Monday, April 28, 2008

Slow to Anger

I think the fourth Sunday lessons are different in every ward so I don't know if any of you had this lesson yesterday, but our RS lesson left me with a lot of unspoken thoughts so I thought I'd put them up here and see what you guys think.

Our lesson was President Hinckley's talk "Slow to Anger." As you all may have gathered managing my anger is the central drama of my life. I've spent time in therapy. I've spent time reading. I've spent time praying. I've spent time exercising. All as attempts to manage my anger. The good news is that after four years of effort I've made progress. But I still struggle with explosions that frighten my children and leave me depressed and guilty. Suffice it to say, when I found out the subject of yesterday's lesson I started to get nervous.

I'm glad President Hinckley addressed the topic because I think it is something most people struggle with a lot of the time. Other people's struggles may not be as intense as mine, but I do believe that most women (especially mommies) find anger to be a problem in their lives. So I wasn't upset that the Prophet chose to talk about it. I was nervous because I wasn't sure how all these women--who like to appear pulled together most of the time--would address a subject that is so personal. Ironically, after the teacher said something to the effect of anger simply being a manifestation of the natural man and a sin that we need to shy away from, I was so distraught I ended up missing most of the lesson (so I guess I really don't know what the other women said. These are just my perceptions and they may be incorrect!).

See, here's the disconnect for me: when most of us talk about the "natural man" we mean things that are carnal, sensual, or devilish--and my anger doesn't feel like any of those things. It feels like hunger or fatigue; a kneejerk thing that my body does without me controlling it. Also, as for it simply being a sin that we can pray away or just avoid (as if it were tobacco or alcohol or pornography) that just isn't true. Anger is an amoral impulse. It is neither good nor bad. It simply is. Feeling angry is part of the emotional spectrum, as is the shame that our culture heaps on top of it. But we don't have to feel bad about feeling anger. It's how we choose to process our anger that amounts to a good or a poor choice. It took me a lot of therapy to understand those ideas and it was disconcerting to me to have a church lesson tell me the ideas that have given me sanity were wrong. I'm sure the teacher didn't mean to, but she set off a lot of alarms and destructive thought patterns in my brain.

After chatting with my husband about it over lunch (our kids were totally bored and confused), I came to the conclusion that most of the women in that room haven't felt the anger that I have felt or they are in serious denial. It also occurred to me that I was so keyed up about the issue because the way they were talking about it made me feel excluded, like I wasn't good enough to be in that room and part of that group of women. I had to remind myself that just because I struggle it doesn't mean I'm not a good LDS woman. After all, it is only through the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ that any of us are saved. It's important that I try, but my efforts will always fall short and it is His love and sacrifice that I must rely on.

Thankfully the lesson wasn't a total bust and a few of the women made some insightful comments that I thought were helpful. I figured I'd share them here and add a few of my own tips. I hope you all will chime in too because I know you guys are a lot smarter than me! Here are the tips:

1. Anger is usually a cover for some other emotion (ie fear, embarrassment, a feeling of lack of control, unmet expectations, etc.) If you can look past the anger to what it is covering the anger usually processes faster.

2. You are not responsible for your first thought--it simply is. However, you are responsible for your second thought and any actions you take. Give yourself space to think before you act.

3. Anger, like all of our emotions, creates a physical reaction. Become aware of the physical symptoms of your anger and relieve them. Whether that means taking a deep breath or relaxing your shoulders or getting a drink of water to release a tense gut, make sure you address the physical aspects. The anger won't go away until you do.

4. This isn't really a tip, but I want to recommend a book,She's Gonna Blow: Real Help for Moms Dealing with Anger by Julie Barnhill. This book has been the only place I have found a realistic discussion of anger and trying to live a Christ-like life. Her candor and faith lifted me up during one of my darkest, angriest depressions. It is worth reading.

Be sure to post your tips!

Monday, April 21, 2008

Have I Done Any Good in the World Today?

I've been thinking a lot about what "Jer" said in her profile about getting outside of herself.

