Culture Shock, Mental Health, and Staying Present

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In August, I took my oldest son to visit some good friends (adopted family) in Ghana, West Africa.   I kept the trip to ten days because I didn’t want to overwhelm Xander in a place that is so unlike where we live, especially since he’s only seven.   I prepared him as much as I could before we left for the way things would be, and showed him lots of pictures depicting what he might see on our trip.

Needless to say, the first five days of our adventure were tough for him.  We flew to Ghana still both trying to recover from a wretched stomach bug that continued to plague us with cramps several days after we landed in Africa.   And, as we disembarked from our plane and entered the terminal in Accra, Xander looked at me and said, wide-eyed:  “Mom, you were right…there really are a lot of black people here!”   I’m still chuckling about the look he had on his face.

Xander’s first couple of days of Ghana were safe exploration within the confines of my Ghanaian dad’s yard.  However, when we left on a seven hour trip to his farm up in the mountains, Xander’s culture shock really began to kick in.  The mixture of being tired, recovering from a stomach bug, and being in a wildly unfamiliar and different place led him to spend the entire car ride hidden under a blanket in the back seat.  He avoided looking out the window at the scenery and interesting things we passed, choosing instead to force himself to sleep as much as possible.

My son’s initial experience in Ghana took me back to the time I had spent there years ago, and how I left Ghana the last time.   Let’s just say I was a whimpering, sniveling runt of a mess….on the inside of course…I had too much pride to let all of that come out.    The second time I went to live in Ghana I lived with Ghanaian families, seeing Americans only occasionally.  My plan was to stay for two years, but by the end of one semester I was really depressed, confused, lost, and in the throes of culture shock for sure.

Of course, I couldn’t come back openly admitting that Africa was too big for me.  So, I couched my return in rational excuses:  the church denomination I’m working with is way too stifling, Ghanaians don’t need any white missionaries as they are quite capable on their own, I’m getting in the way, I should go back to grad school and come back to Africa with a more valuable skill,  etc.     Saving face was important….I’d already been called a quitter enough times in life and really wanted to spare myself any more labeling.

What strikes me now is how differently I left Ghana that time over a decade ago, and how I came back this August.   I now had hours and hours of counseling under my belt, massive amounts of self awareness and insight compared to my early 20s, and was no longer burdened to the same degree by fear and doubt.

The thing that I did wrong the last time was that I wanted to avoid pain and discomfort.  If I didn’t know what was expected of me or how to interact with people it was easier to hide away under a figurative blanket in the back seat.  But in reality, all this did was make me more depressed, more unhappy.

What I knew this time, coming to Ghana with my son, was that when you feel discomfort, you’ve got to stay with it, feel it, probe it…not run.  Staying present in the moment that is the scariest is what will get you through, teach you the lessons you need to learn.  Because, I’ve also learned, God, the universe, whoever, will make sure and bring back around the same kinds of situations again and again until you learn the lesson…so you might as well spare yourself suffering and get it the first time.

In August, whenever I began to feel those pangs of culture shock coming back, I refused to let myself think about home, what is great and familiar about America, what I would be doing in the States.  Rather, I asked myself questions about what I was feeling, looking for the core issues at play, and forcing myself to stay present.

So, in light of all this, may I encourage you to learn to stay present in your own painful and uncomfortable times.  The boogeyman almost always seems scarier when we don’t look at him straight on.  Maybe this is something you can’t do by yourself and you need a safe person or counselor to stand by your side when you proceed,  but as I’m learning, staying in the moment and not avoiding pain and discomfort, can actually help decrease your suffering.  Go figure.

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

Free Mental Health Toolbox

tooloxI have ADD, which means staying organized is a real struggle for me.   I love order and having things in their place, but it is a challenge to keep things the way I like them.

Having been on a journey toward mental wholeness for almost fifteen years now, I have alot of medical and mental health professional history.  And, I’ve been on like a zillion different medications and dosages.  And I’ve had more than a few diagnoses and diagnostic tests.  Lots to keep track of.

The problem then lies in me keeping it all straight in my head or on paper.  When I don’t have a designated place to keep track of all of my mental information,  things get chaotic and important chunks of data get lost.  Which leads to my inevitable visits with the shrink saying, “Yes, I’m pretty sure I’ve been on that medication before, but I don’t remember when or what the dosage was.”

