Trial and Error

Last year, I wrote about my decision to go on medication for my anxiety. It was a complicated decision for me to actually seek help from a doctor. I’d never discussed my mental health with a doctor before, only my therapist, and it felt like an overwhelmingly vulnerable thing to do. My first appointment with my doctor, I sat on the examination table with sweaty palms and shortness of breath. It’s a little over a year later, and I’m still on a journey toward balance, healing, and figuring out what medications are right for me.

Unlike many physical health problems, the medications for mental health are much more of a trial and error situation. I know that some issues like autoimmune disorders, cancer, and chronic pain can feel this way, too, so I don’t want to discount those experiences. But I’d never had an experience where a doctor didn’t know exactly how to treat me. I’m rarely sick, and when I am, it’s usually with something predictable like a cold or flu, bronchitis at the worst. I’ve had a few surgeries, mainly due to routine dental procedures and sports injuries. I’ve done physical therapy countless times. However, being prescribed a medication in the spirit of “we’ll see how this goes!” is a new and somewhat scary journey.

Medications for mental health can sometimes have side effects that are worse than the thing you want them to prevent. They can cause suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, and depression. They can make you tired, dizzy, nauseated, gain weight, lose weight, hungry, not hungry, the list goes on. My body has always operated on a pretty predictable rhythm. I’ve exercised at least five days per week since I started running cross country in middle school. Growing up, fried foods, red meat, and other unhealthy options were never made available to me, a pattern I took with me into adulthood. Whenver I was experiencing something unpleasant in my body, I could usually point to exactly why that was and do something to make it stop. But these new medications are a different story.

I started out taking Zoloft. I felt like it was helping my anxiety, so we increased the dosage. After a few months, though, I was feeling exhausted and depressed. I went back to my doctor and we decided to try something else. Next, I tried Lexapro. I felt like I had more energy and experienced less side effects, but I was still feeling depressed. After talking with my therapist, I realized that maybe the depression wasn’t a side effect of the medications but was actually a symptom of mental illness. My anxiety had been my main concern for so long, and once that was quieted, my depression was free to settle back in and take control.

The past six months have been a slow trudge through day to day life. Some days were better than others, but I struggled find joy in my work and in my hobbies. Spending time with friends was exhausting, but sitting in my house alone made me feel even more worthless. There were times I had to call friends to come and sit with me because I didn’t feel safe to be alone. There were times when I had to take several days off of work. There were times when I texted the crisis hotline and thought about admitting myself to a hospital. It hasn’t been the best season. But I’m so grateful for the people who showed up for me and for my own ability to ask for help and to get up and keep trying.

So, now, not only am I taking Lexapro but also Wellbutrin. And I’m feeling the best I’ve felt in months. My insides feel less dreary and I’m excited about things instead of feeling burdened by them. I want to be creative again. I want to be spontaneous and try new things. The fog is slowly lifting. I know there will be bad days again because mental illness doesn’t just go away overnight, but I also know that my therapist and doctor will be there for me along the way. Maybe one day I’ll need to switch medications again. Maybe one day I won’t need any medications at all. But for now, the best version of me is the one that takes two pills per day, and there’s no shame in that.

Lies Religion Told Me About My Depression

CW: disordered eating, depression, religious trauma, self harm

I first struggled with depression and body image in high school. For the better part of my junior year, I restricted my eating or avoided eating altogether. I was in a theater production at school, so my evening rehearsal schedule meant I could pretend to eat all three meals at school while managing to only munch on some free oyster crackers from the cafeteria throughout the day. After several months of this, as well as constant urging from my friends, I summoned the courage to talk to someone at my church about what I was going through.

My youth leader and I went to dinner at Chik-fil-A (the classic Christian restaurant, obviously), and I confessed my hatred for my own body and general unhappiness with my life. I remember saying, “I don’t know why I’m so unhappy. I have a boyfriend. I have a lot of good friends. I’m doing well in school.” To which my youth leader responded, “Yes, but you need to be able to be happy even if you don’t have those things. That’s why we find our joy in Jesus.” Here is the first lie: If you really love Jesus, you won’t ever be unhappy.

