The Dark Side: Overcoming It

Everyone has a dark side, but if you don’t encounter difficulty, you don’t usually know this about yourself. People who lack compassion, in my experience, either forget that they have a dark side, or they are living from this dark side and can’t even begin to see the light that would be possible if they went into therapy, exercised and, perhaps, humbled themselves to the Lord.

Are you willing to be mentored by experienced Christians? Are you willing to share your weaknesses and be held accountable by peers in the faith? Are you willing to face your dark side?

Often, we try to avoid making people think poorly of us. But what if we’ve already started to slide in that direction?

If we think people think poorly of us, then typically we will either be defiant and consider ourselves “oppressed” (even if we’re the ones being problematic), or… we may become the “bad” person people think we are. We will act out their expectations of us because we see ourselves only how they see us. This is very true if we don’t have a strong sense of self. Which is why, if you’re really struggling, it is important to surround yourself with loving, non-judgmental people.

Another thing can happen: we sometimes imagine that others think poorly of us when really they’ve already moved on! Don’t forget that this might also be the case!

My neighbor, when I was telling her I was starting this blog, told me to put a list of people’s names whose opinion actually matters to me because it was a given that some people would probably judge me and write me off and I needed to have that list ready so I could keep my priorities straight and my ministry active in the face of rejection. Man am I glad I did that! This way I can follow God’s guidance rather than my desire for approval. This way I can write with raw honesty and minister from pain, but also from the perspective of my recovery.

Christian faith illumines our way out like nothing else does:

If we continue to look outside of ourselves for approval and find rejection, we despair without Christ who reminds us that we are strongest when we learn from our weaknesses and lean on him. We must ask Christ to give us our identity and not our job; our goodness to our fellow humans in spite their rejection of us, and not our popularity.

We must stop looking horizontally, which means focusing on the people around us who we imagine judging us, and instead look vertically, upward to God and then, through him, go on to the work that we are called to do. I think a lot of school and workplace shootings happen when people look horizontally and obsess over where they stand in relationship to society rather than upward to their relationship to themselves, their God, and their consciences. We are to dig down deeper into God in our peril and forget the ways of the world, our reputations and what the world thinks of us. And act justly even, actually especially, when people expect otherwise.

This does not work if we become reckless with our relationships and with the feelings of others or if we simply say, “The world has rejected me, and they rejected Christ. Therefore, I am like Christ and am Christian. ”

Just because you’re rejected doesn’t make you like Christ. Being harmless in the face of oppression, rejection and harm posed by others, even our very friends, makes us like Christ.

We must genuinely seek to make ourselves a living sacrifice through studying our Bible, going to church, and reflecting about how we can improve and taking appropriate action to get there. And by praying for divine aid.

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

May it be so. Amen.

The Church: When it Leads People to Suicide

We are all equal as living, breathing humans. We are all of us, equally, God’s children. The gospel – which preaches humility and loving the outcast and not judging – is a castle made of sand if it is causing harm. And the gospel has led plenty of mentally ill and LGBT folks to suicide even.

St. Paul wrote in Romans 12:2, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” How sad it is that people who do not conform to the ways of the “world” learn to hate themselves for it, and often through the church and the body of Christ.

People who do not conform to this world and who suffer teach all of us, especially Christians who are eager to fit in, a good deal. Because they remind us of the fate of Jesus. Because they resemble him as outcasts crucified for bringing into the world an inconvenient truth: the reality of their existence.

I have learned a great deal about living with a stigmatizing illness that cannot be cured from my LGBT friends, who over the years have expressed that, though it was not their choice to be LGBT, people often treated them as if it had been. For my Christian LGBT friends, they become immoral in the eyes of fellow Christians for living out the way that God created them, and they suffer accordingly for it.

We do well to do as my friends do who understand their persecutors with compassion rather feeling shame or anger. I personally try to remember that before I began to suffer with mental ill health I thought that mentally ill people were either dangerous, half-human, homeless, or other things that are unflattering. And my LGBT friends who grew up in the conservative church often prayed every hour that God would make them straight. If they had not experienced the profound pain and isolation of being gay in a conservative church, they would have judged gay people very harshly themselves.