With today’s super speedy doctor’s appointments, where one basically has about fifteen minutes of the doctor’s attention, my ADD kicks into overdrive while I frantically try to remember all the pertinent information I should share, and I end up drawing complete blanks.

I also do ALOT of reading….like to the tune of at least 10 new Kindle books a month.    Many of them are really good and helpful, but alot are just fluff.  I’ve found that especially in referring good books to others, I need a place to record the books that have had the greatest impact on my journey, with a space to include those life changing quotes that I can never seem to track down after reading the book.

So, based on my own organization issues and dynamics of my mental health journey, I’ve created what I’m calling a mental health toolbox, entitled “My Journey Towards Mental Health.”    This printable pdf is a place to record any important information regarding your movement toward a healthier life in a way that is easily accessible, and provides a clear big picture of what you are striving for and where you’ve come from.

Toolbox pages include places to record significant or traumatic events in your personal or family history, your medical and mental health history, information gleaned from various inventories and evaluations, favorite books and quotes, goals, etc.

“My Journey Toward Mental Wholeness” is a free gift from me to help you on your own journey.  To get your own copy, click here.  Once you sign up to receive the toolbox, you will automatically receive any updated or improved editions as they are released.

Finally, I’d love to hear feed back and any suggestions that you may have for ways to improve the toolbox and make it more helpful.

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

When Heartbreak Makes You Crazy

heartbreak
My oldest son and I just returned from a week and a half long trip to visit my Ghanaian family in West Africa. (No, we were nowhere near the Ebola crisis). We had a great time, and despite a bit of culture shock on the part of my seven year old, the trip was a success. (We also just moved from New York to Massachusetts, and these two things combined are why I haven’t blogged in weeks.)

However, there is a person I met while there whose memory has been lingering with me. It’s a story of how mental illness can hit those we would never suspect in tragic ways. Here’s what happened:

One evening when the day was winding down, my Ghanaian parents had a visitor. I was quite perplexed by the way they interacted with her, because normally Africans are very hospitable and engaging, especially Ghanaians. This particular woman was invited in and sat on the couch, and she and my parents exchanged sporadic comments, but the whole dynamic was completely different than what I’d experienced there before.

I introduced myself to the woman, and she began to ask me questions. They seemed a little random, but I was used to that from past trips to Africa, where Ghanaians wanted to know about my life and America, sometimes coming up with off the wall questions.

As our conversation progressed, the questions got stranger. She asked where I was from, and when I told her the States, she asked if I had ever been to Russia. I responded no, that I hadn’t, and she said she had been to Moscow, though she thinks now she should have gone to Leningrad.

Next, she asked if I knew the Lewinsky family. I had no clue how to respond…was she referring to Monica? She also asked how the people in Maine were doing? I tried to be polite thought I was really confused…maybe she thought all of us white people knew each other?

Then the woman began to tell me that I need to contact someone in Moscow by the name of Sanuch Mahmoud, or something of the sort. Then she asked if I like fish. Then she asked if I wanted a gift, and what kind of gift I would like.

As I sat there getting more and more confused by really weird questions asked in a perfectly normal manner, I got distracted by something my son needed, and when I returned the woman had left the house.

My Ghanaian parents immediately explained the situation because they sensed that I had no clue what had just happened. This woman had been a long time member of their church, someone they described as a real lady, beautiful and elegant. Years before she had met a man in the church who was half American half Ghanaian, and against his mother’s wishes had gotten married. In time, she became pregnant, but had a miscarriage. This devastated her, and sparked the beginning of some mental issues. Apparently the husband either couldn’t deal with it or didn’t want to deal with it and left her for another woman, who he promptly had a baby with.

The woman literally went crazy from a broken heart. Her mind snapped and she spent the next two years in a mental hospital, where the psychiatrists could find no way to help her. At the time I met her, she was back living in the home of one of her relatives.

My Ghanaian parents described the behaviors that she exhibited since her breakdown. She would come to their house randomly asking if they had her keys, or wanting peanut butter or other things. She became convinced that she had done things she had never done, such as go to Moscow. And she was always obsessed with the children she never had…for example, she told my father that she thought my son resembled one of her kids.

The whole church family had been heartbroken over what happened to her, exacerbated by the fact that she no longer wanted to have anything to do with the church. No one seemed to have any way to reach past her delusional thinking, and instead resorted to just managing her behavior.

