“Darkness is My Only Companion”

“Lord Jesus Christ, you are for me medicine when I am sick; you are my strength when I need help; you are life itself when I fear death; you are the way when I long for heaven; you are light when all is dark; you are my food when I need nourishment.”

—Ambrose of Milan (340-397)

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Our theology makes all the difference in fighting depression, writes Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Author of “Darkness, Is My Only Companion” and Episcopal priest. Here is an excerpt where she introduces the depression of Christians.

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In his Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says that suffering is uniquely difficult for the Christian, for the one who believes in a good God. If there were no good God to factor into the equation, suffering would still be painful, and  ultimately meaningless.

For the Christian, who believes in the crucified and risen Messiah, suffering is always meaningful. It is meaningful because of the one in whose suffering we participate, Jesus. This is neither to say, of course, that suffering will be pleasant, nor that it should be sought. Rather, in the personal suffering of the Christian, one finds a correlate in Christ’s suffering, which gathers up our tears and calms our sorrows and points us toward his resurrection.

In the midst of a major mental illness, we are often unable to sense the presence of God at all. Sometimes all we can feel is the complete absence of God, utter abandonment by God, the sheer ridiculousness of the very notion of a loving and merciful God. This cuts to the very heart of the Christian and challenges everything we believe about the world and ourselves.

I have a chronic mental illness, a brain disorder that used to be called manic depression, but now is less offensively called bipolar disorder. I have sought help from psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health professionals; one is a Christian, but most of my helpers are not. I have been in active therapy with a succession of therapists over many years, and have been prescribed many psychiatric medications, most of which brought quite unpleasant side effects, and only a few of which relieved my symptoms. I have been hospitalized during the worst times and given electroconvulsive therapy treatments.

All of this has helped, I must say, despite my disinclination toward medicine and hospitals. They have helped me to rebuild some of “myself,” so that I can continue to be the kind of mother, priest, and writer I believe God wants me to be.

During these bouts of illness, I would often ask myself: How could I, as a faithful Christian, be undergoing such torture of the soul? And how could I say that such torture has nothing to do with God? This is, of course, the assumption of the psychiatric guild in general, where faith in God is often viewed at best as a crutch, and at worst as a symptom of disease.

bad-times-333-300x250How could I, as a Christian, indeed as a theologian of the church, understand anything in my life as though it were separate from God? This is clearly impossible. And yet how could I confess my faith in that God who was “an ever-present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1) when I felt entirely abandoned by that God? And if this torture did have something to do with God, was it punishment, wrath, or chastisement? Was I, to use a phrase of Jonathan Edwards’s, simply a “sinner in the hands of an angry God”?

I started my journey into the world of mental illness with a postpartum depression after the birth of our second child. News outlets are rife with stories of women who destroy their own children soon after giving birth. It is absolutely tragic. Usually every instinct in the mother pushes toward preserving the life of the infant. Most mothers would give their own lives to protect their babies. But in postpartum depression, reality is so bent that that instinct is blocked. Women who would otherwise be loving mothers have their confidence shaken by painful thoughts and feelings.

Depression is not just sadness or sorrow. Depression is not just negative thinking. Depression is not just being “down.” It’s walking barefoot on broken glass; the weight of one’s body grinds the glass in further with every movement. So, the weight of my very existence grinds the shards of grief deeper into my soul. When I am depressed, every thought, every breath, every conscious moment hurts.

And often the opposite is the case when I am hypomanic: I am scintillating both to myself, and, in my imagination, to the whole world. But mania is more than speeding mentally, more than euphoria, more than creative genius at work. Sometimes, when it tips into full-blown psychosis, it can be terrifying. The sick individual cannot simply shrug it off or pull out of it: there is no pulling oneself “up by the bootstraps.”

And yet the Christian faith has a word of real hope, especially for those who suffer mentally. Hope is found in the risen Christ. Suffering is not eliminated by his resurrection, but transformed by it. Christ’s resurrection kills even the power of death, and promises that God will wipe away every tear on that final day.

But we still have tears in the present. We still die. In God’s future, however, death itself will die. The tree from which Adam and Eve took the fruit of their sin and death becomes the cross that gives us life.

