Tuesday, August 26, 2014

But... The Lord Told Me To

This post is the third in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1, Post 3, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 2.
Ironic timing: I'm preparing a series of posts on how religion reinforces a lack of boundaries and self-care and my teenage sister sends me a meme saying: "Always remember God added another day in your life... not because you need it, but because someone else needs you."

I'm tempted to drop the mic... er... keyboard, and walk away.

This thinking typifies the unhealthy Other focus that religion can propagate. Your life isn't about you. It's about Others. Burn out for God, for The Lost, for a Dying World. Words like these make too much sense to caregivers. They fit our default position of other-centeredness, and we run with them.

My only religious background is Christianity, so I'll address that perspective.  Also, I'm still a Christian. The form of that identity has changed over the years, but essentially, I believe the radical love of Jesus Christ is the greatest model and hope for humans. This post is about spiritual misguidedness and abuse, not a call to end religion.

Moving On
I experienced mishandled religion perpetuating broken boundaries and broken people in several ways. I learned a poor theology of the person that corroded my ability to see the need to care for myself. I learned to distrust pleasure and rest. I absorbed an ethos of disproportionate focus on others, among other things. I saw basic human limitations labeled as sin and "heart issues."    

Poor Theology of the Person 
When a person starts out describing people as utterly depraved my eyes roll back in my head. I attended a church for a few loooong months with this view. Entire services were filled with new insults for the human race, Jonathan Edwards style. I got sick of it. I insult myself all the time, and believe this tendency came from the non-gospel that humans, though created, are so terrible God could only think about looking at them if God murdered God's own son in their place.

That incredibly low view runs exactly counter to the emphasis the creation story places on God's pride and pleasure in humans. When your concept of self mirrors something like dirt, you spend little time caring for self.

Christianity also has an ungodly tendency to treat the body as an evil. Why tend to the thing that's just a tin can for your soul until you get to the real (after)life?

We learn to ignore our own voice, desires, and needs because we distrust self so much. We may do the same to our bodies. Eventually, we no longer know who we are. I finally realized I had no concept of my own identity. I described myself as a caregiver -- but that's not my identity. My identity must be centered much more in what internally motivates me to do, not in what I do.  

Distrust of Pleasure
Somehow I picked up the idea that pleasure equals sin -- the things you enjoy should be given up for God. I engaged in a system of self-sabotage if I enjoyed something too much. Have a great success? Got sick the next day, or found some reason to be deeply unhappy. I still fight this pattern.

The suspicion, often found in legalistic camps, that fun means sinnin' is happenin', keeps people from playing. We joke about "work hard, play harder," but I don't see it actually happen in caregiver lives. This fuels a frenetic pace of working and living.

To take the place of pleasure we engage in distraction -- temporary pleasures that typically come with high risk or cost. This isn't indulging in something enjoyable, it's over-indulging. Alcohol. Sex. Food. Risky relationships. Caregivers have pretty high statistics relative to non-caregivers when it comes to addiction, substance abuse and suicide. Anecdotally, I see increased risky and abusive relationships and obesity, too.

Or, if religion effectively keeps us from those sorts of over-indulgences (usually it buries them further from the surface), we find others that suck just as much life out of us, but maintain the facade of functionality. Which kind of plays into my next point. 

Distrust of Rest
I'm a Doctor Who fan. In the show there are weeping angel statues that come murderously alive only when you don't look at them. Blink and it's over. Turn away, they take over the world.

For a religion that believes God founded the day of rest right in the very beginning, we don't rest much. In my tradition, the urgency of saving all the souls built a lot of guilt into resting. I remember sermons (NOT from my dad, thankfully) questioning how we could rest and play while the lost died and went to hell.  The association was made in my brain. I stop -- people die in misery. I can never keep up.

Not all caregivers share my legalistic background. But Evangelical Christian culture promotes varying degrees of this theme. The burden is on the energy and strength of the few to save the world. I don't recall ever receiving a message about enjoying the world. And strangely, very few messages emphasizing God's own ability and power to bring God's Kingdom to earth. 

Disproportionate Other-Centeredness
(How's that for a clunky section title? I mention I hate titling?)   
This thread weaves through all the other sections. Are you the scum of the earth? Focus on others to find a measure of redemption. Are you playing? Others are dying. Are you resting? Still dying!