If you are LGBT and in a dark place, don’t hurt yourself; instead get help, and consider clicking on the following link to the “It Gets Better” website for more resources:

https://itgetsbetter.org/

Is My Provider Human?: How I Cope with the Professionalization of Compassion

A major challenge for the health profession is one that comes with any profession: when we become professionals and experts, we sometimes cannot find the space to share that we too are prone to the ailments we want to help others with. We lose our story and analyze the stories of others (our clients) out of context. Story is context. Story is how humans bond, and it needs to be reciprocal. We share, and our listener then shares. This is where growth happens and healing takes hold.

If, like me, you sometimes find a divide in your caregivers between the professional and human, first, know that there are health professionals who also struggle with their own health and feel trapped that they cannot share their full story with patients, and second, try reading Rachel Naomi Remen. She suffers from Chron’s disease, is a distinguished physician, professor and scholar, and she provides insightful critiques of the frameworks used by many in the helping professions. Through story. Her books heal the souls of people hurting with all sorts of ailments, and she is one of my inspirations and go-tos when I feel like my relationships with helping professionals are less than empowering.

Antipsychotics: What I Tell Myself When My Face is a Mask

“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” – Romans 12:12

Part 1: Masked Life – What I lost…

What do I tell myself when my face is a mask?

I tell myself that I am still me and that my soul still shines from within my body, even if its center is now the heart and not the eyes. Even if my eyes cannot sparkle and the wrinkles around my eyes do not respond immediately to the interactions I have on a day to day basis, I remind myself that I am still me, that my heart is full of love and compassion and I that I still matter to God.

Being on antipsychotics is hard. Everyone is different and so I merely share my own experience:

It changes your whole personality and you only very slowly learn how to accept the fact that you cannot command the room the way you did when you were hyper, sparky and sparkly. Your feet drag, your face doesn’t move except with great effort. Conversations lose their immediacy and you feel less persuasive. You flex your jaw, even when you’re not chewing. Your tongue moves. You are in a fog.

“You look over-medicated, Erin,” an abrasive colleague once shouted across the office at the school where I was working. I had confided in a different colleague that I was on medication and this was how I learned that everyone now knew this about me.

But I was numb from my medicine and so this didn’t even sting.

I lost my glimmer as a motivational speaker and high-impact teacher. My relationships with my students became strained. And eventually, I had to leave the teaching profession because I had lost the love and effortlessness of teaching.

Part 2: Thriving Anyway – What I gained…

Trust of others, because I was not volatile.

Confidence, because I was perceiving reality accurately.

Community, because I had the ability to make appointments because I could trust that I would keep them and that I would be well for them.

Safety. Because I felt safe and was safe.

The ability to trust myself. Self-reliance.

Feeling safe and secure.

Employment. Continued employment.

The relief of my husband who could finally relax.

Continuity. My life narrative.

My parents, with whom I had stopped talking because I had imagined all sorts of things that hadn’t really happened in my childhood and was angry at them.

Resolve. I read Elyn Saks’ The Center Will Not Hold about her persistence in the face of a severe case of schizophrenia and took heart that she had survived and that that meant that I could, too. And through this, too, I found … community. A more authentic community than I had ever known. The knowledge that many are on antipsychotics and live fully functioning lives, and the pride in knowing that some of us even have prestigious careers.

Finally

What will I tell myself if my face is a mask again?

I will tell myself that this is what keeps me alive, but that I won’t need to be on this much forever.

A Word About Today

I have no psychosis and haven’t for a while. But I personally will always be on a low dose of mine. I’m on a fourth of what I was on when I was in crisis.

Why would I ever risk going off of it completely? My trick: take it one day at a time.

My Response When People Say, “Treatment is a form of social control! You can’t keep me down!”

“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.”
– Proverbs 16:32

When people tell me that medication is a form of social control and that they don’t want to be “normal,” I want to remind them of this verse from Proverbs. It is not a modern thing that we need to be patient and not warriors. It is a prized virtue from even the most ancient of Christian wisdom. Proverbs contains folk wisdom that was passed down over centuries through the oral tradition, in other words when there was no writing, and then it was finally written down some time between 715-687 BCE. And even then, way back when, people knew that if we didn’t cultivate patience and care that we might have the recklessness and power to take down a city.

When I first was experiencing mental health symptoms serious enough that people in my professional setting started treating me differently I was at a loss. I had always been a difficult person, but only with people who had known me most. My first reaction to my change in relationships was a deep sense of betrayal. That people were against me and trying to sabotage my reputation. That they were trying to undermine me by implying that I was crazy. And that they were handling me with kid gloves to be condescending and not out of genuine concern.

