Spirituality

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 lds.org. 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.

Doing Fine

Each week during church I open my mind and heart, seeking for inspiration and direction about the things I have been doing and the things I should be doing. Some weeks I get clear answers, others I don’t. This week I got a very clear “You’re doing fine” as I was contemplating my job as a parent.

I thought about that answer after it came. It definitely wasn’t an indication that I can rest and be done now. It wasn’t telling me I’ve done enough. It was more like the encouragement from a personal trainer during the middle of some difficult exercise.

“You’re doing fine. Now adjust your arm a little bit and shift your stance. That won’t make it any easier right now, but it will make this effort more effective in accomplishing what we hope to accomplish in the long run. Oh, and stop trying to carry that extra weight on your shoulder, it isn’t helping anything.”

I’d love to hear “That’s enough. You can rest.” Instead I get told not to spend energy worrying how I’m doing. I’m doing fine. Which is actually good news, because I was spending energy worrying that I was getting everything wrong. Maybe if I can stop worrying, I can use that energy on something that makes life better.

Walking the Spiral

My breath came ragged through my open mouth as I walked quickly up the slope. Dirt and rocks crunched under my feet as they walked along the narrow trail in the grass. Many other people had walked this path before me, as is to be expected when one goes walking inside a state park. None of those people were visible now. The parking lot had been empty when I pulled up. I’d intended to tweet a cheerful photo. “Look how beautiful Fremont Indian State Park is.” I’d taken the picture, written the words, hit send. No service. The park was in a canyon, hidden from cell towers. It was a dead zone. No one knew where I was. Howard knew I’d headed to southern Utah to pick up our daughter from college, but I hadn’t mentioned my intention to stop at the park. It had only been half an idea, something I was mulling over. I’d intended the tweet as a digital bread crumb, a quick note to let people know where I was. Instead I stood on the asphalt, wanting to seek out a place where I’d been before, wondering if I really should go hiking solo, knowing the trail was an easy ten minute walk, and finally deciding the park was a safe enough place. “This is how people go missing.” I thought as I took the first steps on the trail, but I walked up anyway. I was drawn there by a desire I didn’t fully understand. I promised myself I would turn back if I didn’t find the place in ten minutes of walking.

My children and I had stopped at Fremont Indian State Park on a whim in the fall of 2012. We were on our way back from a college visit where my daughter got to walk the campus and realize that she really did want to attend that school. All four kids were with me on the trip. I hauled all of them out of the car and made them walk trails with me. None of them were particularly thrilled about it at first. Slowly they began to enjoy themselves and we all rejoiced when we found the spiral built in a meadow. The kids ran their way to the center. I have a photo of the four of them standing there, triumphant. Even as we walked away, I knew I wanted to visit it again. The memory stayed with me. I thought about stopping each time I drove past the freeway exit as I traveled on trips to fetch my daughter or drop her off. “I really need to go back there.” The thought bounced around in my head. Each trip had a dozen reasons why I didn’t have time. Two and half years of driving past and I didn’t go back. Until I did, because on that day the pull was stronger. I’d had a rough few months. I was mired in depression, grief, and other emotions I couldn’t quite sort. I didn’t know what I needed, but I knew I really wanted to see the spiral again. So I stopped and I hiked. Solo.

The trail was clear and did not branch. There was no risk of getting lost. As I walked, I measured the land with my eyes. Did I remember this place correctly? I thought I was on the right trail. It seemed that I was traveling ground I’d been over before, but two and a half years had passed. I didn’t remember clearly. I wondered if the spiral would still be there or if it had been neglected. I was nearing the end of my ten minutes time limit and ahead of me was a rise. I told myself that if I couldn’t see the spiral from the top, I had to turn back. I didn’t want to, but every step took me further from where I was expected to be. I could feel responsibility calling me back to my car. My daughter needed me to help her load her things into my car and to help her finish cleaning. After that I was needed at home. I had responsibilities and they tugged on me as I walked upward.
Spiral
There it was. My breath caught in my throat and I realized I’d been worried that I wouldn’t find it, that it hadn’t been real, that it had vanished like some modern day Brigadoon. I half wouldn’t have been surprised at that. It felt like a place that could just vanish. Or perhaps a place that could only be found by serendipity or need. On that day I found it. My eyes began to water as I walked the distance to the open end of the spiral.