I know that this particular woman most certainly had tendencies toward mental illness before any of the tragedies in her life occurred, and they were just the spark that ignited it all. However, this was the first time I’ve met anyone personally who literally snapped because of a broken heart. And I came away initially angry at her husband for leaving her, but then trying to understand by remembering that much of Africa doesn’t have the best infrastructure for supporting families dealing with mental illness. He probably had no clue how to deal with his wife’s pain and illness.

I don’t have any great moral from this story, or any deep point other than sometimes life can really suck. I hurt for this woman who is imprisoned in her mind, and I get frustrated by the lack of answers to make it all better for her. I’m left with the consolation that love and compassion are the way through these messes, even if those messes aren’t tidied up in this life.

Seeking to fully live,
Julie

Robin Williams, A Sacrificial Life

Addio Robin... ci insegnavi calcio e poesia…

I read with the world yesterday that Robin Williams has died, apparently from his own hand.  And like much of the world, I’m shocked and devastated.

I certainly didn’t know him personally.  The closest claim to fame I can offer is that apparently my mother once met his brother at a conference.  Nevertheless, this is one of those cases where in losing an actor, one feels like they’ve lost a friend or companion.  I mean, hasn’t he been there in cinematic episodes throughout my entire life?  I cut my teeth on Mork and Mindy episodes, amazed one could talk so fast in Good Morning Vietnam,  moved in Awakenings and Patch Adams, wildly entertained in Mrs. Doubtfire, and constantly enamored by Williams in all the other movies he played in that I saw.

You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.
-Robin Willliams

And now I want to bang my head on the desk.  Why again,why are so many artistic geniuses plagued by madness, addiction, depression?  It seems so wildly unfair that those who can evoke responses from deep within us literally chip away at themselves to do so.  I wonder, do we take these things for granted?  Do those who will judge and criticize Williams for taking his own life realize that it was those same raw emotions and the mind with such extreme qualities that gave us such amazing acting?

I think one of Williams’ movies that had the most impact on me was What Dreams May Come.  My roommate and I saw it in college and I remember us emerging from the theater in stunned silence.  In this movie, Ann commits suicide after losing her beloved children and husband.  Chris, her dead husband, travels to the lower realm to rescue Ann, from her own private hell, where she is to remain for the intended length of her life.  Through his sacrificial willingness to remain with Ann in the lower realm instead of returning to the dream-like state of Summerland, Ann awakens from the “hell” she is trapped in, an exaggerated version of what she was experiencing before her death, and is reborn into a new life.

I can imagine that Williams was going through his own unimaginable hell that reason wasn’t able to break through.  I imagine the pain he experienced felt insurmountable.  But I am grateful that he gave to us out of that pain, that despite his own hurting he sought to bring joy and laughter to others.   That, in my mind, is sacrificial living.

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

 

Ending The Circuitous Thoughts

Meditation
Whenever I have considered killing myself, it was the result of my brain torturing me incessantly.  So many times I have desperately wanted to be free of these relentless thoughts, barraging my brain with their “God damn, you will entertain us!” pursuit of all my time, space, being.

How many times have I replayed conversations over and over in my head, unable to stop, or defenseless to halt the endless stream of questions and doubts surfing down the pipeline of my consciousness.   People tell me I think too impractically, that I am too emeshed in esoteric and metaphysical pondering….just live, they say, and I wonder to myself how that is possible.  Is it possible to clean the house without pondering at the same time where God is theistic or non-theistic?  Can I really teach my kids skills in life and not simultaneously be concerned with atonement theory, scapegoat theory, or one of the myriad other theories as to what Jesus was all about?   Can I write blog posts without wondering if I should just shut up because of how clearly I see and feel my own failures, my iinadequacies?

I have stumbled across meditation.  And I literally mean stumble, because how many times have I been warned about anything that wafted Eastern philosophy fragrances.  Yet now, after stumbling, I decided to go back and look at the big rock I tripped over and have found it to be a crucial piece in my mental health and spirituality in general.  Aromatherapy, if you will.  Those Eastern breezes are bringing the faith of my tradition to life for me.   So I have been reading and listening and learning….Thomas Keating, Cynthia Bourgelt, Thich Nhat Hahn, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Richard Rohr, Pema Chadron,and many others….centering prayer, mindful meditation, Tonglen meditation, contemplative prayer.

