From Reformed to Rohr: how a good girl with all the answers found God in all the wrong places

I first encountered Father Richard Rohr few years ago in podcast form. My children were still toddlers and the gym was my one hour of silence to listen to something that wasn’t pbs kids and to think my own thoughts uninterrupted. I stretched out on a yoga mat after my workout, my earbud headphones dangling down while I breathed through cat-cow poses and Rohr’s soothing, even voice filled my ears.

His ideas about God’s relationship to humanity and the cosmos were totally foreign to me. He spoke simply about God, with a tenderness and love that reminded me of the faith of my childhood. However, his conclusions about the expansive, universal love of God were far outside of anything I had been raised with. I was cautious and skeptical, but couldn’t deny that the simple, honest way he spoke of God was far more compelling than the progressive or conservative intellectual gymnastics I had encountered elsewhere. Why wasn’t anyone else talking like this guy? Or were they? Was my faith world really so small?

Rohr’s voice cut through my internal dialogue and I felt a spark of something I hadn’t felt in a long time. Was it curiosity? Hope? Faith? My body felt alive, humming with energy. I cannot remember the specific words he said or what revelation stirred this light in me, but I knew in my body that it was something deeply true. It felt like coming home, and the home was in me all along. For the first time in a long time I noticed how my body – not merely my mind – responded to the Divine. And for the first time ever, that response wasn’t fear or guilt or shame. It was a deep thrill of hope that there was a way for me to engage my spirituality – and the Divine itself – without erasing myself in the process.


I come from a literal, doctrinally obsessed christian tradition. From a young age I memorized verses, then chapters, then whole books of the bible so I would be prepared to “defend my faith”. Once I had locked all those words inside my heart I moved onto popular level theological works – the apologetic classics and the hip theologo-bro stuff – before ultimately digging into heady systematic theology. There must be right answers, I thought, and if my parents and sunday school teachers can’t fully explain them to me I’ll find them myself. I was digging for the bedrock – the solid ground I had been told to build my life upon. If I could clear away the debris and anchor myself to that and the ironclad scaffolding that held up the rest of the tradition, I would finally understand. I could finally live rightly, finally be worthy of love that God murdered his own son for. 

I was raised to think that a life lived in pursuit of that sort of doctrinal purity was it’s own reward. Forsake your own feelings, intuition, and needs so that nothing distracts you from digging in and “trusting Jesus alone”. (“Trusting Jesus alone” does not mean that you actually trust in spiritual encounters with the risen Christ, but rather that you trust in the books that have been written to explain all of the confusing things he said and did during his short life.) Anything that seems natural or obvious, any questions that distract from this holy calling to theological education is “trusting in your own understanding”. Anything that feels isolating or makes you anxious is merely an opportunity to surrender, trust, and obey. 

I now know this is a tool used to manipulate and control. There is no bedrock. No scaffolding. There are gates and there are walls, but they are built upon the shifting sands of culture and power and fear. But it would be years before I could see what was happening. Years of being praised for my maturity, my seriousness, my passion. Years of an identify formed around self-denial and submission to the will and words of others.


When I was 16, preparing for a summer mission trip, our leaders took us to a seminar titled “The One Thing You Can’t Do In Heaven”. The speaker began the session by loudly snapping his fingers, the sharp sound ringing out and calling the room to attention. Instead of speaking he held his hand high for another second, then snapped again. Pause. Pause, *SNAP*. Pause. Pause, *SNAP*. He grimly looked out at the sea of our young faces and said, “Each of these *SNAP* is another person dying without knowing Jesus. *SNAP* Imagine their bodies, bodies made in the image of God *SNAP* catching fire as they slide helplessly into the pits of hell. Can you feel the heat? *SNAP* Can you hear their cries?” This went on for a half hour or so, him detailing all the places on earth where people have not heard of Jesus, pointing out that our own peers could start the day just driving to school and the next second a car crash instantly enters them into eternal conscious torment. He described the suffering of hell in great detail. He leaned heavily on the gift of life we have, what could be more important than telling the world this saving good news? He stood still, raised his hands again and said “The Lord God Almighty asks *SNAP* ‘Whom shall I send?’ and God’s children said…” He spread his hands out over our heads as raw voices called out “Here I am Lord!” and “Send me!”

