A Fable for Our Community

Aug 15 2014

I wrote recently about sinking. Sinking FAST. And slowly, sometimes, too. And being generally out of mental oxygen and how it feels to emotionally drown, which isn’t, it turns out, just a privilege reserved for those of us who are clinically depressed. And then we spent this week mired in depression talk. It makes me feel tired and sad and a little triggery, which isn’t an adjective but should be. Because pffttt. You know? Just pfffttttt. 

Then I remembered a fable my friend, Becky, read to our group of local churches about the hard work of Love, because we’ve been getting the whole Love thing really right and horribly wrong, back and forth and sometimes all at once, as though we’re just utterly human.

Loving God.

Loving each other.

The work of community. 

And I know you and I may have different thoughts about God. No problem. I LOVE this about us. It’s one of my favorite things. We’re a diverse community around here, and all are welcome. As I’ve said before, this space will never be about conversion, because that’s neither my interest, nor my job.

But we will always be about the work of Love here. And the work of being our truest, deepest, most wild and wonderful selves.. And the work of finding our Village. And the work of being community to each other. Community. Come unity.

Which is why I give us this fable today, because it is, for this moment, the very best image of community I can imagine.

The Lobster and the Crab
from Fables by Arnold Lobel

On a stormy day, the Crab went strolling along the beach. He was surprised to see the Lobster preparing to set sail in his boat.

“Lobster,” said the Crab, “it is foolhardy to venture out on a day like this.”

“Perhaps so,” said the Lobster, “but I love a squall at sea!”

“I will come with you,” said the Crab. “I will not let you face such danger alone.”

The Lobster and the Crab began their voyage. Soon they found themselves far from shore. Their boat was tossed and buffeted by the turbulent waters.

“Crab!” shouted the Lobster above the roar of the wind. “For me, the splashing of the salt spray is thrilling! The crashing of every wave takes my breath away!”

lobstercrab

“Lobster, I think we are sinking!” cried the Crab.

“Yes, of course, we are sinking,” said the Lobster. “This old boat is full of holes. Have courage, my friend. Remember, we are both creatures of the sea.”

The little boat capsized and sank.

“Horrors!” cried the Crab.

“Down we go!” shouted the Lobster.

The Crab was shaken and upset. The Lobster took him for a relaxing walk along the ocean floor.

“How brave we are,” said the Lobster. “What a wonderful adventure we have had!”

The Crab began to feel somewhat better. Although he usually enjoyed a quieter existence, he had to admit that the day had been pleasantly out of the ordinary.

……….

I love this, because I think it sums up all of friendship and all of Love.

The crab, who is afraid, saying, “I will come with you. I will not let you face such danger alone.”

And then the sinking, which, it turns out, is so much a part of this life.

“Lobster, I think we are sinking!” cried the Crab.

“Yes, of course, we are sinking,” said the Lobster. “This old boat is full of holes. Have courage, my friend. Remember, we are both creatures of the sea.”

Listen. Life is just full of peril, isn’t it? Leaky boats full of holes in turbulent waters. And we – all of us – feel at one point or another like we’re going to drown. Sinking fast. On our way to the bottom of the sea, which is where our imperfection lives, and our inadequacies are on display, and we fear we may be found out. We forget, of course, that facing our humanity and sinking into who we really are is always part of finding our way home. And that we don’t go it alone. Not into the storm. Not down with the ship. We go there together. And we find ourselves home.

Have courage today, friends. We may be sinking, but we are creatures of the sea.

Down we go!

……….

On Christianity and Depression… and Why Matt Walsh Is Wrong

Aug 13 2014

I swear I’ll get back to sharing poor parenting techniques soon. That is, after all, what I do best. Like this week, while we’re camping, and my greatest and most profound discipline strategy has been to withhold Doritos. (Just FYI – terrible strategy. It’s worked out exactly as well as you’d expect, which is to say, not at all.) On the bright side, though, my kids have rallied the other kids at the camp ground to form a vandalism ring for the purpose of drawing chalk butts underneath every available picnic table. Ours and others’. So, you know, my parenting isn’t a total loss if you’re willing to consider rampant chalk vandalism a good way to make friends.

