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?

WIP Wednesday on Friday

Because school started, and I can’t keep my crap together this week…

I am VERY slowly, but surely working my way chapter at a time through the book of Romans in the Bible. With each chapter, I read through, note the verses that stand out to me, and then boil it down to the “bottom line.” I choose the verse that most clearly states the main theme of the chapter and write it down somewhere on my blank page. As I sit with that verse a while, I draw what comes to mind as I meditate, and then I write a poem that reflects that meditation. I also go back to the verses that I marked and write more about them (I use the SOAP method for that, for the very few of you who wondered.) in a journal file on my computer.

It’s an intensive process on a single section of scripture, but I found that I was often reading the Bible every day on autopilot. This process forces me to slow down and digest the words more slowly. Slow is hard for me because I’m not often patient with creative work – once I have an idea, I want it done. I also keep walking away from this work and only coming back to it in spurts because it doesn’t feel as instantly rewarding as a quick sketch or single poem. But God has used this work to show me how to dig deeper into his word and his love, so I’m really silly for putting it off. Turns out I’m a work in progress, too. 🙂

And because the poem is hard to read in the photo, here’s the text:

Oh, how often I’ve failed

Crumbled in the face of temptation

The, oh, how I’ll beg

For mercy

For a fresh start

For life

But I must not believe you

As I try harder, work more, to make you love me

But that isn’t your way

You want truth

You want repentance

You want faith

So watch me open my hands

And let go of my desire to control

To earn your love, to claim myself

So I can believe

So you can make me new

So I can be free

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.

Signs and Wonders

Yesterday was obviously a difficult day; after a week of waiting, we found out that our suspicions were correct and our pregnancy had not continued. One thing I always question God about in this situation is why he doesn’t perform a miracle for me. It’s selfish and a little silly to compare what God is doing in my life with other people who have had miraculous intervention that saved their baby when the pregnancy was endangered. But it’s a hard pill to swallow if I look at it too long from my human perspective without considering that I can’t see the bigger picture of what he’s doing through our losses.
Here are the miracles that did happen yesterday: two people separately and specifically prayed that
God would be enough to sustain me and my husband through this loss; a whole mass of people sent us love and support and prayers through messages and phone calls; we were directly loved by God through an amazing network of family and friends who will continue to hold us up with prayer and physical comfort through the next weeks and months. We have been the body of Christ supporting others, and now we are receiving the support of the body of Christ.
God could have performed a miracle and continued our pregnancy, and he would have received glory from that. It would have been a great story. But what’s the better story? Which ending gives more glory to God? I don’t know, but I am grateful to be able to see that his love being expressed through dozens of people is also a miracle that not everyone will experience. Any loss can be isolating, and miscarriage tends to be even more so because people don’t share it or family and friends feel uncomfortable discussing it. We have the blessing of feeling the wagons circling around us and isolating us from the loneliness instead of the other way around.
I heard more than once yesterday that I should be a bigger mess than I am because of this pregnancy loss and because of the sheer volume of our losses. There are two reasons I haven’t fallen apart yet. Right now the news, even though expected, doesn’t feel real; it will become real and painful soon enough. And, I can confidently say that I have faith that will sustain me, and I have the love of Christ expressed in so many ways in my life that I have no reason to fall apart. This walk would be impossible without that knowledge; logic alone would give me the right to give in to the self-pity and depression. Faith and the sacrificial love of Christ demand and empower me to work through it (trust me, there will be depression and anger and every other stage of grief in its time) and not let it cripple the rest of my life. The song “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger” has been extremely popular, probably because people cling to the thought that just surviving a trial makes us stronger, better people. I won’t pretend to know enough of the words to claim that the song as a whole has any sort of biblical message, but the title certainly does. God uses our weaknesses to show his strength. When we can demonstrate his strengths rather than rely on our own, we are stronger, better people who thrive rather than just survive a trial.
While it certainly isn’t the miracle I was hoping for, God is showing us signs and wonders of a different sort. The weeks and months to come will certainly hold different perspectives for me, and most of them will not be this reasonable or faithful. Once survival mode ends later this week or next week, the even greater miracle will be continuing to seek God’s face through the pain.

Praying Big

I have for some time been at a loss when it comes to praying about having a child.  Our pastor has challenged us more than once about our prayer lives to “pray big.”  The point being that we ask too little of God, and he’s just waiting for someone to go all out.  The challenge being that we ought to pray for things that will make much of God; we most often pray for God to handle small things in our lives without venturing beyond the Sunday School requests.  We far less often ask for God to do something huge, like bring 50 new visitors to our church service this week (or even 5 for that matter).

Of course, this challenge hit more than a few sore spots.  My prayer life is probably the least consistent and least disciplined part of my spiritual life.  Ouch.  I find it easy to believe that God still performs miracles, but I find it difficult to imagine that he would do so just because I asked.  More ouch.  The greatest subject of prayer in my life for the last four years has been miscarriage/baby related – usually along the lines of, “Lord, I can’t handle any more of this,” which hardly makes much of God.  But, more than that, I have no idea what I should pray in this situation that will glorify God.  So much ouch that I will punch you if you touch it again.

Before I finish this train of thought, please note that I am not at all saying that we shouldn’t pray about the small things.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The Bible instructs us to pray without ceasing.  God can be glorified in the tiniest details of our lives when we give him credit for working out those details and rely on him to do so.  I am, however, echoing the challenge to pray big.  Why don’t we?  Why are we offended by the suggestion?

Personally, I am afraid to commit to a particular line of prayer when I can just pray for God’s direction and for him to do his will.  Of course he’s going to do his will!  But am I willing to stick my neck out and ask for what I want?  Not so much.  I am technically being faithful in prayer by asking him to do his will, but it is not the type of prayer that will change the mind of God, a la Moses.  Exodus 32:14 tells us that the Lord changed his mind about destroying the disobedient Israelites after Moses pleaded for them.  I don’t know that I’ve pleaded with God in such a manner that I could change his mind.  I’m not sure how I would handle it if the answer to my pleading was “no,” so I have refrained from pleading all out.

I work with 5th and 6th grade kids on Wednesday nights at church, and several weeks ago one of them taught me a giant lesson through the tiniest request.  Someone had left a package of M & M’s sitting out on a table for several weeks and one of the boys asked a teacher if he could take them.  One of the other boys saw this happen and realized that the children’s ministry director probably had more M & M’s, and he might get his own pack if he asked Miss Rhonda.  As Miss Rhonda consented and went to get him a pack, this boy looked at me with an expression that said, “Can you believe what just happened?  All I had to do was ask!”  (Where are the spiritual band-aids, as the ouch is now a grievous wound…)

Since that Wednesday night, I have sheepishly, in the manner of a child asking for some outrageous Christmas present that his parents will never in a million years consent to buy, been asking God if I can have a baby.  I keep asking God if I can carry my own child and hold it in my arms, even if his answer is no – even if it breaks my heart again.