You Gotta Do the Work

If you’re familiar at all with this blog or with me as a person, then you know two things about me: one, I have struggled with mental health issues since at least 2008, and two, I am passionate about recovery from those issues. Not just my issues; everybody’s issues. All the issues.

Here’s the deal. Mental illness is ultimately the same as a physical illness. Whether acute or chronic, all illnesses can be treated and, if not outright cured, then managed, so that the person with the illness can live a healthy life. An odd thing I’ve noticed about the discussion about mental illness, however, is we talk about it and treat it as if it’s the end, as if having depression or bipolar or whatever else means that you will never again have a healthy life.

As if having a mental illness suddenly means you are excused from taking care of yourself. Or making good choices. Or taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences, good or bad.

All of this is bullshit.

I have a mental illness. I have a psychiatric doctor’s diagnosis of depression and anxiety. Even if I didn’t have that official diagnosis, I would still have depression, and I’d probably be able to self-diagnose it. But here are two things that a mental illness diagnosis does not do:

  1. It does not mean that I am weak, fragile, incapable of taking care of myself, or excluded from being happy and living my best life.
  2. It does not mean that I have no control over my actions, that I am absolved from the consequences of my choices, or that I am a victim of my circumstances.

In the first paragraph, I said I am passionate about recovery from mental illness. Now’s the point where I qualify that and say that I am passionate about active recovery. Let’s get some definitions in here. What do I mean when I say “active recovery from mental illness”?

Recovery: Moving from a place of being controlled and defined by your illness to a place where you choose to make healthy decisions to improve your life. Whether mental illness or substance abuse, the concept of recovery involves taking charge of your life and choosing to improve and grow. Which brings us to…

Active: YOU GOTTA DO THE WORK. To recover from any illness, you can’t just sit back and hope it goes away. People suffering from cancer go to their doctor appointments and receive medicine and intensive treatments. People suffering from mental illness are supposed to do the same. While rest is important in any healing period, active recovery is not passive in that it doesn’t hope someone else does the hard stuff for you.

Active recovery from mental illness doesn’t mean you go to a therapist once every couple months and expect to see results in one session.

It doesn’t mean you have a bad day, a lousy depression spiral, and throw up your hands in defeat.

It doesn’t mean you shrug and say “That’s just who I am.”

It doesn’t mean you never trip up or have bad days or get hung up on something you used to get hung up on, but it does mean you try.

It means you put in the sweat equity in your own health and wellbeing.

You do not foist it onto someone else.

You do not force your friends/support network to serve as your therapist, your crisis counselor, or your suicide hotline when there are professionals available, ready to help you.

You have to get to a place where you are tired of falling back into old patterns and habits and you are ready to get better.

You. Do. The. Work.

Y’all, active recovery is hard. It’s work. And there are so many days when I wonder if it’s worth it. I mean, hey, every counseling session is $65. Maybe I should save that money and just cancel this week. Nope. No. Absolutely not. I put in the work, I do the hard things and have the difficult conversations, I struggle against my own brain at times, because I know that I have more to give to the world than my bad days and my spirals.

“But I don’t have anything to offer the world,” you say. To which I say, you’re wrong.

If you have a friend, you can offer your love and support. If you have a pet, same deal. If you have a favorite houseplant, same deal. Each of us has the capacity to contribute to the world, even if it’s something as small and seemingly insignificant as feeding a pet goldfish every day.

Live for your goldfish. Get better for your goldfish.

Put in the work to get to recovery.

I will always be in recovery. For the rest of my life, which I hope is long and sweet, I will be working on myself. When I finish this round of therapy, I do not expect it to be the last time I ever see a counselor. I don’t anticipate never taking medication again, but I hope I don’t. But even though recovery is difficult and takes so much time and energy, I will not stop.

God did not make me to get lost in my struggles. I have learned so much about grace and suffering through this. I have also learned that, by his grace, I can get better.

Depression is not who I am. I am not excused from the consequences of my actions, any of my actions. I still have a responsibility, both to myself and to God, to make good choices and to put in the work of active recovery. I mean, I don’t want to be miserable for the rest of my life. Why would I let the shadow monster have that kind of power over me?

You gotta do the work. But trust me, it’s worth it.

Per aspera ad astra,

Stephanie

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.

Just Say “Thank You”

This weekend, I had a revelation. It is one that I’ve had before, but I almost always forget it. It is the realization that I tend to apologize for and rationalize even the simplest behaviors. Let me set the scene.