Other-centeredness seduces us because it relieves us of the burden to fully examine and know ourselves. There. I said it. This isn't all about us the victim of our upbringing -- we encounter us as participants, too. Focus on others can be a great mechanism for seeing and meeting needs, but out of proportion it borders on busy-bodying, or enabling.

Demonizing Human Limitations
You lived your life out for others, never rested, never played, and one day you experienced deep, aching sadness. Diminished will to get out and face another human. Depleted capacity to love. Deep confusion about all of this. Maybe you lost your appetite, or stayed in bed for days, or, depending on the pressure around you, just kept mindlessly, heartlessly putting one foot in front of the other -- or one more human in front of yourself. Maybe you lash out at your kids, or lover. Or withdraw from the community that used to bring you satisfaction.

These symptoms, in varying severity, characterize compassion fatigue, or depression, or exhaustion. But, if you screwed up the courage to tell another believer about them, you heard you have a "heart problem." You've "lost your joy," probably because of some sin in your life.

In reality, you reached the end of your capacity. Possibly you reached it so soon and so encompassingly because no one taught you how to protect your identity, how to rest and replenish and renew. So, instead of reading these symptoms as a God-given sign of our human limitation, we engage in a cycle of guilt that presses us further away from health, and further into the broken behaviors of self-avoidance through constant work.  

Back to my sister's meme. I disagree. I shared with her that I believe we are made to enjoy this world and this life. It is my day. It is also the day I have to love other people. Both, And.

The notion that my day is in actuality your day plays into those hyper-permeable boundaries that dissolve my identity in yours. This leads to worn out caregivers, unable to rest, unable to play, unable to see themselves in the forest of humanity. This discussion is religion abused to motivate action through fear. In reality, God intimately and intricately designed each of us for God's pleasure. Pity we don't seek the same experience of ourselves.

Good other care starts with a well-nourished, healthy, centered-in-self (avoiding the negative connotations of self-centered) soul tending to its own garden, and giving and loving out of abundance -- not guilt, pressure, exhaustion, or fear.

If you're reading these things and find them uncomfortably close to what you're experiencing, begin to find ways to listen to your own voice. Look for one instance in the last few weeks where you felt so certain about an opinion, or action, or decision. Pick it apart. What felt so good about that? If it was destructive to another human or self, put it aside for review later. You're looking for a moment when you clearly expressed YOU, the mysterious you-identity that gets lost in the other-identities.

When you find it, and parse it, and learn from it, figure out how to do more of it. Crack that door open a little wider.

And rest. At least twice in the next week, when society, or work, or church, or whatever tell you to keep going -- sit down. Take a 20 minute nap. Read a chapter of a book. Play with your dog, or your daughter. Taste the coffee you usually throw past your taste buds. Savor something.

And play. At least once. Do something imaginative, seemingly meaningless, but enjoyable. Color a page. Tickle your mate. Find a little pleasure in your world. It will still be a broken world that can use your talents, generosity, and love, but you'll be so much better poised to provide those things when you've given them to yourself, first.

Addendum: A funny, eloquent parallel to this conversation/series -- Anne Lamott's Becoming the Person You Were Meant to Be, in O magazine. READ IT.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Update: Speaking in Texas and Blog Status

Hi Friends. Update on where we are:
  • I'm speaking at a women's conference called A Courageous calling tomorrow, in Keller, TX. They're accepting folks at the door, so it's not too late to sign up (you can do that here, or just show up!). I'm super excited to be hosting my session as a guided discussion, rather than lecture/speech. We'll learn and share together. I expect it to be a rich time.
  • I'm working on the third part of the series on Self-Care for Caregivers. This post will look at how religion can reinforce unhealthy boundaries and self-neglect. It should be on the blog in the next few days (gotta finish planning for that event tomorrow!).
  • The most viewed post for this week reflects on the truth about suicide. Many thanks to Matthew Paul Turner for helping to get this message out by sharing the post.
I hear a baby waking up. Time to go!

Monday, August 11, 2014

the enemy of suicide is intimacy

Robin Williams has died -- apparently of suicide. In seconds social media exploded with the news. America's gut wrenched because the man had us all figured out. Made us smile. Made us belly laugh. Made our eyes twinkle -- even the crustiest among us.

In seconds social media exploded, and mere moments later the pontificating started. I read a post exclaiming that suicide is the "most selfish act of all." The gnawing feeling of grief infused with the acidic feeling of anger.

Suicide is the most lonely act.

