Mental Health Check-Up

“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my savior and my God.” Psalm 42:5-6

“Where are you?” Terry anxiously asked with a tone I had never heard before in my new fiancé. Confused, I thought I was at the train station stop Terry promised to meet me at in Elgin, Illinois. Instead, it was the very station he had admonished me to avoid, being in a sketchy area of town. In the mid-90s, without cell phones, we both had been looking for one another for an hour. Fifteen minutes later after his question, we were reunited but Terry needed time to calm down from his adrenaline rush, worried that something had happened to me. It was a situation that we would revisit often in our relationship: Terry’s attention to directions, my brain buzzing when receiving said directions, and him later asking the question, “Where are you?” I take all the responsibility. When I am given directions, I hear buzzing like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons. We stay married due to the advent of technology, cell phones, and map apps.

I had my first panic attack five years ago. I was in a meeting and suddenly I felt the room spin with words bouncing off the walls. My heart was beating rapidly, while a sheen of sweat arose on my body. I began to tremble, scrunching up my shoulders, wrapping my arms around myself, making myself smaller. My husband saw the look of terror cross my face, squeezed my hand, until the meeting finished. We left the room, got into the car, where I exhaled all my anxiety, feeling both drained and confused.

I continued having panic attacks for the next two years, although at the time I didn’t recognize them as such. Instead, once a week in a particular place, I felt a cold flush run across my body, and I began to get butterflies followed by trembling. I quickly excused myself and escaped outdoors. Lifting my head up to the hot sun, I soaked in its warmth. After my breathing became more regulated, I would quietly go back into the place, desperately trying to avoid attention. This occurred for months, until the pandemic offered me some relief from my routine. But the second my routine went back to normal, the panic attacks returned.

 May is Mental Health Awareness month. It is the month in which we hope to bring more awareness to mental health issues and remove some of the stigma. Public service ads, social media posts, and hashtags attempt to make a dent in this vast issue covering depression, anxiety, suicide ideations, disordered eating behaviors, post traumatic and complex stress disorder, and so much more. Yet, we still see major media figures like Stephen “tWitch” Boss take their own lives without any outward hint of depression, leaving family and community stunned. We hear about people’s mental health struggles years later, while their recent cancer diagnosis makes the round of news. We still label people as crazy or deranged when they struggle with mental health issues.

My own record in dealing with my own mental health and those of whom I love has not always been great. I, too, have treated myself with shame and have shamed others dealing with their own struggles. I, too, have missed important signs in those I love when they have struggled with suicide and depression. I, too, have adopted the strategy of pulling yourself up by your boots straps to deal with depression or anxiety. And this has hurt me and those I love in ways I never intended.

I am learning to validate other people’s feelings, and not judge them based on their feelings. I am also educating myself about some of the common mental health disorders. Depression doesn’t always look like someone is on the verge of tears, and anxiety can manifest as cold flushes. When describing someone with mental health concerns, I use language that is sensitive and inclusive. How we talk about mental health shapes how we view it.

As for my own mental health, I am learning some healthy coping strategies to deal with anxiety and my emotions. I value rest, making it a priority in my life. I recognize the foods I put into my body will either nourish or deplete my mental capacity. I am working on breathing techniques and the importance of pausing between activities. I also realize the importance of being out in nature and how it grounds me, opening my senses to creativity and beauty.

The biggest lesson I have learned is the importance of vulnerability. For many years, I thought being a Christian meant I couldn’t share my hard stuff. I believed that if my feelings or emotions were out of control, it indicated that something was wrong in my relationship with God. But when looking at some of the major characters in the Bible, we see their vulnerability etched in scriptures. They were not afraid to call out to God and invite Him into their raw emotions. And these examples validate my emotions and my witness with God.  And in turn, you readers, by reading and affirming my writing, have confirmed that vulnerability leads to healing and wholeness.

Reader, I don’t know if you have, or are currently struggling with, any mental health issues. I do know that at some point in your life, you or someone you love will likely struggle in this area. I encourage you to educate yourself, change your language, and be open to vulnerability. Maybe you won’t write a blog post about your struggles with suicide ideation. But you can share with a friend how God has moved you towards healing. Maybe you are an artist and create a piece reflecting your history with trauma. Or maybe you are honest with your siblings about how trauma has shaped you.

