A Pirate’s Life for Me

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Long have I been fascinated by pirates, specifically the 17th and 18th century variety. Many were coarse, foul, murderous thieves. Others, usually British or French, operated under the authority of the government as “privateers.” Most really did abide, at least loosely, by the dictates of a pirate code, which varied from ship to ship. These codes were at times strikingly democratic; crew members, no matter how lowly, each had a vote in “the affairs of the moment,” as Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts put it. There were female pirates – Cheng I Sao, Grace O’Malley, Anne Bonny, Mary Read – who could and did go toe-to-toe with any man.

This “golden age of piracy” has been romanticized in novels and on the big screen for decades, but the reasons for deciding on the brutal, short life of a pirate were anything but glamorous. European governments had no problem with impressing lower-class men into naval service (i.e., slavery on a ship), leaving their families behind to fend for themselves – a situation that rarely ended well. In a sense, the choice was between the harshness of respectability or a life of criminal activity. Rock and hard place, no doubt.

This is, of course, hugely generalized. Go read some history books to learn more.

You’re probably wondering if I’m cool with murder, rape and pillaging. Of course not. The above is meant to provide context for the rest of this piece.

I searched through the archives in an attempt to find words written during what was, to this point, the darkest period of my adult life. There are only two entries, neither of which goes into great detail about the struggle. No, less of a struggle, more of an onslaught. Either I didn’t post much then or whatever other entries that once existed were purged. I’m guessing the latter, for I know that I worked hard to put on a brave face. Very little in the way of authenticity during those months.

For, you see, tomorrow marks the sixth anniversary of my almost-death.

Some have asked if I share these things in order to gain sympathy or as a way of increasing blog traffic. The answer is: neither. I’m not entirely comfortable writing (and speaking) with such honesty about my experiences with anxiety and depression. I don’t like being so vulnerable. My way of dealing with the world involves sarcasm and pop culture quips. I prefer to be the funny one. If I can’t be the funny one, then I’d like to be the smart one and teach you theology or Tudor history.

Anything but talking about “the feels.”

But I’ve also got this rebellious streak in me. If I can’t make sense of a rule, if it doesn’t fit neatly into a well thought out system of ethics and morality, then I see no reason to abide by the rule. (Yes, this has gotten me into trouble on more than one occasion. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mom). We, generally as a society but specifically as a church culture, have this unspoken rule that mental illness isn’t something we talk about. It’s weird and scary and shameful.

Yeah, well, that’s stupid.

So, here you go: I have Clinical Depression, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Panic Disorder. I take medication – Zoloft – every night before I go to sleep. I’m in my second round of therapy. Chances are good that I’m far more scared of you than you are of me (and I’d be willing to bet that that goes for most people with mental illnesses). I’m not going to hurt you. You don’t have to fix me. I’m not a drain on society. God doesn’t hate me. I can’t “pray it away.”

Clinical Depression is more than feeling sad and it lasts longer than a couple of weeks. It’s being so sad that you don’t even feel sad. You’re numb. It’s a battle to take a shower. You have no interest in anything or anyone. Sometimes all you want to do is stare at the wall. You become furious when you run out of milk. You’re lonely but you don’t want to see anyone. Your body hurts. You’re too tired to sleep.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder is more than worry. It’s feeling scared, all the time, in a low-key way that can be turned up to terror at any second. You’re scared of everything and nothing all at once. You hyper-analyze every situation and interaction. You have to have a plan of escape. You avoid certain places and people.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is more than just “liking things to be neat.” It’s the same unwanted thought, over and over. It’s having to check the alarm three times before you go to sleep. It’s believing, in the back of your mind, if something bad will happen to someone you love if you don’t follow this routine. It’s germophobia. For those of us who lean more obsessive than compulsive, it’s becoming fixated on things.

Panic Disorder is more than a moment of surprise. It’s lips tingling, hands going numb, hyperventilating, chest pains, passing out and shaking violently. It’s being convinced that you’re having a heart attack. It’s your brain randomly and nonsensically flooding itself with chemicals like norepinephrine and dopamine.

I have a funky brain. It doesn’t function properly. Why should this surprise anyone who’s read the third chapter of Genesis? We live in a fallen, broken world, people. There is no atom, no neuron, no electron, not one single part or piece that has escaped the effects of the Curse.

My advice?

Accept it, get over it and stop telling hurting people, in word or action, that they suck.

Because here’s the thing: Satan is already telling us that we suck. His mission is to steal, kill and destroy (John 10:10). He loves to capitalize on the brokenness that we’re born with. My brain doesn’t work the way it should, which means my mind doesn’t always interpret or respond to the world the way it should, which means that Satan slides right in there with his lies. Already disposed to think that you’re not safe? Well, you definitely aren’t. Already lean toward fear of abandonment? Nobody likes you and you’re going to end up all alone.

