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A Mother’s Lament {You cannot stop this train. Save yourself.}

These words have leaked out of me, like tears trickling down the crevices of my heart. 

It’s been an all-consuming few weeks. I owe friends updates, but it feels as if there’s no space for conversation when I’m taking in heaving breaths of air just to survive and dodging sorrow’s persistent arrows.

At the same time. 

Time is in such a hurry, glaring at me as it rushes by. Other’s opinions are strong; swift and sharp like missiles: and advice flows so easily, that supposedly isn’t personal. Then a trustworthy and brilliant doctor tells me that I don’t have to be perfect. Of course I am not perfect, I think to myself. But it’s nice to hear a professional say that “you can stop trying so hard” and acknowledge that we cannot fix anything anyhow. It’s nice to know that I can stop but I’d like to see him try to get off this train.

1.

I’m a home-grown perfectionist partly from a critical upbringing. (That is no surprise to regular readers.) This has shaped me and made me who I am.

All my life I believed that if I tried harder, sweltered and burned through the workout of life, ran harder and tougher, perspiring and aching with my heavy burdens, then I Would Find God’s love, Feel It Finally.

The assumption was that life is hard.  But I sought perfection in adversity. I’d become the perfect person for my husband and for my kids and for my siblings and for my mother. And for my dead Father, and for God, I’d finally Become Worthy. And then I’d feel Good Enough. Truth is, though there is no If,Then kind of promise from God or Life. A promise not really spoken by anyone anywhere, a false hope that a child of a raging parent needs, to believe—if I do this, he will … what?? —Stop yelling. —Stop raging. —Stop his anxious, relentless criticism. —Be happy with mamma, be happy with my sisters, and be happy— with me. Or simply be happy? He was a good Dad; He was bad I wrote long ago.  If that’s the case then I am too. Both Good and Bad. My aim was always perfection.

Put your oxygen mask on first should be the advice given to every new parent in those first days when you’re learning the art of diapers and tight swaddling. Save yourself.

2.

The trustworthy and brilliant doctor asked “how are you both doing” and at the same time, same song with different notes, I answered Terrible and he replied Good.  Our therapist laughed a little, allowing Tom to go on.  But like a great therapist, he circled back around to my Terrible. I looked away from his piercing eyes, because I haven’t said that out loud in a while.

And I’m afraid if I give it space, a crack in the universe will open and, my grief will come screaming out. I’m in control, but holding in that Terrible makes me numb. I’m doing the job of motherhood and dying of pain inside. I’m not supposed to show my weakness and it’s indulgent to let others know how much I hurt when the others are children. Or school professionals and doctors wanting to help our family cope. Hold it in, if you can.

How are you? I’m asked dozens of times a week and the answer must be fine. I’m holding it all in and then the trustworthy and brilliant doctor looked me in the eye.

Skirting his gaze that is boring into me, I focus on his strange lamp—a clarinet turned into something that no longer makes music—how sad, a clarinet that no longer croons.  Wretched, both, the instrument turned lamp and I.

I’m heavy with despondency. My cheeks burn red with heat, the toll of trying to control my emotions. My tears disobey my order slowly dripping down my cheeks.  I’m staring at the wall and the sad clarinet that no longer sings.

3.

A person with anxiety or depression, they sometimes get that way from trying to control too much. Believing they can control outcomes, control people, control themselves and circumstances enough to make all the things work out, but real life isn’t like that. Controlling all that is a mind numbing mess. And the more you try the harder it is to feel anything.

Then a trustworthy and brilliant doctor, he said, “It’s alright you don’t have to do anything. There’s no magic answer. There’s no perfect choice nor will “enough” perfect choices make you all healthy and thriving.”

4.

Recently I attended Pulse, a conference for artists, at my church.  I felt honored to have been asked to write a poem for the program. It’s here.

I should not have gone to Pulse.  Even in the midst of the ache of our circumstances it was a calendared reminder that we were in this crisis two years ago at the last Pulse.  And this tidal wave of events hasn’t stopped for a moment; it has been relentless and crushing for all those months, hours, minutes.

I went heart aching, sleep deprived, hurting, spirit crushed and of course feeling critical.  Not a great formula.  Not a great day.  There were no momentous one-on-one conversations or amazing-prophetic-just-for-me-words spoken, only more lonesomeness and sadness in a crowd. But one must choose to keep on living even though you’re experiencing the hardest times of your life. You have to keep pretending you are alive, and it’s not cheating. Be open to healing. Keep going, heartbroken.

