Books, Just Write, Mental Health, What I'm Reading Wednesday

Happiness isn’t the goal.

“Happy” ≠ “healthy”. They are not synonyms. But I think we act like they are.

I’ve been trying to use my lunch break to enjoy some reading and recently just finished a book called “Why Emotions Matter”. The middle section of the book spends six chapters looking at each of the six most basic emotions we all experience. Each chapter focuses in on the value of one emotion, where we see it talked about in scripture, when that emotion can become an problem, and how to navigate each emotion with wisdom. While looking at these things in regards to shame or fear or sadness was helpful, when I got to “happiness” I started to realize how little I actually know about how emotions work.

We go through a day or a week and someone asks us “How are you?”. Generally speaking, if the primary emotion we’ve been experiencing lately is something along the lines of happiness, we respond that we are good. However, if any other emotion has raised to the top, our response indicates that we are not good. (Well, at least if we’re not just acting “fine” even if we’re not… but that’s an entirely different blog post.)

We chase happiness as the ultimate defining factor of life being “good” or even “healthy”. In reality, happiness is just another emotion that CAN indicate things are going well in our lives, but happiness can go wrong too. Each emotion has its place where it adds value to our lives AND has potential to become a problem in our lives. I think I see this easier in emotions like anger or fear or sadness, but I’ve never considered this with happiness.

The authors of the book described well the main challenge happiness can bring:

“Happiness is wonderful, but it’s also tricky. We want happiness to last, to be the default, all-the-time feeling in our bodies, even though that simply isn’t possible. It’s not how we’re made. Yet like addicts we chase the high, never permanently satisfied. We’re also pretty terrible at knowing what makes us happy. Again and again we fall into advertising traps or cultural narratives that tell us stories about what will make us happy, yet every time we end up hungry for more.”

Later on it in the chapter they remind the readers that happiness is just one of many emotions, one “voice in our body’s communication system” and that “all of our emotions matter”.

Suddenly it all made sense. Happiness doesn’t automatically mean “good” and something like shame or sadness or fear or even jealousy aren’t inherently “bad”. I can be sad and yet deal with that in a healthy way while wrongly chasing happiness as the ultimate goal.

I saw this play out in my life over the last few weeks. January into February really provided space to find some healthy rhythms for my life. In addition to physical health, I was finding an emotional and mental health better than I had experienced in years. So I got a little frustrated when that seemed to all suddenly change a few weekends ago.

Grief has a way of sneaking up on you and suddenly my generally happy day-to-day life was overwhelmed by sadness for a while. As the one year anniversary of a certain event approached, I began to grieve so many things, loss of dreams, loss or changes in relationships, a desire for some areas of my life to be different. As God would have it, I happened to be reading this chapter on happiness RIGHT in the middle of that time. What a helpful reminder that just because “happy” wasn’t my primary emotion didn’t mean my whole life was suddenly bad or unhealthy.

While that weekend brought grief and sadness and opportunities for perfectionism to take my heart captive, looking back I actually responded in good, healthy ways.

I processed my grief and sadness instead of ignoring it, letting it show me where some healing is still needed in my life.
I celebrated the realization that perfection no longer has the same hold on me that it once did.
I rested when my body signaled its need for that.
I did some work to figure out why fear was popping up in my life more than it was actually helpful.
I reached out to friends and chose not to be alone even when I felt alone.
I enjoyed the few happy moments that did come along even if they were shorter or less prevalent than they’ve been in recent days.

While many of those emotions are less enjoyable than happiness, life was (and is) still really good. One challenging aspect in all of this is that after my thyroid surgery and in the 18 month process of finding the right amount of medicine my body needed, often my emotions or experiences did indicate something was really unhealthy and out of balance in my life. Sadness could so quickly lead to depression. Increasing fear often indicated that worry that anxiety was around the corner once again. Fatigue or muscle pain could be a signal that I had too much or too little medicine. These hyper-sensitive signals trained my brain to think any time some of these things popped up it was bad… because for an extended period of time that was true.