As Church members we are constantly encouraged to get outside ourselves--mostly through service. And, consequently, as Church members we are subjected to a barrage of service opportunities. Sometimes I feel like I'm a bad Mormon if I don't sign up on that third clipboard making its way around the room. It's for that reason that, for me, service can be a double-edged sword.

But, service has its benefits and Church leaders aren't the only ones to notice that. A study done in 2007 by the Corporation for National and Community Service found that people who volunteered had greater longevity, higher functional ability, lower rates of depression, and less incidence of heart disease. Interestingly, the study also found that people who benefited about 100 hours a year (or two hours a week) were those who benefitted the most. There were no increases in benefits for people who volunteered more than this. (That last part might serve as a cautionary note to those of us who try to over-magnify our callings!)

As an active member of the LDS church, and especially as a member of the Relief Society (the errand of angels is given to women! Does that intimidate anyone else?), service is something that I can't avoid. I have a calling (Enrichment Committee) and I'm a visiting teacher. I'm also on the substitute list for Primary and Nursery (because I secretly like it better where I get to play games and sing songs and eat snacks). Also, since I have three little kids I am usually grateful to babysit other people's kids because then mine have someone to play with.

Most often, though, I don't think of those things as service. They are just part of my life. Service, I tell myself, is something big and it probably should be hard or it doesn't really count. President Thomas S. Monson spoke on this subject last fall during the General Relief Society session. He said, "You are a mighty force for good, one of the most powerful in the entire world. Your influence ranges far beyond yourself and your home and touches others all around the globe. You are, of course, surrounded by opportunities for service. No doubt at times you recognize so many such opportunities that you may feel somewhat overwhelmed. Where do you begin? How can you do it all? How do you choose, from all the needs you observe, where and how to serve? Often small acts of service are all that is required to lift and bless another: a question concerning a person’s family, quick words of encouragement, a sincere compliment, a small note of thanks, a brief telephone call. If we are observant and aware, and if we act on the promptings which come to us, we can accomplish much good."

So, tell me, what good have you done in the world today? What ways do you all work in your two hours a week? I need the ideas for the next time I feel the blues setting in!

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Every Story Counts--depression profile #2

Here is the second in my series of depression profiles. Again, the questions are mine, the answers are theirs. Nothing is edited. I want to share other people's stories too because, well, in my mind the more perspectives we add the better. If you would be willing to be profiled e-mail me at lolapalooza AT hotmail DOT com. Please put "depression profile" in the subject line so I know you're not a spammer. (I'm happy to include stories of women who are not mothers, of men, and people who have only had short bouts of depression. Honestly, EVERY STORY COUNTS!)

Name (has been changed): Jer
Age: 28
Location: Colorado
Occupation: SAHM and sometimes Mary Kay consultant

1. Have you ever been officially diagnosed? How do you classify your depression? (i.e. post partum depression, anxiety/depression, clinical depression, etc.)
I have never been officially diagnosed. I believe I had post partum depression after my first was born. The other time was my senior year in high school, and I think that time was circumstantial more than anything.

2. How long have you been depressed?
I’ve always been a really emotionally intense person. I can remember even as a child that often my feelings felt too big to fit in my small body and I couldn’t—or didn’t know how—to contain them. I think I will always feel that way to some degree, though I’ve learned to temper my emotions a little as I have gotten older. I don’t really consider myself depressed anymore, though I still go to therapy occasionally for what I call “maintenance work.”

3. What kind of treatments have you pursued?
Mostly therapy. In high school I tried Prozac. I know this sounds really cliché, but I try getting outside myself (for example, making friends, keeping friends, serving my family and others, etc.) on a regular basis. Also, doing my best at doing what’s right, so there’s less things to beat myself up with guilt about—I make enough reasons to feel guilty as it is. [Note from Laura: Jer! It's not cliche to try getting outside yourself. One reason we talk about service so much in our Church is because it's a true principle--it does make us feel better!]

