Thursday, October 11, 2018

BreadyMcWineFace

A communion meditation given on 10/7/18

Nobody talks about Left Shark anymore. For a couple of weeks, you couldn't go anywhere without someone talking about Left Shark.
For those who weren't paying attention at the time, a few years ago Katy Perry did the Super Bowl halftime show. This show was a spectacle; a barrage of colors; an assault on the senses. Partway through the show, there were a couple of people in shark costumes that danced next to Katy. The shark on the right hit all of its marks, and followed all of the dance moves perfectly.
The one on the left....didn't. It basically bumbled and flopped its way through the dance number. Left Shark was terrible, and won the hearts of millions of viewers.



Nobody talks about BoatyMcBoatFace anymore. A couple of years ago, a scientific research vessel was built, and the scientists allowed people to vote on what the boat would be named. A few names were in the running. Unfortunately, the scientists allowed for a "write-in" candidate, and the internet is the internet, so someone wrote in BoatyMcBoatFace.
This name won by a landslide.
The scientists were not happy.
It was a wonderful time.
For a couple of weeks, you couldn't go anywhere without someone talking about BoatyMcBoatFace.

Both of these stories have been all but forgotten. You and I haven't heard anyone talk about BoatyMcBoatFace or Left Shark for at least a year.

Both of these stories transcended political divides, interpersonal differences, and religious differences. All people, everywhere, came together to share in these ridiculous stories.

And now they're pretty much gone.

We often have moments that unite us in spite of the divisions we might have.

Each week, we come around the Lord's table. In this moment, around this table, we're united in Christ. We remember, together, the Lord's death until he comes. Each week, we come together despite our differences.

We come together to unite once again. We come together to proclaim the Lord's death, together. We come together to remember, together.

The divides and stress and anguish and worry and heartache and pain of the world can cause us to pull away from one another and to forget how Christ has brought us together.

As we come to the table each week, we're reminded of our unity in Christ.

As we gather, as we eat the bread and drink the wine, let us remember, together, the Lord's death until he comes.

<words of institution>

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Lie I Believed About Depression

Warning: talk of suicide and self-harm in this post.


Here's a lie I believed once:

If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts.

I was brought up with the understanding that suicide was a sin. As I understood it, suicide was a flagrant rejection of God's love for us. It was an expression of doubt and rejection of the hope that comes from God. Suicide was deciding to kill a person that God loves.
In essence, I understood suicide to be akin to murder.

A person with a strong faith would never reject the hope that comes from God alone. A person with a strong faith would never murder a person that God loves. Therefore, a strong faith will deter a person from having any kind of suicidal thoughts.

Right?

Well...


This is a part of my life I didn't really want to talk about.
In March/April of this year, I started wishing for death. It wasn't all the time; it wasn't even much of the time. However, there were distinct moments where I would start to worry or panic about something in my life--a conversation or an upcoming meeting--and I'd wish that I was dead.

I had no idea why. I'd never had thoughts like this before.

These fleeting thoughts became daily thoughts. Sometimes a few times a day.

And these thoughts about "wishing for death" became more intense thoughts of self-harm and suicide.

I've worked in churches for a number of years, and I know how seriously to take it when someone mentions suicide. So when I started having thoughts of suicide myself, it completely freaked me out. I called my therapist one Thursday afternoon and told her all of these thoughts I'd been having, and she set an appointment for the next morning.

She asked me if I'd made any kinds of plans. I said I hadn't.
She told me that while scary, and while serious, suicidal thoughts are actually a relatively common and understandable response to high levels of stress. They're also not uncommon when a person goes through therapy, since dark moments in a person's life are brought to light. That can cause intense stress and anxiety, and lead to suicidal thoughts.

I was reminded to use diversion/behavioral/meditation techniques (which helped), and made a list of five people to contact if these thoughts got worse, or if I started making plans.
Thankfully, I haven't had to make those calls.

I want to say that the thoughts stopped after that conversation, but they didn't. I had them daily for about four months. It was usually a quick thought that came and went, but another one would follow shortly after.

Every time that I'd have one of these thoughts, I'd feel a strong pang of guilt. Why? Because of the lie I'd always believed: 
If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts.

But I was depressed.


I did have suicidal thoughts.

This led to many questions. Some of these questions were spiritual:
What do these thoughts say about my faith?
Is my faith weak because of my depression and anxiety and the terrible thoughts that come with them?
What do these thoughts say about my ability to help other people in their own faith walk?

Some of these questions were practical:
Could I effectively help people when internally I was struggling with the will to keep going?

But the worst thoughts that I had during this time were the ones that called into question my ability to navigate ordinary life situations.
I'm in my early 30's, relatively healthy, fantastic job: one I've always wanted and have felt called to do, good marriage, loving wife, two kids who can be a handful but not more than any other children, roof over my head, food to eat each meal time, and a bunch of friends.
How can a person with all of those things going well possibly want his life to end?
I have friends and acquaintances who have experienced hell on earth. It would make perfect sense for them to have these kinds of thoughts.
There is no reason why a person whose life is as well off as mine should feel the way that I feel.


Comparing yourself to others can be ugly.


In my experience, it added more depression to the depression.
It added more anxiety to the anxiety.
It added more panic to the panic.

I was constantly criticizing myself for these thoughts, which made me fixate more on the fact that I had these thoughts in the first place, which in turn led to more depression, more dark thoughts, more anxiety, more panic attacks, more withdrawing from others.

The depression remained. The thoughts remained. For around four months, I had suicidal thoughts pretty much every day.

But I kept up with therapy and with all of the behavioral, meditation, and diversion practices, and things started to get better.
Not perfect, but better.
Over the last couple of months, I've very rarely wished for death. The depression has remained, but it's noticeably less of a strain on my day to day life (although it is a strain on my life, for sure).

I had faith, I spent time in prayer, and yet I needed the help of a therapist.
If your faith is strong enough, you won't be depressed or have suicidal thoughts simply was not the case in my life. And I'm not alone. There are many other Christians who have depression and have wrestled with the same kinds of demons.

