Reflections on Hope | The First Sunday of Advent

[I posted this on Facebook this evening, so I figured I would post it here, too.]

I was diagnosed with moderate-severe depression and moderate anxiety in October 2012, after a roommate encouraged me to talk to one of the counselors at Union. There. I said it. Six years I have struggled with this plague, this disease, in which my own brain frequently tries to sabotage me because the chemicals that support healthy, normal neurological functioning just don’t have the quantity to be… normal.

I hate the word “neurotypical.” It reminds me that there is a level of mental functioning out there that I cannot obtain but only ever come close to. At least I can come close, thanks to self-care, the cognitive techniques I learned in therapy, and, yes, medication. But that nirvana labeled “neurotypical” feels so very far away at times, as if even on my best day I’m still scrabbling through the muck of existence while people with properly functioning brain chemicals float on clouds and drink champagne. I don’t know what that’s like.

Human existence in general is a lot like this sometimes. Each of us feels lost in the mire while we look around and see others making it. Even if we know, cognitively, that everyone else is as screwed up as we are, it’s hard to believe. It’s hard to see people’s photos on Instagram and think about them screaming at their kids or worrying over finances or crying in the parking lot before entering their office, or, or, or. But maybe we are all just one #blessed away from falling into complete disarray. Our normal is not normal at all. It’s dysfunctional and painful and exhausting. We are weary with no rest in sight. I do not know what “neurotypical” feels like. The rest of us have no idea what real “normal” feels like.

This is the world that Christ came into–a world of bitterness and tired humans, a world so broken that even our bodies and brains don’t work as they should. This is the point of the first week of Advent, when we light the Hope candle in our churches and homes. We light this candle, remembering that it was this same chaos and darkness–a different era, but the same fears and broken people–that welcomed Christ. We hope because as he came the first time to remind us of God’s presence, he will come a second time someday to heal the brokenness once and for all.

He could have done it already. That’s within his power. He could have waved his hand and installed utopia two millennia ago. He could have touched my brain this morning and permanently cleared out the cobwebs and the low serotonin levels. But he hasn’t yet, and I think it’s so we can learn how to hope.

Hope is not some fluffy, feel-good sentiment that makes us deliriously bounce through life, unaware of pain. Hope is a very gritty, persistent thing, something we must decide to grasp. Hope is what we feel when we look into the shadows of our angry world–or our own lives and our own pain–and call out, “The light is coming, just hold on.” Hope is the knowledge that it will not always be like this because the God who came to Earth in the tiny infant body of the Christ Child is going to fix it. It might not be today. It might not be tomorrow, or next week, or a thousand years from now–but it will be someday.

Hope is the shaking arm clinging to the cliff edge screaming hold on, hold on, help is coming. It won’t always be like this. There will come a day when I am healed, when I no longer struggle with getting out of bed, when I don’t seclude myself from people because I just can’t bear seeing anyone, when I no longer take a pill before bed that tries to help my brain chemicals do the things they’re meant to do. Hope is knowing that, one day, I will run to the arms of my Savior, and he will wipe away the last tears of earthly existence and welcome me to true normalcy.

This is hope, the heart and point of Advent. We hold on because the promise of healing is stronger than the pain that crushes us in its vise-grip. I hold on for the restored mind and body that awaits me in the New Heaven and New Earth that Revelation promises. I hold on because Christ, my hope, holds me.

Rainy Day Introspection

Hello, universe. I am back, trying to write again even though it’s been rough again. I just haven’t wanted to do anything. I’m going to see my doctor next month; I suspect I’ll need to ask her to increase the dosage on my antidepressants. They just aren’t working like they’re supposed to anymore. I took a pill and a half the other day and felt like new life got breathed into my brain. I suppose that’s a pretty good indicator that something needs to change.

Introducing: Princess Pumpkin Spook

I am currently fostering an itty bitty kitty that was found in a generator at work. She is probably no older than 6 weeks, and she is cute as a button. Purrs like a train. She looks just like Trinket did at her size, which is really cute to me. I’ve taken to calling her Princess Pumpkin Spook to be festive, but when my coworker who wants her is ready to take her, I’m sure she’ll get whatever name they choose. The most hilarious part is that while Winston and Trinket hissed and growled at her for several days, Thor took to her almost instantly. I kept her in a puppy crate for a few days while she settled, and he constantly tried to get inside to play with her. He would also just lie in front of the crate and watch her.

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Thor cuddling with her

Now that Pumpkin has been at the house for about a week, Thor doesn’t so much cuddle her as he does try to tackle and wrestle her. He’s still a kitten himself (about 6 months old), but he doesn’t realize that there’s a big size difference between him and her. Luckily, this little nugget yells at him a lot if he wrestles too hard.

It also just occurred to me after looking at that picture how much healthier she seems after a week. She was curled up on my chest this morning, and her fur was so sleek and soft, and her face is much cleaner. This is what happens when you feed a kitten good food! She’s been on a diet of wet kitten food and KMR (kitten milk replacement). The person who initially took her in was giving her dry kibble, which made my eye twitch a little. If Pumpkin were still with her mother, she’d be nursing. She likes to snack on the boys’ kibble (probably not the best thing since it is for adult cats), but her main meals are still wet food and KMR. And boy does she monch. What an appetite.