4. How have those treatments worked for you?
Therapy has been great. I love it and would recommend it to anyone, depressed or not. I just really like having that objective third party to bounce ideas off, and also a safe place where I can spout off any kinds of emotional distress at any level, yet know it is confidential and I won’t be judged for it. In high school I didn’t stay on Prozac long enough to find out if it worked for me. I really do think that surrounding myself with upbeat people really helps me. I’ve also found that it’s a fine balance between trying to do my best, without being too hard on myself. If I can find that balance and stick with it, I think it also helps me.

5. How do you feel your depression has affected your spirituality?
It varies depending on the time in life. Right after I had my daughter, I was so depressed that I had a hard time believing that God loved me, or anyone for that matter. I didn’t pray or read the scriptures. I was so low that I lost a lot of perspective. But as things got better, I think my testimony was strengthened as I became capable of feeling love again. Almost like I had to know what it was like not to feel God’s love to appreciate its importance in my life. I think ultimately I have been strengthened spiritually by my struggles.

6. What do you wish other people understood about depression?
I wish people could sympathize with depression (or mental illness in general) the same way they do with any other physical illness. I sometimes feel that people blame depression on the person, as if the depressed person chooses to be that way, though they would never do that for other physical ailments that are less taboo.

Thank you so much, Jer, for sharing your story. I know there are people out there who will identify with your story and be strengthened by it. You are awesome!

Monday, April 14, 2008

The slowest roller coaster you've ever been on

I think I was thirteen when I realized, for the first time, that, like, emotions are, like, totally like a roller coaster. I think it took me a couple years to realize that my epiphany really wasn't one and that teenagers has been saying that for years.

Imagine my surprise when, ten years later, as I was sitting and rocking my second baby in my arms, a therapist (the one I didn't like) said to me "You know, I always like to tell people that emotions are like a roller coaster." She had pursed her lips in a thoughtful way and knitted her brows a bit as she said this so I could tell she was serious. I managed not to laugh. As she continued I was surprised to find she did have something to add to the cliche.

What she pointed out was that our emotions take us for a ride and, just like on an amusement park ride, you can't get off once they've really got going. One of the keys to understanding our emotions is to notice them when they are just revving up and get off the ride before we end up doing more loop-de-loops than we care to count. After all, the park attendant will probably let you off if the ride has only gone a few feet. But there's no getting off once you're to the top of that first big hill.

I ended up liking the roller coaster analogy and have spent a lot of time mulling it over--especially in relation to my depression. So here's my twist on the tired cliche: depression is like a slow motion roller coaster.

Take my last couple weeks as an example. There was a really interesting discussion going on at A Motley Vision and LDS Publisher about publishing LDS poetry. It got me all fired up and I started throwing together a business plan for getting LDS poetry back on the LDS literature map. But then the baby got an ear infection, the two year decided it was time to potty train, the four year old had three panic attacks in two days, I got asked to sub for Primary last minute, and it randomly snowed. I guess I was riding a bit high on my poetic excitement, but I assumed the momentum would carry me out to a great business proposal. Unfortunately, my ambitions got derailed and each setback knocked me further down from my high. The thing is, though, I didn't realize it until I found myself screaming at my two year old for asking to eat breakfast on the floor.

Looking back, that morning was classic depression for me. I had to pray for the strength to get out of bed. I had to pray for patience while nursing the baby. I didn't want to give the kids their good morning hugs and I had to keep shushing them because so many negative thoughts were flying around my head their little voices just made everything too loud. (According to my cacophonous depressed brain I am so stupid, fat, lazy, mean, and stiffnecked that there is no hope for me and I should just give up.) Given what was going on inside me it was no wonder that I lost it. But I was completely surprised because I hadn't noticed what was going on inside. I had known I was stressed and not sleeping enough, but I hadn't realized how each thing was adding up and pushing me further and further down the roller coaster track. And that is how depression is like a slow motion roller coaster. It is so sneaky that you don't realize you're about to be hanging upside down until you already are.