2012 was before. It was before all the transitions that our family made stepping all the kids up, one to college, one into high school, one into junior high. It was before my younger daughter had panic attacks. It was before my older son began his long slide into depression. It was before we recovered from that. It was before I discovered that our recovery was a limited one. It was before my younger son also had panic attacks. It was before all the appointments, therapists, doctors, medicine, and meetings. It was before something in me broke, or gave up, or grew too tired. The person who visited the spiral in 2012 could honestly look her depressed son in the eyes and promise him it would get better. The person I was when I returned wondered if that was true. I wondered if I had been lying to him. I knew I had to keep going, taking the right steps, but somehow I’d lost touch with the belief that we could pull out of the emotional mire which kept reclaiming us. We’d seem to be out, but then the troubles would come again. My feet stood at the opening to the spiral. The last time I’d been here was before. I didn’t know why I needed to come again, nor why I wanted to cry at being there. I stepped forward and began to walk.

I once read about a meditation path in the center of a garden. It was a twisting walkway leading toward a center point. A person was meant to walk the winding path and examine whatever thoughts surfaced during the walk. I took a deep breath and as my feet walked, I opened my thoughts. “What do I need here?” I asked.
Center
Walking a spiral feels like going nowhere. I passed the same scenery over and over. As I got closer to the center this was amplified, I saw the same things, but they went by faster. At the end I felt as though I were spinning in a circle even though the speed of my walking had not changed. Then there was the center. And I stopped. I sat on the log and waited. I took deep breaths. Birds chirped unseen. The wind blew past my face and lifted tendrils of hair. I wanted to cry again, but in the center the tears were happy instead of grieved. I sat there, feeling happy, feeling connected to the person I was before. It was the first moment in a long time where I could see that yes, we kept getting mired in the same emotions. We were seeing the same troubles again and again, but somewhere there was a center where the trip might begin to make sense. I just had to find the center. Then I had to work my way out from there. I sat for long minutes. I did not want to leave. I could feel my obligations and responsibilities waiting for me beyond the edge of the spiral.

After a time, I stood and walked my way out along the spiral. I saw the same things over again, but this time the more I walked, the more the sights slowed down. Then I was at the open end and stepped free.

Finding and walking the spiral seemed such a silly thing. I still don’t understand how so much meaning got attached to it. Yet in that step out from the open end of the spiral I felt like I’d left some grief behind and took something hope-like with me in its place. The spiral helped me remember that there was a before, and the existence of a before heavily implies that somewhere ahead of me there is an after. I just need to keep wending my way along the path until I get there.

Coming Home from Church

I came home from church early with Patch because he was having a rough day. This has been the story of all my Sundays for the last two months. Someone in my house is having a rough time. Someone leaves early. Someone cries because life feels like too much. Often the someone has been me. I guess attending church pries us open and lays the emotions bare. I hope that we will make our way back to a place where church is for peace and comfort instead of raw emotions.

I broke down and bought pill boxes last week. They line up, four in a row, each with a week’s worth of pills sorted into their compartments. When I see those pill boxes, I have to face the fact that five out of six of us are on daily medication or vitamin supplements. There are nine prescriptions which I have to track and refill when they begin to run out. In theory I could get them all onto the same schedule and make one massive medication run to the pharmacy once per month. It never works out that way. I see the pharmacists 2-4 times per month. The pill boxes are an acknowledgement that I can’t track it daily the way I’ve been doing. The effort of remembering who has taken meds and who hasn’t becomes too much. Howard manages his own. I manage the rest and, in the dark of early morning, I must be able to run on automatic. Now I think through the medicines once per week instead of every day. It is a tiny simplification, a small thing that reduces the daily burden. Yet I didn’t quite realize what a burden it was, until I had all the pill boxes lined up like that.