I’m just a newbie at this practice.  I can’t stop my latching on to thoughts swarming my way save a microsecond here or there.  But those microseconds seem invaluable and this is why I’m motivated to keep trying.  For those split seconds, I am just being without having thought associated.  Which proves to me that I’m not at my core only the summation of my thought life.  I can be still, and live, without having to engage everything that comes my way, I can let those stupid circuitous thoughts just swim on by in the lazy river of my mind to continue on their way.

In the past, I thought the only solution for ending this constant cranking out of obsessive thought was medication.  Medication that would “dumb me down”, making me feel like a big fuzzy cloud rather than sort of a semi-intellectual machine.  Now, for once, I have hope that there is something that can offer a solution, in a way that the traditional kinds of prayer I have been taught never helped me.  According to research studies noted in The Tao of Bipolar,  here are some important things to note which provide me with solid empirical data that my mind craves to ensure I’m not a complete nut:

1.  Our brains have neuropasticity, or the flexible ability of neurons to form new connections.  Aka, we are not resigned forever to remain stuck in our old thought patterns.  We have some capability of forming new ones.

2.  Practicing meditation elicits a calming response from the parasympathetic nervous system.  Practicing can enhance our natural ability to be calm.

3.  Meditation can bring about the dual effects of both relaxation and alertness, something my anxiety medication has never been able to duplicate.

4.  People that regular meditate over a number of years show significant anatomical difference in their prefrontal cortex and insula, which are related to attentiveness and awareness of internal body experiences, respectively.

5.  Meditation stimulates more activity in the cingulate gyrus (a part of the brain that deals with emotional regulation and moodiness), an area prone to lower activity in those with bipolar.

One writer explains the whole experience of what happens to your thought process through meditation in the following, very helpful way:

And as he recognises this, a kind of loosening occurs. Not only does he identify less with individual thoughts and feelings, but he also begins to rely less on particular ways of understanding himself. He feels less and less need to summarise his experience, to corral his raging flood of thoughts and feelings into a stable, permanent view of who he is. And as he begins to let go of his constant grasping after solidity, a fuller sense of who he is starts to emerge.

This statement, but writer and OCD sufferer Matt Bieber, speaks true to me.  I can let go of this Western, Cartesian view of life that says I am only what I think about that rides me with guilt and shame.

So, if you’ve never given meditation or the perhaps less intimidating Christian version, centering prayer, a try…may I encourage you to do so.  I’d love to hear your experiences,

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

How Moving Can Up Your Crazy Quota

Move to NYC
But also…

i ♥ boston
So, we’re moving….in 11 days….to the burbs of Boston.

And I’m feeling crazier than normal.  But it’s not my fault.  I swear, this relocation to a different state thing is a real crazy maker….and I know, because this is my fifth relocation in 9 years.  Texas to Indiana, Indiana to Colorado, Colorado to Indiana, Indiana to New York, and now on to Massachusetts.

Mike and I’ve always figured with each move that we’d finally found out how to do all the essentials smoothly, but every single time, something new pops up that caught us surprised, irritated, and feeling at a loss in the control department.

 This state uses title and closing companies, that state only uses lawyers.  This particular state is the only one that doesn’t have State Farm,our tried and true insurance company.   That state will throw a fuss about insuring a house that has huskies in it.  

Then, there’s dumb mortgage company issues:

Oh, so a year after closing on your house, we realized we’ve miscalculated your tax escrow two times, so we’re just going to up your mortgage by $500 a month, unless you’d rather pay us a big chunk of money up front.  Then there’s the other company who, for the love of God, could not get our names and house address right after a minimum of FIVE phone calls to straighten it out.    Or, the company who completely forgot to order a title for the new house when processing the loan application.

Then, on the home selling front:

Why is it that every little thing goes wrong when you put your house on the market?  Those really hard to reach lightbulbs in the entry chandelier burn out for the first time since you’ve lived in the house.  The dogs suddenly start shedding copious amounts of hair, so much so that you could knit a sweater with the amount you vacuum up everyday, trying in vain to keep the house tidy?  Or, when you’re desperately trying to keep your house cool on the hottest of the very few days that  you actually really need AC in New York that you have a showing and you’re year old window AC unit that dies unexpectedly?  Or, when we face resistance on our corporate home buy out because our home happens to have a suspicious type of stucco on it known for holding in moisture? And this is really only a minute sampling of what we’ve encountered over the years.