Of course, on a slow motion roller coaster it also takes a long time to get right side up again. The baby is still sick, the two year old is still potty training, the four year old is still brittle and I am still on edge. I think I have spent more time in "time out" for my poor behavior than the kids have! Which I think they secretly like because then they get to watch more TV. On the plus side, I have been able to bite my tongue a couple times and I even rallied to get some yard work done today. I'm still feeling a little lopsided, but I don't think I'm absolutely upside down anymore. (I have to give credit to my husband for a lot of this. He did the dishes and made sure I got a nap on Sunday!) I guess it really doesn't matter where I am though. I just have to keep repeating the mother's mantra: This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass. . .and before I know it I'll realize the ride is over. For this time anyway.

Monday, April 7, 2008

It's all about the linkage. . .

Since depression made the news a lot of people have been blogging about it. I thought it would be good to compile a list of links to posts/articles about what it means to be depressed and LDS.

1. Mormon Matters takes on the issue here and explores some interesting explanations here.

2. Silverrain offers some good advice and some thought-provoking ideas.

3. Tim Malone has some good stuff to add--although he beat all of us by blogging about it months ago!

4. Here's an interesting piece about how LDS ideas about depression have changed in the last couple decades.

5. I love this description of SSRIs at By Common Consent.

6. And in case you feel like you are alone, here's another from BCC that should help.

Do you all have any links you would add?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pursue Your Passion

One of the most important things any person with depression (or any person at all, for that matter) can do is pursue something they are passionate about. Finding something that makes your eyes light up or your heart beat a little faster helps shake off the film that depression casts over your brain. I also believe that many of our passions come from God. After all, all good things come from God, and if we are passionate about something--if it makes us feel truly good--then it is probably a gift. So start a blog, climb a mountain, learn a language, volunteer. Do whatever it is that helps you remember you are alive! It might be scary at first, but the focus and the energy you'll find inside you wil be worth all the effort you put in.

For me reading/writing is the passion that brings me back to life when I need it. My writing is in limbo at the moment so I started this blog and challenged myself to read one book each week for this year. I've now read 16 books this year. Here are the most recent (if reading is not your passion then I give you permission to scroll to the end of this post):

Book 11. The Shadow of the Sun by Ryzard Kapuscinski. This book chronicled a Polish journalist's career as his paper's Africa correspondent over the last 50 years. Kapuscinski somehow managed to be at the epicenter of every major revolution on the continent. Reading his accounts and observations was riveting. I found it incredibly sad (so many things go wrong in Africa! It just isn't fair!), but also motivating. The Church humanitarian programs provide so many opportunities to help people all over the world--especially in Africa. Just in case you need a nudge to make a difference, here's the link to the current humanitarian service needs.

Book 12. Bound on Earth by Angela Hallstrom. Every good thing that has been said about this book is true. Everyone should read it! Everyone should buy it! I recommended this for my monthly book club and we had such an awesome discussion. It was marvelous.

Book 13. The Undertaking: life studies from the dismal trade by Thomas Lynch. This book surprised me in every way--which I suppose shouldn't have been surprising given that it was written by a mortician/poet. I came across it through a Frontline episode on PBS. The author was unbelievable frank about everything from the weirdness of embalming his own father to the mess of suicide to the especially vivid flatulence one gets after eating bad curry. He also had a knack for bringing poetry to places that we assume would be bereft of rhyme and reason. A very good read, but I must warn you, brace yourself for thoughts you would never have thought of yourself!

Book 14. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis. This is a classic and I'm pretty sure I'm the last person in the universe to read it. So good. And so deep. I guess I need to read it again before I could organize anything interesting to add to what's already been said.

Book 15. Princess Academy by Shannon Hale. I guess I liked this one. I didn't not like it. Although, I did spend a lot of time while I was reading it trying to imagine how I would have felt about it if I were a ten year old girl. The conclusion: I would have liked it better.

Book 16. The Fattening of America: how the economy make us fat, if it matters, and what to do about it by Eric A Finkelstein and Laurie Zuckerman. This was pretty interesting. I really like the way economists look at the world; it just seems remarkably realistic. Anyway, this book put an economist's twist on the obesity debate in America. Not only was it funny, but it was quite informative. For the two days it took me to read it I was the sugar-police in my house and I put a little more effort into getting my kids to eat their veggies. If a book can do that it must be well-written!