The hope of the Resurrection is not just optimism, but keeps the Christian facing ever toward the future, not merely dwelling in the present. But the Christian hope is not only for the individual Christian, nor for the church itself, but for all of Creation, bound in decay by that first sin: Cursed is the ground because of you … It will produce thorns and thistles for you …” (Gen. 3:17-18).

This curse of the very ground and its increase will be turned around at the Resurrection. All Creation will be redeemed from pain and woe. In my bouts with mental illness, this understanding of Christian hope gives comfort and encouragement, even if no relief from symptoms. Sorrowing and sighing will be no more. Tears will be wiped away. Even fractious [unruly, irritable] brains will be restored.

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“Darkness: My Only Companion”

Kathryn Greene-McCreight is assistant priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of Darkness Is My Only Copanion: A Christian Response to Mental Illness (Brazos Press, 2006).

On the web:  http://www.hopeandhealing.org/contentPage.aspx?resource_id=311

 

 

 

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Crippled in Both Feet, [Disabilites]

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 “David asked, “Is there no one still left of the house of Saul to whom I can show God’s kindness?” Ziba answered the king, “There is still a son of Jonathan; he is crippled in both feet.”‘ 

 2 Samuel 9:3, NIV 

This crippled man was named Mephibosheth.  He acquired this injury by the actions of a nurse;  she dropped him as she was trying to escape the palace (2 Sam. 4:4.)  It was not of Mephibosheth’s doing, but someone else made a mistake and totally and irrevocably changed his life.

He would never ever be normal again. (It’s noteworthy that Mephibosheth’s name means “shame.” This would’ve been an integral part of how people treated him). But David was putting on a feast, and wants to include him.

Interesting. But there are a great many people like Mephibosheth.  They’ve been injured by someone else’s stumbling.  It seems we pass these things on to each other.  And the lameness we inflict may not be physical.  It may be spiritual or emotional.  Sometimes we injure without knowing what we have done to someone else.

Some of the most vicious and evil wounding that are done are usually on a moral, or spiritual level.  People can heal physically over time, but the wounds of the spirit are incredibly devastating.  When someone harms us on this level it can completely undo us, for a lifetime. (And perhaps, maybe forever).

Jesus made some powerful statements about people who injure others.  It is imperative that we evaluate ourselves; we may find that we are guilty of  drastically hurting another’s faith or well-being, knowing that lasts for an eternity.

We are capable of much evil.  We affect others in ways we don’t understand.  We need to seek God’s grace right now; we cannot allow ourselves the luxury of diminishing or minimizing what we have done. A point to consider: We cannot go on crippling others without injuring ourselves.

Wounded people wound. But healed people can very often become healers themselves.

We can read of King David’s majestic treatment of Mephibosheth in 2 Samuel 9. He actively blessed him, and perhaps that is the proactive action we ought to take. We must make an effort– to bless. As king, this was a very minor incident. Hardly worth recording in the lofty affairs of state. But as a man, it was perhaps one of his greatest decisions. Kindness should always be foremost to someone who is in authority.

In all of this however, there is something that is profoundly wise in the New Testament.  It is found in Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus.  It is here, in this place, that God our Father acts like David, and receives Mephibosheth; just like God receives us to Himself. And that perhaps is the greatest lesson in this portion of scripture.

God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure.”

Ephesians 1:5, NLT

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From a Mental Hospital Ward, [Crushed]

3 For the enemy has pursued my soul; he has crushed my life to the ground; he has made me sit in darkness like those long dead.”

Psalm 143:3

Some time ago,  I was hospitalized for my mental illness. (Actually seven times.) And though each time was bitter, but the Lord carried me.  They would take from me my shoelaces, and belts, and fingernail clippers.  Basically, I was stripped of everything, anything that I might use to harm myself. But I was creative, I took a clock off the wall and rolled it in a blanket,  I smashed it and used the shards of glass to cut my wrists.The nurses were exceptionally observant, and within moments they intervened.