Unfortunately, my heart has been relentless these past three days, thinking about depression, suicide, what drives people to it, and how we might help each other. And I’m about to do something I’ve rarely done, which is contradict another writer by name, because I believe Matt Walsh’s post, titled “Robin Williams didn’t die from his disease, he died from his choice,” is misleading to the point of causing harm and endangering the most vulnerable among us.

In the interest of full disclosure and so you can see and evaluate my bias up front, I will tell you this: Matt is an excellent writer with often brilliant word craft, and I’ve blocked his content from my feed. It’s not because he doesn’t make good points sometimes. He, like the rest of us who are human, is right and wrong with striking regularity, and though I emphatically disagree with many of his positions,  I do agree with some.

No; it’s not his positions on issues that bothers me the most. It’s the fact that he writes with disdain for anyone who disagrees with him. With disregard for people whose experiences differ from his own. With simplistic straw man arguments which he valiantly breaks down. It makes me angry and sad because he’s taking part in the destruction of civil dialogue as though there’s no room for any opinions but his own. Which is great for page views and terrible for people.

Still, I wouldn’t write a piece opposing Matt did I not believe his words may cause people in desperate need of help for depression to decline to seek treatment. To think that “making a choice” is enough to combat mental illness. To minimize symptoms. To reinforce the patently false idea that depression is a spiritual ailment.

Now, Matt makes two good points in his piece:

  1. That we should consider whether our comments that Robin Williams is now “free” or “happy” or “in a better place” (all of which I believe) might drive those already considering suicide closer to the brink, seeking that relief themselves… food for thought… and,
  2. “…we are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. And as long as we can still draw breath, there is joy and love to be found here.” TRUE!

But the broader implication of what he writes – his thesis statement that Robin Williams’ death is due to choice, not disease – is disturbing because it’s only half true.

“It’s a tragic choice, truly,” Matt writes, “but it is a choice, and we have to remember that. Your suicide doesn’t happen to you; it doesn’t attack you like cancer or descend upon you like a tornado. It is a decision made by an individual. A bad decision. Always a bad decision.”

Of course suicide is a choice. Of course it is. And a bad decision. Always. But it does attack just like a cancer and descend like a tornado. It comes out nowhere, without storm warnings or news bulletins or a shelter in which to hide until it’s passed. We must learn to recognize the stealthy and secretive ways depression comes upon us if we have a hope of combating it. Unfortunately, for the person with scrambled brain chemistry, suicide can be a choice that is so deceiving as to make sense. THAT IS THE DISEASE OF CLINICAL DEPRESSION. THAT’S WHAT IT IS. That’s what it does. Depresssion lies and lies and lies. Believably. Convincingly. Compellingly. So that when the person who commits suicide does it, he or she often does so thinking it’s a favor to their family, to their friends, and that the world will be better off without them. Are they wrong? OF COURSE THEY ARE. Did they choose to die? OF COURSE THEY DID. But they did so because the disease destroyed their ability to make the best choice.

This is the first place in that blog post that Matt is off base. Robin Williams died of a choice AND a disease. To discount the disease does terrible, horrific harm to others who need treatment.

Matt writes, “Depression will not appear on the autopsy report, because it can’t kill you on its own.” In fact, depression does appear on autopsy reports. Cause of death can be listed as suicide (example: Don Cornelius’s autopsy report) with depression listed in the synopsis. 

The next place Matt’s argument falls apart is in his contention that depression is a spiritual ailment. “Depression is a mental affliction, yes, but also spiritual,” he says. But no. No, it’s not. Let’s be very clear on this point. Clinical Depression is a medical diagnosis

Can one be in spiritual distress? Absolutely. Spiritual crisis? Certainly. Does depression affect our spirit? You bet. In the same way other chronic illnesses do. It is trying to our faith and to our understanding of a loving God. 

But a spiritual crisis is not the same as clinical depression, not a component of it, nor should it be equated with such. Just like we wouldn’t say cancer has a spiritual cause, we must not say it about clinical depression. To do so is to buy into faith-healing extremism. 