I tried to swallow the lump in my throat as the speaker explained the soul saving we were about to embark on. Not next summer on the trip, but today. He began praying over and dismissing each row in the packed conference hall, sending them out to bring Christ to the heathens in Manitou, Colorado. I looked at my peers, their faces reflected the shock and fear I felt on my own. But I was surprised to see the same etched in the faces of our leaders. They were clearly uncomfortable with this exercise, but wasn’t that the point? As proud presbyterians, we believed God was the one pitching those poor souls into hell himself. Shouldn’t we own that? Cover our bases and tell everyone we could about God just in case they were predestined for heaven too? Or didn’t it matter? If God had the final say, did our actions make any difference? I felt anxious, unsure which questions were the right ones. Was I responsible for those burning bodies? Was God?

I expected the doctrinally confident, certainty obsessed church leaders to offer clear answers, but there were none. That day and in the years to come the message was clear: you don’t or can’t understand. Do not doubt the word of God. Don’t trust in your own understanding. Just do what we say. Go out and evangelize, whatever the cost!/Stay home, study, obey your parents. Live your life boldy!/Don’t draw attention. Give up everything for God!/Don’t throw away your education, missions isn’t a career!

This worked for a little while. As women we are groomed by the church from a young age to be quiet and follow orders. But then life teaches us courage anyway and how can we stay quiet once we begin to learn our own strength?


Richard Rohr’s work has helped me to understand what I have known intuitively all along: that these kinds of schisms – body and spirit, mind and heart, knowing and doing – are dangerous and ultimately impossible dualisms to maintain. If I cannot trust my own body, my own mind, my own experience – and not even my own experiences with God – my body learns to silence those voices and signals. I become a wobbly shell of a person, desperately trying to stay on the straight and narrow because my whole identity is bound up in what the doctrine says I am. What choice do have? To fall off is, I was told, utter annihilation. “There is no life apart from God.” 

And maybe they were right about that, just wrong about the way it shakes out. Wrong about the possibility of moving beyond the reach of God, the reach of Love. I’m more convinced that ever that whatever path we’re walking is in the way of Love. Love is our companion. Love is IN our companions. Love is in US. If there is a sharp drop-off, Love is there too. If there is a vista and a glorious sunset, love awaits. For the mid-trail meltdowns and months of camping out when we can go no further, Love abides. 

I used to think that we should only encounter God in a literal reading of the bible. The God of the ESV was the God we could trust. Everything else was suspect, tainted by our sinful nature. But the more I train myself to notice and be nourished the movement of the Divine in others, the more I trust the movement in myself.  Honestly, it still feels heretical to even think such a thing, let alone say it aloud, but noticing the mystery and oneness already present in our world and drinking deeply of the life it offers has made the incarnation real to me in ways that volumes of systematic theology couldn’t touch. It sometimes feels like learning that my favorite story from childhood is actually just the first book in an unending series of adventures for my beloved characters. What joy to crack open that next title!

The ability to hold all of this with open hands, to allow the transformation and healing to happen, this is the mystery of the cosmic Christ, of non-dual thinking, of oneness. This is resurrection: the restoration, the rejoining of body and spirit. In his book The Universal Christ, Rohr writes “Resurrection is contagious, and free for the taking. It is everywhere visible and available for those who have learned how to see, how to rejoice, and how to neither hoard nor limit God’s ubiquitous gift.”

Sometimes it still sounds a little woo-woo to me. I can only begin to engage it poetically, and it doesn’t satisfy any of my sci-fi questions about what is literal or physical in any of these bible stories and what is myth, metaphor, story, or song. I’m frequently unsure I believe any of it, certainly not “intellectually” as I did before. There is no certainty here but the surety of a body and soul open to the movement of Love, a heartbeat that echoes across the cosmic chaos from whatever God might be to the mystery of our own form in this place and time. 