Feeling lost, sad and trapped in the dark? You useless pile of crap. Just kill yourself.

See? We need no help in that department.

Instead of fearing and disdaining and judging us, come be part of our pirate crew.

Satan wants to steal our very lives. He is a murderer. He gets his jollies off by ruining and ending all that he can.

But God.

Holy words, you know. Words of hope.

God is bigger. Mightier. Better. Stronger. In no way is Satan his opposite or equal. That’s what the Father of Lies would like us to think. That’s what he’d like to think about himself. Nobody is equal to God. Nobody is more powerful than He is. He speaks these kinds of words to His children:

“So I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten,

The crawling locust,

The consuming locust,

And the chewing locust,

My great army which I sent among you.

You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,

And praise the name of the LORD your God,

Who has dealt wondrously with you;

And My people shall never be put to shame.

Then you shall know that I am in the midst of Israel:

I am the LORD your God

And there is no other.

My people shall never be put to shame.”

“No weapon formed against you shall prosper,

And every tongue which rises against you in judgment

You shall condemn.

This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD,

And their righteousness is from Me,”

Says the LORD.

The LORD also will be a refuge for the oppressed,

A refuge in times of trouble.

– Joel 2:25-27; Isaiah 54:17; Psalm 9:9 (NKJV)

These words were originally written to Israel and are tied to the covenant of Genesis 12. Nevertheless, there is an overarching principle that Gentile (non-Jewish) believers may cling to: God sees our trouble and knows our pain. He will, in His good way and in His good time, fix what has been broken and restore what has been taken.

The Devil tried to steal my life.

I, as a daughter of the King, washed in the blood of Christ, standing on His promises, am empowered to steal it back. Bit by bit, day by day, looking onwards and upwards in hope. Nothing about me belongs to that nasty, fallen angel. My whole person, every part of me, everything I am and all that I have, belongs to God.

If I have to choose between the facade of churchy respectability and a life lived out on the edge of faith, then it’s a pirate’s life for me. Whatever Satan tries to take, I will, by the grace and power of God, take it back – and then some.

Join me, won’t you?

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Review: On Edge

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (2)

Gentle Reader,

On December 5, 1989, Andrea Petersen suffered a crippling panic attack. Over the next year, she would be in and out of doctor’s offices, attempting to figure out what was wrong. Finally, sitting in the campus health office of her college, she hears the words that will mark her life forever: anxiety disorder.

Of all the books in the world, I figured that I would relate to and appreciate this one.

Weirdly, I didn’t.

Petersen is a medical reporter for the Wall Street Journal, and this shows in her writing. Instead of straightforward memoir, she fills the chapters with an overload of background information about synapses and chemicals and medications, leading to a denseness that was difficult to get through. Having read many books on this topic, I know that there is such a thing as too much information, especially if one is reading these books in an attempt to understand and therefore battle anxiety in a more effective way.

That, perhaps, seems odd. How can there be too much information? In answer, one word: Overload. Knowledge may be power, but overload is crippling.

Petersen should have written two books: one memoir, one technical. Trying to have both forms in one volume results in a disjointed read.

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I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my fair and honest review.

Five Years On

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Gentle Reader,

At this hour on a Monday, I’m usually be up to my elbows in Zephaniah.

Not today.

This is a special day.

Five years ago, on a cloudy, cool, early autumn day much like this, I determined that my life had no value. No purpose. Enveloped in a dark, intense pain, unlike anything I had ever felt, I concocted a plan. An exit.

An escape.

Those who contemplate or carry out suicide are not in their right minds. Yes, self-murder is an angry act. In some ways, a selfish act. I get that. What you need to understand is that, in the moment, it doesn’t feel angry and it doesn’t seem selfish. Thoughts get twisted. Emotions get jumbled. To commit suicide is to enact the worst, harshest form of judgment on oneself. People in that pit of blackest dark genuinely believe that the best thing they can do, for everyone, is to cease to exist.

It’s a nightmare of hellish proportions.

There are many things I don’t and will never know, but two things I do, five years on:

  1. Mental illness is as real as physical illness, and just as nobody with a broken bone should be expected to “pray it away,” neither should the depressed, the anxious, the schizophrenic, the borderline. Oh, my, yes, prayer is powerful. But it’s stupid and theologically shallow to believe that therapy is sinful and medication is bad. When a person is too sad to get out of bed, so sad that his whole body hurts, is it reasonable or even compassionate to flip a verse or two at him and then judge him for not having “enough” faith when the problem doesn’t go away? Please. What a load of crap. There’s no deliverance or healing in heaping condemnation on someone, especially when she’s busy throwing stones at herself. 
  2. Satan is real, and he wants to kill, steal and destroy (John 10:10). I have been in the midst of evil. I have seen it. I have felt it. Don’t tell me that there is no Enemy. Again, stupid and theologically shallow.