Instead, clinical depression is, literally, a diagnosable, treatable, medical condition. One that alters brain chemistry and the ability to make logical, lifesaving decisions. Depression, quite simply, “depresses” or pushes down the brain’s ability to function normally. To say otherwise is irresponsible, reinforces the stigma of mental illness, and will undoubtedly make those of his readers who suffer from depression less likely to seek the medical treatment they need. They will think, based on Matt’s statement that depression is both medical and spiritual, and his final point, “in the end, joy is the only thing that defeats depression,” that they must simply try to be more joyful. More spiritual. More Godly. Which will almost always fail. Because MEDICAL CONDITION.

Consider my friend Samantha’s* story, shared on Facebook yesterday, before Matt’s blog post was released:  

[My depression] started with general discontentment. I thought if I focused on things I was thankful for, and actively pursued gratitude, and prayed for a heart open to God, all would be better.

Sadly to say, I just felt the pressure to be happy and like I was constantly failing with no reason; my life was great, I felt my unhappiness was selfishness, so I tried serving others and family, trying hard to choose Joy in the darkness. It didn’t help.

I was praying for God’s help, but I just felt people judging me and rejecting me and putting more pressure on my life to enjoy it, to see that I am blessed, which led to guilt for not feeling that way. I didn’t want life to be this way nor did I want to be this angry, raging woman but there I was.

I was in survival mode, trying not to drown.

This disease came at me from nowhere and I didn’t recognize it for over a year, until it became a beast and took me over…

Listen, friends. Treatment for depression is not about “getting right with God.” It’s not about replacing depression with joy. Such simplifications are misleading, misinformed, and patently false.

I drove by a church reader board several years ago that read “we’re too blessed to be depressed.” And this sums up the church’s historic problem dealing well with mental health.  In Christian circles, there’s often much internal and external pressure to think this very real medical issue is a spiritual battle or a matter of faith. The truth is, we can seek God continuously, and long for Joy, and know God is with us in the mess, and still depression can consume us.

We seek medical help for our kids when they have strep throat. We seek medical help for our kids when they have asthma. We must learn to take our own medical needs as seriously. Including mental health.

In short (too late!), yesterday’s blog post by Matt about Robin Williams reinforces the stigma about mental illness, contains a significant element of spiritual shaming, and will undoubtedly make those of his readers who suffer from depression less likely to seek the medical treatment they need. Which is dangerous to people’s health and may, in the end, prove deadly. 

We are all meant for joy. We are all meant for love. We are all meant for life. So, if you are depressed; if you are inexplicably and constantly irritable or angry or tired or numb; if you feel like you are drowning slowly; if you suspect your brain is lying to you; SEEK TREATMENT. See a doctor. See a therapist. Tell your best friend. Come up with a safety plan. Get help. 

Help is out there. You are not spiritually weak to seek it. Your choices alone cannot overcome the Darkness. You are not failing spiritually. You may be ill. And you can recover. There is hope. Hope in God, yes. Hope for your spirit and soul. AND hope for your body and brain. 

……….

*Samantha’s story is shared here with permission. I’ve changed her name to protect her anonymity.

What is Clinical Depression?
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Signs of Clinical Depression
Warning Signs of Mental Illness

If You See Depression in Others:

  1. Educate yourself. The links above are good places to start.
  2. Name your concern – say, bluntly, “I think you may be depressed.” Tell them why. Ask them to seek medical help.
  3. Keep naming it. It took my friends more than a year to convince me to seek help. I needed every encouragement and their relentless pursuit of health on my behalf. Remember: the depressed person’s brain isn’t working well. He or she may not be able to see that they need help.
  4. Create a safety plan
  5. Call the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Robin Williams Was Sick, Not Selfish: On Suicide and Mental Illness

Aug 11 2014

Suicide has hit our small Oregon community hard in the last few weeks. Jennifer Huston disappeared at the end of July. She was found days later, after a several-state search, dead by suicide, leaving behind a bewildered and grieving family, including her young kids who will grow up now without their mama. 

Our community is left mourning and confused, which is natural, I think. Normal. Important, even, as we come together and work to love each other well. To reach out. To provide comfort. And in the midst of our bafflement, I hear people saying over and over they wish Jennifer had known she had a community. They wish she’d known she had friends. They wish she’d known she wasn’t alone. And yet, from everything I gather, she had those people in her life. People who loved her. People whom she loved. People who would’ve fought to try to save her had they but known her struggle. 