If your eyebrows are up to your hairline reading all this, I get it. I’ve been there. I’m still there! As a person with plenty of faith baggage and a slowly emerging sense of trust in my own experience, I encounter Rohr’s work sometimes as a skeptic, sometimes with an eye roll, and sometimes with deep gratitude. As someone who once hoarded books of contemporary evangelical authors and regarded them as nearly divine (to be fair, this is exactly how the authors expected to be regarded), the irony that I have finally found the Divine in the marginal voices of our tradition is not lost on me! 

I hope that Rohr’s ethic of faith will encourage you even if his conclusions seem a bit wild. Your experiences, thoughts, feelings, and questions matter. Understanding them, working out a theology, arriving at an answer – none of that is a prerequisite for experiencing the expansive mysterious love of the Divine. Love is for you, whatever name you give it. I believe it cannot be captured or wrestled into a theological text. Love IS you. In you, with you, for you. When I can hold nothing else, I try to open my hands to that much. I open my hands to you too. 

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Photo by Nina Uhlíková on Pexels.com



If you’re interested in learning more about
Richard Rohr and the work of The Center for Action and Contemplation, you can follow either of those links, but I suggest you start by subscribing to his daily email meditations. They are short excerpts from his books, homilies, and lectures, as well as reflections from other faculty and students at the Living School

The Universal Christ is his latest and, he says (much to our chagrin), final work. If you’re more of a listener than a reader, the podcast Another Name For Everything is a great way into his work. Season one moves chapter by chapter through The Universal Christ, and season two features questions from readers discussed in a round-table format with Rohr and two staff members from CAC.

Happy reading! I look forward to hearing what you uncover.

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How This CBT Technique Can Help You Win Over Your Inner Bully [Guest Post at The Mighty]

I’m a regular contributor at The Mighty, an organization that has been a source of comfort, support and endless resources for me over the last few years. I write there about the ways that mental illness and the pursuit of wellness weave through our family, marriage, parenting, and friendships. If you are also on this path, I know you’ll find encouragement and insight in their resources and community!


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Photo by Pedro Sandrini on Pexels.com

“You’re so needy. Can’t you just deal with it? Do you really need to ruin every friendship by making it all about you and your issues? This is why nobody wants to hang out with you.”

“Are you seriously still hung up on this? Get over it!”

“You’re going to cancel again? Come on! Don’t blame it on your illness, we all know you’re just lazy and selfish. Pull yourself together.”

We would be shocked to hear anybody utter these words to a stranger, let alone a dear friend.

Yet, how many of us allow this kind of inner dialog to torment us day after day without relief? Why do we bully ourselves this way? What can we do to stop it?

Click here to finish reading this article at The Mighty

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Mental Health, Marriage, and Faith: a podcast conversation with Melissa Smallwood

Last week I had the pleasure of chatting with my friend Melissa Smallwood on her podcast Saving Our Stories. I was totally unprepared for how profoundly the experience would touch me, it was such a gift to have an open and honest conversation about something that is so often taboo in everyday conversation.

Melissa is doing a powerful and needed work with her podcasting, inviting women to share their stories with others. I can think of nothing more basic to our human sense of connection, and yet I also can’t think of the last time someone asked me to talk about my experience as a caregiver or about my own mental health. I felt so empowered and validated as I shared about the journey I’ve been on over the last decade and what I’ve been reflecting on and learning from it.

I hope it will be encouraging to you too.

You can listen here: Episode 8, Navigating Mental Health Issues in Real Life. 

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Some Light Blinds, Some Illuminates: I Once Was Right But Now I See

In the chaos of upended routines and travel and summer heat, words have been coming to me fast and wild, unplanned reflections and questions and poems born out of a swirling cacophony of new experiences and ideas crashing into old rhythms and assumptions. Like pouring from a full pitcher, each time inspiration struck the flow was heavy and relentless to the last drop, and then there wasn’t any more. Now all of those words sit on my computer, untouched, unseen. I’m unsure what to do with them. The passion they were written with evaporated like water from swimsuit on a line. A limp memory, waiting for a body to set it back into motion. My body? I’m at a loss. 

