May Planner

May 2019 Planner CoverI 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. 🙂

Here’s the free May planner:

2019-May Planner

Morning Pages and Mental Health Routines

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).

20190424 Photo ballpen-blank-desk-606541
Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

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?

Not Today, Satan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 2 – How the Bible Can Help with Depression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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