5.

Day after day, my depressed brain says lay down. So I get up, again.  Night after night, I pop the right combination of prescribed medication to sleep, waking daily at 5:40 am to foggy and desolate despair before I get up again. Get up.  Keep moving.  But don’t pretend that the casual “Hi, how are you?” is an opening to tell your problems.

Perhaps it is only here, where people are a captive audience, I can let the words and heartache flow. Most people cannot enter into the darkness of our lives now and I’m not totally not sure why.  In the improvised dogmas of other’s lives, our anguish is too much.  In a way, I get it. I’ve been there knowing people’s heartache and not having the courage to follow-up.  I get it. I keep moving too.

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6.

I’m not living in the Light but I’m watching for glimpses of it every day. The gift of quiet solitude is time to see the shadows moving across the wall and capturing a moment, beautiful but never to be seen again. My philosophy is see the beauty in a light filled moment, quickly. Before another call from another so-called expert comes.  And I lie down again and see in the window, a twinkling that is different from the one moments before.  Holding on to these seconds of tranquility, then I get up again, pick up the phone and make another call. Always searching for answers. Then the trustworthy and brilliant doctor says finally, in that quiet hour with just us two, that we can both stop striving so hard for answers. There’s no fix. There’s no answer, perfect or otherwise. A final fixing when we’ll suddenly be done. That’s the heavy grief and the answer for now. And, help yourself and in doing so you’ll become the parent your kids need.

7.

I can feel my heart heavy and tight in my chest. Then it comes to me, the thought that Jesus on the Cross experienced everything real to us humans, including mental illnesses like anxiety and depression and bipolar and all. On the cross, that’s what Jesus did. Jesus took it for us all.

8.

No, I cannot join you in the happiness of Light, enjoying casual encounters or live music, feeling the anticipation of love or joy of birthday milestones, no laughing hard at jokes, or knowing the thrill of spiritual mountaintops – I cannot join you there.  I listen, I am physically present, and I might even laugh but I don’t feel it. Even laughter tastes bitter on my tongue. I am living in the shadow lands of unremitting lonesomeness and I sit here.  I am waiting for it all to end. But that’s just it.  I have to learn that finding my oxygen mask is to save myself and in doing so it will save them.

When the trustworthy and brilliant doctor said it, something resisted. Our lives are on a careening train but I’m supposed to jump off, save myself and watch the crash? No.

“You cannot stop this train. Save yourself,” he said.  And,“The only way you can help your child is to save yourself.” And later, “Know that no one around you is going through what you are: no one, none of your neighbors or friends, can possibly understand nor will they ever have any idea of the depth of this sorrow you carry.”

9.

And so I go on. Watching for patterns in the sunshine and shadows, for lessons, for language, for hope, for rhythms that show me God’s order in the midst of this unrelenting sting. Light beckons the heart toward hope.

Life Begins Again and Again: Seeing the Good in Depression

“The words spirit and inspire both derive from the Latin word spirare which literally means to breathe. These emotional highs and lows that we experience are just the natural breathing process of our spirits.” 

The Rev. Marcy Ellen, author of The Soul Truth: Reflections for the Waking Soul

Yesterday I wrote about what depression feels like and how much I hate it.  I’ve done that a lot perhaps even dwelling too long on the negatives, pain and grief.

Today, I’m reflecting on that. I found myself telling Tom, when he asked, “Yes, when I smile I’m forcing it, if not technically faking.  Fake it till you feel it,” I answered in a text.  Even he was surprised by my statements. And that got me thinking.  What about a positive post?

So this is about how one accepts the positive outcomes of depression. What are they? How do we grow from this pain? Six ideas.

We must face the things that might have made us depressed.

When you are clinically depressed, it is difficult to process reality well or consider clearly what might come of being sick. Surely there aren’t positive outcomes?  It’s likely you’re not thinking about how you might become a stronger person through the experience.  But I have learned that if you are willing to continue the hard work of therapy good things do eventually come.  I can attest to this in my life time and again.

For me, two good outcomes of depression and therapy are the growth that comes from self-discovery and  forgiveness. This only happens by facing your pain squarely and accepting your past, then working toward forgiving yourself or others.

It is only by looking at yourself very directly as if in a mirror and seeing in your own pain—your history and the toll it has taken on your weary face and in your tired eyes—that you can begin to move forward.

