Men as Trees

Men as Trees Walking

“And the blind man said to Jesus,

If only you’d stop and touch me,

if only you’d stop and touch me,

If only you’d stop and touch me, I could see.”

~ Johnny Cash, “I See Men As Trees Walking”

In the gospel of Mark, there is a curious story of a blind man who came to Jesus and asked to be healed of his blindness.  This man was from the town of Bethsaida (which means “House of the Fisher”), and he was one of the few in that town to truly believe that Jesus was the Messiah and repent of his sins.  Most of the other inhabitants of this little Jewish village wanted nothing to do with Christ and his followers, and so, to perform this miracle, Jesus led the blind man out of town.

Jesus proceeded to rub spit into the blind man’s eyes. (From ancient times in Judaism, there was a tradition that the saliva of the first-born son of a father had healing properties.)  After a few moments, Jesus asked the man if he saw anything, and the man looked up and said, “I see men as trees walking.”  Jesus then laid his hands upon him a second time, and the man’s site was restored completely.

Blue-Eyes-Baby

You can read scientific explanations as to why this type of phenomenon happened in the way that it did.  No matter how long a blind person has been blind, when they receive their sight back the cerebral cortex (the part of the brain relating to vision) must be reprogrammed, as if from childhood. See Oliver Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars.

There’s much more about this story that intrigues and engages me.  I believe that Christ always had a good reason for doing things the way he chose to do them and never missed an opportunity to teach us something about himself, the character of God or our relationship with Him.  And so I’m left to wonder a number of things:  Why did Jesus choose to heal this man in two phases when he could have just as easily restored his sight with a single word?  Why did he ask the man if he saw anything when he knew the answer?  Why did the blind man respond the way he did– he could’ve just been overjoyed and said, “Yes! I see!”?  What does this say about God’s healing power, His character and His relationship with us?

First, I believe that God works in phases because of our need for connection and relationship.  When God reaches out and is in the midst of healing our wounds, why ask us, “Hey, how is the process going?” when He surely must know.  He wants us to be honest with Him.  He wants to have a relationship with us through our best and our worst times.  I’m currently finding myself in a very dark place, and I’ve seen glimpses of light that stir my soul into thinking, Finally!  I’m healed!  Only to find that I am in the midst of a long and dark struggle that will take a lot more time than I had thought or hoped.  A piece of pottery has to be fired a number of times at ever increasing levels of heat.  If not for these phases of firing, cooling and firing, then the vessel being made would crack and be of no use.  Sanctification is a slow and sometimes painful process.

Secondly, I believe that God wants us to connect with Him and be honest about where we’re at and what’s going on.  Had the blind man, after the first part of the healing, simply accepted his new sight as-is and didn’t fully explain what was going on, then perhaps Jesus would have allowed him to stay as he was.  Christ might have known exactly what was going on with the blind man, but he asked him anyway.  He wanted the man to talk with him and tell him what’s really going on with his affliction and healing.

I believe that God truly wants to restore us, that His plans for us are for our good and not for harm.  Jeremiah 29:11 says,

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord.  “Plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

I also believe that He wants to show us His love for us by healing our afflictions and saving us from the pits of despair when we call to Him.  In Psalm 103, David praises the Lord and says,

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy

But, I also know that in His sovereignty, He does not always choose to answer our prayers the way in which we would think He should if He were a good and loving God.  In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of having a “thorn in his side” and writes,

Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So, does this mean that God is contradicting Himself?  I don’t think so.  I think this means that God is sovereign and wants what is best for us– whether that means complete healing, partial healing or leaving the thorns in our sides just as they are.  Ultimately, His will be done, and He will be glorified because He is good and worthy of all glory and praise.

