Anxiety is like a strangling vine. Rooting it out feels perilous, because you’re afraid that all the wholesome, fruitful shoots will be uprooted along with it. If I stop fretting, will I stop caring? If I stop freaking out, will I stop making an effort? If I’m not suffering, is it really love?
One winter vacation when I was in college, I went with my mother to a charismatic healing Mass. You could say that I had been “struggling” with depression, but that’s not really the word. I lived there. I was being swallowed whole by it, day after day, and I could not get out. Wherever people led me, I would go, whether they liked or loved me, hated me, or just found me useful. So I went with her to ask for healing, not with hope, but just because it couldn’t hurt.
The service was emotional—tacky, to be honest— and while the priest was fervid, the scattered congregation sounded sheepish and forced as they softly hooted and called “Amen!” into the chilly air of the church.
We lined up and the priest recited some words of healing—I forget them utterly—over each of us. Then he gave every forehead a firm shove, to put us off balance in case the Holy Spirit wanted to overcome anyone. A few people crumpled and passed out, snow melting quietly off their boots onto the tiled floor. Most of us just staggered a bit under the pressure, recovered, stepped around the fallen, and went back to our seats.
Well, I thought, another dead encounter with dead people in a dead world. I slid into my pew. Nothing had changed because nothing could change. I was dead, and everyone else was allowed to be alive. Why? Who knows? Someone had been sent for help, but help would not come. Help was not for me.
And then I heard these words in my head, “You made Me wait. Now you can wait for a while.” They were not my words. The tone was warm, a little sad, with a small vein of humor. I think I was being teased, chided for taking so long to send for help. You like games, talitha? All right, I will play. Now, wait.
Then I went home. Nothing happened, that I could see.
Years later, I thought of that day as I read Tomie dePaola’s The Miracles of Jesus with my four-year-old daughter. She listened attentively, but I could see that most of the wonders didn’t impress her much. In these short narratives, some kind of grown-up problem is introduced—and then poof, God solves it, The End.
I think she saw Jesus acting more or less like all adults act: making good things appear arbitrarily, making sick people feel better, occasionally being cranky and strange, and wishing people would say “thank you” more often. It was cool, but it didn’t mean much to her. They were miracles, not the kind of thing that happen in real life.
Jairus’ daughter, however, really got her attention—probably because it was about a child, and also because it was a full story, with suspense, despair, and a happy ending, plus the hint of a full life to come.
Jesus hears the news that the girl was sick, but He isn’t teleported to her bed. He walks, one foot in front of the other, on His way to her. And when He gets there, it’s too late. Her family is weeping; the girl, the poor little thing who wanted to be healed, is already dead.
My daughter got very quiet at this point. We read on:
“But Jesus said, ‘Do not weep. She is not dead. She is asleep.’
And the people only laughed at him, knowing that she was dead.
She looked at me with big eyes. They laughed at Jesus!
Jesus took her by the hand and said, ‘Child, arise.’
And her spirit returned and she got up at once. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat.”
At this point, my daughter hurled herself at me and gave me a big, squeezing hug. She got that part! She knows about being sad, needing help, waiting far too long, being rescued, and then having something to eat, because all these ups and downs make you hungry. And then life goes on, once you have been saved. Here was a miracle she could appreciate—the kind that’s part of a story.
I got it, too, because I knew that story. I had been that girl. And I had heard that voice. It was a long time, and a lot of steps, before my slow rescue from the dead came up to the speed where it was recognizably healing, recognizably a wonder. But I never forgot the words I heard, telling me that help was on the way. That I wasn’t really dead; I was waiting.
If you have ever lived inside a black hole; if you have moved about the world enclosed in a dome of sound proof glass, with no voices but your own voice, which you hate above all other sounds in the world; if you have felt so bad for so long that you don’t even want life to get better, you just want it to be over—then you will understand that it was very, very good to hear this voice that simply said, “You are not dead. You are only sleeping. And I am on my way.”
I was not merely sitting in that cold pew, it told me. I was sitting and waiting. Someone was with me; or at least, someone was on the way. I was happy to wait. I was happy! This was new.
That was how I began to be healed, more than twenty years ago. It was a long road of waiting, after I began to be healed. It is a long road. I’ve been in therapy for over three years, and now I’ve started spiritual direction. I don’t know what is next. The road keeps getting longer, to be honest, and every time I think I am finally healed, I see that I am not, not yet. But I can see Christ better and better as He approaches, step by step. My healing started when I asked Him, without hope, for healing.