 Finally, we need to be intentional in doing an internal mental health checkup along with one with our friends and family. Terry and I have adopted the first question God asked Adam and Eve: “Where are you.” God wasn’t asking for their location with GPS coordinates. Unlike Terry in relation to me, God knew that Adam and Eve were hiding behind the bushes. He was creating an opportunity for them to confess and be honest about the condition of their hearts. Terry and I ask each other this question, not because either of us are lost. Instead, it’s an opportunity to share with each other the conditions of our heart and soul. Sometimes, my response can be a flippant “I’m good.”  But Terry asks again, “Where are you really at?” I pause and self-examine my heart and share what’s really going on. These check-ups keep the doors of communication open with true vulnerability.

 My panic attacks ended after I did some hard work and made some healthy changes in my life. David addresses mental health concerns in Psalm 42:5. He asks, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” My questions were different; I was asking God, “Why am I so anxious? Why do I feel stress in this place?” After a lot of internal work, I can echo David’s response, “I will put my hope in God. I will praise him again, my Savior and my God!” This wasn’t a mantra that I repeated to calm myself down. Instead, it took time, effort, and work to get from a place of anxiety to hope.

Reader, if you are experiencing any mental health struggles, reach out to someone today! Despite what you may be feeling, you are not alone! And you are important to your family, community and, most importantly, to God.

Third Act

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16

A few weeks ago, I started The Last Thing He Told Me by Laura Dave, an intense drama about Hannah’s disappearing husband. That night, I shared with my husband how engrossed I became in the story. I attempted to finish it later that evening, but my melatonin-induced haze overtook me. So, I reluctantly closed the book. The next morning, Terry found an audio book, and within the same day had the audacity to finish the book before I did! With a smirk, he teased “the ending took me by surprise.” I begged him to give me a hint. Of course, he refused, this same scenario having played out many times in our marriage. That night, I fought the melatonin and found for myself the surprise ending.

The endings of movies, books, and TV shows can leave me feeling sad, satisfied, or surprised. Some tragic endings leave me in a puddle of tears or maybe a bit frustrated with the writer or producer. I sometimes feel satisfied with a tragic ending if the story overall was heartwarming and complete. And some endings take me by surprise, with my heart racing as fast as the words across the page. But no matter what emotions the story elicits, a good ending should wrap up the story, bringing the disparate pieces together. And then I can close the book, breathing a sigh of satisfaction.

It’s my birthday this week. Last year was celebrated with confetti, streamers, and a party. This year, we will be in Rhode Island to celebrate a plethora of birthdays along with baby Eva’s dedication. With all my immediate family, and a visit to Groundswell (my favorite Rhode Island bakery), I find this quieter celebration a perfect way to mark turning 51.

Four years ago, I started writing this blog during what might be defined as a mini mid-life crisis. I felt a little displaced, having ended my role as a home educator and launched my children into adulthood. I was no longer a young married woman but was well on my way into the second half of my marriage. I started to address some of my health concerns, and although my body felt the strongest it had in a long time, visible lines etched my face. I wrote to share with others my struggles in adapting to this new phase of life. And through words, I began to find my place.

Around the same time, I discovered the world of podcasts. Podcasts help me think, explore, and write about my world. They open me up to new ideas, new interests, and add books to my TBR list. The list of podcasts I listen to is wide and varied. Some, like Confronting Christianity and the BEMA podcast align themselves with my Christian worldview, examining faith and how it informs our world. Cherry Bombe and Ruthie’s Table are related to food and women in the food industry. I listen to some podcasts that are book related and others that explore nature.

A month ago, as I was mowing my lawn, in my peripheral vision, I noticed a hole in the ground that looked like it was moving. I abhor anything rodent-related and was convinced that a bunch of moles would run out of the hole and chase me because I had disturbed their slumber. I quickly found my husband, informing him of my fear. He went out with me, and after a closer inspection, we saw a baby bunny meander out of the hole. It ambled over to the uncut grass, munching on clover. With the sun already setting, we decided to stop mowing to prevent any baby bunny mishaps. The next day, I finished mowing only to discover a few more holes in my yard. Apparently, this bunny and his relatives have decided to create a bunny warren under my lawn.

Just like the rabbit trails in my yard, my podcasts often lead me to discover other podcasts. Last week, I started listening to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ Wiser Than Me podcast. As a sixty-two-year-old woman, she interviews older women to tap into to their wisdom. This newest podcast has had me laughing out loud while taking notes and pondering new ways of looking at the world. Her first interview was with Jane Fonda. At age 85, Fonda is still acting in both movies and a hit TV show. Additionally, she still takes her role as an activist very seriously. In this interview, she talked about being in her third and final act, where she wants to continue to live her life to the fullest. At the same time, she wants to end well by making sure she cleans up her messes. This included apologizing to her children for not being a great mom. Despite all her accomplishments, Fonda believes that the third act might be the most important in her life.