I had already been stripped, searched, and then brought into a ward full of very sick people.  Much of all of this is a terrible glazed blur.  There was a real awareness of unreality.  I was quite confused, and it would take several weeks before I could reconnect.  Things were no longer ‘reasonable’ and I could discern nothing.  But I didn’t know I was so confused (but I did suspect it). The staff were quite aware and accommodating.  They let me be, so time could take care of the rest. I needed to unravel things  

Besides, Jesus knew exactly where I was if I didn’t.

Days rolled by, quite slowly.  The tedium of a mental hospital is the worst— much more difficult than jail or prison.  You walk in a very limited corridor, back and forth.  You wait for your shrink, and wait, and wait.  You pace, and pace. You pray, stupidly.  The other patients were equally disturbed.  There was a great variety among them.  One guy would urinate in any corner. Once he jumped up on the nurses station, and took a “whizz.” It was hysterical.  He almost shorted out their computer.

In all of this, there was a very bleak and strange awareness, of being incredibly ‘detached,’ and only remotely aware that something was not right with me.  I tried to get well, but I was mentally lost.  I paced, and I remained confused.  I was most definitely in an ugly place.  Desperate and increasingly bewildered, I knew I had no place to go.  A fine place for someone who used to pastor, and teach at a Bible college.

If you have been in this place, you will recognize the ‘lostness’ of being on a ward of a mental hospital. It is confusion mixed with despair,  and without a part of very strong drugs, and there is nothing you can do to be released.  And really until you come to this fact, they will never let you go.  They wait for you to snap out of your confusion, unfortunately that takes time. Sometimes many weeks and whole months. Sometimes never.

It’s worse when you have a family.  In my case it was my wife, and two small children.  This at times, would twist my heart.  I would get a very short phone call, once a week.  But this was quite difficult.  I gained very little from those calls, and I found myself quite disturbed after each call.  Being on this ward tinged me completely. It was like being dipped into darkness.  I was very much affected.  Now on the outside, I admit I was quite disturbed, but at the time I honestly did not understand a way out.

Dear friend, having a mental illness is cruel and disturbing.  And being committed to a mental hospital is a desperate thing.  Having passed through its locked doors is something you will never forget.  The way I figure these seven hospitalizations have stolen over six months of my life. Its work is irrevocable, its fingerprints will be on your life, for as long as you live.  But God will bring good out of this. This I know.

“Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
    Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
    the Lord will be my light.”

Micah 7:8

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A Giraffe On Roller Skates, [Mental Illness]

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People will sometimes ask me, “What its like to be a Christian and to have a mental illness?” I’m not entirely sure I can really answer, but I do try. It seems almost always there are misconceptions, or even a stigma attached to their curiosity. But here goes.

It’s like I’m a ‘giraffe on roller skates’, It seems like I’m always lurching and tottering— always on the verge of total collapse. (It’s a wonder I’m even ‘standing.’) Careening from one side to another, I’m aware that I’m becoming quite the spectacle, and I imagine I hear whispers about the ‘splash’ I’m making today.

I’m uneasy and unsure. (Am I being inappropriate?) I seem to speak too loud and pressured, I feel conspicuous; like I’m slightly inebriated at a party of Mormons. I’m aware of nervous glances and uneasy whispers.

Welcome to the world of bipolar mania.

I have a mental illness. ‘Rapid cycling’ bipolar disorder is my particular ‘flavor.’ I’m on meds (and have been for some time) but it only seems to do is to take of edge off— but I’m grateful for even that small mercy. Over time I’ve been able to accrue some coping mechanisms.  Identifying my paranoia and random delusions is simple ‘Bipolar 101’. It has become the present state of my world.  I don’t always do it well— but I do ”do it’. (And I take my lithium daily.)

There is a learning curve to all of this. It must be discovered. I have tried ‘avoidance tactics’, and I suppose most of the time they seem prudent. But life can’t really be lived cloistered in your room. That is safe, but also very dull. The isolation becomes more toxic than ‘the spectacle.’

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and having bipolar disorder creates some problems. I’m aware of the incongruity. But my faith often uses these issues I face; they propel me closer to Him.

Being ‘broken’ has become a real blessing.

28 “Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Matthew 11:28-29, NLT

The promise of Jesus is for those who carry extra weights (like mental or physical illness). It’s for those whose ‘cheese has slipped off their cracker.’ It’s for giraffes on roller skates. Anything we bear is endurable, and easy. He carries us far beyond every weight and every burden. He alone gives rest to the troubled, and real peace to those troubled by their souls.