I’m struggling right now; I’ll be honest with that.  I don’t have this all figured out, and I find that the place I’m at in my struggles is that, “I see men walking as trees”.  God has spared my life and given me hope for the future, for healing.  However, I often still find myself trapped in a pit of despair, of wanting to be fully healed and crying out to God in pain and rage that I am still dealing with my illness.  I still struggle with thoughts like, my family and everyone else would be better off if I weren’t around making their lives more difficult– I’m just hurting everyone around me.Picasso-Le-Rêve-1932

Mr doctor, in her wisdom, reminded me that whenever I have these thoughts, they are not from God.  Call it Satan, the mood disorder, a chemical imbalance, trauma or just plain old negativity– whatever it is, it is not good, and therefore it is not of God.  But it’s difficult to see through the brush of all these emotions swirling about in my brain as I seek to decipher what is true and right and good.  My brain feels cracked, and my sight is blurry, my vision askew.  I’m told to use my DBT skills to slow down my emotions and to rewire my thinking, but this has proven to be a difficult and excruciatingly slow process.

It’s kind of like being left-handed your entire life.  Then, someone tells you, “You don’t have to be left-handed anymore!  You can learn to be right-handed!”  You imagine your life changing and things becoming so much easier and more manageable because you can be more like everyone else!  However, as you have balls tossed at you throughout your day, that left arm just pops up to catch them or block them because you’ve been left-handed your ENTIRE LIFE!  There’s no one there to strap your left arm down and make you use that right hand, so it takes reminding and the will to work hard at relearning things.  You have to relearn everything you ever thought you knew how to do, and it’s really, really difficult to do.

I’ve asked God to heal me so many times, and for some reason, he has chosen to allow me to struggle, to relearn, to grow closer to Him in my struggles and ultimately, grant me peace.  I’m not sure if I’ll ever have the sight I want to have, but it doesn’t keep me from asking for it.  Perhaps God, in His sovereignty, will say, “My grace is sufficient for you”.  I hope that I can learn to trust Him.  I hope I can trust in his goodness and his love for me.  Because right now, I feel a bit lost.

“Who am I then?” : The Pool of Tears

Alice-Michael Sporn Animation

” ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice… Just then her head struck against the roof of the hall: in fact she was now more than nine feet high… Poor Alice! … more hopeless than ever, she sat down and began to cry.

‘You ought to be ashamed of yourself,’ said Alice, ‘a great girl like you to go on crying in this way! Stop this moment, I tell you!’ But she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool around her… Alice felt so desperate that she was ready to ask help of anyone; ‘Dear, dear! How queer everything is today! And yesterday things went on just as usual. I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think: was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is, Who in the world am I? Ah, THAT’s the great puzzle!”

~ from Lewis Carroll‘s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

The great puzzle. I remember seeing those bumper stickers for Autism Awareness that has a logo that is made of a rainbow of puzzle pieces. I also recall seeing bumper sticker retort that simply said “I am not a puzzle”.

But we all are puzzles, no matter who we are. Does who we are really matter? I think so, but there is no use in despairing over the thought that you are someone that has to be “figured out”– we all do. I think that’s how God made us; we all longed to be known. I know that I do. My sweet husband often states, whenever I’m frustrated by his asking me why I’m doing such and such, that he’s simply being curious. He asks me things to know me. It sucks when someone gives you something, says something to you or makes you feel in some way like, they really don’t get me. Truly, we all wish to be known, anpuzzle_pieced we’re all delightful puzzles to eye, contemplate and explore.

However, I do feel like, after receiving my diagnosis, I don’t particularly care for trying to figure out who I am. It’s a difficult question and can be a treacherous sea to navigate. My mood can alter from day to day– even throughout the day, and when I say “alter”, I mean SWING from rapture to despair. It’s pretty extreme. It’s frustrating, not only for me but for everyone who is close to me. My family deals with a lot when it comes to trying to keep up with me emotionally. I fight it, but it’s exhausting! I keep being asked by doctors, therapists and my husband, “What’s going on?”, “What are you feeling?”… and I just wanna scream at them: I DON’T KNOW!! PLEASE, just leave me ALONE! At which time, I usually begin to cry. Crying is pretty much old news around here. Dredging through my emotional states, triggers, symptoms and all that lot is a draining, frustrating process. And, I’m tired.

