The Return of the Black Dog

It’s been awhile. Maybe it’s because when I feel well, I think clearly enough to put thoughts into words that can be heard. When I’m not, I need the space and time of a blank page to piece together coherency.

These words are for me. But maybe for you too.

It has been almost two years since I last felt the suffocating weight of darkness. Two years since hope seemed an illusion. Two years since I couldn’t remember what it felt like to be normal. Bad days showed up, but they also quickly passed.

The bad days have begun to linger again this summer. They have strung together instead of being sprinkled across a calendar.

After eight years of living with this brute, I thought I had the words to talk about it. It’s amazing how sterile those words sound now. Their cleanness robs them of impact. They are neat. And easy. And anesthetized. Try as I might, those who hear don’t seem to understand the cruelty of this beast.

So this is my attempt to describe what depression feels like:

It is physical. So very physical. It builds in my body and holds me with all the force of Round Up, the ride from Joyland, where the walls spun and spun until the floor dropped out beneath. It took every ounce of strength I had to lift my head during that ride. The Black Dog feels an awful lot like being trapped on Round Up. Every movement feels like I’m carrying 1,000 pounds.

Fog thicker than the clouds fills my head. Visibility is short, and it takes all my energy. I can not take in a room. I have to work hard to focus my eyes on the person in front of me. Even harder to not only see the person but process what he or she is telling me. I have very limited minutes to do both.

The fog also robs me of my ability to think. I hear words, but it takes an eternity for the sound to take meaning. When meaning does come, pieces have a hard time sticking together to make a whole. Connections and completed thoughts stumble.

My eyes literally begin to ache, and the middle of my brain physically hurts. Not every time depression visits does my head hurt. But when it does, it is my brain is telling me it’s sick. This summer it has hurt.

In the morning, I wake with eyelids that do not want to open. The fuzzy mind and fog bare down thick and paralyzing. My bed is the cocoon that protects me from the harsh stimuli of reality. With the comforting weight of my blanket and a pillow over my head, it doesn’t matter that I can’t think or respond or want. Reality can come and go. It takes so. much. work. to leave that haven.

Facing the day is overwhelming. So many minutes. All I can think about is when I get to re-enter the safety of my bed.

It is hard to find the words, the analogy, that carries the weight of loss in losing one’s ability to process stimulus. Every word requires monumental effort to understand. Every sound rings like a boom that never stops. Touch that is not constant and firm chafes my nervous system like nails on chalkboard.

Depression has been very physical these past months.

This summer has brought battle to my mind too, but I have been spared the worst of the dark I once knew. I want to hope it is because I recognize the lies depression tells–they come without warning and assault my mind like shrapnel. They dig deep into wounds still visible and remind me of pain long passed. They make me believe the bleeding will never stop. That is danger for me. In God’s grace (because truly it is), the battles for my mind have been brief. Respite has come quickly. Hope in the form of truth has been spoken, by me and by others.

As I crawl into the safety of my bed, I read the same words every night. In this season, they cover me.

The enemy pursues me, he crushes me to the ground; he makes me dwell in the darkness like those long dead. So my spirit grows faint within me; my heart within me is dismayed. . . I spread out my hands to you; I thirst for you like a parched land. Answer me quickly, Lord; my spirit fails. Do not hide your face from me or I will be like those who go down to the pit. Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life. Rescue me from my enemies, Lord, for I hide myself in you. Teach me to do your will, for you are my God; may your good Spirit lead me on level ground.” Psalm 143:3-10

Please hear these words: depression is a beast. It is relentless. Most of the time, it is not about anything, but it requires everything. Don’t take for granted that for some it takes a lot of work to stay alive. To keep fighting. To not seek rest in any form it’s offered.

Tonight, I spread out my hands, and I wait for the rain to fall. I hide myself in the One who made me, and I wait like the watchman for the morning light to bring word of his unfailing love. I beg for his good spirit to lead me to level ground.