I've been suicidal. I suffered post partum depression. The gory images of ending my own confused, chaotic moments came to me unbidden. Suicide has nothing to do with selfishness or generosity. It is no more generous or selfish to live in agony than to die in agony. 

Agony of depression. Of loneliness. Of grief unfettered and out of control. Sometimes it results from chemical and hormonal imbalances. Sometimes those things result from prolonged emotional and physical suffering. Your own body and mind turn against you, whispering ugly, forceful things. And the disease of depression effectively shutters you from friends and family -- the ones with the antidotes to the lies.

The survivors after a suicide suffer tremendously. The grief from this loss is complicated -- draconian. Even more so because this form of death we know the individual should have - could have - escaped. There is choice involved. But it's not so simple. The suicidal person cannot see the choices in front of them. The persistence of intrusive thoughts, the proximity of the means of destruction, the depression-imposed isolation cutting them off from relationships that could speak wiser words and choices -- all flow into a seemingly pre-selected path.

That's why we say someone is a "victim of suicide." Because they are swept up in something bigger than them.

Imagine shooting rapids on the Colorado River, without raft, paddle, life vest, guide, or companion.

Suicide is intensely lonely. Tragic. Devastating. Life and promise ending for the victim and the survivor. Its power is fueled and protected by depression encased isolation.

I suffered my suicidal thoughts and images for weeks - weeks - before I told my therapist or husband. Catch that? I was already in therapy. And those of you familiar with my story know that I counseled suicidal clients while obtaining my masters in counseling. No one should have been better equipped to deal than me.

Others suffer years. Our society rarely gives voice or forum to the mentally and emotionally agonized.

Whittling something so complicated down to an act somehow about the healthy person ("you're selfish to do this because you didn't think of me") misses all the points.

The enemy of suicide is intimacy, not judgment. Please read what our friend Kate wrote:

Depression is way more serious than one would think. It can twist our brains in such a way that we think death is our only option for peace and escape from the debilitating pain it causes. It eats away at me every day despite how hard I work to fight it.

If you need help and you need someone to remind you that you mean so much to them and they can't fathom their life without you, let me be that person. You are loved and it will get better.

If suicide seems like your answer, it isn't. The words, the visions, the thoughts are lies. In my belief, you are intended for the life you have, purposed to live your days -- a being the world needs, and you bear the image of Divine. Depression sucks all your energy, making the most important thing to do -- reaching out to another human -- the hardest thing. Do it anyway. Bring someone inside your heart, as Kate offered, to speak the truth of love. It will get better.

I told my OB about the thoughts, after my therapist reminded me most people don't have visions of shooting themselves in the head. I started an anti-depressant, and intensified my therapy.

I have recovered from my suicidal thoughts. Although, they leave an oily residue -- like glass after wiping off grease. Sometimes, when things feel intense, I see through that section of the glass, and it frightens me. I tell my husband. I speak it out loud so I can hear the ugliness of it, instead of being wooed by it playing quietly in my head.

It's seeing myself mirrored in his eyes, hearing truth from his lips, that I see falsehood for what it is.

For Survivors
I know your heart is busted. You may feel intense guilt. And probably a hell of a lot of anger. The anger is normal. Don't rush past that feeling. The trick is to experience it without getting lost in it. But do relieve yourself of that guilt. Examine yourself. Learn from the moments you had, or didn't have, with your lost one. But remember the rapids we talked about up there? They were caught in something big and terrifying. The result wasn't your fault.

For the Healthy-Minded
For those of us who have the strength, the health, the hope, the presence of mind and truth -- may we pour those gifts into the lives of the friends and family hurting among us. May we combat the lies of the disease with love. You did not cause the sickness. You cannot cure it. But you can participate in its cure.


Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Thick Line in the Sand (Part 2)

This post is the third in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself, Post 2, Thick Line in the Sand, Part 1.

Life has been busy -- I left my job, had my first public speaking engagement, preached a bit, and followed a baby around the house a thousand times. But, I recognize a reluctance to finish this post. Usually, that means I am still learning and relearning to practice the material I write.  That's a good, human, but humbling thing.

When we left off, you were supposed to breathe, express gratitude for your big heart, and love yourself by indulging in a pleasure. I hope you took the time to do those things. It's the hardest advice I give to caregivers.

It's also a part of learning to set boundaries. For us "Other Specialists," finding a sense of self, and self's desires, pleasures, expressions, helps us differentiate who we are from others.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Judgment, Justice, Mercy

My sermon from the lectionary reading: Genesis 29:15-28. Can I just say, I have NO idea what to title this. Anyone with a pithy take on that, please help a girl out. 