This kind of creative existential crisis has struck before, though I have no new insights about how to steer out of it. It usually involves blankly staring at the blinking cursor while wondering who I’m actually writing for and if it’s actually useful, or if it’s just my private therapy that I foist upon the public. (The public! I have to laugh at my own vanity. I love you, dear readers, but you hover in the double digits.)

Some expert writers tell you that you must clearly define the question your writing answers or the problem that it solves. That way your readers know right away if they need you. Others encourage free-form stream of conscious writing, they passionately declare the craft an end to itself that should never be bridled with platforms or marketing strategies. I’ve also read that writers should always be responding to the world around them, engaging with the issues of the day in order to stay relevant. Of course, “they” also say it is our unique voice and interests that make this whole pursuit worthwhile, and losing touch with our own lens would be catastrophic. Naturally, my response to all these competing perspectives has been to attempt to appease every last one. The radio silence on this blog tells you everything there is to know about how that went down.

I didn’t always feel this way. I remember writing with urgency and conviction when I was younger and still firmly bound to the traditions and ideas of my childhood. Certainty was a brilliant light that blasted all competing questions to the shadows. I knew just what I wanted to say, and I knew that everyone needed to hear it. The light was my guide and my home. It burned so bright that I could not see anything else beyond some vague awareness of the dark periphery. Why would anyone go there when you could gaze into this luminous purity? It burned through my whole being until there was nothing left of me and I was pure light too.

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Photo by Little Visuals on Pexels.com

But no matter how intently I focused on the brightness, the shadows converge. It’s simply not possible to move through life without bumping up against these dark forms and ripples that filter and bend the light. As I turn my gaze from the single minded conviction of what “ought to be” and encounter what I thought were shadows, I realize my eyes were actually being blinded, not illuminated. There is a whole universe waiting to be taken in and explored.

Do you know this sensation? It takes a while for our eyes to adjust and make sense of what we are seeing – a riotous display of colors and textures and music and emotion and creativity and, of all things, light! We begin to realize all that we were missing in our single-minded pursuit of pure light alone. We realize that the people we thought were “lost” to the shadows were merely on their own journey of exploration, many of them now reaching out towards us in compassion and love. We can finally really see them because they are no longer others. This new dimension, blending together color and emotion and music and light, it unites us without rules or doctrines or creeds.  There is Divinity here. But also Humanity. We are not in tension. We experience freedom we didn’t know we were longing for. Bit by bit we learn to honor all the parts of ourselves, our bodies, our experiences, our needs and desires. The purging, forging, and burning of our former reality seems absurd in this new realm. And to think it was here all along!

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Photo by Rahul on Pexels.com

And yet, I still find myself longing for the old binary. Fear, doubt, insecurity, stress, pain, the weight of any of these emotions can send me reeling back to familiar certainties. Just like staring into a bright light leaves a temporary mark in your field of vision, I think that all my years staring into the floodlights of certainty has left a lasting blind spot. I am learning to trust other senses to compensate for the loss, other voices too, but when I become disembodied – when I feel shame about my emotions or experiences – I feel my eyes searching for that light again. I want the complexities to fade. I want the simple answers. I want to feel right and pure and clean. I want what it promises, even though I know it can’t deliver.

If this summer is any indication, I think that the times when we are flourishing and growing in new patterns and self care are exactly the seasons when we are most susceptible to falling back into old ways. We are like children hungrily taking in a wonderful new experience. When our senses become overloaded our emotions follow and without the compassionate embrace of a friend or guide, and sometimes even with it, meltdown is immanent. And that’s okay.