That is what our breath is for: To call out for help. As long as we still have breath in us, we are not dead, we are only sleeping. We are not alone; we are waiting for Christ to arrive.
Can you wait a little longer? You are not dead. You are waiting.
Related reading: I thought good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.
A version of this essay originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2011.
This week, I’m driving up and down, up and down the same twenty-mile strip of road every day. I was getting terribly bored, even though the car is stocked with a CD flip folder of the complete works of Pavement (I dunno).
On a bus? It’s only courteous to apologize to everyone for the noise your head is making.
Primal scream therapy has been largely debunked. Instead, try emptying your mind, relaxing your muscles, opening your throat, and then, for as long as you can sustain it, make a noise like a wabbit*. I think you’ll find it immensely liberating (for other people).
Throw glitter on people, so they will understand what a strong person you are! Or something! I don’t know, I saw it on a meme.
If you can’t find your pants, simply stand in the middle of the house and shout, “PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS! PANTS!” until someone comes running with your pants. I know you’ll think I’m just saying this because it was on a TV show, and you’re right; but on the other hand, it actually works. It sometimes takes a while, e.g.. when no one else is home, but this is when persistence counts.
Hey, why don’t you smoke a lot of pot? That will help! Smart smart smart!
Those “hippe-dippie” calming mantras are actually surprisingly effective, and can really ease anxiety and restore your sense of peace and proportion. Just be sure you have found one that is completely unique to you. If you accidentally use someone else’s mantra, they will know, and — you know what, nothing bad will happen, probably. It’s just something to keep in mind. You know what, it’s probably fine. Don’t worry about it.
Break into your therapist’s office after hours and hang up all his friggin’ pictures. The Ansel Adams and the generic tree landscape, and that dreadful framed inspirational poster with the kayak, that have all been leaning up against the wall since your intake visit, marking the spot where they are supposed to be hung. And also the clock that always shows 9:53, with the unopened package of batteries balanced on top of it. Seriously. Is this just to make you feel more sane in comparison, or what? Is this some kind of social experiment? Is that even ethical? Why 9:53???
When did you last eat something? Fingernails doesn’t count. Geez, go have a spoonful of peanut butter and then we can figure out if existence is really empty and meaningless or not. I’m not saying it’s not. I’m just saying, have some peanut butter.
Always remember: It’s okay to shoot your TV screen for saying “Flappity flippers!” one more time. You warned it.
*(“WABBIT!!! WABBIT! WABBIT!”)
Image: Asiir at English Wikipedia (Asiir) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
On the drive home this morning, I decided not to turn on the radio. I wanted to cry, instead, and I didn’t want to be distracted.
We’re fine. Thank God, we’re not dealing with floods and sinkholes and wild boars and floating fire ants, and we’re not refugees or victims of famine. I’m just sad because, among other reasons, I left my five-year-old off at kindergarten for the first time. In her excitement, she ran too fast, tripped, and scraped her knee. With a bloody cut and a hole in her tights, she suddenly lost courage, and so did I; so we clung to each other a little longer than I planned. It’s a tiny, manageable loss, this child heading off to school. But I did want to cry on the way home.
We sometimes want to erase grief immediately, to send an emergency brigade out with a firehose to wash things clean. When a mother miscarries, for instance, she may report to her doctor that she cries, feels sad, and is having a hard time sleeping. I’m not talking about months down the road; I’m talking about grieving immediately after the death of a child. Of course she feels sad. But a doctor’s response is often, “You are depressed. Let me write you a prescription so you feel better.”
Let me be clear. When grief and sorrow are debilitating, antidepressants are a godsend. If sorrow lasts too long and has too much power, it can become paralyzing depression, which roots itself deep in your psyche and separates you from living a full life. I have been on antidepressants myself, and so have some of my family members. Some people castigate mental health drugs as artificial or as a mere band-aid, but in many cases, they can truly heal and restore us to health, to our true selves.
But grief and sorrow are not in themselves pathological. They are, in fact, the only appropriate responses to death, to grief, to separation. I forget the context, but Florence King once skewered oafish do-gooders who couldn’t even wait for the blood to stop flowing before they lept in howling, “Let the healing begin!” There’s nothing healthy about trying to erase grief before it can even declare itself.
That’s why I didn’t want to be distracted by the radio this morning, even though I knew it would stave off tears. Distractions don’t heal grief; they merely chase it into hiding, where it eventually morphs into something uglier, and harder to live with than tears.
We are afraid of grief, and rightly so; but we should also be afraid of losing the ability to feel, and the ability to understand ourselves. When we chase grief away the moment it appears, we are deliberately blinding ourselves to some true part of our own lives. No good can come of that. When we don’t know ourselves, we aren’t free.