It wasn’t until over a decade later that I realized how disturbing this was. There I sat, a fragile, 95 pound 16-year-old, and instead of getting the mental health assistance I so badly needed, I was being told that my unhappiness was directly correlated to the depth of my religious belief. If I would only pray more, read the Bible more, and be a better Christian, then I wouldn’t be having these problems. I wasn’t referred to get any outside help and instead was referred to a devotional book for teenage girls.

For whatever its worth, I did start eating again after the conversation with my youth leader. Whether it was the confession of my issue itself or my deep belief in what I’d been told, by the time I graduated from high school, I’d started eating all three meals again. But, really, that’s not the thing that matters the most. What does was my belief in my ability to be cured from mental illness simply by praying and going to church. Sure, prayer, meditation, and community can all help improve mental health and personal awareness. I don’t discount that. But my brain chemistry cannot be cured by sitting in a dark room with my eyes closed. People far more devout than I experience unhappiness and depression all of the time. And the refusal of many church communities to acknowledge the dark emotions we all face leads to a church full of shiny, happy people. When church does not allow us to be unhappy, depressed, anxious, or angry, it denies us the fullness of our human experience.

Earlier in my high school experience, I struggled with other self-harming behaviors. Like any addiction or illness, I would go through periods of recovery followed by periods of relapse. Every time I fell back into old patterns, I would spend the next spiritual retreat with my youth group reflecting on my own short comings. This is the second lie: My inability to overcome mental illness is based in my unwillingness to let God work in my life.

I spent countless high school retreats crying while participating in whatever metaphorical spiritual practice had been employed to help us “let go” of the things holding us back in our relationship with God. Sometimes this was writing down what we needed to let go of and nailing it to a cross. (Don’t get me started on the disturbing theological implications of this one.) Sometimes it was writing down our sins on a piece of paper and throwing it in the fire. Sometimes it was holding a small stone in our hands, meditating on it, and then laying it at the foot of the cross to represent our burdens. While I understand what was being attempted with these practices, for me, they did nothing but damage. Each time, I contemplated the same things. I wasn’t happy: I was depressed, self-harming, anorexic, and lonely. I believed that if I tried hard enough and really meant it, then God would take these problems away. Each time, this turned out not to be true, and each time I thought it was my own fault for not having enough faith for God to take away my burdens.

I do not believe that God magically rewards “good people” with joy, wealth, and easy lives. I do not believe that God spitefully punishes “bad people” with mental illness, sickness, and poverty. My brain chemistry has nothing to do with my actions in the world. I was born with a brain that is suceptible to anxiety and depression, and this does not make me a failure in the eyes of God. While I do what I can to maintain my mental health – exercise, healthy diet, meditation, therapy – I am the best version of myself when I’m on the right medications. This does not mean God made me incorrectly or that I’ve done something to cause God’s anger at me. It just means I have to work harder each day to find the things that ground me.

Earlier this week, my therapist asked me what things were grounding me currently. I struggled to come up with an answer. Finally, I was able to mention my partner, my cats, a vegan pot pie I made for dinner, and my new garlic plant. I certainly did not mention guilt from being unhappy or a lack of faith. Days are hard right now, but that makes me no less faithful. It does make me more grateful for the good things when they grow. I am also grateful for the people and spaces that allow be to feel all of my feelings, even when they don’t make sense, even when they are overwhelming. I am grateful for a God who honors all of my feelings, especially the ones that hurt.

Being a Queer Methodist, February 2019

This photo is from my commissioning in 2016. I was living in the closet and unemployed. Despite my lack of direction and continual anxiety about my identity, I was overjoyed. As the bishop laid his hands on my shoulders, I knew I was where I was supposed to be. Long years of reflection, study, and discernment came together. I felt empowered. I felt like my church believed in me. It felt like coming home.