The unruly logistics of everything:

Trying to figure out which days are best to having the moving guys come pack the house, while keeping enough clothes packed separately because the day of closing my oldest son and I are flying to Africa while my husband watches the two littles for ten days.   I had no idea when we booked the trip that we would be moving, and my tickets can’t be changed.

And finally, the bittersweet of going somewhere new, but leaving behind good friends:

I’m not looking forward to leaving behind my faith community and good friends here in New York.  They are really some of the best in my life.  Yet, I’m wildly excited to live in Boston, which has always been on my bucket list.   The tension between being really happy and desperately sad that I have less than two weeks left here is wrought with anxiety.

I still have my typical nuttiness, rampant ADD, and existential crises on top of all this moving stuff.   So, I think it’s fair to say that right now I’m a little crazier than usual.  My current consolation is that there is a wicket good BBQ place just down the street from our new house.  It’s the little things, right?

If you see me coming your way, prepare yourself!  :)

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

 

What Might Non-Dualistic Thinking Say To Mental Illness?

Contemplation
I’m thinking this morning, as so many others, of my former college classmate, Kent Brantley, as he and a colleague fight Ebola in a West African setting.   Why do viruses like these attack such good, generous people?  But then, it’s not as if any of the others who contracted the disease were more deserving.

I consider the fact that it has been almost a year since my mother succombed to a decade long battle with cancer.  This time last summer I was beginning the last of conversations I would have with her, grateful that her pain management was keeping her comfortable.

I think about why these things happen, try to intellectualize suffering and it’s causes.  All of my theories fall short, and they aren’t of real comfort in the moment anyway.  The fact is, Kent is struggling hard against a microscopic opponent, and my mother way dying.  There’s no going back….it just IS.

I also reflect on a good friend of mine and how she and her husband recently lost a son to depression, and suicide.   I see their grief, and the trying to make sense of it all, searching for clues that this situation wasn’t in vain, that HE wasn’t in vain.

As Richard Rohr explains it, non-dual thinking is “our ability to read reality in a way that is not judgmental, in a way that is not exclusionary of the part that we don’t understand. When you don’t split everything up according to what you like and what you don’t like, you leave the moment open, you let it be what it is in itself, and you let it speak to you. Reality is not totally one, but it is not totally two, either! Stay with that necessary dilemma, and it can make you wise.”

But we aren’t naturally like this as adults, are we.  We employ dual thinking in trying to parse every circumstance of life into good or bad, black or white, right or wrong.  And the inability to reach satisfactory conclusions can drive us crazy.  Even when we do reach conclusions, we are still often unsatisfied.

I am just an infant in the realm of contemplation, meditation, the practice of non-dual thinking…whatever you want to call it.   But it resonates with me, offers peace when there are no answers.  A good example of this, I think, was when I was searching for healing from past sexual abuse issues.  As anyone who has experienced such things, sexual abuse carries in baggage that is a real beast to be rid of.  A good counselor led me through theophostic prayer, kataphatic prayer, whatever you want to name it, and my answer that solved my problem wasn’t really an answer at all.  It was a presence, a ground of being.  Suddenly, somehow, I am not affected by those now distant memories of my childhood.  The resentment and fear I held towards a particular person melted away, and the issue became a non-issue.

What is paradoxical in this instance is that I don’t know what led to those events in my life.  I don’t have any good explanations, any reasons….but somehow it doesn’t matter anymore.   And somehow that presence I experienced made me capable of not having to judge it all anymore, to understand it to the nth degree.

And so I wonder if this is how we should approach mental illness.  We want answers, we want solutions, we want to know what path we must take to change our circumstances.  Understandably so.   But maybe these are only part of the whole.  Maybe the practice of non-dual thinking, and the learning to sit with what is, and know that everything is held together and nothing is left out by that Ground of Being…..this is what will give us the most peace and comfort.

My mother died, but she is not lost to me, not lost to the great Love that creates and transforms and keeps loving.   My friends’ son is not lost to his family, or friends and nothing about him was in vain or meaningless because of the way he left this current state of being.  And Kent, no matter what happens, is supported and held by a reality that is more important in the end than in having exact answers for why’s.