Maybe it’s easy for me to say so, while my sorrows are small. But I take my cue from the Psalms, where people with big sorrows also felt free to pour them out without reserve. They wanted the healing to begin, yes, but not before they had their say:
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look around and see.
Is any suffering like my suffering
that was inflicted on me,
that the Lord brought on me
in the day of his fierce anger?
13 “From on high he sent fire,
sent it down into my bones.
He spread a net for my feet
and turned me back.
He made me desolate,
faint all the day long.
16 “This is why I weep
and my eyes overflow with tears.
No one is near to comfort me,
no one to restore my spirit.
My children are destitute
because the enemy has prevailed.”
It is good to sit with sorrow for a while. I know it’s not a new idea, and not a ground-shaking one, but maybe you need to hear it today. If you are sad, let yourself cry. If someone you love is sad, don’t try to steamroll them into healing right away. Sorrow has its place, and sorrow will have its due.
I chatted with the delightful Ashley McKinless and Olga Segura about Catholicism and mental health.
Talking about mental health isn’t easy. And when you throw faith into the mix it often becomes even harder. Many Catholics mistakenly think that needing mental health treatment amounts to a kind of spiritual failure. This week, we talk with writer Simcha Fisher, author of The Sinner’s Guide to Natural Family Planning, about how she learned to balance her Catholic faith and therapy.
You can hear and download the podcast that includes many other topics of interest to Catholics.
Sometimes, I have to take my therapist’s words with a grain of salt or filter them through a Catholic lens. More often, I discover that my lifelong spiritual failings are actually emotional wounds. And as they heal, it becomes easier to follow Christ.
Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”
How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.
When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.
I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.
When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.
My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.
Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.
Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.
Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”
I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.
Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.
Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.
If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.
Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.
They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.
Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.
Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.
And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.
And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live? I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.
It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.
It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.
So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?
And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?
Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Stop me if you’ve heard this one:
A youngish mom with a bunch of kids goes to her doctor with a medical problem. Doesn’t even matter what the problem is: problems with excessive bleeding, problems with postpartum depression, problems with heartburn, problems with sleep. Problems with her knee, her skin, or the way her hair just won’t curl the way it used to.
Any problem, doesn’t matter. If she has more than a few kids, she already knows what comes next: A glance at the chart, the eyebrows go shooting up, and here it comes: “Ohh, I see you have [any number greater than two] kids.”
And that’s all they want to talk about from then on.
They certainly don’t want to listen to you when you tell them, “This isn’t about family size.” They tuck your multipara status into your buttonhole like a red poppy so you can never forget, never forget that you brought this on yourself in some way with allllll those kids, so let’s talk about that, then, eh?
You’ll think I’m exaggerating if it hasn’t happened to you; but ask around among women who have five, six, or seven, or even three or four kids, and you’ll see nods and eyerolls, or even tears. Because it hurts. Women with lots of kids have to prepare themselves mentally every time they step into a doctor’s office. Not only do they have to deal with whatever problem they’re actually there for, they have to defend themselves against insinuations, disapproval, patronizing jokes, and sometimes open scorn.
Now, sometimes, a woman’s maternal history is relevant. If a woman is trying desperately to stop having children, then it makes sense for her doctor to talk about how she can accomplish that (while being respectful of her religious concerns). If pregnancy and childbearing are damaging her health, it makes sense for her doctor to talk about her plans for the future. That is the doctor’s job, and a good doctor thinks more wholistically, beyond the immediate problem at hand.
But that’s not what I’m talking about.I’m talking about women with many children being treated as if their wombs are a pandora’s box from which all ills and troubles flow. I’m talking about doctors behaving as if we’re nothing but a walking, whimpering uterus, and there is no sense in even discussing any other medical issue until we figure out how to put a cork in it.
Here’s what happened to me in the last week of my last pregnancy:
I had already given birth nine times. I knew what it was going to be like. There was no maternal amnesia strong enough, and there was no new technique I was going to learn for pain control or emotional calm. I knew what was coming, and that it was going to be rough, because that’s what childbirth is like. I was weeks or days away from giving birth, and I couldn’t sleep, night after night, because I was nervous about the delivery. Naturally, my exhaustion only fed into the anxiety.
So I went to the doctor and asked if she could prescribe something safe to soothe my anxiety and help me sleep, just to tide me over.
She refused. Their policy said I had to visit their staff psychiatrist first. Okay, could I make an appointment? Oh, sure — there was an opening in three days.
