Take Care for the Holidays

I’ve been easing myself in to the holiday season.  It all starts with emails and phone calls early in October.  Who is doing what for Thanksgiving? Who is hosting? Who will travel?

Discussions of Thanksgiving turn into talks about Christmas. Who will we see? Who will we miss? Where will we worship? What gifts will we buy?

Holidays matter. They have been historical points of connection. Even if they haven’t been perfect, they have had meaning. So each year we start early to anticipate reunions and traditions, fondly remembering turkey dinners, caroling door to door, sledding down snowy hills, eating Christmas cookies, and unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. And we build expectation that our holiday gatherings will be Norman Rockwell perfection — even if they never have been.

All of this hope and expectation filters into our holiday conversations, which, if they haven’t already, will start this week.  You’ll ask or be asked, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?” expecting to hear something like, “Well, we always go to my grandmother’s,” or “We host a huge feast every year,” or “I’m getting together with my friends locally.” These questions seem harmless or even polite, but you may be surprised to learn that they can be emotionally laden (and even triggering) for many among us.

  • For the young man estranged from his family because of differences in beliefs.
  • For the grieving parents whose only child lost the battle to cancer in February.
  • For the recovering addict who isn’t up to managing the annual toast or maneuvering through family drama.
  • For the woman who was molested by a family member every holiday during her childhood.
  • For the newly widowed man who lost the love of his life last summer.
  • For the family who is recovering from years of dysfunction and trying to start new traditions.

They are all around us — these brave souls who are taking great pains to get out of bed every day, who struggle on a Tuesday to shower, dress, get to work, and feed themselves. Regular days are hard.

Holidays?  Those are next-level difficult.

I was lying on a table last week as one member of my health care team was attending to my body. We entered into the pre-Thanksgiving questioning protocol benignly enough, but before I knew it, there were silent tears and flashes of memory. Holidays do that.  They conjure up images of joy and pain — the full tables and the empty places. They invoke feelings of contentment and regret. They raise expectation and anxiety.  Cordial exchanges that seem casual on the surface, may trigger an emotional reaction in those among us who are quietly struggling or suffering.

Am I saying that you shouldn’t ask the questions, or that you should veer away from discussions of family and Christmas and tradition and celebration? Not at all.

I’m saying, take care.

I’m saying look people in the eyes. Ask, and then listen. Don’t assume that every person in your world is looking forward to the holidays with joy.  Rather, know that for many this is a very difficult time of the year. As you move through your pre-holiday interactions with the people in your life, you may be the only person to see the hard swallow, the averted gaze. You might be the only one to notice the dodged question or the avoidant joke.

And when you do, lean in.  That hurting person needs to know that you saw, that you noticed, that you heard.

After I got up off that table last week, my provider and I exchanged a hug. That’s all. No prying. No awkwardness. Just a hug. The tears were seen and acknowledged. That was enough.

Yesterday, I began my search for gifts for the important people in my life.  My focus was on the objects, of course. I was trying to find just the right items. A salesperson asked me if I was just looking; I said yes and then continued to browse. She kept talking, wanting to tell me about the sales. My initial reaction was to be annoyed, “Just let me shop; I said I don’t need any help.” I didn’t say it out loud, thankfully. Instead, I stopped, listened, and chatted with her a couple of times. I looked at her eyes. I listened to her voice.

I’m trying to live differently.

I think that’s where it starts, don’t you? If I just pause from churning through my to-do list for a moment, slow my roll a bit, I can see the other people around me. And when I see them, I will begin to notice the ones who just can’t wait to get home to be with their families and the ones who are aching and anxious and wish we would just knock it off with all the angels and bells and Santas already.

And when I notice, I can take care, lean in, and listen a little bit more.

 

Romans 12:10

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.

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Just a little Crabby

I’ve been a little crabby lately.  I’m not new to this experience. In fact, my high school senior class voted me ‘moodiest’.  Yeah, nice of them; I know.

When I was a child, I was often scolded for crying too much, laughing too loud, and pouting too long.  I felt things — excessively.   I stomped, I slammed, I wailed, I jumped up and down, I yelled, and I screamed.