Anyway, for all you readers out there (all, you know, five of you) what are your passions? What makes you feel alive enough to get out of bed in the morning? Post it here so we can all encourage each other!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Depression, Intuition, and The Spirit

For me, one of the hardest things about being LDS and depressed is listening to the voices in my head. I mean, really, I've got a lot of traffic rattling around in there.

The depressed voice in my head is always throwing out things like, "You idiot! I can't believe you did that!" or "Oh, now you've really screwed things up. How on earth do you ever think you can make it right?" or "You are such a *&%$#" Thankfully, that part of my mind is not too creative and I've learned (yay for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy)to tune it out.

My intuition voice is also pretty noisy. Unfortunately, since I am a mother of three children, my intuition is usually attuned to things like "She says she washed her hands but you'd better smell them to make sure she used soap" or "The beloved blankey has been stashed behind the wheat in the food storage cabinet" or, my personal favorite, "You'd better get off the computer because someone is sneaking candy!"

And the last but certainly not least voice, the Spirit, is, reserved for spiritual things, like: "A soft answer turneth away wrath." (Since I have so many anger issues it makes sense the Spirit would address those!) More often than not though, the Spirit feels like an urge to do something and doesn't manifest itself as a concrete thought.

And that's where things start to get complicated.

I've learned to manage my depression on a cognitive level and I've kind of figured out how to listen to my intution and the Spirit, but some days I have a hard time telling which is which.

For example: after Number 1 was born I was quite anxious (and depressed, but I didn't know it yet) about her getting kidnapped. This is a pretty normal new-mommy fear, but my anxiety took it to a new level. Not only did I worry about this in public places but I constantly had visions of someone sneaking in her into room and stealing her from her crib while I was in the bathroom. Now, we lived in a third floor apartment but I was still convinced. Whenever I left her out of my sight, which I only did to use the potty, I tried to mentally calculate how long it would take the baby thief to scale the balconies up to our floor, sneak through our sliding glass door and down the hall to her nursery, grab the baby, run out our door and down three flight of stairs to his getaway vehicle. I actually would argue with myself about how likely the scenario was and what I would do if I ran into the thief.

Eventually my worry got so intense I didn't want to leave the house. Every trip to the grocery store (since that was the only place I was still going) was full of stress. I began to develop little rituals to ease my mind. I always parked in the same spot. I always went through the store in the same order. I never walked more than an arm's length away from the cart. I always kept one hand on the baby (that way if someone tried to take her I could tug back). And I never turned my back to her.

I now know that most of the paranoia and need for ritual was linked to the post partum depression, but at the time I wasn't so sure that it wasn't the Spirit trying to warn me of some tragedy that was waiting for me down the next aisle (or at the cart return, those things were so scary to me!). After all, the Spirit communicates to us in our minds and in our hearts and my brain and my feelings were in constant agreement that something bad was going to happen. There was a part of me that knew my worry was excessive but, then again, maybe this was the "mommy mantle" so many women talked about. Boy, was I surprised when I started treatment for the depression and all those "impressions" disappeared!

I still struggle with it though. Like on days when I wake up feeling like garbage and I don't want to get out of bed but I do because my kids need me and then I yell at them and the thought "No success can compensate for failure in the home" goes ringing through my brain and I feel worse than I did before. Was that a spiritual reprimand? Or, was it my depression mocking me and trying to discourage me? Or maybe it was my intution telling me that I am a failure and no matter what I do nothing will make up for the way I'm screwing up my kids. Or maybe it's some bizarre concoction of all three. . . Either way, there are plenty of times when I can't tease out the depression from the Spirit. Or my intuition from my depression. Or my intuition from the Spirit. All the urges seem to run into each other and trying to distinguish one from the others is like trying to keep track of which hat the magician put the little ball under. They just keep moving faster and faster and my best guess is only a shot in dark.

And really, I guess there's no real way to know--well, maybe in the next life the Lord will explain it all to me. Personal revelation is one of those tricky things about our Church. It's a gift from our loving Father in Heaven, but it certainly takes effort to figure out how to interpret it and use it. If I ever figure it out, I'll let you know!