I’m thankful for a season now of re-training my brain… of enjoying a happy moment without fear of when it may end… of letting shame draw me into exploration of where my identity feels threatened… of sitting in my sadness realizing some things in this sin-stained life are just hard and worth grieving… of truly celebrating victories and growth and health in grace without over-focusing on areas I still need to grow.

All of this and more is helping me re-define the true, abundant life that Jesus promised in John 10:10, not necessarily a life filled with only happiness, but rather a life of health and joy and peace despite what hard things may be happening around us or difficult feelings rising up in us.

happy

Intentionality, Mental Health, transition

The Best Intentions

In my new career working at a university I get this weird thing called a “Christmas Break”. The concept is slightly foreign after nearly a decade of working in a church where the end of December and beginning of January were some of my busiest weeks of the year with all the Christmas activities often followed by a young adult trip.

Heading into 12 days away from work, I wanted to use the time off well. I wanted to be intentional about resting, being renewed, spending time with people I love, and preparing for whatever crazy things 2nd semester might hold. After a week in Kansas with family, I headed back to Nebraska to enjoy five days, at home, with nowhere I had to be an nothing specific to do. Yet, I didn’t want to waste that time. The concept of intentionality kept popping up again and again.

On a whim the week before I had ordered a 52-week journal that focused on a different theme for each week. Topics range from patience to productivity, healthy boundaries to guilt and shame. However, as the journal arrived in the mail and I opened up to the first week, I almost laughed at topic #1: “intentional living”. Perhaps this theme of intentionality was a bigger deal in my current life than I first thought.

I began filling out the first page thinking about the week ahead…. goals, gratitude lists, a section for prayer. But I stopped when I got to a prompt to write out an “intention” for the week. While I’ve considered the concept of intentionality a lot (and even spent a whole month in 2012 blogging about it), I don’t know if I’ve ever focused much on the shorted version: “intention”. I actually went and looked it up in an online dictionary. The first definition describing “an aim or plan” helped me figure out what I might write as my intention for the week. But it was the second definition, a medical one, that caught my eye:

“the healing process of a wound” 

Exploring a bit more, I found this related explanation:

“the manner or process by which a wound heals” 

My first thought: “this doesn’t just apply to physical wounds”.

Minutes before this discovery, I had just gotten off the phone with a friend, celebrating some miraculous healing that had happened recently in her life. And when I say miraculous, I don’t mean it happened overnight or without any effort. Rather, it’s been months that have gone into years of hard, dare I say intentional, work. It brought tears to my eyes to know, in her life and mine, that intention truly is the process by which a wound heals.

I then thought about many conversations I’ve had this semester with students struggling to overcome hard things in their past or current lives. As a culture we’ve adopted this mentality that “time heals all things”, and yet, so often, time passes and our wounds still keep bleeding out. Every once in a while the circumstances of life allow for those hurts to scab over a bit and we think everything is better. However, the slightest situation can rip it clean open again when we least expect it. Time, with intention though… intentionally processing what has happened, intentionally caring for ourselves, intentionally doing the things that bring true long-term healing not a temporary fix… that helps shift our wound into a scar.

I don’t think it’s any mistake that God brought this theme into my life for this season.

Practically, I already knew I needed to focus in a be more intentional with the time God’s gifted me in this season. However, this second definition reminded me of the other areas where some healing has started but needs some intentional attention.

I think of the physical healing journey I’ve been on since November of 2017 when I got the news that something wasn’t right with my thyroid. What a joy it is to now be in an overall healthy physical place, but there is still some emotional healing that needs to take place from the trauma of that experience in order to move on and enjoy my body for what it is.

I’m reminded of the grief that sneaks in when I least expect it over having left the incredible community I enjoyed for nine years in Buffalo and moved to Nebraska this summer. I consider the situations where I hurt people in that transition process and need some intention to fight for restoration. I want to be intentional about investing in a new community here. I desire to let gratitude be the intention, the process, by which the wounds of that move heal.

