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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Five Minute Friday: When

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

I missed the chat last night due to the ongoing love/hate relationship I have with my computer and technology. There are days when the very thought of opening my laptop makes me tense. This wars with my very real need to keep a writing schedule. And the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Five Minute Friday and the authors I’ve met.

Anyway.

Kate asks us to contemplate: when.

Go.

It’s not an “if.”

It’s a “when.”

Unless the Lord sees fit to release me, I will go through periods of intense anxiety. I can’t necessarily predict when they will come (I was blindsided this week), but I know they will. I know that I will wake up some morning in a cold sweat, heart pounding. I don’t know how long it will last. Sometimes a day, sometimes a month.

Oddly, they do not come when I’m actually in the middle of something that should produce anxiety.

Funny how the mind works.

What becomes of the unmedicated? How can we who are forced to ride the chemical brain waves unaided cope?

It’s a whole lot of, “Help me, Jesus.” It’s a lot of, “Let me find something mindless I can plug into so I don’t over-analyze anything” (hence the fact that I’ve now watched 33 episodes of The Blacklist in 11 days; don’t judge me). It’s a lot of talking to yourself – “Okay, I need to get up. Make the bed. Take a shower. Good, I accomplished all that. Now I can eat breakfast…”

But mostly it’s a whole lot of, “Help me, Jesus,” even if you don’t say it out loud. Even if your mind is too rattled to focus on in-depth prayer or Scripture reading. You are very consistently aware that it is Christ who carries you through.

So before those without this struggle judge the worriers of the world, before casting a superior glance toward the hand-wringers, remember this: We know to take it to Jesus.

We’re doing it every second of the day.

Stop.

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Obsess Over Me

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Gentle Reader,

People often chuckle and say that they’re OCD. What they really mean is that they’re anal or particular. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder is more than liking things “just so.” There are many different ways this can be expressed, but, for me, OCD manifests itself in the form of fixations.

There is a point to this, I promise.

Four years ago I sat in a psychiatrist’s office. He noticed me eyeing the messy stacks on his desk and asked if they bothered me. Since he was a shrink and would probably catch me in a lie, I told him that I had trouble listening to what he was saying because I wanted so badly to put everything away. It also bothered me that the blocks he had on the coffee table were not arranged in neat groupings of three. And some of his books were upside down on the shelves. And the cord on the blinds was a knotted mess.

He asked me a few other questions about routine and intrusive thoughts. He gave me the diagnosis, but told me that there is a spectrum. Those of us with OCD have our own “flavors,” so to speak, and I’m not crippled by the things I have to do to navigate the day. He also told me that OCD can be harnessed for good; the attention to detail is useful in all areas of life. The trick is to not become overwhelmed by the details, which is my constant battle. So I definitely can’t multi-task. I try, but it never works. I make stupid mistakes and wind up feeling very upset.

One way OCD “gets” me is through stories. If the plot of a book, movie, play or television show is good and the characters interesting, I will devour it. There is nothing strange to me about finishing a book in less than a day if I have the opportunity. Nothing strange about rewatching movies so many times I can turn the sound off because I know what all the lines are.

Give me a good story.

And so I am an admitted and unabashed binge-watcher. No, I don’t spend 10 hours a day staring at the television screen (okay, I did do that a couple of times when I was stuck at home after surgery) and I certainly don’t arrange my life around a Netflix viewing schedule, but two or three episodes at a time is no biggie to me. If it’s a show I’ve already seen and love, like Gilmore Girls, I’ll listen while I’m at work.

Give me a good story.

My new favorite is The Blacklist. I’m nearly through the first season and honestly? This show is like fine chocolate. One bite is never enough. Mystery! Action! Deadpan (and yes, dark) humor! Plot twistiness! And, of course, the famously OCD James Spader.

Love it. Love all of it.

My fixations never last very long. I’m what you might call a “super-fan” at first, but once I’ve satisfied the need to know as much as possible about a topic or person (that sounds vaguely stalkerish, but I’m referring mostly to long-dead historical figures) I move on. There are often long periods of time between what might be referred to as these episodes. The love of the thing doesn’t cease, but it cools from giddy infatuation to a calm admiration.

We’re now arriving at the point. Bravo for sticking it out this long.

I was thinking about all this the other day, cataloging the things I’ve been hooked on in the few months (The Tonight Show, the vaccine debate and the aforementioned Blacklist, if you’d like to know), when the Spirit said, “Obsess over Me.”

That…is deep. Profound. Really, isn’t that just like God? Those words make me think of how He uses all things for good in the lives of those called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). He wants to take this quirk of mine, these little idiosyncrasies, and focus them. On Him. For His glory. And my good.

I don’t at all feel condemned or shamed for being fascinated by a show or needing to check my alarm three times before I can go to sleep at night. I don’t feel bad about the little rituals I engage in at work to keep myself from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety. I don’t sense God telling me to give up anything. This isn’t about self-flagellation. Instead, He knows that I have this need to fixate. I have this drive to take a subject, a story, a character, a concept and dig into all the little bits and pieces. He knows that I am drawn in by mystery.

He also knows that all earthly avenues are finite. Books have the final page, shows have finales. But He never ends. No matter how long or how often I study Scripture, I will never get to the bottom of it. There’s always another layer of surprise, something to think about. He continually reveals Himself, bit by bit, and beckons me to take another step. Go a little deeper. My need to fully understand will never be satisfied this side of eternity, so I get to stay in “super-fan” mode. I get to be the excited, giggly person who rushes around saying, “Did you know about this?!”

I have to chuckle at this. I have to shake my head. How wonderful it is that God would take the very things that could cripple us and remake them into the very things that make us good disciples!

