Check out my segment on the Jesuitical podcast!

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.

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

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Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

I thought Good Catholics didn’t need therapy. Then I went.

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.

Read the rest of my essay for America magazine.

We can’t just decide to stop being afraid, but we can manage it

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.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

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?

Can do.

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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

Mindfulness, meet my bumper

road-meditation

This morning, I dropped off the high school kids and was slowly working my way around the building to get back on the road. I was headed to my therapy appointment next, so I mused as I coasted, plotting out what to say about the past week.

To my delight, I realized that I had mostly good things to report. Maybe it doesn’t look like it from the outside, but on the inside, I’m doing really well.  A year ago, I reminded myself, I would have done unhealthy and useless such-and-such, but now I’m more likely to do sensible and productive thus-and-so. A year ago, I would have been all bogged down in nonsense X, but now I’m working my way steadily through manageable plan Z. Why! I marvelled in my head, I’m even getting better at that mindfulness stuff!

“BRAAAAAAAAAAAAAPPPPP-GGGNNNNNAAAAAAAAA-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh-guhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguhguh,” said the van.

A horrible, scraping, flapping, grinding sound from the front end, the kind of sound that makes your heart drop right out of your chest.

My initial diagnosis was that the engine had broken into two halves which were angrily trying to crush each other into rubble. Or possibly the transmission had fused and was fixing to explode. Not a healthy sound. I pulled over as quickly as I could, parked, and dragged myself out of my seat, cold with dread, preparing my eyeballs to find that the front end had spontaneously crumpled itself into a smoking, oily ruin.

I . . . had hit a pylon.

A big old fluorescent orange traffic pylon, about three feet high, and it was wedged under the front bumper, and was dragging on the pavement. That’s it. I have no idea where it came from because, duh, I didn’t see it. I was too busy thinking about how good I was at mindfulness.

I tried to pull the pylon it out, but it was pretty stuck. So I got back in the van, backed up a bit, got out, and yanked it out. I sheepishly threw it into the passenger seat, drove around front of the building, punched on the hazards, tossed the pylon out onto the grass, and got the hell out of there before anyone recognized me.

(Because no one recognizes the dented white 15-passenger van with the peeling blue racing stripes and the raggedy pro-life bumper stickers on it, no sir. Completely anonymous. No one will harass my kids about it, definitely not.)

Yeah. So. Mindfulness! I’m ever so good at it, on the inside.

I wasn’t really wrong. It has been a very productive year. I have lots of hope and even some confidence about the future, I feel at peace most of the time, and I have much more interior freedom than I’ve ever had.

Therapy has been literally a game-changer for me. So much of my life has been taken up with all-consuming mental and emotional games that I didn’t really want to play, but which I didn’t know how to quit. I knew I wasn’t happy, and I knew I was making other people unhappy, but I was afraid that getting healthier would mean losing my identity. I wasn’t crazy about my personality, but, well, it was me. It was what I had, all I knew. Even if the ground I was travelling was unpleasant and rocky, I didn’t really fancy jumping off a cliff into the blind mist.

Well, it hasn’t been like that. I’m still myself. I’m more myself than I used to be. The mental illness of lifelong anxiety and depression were not, are not the real me. I’m closer now to being the real me than I used to be. I still have ups and downs, and I still have plenty of work to do. I don’t always act the way I want to; but at least I feel like I have a choice in how I respond to the world.I’m not on any drugs, because I don’t need them right now. It’s been a very good year.

Does it seem this way from the outside, to people who know me and live with me? I have no idea. For all I know, the rest of the world still sees me driving around like an idiot with an orange pylon wedged under my bumper, and it’s only by good luck that it is just a pylon, and not a puppy dog or a crossing guard. I hope that my work with therapy has made life easier or better for people who have to live and work with me, but I am not sure.

Either way, it’s been worth it.

I’m telling you in case you need the encouragement to make that phone call (or several phone calls). Get a good therapist, be honest, do the work, be persistent, and your ride through life will get a lot smoother in the best possible way. You’ll still be in the driver’s seat, and even if you do have to drive off a cliff at some point, you won’t be in free fall forever, I promise. If you stick with it, you will still be yourself. More yourself.

On the inside, anyway. On the outside? Just keep an eye open for crossing guards, I guess. But you can do it! And it will be worth it.

Here’s more of what I’ve written about going to therapy and about taking an SSRI.

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Image: “Road Meditation” by Nickolai Kashirin via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A note about the photo: I am not saying that I would have hit this chick with my van on purpose, but I am saying that if I did hit her, it definitely would have been on purpose. That’s the magic of mindfulness!

Does pop psychology make us bad Christians?

Sigmund_Freud_Bobble_Head_Wackelkopf

Yesterday, I wanted to talk about the concept of “enabling,” and how we use the term to give ourselves permission to behave badly. But I ended up talking more about our duty toward transsexuals, and frankly, I bit off more than I can chew!

What I really meant to write about is pop psychology, and how its vocabulary leeches into our psyches and turns us into terrible Christians. We may not be in therapy ourselves, but we’ve read an article, or talked to someone whose niece is in therapy, or watched Dr. Phil, or seen a sitcom where one of the characters has watched Dr. Phil, and we latch onto these catchy phrases and take them into our bosoms and call them our own.

It’s not a bad thing that people are comfortable talking about psychological problems in public. It can be very helpful to realize that we’re not the only ones who struggle, and it’s a relief to discover that our secret weirdness has a name. But the problem comes when we gather up these little bits of information and try to sculpt them into something grand and important — and when we use them as an excuse to be selfish, inflexible, lazy, or rude.