Most of these emotions were the response to the every day experiences of a kid — if my brothers picked on me or I didn’t get my way, I often cried to my mother, wailing about the injustices of life. If I got a good grade or a new pair of jeans, I likely beamed from ear to ear and informed everyone in my immediate vicinity.  If something was funny — I laughed. Loudly.  (I think my laugh will have its own blog post one day; I’m not sure I can contain it in one little sentence or paragraph.)

Anyway, early on I established myself as an emoter.  As time went by, I learned that not everyone is fond of such demonstrations of feelings, so I tried to contain them.  Really, I did.  I tried to bridle my tongue.  I tried to put the best construction on everything.  I tried to look at the bright side.  And guys, I have succeeded from time to time. I have; ask anyone!

But when the rubber hits the road, I am what I am.  And sometimes, friends, it ain’t pretty.

In fact, over the years, as I’ve mentioned in this blog, I have engaged in therapy to work through my feelings about all the events of life.  I wasn’t just sitting at home sipping tea when the idea popped into my head, “You know, I think I will go see a counselor and examine my feelings.”  No, it looked more like sobbing into a pillow feeling hopeless, yelling irrationally at a family member, or locking myself in the bathroom to rearrange a cupboard when we really needed to get in the car because we were expected at a social engagement.  I’ve gone to therapy because my feelings and my inability to appropriately process them mandated a change.

During a couple of those periods, my health care professionals suggested that I try taking anti-depressants.  Indeed, many members of my family have struggled with depression over the generations; I am a bit pre-disposed.  And, to be honest, these medications served their purpose for a period of time.  The first time, I only used them for about a year, if I recall.  Recently, I have been taking a low-dose of zoloft for about seven years. I like to think that this medication has dialed my emotions back a little and has allowed me to manage some very difficult periods.

Some people don’t like to talk about such things, but I think we’ve already established here that very few topics are off limits for me.  I don’t think taking zoloft is any more taboo than taking amoxicillin. They are both pharmaceuticals that work with the chemistry of the body to affect change. I’ve taken plenty of amoxicillin in my day; I’ve also taken zoloft.

On my current quest toward wellness, I have fallen out of love with traditional medicine, particularly the pharmaceutical industry.  (That’s a topic for another blog post.) I have found the most benefit for my personal maladies in less conventional methods –dietary choices, exercise such as yoga, pilates, and swimming, visceral physical therapy, nutritional supplements, and homeopathic remedies.   I took the risk of eliminating my biologic and anti-inflammatory medications at my doctor’s suggestion and found that my symptoms, after a period of adjustment, were no worse without them.   So together we decided that I would take the next step and gradually and cautiously reduce my anti-depressant dosage.

When I first eliminated my anti-inflammatory medication, I was pretty miserable.  My body, used to having that drug, rebelled when it was deprived.  My pain levels increased predictably.  My fatigue also increased.  My doctors warned me this would happen.  I expected two to three months of adjustment, and that’s about what I got. Eventually my body adapted and created its own response to the pain.  Now, several months later, my pain is at the level it was while on the medication.

So I don’t know why I didn’t expect a similar transition period when weaning off zoloft. Maybe because I was on a low dose to begin with.  Maybe because I am taking three months to totally remove it from my system.  Maybe because my life is so much different now than when I first started taking it so many years ago.  I expected to gently slide through the transition with little to no difficulty.  And truly, the first three weeks were pretty easy.  However, I’m no doctor, but I can tell you that the levels of zoloft in my blood are lower this week than they were last week.

I’m quicker to the snap.  I’m edgy.  I’m surly.  I’m easily irritated and slow to recover.

It’s to be expected.  So why do I judge myself so harshly for this?  I didn’t judge myself when my pain increased; why do I judge myself when my irritability increases.  After all, both changes are a response to a chemical change — a withdrawal from medication.

I want so badly to have a good attitude about all of this.  I want to be able to smile in the face of adversity.  I want to be understanding when Verizon can’t figure out my technical issues after an hour each on live chat, the telephone, and direct message. I want to laugh, loudly and often.  I want to smile, genuinely.  But guys, I’m a little (ok, a lot) crabby at the moment.  It is what it is.  This too shall pass.