My depression often returns (the really bad stuff) when I start thinking that I’m responsible for things, that I’m in total control of the outcomes of my life, my family, my past and my future. Ironically these are things that are usually quite out of my control.  My perfectionism, my rigid thinking, and my acting like I am god all stems from a false belief that it is all within my control.

  • If I were a stronger, healthier or better role model and mother, “less depressed,” then my children somehow would not struggle.
  • If I had been a stronger child, more resilient and confident, I would not still be fraught with the outcomes of my father’s raging and abuse.
  • If I’d been less weak, sad and lonely, then I would not have become dependent on alcohol.

And on it goes, with wrong thinking about situations that were for the most part outside of my human control.

In my right mind, of course, I know that this is ridiculous thinking.  But depression does not allow the right mind to prevail, causing maudlin, senseless, sloppy and wrong thinking to rise to the surface and muddy the waters.

I’m so grateful to have been paired in life with a partner that is a frequent encourager, confident in his own ideas enough to sit me down, time and time again, and tell me squarely: That’s wrong thinking.

Through reflection, stillness and rest healing comes. 

I often guiltily spend time in stillness and reflection.  My life as a SAHM allows for this choice we have made for our family.  But my heartache and self-doubts make me wonder if I should be doing something more. True “work”—earning an income, being a breadwinner, and modeling work outside the home as a woman, something I believe in strongly.

I had to accept that a part of the reason I don’t “work outside home” at this point is that I need spaces of stillness in order to continue to heal.  My psyche is bruised. Spiritually I’m still dysfunctional.  I need space to heal, to pray, to listen, to become aware of and open to the Spirit.  I still wrestle with “Why me and not others? Why do I struggle so with depression?  Why am I privileged enough to not have to work?” My brain always asks.  For now, all I can do is accept how fortunate I am to have a partner who can provide for our needs.

Take the wide open spaces, as a Season to Heal.

When I worked full-time I was driven by fear of failure, insecurity and a need to build my own domain of responsibility.  The more I accomplished, the more they threw at me and I ate it up, loving the affirmation and the challenge.  If I’m honest I was motivated by conquest and power more than anything else.

Stepping away from that was not a choice to be a SAHM it was a choice to not work there any longer.  Over the years, as I have lost that part of my identity, as you can imagine it’s been hard.  I have always needed and wanted work—to fill me, even fulfill me.  

A part of the healing has been accepting that I’m okay without that part of my identity.  Yes, I write, and enjoy the expression of my soul and mind through photography but it’s not a paying full-time job. I have always written it off as lesser importance.  Finally, okay not finally but for the most part, I accept myself and that means that I can face those monsters of purpose and identity.

I’m not there yet, fully healthy.  My identity in Christ, my value in the kingdom, my desire for accolades, and attention, and applause, still live inside me.  I can say that things are headed in the right direction.

We can heal by asking why we were led into this spiritual recession.

Marcy Ellen suggested the question.  And this sort of question is helpful to me. I’ve never considered my depression as a spiritual recession and it’s a challenging idea.  It reminds me of the spiritual seasons of the book of EcclesiastesSp Chapter 3.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

ECCLESIASTES 3:1-8

[hope]

By accepting the seasons of living, we can be comforted. Especially when some seasons contain suffering and pain, we can know that it leads naturally to a season of healing and growth.  If we do more than simply endure it and fully accept, we can appreciate the ups and downs, leading to a deepened time yet to come.

Life can be outrageously difficult, “A wild and mesmerizing melody,” says author and Benedictine sister Joan Chittister, one of my spiritual mothers, in her book For Everything A Season. “We can go with the flow (of life) or we can resist it all the way to the bitter end. We can learn from it or reject it completely…Life is a relentless teacher.” p. 154.

The truth of this life is that sometimes we’ll struggle and at other times we’ll thrive, even dance!  This is hard to believe when you’re depressed.  But the thought fills me with hope.

And I believe hope is what eventually heals the depressed, if it is not total healing at least something good. Whether it is through God’s healing or a therapist’s genius. Perhaps it is a husband’s quiet truth spoken over two decades or a friend’s frequent kindness. Or other forms of healing.

Hope spoken aloud and believed is the path to healing, and it is the way forward to a season of laughter and dancing.

I believe these seasons of grief, with tears searing warm salty pathways in my soul, will lead to building up and healing, to days other than this.  As Chittister says, there is no such thing as a meaningless moment.  It is all important, teaching us, molding us, chiseling our souls, shaping us into a person of compassion and joy.  “Who is the happy person? Those who have survived each of the elements and found themselves to be more human, more wise, more kindly, more just, more flexible, more integrated because of having lived through that period of time, that moment of definition, that phase of survival, that streak of chastening awareness.” p. 156, For Everything A Season.