Am I downplaying faith? No.
Do I believe in the power of prayer? Yes.
Do I think that God can and does heal people from physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual ailments? Yes.

However, I've come to realize that a person's faith can be incredibly strong, and that person can still experience depression.
A person may suffer thoughts of self-harm even though they have a healthy prayer life.
Someone can turn to Jesus with their physical, emotional, and mental ailments while simultaneously taking antidepressants.

Therapy isn't weakness. Medication isn't weakness.
If you're someone who is experiencing severe depression, thoughts of self-harm, or thoughts of suicide, get help. Talk to someone. See a counselor. Take medication if it's prescribed for you. Whatever you may need to get your head above water enough to be able to navigate life--do it.

From someone who's been there recently (and someone who never thought he'd be writing a post like this), it's worth it.

And seriously, if you need to talk to someone immediately, the suicide prevention hotline number is 1-800-273-8255. 
Call it. Getting help is not weakness.




Thursday, August 23, 2018

Anxiety Part 7: Mission to Moscow

Part 7 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5Part 6

In November of last year, I signed up for a half marathon.

It was kind of on a whim.

For a long time, I'd done next to no physical activity in a day. I'm a pastor, and most of my week is spent either writing sermons, or writing emails, or in meetings, or visiting with people in their homes or in the hospital. All of these activities involve sitting. Then I'd get home in the evening, sit down to eat dinner, and finish out the day by watching TV on the couch.

I was sitting down. All day, every day.

I wanted to stop being such a lazy piece of garbage.

I used to run in high school, but more or less stopped running after that (with the occasional 1-2 month effort to get myself exercising again...those always failed as well).
High school ended 16 years ago.
I stopped running roughly half my life ago.

I decided one night that I wanted to start running again. However, I know myself, and I know that I'm not too terribly self-motivated. So in a spur-of-the-moment decision, I signed up for a half marathon.
It cost fifty bucks.
And I wrote about it on social media, so that all of my friends would know, and I'd have some public shame if I didn't go through with it.
Paying money and the possibility of shame are good motivators for me.

Months went by, February came, and I ran the race. I didn't really want to stop running, though, because I was healthier and feeling better about myself. So I signed up for another race.

And then another.

Physical health wasn't the primary reason that I kept running, though. There was a much bigger reason.

I noticed that on days when I ran, my mental health would be better, and on days when I didn't run, I was in a much worse head space.

I normally run on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. I noticed that whenever I'd skip a day, that day and the days following would be terrible.

For example, if I ever skip running on Tuesday, I tend to have a panic attack on Tuesday night or Wednesday. I'll also feel incredibly low and depressed until Thursday, when I run again. I don't know exactly why this is, but it's been proven true repeatedly.

I'm no expert, but I'd imagine that different amounts of exercise are probably good for different people. However, I personally find that without around 4 good runs per week, my mental health becomes much, much worse.

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health in people, so it makes sense that I'd have worse days when I don't run.

I started running because I wanted to stop being lazy, but that's not why I kept doing it. I kept running because it was making me feel better. It was helping me cope with other things in my life. It was allowing me space from other, more difficult, parts of my life four days a week.

So I keep doing it.

I don't always love it. In fact, just the thought of going on a six mile run bums me out most of the time. But it's helping me, so I keep doing it.

If you're someone who suffers from mental health problems, I'd encourage some sort of exercise. I don't know all of the science to back up this recommendation. I just know that it's helped me.

I don't have many tips for how to get going (the first month is by far the worst). But here's some things that have helped me:

  • Sign up for an event. Specifically, if you're wanting to start running, sign up for a race. There's nothing like dropping 50-60 bucks to get you moving. You're never going to get the money back, so you dang well better have a shirt and medal to show for it.
  • Start putting your running clothes on immediately when you think about it. I read an article a couple of years ago, and I can no longer find it (if any readers find it, send it to me and I'll link it here). The article said that whenever we are deciding whether or not to do something, we have a 20 second window of time to get started. If we begin the activity within that 20 seconds, we'll almost certainly do it. If we don't get started within the 20 seconds, we won't. So if you're sitting on the couch, wondering whether or not to go running, stand up immediately. Start putting on socks. Make sure you get started within the 20 seconds, or you're not going to do it.
  • Finishing is the point. This one's really just for me. A friend recently saw my time from a race and said to me "I thought you'd be faster. You used to run cross country in high school." Personally, I don't run competitively. For me, finishing is the point. Getting to the end is the goal. I don't worry too much about time. There are going to be days I run faster, and days I run slower, and those things aren't what's important. The important thing is doing it. Finishing is the point.
  • Run in a loop. When I run around the park close to my house, I'm constantly thinking about the fact that I can quit and go home at anytime. When I run to the corner of Portsmouth and Willamette, I'm 3 miles from my house. I either have to circle back or con someone into driving me home. When you run in a large loop, you have to keep going.
  • I like to listen to podcasts when I run. Most people seem to have a playlist of workout music that they listen to when they exercise, and that's great (pro-tip: if you do have one of these playlists, Disconnected by Face to Face. You're welcome). For me, though, music just reminds me how long I've been running. If I listen to 30 songs, it feels longer than when I listen to 2 podcasts. I'd rather listen to 2 things than 30 things. Also, podcasts let me zone out and think about something completely unrelated to my actual life for an hour. I listen to podcasts that make me laugh and have nothing to do with my normal life. Better than podcasts, though...
  • Run with friends. If you can find someone who will run with you, it's so much better. Most of the time I don't have anyone to run with, because most people seem to work out in the morning, and I run in the afternoon/evening. But when I do have the chance to run with friends, the time goes by much faster, and I don't get nearly as tired. It's easier when all of us are suffering together.
So that's it. Running has helped my mental health greatly. Other than therapy, it's been by far the most helpful practice for me.

I'm fighting my anxiety and depression with endorphins.



Side note: This whole "name your numbered blog posts after the same numbered movie in a series" idea was not a smart one. Very few movie series run past 2 or 3 sequels. I'm really scraping the bottom of the barrel here, and I still have six more posts to go...