And now Robin Williams is gone. By all accounts, due to probable suicide.

I’ve suffered from depression. It’s my constant companion still. And I’ve found it difficult to forgive myself for the losses my illness and I inflicted on my family. For the ways I couldn’t find out of the Darkness. For the day I sat in the bathroom, staring at the anti-depressant pills that weren’t working and wondering if there was another way I could be free from the relentless sensation of drowning. Dead already, I thought. Lost to myself utterly.

And although the wondering is the closest I came to suicide, walking instead the long, slow road back to hope, I learned some things in that bathroom, and some things since, in my research on depression. 

I’ve often heard it said that suicide is the most selfish of acts. It’s popular to think so, as though being more selfless is a cure for depression. A cure for brain chemistry gone wrong. But that’s simply, totally, completely untrue. 

If, in fact, Robin Williams did die due to suicide, he did not die because he was mortally selfish.

Nor did Jennifer die because she lacked community.

And although an extraordinarily simplistic case can be made for it, neither of them died because they gave up or gave in. Or from lack of strength. Or from lack of willpower. 

No; Robin Williams and Jennifer Huston died from illness. Mental illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. Which is illness. They died from being very, very sick, a symptom of which is having a brain that is utterly incapable of making the logical, lifesaving choice to live any longer. 

My friend Marie wrote, “From the outside, it is difficult to see, and impossible to feel, the crushing weight of Darkness. We wouldn’t judge someone who was being crushed by a bus and isn’t able to extricate himself from the situation.” And she’s right, absolutely.

In the wake of Jennifer’s and Robin’s deaths, the best thing we can do in their memory is educate ourselves on the many signs of depression. The many signs of mental illness. And to bravely butt in when we suspect our people are suffering.

Listen. Depression does not always look like sadness. Depression does not always look like numbness. And depression often comes in disguise. Disguised as anger. Disguised as physical pain. Disguised as an inability to function. Disguised as isolation. Be on the lookout, friends. For yourself and for each other.

There is treatment. There is hope.

At the same time, we also must acknowledge we cannot save everyone. And we must not blame ourselves for those we couldn’t save. Which is, perhaps, the hardest job of all.

……….

Good Places to Begin Learning about Suicide Prevention and Treatment for Mental Illness:

National Suicide Prevention Hotline
Signs of Clinical Depression
Warning Signs of Mental Illness

Every Boy’s Fondest Wish

Aug 11 2014

Sometimes, kids say the most profound things when we least expect them, and we must keep our ears open lest we miss their dreams and wishes, their longings and desires.

photo 1 (73)This morning, my parents and I loaded 3 littles into a canoe and a kayak, and we took off together down Oregon’s Willamette River. The sun was brilliant. The skies azure. The water simultaneously lazy and strong and achingly beautiful, like a mother, tired by her labor, taking a rest, and working, still, powerfully beneath the surface.

We stole downriver, startling Great Blue Herons from their slumber at the water’s edge as we giggled and played and soaked each other with paddles and plastic water toys. 

My son said he had to pee then, and so, without a landing or another boat in sight, we said, “Now’s your chance, man.”

He took it. 

My son’s urine cascaded into emerald waters, yellow droplets glimmering in the sun as they fell next to the gliding canoe. He experimented with the arc and trajectory. With force and precision control.

And at the end, he shook his head sadly and said, “I really wish I had better range on this thing.”

Which, I think, sums up every boy’s fondest wish:

I really wish I had better range on this thing.

The End

When I Think of You, It Is Always Gladness

Aug 8 2014

I have a friend named J who lives life and loves people well. I hope to be more like him when I grow up.

J sent me a message, and it looks like this:

Beth, sometimes I’m having a shit day and find you on the internet and feel like “eh, ok. I feel not as terrible.”

Sometimes I’m having an ok day and see you in person and remember I’m not alone, even when our words are few.

Sometimes I’m having a kickawesome day and I remember how gregarious you can be and still call yourself an introvert, and I flaunt a passing smirk sitting alone in wherever I am.

All to say, yer neat, and when I think of you, it is always gladness.