However, as my three years as a provisional member wore on, I felt more and more conflicted. In fact, this photo might represent the most at home I’ve ever felt in the Methodist Church. I grew up Methodist and have never belonged to any other denomination. My commissioning was the pinnacle of all I had worked for, all I believed the church should be, and all I believed I should be. But it’s been downhill from there.

Some of the ways I’ve started to grow apart from the UMC are due to the structure doesn’t work well for the type of ministry I want to do. This is more of a logistical issue than a personal one. I am not personally hurt by the fact that Methodist polity doesn’t seem to line up well with my ministry vision. It’s akin to a romantic relationship that would be better as a friendship. I’m not angry about it, I just think I might fit better elsewhere. So, it is with one foot already out the door that I witness General Conference 2019.

When I came out as bisexual last July, I assumed I would receive backlash from the church. I’ve received none, which can be partially attributed to the fact that I’m in a relationship with a cis, straight man. I am “self avowed” but not “practicing,” so my aberrance is marginal. Despite the fact that I have received little official feedback about my coming out, I know that, depending on the results of this conference, I could readily be asked to leave. Technically, I’m not allowed to be commissioned, even before GC 2019. Technically, my collar should go back in the drawer and my certificate should come off the wall. But, in my opinion, God is not overly concerned with technicalities.

I’m spending the next few days watching a live stream of primarily cis, straight people deciding if I can continue to be a part of this church in the way I planned to be. Truthfully, I am exhausted by the constant avoidance of the UMC to actually make a decision about inclusion. We’ve been having the same argument for a decade and yet all we’ve managed to do so far is make another committee. Despite the fact that this is comically stereotypical, I wish we would just get it over with. Part of me is grateful for the grace and care with which the church leadership is attempting to make this decision, but part of me is frustrated by the kid gloves everyone is wearing. This decision is going to hurt whether or not we take two years to think about it. I am tired of “praying our way forward.” I don’t think prayer can fix this. We don’t need more time to sit in a room in pray. We need to get our own house in order so we can go back out into the world and send love into what are currently some really broken places.

I spend each day working with people experiencing homelessness, trying to get ID’s and birth certificates for them so they can go back to work and get housing, listening to their painful stories, and holding space for them. I will continue to do this whether or not the Methodist church wants me to do this in their name. I believe it is holy work and I believe God is in it whether or not I’m straight. I struggle often between my high church beliefs in the value of structure and my thoughts that God works far beyond our made-up systems. I don’t know how to hold my conflicting thoughts about the Church all at once, but I do know that all of us deserve a place in it.

So, what do we do with a church that has become just as injured, maybe even more so than the world around it? I don’t know. I think there’s value in an imperfect church because I spent so much of my early childhood thinking that church was a place where I had to be my most perfect self. But I also believe the church should be a place of safety, something I can rely on when my mental illness overwhelms me or when I feel burnt out by the pain I bear witness to in my work. I don’t want to be charged with doing the emotional work for an organization that supposed to be offering me healing and rest. I think there is far too little individual work being done. Before we can address racism, sexism, and homophobia as the UMC, we have to address our individual biases. This is hard work, harder than praying while secretly believing God thinks the same thing that you do.

I don’t know where we will be this time next week, and I am terrified. I’m worried I wasted 3 years and thousands of dollars getting a degree I won’t be allowed use. I’m afraid that I am going to watch my family fall apart and that it will be all my fault. I don’t feel safe in an organization that has been a giant part of my spiritual and personal formation, and I am tired of my personhood being debated. I don’t want to pray about it anymore. I just want to be allowed to come home.

My Word for 2019 is Brave

I’ve never chosen a word of the year before. Honestly, it always sounded a little bit corny. I feel the same way about making New Year’s resolutions. New Year’s feels like a tired joke about how Americans are terrible about following through. I have a love-hate relationship with New Year’s – I love the concept of new beginnings and fresh starts but I hate the ways we’ve turned it into a method of being dissatisfied with who we are and how we’re living.