Intention. Intentional. Intentionality. Intent. 

All of these come from the Latin root intentio which means ‘a stretching out’. The healing intention may not be easy, stretching us outside of our comfort zone, but the process it worth it. Intent implies deliberateness and focus. As I look ahead, I want the season before me to be filled with just that. I want to be intentional with my time, with my relationships, with my healing, with my hope. I pray that my deliberate focus may lead to healing intention in others as well.

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Mental Health, Youth Ministry

3 Situations, 3 Observations, 3 Questions, 3 Ideas

Three Situations:

  1. When I asked my high school students recently to list the top three emotions most teenagers probably feel, happy/joyful made that list, but “anxious” took the number one spot.
  2. Our church hosts a weekly conversation cafe focusing on a variety of topics. Normally, a handful of people show up each Monday. Last week, the topic was anxiety and the room was packed.
  3. On this little blog where I post about random life and books I’m reading and what God’s been showing me, most posts get read by a few friends and family members. I posted the other day about mental health and mental illness and there were over 450 views and dozens of shares.

Three Observations:

  1. These issues are real and relevant in our lives.
  2. People are longing to talk about these issues that impact them and those they love.
  3. While a stigma unfortunately remains, people are more open to sharing mental health challenges than perhaps ever before.

Three Questions:

  1. What does it look like to seek, and help others find, peace in very anxious times?
  2. How can this be obviously such a huge topic in people’s lives and there still be crazy stigma about it all?
  3. How do we keep the conversations going?

Three Ideas:

  1. Give each other grace.
    In addition to learning more about mental health recently, I’ve also discovered a lot about the fact that people are around us are dealing with things we can’t see. After sharing an update from a recent doctor’s visit, a coworker (who I see basically every day) texted to basically say “I had no clue you were still dealing with the impacts of your surgery or that this would be such a long ordeal.” A friend who actually had the same surgery as I did and is keenly aware of the challenges it can bring stopped me on one of the hardest days to say “You’re looking great! Your thyroid must be kicking in just fine.” It wasn’t.
    All that to say, what we see is not always what’s really going on. Whether it is an illness, stress at work, a sick family member, parents going through a divorce, or one of a million other things, we each have stuff we’re dealing with. And while we can’t miraculously know someone’s struggling if they act like life is fine, maybe the better assumption is that everyone is dealing with some kind of struggle in a given day. Let’s lead with grace instead of assuming the worst.
  2. Speak only words that make souls stronger.
    If it’s true that we’re all dealing with hard things mixed among the good things, let’s speak life and hope into people around us. Call out the good you see them doing. Thank them for being brave enough to face this crazy world. Speak well of them in front of them and behind their backs.
    Kid President has a lot to say about this like. My two favorite quotes of his are,
    “If you can’t think of anything nice to say, you’re not thinking hard enough.” and
    “Give people high-fives just for getting out of bed. Being a person is hard sometimes.”
    Sometimes hard or challenging words are needed especially with those closest to us, but this lens from Ephesians 4:29 is a good one as we sort through what is appropriate… will these words tear others down or make their souls stronger?
  3. Take care of yourself.
    Our world of anxiety and fear, depression and suicide, is also a world that pushes us to go farther, do more, work harder, be perfect. I’m sure there’s a correlation in there somewhere. It’s hard work to stand up against those pressures, but it is necessary. We must care for ourselves if we’re going to be able to care for others and do all the crazy awesome things God has called us to do in this world. I am so thankful for the many people speaking this truth into my life right now. The specifics of this look different for each person and each season of life, but do something today to take care of yourself. Your future self, along with all those around you, will thank you.

Bekah's Heart, Mental Health

What I’ve Noticed Recently About Mental Health

For as long as I can remember God has given me great compassion for those who deal with mental illness. These brave warriors get up every day and fight battles that those around them may know nothing about. I’ve always hated the stigma around mental illness for many reasons but most of all, because it is one of the biggest reasons precious people stay trapped, unhealthy, and hurting. Anytime I’ve tried to put into words my frustration with the shame our world puts on those battling depression, anxiety, and the like, I feel I come up short.