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Anxiety Part 6: Fallout

Part 6 of the mental health series - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

A short follow up to last week's question: How do you "love your neighbor as yourself" if you don't really love yourself?

First, it is absolutely possible to love other people when you don't love yourself.*** 
Nobody feels great about themselves every single day. We all have bad days. But on those bad days, we can still show love to someone else, even though we may not feel good about the person we are. Everybody has bad days where they still want to help and show love to other people.

However, we generally don't have a lot of love to pour into others if we constantly and consistently feel down on ourselves.

I do a lot of self-care practices, meditation, etc., to try and make sure that I'm emotionally filled before I try to show love to other people.
However, lately my therapist and spiritual director have both been encouraging me to do something else. They are pushing me to focus more on the positive things that happen in my life and the positive interactions that I have with people, and to focus less on my negative thoughts and interactions.
This is unnatural for me.
I don't like to hide from my problems and troubles. "Focusing on the positive" feels to me like ignoring reality. 
It feels like pretending.
I don't like to shy away from the unhappy or terrible or painful parts of life. Those parts of life are real.
I don't like to pretend.

But I've been told to do so. Evidently, trying to focus more on the positive things in your life than the negative is not pretending. Rather, it can be beneficial for your mental health.
It can be a way to love yourself, so that you're emotionally available to show love to other people.

So I'm working on it.
I'm still kind of skeptical.
At the very least, though, it can't hurt to focus on the positive things in my life.

Right?



***One small bit of language in the video. If you don't want to hear it, you can mute at 1:51. Or just don't watch it at all. Whatever. You do you.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Anxiety Part 5: Dead Men Tell No Tales

This is part 5 of the mental health series. Click for part 1234.

How do you "love your neighbor as yourself" if you don't love yourself?

A scribe approaches Jesus and asks which commandment is most important. Jesus answers, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

Churchgoers have heard this passage approximately 4,205,607 times in their lifetime. Many churches (including mine) use these commandments as the basis for their mission statement. For example:
"Loving God, Loving People, Meeting Needs"
"Love God, Love People, Nothing Else Matters"
"Love God, Love People, Serve Joyfully"
The common (and correct) interpretation of these commandments is that we should love and follow God with our whole lives, and to love those around us--friends, enemies, everyone.

However, recently I've heard a couple of people discuss the command to "love your neighbor as yourself," and mention that in order to love your neighbor as yourself, you need to love yourself.
But what if you dislike almost everything about yourself? Wouldn't that mean that thinking of your neighbor in the same way means disliking your neighbor?

Over the past year or two, I've noticed that more and more often I hate things about myself. Things I've said, things I've done, things about my personality, etc.
I wake up between 2 and 3 AM almost every morning and remain awake for a couple of hours. It's super annoying. During that time I obsess over things I've said and done that I regret. I think about things I've said recently, things I said when I was five, and everywhere in between.
I've tried a bunch of ways to distract myself when I awaken and have these thoughts: moving to a different room, reading, watching crummy tv until I can't possibly stay awake any longer, journaling...and for the most part these things don't work. I continue to fixate on things I hate about myself.

As I said, though, this has only been going on for a couple of years. In general, throughout my life I've felt pretty good about myself. Sure, like everyone, I often compare myself unfavorably with others, but I also realize that I have a lot of gifts and a lot to offer the world.

But lately, any rumination on something I've said or done leads me down a mental path that ends with me feeling completely and utterly worthless. Whenever I think about something dumb that I've done, I almost immediately despise everything else about myself.

It makes no sense.

Objectively I know that there's a lot to like about me. When my therapist has me do one of those "talk about everything great about yourself" practices, I have a lot to say. I know I have value, I know I have a lot of gifts. Yet my mind keeps these thoughts of worthlessness at the forefront. It does not make a bit of sense.

The other thing (and this is the weirdest part of all of this), the thoughts that cause me to hate myself are often incredibly stupid. Really, they are.
I co-host a podcast, and recently I was trying to say something on the podcast and flubbed a line. It wasn't bad. Honestly, I listened back, and it's hardly even noticeable. It's not even like I said something offensive--I just tried to close off the podcast a certain way, but didn't say the words in the order that I planned. It was fine, and most likely nobody noticed. This shouldn't have upset me.
Also, it's an incredibly laid-back show, and we flub lines all the time. That's actually part of the appeal of the show.
However, this single flub has gone through my head about four thousand times over the past few weeks. And every single time I think about it, I start to feel completely and utterly worthless.
Every time I think about this flub, I almost immediately begin thinking that every single choice and thought and decision that I've ever made has been terrible, and that I have no value at all as a person.

All because I flubbed a line.

Seriously.

Which again has me thinking: if the second most important command in the bible is to "love your neighbor as yourself, how do I do that when I repeatedly and consistently find myself feeling worthless and without value?

And how does a person who has spent his life following a God loves all of his children and sees value and worth in them find himself despising everything about himself on a pretty consistent basis?

If my mental health problems cause me to hate myself--a person created, valued, and loved by God--does that mean I don't trust that I'm the person that God made me to be?
Does this aspect of my mental illness mean that I have a weak faith?
And why do I no longer see the person that I know myself to be, and the person that God sees in me: a person with many gifts, many good qualities, value, and worth, when I previously saw great value in myself?

I've walked with a bunch of people of faith over the years who struggle with mental illness. Many of them seemed to constantly feel like failures, and never appeared to be able to see the person that God sees in them. I'd always remind them of their worth and their value, but every time we'd meet, they would be in the exact same state of mind--hating themselves and feeling like failures. Sometimes I'd think, "Why do they not see the wonderful person that they are?"

There's this situation that a lot of Christians with mental illnesses deal with: other well-meaning Christians will tell them that if they "just had more faith," God would make them better.
Looking back, I feel like that's what I used to do with these folks. I'd tell them to "see what God sees in you," but I'd internally criticize them when they didn't.