30″ For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.

(verse 30).

What Jesus actively does is to puncture my pride, and then release His spirit and grace over me. But He also makes things ‘light’. The reality is that I bear nothing. All that He does is ‘light’. My blundering is seen and never belittled. But His grace only gets revealed in my weakness.

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Choosing to Walk With the Broken

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It seems the world is divided into two groups.

  1. Those all together, happy, healthy, and reasonably sane and ‘self actualized’.
  2. Those with significant issues, have hang-ups, and who are lesser sane.

We gravitate toward success. Even in a spiritual sense we do so. No one wants to be associated with a ‘washed-up’ loser.  We expect success (at least in its fundamental form) to ooze out of every preacher, teacher or ‘wanna-be’ that intends to lead us to ‘the promised land’. We expect (or demand) it to be so.

But there are those broken ‘on the wheels of life’ who offer nothing at all. They are busted and broke. They may once have been noble and keen; they might have stared at life as if it were their own already. They were gifted, but breakable. Alas, and they broke. And they have nothing to give. So many things have disintegrated around them, they are left without a clue, and certainly without hope from a ‘fickle’ Church.

What makes a man or woman ‘spiritual’ or holy? Is it living up to a special standard or calling? Or maybe they look and sound good at what they do? Perhaps it is none of these. Maybe it really comes down to brokeness and humility? Perhaps we’ve looked at it all wrong. Perhaps the real yardstick is spiritual poverty?

“They are blessed who realize their spiritual poverty, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Matthew 5:4, NCV

Make no mistake, the ‘good’ seems very good. It is easy to ‘receive’ from some preachers. They do it so seamlessly, and so correctly. We often wonder why we haven’t been so receptive before. But ‘polish’ can never replace ‘broken’ prayer. I will trust my soul to those ‘busted’ by the meanness of life, rather than those who pretend that things are ‘rosy’ all over. Brokenness is not a given. But it really is ‘the coin of the realm’. It is how the Kingdom does ‘business.’

 But he said to me, “My grace is enough for you. When you are weak, my power is made perfect in you.” So I am very happy to brag about my weaknesses. Then Christ’s power can live in me.”

2 Corinthians 12:4, NCV

I hate to say this, but if being broken is the desperate need of the moment, then hammer me over and over again. I can’t imagine or even explain a better calling. “Bring it Father God”, (but help me if I stumble.) Oh, and one more thing: typically ‘mercy’ is absent for those who seem to live so ‘perfectly.’ (You just don’t see them with any.)

Look for mercy, and you will probably find someone truly authentic.

Take your candle, run to the darkness, and light your world, and love the unlovely while on your way.

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That Awful Wasteland of Alzheimer’s

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What is Alzheimer’s disease (AD)?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is an irreversible, progressive brain disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills and, eventually, the ability to carry out the simplest tasks of daily living. In most people with AD, symptoms first appear after age 60. AD is the most common cause of dementia among older people, but it is not a normal part of aging. Dementia refers to a decline in cognitive function that interferes with daily life and activities.

AD starts in a region of the brain that affects recent memory, then gradually spreads to other parts of the brain. Although treatment can slow the progression of AD and help manage its symptoms in some people, currently there is no cure for this devastating disease. AD is named after Dr. Alois Alzheimer, a German doctor. In 1906, Dr. Alzheimer described changes in the brain tissue of a woman who had died of an unusual mental illness. He found abnormal clumps (now called amyloid plaques) and tangled bundles of fibers (now called neurofibrillary tangles). alzheimers-brain

Today, these plaques and tangles in the brain are considered hallmarks of AD. The third main feature of AD is the gradual loss of connections between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. This loss leads to diminished cell function and cell death. We don’t know what starts the AD process, but we do know that damage to the brain begins as many as 10 to 20 years before any obvious signs of forgetfulness appear. As nerve cells die throughout the brain, affected regions begin to shrink. By the final stage of AD, damage is widespread, and brain tissue has shrunk significantly.

How many Americans have AD?