I want to explore this experience. To be more present to my feelings as they surface rather than trying to stuff them down or shame them away. I wonder why I continue to revert to old, self-defeating habits just after spending time listening to what my body needs. Why do my heckles still rise when I hear stories of lives lived so differently than my own? What tools can embodiment offer us as we navigate this vibrant and difficult world? How can we walk with one another in postures of compassion and love on a journey that is anything but linear? Why does the shame spiral of a loved one so often trigger our own reflex of self-preservation and denial, and what can we do about that? I have so many questions about how my body and mind are working together in all this – I hope some research will help me gain a better understanding about how our physical and mental/emotional and spiritual forms impact one another. But I also want to follow the questions that wonder why, and why not, and what now, and what if?

It was a strange summer, a failure by any measure of productivity. I didn’t accomplish a single one of my writing goals. And yet, I feel that I have grown. I write to you now, this first week of September, with fresh eyes and gratitude to all those writing teachers who insist on the stream of consciousness sort of writing. They were so right.

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Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

 

 

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Marriage and Borderline Personality Disorder (New Post at The Mighty)

I am thrilled to announce I’ve become a contributor at The Mighty, an organization that has been a source of comfort, support and endless resources for me over the last few years. I look forward to sharing more there about the ways that mental illness and the pursuit of wellness weave through our family, marriage, parenting, and friendships. If you are also on this path, I know you’ll find encouragement and insight in their resources and community!


When I was young and in love and putting the final details on our wedding plans, I spent an evening curled up on our scratchy goodwill sofa reading through the vows we would be making in a few short weeks. I tried to picture it, all of our loved ones gathered together, our friends standing up beside us, the beautiful Rock River flowing behind as we made lifelong promises to one another. Dreams finally becoming reality, the beginning of our life together, the first day of a grand new adventure.

The line “in sickness and in health” felt so out of place in all the flowery, lovey language. A little bit of real talk smashed in the middle of the wedding day magic. I tried to picture what would happen if a tragic accident or illness rendered this man I love totally reliant on me. Could I feed him, change his diapers, wash his body, attend to his every need? Could I accept the loss of a lover, a confidant, a fellow adventurer? The answer came fast, confident. Of course. Of course I would. I would do anything for him.

What I didn’t know then was how illness was already creeping into our lives…

Read the rest here: The Tangled Web of Marriage, Love and My Husband’s Borderline Personality Disorder

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The MoMs

I performed this piece at The Horse’s Mouth Storytelling night in Lexington, KY. You can watch it here, beginning around the 12 minute mark. I would also encourage you to listen to the other fabulous women sharing stories around the theme Mothers And Others. It was a wonderful night!


Today is my 30th birthday. Five years ago I was celebrating with my best college girls. They assembled this amazing brunch on our kitchen table and held my babies while I feasted. Babies. It was still shocking to say. I was 25 and somehow had 6 week old twins. These women who had been with me through every transition and change of our adult lives were with me now – caring for us, feeding us, showering us with gifts – but something had shifted. My whole world had shrunk down to fit within the walls of that tiny apartment – the couch where I spent my long days and the bedroom where I spent even longer nights. My friends bubbled with news of life beyond, catching me up on their work and relationships and hobbies, weekend plans and upcoming special events and I just sat there eating french toast while my milk leaked through my dress, realizing that things would never be the same again. For weeks I had been trying to learn the new rhythms of motherhood, feeling overwhelmed, incompetent, and lost. I thought a day together would restore me to my old self, but instead it made the distance between our paths even more pronounced. I missed my old self, I resented my friends for their freedom, and I didn’t know how to explain any of it.

As time went on I grew more confident in my mothering – learning how to tandem nurse and occasionally time their naps together so I managed an hour of peace – but I couldn’t seem to launch us outside the walls of our fortress. Visits from friends became less frequent. The loneliness grew heavy, and I felt helpless to free us from our captivity. The first time we tried a walk, just the three of us, we made it to the sidewalk before my daughter was screaming so loudly I feared someone would call the police, assuming I was hurting her. A few weeks later I powered through the screams and made it to the house of a “mom friend” a few blocks away. I sat, exhausted, on her couch until I had the energy for the return trip.