But I get it now. Objectively, I can see all of my great qualities, but most of the time I'm blinded by the things I dislike about myself.
And it's only recently that this started.
Trying to remember the beloved, valued person that God sees in me sometimes helps, but only for a short while.

So how do I live as a follower of God? If I have this much trouble loving myself, am I really able to love my neighbor?

I'm going to try to unpack these ideas a little more over the next couple of weeks.

Friday, August 3, 2018

Anxiety and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

This is part 4 in the mental health series: Click for part 123

Therapy is great, but it's weird at first.

No, "weird" is the wrong word.

It's strange and uncomfortable and bizarre and upsetting and painful and the exact opposite of everything that we learn in life.

As we grow up, we learn that some people are unsafe. Some people are not trustworthy. Many of us have friends that we will entrust with our deepest, darkest secrets. There are other people who we wouldn't trust with anything, ever.

We learn these lessons when we trust someone with a piece of our lives, and that person betrays our trust. When that happens, not only is a friendship ruined, but we are less likely to open up in future friendships.

By the time we reach adulthood, many of us have a hard time opening up to anyone at all.

This is why therapy is so strange. You meet a person for the first time, shake their hand, step into their office, and then are expected to open yourself up entirely. Sure, it's not forced out of you, but when they ask, "So, what's going on?," you can't just say, "Oh, nothing much," because the therapist knows that that's a lie. You wouldn't have sought out therapy if there was 'nothing much' going on.

Life teaches us to remain closed off to others until we've spent at least a few months as friends. "Don't tell intimate details about yourself to others, because they may tell other people, or may use that information against you."

When I sat down in my therapist's office for the first time, I didn't really know what to do. I'd spent decades learning to avoid telling strangers too much about myself. Now this lady sitting across from me was expecting me to do exactly that.

Here's the thing: I knew it was safe in the room. I knew my therapist was safe. I knew that she would keep my confidence. I knew that she could and would try to help me improve. Still, it felt wrong. I'd lost so much trust in strangers over the years that it took every ounce of energy to begin unloading my problems onto this person.

It gets easier. I wish there was a better way to say it, but there's really not. You have to go through the weirdness for a while. I did, at least. My first few sessions were so uncomfortable, because I'd spent years putting up walls and barriers around certain parts of my life and my thought processes. But the more sessions that went by, the easier it was to share pieces of me that I don't talk about with many other people.

So it was strange at first, and then it became easier.

And then it got waaaaaaaayyyyyy more difficult.

We started probing into some things that I wasn't prepared to address/deal with/work on. Things I didn't even realize were a part of my life.

It's been healing, but healing often hurts first.

This tweet sums it up pretty well.


Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Anxiety Part 3: The Return of the King

Part 1
Part 2

Let's talk panic attacks.

This should be fun.

This might be TMI, but I had a panic attack in the shower recently.
It was a Tuesday morning. I woke up and jumped in the shower. About two minutes in, the panic washed over me like the streams of water on my face. I fell on the floor of the shower and began the normal ritual of painfully gripping my face and my hair, and feeling myself hyperventilating and my heart racing. After about three minutes of this hell, I regained control. I laid on the floor of the tub and stared at the scratches on my legs from digging my fingernails as hard as I could into them. I tried to get rid of the kink in my neck from when I pulled my hair as hard as I could to the right.

I laid there and thought about all that I had to do that day.

My Tuesday routine is as follows:
1. Arrive at work/prayer
2. Prep staff meeting
3. Lead staff meeting
4. Work on sermon
5. Meet with our lead elder
6. Do more work on the sermon (so that by Wednesday I know generally where the message is going, and can spend Wednesday doing a lot of visiting/pastoral care)
7. Run 6 miles
8. Dinner/time with family

Tuesday is a busy day. Yet here I am, staring at the scratches on my legs and trying to work the kink out of my neck, and I start thinking, "How can I possibly make it through today? How do I lead a staff meeting? How can I possibly write something to help guide other people in their spiritual lives? I can't even make it through my morning shower without falling apart."

That's the thing about panic attacks.  They make you feel worthless, and ruin the rest of your day.

Until this past year, I had never had a panic attack. I hadn't known of anyone personally who had panic attacks (I've since found out that many of my friends have regular panic attacks; they just don't like to talk about them. I totally get that). I had previously used the term "panic attack" to refer to times when I felt 'panicky,' but I didn't actually know what a real, honest-to-God panic attack felt like.

And then, about a month into my time in therapy, I had one. It woke me up, my heart raced, I was sweating constantly, and I couldn't do anything but dig my fingers into the bed. After what seemed like an eternity, it stopped. For the rest of the week, I was sort-of afraid to go to bed at night, thinking that it might happen again.
I asked my therapist about it the following week. I was predominantly concerned with the question, "Why now?" Did I only have a panic attack now that I was getting help? Did I subconsciously want to suffer more, now that I was in therapy? Had I heard "You have anxiety," and then my brain subconsciously gave myself all of the symptoms of anxiety? (I realize how ridiculous these questions sound now, but at the time I couldn't stop fixating on them).
My therapist said that panic attacks are perfectly normal for people with anxiety, and that sometimes they happen more often when people are in therapy.

Great.

I've had quite a few more since then. The thing that's so painful about panic attacks (okay, everything about them is painful), is that I can't predict when I'll have one. They seem to occur most often when I'm having a few days of extreme stress. However, sometimes I'll have them in the middle of a fantastic day. I've had them while playing with my kids. This morning I had one while in a board game store (aka my favorite place in the world). I feel like if I could simply figure out what triggers a panic attack, I could stop them entirely. But they so often come out of nowhere.

Someone I follow on Twitter recently said that he had a panic attack out of the blue for the first time in fifteen years. He said that there's nothing like a panic attack to remind him of his weakness.

This year I've repeatedly returned to the verse from 2 Corinthians, when God says to Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." If that's true (and I really hope it is), then out weaknesses are not the end of the story, because God's power shines in our weakness.

Which is awesome.

Still, the weakness sucks.

I just spoke to someone who said that she used to have panic attacks while driving her car. I can't even imagine...

