Challenging the Boundary Boxes

This past week I had the opportunity to talk to a young man of my acquaintance about his life and where he would like to be in comparison to where he is now. During that conversation I said “You are larger than the space you have been living in.” The words came out of my mouth because in the moment I felt the truth of them. But the phrase keeps wandering back through my thoughts in a way that asks me to pay attention to it, not just in relation to this young man, but also in relation to myself.

Unless we are in a period of active self-discovery and self-definition (or re-definition,) we dwell inside a set of invisible rules for ourselves. Most of the time we aren’t even aware that we have them. If we are happy in our lives and self-identity then we wear the rules like comfortable clothes that don’t restrict our motion. However the one constant in life is change. Who we are at twenty is different than who we are at thirty, forty, or fifty. We grow and shift, so if we are not conscious about changing our personal rule-set we can find ourselves constrained, trapped.

I came face to face with some of my unrealized personal boundaries yesterday. This same young man with whom I had the conversation got me and my entire crew of kids to go with him to an air sports gym which features professional grade trampolines, air bags, trapezes, a climbing wall, and giant foam pits. Once there, he demonstrated his considerable expertise in using trampolines to defy gravity doing flips and tricks twenty to thirty feet in the air. After which, he patiently and kindly helped my crew work on backward summersalt/flips right next to the surface of the trampolines. It was a joy to watch.

For decades I spent my outing time as a lifeguard and safety monitor. In a place like this gym, it was my task to know where my children were and whether they were following the safety rules. I had to be alert and not distracted, which meant sitting off to the side and watching while the kids played. “We go places and mom sits to the side and watches” became one of the hidden expectations of our lives. So much so that one day when I got on a bike and took a turn around our cul de sac, my kids were astonished. They gaped at me in as much disbelief as if I’d been a fish using a bicycle. I remember the feeling of having them gape at me and wondering if I’d failed somehow by becoming so boring. When they were babies I wanted to be the cool mom, the one who still did cartwheels and ran around with her kids. But somehow I’d become a spectator mom instead.

My kids are all adults now, or nearly so. They don’t need my supervision. Which meant on our trip to the gym, I wore jumping clothes fully intending to use the equipment. Yet the first moment I got on a trampoline, I could feel the eyes of my kids on me. Except it wasn’t really their eyes that were the problem. It was my own mind. I was watching me. With every bounce I hit thoughts about being too old for this, about what if I get hurt, about looking ridiculous, about doing things wrong, about being sore for days. During one of the breaks between jumping, I listened to my young aerialist friend talk about how he went about learning things. One of the critical things to learn is that you get hurt when you attempt to abort a trick part way through. I witnessed that happening around me. People would run up to an obstacle they intended to leap over and I could see the moment when their brain said “that’s really big, we can’t do that” The thought caused a fraction of a pause that changed their trajectory into a collision instead of soaring over. It is the fear of getting hurt that causes people to get hurt.

I pondered all of this as I gained confidence in bouncing. I got better at feeling the flows of the leaps. I landed more surely. I was better able to correct errant motions. I felt all of this in my body and I remembered being a younger person, who did things for joy of motion and impulse instead of pausing for a mental calculation of cost/benefit/social consequences. The ability to analyze and make considered decisions is one of the gifts of age. I have a lot more experience with life and consequences which helps me to be wise in my choices. However that weight of experience can also slow us down as we age. I could feel the weight of it in my head, telling me to be cautious both physically and socially. I had a constant awareness of risk, not just of physical injury, but also the risk of looking ridiculous attempting tricks and failing at them. Except the only way to learn to do things is to first fail at them ridiculously.

The gym had a climbing wall over a foam pit. I knew I wanted to try climbing it. So I waited for a moment when my people were all distracted with their own activities and I headed over to the wall. It seemed a good balance between avoiding outside commentary on my capabilities and not letting fear of commentary prevent me from doing the thing I wanted to try. To my surprise, the grips felt natural under my hands and feet. I traversed sideways across the wall, not daring to go high. Then I tested falling into the foam pit. After a rest, I tried the wall again and climbed all the way to the top. I liked the way climbing felt in my arms and legs. I liked the moment of apogee at the top of a trampoline bounce. I liked stepping outside of my usual sedentary activities. I liked leaving my usual observer mode to be a participant.

There was a moment after nearly two hours of play when I sat on the floor with three of my adult children and our friend. All of us were tired but happy. I was aware of an internal tension. I don’t feel old. I remember being young and energetic. I remember dancing to music in public and splashing in fountains even though I wasn’t supposed to. I remember running just for the joy of it. Yet there I sat with three adult humans that I’d raised from small. My mind couldn’t quite compute how I got from youthful me, to that spot on the floor with my people around me. Somehow in that moment I was both teenage me and middle age mom me. And I realized that I can be both, so long as I’m willing to collide with my hidden self rules and, through that collision, alter them. I can still be the mom who is active and participates instead of watching. I haven’t run out of time. All it takes is a willingness to be ridiculous.

Sitting here on my couch the morning after, my arms and shoulders are sore. Yet when I close my eyes and concentrate, I can still feel apogee in my core and the grips of the climbing wall in my hands. I can take up a different space than the one I’ve been living in simply by going back to that gym again. I can change my creative existence by being willing to write bravely and risk rejection. I can change the patterns of my family by welcoming new people into the house and by altering our physical spaces. Sometimes we are trapped by situations outside our control, but more often we are trapped by our own unwillingness to take a leap and risk change. I’m going to try to be more conscious of the boundaries in the life I have and the changes I need to make in order to get a life I want more.

Courageous Intentions for 2019

I’ve never thought of my self as a New Years Resolution sort of person. I’m absolutely a goal-setting person, but I didn’t like scheduling my goal setting for the onset of a new year. Yet here at the beginning of 2019 I find myself with a New Year’s Intention for the third year in a row. Not a resolution, not something I plan to will into existence, but instead an emotional approach for the next portion of my life. (I grant that the difference between resolution and intention may be splitting hairs, but this is about me, and my life, and how I want to dwell inside my life, I figure I get to use whichever words feel right to me.)