(Did you know that women lose their identities when they become mothers? I didn’t. Friends with kids quickly became “mom friends”, or “charlie’s mom”. You meet someone at a park or playgroup and nobody even asks’s your name. You’re just someone else’s mother, everything else about you now irrelevant in the face of your new all consuming tiny dictator(s).)

The first time I tried to attend a “mom group”, my kids were nearly 6 months old. We were late, because: twins, and when I rolled our massive stroller full of screaming children through the silent building I felt every head turn to stare. I deposited my still screaming children with some nice old ladies in the nursery and  forced myself to go sit with the energetic, well dressed women drinking coffee around circular tables. The speaker that day encouraged us to prioritize making ourselves presentable for our husbands. You know, make sure you don’t “let yourself go”. I was too exhausted to be outraged. We went home early.

I did have one outlet that was just for me. A podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. Every week the host/producer, Hillary Frank, tells stories about parenthood that are honest and vulnerable, stories that reflected her un-shiny experiences as a mom who felt like she was always screwing things up, always failing to follow the “right “advice, always stretched to her limit. She interviews ordinary parents about all the crazy, ridiculous expectations, the mythology of “perfect parenting”, the loneliness of all the posturing and pretending everything is fine. She started a facebook group for her listeners – parents desperate for a judgement free space to share honestly about their experiences. It was exactly what I needed.

While I nursed in the dark, lonely hours of the early morning, I mined posts for insights about the weird new things my kids were doing, asked all my rookie questions, and vented about how hard it all was. I felt instantly connected to people across the country and around the world who were also stuck in their tiny apartments, people who also felt disconnected from their old friends and even from themselves as they learned the new terrain of parenthood.  

One day I came across a post from a woman asking if there were any other parents of multiples who wanted to commiserate. That thread turned into a group of women who would become my closest companions on this journey – mothering me through the darkest parts of those early years, helping me to see the light beyond them.

Of course, it started timid and cautious: we were all sweet and clever and started our posts with “not to bother you all, but…” or trying really hard to be funny and upbeat. But the veneer of politeness didn’t last long. We were all just surviving, minute by minute, and we didn’t have the energy or time to be cute. We bonded instantly over our parenting failures, exhaustion, non-existent sex lives, and endless kid illnesses, and also over the magical moments of kid love – we were all in the thick of it together. Nobody was less than. Nobody was smug. We were just radically for one another.  

Our guiding rule is non-judgement – if you don’t agree with the philosophy of the person posting and can’t find a way to share your ideas without judgement, go ahead and scroll on by, that post was not for you. And maybe it was just our desperation for connection that kept us in line, but it worked! And as our friendships grew, so did we. We held space for the important work of re-imagining ourselves. Who were we, and who did we want to be, beyond this new role? There is such power in naming our secret dreams, longings, and ambitions. It’s the first step in fleshing out the path that will bring them to fruition. In these conversations, I regained my voice as a woman and a writer. I found courage in the brave women around me, and in weekly check ins and off the cuff messages we cheered each other along, each step of the way.

There are so many jokes about moms and facebook, about social media as a meaningless, phony, time wasting sphere. And I get that. I know there’s plenty of posturing and sanctimonious advice giving and unhelpful shaming that happens online. It can definitely highlight the worst of our humanity. But it’s also this incredible tool that allows us to reach across miles and cultures and work schedules and religious/political/insert-your-divisive-issue-here differences to support one another in the minutiae of everyday life. I have come to think of it as a sacred space. And when we tend it well – reigning in our insecurities and judgments, opening our hearts to learn from others – it serves us with beautiful connection.

Last year I got to meet some of those women in person at our first ever conference. I use the word conference loosely – we rented out a fancy old home on airbnb, stocked up on wine and snacks, and bunked up for the weekend. But it was a big deal – an attempt to bring to real life what we had been cultivating online for years. Leading up to it I was so anxious, it felt like I was going on a first date but worse – these women already knew all my neuroses, all of my greatest failures and biggest dreams and I needed them to still like and support me when this was over! But I shouldn’t have worried. The embrace of someone who has seen and loved you at your worst is a gift I wish I could give every parent, every person that I know. These friendships forged in the fires of early parenthood have forever changed me. They have shown me that vulnerability shouldn’t be rare in friendships. That it should be the core of how we connect – sharing our truest selves in a crisis, in the mundane, and everything in between.