Awareness and acceptance are all. 

Accept your lot, even while you strive through self-care, perhaps medicine and spiritual guides, and time, to heal.  As we stop fighting our life, we become aware that each season is meant to teach and force us to grow and grow up.

This season of depression is an opportunity for me, if I am willing to be still and listen.  I will sit in the quiet of this moment and lean in, for there life begins, again.

The Silent Scream: Depression & Autopilot Mom

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For months I have been unable to smile honestly.  When I think about it, that I need to smile so that people don’t wonder, I can’t make my face do it.  My husband asks if I’m okay.  Yes.  I will always say yes, unless it’s really grave.  But it has not been life and death for years thank God.

I’m okay.

But I cannot make myself smile.  I do laugh. And this strikes me as funny. I can laugh but I cannot smile. My kids engender my heart opening like a flower and I smile genuinely at them.  But I cannot make my insides smile.  There’s no joy.

Depression is a dark and silent bastard, sometimes. Screaming at other times, an internal hell.

I have likened it to a black dog chasing me, as I try to walk tripping. Though I don’t fall, I feel shaky, uncertain.

It’s a smog cloud that surrounds, clinging with a stench.

It’s cement in your legs, arms, and heart.  It’s sand in your brain.

It’s panic, which is hard to describe, in your heart.  Panic is a bit like someone’s inflating your heart without your permission.  Heavy and full.

Depression is sadness at the beginning of the day, when you wake, realizing you’re still alive.  Not that you want death, but you cannot think of having responsibility for another day even being possible.

Eating, dressing, shopping, deciding things, all—too—much. Just too hard, this is surely quite unimaginable to someone who is happy, I know.  It’s simple — the brain no longer works properly so you cannot convince it

to endure,

to do,

to face it all.

Depression is the opposite of happy, it’s happiness turned upside down.  The ugly step sister who is unpleasant, unattractive, persistently complaining in your ear, she’s a pain.

Raising children is almost a heartbreak—considering the lost conversations, lost moments, lost years, lost memory.

But you remember regret.

The unsmiling, aching, sad person that I am causes me silent anguish.

I know what I’ve lost, what I’ve been incapable of giving. 

I wonder. When will it occur to my children that they have had half a mom?

Depression sucks.  I rise and I go to auto pilot.  Autopilot mom knows what to do.  Tasks, appointments, phone calls, and rides.  This is my life these days.  I do it, wanting to lie down.

Reading is hard.

Concentrating is hard.

Grocery shopping is hard.

Cooking is hard.

House cleaning is hard.

Talking, thinking, participating is hard.

Writing is an ache, a longing to be transparent, a silent scream.

I hate depression.

I’m Not Gonna Lie, I’m Depressed

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I’m not gonna lie, I’m depressed.  Not that I was lying before

when I pretended that I wasn’t.  Life is a silly game, and a beautiful dance,  It takes skill – to weather life’s storms.

(And we’ve been in a blow-your-mind-knock-you-down kind of hurricane!)

It’s a special skill to endure, to survive, to not

get

depressed.  Even for people who aren’t inclined, as my doctor so kindly said.  I’m inclined, thank you very much.  My mind and body, the know well the slippery incline toward this sink hole.

Still, no matter what I know, no matter what I am told, what I tell myself or read, or have in my head from doctors, the evil voices in my head say – FAILURE.

I’m doing my best.  I’ve walked fifteen miles this week and let me tell you it took me a whole month at least to gather up the energy to dust off the treadmill, plug it in.  To only do that.  Just to start, to begin again when I’m so damned tempted to give in to this beast,

the dark nights, the soulless thoughts, and the depravity which is my companion,

depression.

It’s a sinkhole.

Lordy, if there weren’t so many counting on me, I think I might collapse.  You see I don’t care about myself and that’s a big part of the problem.  I don’t care about me.

I live for others, mostly my kids, my mother, this house, and our life.  I know this is wrong.  And I’m not lazy, though the voices tell me I am.  I know money doesn’t equate success, or my value as a person, and yet still, I quake in my soul as I lie in bed, hiding away under the heavy down comforter, with quick glances at the clock.

4:30 am is too early to get up, 5:00, 5:40, finally dragging my sorry self out of bed.