There's not really a happy ending to this post. Panic attacks are terrible.
If you have them regularly, you have my sympathy.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Anxiety Part 2: Electric Boogaloo

Part 1 here

So, therapy.
Hoo boy, we have a lot to talk about here...

I've been in therapy for about six months.  I'm going to talk about it occasionally on this blog. There's a lot to talk about, and a lot that I've learned about myself and about therapy itself. That said, I'm obviously not going to write about everything that I'm working through. I haven't had enough time and reflection to work through everything. However, I'm going to try to be as open and honest as I can.

Today I'm just going to focus on one particular topic, which is: Why did it take so long for me to get into therapy?

I've helped quite a few people get into therapy over the years. I've recommended therapists, I've collected phone numbers for people, and I've generally championed therapy during conversations, sermons, etc. I've never considered it weakness when people seek therapy, and have never judged those who are in therapy. Quite the opposite, actually. I've admired the strength of those who want to heal, want to better learn themselves, or simply need support to make it through a difficult moment in their lives.

Therapy is good. I've long thought so.

Why, then, did it take so long for me to say out loud, "I think I need therapy?" If I'm supportive of the practice, and if I'm consistently trying to move people in the direction of therapy, why was I so resistant?

I think there were a few reasons...

1. I had a hard time admitting to myself that I needed therapy. Before I started therapy, there were noticeable signs that something abnormal was going on in my life. I would have repeated physical shutdowns, I never was able to sleep through the night, and I would start hyperventilating seemingly out of nowhere. These were all physical symptoms, however, and they all seemed like symptoms that could be overcome by willpower. It was about a year before I could admit to myself that these problems were beyond my capabilities.

2. I wanted medication, not therapy. My best guess was that I had depression, and I wanted to take care of it. However, I didn't want to shake up my life or my work schedule in any way, and I didn't want to make the time commitment for therapy. I figured if I could get a nice bottle of antidepressants (Is bottle the right word? What are those orange cylinders with the white cap called?), I could keep my schedule exactly as it was while also taking care of my symptoms.
Yep. Self-medication for an illness that I thought I probably had. That was my plan.
Good choices, David.
Thankfully, I did my research, and it turns out that you can't purchase antidepressants over the counter.

3. There's no other way to say it than this: it's embarrassing to tell other people, even family members (especially family members?), about mental health problems. It was for me. I assumed that nobody would understand. Honestly, how do you explain mental health problems to people?
"I hyperventilate a lot, and it comes on out of the blue."
"Have you tried breathing into a bag?"
"No...I....never mind."
That's how I assumed every conversation would go (and basically how a few actually did go). It's weird and strange and odd and bizarre to talk about mental health problems. Physical things are much easier.
"I have a bone sticking out of my leg, and it's bleeding everywhere."
"Why yes, you do. Let's get you to the hospital. Please don't bleed on the rug."

I didn't know how to talk about my own need for help with my mental health, so for a long time, I just...didn't.

4. It's expensive. This was less of a reason for avoiding therapy, and more of an excuse. I knew it might be difficult to pay for, but I also knew that we could make it work.

I had quite a few reasons for avoiding therapy. Maybe you do too. If you've been thinking about therapy, I'm here to say that it's great, it's wonderful, and it's helping me greatly. Absolutely get into therapy if you're thinking about it. I know it's easier said than done, but if you're on the fence about it, seriously, look into it.

In the coming weeks, I'll actually talk about therapy itself. It's going to be fun, mostly because therapy as a practice is kind of odd.
"Hi, complete stranger that I've never met. Let me sit down and tell you about the deepest, darkest parts of my life that I've never told anyone else and planned to take with me to my grave."
Good times.


If you have topics you'd like me to discuss in the coming weeks related to mental health, faith, or anything related, leave me a comment or shoot me an email at davidandrewlibby@gmail.com
I'm not a mental health expert or anything, but I've had some experiences and made some observations.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Anxiety Part 1: The Phantom Menace

Let's talk anxiety.

I'm a pastor, and I suffer from anxiety. Before this year, I never would have called it by that name. I never would have said that I had a mental illness.

In my mind, other people had mental illnesses. I did not have a mental illness. I may have low self-esteem, or difficulty with high amounts of stress, or problems with general overthinking and extreme worry at times and in certain situations, but I don't have a mental illness.

Except I do.

Two years ago, I started having physical and mental shutdowns, usually after I had a difficult conversation with a friend (I wrote about this more here). It affected my work, my home life, and my friendships. After all, it's hard to be an available pastor, a good husband/dad, or a devoted friend, when you often have mental and physical shutdowns that can last over an hour. It's hard to function as a dad when you have a panic attack while playing hide and seek with your kids. It's hard to help people with their struggles when you're simply trying to keep your head above water, day after day.

I started going to therapy, and my therapist explained anxiety to me. She helped me understand how normal all of my body's responses were, despite how abnormal they felt. As I continued therapy and worked through some of my mental health issues, I also started talking and writing about it. I didn't feel like I had a lot to say; after all, I'm in no way a mental health professional. I didn't really have an agenda when I started sharing these things, either. I wasn't trying to start a conversation about mental health or anything. I just decided one day that I wanted to share this part of my life with people.

What surprised me after I started opening up about my anxiety was the response I received from other pastors. A number of people reached out to me and told me about their own mental health problems, and said that they don't know how to talk with anybody else about them.
One pastor said that if a pastor talks about his or her own mental illness, it can be career suicide. To that person (and anyone else who feels that way) I would say: if your church doesn't want you because of your mental illness, that's probably not a church for you.
Honestly, a church that doesn't want you because of your mental illness doesn't seem like much of a church to me.
Rant over.

All of these responses got me thinking that maybe if I talk more about my own mental illness, other people may feel less stigma about their mental health problems.

So that's what I'm going to do. I think I'll do about 13 of these-probably one per week (I say "probably" because I'm not the most consistent blogger...I'll do my best).

To start this series off, I'll give a couple of false thoughts that I often have about my own anxiety, and then mention a couple of ways in which the church can do better at helping those who have mental health problems.