As an introvert, I find it exhausting to do this in person. It’s much easier to pour my heart out from the safety of my couch. But there’s nothing like that moment when you finally take a deep breath and reveal a dream or confess a weakness and the person across the table lights up and says “Me too! I thought I was the only one.” I hope to live a long life collecting those moments. They make me feel alive, reborn to the possibilities of growth and what could be. These “internet moms” have given me an enduring optimism about cultivating space for those moments to bloom, no matter how many awkward first friend dates I have to persevere through to get there.

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❤ 

 

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A Mental Health Advocate Uncovers Her Own Internalized Stigma: my journey toward healing

Over the last several months, have you been continually worried or anxious about a number of events or activities in your daily life? “No.” What good would worrying do? Worrying is for the weak and undisciplined. 

Do you feel bad about yourself — that you are a failure or have let yourself or your family down? “No.” Failure is obviously not an option. 

Do you feel tired or like you have little energy for things you need or want to do? “No.” It doesn’t matter if I have energy, I must do all the things regardless of how I feel. 

My doctor sets her computer down and gently asks if it’s possible I’m assessing my mental health against my husband’s. This catches me off guard and I look up, feeling guilty. She leans forward, compassionate but resolute as she says, “You know, he doesn’t set the standard. Your experiences and needs are valid, even if his are more intense. You deserve peace too. You can’t do this alone, nobody could.”

My eyes fill with tears and I look back at the tile floor, mumbling something about how hard it is to tell what is normal after being in crisis for so long. I minimize my own needs because I can’t imagine how I could handle one more diagnosis, one more issue, one more thing to become an expert about before I can find relief. But sometimes it catches up with us, no matter how hard we try to shove it down.

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Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas on Pexels.com


A year ago on an ordinary school night I was tucked into bed with my kids, reading a pile of storybooks. All of the sudden my arm started to go limp, my sense of reality slowed, and my heart began pounding explosively loud in my ears. I felt like I was going to throw up, had cold sweats, gasped for breath like an elephant was on my chest. I thought I was having a heart attack. I thought I was dying.

8 hours and a dozen tests later an ER doctor pronounced me perfectly healthy. “It’s amazing how the mind and body work together.” He said. “Even though you have all the symptoms of a heart attack, your heart is working perfectly well. Sometimes our brains do this in response to stress.”

“But I wasn’t stressed,” I protested. “I was relaxed, cozy with my kids in bed. It hadn’t even been a stressful day!” He nodded and explained that stress triggers a release of cortisol into our blood where it builds up over time and can lead to these massive events that occur randomly, without warning. He told me to take it easy, let my body recover, and follow up with my doctor.

It took three days before I felt like myself again. I was baffled and embarrassed. Sure, our life was stressful. Being a full time caregiver and advocate for my husband in his mental illness while also caring for our preschool twins was taking a toll. Yes, we had recently lost the support of our faith community. No, we didn’t have family nearby or the resources to pay for help. But I was managing just fine! I prided myself on keeping our little family going, on attending to every need. “I can do this” was the mantra that got me through the worst days. I’m doing it. I’m doing it.

The follow up appointment with my doctor left me feeling even more defeated. She suggested I do a better job of prioritizing my own needs – sleep, eating healthy foods, making time for movement. It seemed laughable. My kids still woke up at least once a night, my grad student husband has life-halting anxiety attacks at least twice a week, and we were surviving on whatever I could quickly throw together for meals. How was I supposed to make time for all of this extra stuff? “You just have to. You’re carrying so much. I know it’s hard, but you need to take it easier. Your body needs rest.” Yeah, I know. But HOW?