I really hope I live to be at least 90 years old. But if I look at life expectancy for the average woman, I am technically in my second act, fast approaching my third. And, like Jane Fonda, I want to be mindful of how I finish.

At fifty-one, I am no longer in a mid-life crisis. Instead, I am more confident in who I am and who I want to be. I no longer expend energy striving to be a good Christian, checking the boxes of my to-do list for gaining approval. Instead, I spend time with Jesus through prayer, worship, and His word. This leads me to a greater understanding of His character, including His mercy and grace. I have embraced my sense of curiosity, which not only leads me to interesting podcasts, but to a more well-rounded view of life. Finally, I keep cleaning up the messes I have made as a wife, sister, daughter, mother, and friend. This looks like honesty, apologies, and ownership. And, like Fonda, I want to live my life to the fullest, embracing opportunities to connect with those I love. I am not looking for a surprise ending or one that is tragic, but instead one that is complete.

*Just a friendly note, Wiser Than Me may be a little salty for some of my readers. Personally, I am choosing not to stay in my own lane with podcasts so that I don’t’ live my life in an echo chamber. This may or may not be a podcast for you.

Peonies and Ants

“We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.” Romans 15:3

Five years ago, I planted my first peony bush, a Mother’s Day gift from my children. I faithfully watered it, patiently waiting until the following spring to see it bloom. The next year, the peony came up with a few beautiful blush pink ruffled flowers, so I decided to plant another one. I chose a soft white peony with delicate yellow centers. A year later, that one also produced a few blooms, while its older sister’s pink blooms arrived a bit taller and more numerous. This spring, both have exploded with buds cloaked in lush foliage. Every time I step outside, I visit the peonies, delighted with the elegant flowers flanking the side of my home. Mary Oliver’s poem, Peonies, echoes in my brain when she says, “This morning the green fists of the peonies are getting ready to break my heart as the sun rises, as the sun strokes with his old, buttery fingers, and they open – pools of lace, white and pink—.” I cut a few buds, filling vases with peony magic throughout my home.

When I share with others the joy my peonies bring me, I get two contrasting responses. One matches my joy with long oohs and gushes about how much they too love peonies. The other has been a curt response, “You do know that peonies are covered with ants, don’t you?” The person may or may not go on with a story about ant-filled peonies in their home and how it invaded their food pantry. I leave the conversation a bit dejected, as if my balloon of joy has been pricked with a tiny needle, and the air is slowly leaking out, leaving behind only wilted peony petals.

I have heard the tale of ants and peonies from at least ten people. Even Mary Oliver continues her poetic imagery with the next line in her poem, “and all day the black ants climb over them,”. I half expected an ant invasion of my delicate peonies only to be pleasantly surprised to find only one or two strolling aimlessly across the petals. When I share that fact with the naysayers, they are astounded. Some have suggested that I must use a pesticide to prevent the ants, but my negative reply sends them away shaking their heads in disbelief.

Some of the stories about the ants have been relayed in a less negative manner, sharing with me that ants are necessary for peonies to propagate. But my peonies remain relatively “ant-less” and still manage to explode. I did some research on ants and peonies to get to the bottom of the mystery. It is a myth that ants are needed for peonies to bloom. People with rooftop gardens can successfully plant peonies that will bloom without needing to transplant an ant farm as well. But ants do have a special relationship with peonies. They are attracted to the sugary nectar, and once a scout finds a peony, he will inform other ants to join in the feast. These ants are beneficial to the peony bush, because they help ward off aphids, thrips, and other pests that will destroy the buds. Scientists refer to this relationship as biological mutualism, each benefiting from the presence of the other.

Biological mutualism happens throughout the natural world. We see oxpeckers, a bird riding on large mammals, eating parasites like ticks. This provides an easy meal for the bird and helps reduce disease in the mammals. The Disney movie “Finding Nemo” helped educate us on the relationship between clownfish and anemones. Botanists are finding that trees can communicate with one another through the presence of fungi who thrive near their roots. The key to biological mutualism is that both species benefit from the relationship.

While this may benefit the natural world, I wonder how often this idea of biological mutualism shapes the paradigm of how I interact with others. Do I look at relationships with others through the lens of what I receive? And most importantly, how does Christ want us to treat others?