J

It was a nice note, and it made me feel seen, which is, after all, what I think each of us needs – to be seen. To be known. To be loved. To be liked. To be valued. And to have a sense, somehow, of belonging and community and that being ourselves boldly is enough. Is, in fact, exactly who we are meant to be. Which is why the end of J’s message choked me up. What an extraordinary gift, I thought, to hear that when someone thinks of you, it’s always with gladness.

photo (86)

 Yesterday, I told you I feel a little lost sometimes, wanting so very much for all of us to feel valued and loved without limits and not knowing how or where to begin. Today, I wonder if this isn’t the perfect way to start… by encouraging each us to think of people to whom we can send this simple and extraordinary message.

Will you join me, friends, in sending these words to 5 (or infinite) people? You can link here or not. Say the words in writing or in person. Send it over Facebook or by email. On the phone or by carrier pigeon. On a card. With flowers. Via sky writer or in sign language. 

I just think it might make a difference for all of us to know…

When I Think of You, It Is Always Gladness

……… 

And, P.S., When I Think of You, who hang out here in this space with me, It Is Always Gladness. <– True story.

When You’re Sinking Fast

Aug 6 2014

Oh, friends.

When we sink, we sure can sink fast, can’t we?

Like lead.

Just a slip off the ship or a trip at the edge of the cliff and, with a splash, KAPLOOSH, we’re on our way to the depths, stone tied to ankle, confused and plummeting down and down and down into the water, wondering if we’re done for.

…Or we sink so slowly we don’t even realize we’re under water until we can’t find breath. That happens, too.

I suppose it doesn’t really matter how quickly we sink, does it? We die without oxygen either way, whether we’re just barely beneath the surface or in the darkest waters.

I hope you’ll bear with me here. I know I’m usually a Pollyanna-style optimist with a side of sass and sarcasm, goofy and grubby in life and in writing, but I’m burdened today with the sorrow of friends who are suffering, so this will tend more toward the grit and grime and, perhaps, by the end, if we’re lucky, to the good again.

In the last two days, you opened up your hearts to your fellow mamas in the wild. You were honest. Transparent. Sweet and sad. Lovely and lonely. Hurting and hopeful. You wrote that you are frustrated. You wrote that you are angry. You wrote that you feel stuck. You wrote that you’re grateful. You wrote wondering if it ever gets better. You wrote to say that it does. And your vulnerability was a gift to us all; to us, the people of the wilderness who are searching for the Village and holding hands in the dark until we get there. 

At the same time you were writing your words of transparency and truth, friends in my small town were processing the sudden and surprising loss of one of the Mama Tribe to circumstances we don’t yet – and may never – understand. 

And so I’ve spent the last few days pondering what it means to be part of this messy, muddy, magical mystery that is life. Pondering how few firm answers we have. Pondering how to be a deeper community. A more inclusive whole. A safer sanctuary. And better friends. 

We’re just so tired sometimes, aren’t we? So tired and done in. And some days the negative thoughts win. And we’re so hard on ourselves to boot. The grace we so easily give to others is so hard to accept on our own behalf.

I’ve suspected for a long time that this feeling or fear of not being enough is less about us and our ability to be all things to all people and is far more about our desperate need for community. For come-unity. For belonging. For being a part of a bigger whole. For being loved. For being valued. For being viewed as precious. Important. Worthy. Irreplaceable. Our feelings of inadequacy, I bet, are trying to tell us we need each other. 

I don’t have any answers for us today, except to say that you are, friends, deeply worthy of limitless love. Of extraordinary value. 

And I’ll end with words of wisdom from our community here, because they’re important to share. 

From G Arrow:

We are enough, my people, we are. This day we have done our best, no matter how much milk we have left. No matter that we told the kids to knock it off or cuddled them or shut a door and wept. No matter how much money we have or how little. And I tell you and myself, we are magnificent, … we are mighty as we curl up on dark nights and wait for the light of another dawn that somehow always comes. We have carried so much, have lost so much, have been stripped and have died over and over, have drowned and somehow found new lungs. We are a force, all of us.

And paraphrased from Mary:

Hang in there, friends. And yell at the moon. 