I did not decide ahead of time to find a new intention for the coming year. I didn’t consciously decide them at all. The intentions just arrived mid-to-late December as I was contemplating the year ahead of me. They were like gifts “Here Sandra, this is the focus you need for the year to come.” So I won’t complain at getting a gift again this year.

At the onset of 2017, I felt a need to Grow My Heart to whatever size was necessary to encompass the emotional load ahead of me and to love more people. When the Grinch grew his heart three sizes, he became strong and sure. I wanted that.

At the onset of 2018 I set out to Be Less Afraid. I took the strength I gained from growing my heart and used it to confront my own anxieties. I practiced staying with uncomfortable feelings instead of always taking action to resolve them.

At the onset of 2019 the words that have come to me are Be Courageous. Being less afraid was holding ground without letting fear drive my actions. Being courageous is stepping toward things even if I am afraid. It claims ground. In order to be courageous, I’ll have to continue the practices of growing my heart and being less afraid. Apparently my annual intentions are cumulative.

These intentions aren’t goals. There is nothing I can measure. No progress I can check off of a list. I think that is good for me. Task lists are one of the ways I hide. I wield my tasks-accomplished as evidence of personal value. Not realizing I was even doing that until I started pondering on being courageous and how terrifying it felt to believe in my own worth without outside validation of it. I shy away from that, and from many other things. Courageous me must start doing and claiming the things that task lists were letting me hide from. The specific daily actions I need to be taking become clearer as I continue to think about what courage means in my life.

All of it is a work in progress, not something that will be completed. The ways I live courage in January will likely be different than in August, responding to the differing needs of those periods of time. I have to stay in tune to figure it out as I go. No simple answers or quick fixes here. It will be big and complex. Life is always complex no matter how much we try to compartmentalize and control so the vastness of existence doesn’t overwhelm us.

Be Courageous. It is a worthy work for the coming year.

Perseverance and Adversity

Yesterday at church we had a lesson on adversity. The major theme of the lesson was that we need adversity in our lives because overcoming it makes us better people. I believe this is true. The most self absorbed and least empathetic people I’ve known are those who have never had a hard thing happen to them. The older I get, the fewer of those people I know. We all get knocked flat eventually, hence the need to address this fact in a spiritual context. People of faith have to reconcile belief in a loving, all-powerful God with the fact that life is terrifyingly unfair. The lesson kept returning to the message everything happens for a reason. Many of the women around me seemed to find that very comforting. I sat there and thought how I don’t believe that God deliberately smites people with problems to make them grow, but that I do think he allows natural processes and choices of others to bring pain. I’m sometimes angry with Him about that. I also thought of dear friends who I knew were hurting right that moment and how hurtful it would be if I were to say such a thing to them. In fact just the day before I’d given one friend this card which reads “Please let me be the first to punch the next person who tells you everything happens for a reason.” (You should check out all the empathy cards at that link. They are the cards that cover the cases which are not covered by all the other cards. Brilliant.)

The thing is that when people are hit with something breathtakingly hard, they have to grieve. Part of that is being angry, really angry, often angry at God if they believe in one. Those of us who are bystanders to that pain want to be able to fix it. We want our loved ones to be at peace emotionally even if the hard thing continues. We say we want it for them, and we do, but we also want it for ourselves because watching pain reminds us that someday pain will come for us. And we have little control over what it will be or when it arrives. So we try to take the person who is in pain and jump them ahead to acceptance. We want to give them an answer. But that doesn’t work. Particularly if they are in the part of grieving where they need to be angry.

I don’t think I understood the value of anger in adversity until I read Rachel Naomi Remen’s My Grandfather’s Blessings. The book is a hundred small stories from her experiences counseling the dying, the recovering, the doctors who help the dying, and all those in the blast radius of cancer cases. In one of the stories, Ms. Remen says she is always glad when she sees anger in a patient. Anger comes from a vital will to live, to demand that the world be different and better. Angry sufferers are more likely to fight and to recover. Anger bestows strength and forward momentum. The gifts of anger can obviously be used in destructive ways as well as constructive, but the vital energy of it is critical to surviving hard things. I’ve recommended Ms. Remen’s book before, I do it again here. It is worth reading.

After listening for a time to the church lesson, I raised my hand and expressed the thoughts in the prior two paragraphs. I added that when we are close to someone who is wounded, stricken, injured, our job is to mourn with them, be angry with them, and walk along in their journey toward acceptance whatever peace is right for them. We can’t give them our answers, they must find their own. I’m pleased that many of the women who were saying everything happens for a reason, nodded along to this as well.

This morning a friend (who is mid-chemo therapy) posted a link to an article about Death and The Prosperity Gospel. My church is not the only one where “everything happens for a reason” is the party line. The article does a fantastic job of taking a look at the harmfulness of assuming that blessings and prosperity are rewards for good behavior. That doctrine is comforting because it provides the illusion of control. If we are good, then our lives will be blessed. I even think there is some truth to that. Our choices definitely affect our outcomes. This is an important lesson for people to understand: choosing well makes life better. Yet we also have to acknowledge that life is hideously unfair. We do not start on even ground. We are bequeathed unfair loads of challenges, economic status, and family situation at birth. This is compounded by societal unfairness that smooths the path for some people and smashes others. Our choices can make our lives better, but prosperity is not an accurate measure of goodness.

The paragraph in that article which hit me most was this one about grieving:

One of the most endearing and saddest things about being sick is watching people’s attempts to make sense of your problem. My academic friends did what researchers do and Googled the hell out of it. When did you start noticing pain? What exactly were the symptoms, again? Is it hereditary? I can out-know my cancer using the Mayo Clinic website. Buried in all their concern is the unspoken question: Do I have any control?

I’ve actually seen this happen. Years ago I was present when a friend of mine informed people that he had five years to live. I watched him bear the brunt of their reactions, person after person. He ended up comforting his friends about his impending death. I think of that, and I think of the article about How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It can be so hard when a friend gives you bad news to not try to make it better. It is hard to not attempt to exert control over the situation. Yet what sufferers need is for us to meet them where they are and just be with them in acknowledging that what they’re going through sucks.