Let’s get back to the story…

Alice-the pool of tears ” ‘Who am I then? Tell me that first, and then, if I like being that person, I’ll come up: if not, I’ll stay down here till I’m somebody else– but, oh dear!’ cried Alice, with a sudden burst of tears, ‘I am so VERY tired of being all alone here!’

As she said these words her foot slipped, and in another moment, splash! she was up to her chin in salt water. Her first idea was that she had somehow fallen into the sea… However, she soon made out that she was in the pool of tears which she had wept… ‘I wish I hadn’t cried so much!’ said Alice, as she swam about, trying to find her way out. ‘I shall be punished for it now, I suppose by being drowned in my own tears! That WILL be a queer thing, to be sure!’ “

~~~

When you a person who has a mood disorder, your brain, quite simply, does not process things in the same ways as someone who does not. Being a person who suffers specifically with bipolar disorder, for me: Big is BIG; loud is LOUD; joy is RAPTURE, and sadness–SORROW! I’m always too big. I never seem to “fit”, and the tears I shed can be so overwhelming for me that they can become a pool in which I have to swim about to keep myself from drowning. It’s all “too much”. When my loved ones are at the end of their rope, I often will hear things like, “this is too much”, or “this isn’t fair”, or “that’s not rational”, etc.

Well, of COURSE it’s not fair or rational, and of COURSE it’s too much! Look at who you’re dealing with! A beloved of mine recently explained to me that, “You just took something I said out of context and ran with it and had this huge reaction!”… Well, yep! I hate to break it to you, but that’s kind of what people with my mood disorder tend to do. It’s not on purpose, and it’s something that I’m personally working on; however, I’m not going to just change overnight. There is no drink I can just swallow to make me smaller. Even if there were, would I take it?

“It was high time to go… Alice swam to the shore.”

Alice-girl swimming

Down the Rabbit Hole

Credit: Isabel Talsma

“Down, down down.

Would the fall NEVER come to an end!

Down, down, down.

There was nothing else to do…

When suddenly, thump! thump! down she came

upon a heap of sticks and dry leaves,

and the fall was over.”

But that is only the beginning of Carroll’s story.  The rest of the tale is the adventure, for better or for worse.  After coming to the bottom of the hole, she finds herself in a very dark place.

“…she found herself in a long, low hall… There were doors all around the hall, but they were all locked; and when Alice had been all the way down one side and up the other, trying every door, she walked sadly down the middle, wondering how she was ever to get out again.  Suddenly she came upon a little three-legged table; there was nothing on it except a tiny golden key… she came upon a low curtain she had not noticed before, and behind it was a little door about fifteen inches high: she tried the little golden key in the lock, and to her great delight it fitted!… she knelt down and looked into the loveliest garden you ever saw.  How she longed to get out of that dark hall, and wander about among those beds of bright flowers and those cool fountains, but she could not even get her head through the doorway…”

Oh, how I’ve been there.  I feel that I’m there now, staring out at a world of beauty and calm without the slightest clue as to how I will (if EVER) get there.  There’s this sense, when you’re mentally ill, that there’s this place, this person, that you were meant to be… if only you could find your way there.  You see it all around you at times, and you wonder why it is that you can’t join in.  So, with great effort, you start trying different methods, therapies and medications all with the hope that you’ll find your way.

“There seemed to be no use in waiting by the little door, so she went back to the table, half hoping she might find another key on it, or at any rate a book of rules for shutting people up like telescope: this time she found a little bottle on it, (‘which certainly was not here before,’ said Alice,) and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words ‘DRINK ME’ beautifully printed on it in large letters… Alice ventured to taste it, and finding it very nice…she soon finished it off. ‘WCredit: opheliasarthat a curious feeling!’ said Alice; ‘I must be shutting up like a telescope.’  And so it was indeed: she was now only ten inches high, and her face brightened up at the the thought that she was now the right size for going through the little door into that lovely garden.  First, however, she waited for a few minutes to see if she was going to shrink any further: she felt a little nervous about this; ‘for it might end, you know,’ said Alice to herself, ‘in my going out altogether like a candle.  I wonder what I should be like then?’… After a while, finding that nothing more happened, she decided on going into the garden at once; but alas for poor Alice! when she got to the door, she found that she had forgotten the little golden key, and when she went back to the table for it, she found she could not possibly reach it…”

