Start somewhere. This is probably the best advice I ever have to offer, and it seems like the best place to “get back on the horse” with the blog.
I know I’m not alone as a person who gets overwhelmed by all the things that end up on my to-do list. Sometimes that’s a self-inflicted wound because I take on too much. Sometimes it’s an uphill battle against perfectionism and depression.
When things feel too big to even be possible, I just start somewhere. There’s the old saying that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, or the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Pick your favorite metaphor, and just start small.
The elephant I’m probably struggling with the most right now is decluttering, so I’ve been applying the “start somewhere” motto to it. It’s not fast work for me, but every time I walk into a mess, I just pick a spot and start working from there. If that even feels too big, I set a timer for 15 minutes and give myself permission to take a break if I work through the timer.
Whatever elephant you’re trying to eat, I have no shortcuts for the actual work. But I do know that the only way to tackle it is to start somewhere and just work through each step as it comes. I know that makes it sound very simple, but simple doesn’t always mean easy. Sometimes simple is ridiculously hard, and that’s okay. Most of the time the hardest part of the work is just getting started.
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.
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.
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.
If you have children or work with them, you’ve probably said, “Use your words, not your hands.” But today, we are throwing caution to the wind and assuming you’re mature enough to use your hands AND your words.
Today, my home state decided the wisest course of action to slow the pandemic spread is to cancel in-person classes at school for the rest of the semester. My tiny human was a little nuts the first week that school was paused for three weeks. Now that we know we’ll continue the semester with assignments from home, she was a lot nuts trying to go to bed tonight.
To be honest, so was I. Everything in our schedule is upside down. I’m a naturally empathetic person, and I can’t even peek at social media right now where everyone’s dogs and cats and family updates usually perk me up – right now it’s full of people experiencing the same loss I’m experiencing, and I can feel too deeply the lost senior year antics, the teachers missing their students and working like crazy to figure out how to make the next two months happen virtually, the students who miss their teachers and classrooms and friends and routines, all the people out of work, and all the people working through incredibly stressful conditions at essential jobs. It’s a lot, and it’s hard for everyone right now, no matter what your situation.
If you have been feeling a little too much of the worry of the moment (or had a mild panic attack like I did tonight), here are three things you need to know right now:
It’s okay to feel the feelings. It’s okay to mourn for the loss of your daily routine and to freak out a little bit at all the things that are different right now, including the inexplicable hoarding of toilet paper and ground beef.
Once you feel the feelings, tell them the truth. Let the crazy thoughts and emotions and anxiety parade by, but don’t get out there and march with them. Wave as they pass by. And as they march down the parade route, imagine yourself as the cheesy news anchor announcing the float, telling you bizarre facts like how many coffee beans were used in the construction of the float, and then sending it off with a great one-liner like, “But I know no matter how many coffee beans they used to make that float, it’s still not running the show.” That’s a silly example, but a real thought exercise might sound like this in your head: “Here comes stress. Stress likes to show off with flashy things like anger and overstimulation, but stress is going to keep walking right on by. I’m going to wave goodbye to stress because it needs to finish the parade route, and I can control my actions.” You aren’t your feelings. You aren’t your thoughts, though that’s a tempting line of thought, given Descartes’s catchy, “I think, therefore I am,” philosophy. You are a created child of God, which leads to…
Philippians 4:6-7: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.”
Slow down, breathe for a moment, and get some perspective. I don’t care what this pandemic or anything else going on in your life holds for you, God will hold you together through it. These verses are a blueprint for how to survive.
So I just listed three things that obviously had nothing to do with the introduction. That was a bonus list. The three things I started out to write for today is a set of mental health exercises to use if you’re feeling the stress a little too much right now, and they all use your hand as a cue.
First, trace your hand on a piece of paper. I’ll wait. No, I’m not kidding. Any paper will do. I only had fluorescent green handy (see what I did there…), so that’s what I’m using (as well as subpar phone photography).
Our first exercise is just breathing. Breathe in through your nose while you count to five, hold it for a count of five, and breathe out through your mouth while you count to five. Use the hand print as a visual to focus your thoughts onto just your breathing. If you want more meditative visualization, remember that we are God-breathed creations, the Bible is described as God-breathed, and every breath is life. We are breathing in God’s provision, savoring it for a moment, and then letting go of everything that’s past. Try this for a few breaths, or a few minutes, until you feel your heart rate settle and the stray thoughts that run in like saboteurs slow down their attacks.