According to recent estimates, as many as 2.4 million to 4.5 million Americans have AD. Unless the disease can be effectively treated or prevented, the number of people with AD will increase significantly if current population trends continue. That’s because the risk of AD increases with age, and the U.S. population is aging. The number of people age 65 and older is expected to grow from 39 million in 2008 to 72 million in 2030, and the number of people with AD doubles for every 5-year interval beyond age 65. In the years to come, AD is expected to pose physical and emotional challenges for more and more families and other caregivers, in addition to those with the disease. The growing number of people with AD and the costs associated with the disease also will put a heavy economic burden on society.

How long can a person live with AD?

AD is a slow disease that starts with mild memory problems and ends with severe brain damage. The time from diagnosis to death varies—as little as 3 or 4 years if the person is older than 80 when diagnosed to as long as 10 or more years if the person is younger. Other factors that affect how long a person will live with AD include the person’s sex, the presence of other health problems, and the severity of cognitive problems at diagnosis.

What is dementia?

Dementia is a general term that refers to a decline in cognitive function so extensive that it interferes with daily life and activities. This loss in the ability to think, remember, and reason is not a disease itself, but a group of symptoms that often accompanies a disease or condition. Many conditions and diseases cause dementia. Two of the most common causes of dementia in older people are AD and vascular dementia, which is caused by a series of strokes or changes in the brain’s blood supply. Other conditions that cause memory loss or dementia include:

•medication side effects

•chronic alcoholism

•certain tumors and infections in the brain

•blood clots in the brain

•vitamin B12 deficiency

•dehydration

•high fever

•some thyroid, kidney, or liver disorders

Many of these conditions are temporary and reversible, but they can be serious and should be treated by a doctor as soon as possible. Emotional problems, such as stress, anxiety, or depression, can make a person more forgetful and can be mistaken for dementia. Someone may feel sad, lonely, worried, or bored when facing retirement or coping with the death of a spouse, relative, or friend. Adapting to these changes leaves some people feeling confused or forgetful. Supportive friends and family or professional help from a doctor or counselor can help older adults adjust to big changes.

Source: National Institute of Aging, http://www.nia.nih.gov/

All in Your Head? [Depression]

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Depression is a Mental Disorder, not a Disease

There are plausible arguments for the non-existence of mental illness. But there are still people who declare themselves to have a mental illness. After all, being sick mentally has no physical symptoms; it’s not like a kidney stone or an inflamed appendix. One can only hope it was this simple.

Yet depression is a progressive and debilitating disorder. It is like having a ‘bruised brain’ that refuses to heal. There is an substantial list of psychological disorders. Technically depression is a mood disorder that has a series of symptoms. These symptoms are the evidence that something is definitely wrong.

  • Depressed mood (such as feelings of sadness or emptiness).
  • Reduced interest in activities that used to be enjoyed.
  • Change in appetite or weight increase/decrease.
  • Sleep disturbances (either not being able to sleep well or sleeping too much).
  • Feeling agitated or slowed down.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy.
  • Feeling worthless or excessive guilt.
  • Difficulty thinking, concentrating or troubles making decisions.
  • Suicidal thoughts or intentions.
http://www.nami.org/

The above list is a summary of something called the DSM-IV which doctors use to diagnose the mental disorder of depression. Having five or six of these may indicate a problem. Spinning off this, you will discover some other disorders, like:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Depersonalization/derealization
  • OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder)
  • Psychosis and paranoia
  • PTSD (post traumatic stress syndrome)
  • Specific Phobias (fears of something)
  • SAD (social anxiety disorder)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Eating disorders (bulimia, anorexia)

Even though mental illness is widespread in the population, the main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion-about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 Americans-who live with a serious mental illness. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four adults–approximately 57.7 million Americans–experience a mental health disorder in a given year.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and stigma for those who have these disorders. I suppose it is akin to having VD (venereal disease) or AIDS. It seems that our culture is pretty quick at labeling people as deviant or undesirable.

I hope this post helps. I can see a 100 holes in it, and alas, it is a meager attempt. But perhaps it will be of some value. Both NAMI.org, Psychcentral.com, and WebMD.com all have excellent info on Mental Illness. aabryscript