This year, though, I decided to try the PowerSheets goal setting planner for the first time (I promise this isn’t an ad…stay with me). I’ve seen other successful women use it and love it, and I currently have a lot of dreams but need some help making them happen. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good planner, especially one with stickers. Part of the PowerSheets process is choosing a word of the year. Ideally, it’s something that can serve as an umbrella for all your goals and plans.

I looked at all the threads I was weaving together as I dreamed up my 2019. I want to be more intentional: about money, about food, about zero waste, about minimalism. I want to continue my recovery from perfectionsim. I want to take risks even if it means things don’t work out as planned. I want to keep journeying through my trauma toward healing. I want to work towards getting published. I want to clarify my vocational goals. I have a lot to manage, but a lot of it seems to come down to progress over perfection. I can spend the next year wishing that things were different or I can take actual steps toward making things happen. (I’m using a lot of PowerSheets language here…sorry y’all.) After choosing goals and focusing my priorities, bravery seemed like the thing I would need most.

At the end of 2018, I needed a lot of bravery. Politically, autumn was full of triggers of my own experiences. I had to attend an event where my abuser would be present and had to make an emergency mental health plan. Changes in my medication had me feeling less stable than I had in nearly a decade. After Thanksgiving, I took a week off from work because of an intense relapse of depression that nearly had me checking myself into the hospital. Changes at work meant I would be starting 2019 with only 1 coworker out of the 3 I usually have (and running a whole nonprofit is hard enough with only 4 of us). I did not feel ready to take on new things. But as I reflect on what all of the turmoil that the end of last year taught me, it was nothing if not bravery.

Bravery to be honest with my boss about my mental health. Bravery to speak out with my doctor about how I was reacting to my medication. Bravery to work through my memories and flashbacks with my therapist. Bravery to ask friends to come sit with me when I couldn’t be alone. Even though I’ve largely come out of the darkness that was the past few months, I still need this bravery.

I also need bravery to give myself permission to take breaks from all this goal setting – to watch TV and relax when I’m so worn out that my insides feel like sandpaper. Sometimes, I become all consumed with my new goal setting habits and feel guilty when I spend my evenings doing anything but working toward my goals. But balance is absolutely necessary. Spontenaity is necessary. Breathing is necessary. I’m still struggling to manage my time in a way that combines both working toward my goals and resting. I have to keep reminding myself that I was doing some intense healing just a few weeks ago. Being brave is both big and small and I can’t wait to see what it brings me.

Healing Old Wounds

In high school, I had no concept of self care.  I woke up at 5:52am every day, like literal clockwork.  I left my house at 7, got to school at 7:20, got coffee from the cafeteria, and met my friends in the back of the theater to finish homework or talk.  I went to class, went to cross country practice, and got home at 6.  I did homework, and went to bed by 10:00.  

Why am I telling you my daily schedule from 2004-2008? To point out that there was no time for doing what felt good. I enjoyed being on the cross country team, going to school, and spending time with my friends, but I didn’t do anything just for me.  I did what I had to do and what was required of me by others.  No one ever asked me what it would mean to do what felt good to me.  The first time I heard that question, I was 24 years old and having an emotional breakdown in graduate school.  It never occurred to me before then that I could do things for no other reason but to care for myself.  In high school, I was focused on what needed to be done to succeed in life after high school.  Studying, taking standardized tests, being captain of the cross country team, leading worship at youth group, and applying for colleges – there was no time for rest.  Rest wouldn’t help me in the future.

What I didn’t realize was that taking care of myself at the age of 16 would’ve made things much less painful 12 years later.  I never dealt with my depression and harmful behaviors in high school, so I never healed properly.  I went to a therapist in high school, but after a year of meeting, she concluded that there was nothing wrong with me and that there was no reason for me to feel so depressed. She branded herself as a Christian therapist and told me that if I only prayed enough and tried harder, I wouldn’t feel this way anymore.  I believed her and tried to move forward.  But, because I was never given any real tools to cope with what was actually a chronic mental illness, old patterns continue to resurface.