But here we are again. One more attempt. One more hope that maybe one more way of looking at it will make sense to potentially one more person. And it’s all inspired by a little pink pill.

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Yep, this little pill the size of a mini chocolate chip gave me some new perspective. Perhaps what I learned might be helpful for you as well.

Back in May I had half of my thyroid removed and while my left half is putting in some great work (Good job, Thyroid!), it can’t really keep up with producing the amount of thyroid hormones my body needs to function each day.

So, I now take a little pink pill each morning. The hope and prayer is that over time this little pink pill will now do something my body can’t.

What strikes me is that I haven’t had a single person tell me I shouldn’t take this pill. (Besides some crazy people on the internet who want to sell me their own version of something that they claim works better, but I’m not talking about them right now.)

I had a part of my body removed and taking this pill will do what my body can’t do for itself anymore. It’s pretty straight forward. It seems good and normal and right to just about everyone I’ve come across.

Yet, I look around at so many friends and families members who literally have some of the same exact symptoms and mental health struggles I do right now, but because the cause of their depression or anxiety or brain fog or fatigue is different, they’re treated completely different.

I’ve been dealing with this for almost 10 months now. In that time no one has told me I should “ just pray more” or “have more faith” when I’m so tired I can barely get out of bed. No one has told me to “snap out of it” or “pull myself together” on days when I’m depressed or struggling to form a coherent sentence or when I took time off work to heal from surgery. No one has told me the medicine I started taking last week is unnecessary and I should “just trust God to heal me.”

No one.

My friends whose hormones are out of wack, but for other reasons hear that kind of crap all. the. time.

Here’s the reality: Anyone dealing with a mental health challenge IS battling a PHYSICAL illness. While I understand the concept of the category of mental illnesses, I think even that label sometimes reinforces the false concept that “it’s all in our heads” when we struggle with these things. Yes, these problems impact the way we think and the way our brains work which is why that title fits. (It also makes it that much HARDER than other physical illnesses to navigate.)

When our bodies and minds battle with these illnesses it is most often because something is physically off in our bodies. It can come from trauma, a problem with the neurotransmitters in our brains, or even genetics. Another key contributing factor: an imbalance of hormones… the very thing I’m dealing with right now.

It frustrates me that simply because the cause of MY hormones being off is as obvious as the 2 inch scar on my neck, I get offered grace and understanding that so many in this world never receive.

As I’ve battled days of fatigue and brain fog and depression waiting for my thyroid replacement medicine to kick in, the people around me encourage me and support me and help me do tangible things I didn’t feel capable of doing. Yes, they’ve prayed with me, encouraged me in my faith, and asked God again and again for healing on my behalf. They also told me to take a nap or go home early from work.

When I had my surgery, people showed up at my door for weeks with homemade meals and drove me to appointments and sent me cards and gifts and ice cream.

Even before that, when I walked through months of trying to figure out what was actually wrong with my body and what doctors could maybe do to fix it, friends and family texted me and listened to me and asked about how doctor visits went.

So if you don’t know how to help friends battling things like anxiety or depression or bipolar disorder … maybe just start there:

Send the text. Make the meal. Mail the card.
Drive them to the doctor.
Sit with them in their tears.
Go on a walk with them.
Ask them how a therapy appointment went.
Laugh with them.

Buy them ice cream!!!

Yes, mental illness is harder to explain than a broken arm or even a thyroid removal. You may not “get it” and it might make you a bit uncomfortable.

But it’s not that complicated: Just show up, people!

Your friends need your love not judgment.

Oh! And if (whether temporarily or for the rest of their lives) they need a little pink or white or blue or some other color pill to help them feel like a normal functioning human being, by all means stop shaming them for it. Maybe throw them a party instead and celebrate that there might just possibly be a way out of their fog.