In my 20’s, around the time this was happening to me, I was teaching sections on literature of fantasy and the supernatural with a professor who was invested in looking at literature through the lens of psychology. It was then that I saw in books the people that I always knew had been like me through the lens of psychology. And it was there that I realized that what was happening to me had a name and began to research my condition.

Reading psychology papers about people with mental illness damaged my self-esteem and sense of self worth for a long time. I don’t recommend it and I touch on this experience and also what helped me recover from demeaning clinical descriptions of serious mental illness in a different post. If you or a loved one is struggling with mental illness read memoirs, not Wikipedia or articles for professionals helping people with mental illness.

It wasn’t until I read An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist, professor and researcher who writes about her life with bipolar disorder in her amazingly well-written memoir, that I realized that medicine was possible and essential for me, and that I could live a full life if I just surrendered myself to treatment, had hope, and – though I’m not sure if Jamison mentioned it – cultivated a spiritual lifestyle. Through Jamison I learned that people with mental illness were real people, with feelings, dreams, professions and a future.

“Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city,” says Proverbs. Therapy is typically essential for changing how we respond to stressors and medicine without therapy is not usually successful in bringing about lasting change. And sometimes, if therapy works out, medication is no longer necessary. You cannot will or pray yourself out of serious mental illness. Some people make a full recovery. This is possible. But it is not always possible, and spirituality and theology make the medication and its undeniably negative side effects more endurable. It can even imbue them with meaning. I’m developing a meditation series that helps this transformation take hold.

Reward yourself with love and appreciation when you make good choices for yourself. Peer pressure can be strong to go out and stay out late or drink tons, and such things are to be avoided when we have any serious health issue.

 

 

 

 

How Did I get Better?

There are so many things that helped me get better. And the most important one was the belief that I could get better and the willingness to try many things. Never give up. No matter how hard you’ve fallen. God and his angels are with you.

Everyone’s path to recovery is different, and it is the shape of a spiral rather than a line, with moments of stumbling or utter collapse along the way – and we must be patient while committing ourselves to the journey.

A word about this process comes to mind from the book The Courage to Heal, where the authors observe that mature recovery means that you recognize that you can take breaks from the recovery process. Where you can see yourself as struggling, be at peace with yourself about it, and go on and have a great day anyway.

We are all works in progress and at a certain point I just gave it to God and stopped trying to fix myself. That’s how I got better. But I had to put in a lot of elbow grease first. I had to go to therapy and analyze my faults and see how I was being disruptive, but then I also got to the point where I was like, okay, I’ll never be perfect, I’m not harming anyone, and I can just stop trying to become perfect.

Trust the process and have faith in God’s help (when you feel well enough to see that God might, just might, be with you even in the extremity of your suffering – and this is not always possible).

Try to remember that God will “command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways…” – Psalm 91:11. And that you are not alone.

Warning: We Must Change to Heal

Ask yourself:

Am I committed to getting better?

Is there something I am getting from being ill?

What steps am I willing to take to improve?

There is always a chance we have an investment in staying ill… and often we hide this from ourselves.

Ask yourself:

Am I taking responsibility for myself?

Am I thinking of others?

Am I committed to my treatment?

Am I praying for others?

Am I being humble?

Pray to the Lord that he would purify your intentions and give you a fire in your soul to get better. Sometimes we hold on to our illnesses because they help us in unhealthy ways.

If you love someone who is suffering: pray to the Lord that he would purify your intentions as well. Sometimes when one person is unhealthy it is threatening to us to see them change. Maybe we are getting something unhealthy out of things as they are and we are threatened because then if they change, we have to change, too. Be aware of this.

Never forget that no matter what, we must love ourselves as we are to get better, but we also must be willing and open to change.

“The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.” – Psalm 9:9-10

The Deceptive Comfort of Diagnoses: Don’t Stagnate! Keep Going!

“What a relief to finally have a name for my suffering!”

Few who receive a stigmatizing mental health diagnosis utter these words. A bad diagnosis can make what seemed like just a really bad summer a never-ending life-long sentence of despair. If this applies to you, take heart! This does not have to be the case! Diagnoses, though helpful, cause harm unless you frame them differently than most doctors will. Read on to hear what I did to bring healing and hope back to my life in spite of my diagnosis.