You try… medications offer a life “free from your illness”; they offer a CHANCE!  But sometimes, you find that, while there was hope, there were consequences: side-effects.  Perhaps you find that the medicines make you so sick that you can’t function, or so sleepy that you feel you’ll never be fully awake, or you get tremors like a Parkinson’s patient, or perhaps they just don’t work at all.  Though your hopes are dashed for a time, you keep trying.  You pray not to loose hope, and you try again.

“…when she had tired herself out with trying, the poor little thing sat down and cried.  ‘ Come, there’s no use in crying like that!’ said Alice to herself, rather sharply… Soon her eye fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: she opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words ‘EAT ME’ were beautifully marked..

Credit: Dani

‘Well, I’ll eat it, and if it makes me grow larger, I can reach the key’… So she set to work, and very soon finished off the cake… ‘Now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was!’… Just then her head struck against the roof of the hall: in fact she was now more than nine feet high, and she at once took up the little golden key and hurried off to the garden door.  Poor Alice! It was as much as she could do, lying down on one side, to look into the garden with one eye; but to get through was more hopeless than ever: she sat down and began to cry again.”

Crying is a theme here, not just for Alice, but for anyone frustrated by the back-n-forth dance of finding the right medications.  Everyone is different, and everyone reacts differently to every medication.  What works splendidly for some may be absolute hell to another.  Smaller, bigger… always out of reach is this life you want.  You try and pull yourself up by your bootstraps and give yourself a pep talk; try again.  Again, and again, and again… when all you can do, at times, is sit right down and cry.  Will it ever end?  Does one dare to hope that there might EVER be an end to this spinning round and round in circles.  You get dizzy.  You get tired.  And you either give up, or you try again.

Caught in a Bad Romance

bad romance

It occurred to me recently that it’s just so easy.  Old habits and coping mechanisms are so easy to just pick up and pull over your head when confronted by situations that are triggering.  In the midst of a recent argument with my husband, I found myself wanting to just run into the arms of my wet blankets of despair and dissociation.  They are known to me.  They have been my cold comfort for years, and to be asked to give them up seems like being asked to cut off an appendage.  These old coping skills and mechanisms sometimes get grafted onto you so that you feel like they are simply a part of who you are, not just what you do.  It’s a terrible relationship to be in, but how often do we stay in bad relationships simply because we fear the discomfort of the unknown?

As I was sitting in DBT group the other day, we were working on the skill Pros & Cons, which can be a difficult skill to wrap your brain around.  As I sat there looking at my worksheet, I found that something clicked with me: the short-term benefits of running to my old behaviors do NOT out-weigh the long-term benefits of fighting and dealing with whatever emotion or situation it is that I’m being confronted with.  It’s a choice: either I stand my ground and move forward, or I retreat into myself and move backward.  There is nothing static about this.  Every triggering event is an opportunity to either move forward or slide back.  This fact feels exhausting sometimes.  Sometimes I don’t want to fight, don’t want to wrestle through what I’m feeling, don’t want to engage, to work, to reason.  These are times when I just want the world to be suspended for the time being and be left the hell alone.  And that, dear friends, is when it’s all the more important to stand up and fight.

Although this was a wonderful revelation to have experienced, it’s still hasn’t really sunken in and taken root in my heart.  I’m struggling a lot right now with the side-effects of my medications.  I’m on a lot of strong medications that have some majorly adverse effects; some of them even react with each other in ways that have been described as severely hazardous.  I’m probably going to be changing my medications again soon, and that, in and of itself, will create its own upheaval and chaos.  I hate changing meds, but it will have to be done.  I can’t give up and think, “well, I guess this is just as good as it’s going to get for me”.  I won’t accept that.  I will keep trying; I have to.  I may not always want to in the moment, but my long-term goals are to get better– that requires me to keep trying.

Medicines and Therapy: learning to not be ashamed