Three days may not sound like a lot to you, but I was within five days of my due date. I hadn’t slept in maybe four days. Everything hurt, all the time. And I knew with all my heart that I wasn’t going to magically enjoy peace of mind just because, thanks to my doctors, I could look forward to talking to a complete stranger about my emotional state at 39 weeks. Could I maybe get a three-day prescription to get me through until then, just to take the edge off? No, that wasn’t their policy.
I WAS SO ANGRY. There was no reason for this. No reason at all. But they wouldn’t budge.
So I cooled my heels at home (actually, my heels, like the rest of me, were puffy, inflamed, and in constant pain) and turned up for the stupid appointment. The first thing she wanted to know, after introducing herself, was how I felt about having so many children.
Imagine there’s a building on fire, so you called the fire department — only to discover that, before they would even unroll a hose, they wanted to file a request for documents proving that the contractors who built it had been unionized.
Would that be reasonable? Maybe they were unionized and maybe they weren’t, and maybe the answer to that question would shed light on the current situation and maybe it wouldn’t. But right now, maybe let’s PUT OUT THE FIRE.
So I knew already knew I was being treated badly. But I also knew that, the more I protested, the more likely I was to be flagged as a drug-seeking patient, so I tried to speak calmly. I had already plotted out what I was going to say.
I told the doctor, “I am happy with my family size, and I do not need advice about family planning. That is not why I am here. My anxiety is not related to anything but childbirth. It is purely situational anxiety. When I give birth, I will no longer feel anxiety about giving birth. What I need is something to help me through the next few days, because I can’t sleep. That is the problem I need help with.”
And you know what she did? She kept me in that room for another fifteen minutes, probing and questioning me about my history, my long-term psychological state, my experience in past deliveries, and anything else she could think of, based on nothing but the number of times I had given birth. There were no other red flags in my history, nothing that would signal to any medical professional that I was being abused, that I was unhappy beyond normal pregnancy ills, or even that I was overwhelmed with my life in general. But she kept asking. And I just kept repeating: “That is not relevant. This is situational anxiety. I just need to get some sleep.”
Finally, with deep and obvious disapproval, she wrote out a prescription for a mild antihistamine, which didn’t work at all. I burned through the next week in a sleepless rage, angrily gave birth, and spent the next week remembering how to sleep, and calming the hell down.
Now, you tell me.
If I were, say, a topless dancer, and I told my doctor I was nervous about upcoming foot surgery, and I wanted a prescription to help me sleep for a few days until the big day, would I have gotten a slew of lifestyle questions, probing and digging for signs that I harbored some secret regret about how I spend my days?
If I were a trans man with AIDS, and was feeling tons of anxiety about an imminent job interview, would my doctor have given me a referral for next week with a psychiatrist who wanted to sit me down and have a chat about my past and future choices about my body, my family, my life goals?
If I were anyone at all, and I turned up in a doctor’s office with an obvious and solvable problem, wouldn’t the doctor just . . . help me solve that problem?
But I had lots of kids. Lots of kids, and I was in a long-term, stable marriage, and I was fully employed, a long-term patient with no criminal record, no history of drug or alcohol abuse, no smoking, no psych issues, no weird bruises, no nothing. I got regular exercise and took my vitamins. I had turned up at every appointment well-nourished and well-informed, with no panic, no hysteria, no delusions, no complaints about anything other than, “I am pregnant and my feet really hurt.” It was very easy to explain why I was feeling anxiety and dealing with insomnia. It was very easy to predict when I could conquer those issues.
But she didn’t want to hear that. She didn’t want to believe me, because I had a lot of kids.
Guess what? That experience of not being listened to was so frustrating and painful and infuriating, it made it ten times harder for me to make another appointment later, when I really did need help with larger psychological issues (also unrelated to childbearing!). I thought, “They’re just going to say, ‘Well, this is what you get when you have so many kids; sorry, we can’t help.'” Because that is what they have always said.
So I didn’t go, and I didn’t go, and I didn’t go.
That’s what happens when you treat women like they can’t be trusted: You lose their trust. And that means you’re not doing your job.
Doctors, this has to stop. When you see a patient with lots of children, she should be treated like any other patient. Keep eyes and ears open for signs of abuse and signs of distress, just as you would with any other patient, but do not behave as if the large family itself is a red flag. It’s offensive and disrespectful beyond belief, and it puts women constantly on guard. It’s okay to ask if she’s happy with her current family planning; but if she says yes, then you simply must let it go. Even if you don’t get it. Even if you don’t approve.
Believe her when she tells you what the problem is. Believe her, even if she has a lot of kids.