It has been said that the body achieves what the mind believes. Our minds are incredibly powerful and they shape our reality and our futures, sometimes even down to what illnesses we get. We don’t just think our way into mental illness, of course, but don’t forget that people can make dramatic improvements in their daily functioning and quality of life just by changing their thought patterns. And so we could also say that the mind achieves what it believes about itself.

Clearing harmful religious structures from my life in favor of a hope-filled Christianity healed me partially. The other essential change was ignoring books and scholarship describing my illness and what this meant about myself and my life trajectory. This was transformational.

Labels are permanent, and mental illness is sometimes, though by no means always, permanent. Research is not bad and reading scholarship is not bad, perhaps, so long as one takes it with a grain of salt. In general I don’t recommend it.

What makes mental illness permanent? Not staying in treatment. Abusing drugs and alcohol. The first step is to acknowledge that you are greatly reducing your likelihood of a good life by being reckless and wishy-washy about treatment. Assuming you’re being careful, what else makes serious mental illness permanent?

Reducing yourself to a label and seeing yourself as nothing more than a label and a set of symptoms that will always be there until you die.

Mental illnesses can last a life time, and in bad cases we probably need to stay on medicine, but we cannot leave it at that. As soon as we frame mental illness as permanent, we’re doomed to stagnate….or get worse!

As people, we read books or watch movies about life all the time. Eventually we can’t tell if we are experiencing life the way we are because the book we’ve read changed us, or because the the movie was so accurate that it captured us perfectly! Diagnoses are like books about ourselves. Once we have them, it means we have found something that describes a part of us perfectly. But unfortunately we then may let them define us completely. And our mind achieves what it believes about itself. The illness becomes permanent.

Once we have a mental health diagnosis and agree with it, then we know what we are to move away from. It is not that we have a container to hold us permanently. No! Instead think of it this way: we have a direction. A goal: lasting stability. Maybe even a full recovery! A diagnosis is a sign that we must do things that move us out of this symptom cluster. In other words, a motion away from our illness.

Above all, never give up hope that you will get better!

If you have a doctor who says you’re only going to get worse, and who doesn’t listen to you when you say you want to keep things positive, get a different doctor! Negativity is poison for your brain. Obviously if you’re trying to get off of a mood-stabilizer (like Lithium or Lamictal) and you are bipolar, you probably shouldn’t go off of it. I would not trust a doctor if they told me I did not need the medicine I take because I know that this is what keeps me high-functioning. But if a doctor paints an overarching doom and gloom picture, get a second opinion.

I will conclude with an example of my own experience:

I once had a doctor who said in my first visit that I was on a low dose of what I was on and that, even though I was doing great, I could expect to double it within the next year! And then continue to go up on it. This is a bad sign! Turns out she had been an emergency room doctor and was used to people in absolute crisis. It was her first year in private practice. She gave me the right medicine change, but I quickly got a different doctor.

We must find doctors who have realism – who don’t just tell us to go off our meds – paired with hope and optimism. Labels and diagnoses frequently take away our ability to see that our suffering might not be permanent. And therefore labels can make the mind achieve the doom that doctors tell us about and that we most fear.

First Episode Psychosis: What is it Like, Why Don’t People Just Get Help?, and How to Help

I didn’t know I was becoming ill when psychosis took hold of me as a graduate student. The first time we become psychotic – or lose contact with reality, as it is more graciously referred to by professionals – is referred to as first-episode psychosis. It is usually a gradual process and people can die from this by suicide or recklessness or cause great harm to others. And since there is no mental health education in this country except for psychology courses that often treat mental illness as something that you only see in a museum, a psych ward, or jail, everyone is astonished when it turns out they too are capable of experiencing it.

Unfortunately the nature of psychosis is such that people by definition do not have insight into what is happening to them. Insight is a clinical term. It means that you can see that you are suffering. A person with OCD, for example, will often know that what they are doing is not “normal” or desirable. Not so for psychosis.

A story comes to mind just now to illustrate the point:

My grandfather, Ross, played polo competitively as a young man. One game he was struck by a mallet and lost his eye. Being in shock, he didn’t know this had happened to him initially, and he wondered why the men around him were fainting off of their horses when they looked at him. He felt fine. What was the big deal?!? Fast forward to me in graduate school: I’m doing fine!!! Why are people so suspicious of me and not willing to hang out with me? Why are they being compassionate?!? Why does it seem like they pity me?!?