First: False ideas I have about my own anxiety:

1. I just need to be stronger. Tough it out. Power through. This is all in my head. I'm just being weak, and can overpower this.

It's not that simple. I've never been able to overcome my anxiety on my own. In order to overpower my mental illness, I have to fight my brain. But the thing I use to fight my brain is my brain. I have to fight my mind with my mind. The mind, the brain, is the problem itself, so it's impossible to fight it.
Do you see the difficulty?
In my first therapy session, my therapist pointed out that powering forward only gets me stuck more. Catastrophic thinking usually leads to more catastrophic thinking. That's where meditation practices and such can help divert my mind and attention away from the destructive, catastrophic cycle in which I so often find myself.

2. I'm weak. I'm not normal.

In one sense, sure, this is a weakness, just like a broken leg is a weakness. But it is not at all abnormal. Mental illness is actually incredibly common. However, there is such a stigma around mental illness that it makes people who suffer feel like they're alone, or abnormal. I actually haven't been able to call my anxiety a mental illness until this week, because admitting that I suffer from a mental illness made me feel like a mess and a failure.


Finally, how can the church do better at helping those with mental illness?

1. If you suffer from mental illness, be honest about it. The stigma around mental health will always remain in society and in the church until those of us who suffer become comfortable speaking freely about our own experiences.

2. Be present. Often in the church, folks will see each other once a week. We'll ask those who we know are having a rough time, "Are you feeling better?" Any care and concern that people show one another is a good thing, but what the church really needs is those who will listen to and support those who suffer from mental illness-more than just on Sunday mornings.
We need people who we know won't pull away from us or abandon us because the things we're going through seem awkward or weird or different or uncomfortable. Personally, I constantly feel like my mental health problems are abnormal and uncomfortable and wrong.
It's difficult to talk about our own mental health if we fear rejection or abandonment from others. We can only experience true Christian community when we know we won't be rejected.

That's it for this week. Again, I'm not a mental health professional. All I have are my experiences, and the hope that maybe by talking about them, it will free some of you to talk about your own.

Is there anything related to mental health y'all want me to talk about? Leave a comment or shoot me an email and let me know.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Where We Should Begin




A sermon preached on July 1, 2018

I have heard a lot of heated words over the past few weeks. Many of these words appear to be based in fear, or frustration, and whenever things happen in the world, that's to be expected. But today I'd like to try and take us back a bit. I'd like us to reintroduce ourselves to the story that we're all a part of. I'd like us to reclaim the story of which we're all a part.

The story begins in the desert. There's a guy taking care of some sheep. He's on the lam because he killed a guy and doesn't want to be prosecuted for it.
He's taking care of sheep, and a nearby bush catches on fire, and the voice of God speaks from the bush (like you see everyday). And the voice of God says to the man, "I've seen my people being oppressed in Egypt and I've heard their cry for release from their slave-masters, because I know their pain. I've come down to rescue them from the Egyptians." And the voice of God says that he's going to use this man, Moses, to bring these people out of slavery. He's heard their cry, and he plans to save them.

So he pulls them out of slavery. It's a miracle. And then...well...where do they go? They're in the desert. Nothing's really nearby, and they're a bunch of former slaves. They don't have a homeland. So they begin life as a free tribe, wandering together in the desert, with God as their leader. This kind of life was actually pretty normal. In the world at the time, each nation or group or tribe had their people, their identity, their security, their ideas, their ideals, their understandings, their leaders, their worldviews, and in many cases, their god or gods. Your nation or group or tribe was your entire life. They were your identity. You understood the world through your nation, your tribe, your group.

God uses this shepherd to bring the people out of slavery and makes them into their own nation/tribe/group, and now they have to learn how to live together as a free people. They haven't done that before. Sure, they were free before slavery, but that was generations ago. None of these people have never known each other as free people. So how do they live together? Well, God gives them a bunch of laws. People need laws, rules, and guidelines to know how to live with one another. And most of these laws involve how people within the group interact with one another. They're interpersonal laws. These laws appear barbaric, and yeah, they are barbaric. But they were how the early Israelites understood how they were to live with each other in their own world, at that time, as a part of the larger group. The laws helped the people know that their society was just and fair. The laws also helped the people understand that their society was safe.

Safety laws were important, not only between people in the group, but because other groups often wanted to defeat and kill your group. If you got into battle with another group, one of your groups would win and the other would lose, and the losers would usually be annihilated. Why? Because you had to annihilate them if you wanted to make sure that they wouldn't come back and get revenge. So people weren't only concerned with safety from those in their own group; they were concerned that other groups wouldn't come in and destroy their entire civilization. Outsiders were threats. If they came in to your group, it could be because they're spying, or because they want to do some damage to your way of life. So every nation, every tribe, every group, needed to have a plan about those outside of their group.

Most nations would do one of two things when dealing with foreigners: either 1. steal from/enslave them in order to gain something from them, or 2. kill them so they are no longer a threat. This is why it's so shocking when Leviticus 19 says "Don't take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD" (Lev. 19:17-18), but shortly after this says "If a foreigner stays with you in your land, do not do him wrong. Rather, treat the foreigner staying with you like the native-born among you--you are to love him as yourself, for you were foreigners in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God" (Lev 19:33-34). The command to 'love your neighbor' is expanded to include the foreigner and alien among the people. This is a radical law from God, since foreigners were seen by most as dangerous.

"But David, who exactly is a foreigner? Don't words in the Bible sometimes have different meanings than the ones we use today?"  Why yes they do. Thank you, fictitious question-asker. The closest analogue in our world to this word "foreigner" or "alien" is a refugee. Someone who had to flee their land because of famine or war.