During the past five years, most of my mental illness has surfaced in the form of anxiety and panic attacks.  Medication, therapy, and learning proper self care have helped me move through the hard days.  But I was surprised when, this past September, I began to feel familiar symptoms I hadn’t felt in over a decade.  My anxiety and depression started an exhausting tug of war of apathy vs perfection.  I was paralyzed by the two extremes.  I didn’t know how to deal with both of these illness at the same time.

The only thing I know to do now is to listen to my body.  I recently heard poet and healer Jamie Lee Finch refer to her body as “She” in a podcast.  I’ve adopted that same practice, trying to personify my body in a way that gives her more value.  I try to listen to what she tells me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.  I let her rest so she is free to cry.  I take her on walks so she can breathe fresh air and absorb the sunshine.  I ask her, “what would feel good to you right now?” because, for decades, no one had asked her that before.

The Cycles of Grief

Each year on November 5th, I post a picture of my mom.  Some years, I feel strange about this ritual, especially if I’m in a new place where people don’t know that my mom died.  I do it anyway, though, because I have to find a way to hold space for her.  I think about her on November 5th even if I forget about her the rest of the year, and that feels holy.

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My mom on her wedding day.

For the first 20 years of my life, I didn’t think  much about grief.  Right after my mom’s death in 1995, my dad took me to grief counseling where I did both individual and group therapy.  I’m grateful for that early therapy but it was nearly impossible for a five year old to fully process death.  The loss of my mom because more of a “fun fact” that I could pull out when people made “your mom” jokes in high school or when I had to explain why my dad was getting married when I was in the 4th grade.  I would wear some of her jewelry or her tshirts with cats on them, but that was the extent of it.  I didn’t consider what it meant for me as a daughter or a mother or a person trying to understand herself.

It wasn’t until college that the weight of it fully hit me.  I was on a worship team for my university’s chapter of InterVarsity Christian fellowship, and on one of our annual retreats, we had a particularly poignant sharing time.  Team members shared about breakups, deaths, friendship struggles, and other things we usually kept close to our chests.  I remember suddenly bursting into tears, shocked at my emotional reaction to something I hadn’t cried about for a decade.  It sunk in that she wouldn’t be there when I got married, when I graduated, or when I had my own children.

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I see myself in this picture.

Since then, I’ve tried to get to know her more.  It turns out, getting to know a dead person is difficult, but not impossible.  I talk to her and write to her and talk about her.  This doesn’t make it hurt less.  If anything, it makes it hurt more, but if I feel nothing, the grief will fester inside me.  And unresolved grief can be a real bitch.  My decades of not feeling grief brought about depression and self harm.  So, even if it’s been years, it turns out I can’t just pretend that nothing happened.  When I recognize that my desires to be perfect and control everything around me have a lot to do with my need to live out her legacy and protect myself from an early death, I can learn to let those things go.

I recently joined a community called The Dinner Party (TDP).  There are chapters all over the world, and their mission is:

OURS IS A COMMUNITY OF MOSTLY 20- AND 30-SOMETHINGS WHO’VE EACH EXPERIENCED SIGNIFICANT LOSS & CONNECT AROUND POTLUCK DINNER PARTIES TO TALK ABOUT IT

I’ve only met with this group once, but it was overwhelmingly refreshing to be in a room of people who aren’t afraid to talk about death.  One of my close friends recently lost her dad, and as I watched our other friends respond to her grief, it brought to light my own experiences in which people weren’t sure how to approach death.  At TDP, I could joke about death, cry about things that I “should be over by now”, and talk about the things that don’t seem to make sense.  I didn’t have to put my grief in a box that looked the way others expected it to.  Listening to others describe their experiences clarified my own.

Each year on November 5th, I can’t believe how long it’s been since she died, but I hope that as I grow farther away from her temporally, I grow closer to knowing her.  I see her in myself as I approach the age that she was when she died.  I see the shape of my body when I look at pictures of her.  I think about how much she would love my cats.  None of this makes it easier, but it’s better than pretending none of it happened.