I wish I had better answers than this, but I don’t and that is the point. I would dearly love to be able to fix it when Howard has a depressed day or when my son is so lonely and isolated that he lays in bed crying. Instead I just have to be willing to stay in the pain with them and remind them that the pain will subside, that there are choices we can make which may help, that they are loved by me and by God, both of whom hurt for their hurting. And that if they listen carefully, God will help them turn this experience into future strength and usefulness. If they need to be mad at God for not fixing it, I stay with them for that too. So does He. It doesn’t feel like enough, but over and again it is what is needed. Mourn with those who mourn. Comfort those who stand in need of comfort.



It was not the outcome that anyone intended, yet somehow we ended up with shards of something that used to be whole. The shards were sharp, able to do more harm if they were not handled carefully. This is the story of many of my days these past couple of years. It is the story of yesterday when a person came to my house to talk to me about behavioral issues with one of my kids. The person departed and I was left with shards, not even sure where I fit in the metaphor. Am I the broken thing? Or am I the one who has to figure out how to clean up? Feels like both.

I went to my room and cried for a while. Then I talked with my child and we both cried for even longer, because harm has been done and needs to be made right. My child is both harmed and the one at fault. I have to spend energy preventing my mind from trying to analyze all of the moments that led up to the one where things were smashed. As if I could alter the outcome by finding decision points that led to alternate timelines. My mind also tells me that I’m blowing it all out of proportion. It is, after all, only a small broken thing. Clean up will be quick and we’ll move onward.

Except that I end up smashed (or cleaning up after smash) so often lately. Those tiny shards scatter themselves and sometimes I find my self bleeding because of shrapnel from something I thought I cleaned up long ago.

This too is part of the holiday. The house is filled with beauty, but also with things that are more prone to breaking. The pressure to make sure the moments are glowing and meaningful, also means that some of the fragile things will crack. I may be one of the fragile things. I am to be my best self, but that is difficult in a season which increases the demands on my limited resources. Even the articles, speeches, and pleas to simplify are commandments with which I must struggle to comply. Thus I find myself contemplating the shards of an ornament on the floor of the front room. Thinking about all the ways in which Christmas breaks people.

And also the ways that it heals people. And how sometimes things must be broken before they can become something else. And how the metaphor begins to fall apart before I’ve found my way through to an epiphany. I would like to have an epiphany. I would like to have a shining moment where I can clearly see that all the smashed days were necessary, part of a grand plan designed to help me and mine grow. I’m certain that some of them were critical. Perhaps yesterday was one of them. I’m also certain that some of them were just the result of human beings clumsily bumping into each other and accidentally doing harm. It would be nice to be able to see which days were which.

Or maybe it wouldn’t. Maybe I’m better off treating all the smashed up days as if they were important. Maybe it is only in trying to find meaning in the shards of something broken that the brokenness gains any meaning at all. I do believe there is a plan, and it begins with me fetching a broom. We learn by doing, struggling, smashing, cleaning up, and moving on.

General Conference Notes

Usually I try to make my blog entries generally accessible rather than specific to my religion and context. But twice per year my church has a set of meetings called General Conference that are broadcast worldwide and during which the leaders of my church speak about matters of scripture, faith, family, doctrine, and policy. The most recent conference was held this past weekend and I had a lot of thoughts I wanted to write about. Some of it may be more specific to my faith than usual. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly called Mormons.

This particular conference was filled with talks that seemed directed to me. So much so, that as one talk finished and the next talk began, I often wished for a pause. I wanted time to assimilate and think through my reactions before launching into a new topic. Fortunately the talks are still available via streaming from the church website Also I’ll have a print version in the church magazine next month. There will be ways for me to review the information and pause to think it through. Truthfully, it is not that the words spoke directly to my various situations. It is more that the words exist and all of the experiences and thoughts in my head exist, then there is this space between the words and my thoughts where inspiration flows. That space is where the words are transformed into the messages I need to have epiphanies about my life. I need conference, church, and scripture study because I have to get into proximity with good words. I need the inspirations that come into my head as a result.

One of the thoughts, which I’m still mulling over, came as a speaker was telling of the power of the atonement of Christ. He said that Christ’s healing is complete and leaves no scars. I thought of the people I know who struggle with mental illness and with ongoing problems as a result of emotional trauma. Observation and science tells me that they will struggle for most of their lives. Yet I do believe in the power of Christ to truly heal. I do not think that the people who struggle, myself included, lack faith enough to be healed. Yet God does not heal everyone. Some of this I can ascribe to eternal perspective rather than earthly perspective. Heavenly Father and Christ know that the pains of this life are temporary. They know that struggle is how we grow. Striving to understand suffering and miracles is the thought-work of a lifetime. My comprehension continues to evolve. Sometimes I am able to move forward in faith, trusting that all will be made clear. Other times I am more frustrated and angry. I don’t have any answers, but I think it is good for me to open my mind and heart to these questions. Conference reminds me what the questions are.

I was much taken with the talk by Devin G. Durrant. He described a process for picking a scripture each week to ponder and memorize. He made up a word, ponderize, to name this process. I don’t like the word. It feels cutesy and diminutive to a process with great spiritual potential. As he spoke about the process, I knew that it was one that I need. He bore a powerful witness of what this process can give to people. I loved listening to that witness, though I winced a little every time he used his word. I’ve put up my first scripture. I’ll be thinking about it this week. And I’ll be trying not to think about made up words.