Repeatedly, God tells the people to assist the poor and foreigners among them, saying "When you harvest the ripe crops produced in your land, don't harvest  all the way to the corners of your field, and don't gather the ears of grain left by the harvesters. Likewise, don't gather the grapes left on the vine or fallen on the ground after harvest; leave them for the poor and the foreigner; I am the LORD your God" (Lev. 19:9-10, also Lev. 23:22, Deut. 24:19-22). Foreigners were to be included in celebratory feasts as well. In most situations, they were given equal or even better treatment than the Israelites. This is radical stuff. And God isn't messing around when he says it. Early on while giving these laws, God says "You must neither wrong nor oppress a foreigner living among you, for you yourselves were foreigners in the land of Egypt. You are not to abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them in any way and they cry to me, I will certainly hear their cry" (Ex. 22:21). When God's people called out while in slavery, he heard their cry and saved them, destroying the Egyptians in the process. Now he's saying if a foreigner, widow, or orphan is mistreated and they cry to him, he will hear their cry. You can assume the threat behind this statement. "Remember when I saved you from the bullies in Egypt? Don't become those bullies to other people, or I'm going to save them from you."

So why is God making all of these special concessions for people outside of his chosen group? It says in the book of Deuteronomy that God "secures justice for the orphan and the widow; he loves the foreigner, giving him food and clothing" (Deut 10:18). There's the answer. God loves them. Just like he loved you while you were in Egypt, he loves those in other groups and tribes and nations as well. And God is making clear that he expects the people to have the same heart as he does. "Therefore, you are to love the foreigner, since you were foreigners in the land of Egypt" (10:19). When God's people truly turn their hearts to God's desires and thoughts and purposes, they will care for the foreigner as well.
Because God cares for the foreigner. He loves them.

And when we care for the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, and the foreigner, we are following God's leading and living out the image of God that we were made to be.
Because caring for the poor, the orphan, the oppressed, and the foreigner is what God does.

God is setting up a new standard here; a radical standard. For God's people, for this new group/tribe/nation, when someone comes in fear or trial, you will welcome them as a neighbor. You will not see them as a threat, like you're accustomed to doing, but you'll welcome them as neighbors. You will not kill or rob or enslave them, but you'll provide food for them, and welcome them in to your community.

So here's where I think that many of us Christians today have missed the story. When we begin talking about those who flee death or war or gang violence or rape or violence or famine in other countries, many Christians begin the conversation with talk of safety and security. Are safety and security important? Sure. That's why I have a lock on my house. That's why my car locks. That's why I don't walk around Pier Park at 2 AM. Safety is an important concern. But it should not be the beginning point for God's people when talking about immigration or refugees.

God commanded his people to love their neighbor, then expanded that love to include the foreigner. And this wasn't in a world that was predominantly safe. For the Israelites, it was a considerably more dangerous world than the one in which we find ourselves. They were on the move, and their "Homeland Security" was just a bunch of people in the front of the group hoping they could protect the rest of the group.
It. Was. Dangerous.
And God, in that dangerous world, called his people to welcome the refugee, to welcome the stranger, to welcome the foreigner, and not to oppress them, going so far as to say that he'd hear their cry if they did oppress those who were weak.

God's command for love of neighbor and love of foreigner should cause us to grieve when we see families being divided at the border. We should grieve when we see refugees fleeing war-torn areas with nowhere to go (and even if they do find a country that takes them in, they have a language barrier, no money, and no history in the country that will enable them to find jobs and housing).

If our immediate, first response to these stories is "Hey, we need to keep our people safe," then we've missed the story.
We need to reclaim the story.

The story begins with a God who found his people in slavery in a foreign land, and saved them because he loved them. The story continues with a God who loves people of other lands so much that he commands his people to care for them. The story culminates with a God who loved his people so much that he died for them, in spite of their propensity for evil.

"But...the people...they could be evil."
Yep. Jesus died for them. Because he loves them.
That's the Gospel.
Our job is following God. God loves the foreigner, and calls his people to do so as well.
Our job, then, is actionable love for the people that God loves.

This is where we should begin. We don't begin with fear, and we don't begin with political posturing. We begin with the understanding that God loved those who were in need and saved them. And God calls his people to do the same. If we want to live lives that follow God's leading, we need to pursue loving those who are in need, who are orphans, who are widows, who are foreigners, because God's love reaches to those people.

Remembering how God includes the foreigner in the command to love our neighbor, let's look at 1 John: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: he sent his one and only son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

God's love is in us and made complete when we love one another. We must begin with love. We cannot begin with fear. As John says later:

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: in this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us.
(1 John 4:7-12, 17-19)

It's fine to have a conversation about safety. Again, safety is important. But if fear for our own safety overrides our desire to love our neighbor as ourselves, we've missed the story.
Let us reclaim the story.
Let us love our neighbors.
Let us love those outside of our borders.
Let us love refugees.
Let us love immigrants.

Is there danger in love? Sure. True love is always dangerous.

But there is no fear in love, because perfect love drives out fear.



More Bible stuff for you Bible nerds: Ezekiel 16:49, Malachi 3:5, 1 Kings 8:41-44, Job 31:32, Matthew 25:31-36, Luke 10:25-37, Galatians 5:14

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Thing I've Seen


I've been on a ride for the past few days. I have eagerly awaited the release of Lisa Gungor's new book for a few months now. Her blog post a few years ago about the birth of her daughter Lucie absolutely slayed me. It was thoughtful, reflective, and did not hide from the extreme emotions that she was feeling. As someone who spends his living walking people through the difficult parts of their lives, I wanted to know what Lisa had learned, and what she'd experienced since that blog post.

What I got, instead, was a greater reflection on everything that has shifted her thinking and understanding of the world since childhood. And it's powerful.

Lisa has written a book that speaks to me in the same way that When Bad Things Happen to Good People and Stumbling Toward Faith did. It forces the author and the reader to ask the difficult faith questions. "Where is God when things fall apart?" "How can a good God allow evil and pain and suffering in the world?" "Is God even real? Can God be real if such horrors exist in the world?" These are important questions of faith, but are questions that are often stifled by Christians.

Lisa doesn't shy away from these questions. And many of her answers come through great suffering. From Christians turning on their band, to being asked to leave their community of faith, to the death of a loved one, to finding out that her child has Down's Syndrome, Lisa and Michael have suffered greatly. However, through it all, Lisa has found beauty and joy in the present.