Jesus told us not to judge, which we could also translate as “Do not label.”    Maybe our first step toward non-dual thinking related to mental illness is to just stop labeling so much. Stop saying things are the result of sin, stop saying it’s moral weakness.  Stop saying “we are bipolar.”  No, we have bipolar disorder, but it is not who we are at the core.  Stop labeling our actions as WHO we are.  We may do unhelpful things while in manic phases or when wildly depressed, but they don’t make us who we are.

And finally, to quote Richard Rohr again:  “Leave the silence open-ended.  Do not try to settle the dust.  Do not rush to resolve the inner conflict.  Do not seek a glib, quick answer, but leave all things for a while in the silent space. Do not rush to judgement.”  (Silent Compassion:  Finding God in Contemplation).

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

Is Mental Illness My Fault?

“When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility. ”
― Anne LamottPlan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

I recently received an email from a reader who has been diagnosed as mild bipolar,and is really struggling.  As a follower of Jesus, she has taken part in deliverance ministry and has received “words” from prophets declaring that she does not in fact have bipolar disorder.   This person feels desperate to find God, has been fasting and spending many hours seeking him, yet is still finding herself in alternating periods of feeling OK and then having extreme depression.    She expressed that she feels backslidden and that somehow this whole situation must be her fault.

in this post, I’d like to address some of her concerns and maybe offer a little hope.  What I offer are my opinions, but I’ve had plenty of years of experience to base them on.  So, in an attempt  to be organized, here are some thoughts, in no particular order:

1.  Mental Illness is NOT your fault.

I’m going to admit a bias here…I get really huffy when anyone, especially members of the Church start implying or outright stating that it is someone’s fault for having mental illness.  To go back to the Bible, Jesus never claimed that anyone’s illness, whether it be physical or mental in the case of the Gerasene demoniac, was their fault.  Mental illness, especially bipolar, is complex and is influenced by a myriad of factors.  Judging someone in that state is as ludicrous as telling someone with cancer that it’s just their fault and they should get over it.

2.  Look at your health with a holistic perspective.

I certainly do not want to speak unkindly of the people that supposedly gave this reader words from God.  However, I’m not one to dismiss what medical professionals advise.  The sad fact is that much of Christendom has a very stunted understanding of mental illness.  They view it as too black and white of an issue and try to reduce everything in life to sin or not.  This, in my opinion, is just too naive a view on life and the way God works.

My belief on prophetic words is that one shouldn’t just take them at face value and do nothing after that.  I’ve know people who spoke of things that came true, and I’ve known of people who offered words who later were found out to be quacks.  If this person in fact isn’t bipolar, further work with professionals over time should reveal this fact.  But the crux of the matter is that just telling her she isn’t bipolar and leaving it at that isn’t really helpful.  Science and psychology are nothing to be afraid of, and the two of them, combined with a faith in the Divine, can often work together to find solutions.

3.  Backslidden-ness

First point – you’re not backslidden unless you are intentionally turning your back from God.  Even then, I’m loose with the term because we often turn away from God because we don’t understand him, are afraid, or are dealing with stuff that feels overwhelming.

2nd point – I just don’t believe in a God who is sitting around judging everyone nonstop and commenting on their backslidden-ness, and then allowing their lives to be crappy as punishment of a natural consequence.  God is love, and the aforementioned whatever does not speak to me of true love.   Jesus says we are accepted, children, and God is through all and in all.  If this is the case, then we don’t need to worry about getting it right all the time or even about fixing our problems yesterday.  God is leading us through grace, and we have all the time in the world.

4.  Mental health journeys are marathons, not sprints.

It used to bug me to no end when God didn’t heal me from my junk right away….I had done everything my counselor had advised, I forgave everyone I thought had so much as sneered at me, I had engaged in spiritual warfare against every thing I could think of, I had recounted every engagement with the occult like reading fortune cookies….you get the point here.  I had done the formulas.  I had  worked my rear end off. And nada.