These are hard questions, convoluted with a lot of different nuances. It’s important to have healthy relationships in your life, where you are both giver and receiver. These relationships fill you, allowing you to be vulnerable and transparent. They also help nourish you, providing you with a healthy foundation. For me, these relationships include my husband, family, and close friends.

But not every relationship will be that mutually beneficial. Does this lack of mutual benefit give us a pass on being in a relationship? The Message Bible answers this question by paraphrasing Paul’s words in Romans 15. It says “Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not for status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves how can I help.” Different translations of the Bible affirm that we need to help others. They do not ask us to assess how much we are going to receive back from helping. They don’t ask us to do a cost benefit analysis, asking what their responsibility is and what is just enabling. The scriptures simply state that if we are strong, we are called to help those who are weak.

I have not always done this well. There are times I have been frustrated in helping others, annoyed with what seemed like ingratitude. Other times I have counted the cost and set boundaries because I felt others were taking advantage of me. And even worse, I have grumbled while helping, making my good deeds ugly in the eyes of God.

I agree, we need to set healthy boundaries in life. We can’t give from an empty well. Just this week, I recognized that my RA was affecting my body in such a way that I needed extra rest. I had to let my dear friend know that I couldn’t watch her sweet twin boys on Monday. This was a wise decision not based on convenience. But how often have I used excuses in the past to only do what is convenient?

I am called to sacrifice, and this includes both time and resources. Only I know, through prayer and honesty, when I am truly sacrificing. There are some questions I need to ask myself. Am I helping in a visible way so I can receive accolades? Am I only reaching out within my circle, or am I stepping outside of my circle to help? Am I being close-fisted or open-handed with what God has entrusted to me? Am I grumbling while helping?

The answers to these questions don’t always show me as a stellar example of Christianity. Instead, my actions often lead me to repentance. And I keep moving forward, trying to live out Romans 15 in a way that aligns me with the example of Jesus. When I think about how Jesus would answer these questions, I see a man who ministered to others even when no one else was around. He ministered continuously to the marginalized of society. He regularly gave so fully of himself that he was exhausted to the point of sleeping through a storm at sea. Finally, although in his flesh He asked for the cup to pass, He walked willingly to the cross without complaint.

Mary Oliver continues her poem by asking a question, “Do you also hurry, half dressed, and barefoot, into the garden, and softly, and exclaiming of their dearness, fill your arms with the white and pink flowers, with their honeyed heaviness, their lush trembling, their eagerness to be wild and perfect for a moment before they are nothing, forever?” My peonies may have another week or so of blooms before they fall silent for the rest of the summer. It’s a few fleeting weeks of joy for me, where I gather the blooms with delight. I also have a few fleeting moments to gather with and bless those around me with the love of Jesus. Will I run to do His not-always-convenient will, or will I shrink away from the ants on my peonies?

Truth, Goodness, and Beauty

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8

In the 1990s, Mary Engelbreit’s artwork appeared on cards, calendars, and even fabrics. Her designs included cherries on a black background speckled with white polka dots that captured the hearts of many Americans. Her cards had witty sayings, leading to her illustrating a few children’s books as well. Terry read a book about her design aesthetic, which was a collected, curated look. She believed in the motto of William Morris, leader of the British Arts and Craft movement. He said, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be beautiful or believe to be useful.”

Once a week, Terry and I indulge in a few shows on the Magnolia Network. We love story-themed shows about food, home décor, and gardening. This differs from the fast-paced competition shows where a few chefs receive a box of food and are expected to create an incredible meal. It also differs from the house flipping episodes where predictably the foundation is slipping or there is something wrong with the plumbing. There is nothing wrong with these shows, and we still occasionally watch those as well. But we love the stories behind artisans and farmers who create and produce unique products.

Recently, Jean Stoffer from The Established Home talked about the importance of a well-designed room. She believed that three elements were needed: something old with patina, something alive such as a plant, and a piece of art. In this episode she highlighted the work of a local painter who captured still life in oil. Stoffer used a few small pieces of her art to decorate a large kitchen she was remodeling.

Her comment in conjunction with William Morris’s quote made me think about the importance of art and my relationship to art. I didn’t grow up appreciating fine art. Instead, my elementary art class reinforced my lack of coordination when I struggled to color within lines or draw simple objects. I never went to an art museum, believing that art didn’t speak to the masses, but was only for the wealthy who lived in big cities. And although I knew some of the main artists, I didn’t understand the different schools of art or how major artists influenced the art world and beyond.