My grandmother is dying and I am watching my parents navigate the decisions and grief that are inherent in that process. Over the last months I have observed her decline. A few months ago she was in rehab to learn to walk again after a surgery. Now she is in a permanent care facility and physical therapy is focused on getting her to eat. I will be surprised if she is still here at Christmas. I’ve watched this process tear my Dad apart. My Grandma is his mother and he has no siblings to share this burden. I watch, knowing that someday it will be my turn to help parents in their decline. I am learning from their example what to expect and how I might handle it. With all that in my mind, I found David A. Bednar’s talk on Sunday afternoon to be profoundly comforting. In his words I was able to see that a reduction in physical capability only changes what a person can offer the world. It does not render the person irrelevant. To quote Elder Bednar “Physical restrictions can expand vision. Limited stamina can clarify priorities. Inability to do many things can direct focus to a few things of greatest importance.” As I listened, I understood that growing old and infirm can be a gift both to the aged and to those who care for them. It was good to feel that. I’ve been quite focused on the hard parts. There is grace in my Grandmothers imminent departure, God’s grace. As her memories become confused, the anxiety which plagued her whole life is dropping away. She is becoming distilled, ready to travel elsewhere. And we are all becoming ready to let her go.

I will be continuing to interact with the words and messages of this General Conference. I have more inspirations that I need. For now, life is good and all my people in my house are aimed in good directions.

Married to Depression

I started writing this post six months ago. I started again four months ago. This week I opened it up again. It has been very difficult to get the words right, but then I realized that getting them right is impossible. There is no way that I can convey everyone, regardless of their experiences, what it is like to be married to someone who struggles with depression. The audience is too diverse and the experience is as well. My thoughts and feelings on this matter maybe similar to that of another spouse, or they might be quite different. It is impossible for me to get it right, because there is no “right” when discussing a subjective experience. I can only write about my experiences and hope that something in the story is useful to other people. When I look at it that way, the only way to get it wrong is to not write the post. So I wrote it. All 3000+ words of it. The first part is personal history for context. The rest is things I think will help other people in a similar situation. I put those things in bold for those who want to skim. At the very bottom are links to resources for those who need them.

Howard and I have been married for twenty years. It was not all bliss. Parts of it were gut-wrenchingly hard. In hindsight, many of those horribly difficult parts were directly related to Howard’s struggles with anxiety and depression. Other difficult parts were directly related to my personal stash of neuroses and emotional baggage. Yet our marriage is good. Our life together is more than good. We have built a partnership through the years that sustains us, a business, and our four children. Part of the reason our marriage is still good twenty years in, is because we pulled together when things got hard instead of pulling apart. That required conscious decision from both of us and bucketfuls of forgiveness that we splashed all over everything.

Howard is a bright spot in my life. He makes me laugh. He makes my days better, which is why it hurts so much when this amazing person vanishes into himself and radiates despair or anger. Suddenly instead of having a life partner who is carrying half the load, or even saving me because I’m stumbling, I have a person who is faltering and struggling to carry only a fraction of what he usually does. Not only that, but he radiates the bleakness and it permeates the house, actually creating additional stress and strain. These days we have good strategies for minimizing the impact of a depressive episode. That was not always the case.

The first time I really got to see inside Howard’s pit of despair was on our honeymoon. I was twenty, still trying to figure out who I was as an adult. Still trying to choose which life patterns I wanted to emulate from my family of birth and how I wanted to do things differently. I’d been around depression before with one of my siblings, but my family did not name it. It was the elephant in the room around which we all danced, trying to create a peaceful life. I carried that approach into my marriage. I knew Howard had mood swings. I’d witnessed some during the course of our engagement. But there we were, about halfway through our honeymoon, laying in the dark together while Howard cried and talked. He was letting me further into his heart than he’d ever let anyone before and it was terrifying for both of us. I stared into this deep, dark, seemingly bottomless pit and knew it could swallow me whole if I was not careful. It could swallow us both. And I did not want that to happen.

The next morning the bleakness had passed and my wonderful Howard was back, but I did not forget that the pit was a possibility.

Our family, the new one that Howard and I made together, danced with the elephant for decades. We built habits in the hopes of increasing the good times and reducing the bad ones. We looked for cyclical patterns. We evaluated. Early on I might have suggested therapy of some kind, but Howard had done therapy following the death of his parents and he reported it hadn’t done much for him. We were smart people, surely we could figure out the right diet, or exercise program, or spiritual regimen. All of these things were good management tools and we used them. Sometimes they helped. Other times they were powerless. We were powerless.

It was not until eighteen months ago that we named the elephant. That was when we finally saw this thing that had always been in the middle of our lives and said it was
A. real
B. a problem
C. something we should address.
That shift came because of many things, the most obvious being when our friend Robison Wells began speaking publicly about the mental illnesses that plague him. Rob and a couple of other friends showed Howard that admitting a problem could be a step toward better answers. There was also quite a lot of spiritual guidance and inspiration. Howard and I are religious people and we believe that we were guided. We also wish we’d been a little less thick headed to inspiration when we were younger.

The other thing that shifted was me. I’d been sorting some old emotional baggage (because of inspiration) and finally realized that my job was not to fix Howard, nor to save him. I was to love him no matter what. In fact that was a very clear inspiration directly to me, that Howard is strong and that my job was to love him, not fix him. After realizing that, I changed my answers. When Howard was filled with despair and said “I’m broken.” I stopped saying “No you’re not. It’s fine.” I allowed broken and suddenly let’s get this fixed became an option. Howard no longer had to live up to my need for everything to be fine. He finally had the space to consider and then seek treatment. This is exactly what I mean when I said that some of the difficulties were caused by me, even though I am not the depressed person. He worked so hard to be fine for me.

Howard has a problem with the chemicals in his brain. They sometimes make him feel like a complete failure as a human being, even when everything in our lives suggests exactly the opposite. It means that yesterday was happy, but today is miserable even though nothing has changed overnight. We tried all of the non-medicinal options for nineteen years and we still found ourselves occasionally trampled by the unnamed elephant. It was not good for us, nor for our kids. But a year ago things changed. That was when Howard saw a doctor and we started fixing the chemistry by applying medication, and it worked.

