A Difficult Few Days

Turns out it’s really difficult to keep writing every day when every day feels muddled and exhausting. (Maybe that’s when I should really be writing, but that’s a topic for a less tired brain.)

I have been in a depressive slump the last few days. It happens every once in a while; the shadow monster slinks in and pees in my corn flakes and acts like it’s enhancing the flavor.

It’s a hard thing to explain, these slumps. It’s like I’m coasting along to some degree of “normal” and then I trip over nothing and roll down a hill. My clue that it’s “getting bad” is that I get very tired by simple tasks or the thought of simple tasks. My self-care goes all to crap. Hygiene becomes exhausting, and I sponge-bathe rather than shower (though I do wash my hair because I am vain about not having greasy hair ever). I also get emotional and cry easily over… well, a lot. One time, a slump and my period coincided, and I cried for 20 minutes–like straight up sobbed–because Chris Evans’ eyes were “too blue,” whatever that means.

When it gets bad, I also withdraw from people I love and people in general. I don’t go to the store because the thought of a cashier–even the self-check guardian–saying hello is too exhausting. I don’t go through the drive-through for lunch because I can’t bear the thought of speaking to the person behind the order screen. I hide in my office and take too long in the bathroom because I just can’t muster the energy for human interaction. And when I get home at the end of the day, whatever I have done has been so wearying that I often flop onto my bed and fall asleep for two, maybe three hours, then get up and immediately go to bed.

That’s where I’ve been lately. The worst part of it, though, was Sunday. A friend and I were planning to start a weight loss thing together, and we were going to start on Sunday. I opened the box of supplements and powders and potions and got so overwhelmed that I had a meltdown and pushed it off to yesterday (Monday). Once I got myself calmed down, I got ready for church and headed off. I was okay for most of the service, but I felt a low background wrongness, like the tremors ahead of an earthquake, but moving through the liturgy distracted me. Once we got to the sermon, though, and I was sitting quietly, I felt it: an anxiety attack, welling in my chest like lava, threatening to burst forth any second. I sat there fighting tears, but not because of the sermon. I couldn’t even focus on most of it. I kept telling myself if I could just survive to Communion, I could leave. If I could just make it that far, I could slip out and go home and pull myself together.

I was on the second or third row, so I got to go up to the altar rail pretty early. I almost bolted from the nave right after I partook and rushed out to my car, crying the whole way. I’m sure anyone who saw me thought that I had been grasped by the Spirit, but nah, I just felt like I had to run for my life because my brain chemicals told me to. I cried the whole way home, trying not to hyperventilate in the middle of traffic. I didn’t feel better until I had gotten home and locked the door behind me, kicked off my shoes and my cardigan, and went into the kitchen to make lunch. I’m sure the FLBs wondered why I burst into the house in tears, but it was okay after a while. We all curled up on my bed and napped for three hours.

I think I’m on the upward swing now, though. I feel pretty calm and collected, though I’ve caught myself clenching my jaw, which tells me there’s an unresolved background stressor. I’m actually planning to pick up some groceries this afternoon, and I’m not exhausted by the thought of speaking to my coworkers. Plus, I’m writing this post. That alone is a strong indicator that the shadow monster has retreated to its lair for a while.

I am so incredibly grateful for my friends and my sister when the shadow monster emerges, though. It means more than they will ever know when they say “You’re going to be okay,” or “I understand,” or “You and your feelings are valid.” It is such a blessing when they give me small steps that I can do to take care of myself in the grip of a slump, or when they show me patience and grace by letting me be alone while promising they will be there. Then, when I finally crawl out of my cave, there they are, waiting with open arms.

It really does feel like crawling out of a cave into the sunlight, like the worst kind of hibernation; instead of feeling refreshed, I feel spent but somewhat ready to start over. But when I swing upward, I begin to notice beauty again. I washed my hair over the side of the tub this week and couldn’t help but be awed by the flow from the faucet and over my hands. I walked outside and to the mail room at my job and couldn’t help but notice the brilliant scarlet of the seed pods on the magnolia trees. I admired my coworker’s lime green car and appreciated her vibrant personality. I listened to the melody of one of my favorite hymns and thought about writing my own words but found myself utterly without words in the face of trying to describe Divine majesty.

I’m going to try to keep writing, now that I have seen the sunrise. I think that’s the most encouraging thing to keep in mind as I swing through these highs and lows, doing battle with the monster followed by respite–the sun will rise eventually. I just have to make it through the nights.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

Behold Your King

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Desiring God posted the above image on their Instagram a couple days ago. (This is my crappy screenshot version.) You could have heard me screeching from the rooftops with agreement. This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, because I am exhausted by the efforts of “women’s ministry” to pump me up and inflate me with my own self-worth.

Insisting to me in the name of Jesus that I am a jewel or a princess does not assuage the nagging sense that I am not. I am human. I know my weaknesses and my sins. Lifting me up to say “Look at yourself, you’re amazing and beautiful and so capable” does not address the emptiness of the human soul.

How can you say I am amazing when I refused to help the poor, or I was unkind to the cashier, or I said something hateful to a friend, or I had cruel thoughts about that homeless person?