This started to change when I was exposed to art in college by my favorite professor, Dr Hans Bader. In 1991, Dr. Bader turned off the classroom lights to show us slides of Russian art. My college experience happened in the ancient days before the caffeinated latte craze. Thus, my afternoon slump left me struggling, pinching myself every so often to stay awake. I knew that he would ask us to describe a few of these art pieces and their importance for a future test. Dr. Bader described the paintings, sculptures, and architecture in ways that made it all come alive. And as the class went on, I found myself no longer pinching, but awake and listening with wonder.

Around this time, my Aunt Brenda started painting and teaching some of my friends to paint. They created beautiful pieces and I saw how art was a form of expression for these budding artists. When I moved to the Chicago area, I remember hearing that The Art Institute of Chicago was a premier museum housing original pieces by Monet, Seurat, and Van Gogh. I took advantage of my location and visited this museum several times, including during the largest touring Monet Exhibition. And then I had children and was intentional in making art accessible to them through museum visits and learning art history. Eventually, I realized that art was not limited to a certain socio-economic status but was for everyone to enjoy. More importantly, art became important to me.

Art, like beauty, is often believed to be in the eye of the beholder. I love the fuzzy images of impressionists; it makes me feel like I have stepped into an imaginary land where anything is possible. I love how Van Gogh’s use of color expresses his evolving emotions. I have even discovered some modern artists like Makoto Fujimura who collaborates with Japanese artisans to use materials to layer and paint images of the gospel. I also love the finger painting my grandson made me, especially when he specifically told his mom he was painting this one for Mimi! I have even tried my hand at art, sketching flowers, and plants.

Russ Ramsey, author of Rembrandt Is in the Wind, Learning to Love Art through the Eyes of Faith, argues that “The pursuit of goodness, the pursuit of truth, and the pursuit of beauty are, in fact, foundational to the health of any community.” As a Christian, I started my faith journey by pursuing truth. I viewed every sermon, every reading of the Bible, and every experience with the task of exposing the truth of who God was and how I should live my life. This view narrowed my world, hyper focusing on truth and principles. And then a few years ago, my faith hit a major crisis, and I needed to rest in the goodness of God. I recognized that mercy and grace were fundamental to the Christian faith. Without them, my faith would have long since collapsed in a pile of legalistic rubbish!

Now, I am focused on the pursuit of beauty. Elaine Scarry, author of On Beauty and Being Just, says, “Beauty quickens. It adrenalizes. It makes the heart beat faster. It makes life more vivid, animated, living worth living.” I have purposed to have art on my walls, believing it adds beauty to my home. But all too often, I move around my home, focused on the tasks of life. I see the shelves that need to be dusted, the floor that needs to be vacuumed, and the pile of papers that needs to be organized. These tasks are important; clean, organized spaces allow art to shine. But are my art pieces just accessories, or do they help make living worth living?

And this is where I pause to focus on the art in my home. I have two prints from a Pennsylvania artist that Terry and I discovered on a trip to the Brandywine Art Museum. These landscapes prints flank a window in my living room, adding color, beauty, and peace to my space. I can look out my window and see bunnies hopping around in my yard, or a bird resting in the grass. And then my eyes can bounce to my pictures, expanding my view of the outside world. I am also privileged to have some original artwork from my Aunt Brenda. These pieces meet me every day when I climb the stairs at bedtime. Again, I can pause and gaze on the cypress trees against the Italian sky she drew for my husband and remind myself of dreams I still hope to live.

I am currently looking to redo the décor on the walls in my kitchen. I know on one wall; we want a white board calendar to help us get a better handle on our busy schedule. Not only will it record our responsibilities, but it will be a space where we can be intentional in carving out time for beauty. On the other wall, I want a piece of art to reflect my growing awareness of the importance of beauty in my relationship with God. I haven’t found the right pieces but am on the hunt for something that draws me closer to God.

Seeking beauty is just as important to me as seeking truth and goodness. It reminds me that my hope is not in this world, especially when ordinary living feels challenging. I have been struggling with my Rheumatoid Arthritis and all the other disorders I have in conjunction with it. Most days, I struggle just to get out of bed. And most evenings, I struggle to find a position in bed that doesn’t hurt one or more of my joints. It would be easy for me to wallow in my pain. But I believe that lifting my gaze to beauty that God has created, or endowed an artist to create, helps me see past my pain. As Makato Fujimura writes in his book Culture Care, “Beauty is a gratuitous gift of the creator God, it finds its source and its purpose in God’s character.” And in looking at art, I find the peace and hope that I know is in my God.