When I say “it worked” that doesn’t mean everything is all better now. Howard still has depressed days, but they aren’t as often and they don’t get as bad. Visits to the pit of despair are a rare occurrence, where they used to be regular. Howard has had the chance to experience a steady happiness where life feels generally good. More important, when Howard is having a bad brain chemistry day, we see it, we name it, and we know how to adjust for it. This is quite different than trying to adjust for an elephant that no one wants to admit exists.

If you have a loved one, a spouse, sibling, parent, friend, partner, who is depressed, and you want to help, there are some things I think you should know. The first and most important is this: You can’t fix it. There are dozens of ways that depression can be managed, healed, or even cured depending on the causes of it, but you can’t fix it for them. The depression exists in your loved one, maybe it is chemical, maybe it is situational, but it is inside them, not you. I tried to fix Howard’s depression. Believe me I tried. For eighteen years of marriage I adjusted all of the things I could conceive of adjusting in the hope it would prevent or alleviate the dark days. He’d have a dark day and I would clean all of the things because then a dirty kitchen wouldn’t add to the stress. I’d manage his schedule. I’d take over chores that were usually his. I’d hug him when the shape of the darkness allowed for that. (Sometimes it didn’t and he would flee from all touch.) I argued with him when the dark manifested as verbalized self-loathing.

My efforts helped some. I could see that they did, which is why I kept trying harder. I kept hoping that I could exert control over this thing. My efforts also masked the problem. When your loved one says “I’m broken.” It feels like the right answer is “No you’re not. Of course you’re not. Everyone has bad days.” The more powerful and helpful answer is to say. “Yes you’re broken. This depression is not normal. I love you anyway.” I love you anyway is the answer which allows the depressed person stop being strong, and start seeking help. I love you anyway gives the depressed person permission to change instead of demanding a status quo.

As soon as Howard decided that maybe he was willing to see a doctor, I did the research. I found out who we should go to. I made the appointment. I continue to make appointments for him from time to time. Because making an appointment is an act of will. It feels like an admission of illness. Making the appointment is a barrier that can be really hard to clear. I schedule half of the things which end up on Howard’s calendar anyway, so me doing this is a natural extension of what I already do. The frustrating piece was sitting on a waiting list for three months before they would make an appointment. (There’s a shortage of mental health professionals in Utah.) I went with Howard to the first appointment, but not any of the others. Again, this was me helping him over the first hurdle. After that I needed to stay out of the way because Howard has to own this process.

That is the second thing I want you to know: the depressed person has to control their own healing process or it will not work. I suppose it is possible to force someone to take drugs, but that doesn’t make them want to change the way that they’re relating to the depression. Howard had a huge emotional process to go through with taking medication. He had to grieve. I don’t know why daily medication requires grief, but I felt the same thing when I had to begin thyroid medication. It feels like weakness, or failure. It feels unfair. I see lots of friends who take psychoactive medications making snarky comments about the meds that they are on. Howard started taking the medicine and at first he didn’t want to see that it made a difference. Then he could see the difference and was angry at the medicine for working, because it meant he needed it. Slowly Howard is learning the ways that the medicine helps him. He’s learning that it is a useful tool and that it is okay to use all of the available tools in dealing with this.

Naming the depression changed everything. The moment that we looked at Howard’s depression and said “maybe this isn’t normal.” It changed all of our conversations on the subject. We started talking about the depression as if it were a phenomena that could be observed, which it is. We developed a taxonomy of sorts to describe the different variations. Howard directly asked me to be his spotter with the medications because he is very afraid of slipping into abusing medicine. He and I used calm times to discuss how to handle depressed times. I began to pay closer attention to the sorts of things he would say when he was sliding into depression and I learned when gently pressing him to take a pill was the right choice. I don’t have to press as much as I used to do, because Howard has learned to watch his own brain and identify when he needs the medicine. It took lots of practice. I am very much a part of Howard’s management process, but he is the director of it.

Even with excellent treatment there will still be hard days
. Some depressions can be worked through and resolved in a permanent way. We may yet find a way to do that for Howard, for now we still have to manage the down times. The hardest days are the ones where I’m not feeling completely stable myself. I could be ill, under stress, tired, or just feeling a little down. If Howard hits a depressive patch during those days, it feels massively unfair. I find myself angry at him for being depressed, even though I know he would never choose this. There was one day where all manner of little things went wrong, and I was ready to cry. That was the day when two of my kids had emotional meltdowns simultaneously and Howard was having a medium-down sort of day. I lamented to Howard how unfair it is that I never get a turn to fall apart while someone else picks up the pieces.

The “never” part isn’t true, of course. There have been many times when Howard has rescued me and taken care of me. This is one of the reasons the depressive days hit so hard. I depend upon Howard. He handles his things, I handle mine. We’re both full to capacity with things to do, but without warning Howard will be unable to do his things. He’ll feel like he’s never going to be able to do his things again. He’ll say that to me as he’s sorting the thoughts in his head. And the horrible little voice of anxiety will whisper in the back of my head “what if he’s right?” Right now depression shows up and lays him flat for a day or two. But we don’t know why it shows up. We have no way to make it go away. What if some time it doesn’t leave? This is the horrible fear that I lock away in the back of my brain during the hard days. I see the depression and I know it could destroy us, because when Howard is deep into a depressed day, he is different. His thoughts and attitudes are different. His capabilities shift. The Howard I love and depend on is gone and all I can do is wait for him to come back.

So that is a thing you should know too. Depression can be traumatic and terrifying for the loved ones because they are forced to face being powerless. Of course, that one is unlikely to be news to you. But it means that you are at a higher risk for anxiety and depression yourself. Be on the lookout for that. Be aware that you might also need help and treatment. It is possible that the best thing you can do for your loved one is to go see a therapist or spiritual advisor yourself. You need a support network, because this is a hard load to carry. Faith is a huge part of my support network. I have conversations with God about Howard’s depression all the time. I feel like we’re partners in helping take care of this amazing person we both love. I truly believe that any path that Howard walks toward eliminating depression forever will be an inspired walk of faith. I hope that we’re on that path already even though I can’t tell how far we’ve come or how far we have left to go. But if this is a lifetime-long walk, I’m okay with that. I didn’t sign on to be married to Howard just for the easy stuff.