Over the last year I’ve done my best to lean into this intense self-care regimen. I enrolled my kids in full day prek, prioritized early morning workouts, allowed myself to explore this writing dream, found a few new favorite cookbooks and threw myself into preparing exciting new healthy dinners several times each week. I got to bed earlier and said no to more things, set boundaries in relationships that were doing me harm. But the symptoms persisted. Every other week or so I would feel the fluttering in my chest before a heaviness moved in, keeping me awake all night or immobilizing me all day. I tried to breathe through it, journal through it, reason myself through it. It was a lot to manage but it was sort of working.

Until it wasn’t. I woke up one night this winter in a full episode, my heart beating wildly and my body so seized up I couldn’t move. The next morning I finally called for another follow up with my doctor and a few days later found myself sitting in the exam room, spilling out the story of the last year: all the things I’ve tried, all the plates I’ve kept spinning, how defeated I feel. She listened carefully until I finished, making notes murmuring affirmations. Then she smiled and asked if we could do a mental health screening.

Oh great. I thought. Now she thinks I’m crazy. My internal dialogue swung between guilt about my own stigmatized thoughts and a desperate need to preserve the story I’ve been telling myself: that I am the healthy one, dependable, strong, unshakable.

I didn’t know what to say so I just nod, keeping my eyes fixed on the floor.

As she asks each question it seems to hang between us, suspended in the deafening silence. I bat them away with emotionless one-word answers until she pauses and gives that speech about my mental health being entirely independent from Drew’s. More tears.

She continues, “There’s a medication I would like you to think about trying. It’s very safe, and when it works properly it helps people to feel like they have that extra bit of head space, a little less weight on their shoulders. I know it can feel like a big step, but I really think it could help you.”

And she was right. It took me two months and another massive panic attack before I was  brave enough to try it, but since then it has truly changed everything. For the first time in years I feel like I can breathe again. I can see beyond the immediate crisis cloud and hear what my body is telling me. I am so grateful.

The other day a friend was telling me about a mental health training she had at work. “Did you know,” she said, “that people wait, on average, 10 years before seeking medication for their mental illness?”

I did not. TEN YEARS? It sounds ridiculous – who would wait ten years for medication that could so easily improve their lives?

Then I thought, oh yeah. That’s me.  

Sometimes stigma isn’t intentional antagonism about mental illness. Sometimes stigma is just the quiet lie that we aren’t miserable enough to deserve care. That our experiences don’t matter. That as long as someone else is worse off, we should stop complaining and soldier on.

But it’s not true.

You deserve health.

Peace.

Good sleep.

Support.

Freedom from anxiety, physical pain, intrusive thoughts.

It doesn’t matter if they happen every day, or only once in a blue moon.

You deserve health.

We all do.

We cannot de-stigmatize mental illness until we learn to honor the connection between social, psychological, physical, spiritual, and emotional health. If we lack language to name our complex experiences, how can we pursue health for ourselves or others? One of the most important mental health practices we can adopt is simply to honor our own experiences, feelings, and needs. When we are tuned into our bodies we can more easily notice when things shift, when we begin to feel a bit frayed, when we need help. And, in turn, we can support those we love without over extending or denying our own needs.

The spectrum of mental unhealth to mental wellness is wide and we move back and forth across it day by day, season by season. Just as we would be outraged if a doctor turned away a patient with an infection or rash and told them to suck it up and come back when they were totally incapacitated, we should be equally concerned with the wounds of our mental health; adjusting our lives and seeking support and treatment to keep all of the parts of ourselves in balance as we pursue health and wholeness in every area of our lives.

I was so afraid to acknowledge my own decaying mental health because I thought it would mean a loss of control, accepting defeat, disqualifying me from the role of caregiver and advocate for my husband. Instead, I have found that learning language for my own mental health experiences has helped me to connect more deeply in my marriage and allowed me to better advocate for my own needs, validating them alongside, rather than in conflict, with his own.

I still occasionally experience the heart palpitations and fatigue of minor panic attacks. But now, instead of powering through or beating myself up for “failing”, I thank my body for showing me what it needs. And I tell someone. Because nobody can fight this battle alone, and because I’m learning to see that our inherent codependency is actually a really beautiful gift.

two people holding each other s hands

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