ImageThe most difficult part of where I’m at in my journey is trying out new/different medications and dealing with the side-effects.  My depression has greatly improved over the last month, but the side-effects of one of my medications really is taking a toll on me.  I get “hot flashes”, chills, sweats, incredible cravings for sweets and require a ridiculous amount of sleep.  Generally, I have to sleep 11 to 12 hours every night.  Even after sleeping so much, I still don’t feel rested and am often not functional for an hour or two after waking.

That might seem like a lot to deal with, and some times it is, but when I take a step back and look at the alternative, I feel immensely grateful for the medications.  I don’t spend as much time ruminating or despairing.  I don’t feel as empty and alone.  I don’t contemplate suicide anymore.  I’m a better mom and a better wife.  I couldn’t have done any of this on my own– I am immensely grateful for my extremely supportive husband, sister, parents and friends.  They have walked beside me and lifted me up in ways I can’t begin to describe.

However, I’ve noticed that as the depression has lifted, my feelings of anxiety and irritability have begun to surface and make themselves known.  I’ve snapped at my husband and children more times that I’d like to admit.  I feel on edge much of the time and really don’t know what to do with myself when those anxious feelings rear their ugly head.  I don’t want to have to take more anxiety medication (though I take a little at night to help calm me down before bedtime) as it’s inherently sedative, and the last thing I need is yet another medication that zaps my energy.

Instead, I am using skills I’m learning in DBT therapy.  DBT has really been a God-send– a kind of therapy that, until this year, I didn’t know existed.  Right after I was released from the hospital, I began an intensive 5-week DBT therapy group that met four times a week for 3 hours a day.  It was overwhelming: so much information smashed into an extremely short time.  It was kind of like taking a summer school class– very little information really stuck and stayed with me.  After completing my 5 weeks, I was encouraged by my therapist to try out a different DBT group that meets just once a week for 8 months.  I contacted Jennifer Wu who runs the group, and she got me plugged into one of her groups immediately.  Thus far, I am very impressed with her abilities.  I think this will be a very good thing for me.

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I’ve got a lot to learn.  Things that often come very naturally to other people come very difficult to me.  I have to learn how to re-wire my thinking by learning skills like Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, Interpersonal Effectiveness and Core Mindfulness.  These skills, when I learned them in quick overview in my 5-week class, seem to make sense on a logical, cerebral level.  However, actually being able to utilize these skills when the storms come (and they DO come, with such frequency and intensity that it can be difficult my brain to function), that’s what really takes having a ingrained understanding of these skills that I currently lack.  It would be easy for me to feel ashamed about this, but truly, I am beginning to understand that with my upbringing and brain chemistry, these are simply skills that I never was able to learn.  Now I have a chance to learn them!  I should see this not as a failure but as an opportunity!

Shame is a heavy weight on my shoulders, and I often believe the lies it brings with it.  The truth of the matter is that I shouldn’t allow shame to conquer or immobilize me.  It’s this idea of “perfection”, this thought that “I shouldn’t need to learn these things– they should come naturally” that cuts at my pride and brings out the willfulness in my heart.  The fact of the matter is that I (all of us) are broken and are in need of healing, saving.  As a Christian, I should (there’s that naughty word, “should”) know that this is an eternal truth.  If it weren’t so, then I doubt very much that God would bother reaching out to any of us, offering us His grace and salvation.  If we could just pull ourselves up from our bootstraps and do it on our own, we wouldn’t need God.  But we do.

I continue to seek the right medications, and I will strive to dive into the next 8 months of therapy with enthusiasm and vigor.  I will continue to pray not that the Lord would save me from my predicament, but that He would give me the right kind of feet to manage the terrain.  So much to learn, to understand, to fight for and against.  I will keep putting one foot in front of the other and try.

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What’s in a name: the importance of diagnosis

"Bipolar" by Thomas C. Fedro

“Bipolar” by Thomas C. Fedro

So, what’s the deal with diagnosis?  Does it really matter what you are “labeled” as long as you’re getting the help you need?  Does a diagnosis really carry any weight?  After all, a diagnosis is not “you”; it’s not who you are.