Preserve your own balance. In order not to be pulled into depression myself on the days that Howard is down, I have to actively shield myself against his moods. This is hard, because I am a naturally empathetic person and I am highly attuned to the emotional states of my family members. Sometimes this means that I need to have physical space from Howard when he’s depressed. Sometimes Howard provides that space deliberately in acts of heroism. In recent memory we had a family party on a day when Howard was depressed. It was the first time I’d been able to enjoy the company of my siblings in a very long time. Howard hid himself away, keeping his bleakness contained so that I could enjoy the event. I recognized his sacrifice and told him that I did. The verbal recognition was critical so that he knew that I knew that he was making a special effort for me. Also so that he knew that I was aware of his depression and he was not abandoned with it. It was our way of working together to make sure that the depression did not ruin a party. We hope for future parties where Howard and I can both attend.

Listen without judgment. This is probably the most important function that I serve for Howard when he is depressed. He needs to process and think through what he is feeling. Over the years we’ve learned how to communicate the depression without wallowing in it. It is rare that I’m able to say something that alleviates the depression, but not being left alone with it is a huge help.

Talking about it can help. There is a silence that blankets anything that hints at mental weakness or illness. People are afraid to admit that they’re struggling with mental health issues. Some of those fears are founded in reality. Employers think twice before hiring someone with admitted mental health struggles. People look askance. The stigma is real. But part of what helped convince Howard to get help was when he first started talking about the depression with trusted friends. Part of his ongoing process is to speak up on the internet when he’s having a bad week. The responses to those posts are overwhelming support from others who have walked similar paths and thanks from people who are grateful that someone is willing to speak up. This is the reason I wrote this (very long) post. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs it. And because once I began it, I realized that I needed to say all of it. I’m certain there will be more things to say on a different day, but this is my last thought for you right now. Hang in there. You and your loved one can get through this and find a better place. Howard and I did.

Edited to add: As a result of questions and discussions prompted by this post, I’ve decided to add links to some support organizations which may be useful.

NAMI is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have a page dedicated to helping people connect with support groups and discussion groups both online and in person.

Google also led me to DBSA the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. They also have a page devoted to helping people connect with the resources that they need.

There is the ASCA, Adult Survivors of Child Abuse. If a history abuse of any kind factors into your loved one’s depression, it is probably best to talk to someone who knows how to thrive after that.

If you want a faith centered approach to healing, you might consider looking at the LDS addiction recovery program. Reading through their 12 steps, most of it applies if you just substitute “depression (or anxiety, or mental illness) for the word addiction. You do not have to be a member of the LDS (mormon) faith to use these services.

I am certain that these are only the beginning of the resources that are available to you both locally and internationally. The world is full of people who understand your pain and would be delighted to help you find a happier way to live.

Things and Thoughts That Happen Because of Road Trip

In order to have Kiki home for Thanksgiving, I had to fetch her from college. That’s a three hour trip each way for a total of 12 hours of driving split between Tuesday and today. Driving time is excellent for my brain to wander and often it latches on to various thoughts and tells me that I really should flesh them out into full blog posts. Then I get home and realize that they’re really only interesting enough for snippets, not a full post. Except I collected enough snippets that I can make an entire post about them.

I spent a good hour of driving time thinking about how traffic patters on a two lane (each way) interstate are changed by holiday traffic. I developed an elaborate if-then driving strategy which I was going to detail in full. Of course that sort of thing is not actually interesting unless one is bored because she has to drive for two more hours and needs to occupy her brain somehow. So, I’ll spare you all from a thousand word screed about driving tactics. You’re welcome.

At one point on the drive I rode along side a tall cattle fence. Something about the design of the fence and the landscape made me think back to when I was in South Africa. We drove along roads similar to the one I traveled, but the fences were far more impressive. They were elephant fences, three times taller than the tallest cattle fence. My guide informed me that they only served as guidelines to encourage the elephants to pick a different path. Very few fences were able to withstand an elephant who really wanted to get through. So I pictured elephants wandering across the landscape. Then I pictured dinosaurs, because Jurrasic Park had animal containment fences too. Those worked about as well as the elephant fences really. Then I drove over the hill, left the fence behind, and found new thoughts to think.

I recently re-watched The Abyss because I wanted to see if it was still as good as I remembered. It was and it wasn’t. I watched the director’s cut, because that is the only version where the ending makes sense. The first two thirds of the film were excellent. I really engaged with the characters and their situation. I remember the final third being good, but this time it was very unsatisfying. On one of the drives, I figured out why. The ending speaks directly to people of the cold war era in 1989. Everyone felt pretty much powerless in the face of possible nuclear desolation and the average person really longed for some greater being (or aliens) to show up and demand world peace. That is what the aliens do. I think the fact that this ending was deemed satisfying in 1989 says something about the collective desires of many people. I find it interesting that the zeitgeist of the time was already tempering and ending the cold war. Some movies teach us a lot about the society that created them.

When I got a new journal, I got one with a plain cover. On the back I’ve started writing quotations that strike a chord with me right now. I find it interesting that four out of the five have to do with courage. I’d no idea that courage in the face of fear was so resonant for me right now. I’ll be pondering why.

Possibly because all the driving shook so much loose in my head, but church was a full pack of tissues event. It was a day where my heart was cracked open a little and it all leaked out my eyes. As I walked home, which is not technically part of any of the road trips, but was still a transit, so I’m putting the thought here. That sentence got away from me. Start over. As I walked home, I was thinking about my recently funded Kickstarter and the things I’ll need to do in the next few days before it closes. I was also thinking of all the other things I had to do, including six hours of driving (see, it relates.) The thoughts chased themselves around my head, then between one step and the next, I had a very clear impression. This year has been rough and wonderful in a hundred small ways. Most of the things that happened were ultimately good, but that doesn’t make going through them easy. I have been the shepherd of all these processes. I have guided my children, Howard, and myself through a dozen different transitions. I have worked long hours days upon end, switching from business work to family support, and back again. I saw all of that as a gestalt encapsulated with the feeling You have worked very hard, Strength of Wild Horses is a gift. I don’t get to have this project because of that work. The two are mostly separate. But it is more like a loving father who sees a hard working child and says “Well done. This is for you.” It has been a long, long year. We’re almost through with many of the transitions. I have just as much work ahead as behind, but right here–today–I get to have a project. It is one I longed to have for a long time. It has already given me so much, and it will continue to give to others. Strength of Wild Horses is a gift.