The other thing I must face when looking at those pill boxes is the fact that I’ve become the mother who medicates her children. I was more comfortable with that when I had fewer children on medicine. I could use the non-medicated children as evidence that I was responding to need rather than jumping to pills as the solution to life’s troubles. This self-reassurance is less available now. All I have left is to cling to the knowledge that mental health is a process. I’ve not put my kids on meds and called it good. We have doctors and therapists involved. It is a constant process of evaluation and re-evaluation. Is this working? What does this child need now? How does that compare to what was needed three months ago? Six months ago? Last year? That too is exhausting. There are so many decisions to make. Which really is just a description of parenting whether or not medicine is involved.

It snowed Christmas Eve. I went to bed when things were wet, brown, bleak. We woke to the world coated in white. All the edges were softened and made beautiful. I’d heard this might happen, and the moment I did, I prayed that it would be so. I wanted Christmas to be different. I wanted to get to that day and set down the emotional load I’ve been toting around. I wanted Christmas to be a respite. At least for one day. Then the snow came, and our celebrations were everything they needed to be, and at the end of the day I was at peace instead of weary.

Of course the next day the snow was less lovely as it turned to slush and then ice. There is always a day after. This can be either discouraging or hopeful depending on what sort of a day it was. For me, I can feel the holiday continuing to work in me. I feel like I’m convalescing during this holiday space where the kids are out of school and the work burdens are lighter. I haven’t much time left to rest. Life will resume its regular pace next week and I have to hope that I’m up to speed.

I went back to church after Patch had settled and all the talking was done. There were only ten minutes remaining, but I went anyway. I wanted to be in the building and to be comforted by being near the people there. I came in just in time for the teacher to close her lesson. I sang with the closing hymn and listened to the prayer. Then the meeting was done before I was ready. I could have used a longer time sitting and listening. Just sitting there gave me strength.

In the hallway after the meeting I was greeted by friends. Once again I remembered how complicated it can be to answer the question “How are you?” I want to be truthful. I want to bring my friends in, and include them in my life, but some conversations are much too complicated for the hallway of the church building. Also, I’m kind of tired of crying at church. So I say that I’m fine, because that is true. My life is good in so many ways. There are dozens of joyful stories about the holidays. Our house has been filled with laughter during the past few weeks. So I pull out those stories and tell them. Yet, in the telling, I have to talk around all the worries that continue to plant themselves front-and-center in my brain. It is like being short and sitting behind a tall person at the theatre. I can lean this way and that to see the bright and beautiful display, but the view is not clear and I kind of want to complain about what is blocking my view.

The ice crusted snow crunched under my feet as I walked to my car with Gleek. The other kids had made their own trips home from church already. Gleek made a joke about the cold and I smiled. We passed Howard walking on the drive home and he hopped into the car. The three of us entered the house to find Kiki playing a game with Patch and Link. They were laughing. I watched them for a minute and treasured the sound of the laughter. Next week we’ll go to church again. Perhaps some of us will come home early again, perhaps not. I’m not going to pray for a week when we all stay. I’m going to pray for us all to work our way through the challenges immediately in front of us. I trust that when we do, the other things—like peaceful church attendance—will take care of themselves.

Saving Christmas

There are a bajillion Christmas books and movies out there where fill-in-the-blank protagonist saves Christmas. Usually “save Christmas” means “enable Santa Claus to deliver presents on time.” I’ve seen some wonderful iterations of this story and some terrible ones. This afternoon I was faced with yet another version and I had a moment of clarity. I figured out why How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my very favorite Christmas stories. It is the only one I’ve ever seen that says Christmas is strong instead of weak. It says that Christmas can’t be destroyed, that it exists separate from presents and the trappings of traditional celebrations. In fact, Christmas saves the Grinch, not the other way around. That’s a message I can really believe. It is also a reminder that I need.