Women are hard on themselves, often unfairly. We know this. But we, like all humans, also know in our deepest cores that we are not good and wonderful and amazing if left to our own devices. We are exactly like all humans, as selfish and wicked as everyone else, tempered only by social mores and childhood instruction of right vs. wrong.

So when I hear one of the dime-a-dozen Lifeway-brand women teachers tell me how incredible I am, I respond with disbelief, if not outright mockery and scorn. Do not lie to me. I know what I am.

This is the way the world encourages its women. Christian teaching should not sound like a Dove ad campaign. It should not denigrate the females of the church, but it should also not inflate self-worth past the level of healthy self-respect (love thy neighbor as thyself, after all) into self-worship.

Christian women should leave a conference not thinking “I am amazing” but rather “Jesus is amazing.”

The church has forgotten the meaning of the gospel, especially when it comes to the instruction of its women. The gospel is not solely personal salvation. It is not fire insurance to keep yourself from the pits of hell. It is not limited to a nebulous “me and Jesus” spirituality that disavows the community of the local church congregation.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, is the announcement of the King of Kings establishing his reign and forever changing the order of the world.

It is the story of how God promised to redeem humanity from our wickedness and create a new kingdom, a kingdom that operates not according to human whims but according to divine justice.

Is is the story of the King of Heaven, capable of repaying humanity for its rebellion with infinite wrath, setting aside that wrath to personally come down and say “I will give my life to make you part of my family.”

This is not a story that should be met with “Girl, you are a precious jewel in the crown of God!” No. This is a story that should be met with awe and worship, with falling to our knees in adoration of the goodness and mercy of God, rather than sitting back in our pews with smug self-righteousness.

Because here’s the deal. Without the gracious sacrifice of Jesus Christ, you and I are trash. We are sinful creatures, predisposed to pursue our own cravings no matter what. Wouldn’t you behave selfishly and wickedly if you could–if you had nothing else telling you not to? Don’t lie to yourself. Because I do not lie to myself–I know what I am outside the grace of Christ–I do not need a Beth Moore or a Lysa TerKeurst or anybody else telling me how pure and precious and valued I am. Because I am not.

Apart from Christ.

It is only through the finished work of Christ on the cross of Calvary that I have any worth at all. I have been redeemed into the family–the kingdom–of King Jesus by his work and his righteousness, not by mine. I am valued by God because he values Christ his Son, and I have accepted the salvation he has offered me.

But like I said, the gospel is not solely a personal salvation narrative. No, the kingdom of heaven upends everything humanity knows as “normal.” There is no “Blessed are the rich, the famous, and the powerful.” It is “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the mourners.” The world says “Hoard everything you can and protect you and yours.” The kingdom of heaven demands “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth” and “Give all you have to the poor.” The world says “Save yourself.” The gospel says “Whoever loses his life for the sake of the gospel will find it.”

And at the end of the story? Oh, man. At the end, Jesus returns with his angelic armies and remakes the world into the kingdom of heaven on earth, where justice flows like rivers and there is true peace on earth. He brings his glory from above to rescue his creation.

My only response to that is worship, to fall on my face and cry “Holy, holy, holy.” You cannot tell me that the most important lesson for me as a Christian woman is to hear about how beautiful and precious I am. No! If not for Christ, I would burn in hell and miss the glory and beauty of the Savior. I would not know the tender love steering my heart toward him. I would not know the eternity-bridging mystery of partaking in the Eucharist. I would still be broken and helpless to save myself.

But my self-esteem would be great.

May I never worship myself, and may we as Christian women learn to sit in worshipful awe of our King, without whom we are nothing.

Per aspera ad astra,
Stephanie

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Butt in the Chair

The trouble with promising myself to write daily (or almost daily) is that it relies on me having something that I’m just burning up to say. Or does it? That’s been my experience with writing, anyway, which is why I think I’m so bad at making it a part of my daily life. I must wait for… INSPIRATION! [Lightning cracks, thunder rumbles, a child screams]

But that’s not really what writing is about, at least not as it has been taught to me. I have my undergrad degree in English, and my Master’s degree is in creative writing. The recurring lesson that has not stuck in my head through six years of higher education is “Butt in chair, pen in hand” (or, you know, fingers on keyboard). You know why that’s hard?

Discipline.

That’s a dirty word in our modern, free-floating society, conjuring images of the military, or aggressive parenting, or perhaps well-meaning monks sleeping on cold stone floors to try to make their bodies holy. According to Dictionary.com, the third top definition of discipline is “punishment inflicted by way of correction and training.” Punishment! That’s what we think of when we hear the word.

Also according to Dictionary.com, though, discipline descends to Present Day English (PDE) via Middle English (ME) via Anglo-French via Latin (because of course it does): “disciplīna: instruction, tuition, equivalent to discipul(us).” Instruction and tuition, huh? Perhaps this hints at a definition more in line with education than punishment? Indeed, the first two definitions of the word indicate this. Training, activity, exercise, regimen are the words that pop up in the definitions–sometimes boring repetitions of a task in order to improve at it.