The phone rang when I was five minutes from home (we’re back to road trip stories now). “Mom! What is wrong with the microwave!” Gleek asked urgently. I’d been away from the house for seven hours. I’d no idea what may have occurred to make the microwave not-normal. I pointed this out to Gleek, while also mentioning that perhaps she should go inquire of the parent who was at home with her. It turns out that the turn table had been removed for washing.

I came home to Christmas lights in our front yard. I put them up yesterday and made sure to plug them in before I left, so I could see them when I came home. The tree is pretty, the lone strand around the doorway looks like our house was decorated by someone who only had a step ladder. Which is the case. We own a much taller ladder, I just didn’t want to climb it. The cost of falling is too high. Perhaps some other year we’ll spring for professionally strung lights put up by someone with proper equipment. I came inside to see that Gleek and Patch had assembled the tree. They’d also pulled out the Lego advent calendar. For the last three years I’ve bought one on clearance during the last days of December and then put it away for the next year. Patch opened the first door and assembled the little speeder. I’d only been in the door for a few minutes when Gleek asked where our advent candle is. I took a taper and quickly painted numbers on it. It is always interesting to note which of the family traditions matter to the kids. They’re not always the ones I work hardest on. The best traditions are the ones that spontaneously continue because they make everyone happy.

In two weeks I’ll get to road trip to fetch Kiki again. That time we’ll have her home for a month.

The Value of Ordinary Stories

I’ve been sending out queries for Stepping Stones, my memoir/essay book where I tell the stories having to do with my transformation into a working mother, the onset of anxiety as an issue in my life, and parenting four children while managing these other things. In response to those queries I’ve been getting a lot of rejections. Most of them are form rejections, often they are addressed to “author.” I can mostly shrug at those, but other rejections are personal. The agent or editor took time to speak particularly to me about the work I submitted. Such responses are a gift of time and caring. I know this. I try to treat the gift with respect even when the accumulation begins to feel discouraging. The personal responses all say things like:

I am just not seeing how I can break this out to a trade readership.

while I think that you have a compelling voice, I don’t completely trust that this is something that I could sell into the mainstream trade market—memoirs are very tough to sell if they’re not overly sexy or high-concept.

You are a compelling writer, with a clear perspective, and a wonderful sense of humor about your circumstances. As a working mother of four (though my kids are now all grown up!), I certainly empathized with the struggle you portrayed in these pages. However, while your story resonated personally, I’m not convinced that the central conflict is compelling enough to distinguish itself in the saturated memoir genre. While the struggle to be a good mother and wife and still pay the bills on time is a difficult one, it is certainly not a unique circumstance. I’ve found that memoir readers generally gravitate towards stories of incredible trauma or tragedy, or of overcoming enormous hurdles: largely circumstances that are outside of their own frame of reference.

And most recently:

What makes your story of motherhood and anxiety and so on different from other’s story?

My answer: nothing.
The stories told in my essays are stories of an ordinary life. Yet “ordinary” is not the same as “mediocre.” There is excellence to be found in ordinary things. This excellence is worth pursuing, but people will not see it nor attempt it if they are constantly told that only spectacular efforts and events are newsworthy. The world is full of amazing people who will never be newsworthy, but without whom our society would collapse.

American society seeks spectacle. The explosions in this year’s movie must be more fantastic than the ones last year. If it bleeds it leads is a guiding principle of most news sources. We watch the Olympics to see the far reaches of human capability and be inspired by them. We read stories of severe mental illness, or horrific abuse, or tantalizing bedroom play. The subtext in all of this is that if we want to matter, we must transform ourselves into something different from the rest of society. We must do something extraordinary to leave a permanent mark on the world. When we don’t, we feel boring.

I had a neighbor once, the mother of my friend, who gave the best hugs in the whole world. She was big, warm, and soft. A hug from her was like being wrapped in a warm blanket. She listened to me. She recommended books. She functioned as an auxiliary mother. Her name was Marilyn and she is the reason that I associate the name with motherliness instead of the blonde actress. I remember Marilyn warning me once—speaking from her position in a deeply unhappy marriage, a position I only learned about years later–not to get married too early. I assured her I would wait until at least eighteen. She laughed and I realized that eighteen still sounded young to her. After Marilyn moved away with her family, I felt her absence. I’ve kept many of the books she gave me. Sometimes I hold them in my hand, running my fingers lightly over the inscriptions, and I wonder how many thoughts and opinions I have because of conversations with her. How was my life shaped by her influence? It is impossible for me to know. I can’t trace back and separate out years of conversations and interactions which altered the trajectory of my young life. Was she ordinary? Yes. Put in a crowd of people she would not stand out, yet she was excellent. She wrapped her life around helping two severely allergic children survive into adulthood. She helped teach me to read. In hundreds of quiet ways she went above and beyond what was expected of a neighbor and friend. She was not newsworthy, but her story matters. She matters.

Why do we wait for eulogies and funerals to fully appreciate the excellence in ordinary lives? We are surrounded by people who have lived tragedies and triumphs. Whatever personal trial you are currently experiencing someone has already walked that path and can help you see the way through, but you’ll only be able to find that person if she has shared her story somewhere. Sometimes these connections are made through mutual friends. Lately they are often made via the internet and support groups. These ordinary stories of excellence and survival are one of the reasons I love to read blogs. It is a major reason why I write my blog, because if one of my ordinary stories can be inspiration or hope to another person then the world is made into a better place. My struggles start being useful instead of just me thrashing around in the dark trying to get by.