I often get tangled up in my own version of saving Christmas. There is this long list of things that I feel like I must do correctly or else the holiday will be ruined. I spend so much energy doing things that are the metaphorical equivalent of saving Santa. I need to remember that there are better Christmas stories to dwell inside. Give me a Herdman-style Christmas where somehow the chaos of everyone colliding with each other turns into something beautiful after all. Or the Christmas where everyone sings whether or not there are presents.

I guess this year I really need the stories where things turn out okay whether or not the protagonist makes all the right choices. Which, when I think about it, is right in tune with the first Christmas story. That’s the one where a baby is born and he becomes the means by which all of our mistakes can be redeemed. That’s the point, we don’t save Him. He saves us. I don’t have to make Christmas or save it. I need to open up so that it can take up residence inside me.

Making Bargains with God

I bargain with God. I know I’m not really supposed to. I’m supposed to exercise great faith, put things into his hands, and follow the instructions I’m given through inspiration. I try to do that. Sometimes I succeed and for a while my life is far more peaceful even if the events and emotions are all about turmoil. But sometimes when I get an instruction, an auto-bargaining circuit kicks in. In essence I turn to God and say “Well if you want me to do that, then I need help with this.” Sometimes I get immediate help with this and the pathway is cleared for that. Other times my bargain only gains me a sense that God is amused when I bargain. He certainly doesn’t always join me in bargaining. In fact I suspect our bargains are rather like the bargains I used to make with my toddler kids where I conceded one small point that was no loss to me so that a far more important purpose could move forward. Yes honey you can bring the toy, its time to get in the car now.

A few months ago I got an unexpected, whip-fast response to a bargain. I had an essay book project in mind. I wanted to push it through in a hurry. So I shot a bargaining prayer heaven-ward. “If you want me to do this, you’re going to have to help me.” The response was clear. You know which book I want you to write. Encapsulated with those words were the knowledge that it was House in the Hollow, not an essay book and that if I continued to push on the essay book it would only be with my own strength. No assist. My strength is not strong enough to carry all the things in my life. I certainly don’t have enough force of will to push through and market an essay book by myself. All of my writing projects have felt important as I wrote them. I did the necessary work, knowing that the end result was something with a larger purpose. In some cases that larger purpose was to teach something to me. This is not the purpose I hope for when I write a book. I want it to go out into the world and touch other people. Yet in God’s eyes, me writing a book that changes me is every bit as valuable as me writing a book that changes someone else. It is hard for me to remember that and believe it. But the critical part is that I did not write alone. I was supported and led throughout each project. I can’t imagine trying to write a book without that.

So I know which book I’m supposed to be writing, yet somehow I’ve been dragging my feet on getting it done. I don’t know why. It probably has to do with fear of not being good enough or some other flavor of self doubt. Logically I know I just need to write the words and worry about making them be good words later. Yet I find a hundred other things to do. Many of them are important things which my family needs. Only I know it is not just the press of important tasks, because I’ve been filling spaces with things that are far less important than writing. On the days I do work on HitH, suddenly everything else goes much more smoothly. The contrast is stark. It is not that my other paths are being blocked, but this one path is definitely being made as attractive as possible. Which, of course, led me to using it as a bargaining tool. “Okay God. I’ll write on HitH first, but I need you to help me with the parenting stuff that has been driving me crazy.”

I haven’t gotten a clear answer on that one yet, but it feels like a worthwhile bargain to attempt for a time. Now I just need to stick to my part.