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A Post-Christmas Meditation

It is the day after Christmas, and all is {finally} calm in our house.

The busyness and anticipation is over, and we are settling back into normal. There is no rushing around today. The kids continue construction of Legos and practice with skateboards. New books will be cracked, movies will be watched, and we will re-learn how to slow down.

The whole world moves on today, but I am stuck on Christmas Eve.

We live fairly close to The Morse Museum, which houses the largest collection of Tiffany stained glass anywhere in the world. On Christmas Eve, I drug our family to the Morse for 30 minutes of culture and a four-piece string ensemble.

During our quickly-paced tour, we passed by one window I found beautiful but somewhat common. The youngest asked who it was, and I guessed maybe Abraham and Isaac? We moved on to see other pieces but came back around as we were looking for the exit. That is when I saw the title.

“Christmas Eve.”

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Christmas Eve window, c. 1902
Mable Nast Crawford house, New Rochelle, New York, c. 1911–present
Leaded glass
Tiffany Studios, New York City, 1902–32
Designer: Thomas Nast Jr., 1866–1943

The power of the depiction fell on me heavy with awe and ache. It is the night before Christmas, and God the Father is holding the son in which he has great delight. He is savoring a last few precious moments before sending him into the world. The Father knows what awaits. He know the suffering the Son will endure.

My heart breaks.

Never have I thought about the ache of the Father on Christmas Eve. We experience Christmas with such incredible joy and anticipation. And surely those were true for the Father, as well. But not one time have I thought about the pain of sending his son.

And so, as Christmas moves past and normal returns, I linger. I linger in this moment where a father holds his son and looks at him with a full recognition of the separation to come. I feel the delight of him holding his only child in his arms while also anticipating the pain of the moment when he will have to send him away.

The love of the Father overwhelms me. In this picture it is not sterile. It is not distant or stuffy. It is tender. And it hurts.

On this first day post-Christmas, I am praying we continue to be struck by the very real and powerful love of a Father who would send his son to be flesh. I am praying I remember the tenderness of a moment captured in stained glass far longer than our tree stays up or the tinsel hangs around town.

A belated Merry Christmas to you, friends. May the awe of what happened on that first Christmas continue to move your heart. And mine.

Standing After the Storm

The sky is blue now and only a breeze makes the leaves flit about on our young live oak. You would never know a hurricane passed through two days ago. You couldn’t imagine how the wind whistled through our windows and how that little live oak bent farther and farther as Matthew pushed it to its very edge.

Yesterday it felt like the sun might not ever shine again. But it did. It is.

In the middle of it all, I realized a hurricane makes for a very striking picture of the journey through anxiety.

The day before Matthew arrived was gorgeous. The city was a buzz in preparation, and it felt surreal. There was hardly a cloud in the sky.

I met a friend for brunch, and we sat outside. Those not from Florida can’t appreciate what a rare opportunity that is before mid-November. It was the first hint of a slight reprieve from the sticky days of summer.

The weather was so captivatingly pleasant, I spent the evening soaking in more of it watching the youngest’s football practice. I didn’t need to be there. I just wanted an excuse to be outside.

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The night before Hurricane Matthew

Parents around me shared hurricane stories and tried to assure themselves they had prepared adequately. Those from south Florida spoke with shock at the lack of shutters and boarding. The ones from the north grew in anxiety over how to fit their families in closets while the storm passed.

We were all, everyone of us, anticipating disaster. Catastrophe. Tragedy.

Everything around us looked peaceful and normal, and yet we carried with us the impending sense of doom.

We did not know if we would be ok.

 

Those 24 hours, as Hurricane Matthew strengthened and edged closer and closer to our homes, is exactly what it is like to live with an anxiety disorder. Except most of the time there is no hurricane coming. There isn’t even a storm in the forecast.

It is just a forever anticipation of disaster.

It is always being on the look out for how to be prepared for a catastrophe. It is constantly looking around for how to protect yourself from what could happen.