If you’d like to fight me on either of these points, I’m down. Let’s go.

Today I remember. Today I thank God for saving me from myself. Today I sit in the quiet, allowing myself time and space to rest. The war is not over for me. Just over 24 hours ago, I had a panic attack.

But I know in Whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that He is faithful.

If you find yourself worn out, pressed on to the point of being crushed, just so very done with it all – I understand. Sweet friend, I know you’re exhausted. I know you just want to stop the hurting. Jesus Himself felt the same way, that night in the garden when He sweat drops of blood. He knows your agony.

Fight on. Keep going. Take your pills, pray, see a counselor, do whatever you need to do. Get the help that you deserve. Yes, deserve. Because you have value and purpose. You were placed on this planet, in this context, in this generation, for a reason. Anything else is a lie. You don’t have to listen.

I pray today for you, fellow scarred and bruised and bleeding and small sojourner. I stand with you, little sheep who’s wandered so far and wonders if the Shepherd will ever come. He’s already there. You may not feel Him. You may not see Him. But He’s there. He lifts your head and beckons you to look in His eyes. In them is fire.

In them is all the strength you need to slay the beast.

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Five Minute Friday: Path

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

Didn’t make it home on time for the Twitter party or the prompt on Thursday as I was too busy dealing with my car, which decided to not start when it was time for me to leave work. It’s last bit of energy was expended on automatically locking the doors once the key hit the ignition, resulting in a panic-fueled five or so minutes. I finally slammed on the driver’s side door lock, probably breaking it in the process, in order to exit my surprise prison.

Kate says: talk about your path.

Go.

More than once I have been accused of being melodramatic and self-centered. The strange thing about such accusations is that I genuinely strive to be the opposite. Like Mia Thermopolis of Princess Diaries fame, many days, even most days, my goal in life is to remain invisible. I don’t want to make waves. I don’t want to make people angry or upset. I don’t want to be a burden. And, also like the character brought to life by Anne Hathaway, I’m good at it. Perhaps you doubt my claim since I’ve obviously chosen to place my writing on a public platform, but you might be surprised at how much one can say without truly revealing anything at all.

The car refusing to start was the final thing in a long, hard week full of physical exhaustion and mental taxation. It sent me over the edge. I became engulfed in a white-hot fury. I lost my temper, and it has been raging ever since.

I don’t throw things. I don’t yell. I haven’t even cried. In fact, I told myself, out loud, “Don’t you dare cry. It won’t fix anything.” In fact, the only real sign that rage swirls around me is my expression: From default blank (“resting b____ face”) to death stare.

All this anger? I turn it inward.

That’s my path.

I suffer from textbook definition hyper-responsibility. Some would call this arrogance, thinking I have more control over things than I do, but what it really comes down to is fear. Somehow it must be my fault. I don’t know how or when I picked this up. I do know that some of my earliest memories are tinged with it.

I learned in therapy that this is directly related to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This sense of constant failure and need to please sometimes manifests itself in rituals and routines. More often for me, it shows in an inability to speak. To say “no” or “stop” or “you’re/that’s wrong” or “it’s really not my fault that you feel that way/did that thing.” Because I possess a strategic way of thinking, I apply observed patterns of behavior and responses, playing out conversations. If I say this, then he is likely to say that and this will be the outcome and it’s not worth it.

So I went to a dark place in my mind. A very dark place. I said things to myself that I would never say to another person and would never stand hearing another person say to herself. At the root of this self-abuse was the constant echo, I deserve it.

It’s been something of an out-of-body experience, these last two days. Not literally. Just a sense of being disconnected from myself. Times like these are when a theological education can really bite you in the butt. The logical part of my brain knows that I have descended into irrationality. I’m aware that there is a pitched spiritual battle clamoring inside my heart. I know that I have stepped, however timidly, more fully into my calling this summer and I know Satan doesn’t like that. I know that he seeks to hit me where I’m weakest. I know the right answers, yet struggle to apply them.

How does one change her path? How does one move from hyper-responsibility to knowing where she ends and others begin?

I don’t have the answer. It would be a blatant lie if I told you that I did.

It’s not as simple as a single prayer or knowing the Bible better. There is a deep and lasting wound that only God truly understands. Bit by bit across the years I am confronted again and again with it, learning something new each time.

For now, all I can do is hope that the tiny seed of faith buried deep in my soul is enough.

Stop.

September is is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. On the 19th I will pass a milestone, the five-year anniversary of my own brush with self-inflicted death. Please know that those of us who battle our minds really aren’t self-absorbed or selfish. We love. We care. We want to be useful. We long to help others. We simply struggle. Try to understand. And please, whatever you do, don’t use our struggles against us.

My journey to faith. (15)

Photo Credit: Jake Melara