With love, truly,
Beth

Mamas in the Wild

Aug 4 2014

They sat at the table near us at dinner most nights of our cruise. A mama, a dad, a grandma and a baby. The baby was oblivious to semi-formal and formal nights and not at all impressed with the concept of a lengthy, leisurely meal, and so she cried sometimes. She cried like she meant it, full of gusto and heartbreak at being offered peas while she was tired or substandard potatoes when clearly only apples would do, because 11 months old is a hard age to understand your family’s on vacation and it’s time for fine dining. 

I wanted to go over to their table every time. To say, “She’s precious” and, “You’re doing a great job” as they cajoled and consoled her. To say, “You’re sitting next to a sympathetic crowd, friends.” And to say, as they looked around furtively, “It’s OK. Really. I swear it gets easier.”

Instead, we studiously ignored them because we wanted them to think we didn’t always hear the baby’s squawks of frustration, her hungry demands or her exhaustion. To maintain the illusion for them that no one noticed, and therefore no one was judging them harshly. And when they’d pass our table on their way out, leaving sooner than the rest of us, we’d only say, enthusiastically, “she’s so cute,” hoping, even though we knew it was inadequate, to send a You’re OK message with those words. An It Gets Better message. A We’re Here for You message.

I’m certain we failed, but there’s a fine line between acknowledging a common experience between parents and projecting all my new mama feelings on others. I wanted neither to disrupt their vacation nor their attempt at calm with my suppositions about what they must be feeling.

photo 2 (76)And then we saw them one day off the ship, as we stood at the perimeter of a grassy meadow, at the base of a wide hill covered with evergreens, at the side of stream where eagle pairs circled and a mama bear and her twin cubs sauntered toward the trees and back again. 

We saw the mama and the dad and the grandma and the baby, and we smiled again and said our She’s So Cutes, followed by We’ve Seen You Near Us at Dinner. 

The mama looked struck. Surprised and a little bit guarded in the way the vulnerable are; not wary, necessarily, but a little unsure of her welcome. She blurted, “She cries at dinner. I’m so sorry.”

And I said, “No worries. We have 5 kids. We get it; I promise. They’ve cried all over the world, and especially in restaurants. Babies cry; it’s one of their best things.”

She said, “Five kids? FIVE? How do you do it? I only have one, and it’s taking all I’ve got.”

So I poured it all out, floodgates style. I was incapable anymore of holding myself at bay.

I told her it doesn’t matter how many kids we have; any number of kids is a lot of kids.

I told her that parenting my first kid undid me.

I told her she’s dying to herself right now and she’s also being reborn and that birthing a new self is as messy and beautiful, as terrible and triumphant, as birthing a baby. “You’re giving birth to new life,” I said, “but you don’t know it yet because you’re still trying to gasp for that first breath. It’s coming, though, the oxygen you need. It’s coming.” 

I told her we’re weak and we’re strong in equal measure, and that’s how it should be, because there’s no other way to build strength except to begin from a weaker place. 

I told her we’re lost, sometimes, even while we’re being found, and that there’s grace in that place.

And I told her this life is more Both/And than I ever suspected. Both better and worse. Both bigger and smaller. Both higher and lower. So much wilder and far, far freer.

She kept saying, over and over, “You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. No idea.” But I think I do, because I am her. We all are.

I’ve thought a lot about that mama ever since, and the difference between when we met in civilization and when we met in the wild. 

We couldn’t meet in the formal dining room, I think. Not in any sense that’s real, anyway. There’s no room for the truth or our whole selves while we still have perfect manners. We don’t want to butt in. To intrude. To disrupt. To assume. But out there in the wild with the mama bear and her cubs? Out there in the beauty and the splendor and the rawness of the wilderness? It’s the place to take chances. To risk. To be bold. To be wholly ourselves. Because our survival can depend on it. And on each other.

So here’s what I’d say to us… let’s go to the wild with each other, friends. 

Which brings me to this:
How ARE you?

……….

photo 1 (70)And, P.S…. because I’ll always show you mine when I ask you to show me yours, I’ll tell you: I’m OK today. I’m away from home, at camp, getting ready to teach a series of classes to 200 high schoolers on questing for truth, forging faith, and living Love out loud, and I gotta say, I’m equal parts excited and anxious. Excited because I get to be a mouthpiece of Love and Grace this week, and there is no task in this world that makes me happier than telling people they are deeply worthy of unfathomable Love. And I’m anxious because I’m afraid I won’t do Love justice.