It is believing that something so cataclysmic is going to happen that I will not be ok.

 

The storm came. We went to bed anticipating only a few hours of sleep before winds began thrashing outside. We were prepared to tarp broken windows and huddle together in closet away from flying glass.

Wind did blow. Hard. It made our windows sing. But we woke with 8 hours of sleep and no broken glass. We even had electricity. The hurricane had moved just 10 short miles east as it came its closest.

Into the afternoon, wind would gust and rain would pour. The live oak in our backyard would lean farther over with every gust. But it continued to stand. The gusts still blew, but with every hour they weakened.

And then it all stopped.

Leaves and limbs littered the street. A few trees didn’t fare as well as our little live oak and toppled into the street. Fences would need to be repaired across our neighborhood. But that was as bad as it got. We were banged up a little, but we were ok.

 

Matthew released the last of his fury in the Orlando area around 3pm on Friday. By the next morning, the sun was shining, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. The storm passed, and the sun did shine again.

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The morning after Hurricane Matthew. 

Isn’t that just like life? We get banged up, but we continue to stand. We really are ok, even with our bruises. Just like a person’s struggle with anxiety.

Hard things come. They do. But rarely is it as bad as our anticipation. Anxiety likes to puff-up catastrophe. It lies about resilience. But we are stronger than we think. We are far more resilient than we fear.

Storms come, but they always pass. And afterward, there is a beauty you can’t appreciate without having sat through the pounding wind and rain. I have more depth, more compassion, more kindness because of storms I have stood through. The world is richer and more inviting than it has ever been.

We are resilient. I am resilient. I might lean a little like our live oak, but I am standing. I have more and more experience that as many storms as come, I will be ok.

Global Suicide Prevention Day

In 2014, 42,773 Americans died by suicide. One of those was my friend Robert. He is not just a statistic, nor are the other 42,772 represented by that number.

The suicide rate in the U.S. has recently hit a 30-year high according to an article in the New York Times. The overall suicide rate in America rose by 24% between 1999 and 2014. And more than 800,000 people die by suicide around the world every single year.

Is that not shocking to you? It’s shocking to me, and yet, I can understand the desperation of each of those numbers.

Today is World Suicide Prevention Day. Let’s be a part of the conversation.

semi-colon

Last Fall I got a semi-colon tattooed on my wrist. To many, it’s an odd little thing (especially my parents). But for me, it’s a victory sign. It’s a reminder that as dark as depression can feel at times, it is only a pause. Not a period. It is not the end of the story.

My story is not over.

I am huge supporter of an organization called To Write Love on Her Arms. To Write Love on Her Arms is “a nonprofit movement dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide. TWLOHA exists to encourage, inform, inspire, and invest directly into treatment and recovery.”

The TWLOHA community was an incredible speaker of hope during days I felt were hopeless. I now join with them in speaking against the stigma of depression and other mental health issues. I want to normalize the conversation.

Each year TWLOHA picks a phrase to champion during Suicide Prevention Week. This year the phrase is “so I kept living.”

It is from a gem of a book called Reasons to Stay Alive, in which the author writes about his own journey through depression and anxiety. It is a must read for everyone who knows someone battling depression (which, statistically, is all of us).

In the book, author Matt Haig writes of standing on a cliff in Ibiza contemplating taking the last step to end his life. “I think life always provides reasons to not die, if we listen hard enough. . . And so I kept living.”

What a great exercise for me to share that I kept living because there are three amazing kids who need their mom.

Because my husband told me, “we’ll get through this together.”

Because I told people when I wasn’t OK, and they listened to me. 

Because a tenacious counselor told me week after week not to underestimate my resilience. He spoke hope over me again and again.

Because I remembered what it was like to love what I do.

Because I had words to share.

I kept living because I knew my life was precious to the God of the universe.

I kept living.

And here I am. I am alive, and I am speaking hope.

If you are struggling today, will you please tell someone? Depression lies. It tells you you are alone, but you are not. You are not alone.