My journey to faith. (15)

There is Freedom

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Gentle Reader,

With Independence Day tomorrow, it seems appropriate to write something on the topic of freedom. At the same time, the political expression of my theology often leads to awkward or heated exchanges. (I’m a hardcore pacifist and honestly can’t see how the ethics of Christianity can lead to any other conclusion. A feminist of the old-school sort, meaning that men definitely aren’t evil but women should be treated with real fairness and respect. Against capital punishment. In favor of European-style socialized medicine. Against abortion).

So I’m not going to write about any of that.

I’m also not going to write about how the Revolution wasn’t this glorious, holy, just war that some think it is. I’m not going to write about how the phrase “Christian nation” has several layers of meaning may of which those Founding Fathers of ours may well have scratched their heads at. I’m not going to write about the lack of prayer in schools, how God’s purposes are somehow tied to our national interests or how legalizing homosexual marriage rips at the heart of all that is sacred (which I don’t believe, but that’s a big topic for another post).

And of course this is all completely tongue-in-cheek.

Looking back over the last year, even the last six months, I am…breathless. The Lord has brought me into confrontation with my fears and vices time after time. Occasionally He’s been quite blatant, such as when my mother spoke the words, “You can’t spend the rest of your life avoiding things that scare you” (or something close to that). Most of the time, He’s been more subtle. But I see, day after day, the way in which He’s been peeling back the layers. Taking down the wall of wrong-thinking and false-believing. Forcing me to confront things like:

Gossip

I’m not sue that we ladies realize just how many of our relationships are built on talking about other people. It seems that nothing bonds two women together faster than being snippy about a third. I’ve become more and more conscious of this over the last few weeks, and have resolved to avoid speaking about anyone in a non-honoring way. And to make it right when I forget that resolution.

Drama

While I don’t consider myself a drama queen, I have consistently chosen to forge relationships with those who are. Maybe it’s because I battle an overbearing sense of guilt and want to “fix” things. Maybe it’s because I’ve never believed myself to be worthy of healthy people. But over and over, I find myself getting sucked into places where I have no business being. No more. I’m done with that.

Confrontation

Yes, I have had to confront my fear of confrontation. Part of the problem is that I simply don’t have the first clue how to respond in many situations. I need time to assess what the other person has said or done, to decide if there was any sense or value in the words or actions and to formulate a response accordingly. Some call this being “level headed,” and I am grateful that I’m not emotionally explosive. But there are times when I need to say something, regardless of whether or not it comes out eloquently or whether or not the other person takes it well.

Friendship

My social circle has shifted. We’re not the same people we used to be. That’s a good thing; who wants to stay exactly the same, never growing or changing? There was a string of years where Chris and I were always busy on the weekends. Our tiny apartment and then our little house were usually bursting at the seams with people. I genuinely cherish those memories, but I’m ready to let it go. I no longer expect having relationships with people to look as it did in high school or college. And I’ve never had the desire for friends a mile wide and an inch deep. Give me a few people who know who they are and where they are going.

Work

I believe in libraries. I believe in having access to all sorts of information from all sorts of viewpoints. I don’t agree with all of those viewpoints, but I like being able to look at them and figure out exactly why I don’t agree. I threw off the last vestiges of shame about my job this year. If you don’t like that I work at a library, if you think that’s lame, then…well, you’re probably lame and that’s not my problem.

Work 2.0 

People who want to slack off can smell a good work ethic a mile away. This has been a problem for me for as long as I can remember. I was always the kid who ended up doing all the work in a group project. (Loathe group projects). Now I’m the coworker who will pick up the pieces and make sure it all gets done. I think it’s time to start letting things go. Letting others feel the pinch. It sounds mean, but it’s not. We’re all adults and we should all be able to take responsibility.

Writing

I’ve gotten really excited about the blog. I’m writing in my journal frequently. I honestly don’t think I have a book in me right now. Short bursts on wide-ranging topics are where I roam. And that’s okay.

Hair

I flat-iron less and less often. I only washed my hair once last week. Letting the curls go and do their thing is a BIG DEAL. I’ve always fought them. Always wished them away. Always wished I had thick, straight, red hair. I’ve got fine, curly, brown hair, and it’s developing a white streak on the right side. I can honestly say that I now love the curls just as they are.

Money

It comes. It goes. Bills get forgotten. Mysterious overage checks arrive in the mail. Stewardship is a fine thing, but, at the end of the day, I have to trust that God will meet all my needs. Most days I do.

Salvation isn’t just about Heaven, although I’m very much looking forward to being there. Salvation is for right here, right now. It does no good to know a lot about what God has to say based on the Scriptures and then never go that step further and try and live it out. Head knowledge doesn’t give you anything but answers to trivia questions. Asking the question, “Now what?” brings freedom. Allowing the Spirit access to all the secret, difficult places brings freedom. Submitting to His authority brings freedom. Obeying His guidance brings freedom.

Are you freer than you were a year ago? Six months ago? A week ago?

My friends, Jesus didn’t come to earth in the mystery of the Incarnation so we could keep on living in those same musty prison cells. No! He came to set us free.To make us into the people we were meant to be. He transcends race, class, gender and country. He extends that beautiful, nail-scarred hand to each of us and waits for us to let Him pull us out of the mire.

Whatever it is you think is keeping you safe probably isn’t. The thought that you have about God’s boundaries ruining your freedom isn’t true, either. The safest, freest place for you to be is not within your carefully constructed, sterile little world where you plan for every contingency. (As the possessor of four mental illnesses, I know what I’m talking about). If you want freedom, go where God leads. No matter how painful it is in the moment. No matter how scary. No matter how little you understand.

Take that hand.

Step out into the light of liberty.

My journey to faith. (15)