I think that’s where 21st century American society–and I–chafe at the thought of discipline. The thought of doing the same thing over and over and over to gain mastery of it just seems so dull. There’s nothing novel in it. (Unless you’re writing, in which case there may very well be a novel in it–sorry.) There is no instant gratification in disciplined activity. That’s incredibly frustrating for the breakneck speed at which American culture operates, and it’s downright obnoxious for my funky brain wiring.

My ADD comes out as impulsive decisions, “I gotta have it now,” and low desire to try new things because I won’t be immediately good at them. Part of the problem, I know, is fear of failure. I don’t want to suck. It’s embarrassing to fail, especially on the public platform of the internet. (Yes, I could make this blog private, but what’s the point if I’m trying to conquer my fear of putting myself out there?) I don’t like being embarrassed. Not sure if anybody really does. But the thought of disciplining myself to write daily is really, really exhausting sometimes. After all, it involves reining in my desire to flit and flutter around from one amusing thing to the next–to curb the impulse to just go play video games for six hours rather than putting in 20 minutes on the blog. And that’s hard.

There’s a saying I learned from my mom: “If you pick up a calf every day, one day you can pick up a cow.” There are a few ways you can interpret this. In general, it means that if you do the same task every day, over time it prepares you for harder tasks. As things get more difficult, you have become progressively stronger to pick them up. I suppose writing is a lot like that. If one writes on the days that it’s easy and ideas flow freely, then that makes it easier to write on the days that the brain gets constipated.

I suppose that’s why my writing teachers all harped so much on writing daily. I was always a bit of a slacker in that regard; I didn’t want to do it, and moreover I didn’t think I needed to. I’ve been good at writing since I can remember. Why bother, right? But even naturally athletic people have to train in order to run a good marathon. We writers, especially writers like me with brain wiring issues that make ordinary tasks more difficult, have to train daily, too. We can’t just wait on inspiration.

And sometimes, when we don’t wait on inspiration but make our own, we find we’ve written an entire blog post on a day we thought we had nothing to talk about.

Per aspera ad astra,
Steph

Little by Little

One of the single hardest things about living with depression is the way it completely saps your enthusiasm to do anything. Some days, I come home from work and all I can do is change out of my work clothes and crash for a two-hour nap. It’s frustrating. No, it’s beyond frustrating to a place of such deep, self-directed anger that I don’t even have words for it.

Well, you’re useless. Can’t do anything but sleep and go to work.

You’ve got dishes piled up from two weeks ago. You could at least put those in the dishwasher.

Get your lazy ass up and at least clean the litter boxes.

What’s wrong with you?

It doesn’t help, either, that when my parents come to see me, I get passive-aggressive comments from my mother about it. “You know, if you would just do X every day, Y would be a whole lot cleaner/neater/better.”

Yeah. I know. It’s not that I don’t know how to clean my own house or do basic chores. I had a reasonably normal childhood. I know how to wash a plate and vacuum and do laundry. The difference between me and a more factory-default person (I really don’t like the word neurotypical) is that sometimes I just can’t. I physically cannot.

It’s the most rage-inducing thing. It’s like there’s the real me, the “normal” me, and I can feel it, but it’s trapped by this… nebulous, seething shadow-monster called Depression. And it’s like I think “Oh, yeah, I need to do the dishes,” and the shadow-monster hisses and says No, you’re going to take a long nap instead. Then I do, and I wake up feeling no less tired and a thousand times more upset.

Part of it, too, is the comorbidity of ADD and depression. While depression makes me tired and saps my enthusiasm for doing literally anything, ADD sits in the passenger seat and panics because the task at hand seems too large and there’s too many steps and OH GOD NOW WE’RE OVERWHELMED BETTER DO NOTHING. (I’m not sure which one drives the car of my mental health struggles. I think they trade.) The struggle, as they say, is real.

But I’m not content to roll over and do nothing, to wallow in my funky brain wiring and say “I can’t.” I’m trying instead to say “I can’t right now.” Yesterday I tried to clean my room, but it was such a big, overwhelming mess that I knew I’d stop before I even started. So I took a deep breath, told myself it was okay, and promised myself that if I would just clean my nightstand, that would be enough for the day.

It took me only about five minutes to tidy up my nightstand, but I felt so incredibly productive by doing it–way better than the self-loathing that would’ve risen up had I not done anything at all. A little bit at a time has to be enough. I’m sitting here looking at the health points bar above the head of the shadow-monster. I can’t kill it in one swing, but I can stab at it lots of little times.

There’s a saying in French: Petit à petit, l’oiseau fait son nid. “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.” The bird doesn’t put its nest together in a single moment. It’s lots of little moments gathering twigs and string and scraps, padding the inside with feathers, over and over and over until it’s done. And I’m slowly teaching myself that that’s the trick to living with–no, thriving with mental illness. I need to work with myself, not against myself. It’s not my fault I have these struggles. I can’t control what my brain wiring does. But I can control how I react to it and how I take care of myself.

And sometimes, that looks like standing in the middle of a messy room and knowing that tidying the nightstand will be enough for one day.