I don’t want to get up.  I don’t want to take care of everyone.  I don’t want to be an enabler.

 And I am angry.  Angry to still have an adult child freeloading living in my house sleeping till noon.  Angry to have a teenager whose beautiful life is spiraling out of control into a major anxiety disorder.  Angry because my husband still enjoys things, wants to be with friends and in this case spends a few minutes of music making downstairs.  I don’t enjoy anything right now. I am angry that we cannot figure out what’s going on in my little boy’s brain. Angry that my teenager cannot, will not, does not read books.  Angry that everyone gets hungry, on schedule, three times a day.  I’m even angry that I have the space and freedom to go the three-hour doctor appointments with my mother up to three times a week. I’m angry about my priviledge.  I am so sick of being angry. 

This is simply part of the thermometer of my spirit telling me I’m

far gone, depressed.

And so, machine like, for a week now I have put on my workout clothes and the beautiful running shoes I earned this summer. I walk downstairs, set the machine to three miles, turn on the book of Hebrew, or Luke, or Matthew. and I listen for themes of Jesus seeing or hearing women.

I listen hard, I listen angry about this too, feeling that this is also something stupid that I accept, something about not caring about myself.  Angry that the Church pretends women aren’t fully human, made in God’s image, just like men.  I’m angry as I quickly jot a note on a piece of tape I’ve attached to the treadmill, looking for themes from the creator God, the Holy One.

It is a scribbled prayer,

Jesus sees me.

Jesus hears me that I’m angry

and depressed.

Jesus cares.

And people care, so many good people who reach for me.  Know me.  Care.  And I’m not so far gone that I’m oblivious or ungrateful.  And I’m not so far gone that I won’t get up when the alarm goes off and continue.  I’ll continue to pray, because the anger is the depression speaking and I need to know

what it’s going on and on about.  I know this — it’s not the kids, it’s not the so called problems, it’s not my  hubby (for sure). It’s not a friend sick with cancer, or a child with mental illness, or an aging mother, or an elderly neighbor being committed to a home, or the sexist church.

This is about me.  I’m not gonna lie, depression has come knocking. Now I have to listen.

Melody

Thanks, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary, for this. 

Can depression lead to a richer spiritual life?

Our tears so blind our eyes that we cannot see our mercies.
               -- John Flavel (1627-1691)

The thoughts by Dr. Parker Palmer below are beautifully expressed and echo my experience with clinical depression.  If you’ve never suffered, it may enlighten or expand your notions and ability to empathize.  Reading it was a comfort to me and perhaps it will be to you, as well, if you have suffered.

I also have a poem I wrote a while back about being in the middle of clinical depression titled “Sink Hole.”

How could depression lead to a richer spiritual life?

“I can answer this question only after the fact, because in the midst of severe clinical depression I have never felt anything redeeming about it, spiritually or otherwise. But when I emerge back into life, several things become clear.

* One is that the darkness did not kill me, which makes all darknesses more bearable—and since darkness is an inevitable part of the cycle of spiritual life (as it is in the cycle of natural life) this is valuable knowledge.

* Two, depression has taught me that there is something in me far deeper and stronger and truer than my ego, my emotions, my intellect, or my will. All of these faculties have failed me in depression, and if they were all I had, I do not believe I would still be here to talk about the experience. Deeper down there is a soul, or true self, or “that of God in every person” that helps explain (for me, at least) where the real power of life resides.

* Three, the experience of emerging from a living hell makes the rest of one’s life more precious, no matter how “ordinary” it may be. To know that life is a gift, and to be grateful for that gift, are keys to a spiritual life, keys that one is handed as depression yields to new life.

Sinkhole

the woman thought to herself,
what’s really important?

[some days I wake up so lost I can’t remember
why I got up the day before;
what mattered enough to make
me want to get up?]

the woman told herself
breathe, just breathe in.
exhale, do it because you can.

[I haven’t had a day like this in a long time.
such a long time that it almost hurts worse
than before when the bad days
were constant.]

the woman laid down, her skin hurt
she gave in, just for a moment, an hour.
thinking perhaps if I sleep
this feeling will flee, and it will almost be
as if it never happened.

[I know from experience
you can NEVER give in to it.
depression is like a Sink Hole.
FIGHT,  get up.  Don’t let it win.]

the woman thought to herself
and took a breath.
and another, and accepted
again,
that this was a fight, but it was her fight.
and one that she wanted to win.