A young Catholic woman once told me, “Oh, I have a medical reason not to fast on Good Friday. I get light headed.” Mind you, she didn’t have some dangerous condition that would make her pass out while driving on the freeway. She just meant that, when she didn’t eat, she felt hungry. She had persuaded herself that she had a right to optimal comfort at all times, and that modern medicine backed her up, and excused her from self-discipline.

We do the same with our psyches: we persuade ourselves that we are entitled never to feel frustrated, uncomfortable, or put out — and looky here! There’s an official-sounding word that gives us permission not to fight against our inclinations. Not only does this abuse of terms let us off the hook, it trivializes the struggle of people who truly suffer from serious psychological conditions, as I explained in my post about triggers. 

Some people suffer from genuine anxiety disorders; some of us just get worried sometimes. I can be an “introvert” and still force myself introduce myself to a stranger at a party. I’m not “addicted” to Facebook; I just have an extremely strong habit that is hard to break. Some people carry the cross of being bi-polar, but I’m don’t; I just need to work harder to control my emotions so I don’t make everyone miserable.

What other examples are there of modern people pathologizing everyday life?

Enabling. As I said in my other post,

 Enabling is when you offer a shot of whiskey to someone who’s struggling to stop drinking, because hey, it’s his choice. Enabling is when you bail your no-good, DUI, vandal, rapist son out of jail because it might frighten him to spend a night in the tank with actual criminals. Enabling is when you lie to your buddy’s wife to cover up for his infidelity. Enabling is cleaning up the mess, sheltering a sinner from the consequences of his behavior, making it easy for someone to avoid facing the truth of what his life has become.

But it’s not “enabling” to treat someone with respect. It’s not “enabling” to treat someone as an equal. It’s not “enabling” to say, “Nah, I guess I don’t need to swat you down.”  It’s not our place to treat everyone we meet as if they are in some way our patient, our spiritual underling, our disappointing ward.

And yet, lately, everyone with a keyboard and the ability to skim Wikipedia deems himself enough of a expert to dish out therapeutic protocols to everyone who crosses his path. 

The concept of “enabling,” and the idea that we must avoid it at all costs, has permeated American culture. It’s so popular because it allows us to feel self-righteous about being selfish. I’d like to give you want you want, but it would be bad for you. So I refuse to help. You’re welcome!  Why should my tax money go to giving an adequate meal to a kid who turns up without his lunch money again? We’ve given them three warnings; continuing to feed this child will just enable irresponsible parenting. This mindset allows us to bypass a panhandler, deny mercy to someone who screwed up (even though we know darn well that we’ve screwed up ourselves), and say no to just about anyone who needs our help, because if you look hard enough, you can discover some way that it’s their fault. And poof go the corporal works of mercy.

What are some other examples?

Setting boundaries. Sometimes setting boundaries makes life livable. Sometimes you really have to lay down the law and tell your mother-in-law, No, you may not make a key to our apartment so you can rearrange my cupboards while I’m having surgery, and no, you may not show my kid movies I’ve forbidden, and you may not feed her peanut butter to help her get over her allergies. It’s okay to say, “I’m sorry, I’m too busy to help you right now.” Some people need to learn how to stand up to outrageously pushy people, and some people need to learn how to say “no” without letting everyone down and being a worthless person.

However, it’s not “setting boundaries” when we simply refuse to do our part, or refuse to take our eyes off our own needs and desires and preferences. Yet I’ve heard it used this way: “I’m setting boundaries with my husband! From now on, I do my laundry, I cook my meals, I clean up my  messes, I buy my food, I fetch my own coffee, I do what I want on the weekend, and I have my bank account . . . but him? He’s on his own.” Setting boundaries is to allow us to live our lives, not to thoroughly insulate us from other people. The ledger of the demands we make on other people, and the demands they make on us, will not always turn out even at the end of the day! Setting up partitions between us and other people is not a way of life; it’s for emergency situations, when we or another person are way out of line.

Toxic people. We can waste a lot of time trying to have healthy, pleasant, fruitful interactions with people who simply aren’t interested in any of that. Every time you spend time with a toxic person, you end up feeling like you’re the crazy one, because they can’t seem to function without rage, drama, bitterness, recriminations, emotional manipulations, accusations, treachery, and lies.  So it’s a good idea to realize: This is just a toxic person, and unless there’s some miracle, I’m probably never going to have a normal relationship with him. It’s probably best for both of us if I just limit how much time I spend with him, or at least have very low expectations of our relationship. I can’t control who he is, but I can control how I will respond to him.

But we can’t just slap a “toxic” label on everyone who challenges us. Maybe he’s behaving badly because he’s suffering, and you should try to be extra kind. Maybe you’re the one who’s being unreasonable! Maybe he’s just kind of difficult, but you can just avoid bringing up certain topics of conversation, and you’ll have a peaceful relationship that way. It’s actually pretty rare to come across someone who is beyond hope, socially; so if we have a long list of “toxic people” whom we simply refuse to deal with, we might want to look in the mirror.

What else? What psychological terms have you seen abused? And . . . heh heh . . . are you kind of anal about it?

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At the Register: When Your Child Has Problems

Bouncing off Jen Fitz’s advice for Christian parents of transgendered children, I have a few things to say about children in general:

When a child begins to exhibit some behavior that is worrisome, it’s easy to panic, to jump to conclusions, to apply adult-style significance to juvenile behavior, or to assume that we can make a diagnosis based on a single symptom or habit.

Here’s the basic idea, whether we’re talking about a child who is actually fine, and just going through a phase, or a child who actually needs professional help:  remember that we’re talking about a person, not a problem.

Read the rest at the Register.

At the Register: Don’t Shoot Those Helicopters Down

Why can’t gay people (or depressed people, or anxious people, or people with temptations that are not my temptations) just shut up and go to confession?

PIC helicopter rescue