It’s nice to have a tiny kitten around the house again. I like it a lot. This is the first time I’ve fostered a kitten, which is great because it means I get all the fun and cuddles of a little baby without the stress of “Oh, geez, I’m gonna have four resident cats running this place.” I may not be her home forever, but she gets all the love and cuddles of my boys while she’s here. October is especially a bad month for black cats, so I am delighted to give her a safe home amidst the insanity of superstitious people.

Unnecessary Guilt is Unnecessary

Yesterday at work, I was almost falling asleep at my desk and not feeling the greatest. So, I did what any person who works for a reasonable employer would do: I said “Screw this” and took a couple hours of comp time to go home at 2:00 rather than 4:30. I told one coworker I was going to leave but otherwise just slipped out the back door and went home for a nap.

It was incredibly beneficial for me to do that. I napped for about an hour and a half, then got up and went to get my Clicklist order at Kroger. When I got home, groceries in tow, I had enough energy to do my dishes (I know, right?) and actually cook supper rather than just microwaving shredded cheese on top of tortilla chips. I was very pleased with myself and had a nice, relaxing evening watching YouTube videos and burning incense.

When I got to work this morning, the coworker I had told I was leaving early asked me if going home early had been helpful. I said yes, it was, and I felt much better, and then she was all like “Ugh, I’m so jealous, stop.” I offered the awkward laugh of “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say now” and didn’t say anything else.

I know she was being sarcastic and teasing me. I know, I know. But in that moment, I felt guilty about taking some time for myself. It struck me just how bizarre the American working world is. Work ’til you’re tired, then crash and finally take time off, then have your coworkers tell you how jealous they are so you feel guilty about it. Don’t be jealous; take time off too! Don’t burn yourself out for this job. We are clerical workers; literally nothing we do is worth dying for. It’s good work, and it directly impacts/helps the students at our institution, but it’s not worth burnout.

That is something that I appreciate about my direct supervisor. He will work hard, but he’s very in tune with himself and knows when to call it quits. The other day he came in and worked a half a day until his sinuses bothered him so badly that he went home. “Everything I’m working on can be done in my pajamas, in my bed,” he said. I’ve never had a boss who was out of the office as much as he is, and I love it. He sets such a great precedent for self-care. Work hard, do good work, be productive, but take time off too. The other day I couldn’t bear the idea of getting out of my bed, so I texted him that I wasn’t coming in, and all he said was “That’s fine, feel better soon.” I rolled over, pulled the blankets over my head, and slept until noon. It was the best.

So take care of yourself, kids. Don’t let the broken American work environment ruin your life.

Friend Care is Self-Care

I don’t have any scholarly sources for this statement, but I’m pretty sure that helping others is one of the best ways to increase happiness and reduce overall stress. Humans do best when behaving altruistically. I think that’s why I spend so much time trying to make sure my friends are okay. We all suffer from anxiety, depression, or both (yikes), and sometimes I feel like it’s my personal responsibility to help them feel better. Sometimes I think it’s because I spent so many years of my life wasting away in my depression that I know what it’s like to be in despair. (I thank God constantly that it never manifested as cutting or any other self-harm like that.) I know what darkness is like, so I don’t want my friends to endure it alone.

Enter sweater and soup weather, my very favorite time of the year. I am hella fond of the concept of hygge (hue-guh). This is the Danish concept of slowing down and being conscious and present in a moment. It is also often accompanied by warm, comforting things like soft blankets and candles. It is a very cozy, intimate feeling. According to the website I just linked, if you don’t feel it, you’re not doing it right.

For me, autumn and winter are perfect times to experience hygge. The very weather makes it easy to come indoors and draw your loved ones close. Rain and snow and cold wind all force you to slow down, to bundle up, to drink tea and find contentment in stillness. In my opinion, if you don’t take advantage of all the slow coziness of cold weather, you’re a moron. Why would you wish away some of the most delightful months of the year just so you can rush through your life again? Summer is for speed. Autumn and winter are for hygge.

I try to create that sense in my friendships. I want my friends to feel that coziness and comfort in our relationship. No rush, no stress, no pressure. I’m not always good at it, because I often get pushy when they’re down (I take a very “Buck up, soldier!” attitude because that helps me sometimes, but I am not them), but I try. If I’m struggling to create the right emotional atmosphere, I usually just feed them and that fixes it.

So tonight, we will try to have a night of hygge. I’m going to make a big pot of gumbo when I get off work, and then I’ll spread fluffy blankets all over the living room. We’re gonna be okay.

KRISTEN I KNOW YOU’RE READING THIS. YOU’RE GONNA BE OKAY. SORRY FOR BEING A DRILL SERGEANT. I LOVE YOU.

Plus, who can be sad when I drop a tiny purring kitten on their lap?!

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

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

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.