are embarking on a new chapter in their stories without main characters who played vital roles in their lives up to now.  No doubt the new chapters will continue to tell their fathers’ stories in the legacies that they left in these two beautiful souls.  That may eventually be some earthly comfort after the shock and pain fade a bit.

The world’s loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in a week’s time is certainly tragic, as are some of the public’s reactions in the comments sections of the news articles reporting their deaths.  I am by no means a mental health expert, but I am a person who is surviving the mental illness of depression.  Some people are quick to point out that suicide is a selfish act, leaving devastated loved ones in its wake.  While that may be accurate from a mentally healthy perspective, healthy, rational people do not commit suicide.  Sick people do.  Others have pointed out that both Spade and Bourdain had much to live for with successful careers and wealth.  Depression is not a disease that discriminates between rich and poor, successful and not.  You may be more prone to depression if your circumstances are difficult, but you are not exempt because your circumstances are better.

Depression that isn’t a passing reaction to loss or life upheavals is just as much a chemical, physical illness as cancer or diabetes.  Depression isn’t simply a mental state one can just snap out of.  Maybe it’s hard to think of as a disease because we can’t physically see its effects like we can with cancer.  It’s easy to assume someone is lazy or unmotivated or has anger management issues or drinks too much without seeing the underlying disease because the sick person appears physically whole.  We also use the same word to name episodic depression and chronic depression, major depression and mild depression.  We don’t do this with diseases like cancer that have specific names for specific types of cancer, even though they all float under the header of “cancer.”

Someone can tell you that they had melanoma or breast cancer, but they can’t tell you they had liver or kidney depression; they can’t even narrow it to a physical place in the brain, even though major and chronic depression physically and chemically alter your brain.

The symptoms of depression are generally not physical and are not often recognized as depression.  Some of the symptoms even appear to be character flaws rather than signs of a disease: sadness, anger, sleeping too much, isolation, overeating, not eating at all, drinking too much, misusing prescription drugs, lack of motivation…  One at a time, these problems may be a character flaw that can be corrected, but more than one symptom or symptoms that linger for more than a few weeks may be a serious mental health issue.

My opinion is that because so many symptoms of depression are seen as character flaws individually, the stigma surrounding depression is rooted in the belief that one could just start forming new habits and counteract the bad stuff.

We tend to think the same thing about alcoholics and drug users: “Just stop drinking. That’ll fix it.”  Except it won’t.  Behavior modifications and the development of healthy coping skills will help depression symptoms, but it may not be enough to keep the disease in check.  You may need medication – I did – or therapy – I do that, too – or maybe you need inpatient care for a while.  Never feel ashamed for seeking help.  If you are depressed, tell someone.  At least tell a friend if seeking medical help feels impossible.  There is no shame in seeking to treat a medical condition, which is exactly what depression is.  We would never tell someone with cancer to just get up and exercise and eat healthier and expect them to be okay.  We wouldn’t tell someone with diabetes to skip the insulin and eat all the sugar they want because their disease is all in their head.  We wouldn’t tell someone with scoliosis to stand up straight and get over it.

We don’t vilify people who die of cancer: we talk about them in warrior terms.  “He fought to the end, but it was too advanced.”  Why are we willing to vilify people who die of depression?  We are fighting for our lives, too.

Of course, suicide isn’t a solution, and it’s selfish, and it’s probably more painful for the surviving loved ones who will face some hard questions and issues in their grief.  But depression lies.  It tells you that you don’t matter – that nothing matters – and suicidal depression is more insidious in its lies because it tells you that the world will be better off without you, and you will be better off dead.  We don’t blame someone with a physical disease when their body is ravaged, but we will not hesitate to comment when someone’s mind is ravaged enough to quit fighting the disease.  Do you see the problem with the general public’s thinking here?

So how do we shift our culture?  How do we combat depression as a public health issue?  Honestly, I don’t know how to do that systemically.  I do know how to begin locally: be kind, be present.

God created us as social beings; we were made for connection to each other.  We can’t screen for depression and suicidal thoughts like we can for colon cancer and high blood pressure, but we can maintain connections with other people.  If you’d like to prevent depression and suicide as issues in your own mental health, plug in somewhere.  Find a group of people you can relate to and start relating.  Find at least one person that you can share anything with and not fear judgment.

If you already have those connections, good job.  You have one more job, though – go out and make connections and be a friend for those who are struggling to connect.  How can you recognize someone struggling to connect?  You probably can’t.  You should just assume everyone is in need of a friend.  That’s the gig if you want to be a decent human.

Once you start connecting well, you should start to recognize when someone you know is acting differently.  It doesn’t always mean mental instability, but it might be the only visible sign of trouble.  We humans don’t like to admit our weaknesses to each other.  I am in no way saying that you are responsible for preventing suicide in your network of connections and that you should be on constant alert for tiny shifts in behavior among your loved ones.  Just as someone with cancer must be responsible for adhering to a treatment program, someone with depression must be responsible for getting treatment and following their prescribed protocols.

But we are all responsible to each other as the body of Christ to care for our wounded and ill.  We are called to support each other if we are to thrive.  Suicide is preventable, and we can all do our part to lift one another up.

Here are some general resources for more information about suicide prevention:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/index.shtml

https://themighty.com/suicide-prevention-resources/

https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/

http://www.sprc.org/resources-programs