These rejection letters are trying to tell me that I have to write a sensational story to be published. This saddens me. It sometimes sends me a few steps down the path of despair, because I don’t think I can write a sensational story. That is not the sort of writing I do. I want to write the story of Marilyn. I want to write about a summer afternoon. I want to share the beauty I see in my four kids playing a video game together. I don’t write self-help or how-to either, which is another suggestion I’ve received. No piece of advice is right for every person, no way of approaching a problem will work for everyone. I don’t feel comfortable saying “this is what you should learn and do” because often the most touching responses I receive are unexpected. The reader pulled something from my words which I’d never seen in them. My stories enter the mind of the reader and combine with everything that is already in there to spark something new. It is a form of magic and it works even when the stories are ordinary.

I’d really hoped that some publisher somewhere would see the value in ordinary stories excellently told. I’m sad because I know these publishing professionals are right, extraordinary stories sell, ordinary stories don’t. Even if some publisher does step up what I’ve written is a niche book that will only be loved by people who find beauty in the ordinary. They are a small market segment. I’ll just keep telling the stories here and turn to fiction as a path to national publication. I’m not giving up on Stepping Stones. It may someday find a home, but it has to be the right home and that may be a very long time in coming.

Prayer, Scriptures, Church, and Parenting

For someone who believes in prayer, it is amazing how often I forget to use it. I believe that God listens to my prayers and answers them. I also believe that when I pray on someone else’s behalf that my prayers have an effect, even though my logic brain is stumped to explain the mechanics of exactly how it works. I know for sure that when I pray it changes me; my internal landscape alters, calms, shifts and I step away with a clearer view of what is and what needs to be next. Sometimes the changes to my internal landscape unlock floods and rivers of inspiration which wash through me. Other times I realize that God has been waiting very patiently for me to ask before helping me. I’ve seen all of this over and over in my life. Yet I’m usually fairly well established in my stress or crisis before I think to apply prayer to the problem. I need to be better about that.

There are other religious observances which I also neglect such as daily study of scriptures. Somehow it gets lost in the middle of everything else and I don’t even think to miss it until it has been absent for weeks or months. Every time I put it back, it fills my soul. I find greater reserves and strength for managing everything else in my life. It is exercise and good nutrition for my spirit, yet it fares about as well in my schedule as exercise does.

Fortunately I have weekly church attendance to nudge me and remind me of the importance of prayer and scripture study. It is like a regular appointment with my personal trainer, the day when I have to account for my choices during the prior week. Sometimes I slouch into the appointment resentfully, knowing that I’ve been lacking. Yet I’m not scolded there, just encouraged, reminded, nudged. And on days like today, when I’m feeling a bit cracked open and raw, I am healed. My spiritual practices bring me closer to my loving Father in Heaven who only wants me to grow and is sad that sometimes the growth process is painful. I can sympathize with that today as I look forward to this coming school year and know my kids have some difficult emotional terrain ahead. I keep forgetting that Howard and I do not have to do this alone. My Father in Heaven is also there for my kids and when I remember to apply prayer to our challenges, miracles happen.

In Which My Thoughts Wander from Parenting, to Accomplishment, and End at The Weather

My pause when staring at the empty blog post box is not for lack of thoughts. I have too many of them, but they are all fragments and pieces which are not gelling of their own accord. I like it when ideas click together instead of me having to pull meaning from them. Tonight I’m too tired to pull on much of anything, having spent the last two nights tending to a sick child. He’s all better now. Hopefully no one else will catch it. This was a particularly nasty stomach flu. Taking care of Patch took my shiny new schedule right off the rails for Wednesday. Fortunately we’re back on track today. Or, if not completely on track, we’re at least headed trackward. Why is it that I forget that the first week of January always feels messy and stressy? Somehow I expect to be able to hit the new year ready for action. Instead I’ve been helping three out of four kids who have all been feeling just as conflicted about their oncoming tasks as I have been about mine. I’m working to remember that their problems are not necessarily my problems. I can’t solve them. It isn’t my job. My job is to help them deal with the problems. It is a subtle, yet important, difference.

Many people I know online are writing Year in Review posts. In one writer’s forum there is an entire thread which was created simply for people to report on how their writing went in 2011. I keep opening that thread. I don’t actually read every post. I skim over them. The truth is a Year in Review post is more valuable to the person writing it than to anyone who may stop by and read. Or so I thought. But several people commented about how much they love to read the thread. Every time I go in the forum I click on that thread. I think about writing a post for it. My post would be a sort of counterpoint. I accomplished a lot during 2011, but not very much of it was as a writer. I never start typing that post. I’m stopped by the conviction that the things I have to say are only me justifying my decisions to myself. The only reason I would need to do that is if I doubt the choices I made. I don’t doubt. Except when I do. During the times that I manage to find calm contemplation of the year just past, I think it was what it needed to be. Some of it was stressful, there are some hard bits which loom large and obscure my view of the rest. It will be interesting to see how my mental picture of the year changes as I compile my annual book of blog entries.

I think I’m also avoiding writing a year in review post because it faces backward. I want to just start where I am and make today be good. I want to reach for goal completion. Last year saw the beginnings of many things, but the second half of the year was lacking in projects completed. Most of the things I began are still pending or in process. The two feel different to me. Pending are the things which I can not control, in process are the things which I can affect. The fact that I’m avoiding it probably means I should do it. I should delve into last year, even the hard bits. I’ll likely discover that my feelings about the year have been colored by various inaccurate perceptions. Because 2011 was a good year. I know that it was. I also know that I made the right choices during it. And then I think that all these thoughts are probably a waste of emotional energy. Either write it up, or don’t.

The weather has been lovely. It has been years since we’ve had 50 degree weather in January. The last time I’m sure of was 1999 when most of February was 50 degrees during the day. That was during my radiation therapy while my mother was here. I remember that she was able to take the kids outside every day. We also planted bulbs because the ground was not frozen. I should probably do that this year, but I forgot to put Gardener on the hat schedule. Perhaps I shall revise. The sunshine would be good for me.