Writing in Church

My observance of my religion is not practiced in grand gestures, lone pilgrimages, or big revelations. It is me sitting on a padded pew with an open journal in my lap. Sometimes I write for pages, not great spiritual insight, just the daily cares that are in my head. I write all the things which I think are too boring for others to want to listen to. I repeat myself because repetition of thought is necessary in a life that is full of repeated tasks. In that journal I am allowed to spill words without concern for audience. Or rather I’m writing to a very specific audience: myself and God. I like writing my thoughts during church, because the location affects the shape of those thoughts as they spool onto the page. I never can be sure afterward whether there are threads of inspiration in those thoughts.

I do listen to the speakers and the teachers. I probably should be better at putting down my pen and giving them full attention. Some weeks I do. This was one of the weeks where my thoughts were noisy and I had to pin them to a page where I could examine them. I’ve learned to trust that when there is something in a talk that I should hear, I will suddenly find myself listening without having made a conscious decision to do so. Words, phrases, stories, jump out at me sometimes. Even if I was lost in my own thoughts the moment before. Sometimes I write down the pieces which came to me, a non sequitur in the middle of other thoughts.

On some Sundays I flip through things I’ve previously written and my own words jump out at me. I meant them one way when I wrote them, but I need them in a different way when they come to me again. I can only flip through a few months of thoughts. Anything older than that is in a different notebook. The physical requirements of the pages force me not to dwell too much on the past, but to keep moving forward.

I write journals at other times and places besides church. I have the stack of notebooks to bear witness to this. I used to segregate my thoughts into different notebooks, one for life journaling, a different for story fragments, a third for random notes of phone numbers and measurements. Now all of these things go into a single book, one that fits into my purse. All of it is there and none of it is explained. Sometimes I picture a future historian puzzling over cryptic fragments of sentences. A couple of times that “historian” has been me.

Writing my thoughts during church is a small observance. It is a way for me to commune with myself and with inspiration from God. I come away with a clearer plan for what needs to come next. Sometimes I’m given specific directions that are not always what I want to hear. Other times I’m reassured that my choices are good. I don’t know if any of that is apparent in the words themselves. They probably read like someone rambling endlessly about the same routine things that she rambled about last week, last month, last year. Yet I know that last week the flow of feeling and inspiration which came with the words was different than this week. Small observances can be powerful, particularly when they are repeated over time. This is how I build my faith and give myself peace each week. It is how I rest and refill so that I can meet the week to come.

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.

Making Things

“I’m happier when I make things.” Howard said as he walked into the kitchen late in the day. I looked up at him and saw that the grouchiness he’d felt earlier had cleared from his face. It took an hour and 1200 words of a short story, but his day got better.

I know exactly the way that Howard feels. I meant to spend today cleaning house. Instead I worked at making things too. I made thirty five packages which went out to customers. Then I made LOTA closer to being complete by putting in the footnotes that Howard created and by creating the footnote boxes. I too wrote 1200 words of fiction. I have a long list of things which I’d hoped to accomplish today, but I’m glad I chose to make things instead.

Only yesterday I was out to lunch with my friend and asking “Does it ever get easier than this?” I had a week where feelings of being overwhelmed alternated with the hope that we were finally getting life under control. I guess I’d had one oscillation too many, or maybe I was just feeling entitled to whine. In the past year I’ve dealt with lots of parenting things which were outside the norm. Except when I think about it, I wonder if it is more normal than not. Most people don’t know all the details of what has gone on, just as I don’t know all the details for other families. This leads to the illusion that struggle is not normal, when growing up is an inherently struggle-full process.

My friend didn’t answer my question, because she knew that I already knew the answer. No, life will not get easier, but my perceptions of the difficulties can be very different if I’m willing to alter them. I got a taste of this on Wednesday night when I came home from a support group meeting and everything looked different. I got a taste of it today when I spent the day making things and discovered that the house things which bothered me in the morning did not bother me so much this evening. In both cases, the thing I chose to do was pointed out to me by inspiration. This is really the answer my friend waited for me to remember. When I am following the instructions I am given by inspiration from my Father in Heaven, then life will be good even if it is also difficult.

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.