If you want to help someone struggling, would you consider giving to the efforts of To Write Love on Her Arms? This week they have been working to raise $85,000 toward the cost of treatment and recovery for those who need it. One of the counselors investing in that effort is mine. The work is real, and it saves lives.

Join the conversation. Tell someone your story. Keep living.

The Day I Wanted the World to Stop

It was a week ago today I got the text.

“It doesn’t look like he’s going to make it.”

A few hours later came an even harder one. “We’re getting ready to say goodbye.”

My breath was gone. I couldn’t seem to process what I had just read. No. This was a horrible mistake.

Then the sobs came. Deep, heaving sobs. My kids all rushed to me, and I could barely get the words out.

“He’s gone.”

It might be the first time my kids have seen such devastating grief. They knew our friend too, but time had lessened their pictures. It had not lessened mine. They were so sweet to sit with me as I wept and pray with me for our friend to be ushered into the Kingdom with fanfare and rejoicing and love. We prayed for the very first time he would see the face of Jesus.

Deer

Plans were made, and 36 hours later we were on a plane headed to be with a grieving wife and kids. We wanted it all to be a bad dream, but if it wasn’t, we would walk through the unbelievable alongside the family who had shared three years of our lives. We had created so many beautiful memories together. We would walk thru the hard too.

We landed in a bustle of planes, in the middle of a city swirling with life. I watched families gather their bags with anticipation. I saw a workforce moving like any other day.

And I wanted to scream, “Don’t you know our friend just died?!?”

I wanted the world to stop.

I wanted everything to stop and recognize the loss of a deeply good man. A husband. A father. A friend.

How could the world still be spinning as usual? It had all come to a screeching halt for us. I was mad life was carrying on like normal for so many.

We spent two and a half days in the sacred reality of death. We held a family tightly. We spoke words that often aren’t said until moments like this. We looked at pictures and remembered so much good. We laughed.

We played cards and waged Nerf battles with precious kids who are far too young to be without a daddy. We listened, and we loved.

We wept. We wept for our own hearts, and we wept for those were left with a devastating new normal.

And then we honored a life very well lived. It was an incredible privilege.

The world did not stop. It kept whirling around us, and it will keep on going.

My world is different now though. It is sweeter, and it is deeper. My heart hurts so badly, and yet I would not trade it. I am so thankful for the chance to have loved, even if it means we say goodbye.

There was a day not long ago where I would have worked hard to not feel the pain I now know. I would have thought it more than I could handle.

I do not choose that anymore. I choose to feel. I choose to feel deeply in joy and in grief. I choose to feel alive.

We won’t ever forget the days and years we had with a really good guy. We won’t forget the adventuring or the respite he provided. We certainly won’t forget the food and wine we savored together. Love allowed us to share our lives with each other, and it was good. Even now, it is very, very good.

Goodbye friend. We rejoice for the glory you now see. We know there will be a day when we will share wine with you once more. We long for it.

A New Ending

The past several months have held light. Hope.

I have felt stronger and more resilient. Not completely myself, but I am catching glimpses of who I used to be. I can imagine again what it might be like to live in joy and experience that sweet place called thriving.

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Healing did not come in one day. It has come in hours, over months. Hours of friends showering me with grace as they listened to me share over and over again how I felt like the darkness was winning. Hours with my hope-speaking counselor declaring resilience when I could not believe it for myself. Months of me recognizing the need to make choices that are good for me, even if they are impractical or feel an extravagance.

Bad days come farther and farther apart. When they do come, I still have memory of the good. I know bad won’t last forever. I can rebuke the darkness that enters my mind because I remember the truth I had known just days before.

Health did not just happen. Every day I have fought for it.

I have listened to my body and sought relief for my worn-out adrenal system. I have learned to be grateful for medicine that brings the serotonin-stability my body is too taxed to create on its own.