Romans 8:18

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing

with the glory that will be revealed in us.

Mentally Speaking

I’ve spent considerable space on this blog sharing my journey with my invisible illness -autoimmune disease, but very little space with another invisible malady I’ve wrestled with — mental illness.

Why is that?  Why am I so open with sharing about my physical struggles, but very closed about sharing those that are mental? Probably because some of you have already cringed or gasped — “Mental illness?  Really?” It’s not your fault; for generations struggles of the psychological kind have been steeped in stigma and judgment.  People ‘go crazy’, are ‘whacko’, and find their way to the ‘looney bin’. Right?  If we have struggles of a mental nature, we tend to keep them hush-hush.  You know, people won’t understand.

But do you know why people don’t understand?  Because everyone keeps it hush-hush.

Just recently a friend of mine recalled that back in the 1980s I was the first person she knew who openly shared my struggle with an eating disorder.  That’s right, I talked about it.  Why?  I had to.  I had kept my illness a secret and it had almost destroyed me.  Part of my recovery was to speak the truth of my struggle.  I didn’t have a lot of finesse.  I remember I was in the cafeteria line at college grabbing some fruit and a Diet Coke.  One of my professors said to me, “What’s the matter, are you anorexic?”  I looked him in the eyes and said, “Yes, I am.”  Poor guy, I doubt that he had any idea what I was struggling with until that moment.  Shortly thereafter, I resigned my RA position and moved off campus.  When people asked why, I said, “I have to deal with my eating disorder.”  I couldn’t hide it; I had to expose it.

More recently, I entered therapy for continuing depression.  In fact, I met with a psychotherapist for about eight years.  My time on a couch saved my life and improved the lives of almost everyone who interacted with me.  I am not one to put my personal life on blast, but if someone brought an issue to me or asked for my advice, I never hid the fact that I was in therapy and that it was the best investment I had ever made in my life.  Nor do I hide the fact that I take anti-depressants.  Why should I? If you are on antibiotics do you hide that?  How about blood pressure medication?  Of course not.  No one would judge you if you had a physical illness that required medication.  Nor should they judge you if you need a medical intervention for your mental health.

It’s 2015 and scientists have long ago proven a biological component to some types of depression.  In fact, there are genetic links to all kinds of mental illness.  No longer do we believe that mental illness is purely demonic.  That is not to say that the devil is not alive and well and wreaking havoc on all mankind — he is.  But he does it all in kinds of ways that don’t carry the same stigma as mental illness.

And here’s the thing, when we attach guilt or shame to mental illness, we give it more power than it should have.  Depression becomes depression plus shame.  Anxiety becomes anxiety plus guilt. If you’ve experienced mental illness, you know that it doesn’t stop there.  All kinds of emotions get attached to what could have been easily addressed as one issue.  The problem grows and the afflicted feels more and more helpless, draws into herself, and begins to feel that there is no way out.

That’s like letting a cold turn into bronchitis which complicates into pneumonia and lands you in the hospital!  What could have been treated with rest and fluids has become a life-threatening illness requiring acute care.

Sometimes that happens, though.  And, if you get pneumonia, you are rushed to the hospital, given IV antibiotics, and ordered to rest.  Friends and neighbors rush to your house with chicken soup, bouquets of flowers, and offers to help with the chores and the kids.  So why is it when mental illness reaches acute levels and — gasp — someone has to be hospitalized, we tiptoe around, whispering in hushed tones, trying to ‘not notice’ what is going on?  Doesn’t someone hospitalized for mental illness need just as much, if not more, help than someone hospitalized with a medical illness?

Yes, she does. And she shouldn’t be made to feel shame for it.

We are complex beings.  God created us with body, mind, and spirit.  Our bodies get sick.  Our minds get sick.  I would venture to say that our spirits get sick, too. Why? Because we are human and we live in a fallen world.  We will continue to struggle with imperfection until we die.

So, let’s not make it worse than it is, ok? Illness is illness.  It all needs a remedy.  We pray, yes.   We use the resources that God has put at our disposal.  And, whenever possible, we support one another through the difficult times.  Understood? Good.

I Thessalonians 5:23

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Galatians 6:2

Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.