True.  A diagnosis does not define who you are as a person, but it does allow you to have not only a sense of validation (there’s a reason I act and function the way that I do!) but also some insight into how to go about treating your illness.  Without a proper (and fairly accurate, I might add) diagnosis, you’ll often find yourself just putting bandages on your symptoms without really getting to the root of the problem.

I’ve gone about my life for the past 20 years without a true and accurate diagnosis.  It’s not anyone’s fault, really.  Coming to an accurate diagnosis takes time and persistence.  You have to be seen by the same set of doctors for enough time for them to be able to see you as a whole person, to see your development and reactions to medications, to see how you are over a period of time.  This is the first time in my life that I’ve been diligent (and stable enough) to stay with the same doctors for enough time to be given a proper diagnosis, and now that I have one, I feel like shouting from the rooftops!  I now know what I’m fighting, and my doctors now know how to best treat me– hallelujah!

When I asked my therapist why a diagnosis was important (I mean really, how does that little tidbit change my course of therapy?), she wisely answered: “If you had a brain tumor and went to see a doctor about headaches you’ve been experiencing, you wouldn’t want them to just send you home with a couple of aspirin.  You would want to know what was truly the issue so that they can treat you for it.”  I really appreciate my therapist.

And so, it seems like after much deliberation that I have finally been properly diagnosed with Bipolar 2 Disorder.  The main importance of receiving this diagnosis is that I will now be treated for a mood disorder and not simply for depression and anxiety.  A diagnosis like bipolar is difficult to make as it takes time to really see the change in moods, the reaction to medications and the over-all cycles of countenance and behavior.  Some believe that a diagnosis of bipolar is a bit too “hip” these days and is dispensed as readily as Pez.  However, after being under the care of some fairly competent and astute doctors for quite a long time now, I am confident in their diagnosis.

In coming posts, I’ll dive into what Bipolar 2 is and how it has affected me, but for now I will let it lie.  I am thankful for this diagnosis and feel a sense of hope regarding my treatment.  I haven’t felt hopeful when it came to my psychiatric problems in a long time, and so this hope is something for which I am truly grateful.

From where I stand: a look into mental illness

Anyone that knows me well knows that I have dealt with mental illness for the majority of my life.  The signs were there early in childhood, and the symptoms made themselves known to my parents by the time I was 11 years old.  I have, since that time, been to see many doctors, therapists and attended support groups.  I’ve been taking psychiatric medications on and off for the past 20 years, and this past Spring I experienced my first hospitalization.

I have struggled with trying to understand not only what I am fighting against but why.  Only recently have I been encouraged to stop asking “Why?” and just accept things as they are so I can move on.  But, there’s such a stigma, whether it’s societal or self-inflicted, and so much shame surrounds me at times that it can be difficult to function.  Yesterday, I was encouraged by a friend to start writing things down and documenting my struggles as they present themselves on this journey of healing, self-preservation, acceptance, loss and hope.

From where I stand, it has seemed to me that there was always this “me”, this “normal me” that was somehow out there in the cosmos waiting to be found.  There were people who were well-adjusted and sane who didn’t have to learn how to self-regulate their moods and ground themselves in the present, and I have known for a long time that I wasn’t one of them.  I wanted to be, though.  I wanted to have this “normal” life, this “normal” brain function, this “normal” everything.  However, I have begun to understand that I will not be able to attain this normality of life and spirit until I give up trying so hard to be “normal”.  I have to be willing to accept that things have happened, both biologically and socially, that have made it incredibly difficult for me to react to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as brilliantly as I have seen others do.  I also have to be willing to take responsibility for what I can do for myself and learn (re-wire my brain) how to ride the waves as they come and not sink.  I can be healthy.  I really can, but it will take a great deal of faith and hard work.

I will do my best to be honest with who I am, what I struggle with and how I navigate these waters during this journey.  It may not be pretty, and any readers who come across this may not always agree with me.  However, I bring my personal perspective and experiences to the table for anyone who is curious to see, to learn and to grow with me.  I may never be “normal”, but really, who is?