I have gone to the gym when I didn’t want to because exercise is good for a depressed body. I have napped when I needed to nap. I have texted a thousand times over with my faithful people just to say, “I need to know someone sees my struggle.” I have scheduled lunches and appointments on days without commitments so I would have a reason to get dressed. I have sought out the sun.

And week after week I have sat in my counselor’s office to wrestle with my own brokenness. I have been more honest with myself than I ever have. I have sat with the hard. I have felt my disappointment. I have quit running. I have learned what mindfulness is, and I practice it. I fight to validate what I am feeling instead of telling myself it doesn’t matter. Slowly I am learning to breathe instead of panic. I am choosing to see myself as strong instead of the vulnerable curled up waiting for a fatal blow.

Health is one good choice at a time.

Over the days, the weeks, the months, the choices have added up. They have become habits of the healing kind. They are pieces of a puzzle being built to lift the weight of depression.

It was not long ago when I couldn’t imagine a future. Every single hour felt overwhelming, and I did not think I would make it. I could not fathom a day when depression would not rob me of life.

But here I am. The future has a new ending.

This is My City

This is my city. The city where a mouse makes dreams come true and the rides of Harry Potter thrill relentlessly. Dolphins dance for crowds and a whole world is created of Legos. It is also the city where hate took 49 lives. One man took judgment into his hands and broke the happiest place on earth.

This is my city, and it is the City Beautiful.

prayfororlando

Several times a week I drive by a club named Pulse. The streets where I often work at Starbucks are lined with rainbow banners. I see two men eating breakfast outside, their dog sleeping at their feet. Two women play at the park with their child. Our pharmacist, who might as well be family, tells us his partner is doing well in the banking field. The LGBT community in Orlando is strong. There is freedom, acceptance, strength and support.

This community has very specific faces to me. It is my pharmacist, my former hairdresser, the server at the Thai tea shop. It is my barista, my favorite checker at Target and one of my daughter’s friends from school.

Those faces are filled with fear and grief today. Hatred was taken to a whole new level.

On Sunday, just hours after hearing the news, I am in the parking lot of Target. The big red bus is parked in its usual spot. Only today it doesn’t have to offer the usual movie tickets to get the donations it needs. The temperature rises to near 100, and literally hundreds fill the parking lot waiting to give blood. They will be there for hours, but none will leave. The City Beautiful will care for its own.

Twenty-four hours later, I make my usual drive to buy meat and veggies. There is no avoiding the helicopters buzzing overhead. Pulse is only a few blocks away. My city has been invaded. Cameras and reporters are everywhere. They have set up camp at the end of the blocked-off road. Geraldo is reporting from the hospital where the surgeons fixed my back and my friend fights cancer. The place feels personal to me, and it’s being invaded.

I drive home from my market, and I pass the Medical Examiner’s Office. At the time, 24 families still hadn’t heard the news they both needed and didn’t want. Crowds are gathered by the door, and it just feels too much. The weight of grief is so very heavy. These families are not abstract people mentioned on the news. I see them standing in the hot sun just 20 feet from me. Wanting to wake up from a nightmare.

If I am honest, I have to confess I have thought often about the likelihood of hearing the news we heard Sunday morning. Sixty million people visit my city every year. Fear seems the most crippling monster to a city committed to creating a fairytale reality.

But I never thought it would look like this. I never thought such explosive evil would be unleashed at a bar. I can not fathom such hate.

This is my city. A terrorist attacked the very streets where I do life. He tried to stir hate, but my city won’t stand for it. We will not let his incomprehensible actions define us.

We will love.

We will give blood until the big red bus closes its doors. We will stand with the LGBT community and tell them they are loved. We will cry with our neighbors over the loss of innocence our city has suffered. We will carry the financial burdens of families who can not pay to put their lost ones in the ground. We will cook and clean and light candles and sing and pray.

The City Beautiful will shine even brighter, but with a rawness one can not know without walking through the unthinkable. Our service and kindness and love will unite our city beautiful. We have faced evil together, but we will be the victors.

This is my city.