Parental Advisory: Explicit Content!! I say that only partially tongue in cheek. We will be discussing some very hurtful, distasteful behaviors today.

To sum up where we’ve come from: Jacob has tricked his family, met God in the desert, and finally arrived at the home of his mother – Laban’s land. The scripture prior to our reading indicates Jacob saw Rachel and her sheep – it actually mentions her sheep a couple different times – and was attracted. One presumes to Rachel. But it seems the sheep didn’t hurt, either.

Let’s be honest about what’s happening in this story. Last week by gazing intently into the story of Jacob’s vision of God we learned something deep and rich about God’s continuity and grace from age to age. This week, staring intently into the story of Laban’s trickery, we learn something deeply unsettling about human sin. Last week we saw God’s mercy joining the sinner. This week we cry for God’s justice for the oppressed.

Prayer candles: Church of the Holy Sepulcher

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Give Us the Vision

Hello Friends. The blog series has been on hold as I'm drawing some new boundaries in my own life -- practicing before I preach, I hope. I will return to the series as things settle. In the meantime, this is the sermon I preached from the Lectionary this Sunday, on Genesis 28:10-19a -- better known as Jacob's Ladder.

So... Jacob. Human, flawed Jacob. 

To recap: Jacob is on the run because he stole his brother’s inheritance and blessing. His family is fractured because of his actions.

I’m really tempted to distance myself from this guy. He’s a thief. A con artist. A backstabber. His life, boiled down to a few pages of text, leaves an ugly trail (although, if our lives were reduced to the same literary fate, I suspect it wouldn’t be too flattering, either). While culturally, Jacob’s life is light years away from my own, from our society, I can’t honestly separate us too much from him.

Let’s update the culture a bit. Imagine if the story of Jacob’s ladder were instead the story of Jacob’s corporate ladder, we’d have the makings of a great corporate success. In this context, he’s scrappy. He’s innovative. He’s intelligent and seizes opportunities. He takes action.

There are other ways Jacob’s experiences track with my own. The consequences of my actions, and others’ actions have pushed me into the wilderness. I’ve lived godlessly, looking out primarily for “number one.”

If I indulge the urge to clinically view Jacob’s life as history, or myth, but regardless, utterly separate from my reality, I miss out on something truly beautiful and hopeful that happens when God presents Jacob with the vision at Beth-el. 

From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
It turns out, I’m desperately in need of this vision. My world is in need of this vision. It’s my prayer that we’ll receive the vision God unfolds. Because here, for a moment, in a complicated, and sometimes dark narrative, God’s being grabs center stage with clarity.

We lose God in the Old Testament – at least the God Jesus manifested at the Incarnation. My own faith and faithlessness hits a brick wall with some of its passages. I think moments like this vision suggest God has always been God. That Jesus isn’t some fluke expression of the Trinity that just evolved a couple thousand years ago. Jesus himself says “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the father."

This text clearly reminds us there is more happening in the Old Testament. In this space God pierces the darkness of the human tale.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Thick Line in the Sand (Part 1)

This post is the second in a series on self-care for care-givers. Physicians, nurses, mommas, pastors, teachers and unsung care-givers of every stripe, I hope you find something restorative here. Post 1, Caregiver, Love Thyself

The guy was dying in agony. An ill-informed physician and his lengthy drug history added up to inadequate pain medication. He'd scream and curse and spread filth everywhere. Some days his wife was sober. Some days she wove down the hall like someone slowly dodging bullets.

I became one with this family. I was the only nurse who would care for them repeatedly. Shift in, shift out. I read his wife's mood changes fairly well (although she yelled at me plenty). I spent all the patience I had at his bedside, tending the wounds he made worse.

I called to check on them after my shift, asking the current nurse about labs, or subtle changes. And nightmares -- I heard his screams in my sleep. I dreaded caring for them, and feeling guilty for that, tried harder and harder to be more and more, until his wife yelled at me for addressing her intoxication and kicked me out of the room. I realized I was in too deep and with tears streaming down my face, and great gasps for air, informed my manager I could not care for them any more.

He died several days later. I never worked far enough away to not hear his screams.

I wish I could talk to that young, passionate, and utterly broken nurse and tell her leaving this family in other hands was just that -- letting other people do their job. It wasn't a moral failing. And it was utterly brave to do something so counter to her culture.