Now, using your hand as a counting reference, list five things that you’re thankful for right now. If you like the physicality of ticking them off with your fingers, go for it. Whenever you feel like anxiety is trying to take over, list five things you’re grateful for or five things that bring you joy. It’s not going to change the circumstances, but it’s going to change your perspective of the circumstances by reminding you of good things in your life.
And the third exercise is one of my favorites (and the reason you need an actual tracing of your hand on paper). In the space outside your hand, write down all the things you can’t control that are taking up space in your thoughts. In the space inside your hand, write down things you can control. What’s the difference in the things in your grasp and the things you can’t hold on to? If you can’t control the things outside your hand, how much mental energy should you devote to them?
We tend to think of worry as something that just happens to us because our circumstances are big and scary. But… Worry is a choice. While we can’t control every thought that pops into our heads, we can control how much we let them run around unchecked. The second we let all the things we can’t control run the narrative in our thought patterns, worry is running the show. We used the parade imagery in the first list, and even though it was a parade of negative thinking, there was order and we were telling the floats what to do, right? Now imagine for a second what that parade would look like without a chaos coordinator. Think Barney ’97. Total disaster.
Let’s use Philippians 4:6-7 as our thought process model. Don’t worry; let the thoughts pass by without letting them run the show. Pray about everything; that’s certainly something you can control, so if it’s not already in your handprint, maybe you should add it. Tell God what you need; he already knows, but you still need to express it as a need for him. Thank God for what you have. Feel that anxiety turn towards peace. That’s what putting your life in God’s hands will do.
Alright, I now have two lists of three things, and since I have moderate perfectionist tendencies, I feel the need to end on another list of three so we have three three things because two three things will not do. So… here are three things that bring me extra stress relief:
Bee Badminton. Tis the season for carpenter bees. I hate them making swiss cheese out of my porch, so I whack them with badminton rackets. Bonus fun – now the dogs like to help by catching the ones I hit and eating them. It’s now a team sport.
Potato Pelting. One of my dogs has a barking problem. At night I can stop her by shining a flashlight on her, but, alas, my superpower beam is useless in the day. I usually stash some tennis balls in the kitchen that I can chunk at her to redirect her attention, but, alas, all the balls are in the yard. Today I discovered some tiny potatoes that hid in a dark corner of the kitchen until I forgot about them. They’ve all sprouted and are useless for eating, but they’re the perfect size to chunk at the loudmouth dog – heavy enough to be able to throw accurately for decent distance but light enough not to injure the dog. And I’m composting (badly, I admit, but it’s composting nonetheless, and you won’t convince me otherwise).
Writing. I was tempted to chuck it all, even the potatoes, tonight and distract myself with television and solitaire until I got sleepy. I feel much better now for having done some mental work to settle down and praying for a while. Now that I’ve dumped my brain out on a page, I feel like I’m me again.
One final hand photo to prove I may write like I have my crap together, but I can’t even trace my hand without getting Sharpie ink all over myself. This is one of at least five similar ink spots. I can barely be trusted with scissors, so I promise if I can make it through life, you can, too.
I have been lost this week since I didn’t finish and print this month’s planner until today. I can definitely tell when I’m not reflecting and prioritizing my day’s work; my motivation wanders, and my brain feels scattered.
This month’s cover art is from a series of photos I took of the Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama on a weekend with my sister several years ago. Vulcan is the Roman god of the forge, and his likeness presides over Birmingham whose primary industry when the Vulcan statue was created was steel. The back cover is a “cheeky” nod to the fact that everything south of Vulcan is continuously mooned by his apron-less backside (which is where I live).