But as Ann Voskamp says, all is grace.  And this not healing me right away was grace.  Why?  Because I was able to move past pain management, I learned that I could be fully alive while in the midst of hard pain, I began to see God in bigger ways, and I learned to face my fear head on and know that it wasn’t going to kill me.  And now, as ridiculous as it seems, I look back on my journey with an appreciation.  Not like a happy-happy-joy-joy kind, but with an entrenched understanding that grace and pain and life were worked deep into me,  and it grew more love, compassion, concern for others, and hope.

As much as we would want to speed through our journeys, it just doesn’t work.  In fact, I’ve found that with my spiritual journey, the faster I try to go, the more stressed and neurotic I become.  Much of life and grace have to be received, not grabbed.

5.  Community is critical.

For this reader who is really struggling, I would suggest that a good solid community is critical for her to get through the hard times.  Not community that condemns her, or berates her, or tells her to pull herself up and get over it – but rather, people who have suffered themselves in life, who understand that mental illness is not a joke and is not a sin issue, and who are willing to walk the distance with her

I will always say to people that if they are among others who are condescending toward them, who minimize their problems, or who just tell them their problems are the result of sin and not enough faith…..WALK AWAY.    And if you don’t believe me, go look at Jesus and remind yourself of how he treated people…he never harmed people mentally, emotionally, or spiritually.

For some reading that has really been transformative for me during my own journey, visit my Resources page.

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

My Love-Hate Relationship With Psychiatrists

[25/365] On the couch (Explored)
I am really grateful for the field of psychiatry and the great advances science has made in helping us better understand the complexities of mental health.  And I’m really thankful as well for the help I’ve gained through these advances as well as though obtained in the neurosciences.   But I have to say, the journey navigating the field of psychiatry has been about as tough as my mental health journey itself.

I’ve seen at least seven psychiatrists in the last eight years and it has been a roller coaster ride.  Not a roller coaster ride because of bumps in my mental health, but because of weird experiences with each of these doctors and dealing with the idiosyncracies that seem to be common to the professionals in this particular field.  Here’s a snapshot of my experiences:

1.  The first psych I went to was more interested in the geography of where I grew up in the Texas hill country than in my personal issues.  Then he focused in on things I said about my husband and tried to pscyhoanalyze him from a distance.  Finally, he suggested that when I have panic attacks I should engage in sexual intimacy with my husband.   I’m not kidding.  I politely thanked him for his time and never went back.

2.  My second doctor was pretty helpful as far as meds go, but was as dry as anything during my appointments.  The last conversation we had was when he called me and jumped all over me for the way our insurance company was processing his bills.  He then proceeded to tell me that I may think that he must be wealthy because he was a psychiatrist, but that he was in a pickle financially.   A little boundary crossing there, eh?

3.  My next two doctors offered meds and listened to my symptoms, but it was seriously like I was engaging with rocks.  They didn’t look at me, wore completely blank expressions the entire time, and tempted me strongly to start ranting about ridiculous things or make up stories about how I could fly and have supernatural powers, just to see if I could get a reaction out of them.

4.  Another doctor I had was really nice, but there were obviously some cultural and gender walls between us.  Several of my doctors were Pakistani, which I have no problem with, but there can be issues when they obviously don’t quite “get” the cultural dynamics in America.  He obviously struggled with where I was coming from and tried to apply his worldview to my issues.  This included strong patriarchal tendencies towards my marriage problems….that didn’t work so well with me.

5. My latest psych was someone I was initially very excited about.  He seemed to really take into consideration what I said, knew that I was a biochemist and therefore had at least a rudimentary understanding of medicine and chemistry, and so he went along with treatment plans that I devised.  However, in the end of our relationship it became clear to me that if I wanted, I could weasel just about any kind of med out of him by offering the right list of symptoms and behaviors.  This completely disillusioned me for a while with psychiatry, because of its lack of good control and oversight on prescribing meds, many of which are controlled substances and narcotics, to people who are very convincing in a 15 minute appointment.

My overall beefs with psychiatrists?  Unwelcoming environments, what seems to be a huge ignorance of the latest technology (one doctor took my insurance billing information down on a yellow legal pad), a flippant attitude toward clients (no review of my case ever seemed to be performed before appointments, and I seemingly had to remind each doctor of my entire history on each visit), and a general lack of empathy for what I was going through.

The darn part is, while psychiatrists seem to be a major pain in the rear end to deal with, they are necessary and have proved more beneficial for me pharmaceutical-wise than just going to a family doctor.  I still recommend them to people , but with several prefaces of what to expect.