On Saturday, my friend Rachel and I went out yard saleing together. I didn’t have any cash, but she told me that she’d spot me whatever I needed if I found something I had to have. I ended up picking up $6 worth of things at various sales, and we agreed this was fine. At one sale, I bought a pair of popular video games with the intent to go trade them in for store credit at the local game/tabletop store. I didn’t bother to check the cases, so it wasn’t until we got to the store that I found out one of the games was just an empty case–no disc. I felt horribly guilty, but we decided not to go back and harangue the yard sale owners over a $2 purchase because driving all that distance felt pointless. But I still felt terribly guilty for wasting her $2–well, $4 because the store wouldn’t take the other disc due to damage. And it was like I couldn’t shut up; I kept promising her I’d pay her the $6, and that I was sorry I hadn’t checked the games first, and that I was sorry for the trouble, but I would pay her back–

After a few minutes of my nervous chatter, Rachel just said, “Hey, it’s okay. We’ll just call it even. You don’t owe me.” Well, then I felt more guilty and kept talking even more because I felt so bad that I wasn’t paying her back, and, and, and. Then we realized I’d forgotten to bring her roommate’s purse with me (she’d left it at my house), and I was apologizing for that

Eventually I sighed and said, “I realize all I do is apologize for and rationalize what I do.” To which Rachel, a counselor in training, replied, “Try saying thank you instead. So instead of ‘I’m sorry I forgot your purse,’ you’d say ‘Thank you for understanding. Let’s go get it together.'”

I know I should do this, truly. It’s a difficult switch to make. It’s a cognitive restructuring that butts heads with everything I’m used to. (Where else but this blog can you see “cognitive restructuring” and “butt heads” in the same sentence?) As I pondered on this, though, I became less and less interested in “Oh, I need to do this.” Instead, I became more interested in why I don’t–why it’s so difficult for me.

It all goes back to my parents. I, along with my sister, was raised in a very shame-based environment. (Ask my sister about it; she can talk about this for days.) I talked about it some in my last post. Missteps weren’t exactly turned into teaching moments, unless the lesson was “You are a bad child.” Not “The thing you did was bad,” but “You are bad.”

Fast forward to now. I am plagued by a constant sense of offending everyone with everything I do. Surely people are annoyed by me. Surely they’re upset by my every minor, minute move. Surely no one would want to be around me because I’m The Worst. Surely I am obnoxious and insufferable. Surely–

Anxiety is a bitch. In the way that I visualize depression as a hulking shadow monster, I visualize anxiety as a pretentious, snobby old woman named Annette. (Annette, anxiety, alliteration.) Annette likes to stand behind me and criticize everything I do. “You’re not going to wear that top, are you? Fat women don’t wear horizontal stripes, dear.” “Oh, dear, you’ve upset the car behind you by going only five over. They’ll be angry now.” “You’re far too clingy with your friends. That’s obnoxious behavior, darling.”

She’s especially mean when it comes to my friends. “I can’t possibly imagine why anyone would want you. You’re loud and silly and you complain far too much about, well, everything. And you certainly overshare about your mental health. No one wants to hear that. You should just stay home alone.”

Sometimes I do. Sometimes Annette looms over me and becomes 100 feet tall and steps on me until I’m squished beneath her penny loafer, like an ill-fated ant. Other times I have the strength to ignore her or, even better, laugh her out of my face. But she’s just so mean when it comes to having friendships. My friends compliment me or express their affection, and I deny it: “Aw, don’t lie.” They tell me I’m the best (for whatever reason), and I scoff and don’t believe them. They tell me they love me, and I snort, “I don’t know how.”

Because somewhere, deep down, there’s a voice in my head–my mother, my anxiety, whatever–telling me I am not worth loving. I am flawed. I am broken and not worth the effort to repair. I am bad.

None of this is true. Cognitively, I know this. The Gospel makes this untrue. My mere existence as a human, created in the image of the Triune God, makes these thoughts false. It’s just a fight to remember that. It’s such a fight.

I hate Annette so much.

But I love my friends for taking up arms to help me fight her. I can’t remember which friend it was, but she told me she loved me and that I was worthwhile and not a burden to her. I replied, “It’s just so hard for me to believe that.” She said, “I know. That’s why I keep telling you. I’ll say it until you believe it.”

In those moments, when my friends grab me by the hand and repeat “I love you” until I’m sick of hearing it, they are pictures of Christ. I don’t know if they know that, but they should, because that’s the same thing he does. “Come here. Lean on Me. I love you.” Over and over and over until we yell “Yes, Lord, we get it, you love us” and still more until we slump down quietly and murmur our gratitude for his endless patience and gentle wooing.

“I’ll say it until you believe it,” whisper my friends, and in their voices I hear my Savior, calling me into his arms.

And all I can say in response is “Thank you.”

Per aspera ad astra,

Steph