If you used the April planner, I’d love to hear how it worked for you or if you have any suggestions. And if you try the planner this month and like it, be encouraged that I prepared June and July and have already scheduled them to post here on the blog before those months begin. 🙂
I’ve been out of regular therapy sessions for a while, but only because I’ve been maintaining a pretty disciplined practice of mental health exercises. (Now if I can just get motivated to get back to physical exercise, I’ll be extremely awesome…) For the last few weeks, I haven’t been doing my morning routine, and I can feel it in my brain the way I feel it in my body that I haven’t been exercising. When I work out, I feel stronger and healthier, and the same thing applies to my mental wellbeing. I try to maintain morning, afternoon, and bedtime rituals to keep me on track. Don’t get hung up by the word “ritual.” I am not performing animal sacrifices, I am just trying to perform the same behaviors in the same order every day, with enough frequency that they become habit and with enough thoughtfulness that they retain their meaning… like rituals.
My morning routine consists of three key parts – morning pages, prayer, and planning. While everything else may slide or be shortened, those three need to be done well for me to feel like my head is on straight the rest of the day. The other things on my morning list are drink water (at least one full glass before coffee), get inspired (some form of positive thinking exercise, whether it’s a guided meditation from the app I use or it’s a positive statement I can repeat all day), deep work (a timed work session I usually use for writing, but it’s a great tool for any type of work – just set a timer and ignore every other distraction for that block of time), and celebrate (it sounds silly, but I do a little happy dance and give myself a mental high-five when I finish my whole routine).
Morning pages is one of the best mental health tools I’ve ever discovered. The practice comes from Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. The only rules are that you should write by hand first thing in the morning for three full pages. There is no wrong way to write your pages. You can write about anything that pops in your head. Cameron’s intent with morning pages is that you clear the junk rambling around in your mind, which frees you to think creatively. Also, it’s pretty impossible to write three pages of complete mess without hitting on something important or a good idea to run with. My morning pages are generally a brain dump of all the things on my to-do list followed by some actual reflection on my actions and the emotions running under them.
I always see something more clearly for having examined it longhand in my journal.
I usually see something new or from a different perspective. I have, on occasion, written the lyrics to the “Spongebob Squarepants” theme song before I could make any coherent words come out of my pen. I’m not a strict rule adherent in my morning pages journal. I rarely make it to three pages because I have to get the tiny human to school and myself to work, so I just write for a set amount of time instead. I can’t always write first thing in the morning, so sometimes I write third or tenth thing; sometimes I write evening pages. I think for my mental health, the important thing is just for me to write and reflect.
When I examine why I am doing what I am doing, I can see the behavioral patterns I need to work on, whether that’s to keep doing something that works or to quit doing something harmful.
Prayer is the next step in my morning routine. Maybe it should be first as a symbol of its priority, but I’ve learned I pray with much better focus if I do morning pages first. Once my head is clear, I process everything better, especially scripture that I pray through before I pray for other people. It may seem silly since I keep a handwritten journal for morning pages, but I actually use an app on my phone for my daily prayer time. “Prayer Prompter” is a free app that’s very simple, but extremely helpful. It has two sections: one is “Meditation and Prayer” that includes Bible verses and writings about spiritual discipline to pray through, and the other is “Petition/Intercession” that has some pre-filled prompts for suggestions. You can add prayer requests in the “Petition/Intercession” section, so whenever I tell someone, “I’m praying for you,” I’m adding it there. I really love this app and have used it more consistently than any prayer journal I’ve tried to keep.
I’ve tried doing my prayer routine at different times of the day, but I always come back to morning. It helps me remember to pray throughout the day, and it helps me feel connected in my relationship to Jesus before I get lost in the day’s business.
Planning is the last thing I do before celebrating and getting on with the day. I shared my planner a few weeks ago, so you can still see that on the blog home page if you’re curious. I work through the morning mindset questions and prioritize my tasks for the day, and then I write them on the schedule.
I have never, ever had a day go exactly the way I wrote it on the schedule, but the act of putting tasks in a time space forces me to think through how long the task will take and when I will best be able to accomplish it.
I tend to put too many things on my task list and my schedule, so this helps me be a little more realistic. I keep seeing articles about scientific studies that people who are always running late are really just optimists who think they can do more in an allotted time than they can; that seems to be accurate in my case. The planner definitely helps narrow my focus for a given day and time span.
It’s crazy that those three things would make such a difference in my stress level and mental health, but they definitely do. They’re probably the three most important tools in my coping toolbox. How about you? What’s the most important thing you do to keep mentally fit?
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 email@example.com.
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.
In 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.
Another 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.