So, I’m curious, are these experiences unique to me?  What are your psychiatrist/patient relationships like and what could be changed that would improve things for your mental health journey?

Seeking to fully live,

Julie

Religious Abuse and Mental Health

left behind
I recently read a blog post about a girl who was subjected to a movie about the tribulation and what it means to be “left behind.”  This girl, now grown, spoke of the panic and anxiety that  she had to deal with for a long time following, especially when she realized that she was gay, which was just an invitation for her to be rejected by Jesus.   In the comments, readers talked about a documentary called Jesus Camp that showed almost cult-like behaviors in children’s bible programs and summer camps.  Though a little extreme, when I watched Jesus Camp a few months ago I recognized so many characteristics of my childhood Bible camp experiences, and I cringed more than once.

This post made me think back to all the times I have experienced things that helped contribute negatively to my own mental state.  Much of what I was taught throughout my childhood about God was enveloped in fear.  No one was intentionally trying to  scare me with a malicious motive, but nevertheless damage was caused.   I remember clearly when a family friend showed my brother and me a movie made by Christians about the occult.  Rather than just warn me against the dangers of dabbling in certain activities, they made it as gratuitous as possible to scare the living crap out of me.   Others warned me vehemently against Masons and the Order of the Eastern Star, showing me graphic representations of people fraternizing with Satan.  I remember being terrified as a young child, considering I had at least half a dozen adopted grandfathers who were Masons and very godly men, and my grandmother was an Eastern Star.  I panicked over whether or not they were secretly conspiring with the enemy and were doomed to hell.  Thankfully, my parents nipped things in the bud quickly by reassuring me of those people’s devotion to Jesus.

Looking back at church camp activities is kind of disconcerting for me now as an adult.  Remember those last nights of worship after a week of church camp?  We were all presented with a very emotional gut wrenching rendition of the gospel, and it could be argued that we were manipulated, or maybe guilted?, into accepting Jesus.  Why else would kids keep getting resaved every year at camp?  Really, when you think about it, what a burden to place on an elementary aged kid that they single handedly managed to have an innocent adult murdered two thousand years before they were born?  If that can’t make someone neurotic, I don’t know what can.

Now, I know in the majority of these situations,no one is intending anything harmful.  They aren’t trying to be abusive, but unfortunately, the result of tactics that are steeped in building guilt and are flavored with manipulation are just that:  abusive.   And I don’t need to argue that abuse can affect our mental health…the scientific literature is full of verification on this point.

I don’t blame the people who genuinely were trying to grow my faith and get me to the good pace when I die.  However, many of these tactics need to be dismissed and more healthy forms of passing down the faith need to be developed…ones that aren’t fear based, or manipulative, or steeped in guilt.  Jesus never user fear to coerce people into following him.  He gave warnings, for sure, but they were usually only directed at those who were arrogant, egocentric religious leaders who were keeping others from him.

Mary DeMuth wrote a great blog post on spiritual abuse and 10 common signs of it  here.  Another great piece on spiritual abuse can be found here.  These two sources point out some commonalities in circumstances that can lead to spiritual and religious abuse.  One of the main factors is when people become what the second source calls “dichotomous”.  This is a state of exclusivity, where things are black and white with no room for gray.  They tend to have an answer for every question, have God nicely packaged into a box and know exactly how he works.  They view others as “in” or “out” and have formulas for what people need to do to get their lives and faith right.

Looking back on it, it was environments with dichotomous mentalities that contributed most to my panic and anxiety as a child.   The perceived certainty of what the end times would hold and the cognitive dissonance created in me about who God was based on his un-reconciled natures in the Old and New Testaments damaged me at my core.   I have spoken to enough people who have suffered from the same messages, so I know I’m not alone in this.

Now that I have my own three children to raise, I am doing my best to avoid motivating them to follow Jesus or do anything spiritually based because of fear or guilt.  I just don’t see how these methods are consistent with the teachings of Jesus and who he was, and I certainly don’t want my kids to struggle with years of panic and anxiety because of their faith.  I want them to know they are always loved and accepted by God, that he doesn’t require penance of them, and they don’t have to worry about getting it all wrong.

How about you?  Have you experienced religious abuse, and how did it affect your own mental health?

Seeing to fully live,

Julie

 

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