People experience psychosis and have fully functioning families and careers all the time. No one talks about it! But the first time… – even if we do sense that something is amiss, no one wants to admit it might be happening to them. And the vast majority of people do not know that it is treatable. It took years for me to find the right medicine and mindset. But I never gave up and neither should you.

This denial about becoming ill is just natural human behavior. For example, some people also experience shock at a cancer diagnosis, or disbelief when they are in a serious car crash. This is a natural, universal aspect of getting a devastating diagnosis or of surviving horrific events. It is so natural and we must be compassionate with ourselves and with others when we are struck with bad news and know that it is natural to be taken aback and be incredulous that horrible things can happen to us.

It is natural human behavior to deny what is going on and, in the case of mental health, to not want to accept help, realize that you can, or trust that it will work out if you do. But in some ways it is harder with first episode psychosis.

Can you imagine how it would feel to grow up hating psychotic people and blaming them for their suicides and transgressions, to be a person who hears about a suicide and says, “that’s the most selfish thing a person could ever do” – only to realize that you are becoming psychotic or are experiencing suicidal thoughts in spite of being a good person? In spite of being a faithful person? A religious person? In spite of, maybe, even being a person who had a good childhood? What if you just had a baby? Nothing could be better, right? Know that there is such a thing as postpartum psychosis. And know that it is treatable and imperative to get help immediately.

Just think how different it would be if people had to learn mental health first aid as children. That’s what would help. And just think if that first aid wasn’t just showcasing a shop of horrors, but actually featured stories of recovery and talked about prevention… and had survivors like me?

Just a thought.

On Mental Illness among Grad Students: The Secular Humanities’ Undoing of the Mind of God. And its Scattering of His Children.

I get it that people no longer agree about who God is/if there is a God/if he should be called she, etc.. But making students or their teachers God is not the answer. In this essay I explain why.

If an author is a creator, a creator of books, plays, articles, analyses or case studies, then we could say that this creator acts like God when he writes about people. She is creating, and God creates. This is a natural connection between God and human creators, or what we call artists and authors.

In the case of really good creators, the work of art points to God and teaches us about ourselves in the process. And 19th century Russian literature, in my opinion, does this the best. I love 19th century Russian literature. But let’s not forget that God does not create mere characters – authors do. We are more than characters to God. We are His children.

I studied one famous creator, the author and poet named Dante, who wrote something called The Divine Comedy, where he describes the suffering and joys of human life and the afterlife. A man, Dante, wrote this. But in school we acted like he was God. God would never call his creation a comedy (even though “comedy” meant a different thing back then, that is beside the point). But by studying The Divine Comedy in the 21st Century, it is likely that the student will come to think of themselves as little more than a character in the book of life, a character who will not be forgiven by an unmoved God.

There is another work I will mention. The work called Ion of ancient Greek literature, where the artist is described as being closest to God. His followers (readers or students) are beneath him – on down a chain to the most insignificant people. Who cares about them!

The tragedy: people who love literature and art and would seek God through it… Who want to better understand themselves through it… at least in the United States… think that by becoming professors they will learn still more about their nature as children of God. No, they would never frame it that way to themselves or others – that would be a sin for the secular graduate student. But this is often the case. There is this deep feeling that becoming an academic will get us closer to God.

I once overheard a prideful professor share with a colleague about his undergraduate students: “they worship me like a God!” Little do the college students know that they will be trained to think they are God as they learn to dissect the human story as if they were no longer human.

The cost of this: their faith, their humility, and, as was almost the case with me, their very lives. Let alone the well-being of their souls.

Some people who are forced to leave academia mourn the loss the rest of their lives, and those who are victorious risk forgetting that they are still not God. They are merely critics. This is overgeneralizing and not always true, but my experience speaks to this and therefore I ask you to consider it alongside the voices of others.

Here is an article that gave me hope about why we should probably not pursue graduate school in the humanities. To an outsider it seems like sour grapes, but really, I mean really, I now know that it is a blessing that I did not become an academic.

https://www.chronicle.com/article/Graduate-School-in-the/44846

I would like to thank Parker Palmer, who, in one of his books – I think it was The Courage to Teach -, alerts us to the reality that we teach students not to use “I” in their schoolwork and how, over time, this gives students the sense that they are reality rather than subjective interpreters of reality. Pair that with God being treated as an idea and you get the dangerous over-confidence that we see in the secular humanities every day.