She walks the reader through her evolution of faith. She mentions near the end of the book that this isn't a "how-to" guide for the reader. But no book about an evolving faith could possibly be a "how-to" guide, because faith evolves differently for different people. What is helpful for the reader is watching somebody else's faith stretch, change, and at times fall apart, and realizing that this is what faith is supposed to do. It's okay for faith to stretch and change. It's healthy.

I loved this book. I needed this book right now. Highly recommended.

A warning, though: be close to a box of tissues. It's an emotional ride.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Interview with The Thoughtful Gamer

The Thoughtful Gamer spoke with me about faith, mental health, and my card game ANXIETY. You can check out the interview here.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Book Review: Inspired



I have followed Rachel Held Evans' work for years. Many of her books and blog posts have helped me through my own faith, doubt, and wandering over the past few years. Searching for Sunday in particular helped me through an incredibly low moment in my faith journey. So I was especially excited to receive a copy of her new book, Inspired.

Having read recent works from Peter Enns, Rob Bell, Greg Boyd, Brian Zahnd, and others, I assumed that this might be a re-tread of these works. Namely, I thought Inspired would look at the human side of the Biblical authors, and re-interpret many long-held understandings that Christians have about the Bible. Inspired does this, but the writing is what makes this work differ from those listed above. Evans writes in a memoir style, helping the reader through her own struggles with scripture over the years. In addition, she looks to major themes of scripture, instead of focusing on the overarching story or individual themes. She spends time on the law, the violence, the gospels, and Paul. Her personal writing style and the conclusions she reaches about the Bible will help many who have themselves wrestled with scripture. Below are a couple of ideas that I greatly appreciated.

Evans re-frames the "law" portions of the Old Testament (predominantly the second half of Exodus through Deuteronomy) by showing the reader that God plans to remain with his people. Normally Christians seem to put this section of scripture under two headings: 'boring' and 'troubling.' This section of the Bible is not only a dry read, but there are pieces of the law that have been used to hurt the marginalized. Evans finds hope in the law, however. She writes: "We don't tend to think of law as liberating, but for the people of Israel, these divine instructions helped forge a unique national identity, one wholly distinct from the cultures around them, including the Egyptian empire that for so long oppressed them. It reminded them, too, that the God who parted the Red Sea and conquered Pharaoh's armies was sticking around for the long haul. This is not a God who liberates, then leaves." The law shows us that God intended more than merely saving his people. God intended to be with his people.

Evans' book is worth it for pages 216- 223 alone. She says that since making peace with the stories of genocides and violence and misogyny, she still had to make peace with Paul. I, too, struggle with much of what is found in Paul's letters, and I know that difficulty with Paul's letters is common for many Christians. They seem, at times, to make points that could be taken as anti-women, anti-LGBTQ, pro-slavery, etc. Evans, in ten pages, makes the best pro-Paul case that I've heard. She admits that some of his writings are troubling in a modern context, saying, "Was Paul a man of his time? Of course. But that's exactly the point. God meets us where we are, as we are. The Spirit shows up in the thick of it. We don't have to embrace everything about Paul's culture in order to embrace the good news he preached within it."

Rachel Held Evans has given the world yet another book that will help many Christians, doubters, and many others in their faith walk. I'm grateful to have read it.

I received an advance reader copy from the publisher

Sunday, May 20, 2018

We All Have Our Demons

A sermon given on May 20, 2018

Special note: This post deals with my own mental health problems. I have been in therapy for 4-5 months now. There is still much to work through, and we're only getting started at finding the root of some of my own difficulties. So the story and reflections below are my thoughts so far. They may change slightly or wildly. It is entirely possible that in a few months or years I won't agree with much of what I've written here.
What I can say with great assurance is that mental health problems are real and should not be diminished, and that getting help is incredibly important. I wish I'd done it sooner.

About a year and a half ago, I had a conversation. This conversation did not end very well. It was the kind of conversation that you dread having, and afterward, you're exhausted, because you've been through the emotional ringer.

A strange thing happened after this conversation: I could not move my body for an hour and a half.
My arms, my legs, my head--none of them would move.
I continued to sit at the table where I had the conversation.
My hands lay flat in the same places on the table.
My eyes remained fixated on one spot on the table.
My mind was working, but my body would not move. I remember trying to will myself to lift my arms and to stand up from the table. However, my body stayed still. It was a complete bodily shutdown, and it seemingly came out of nowhere. I could not make my arms or legs move.

This continued to happen on a semi-regular basis. I would have a conversation with someone, it would get a little heated, and afterward my body would shut down from anywhere between 20 and 90 minutes. I also began hyperventilating at various times for no apparent reason. My sleep began to suffer as well.
Looking back, I probably should have told somebody. However, it wasn't hurting me physically, it didn't happen every day, and it seemed like something that would work itself out.
If something doesn't seem life-threatening, I rarely do anything about it.
So for around a year, I would have semi-regular full-body shutdowns.

I'm a pastor. I sit with people and help them work through their problems. I have had numerous people share with me their mental health difficulties, and I have recommended counseling for a number of people. I connect people with counselors. I can tell when someone would benefit from a counselor.
But last year I needed help, and I had no idea.
I didn't think I had any kind of mental health problems. My best guess for why my body was shutting down was that I was overworked.

However, when I tried to slow my life down, nothing changed.

So I decided to power through the pain. I figured that either
1. this would eventually stop happening, or
2. I would have to learn to live with this forever.
Either way, I couldn't let it affect my work and my life as a husband and dad. I continued to help people with their problems, while failing to work through my own. I continued to connect people with mental health professionals when needed, while failing to find the professionals that I needed.

I stuffed the hurt away so that I could help people with their hurt. But when you stuff the hurt, the hurt is still there.

One day, my wife noticed that I hadn't moved for about an hour. She asked what was going on, and I told her, "This happens sometimes. It's nothing." She pried, and I told her about the bodily shutdowns, the hyperventilating, the lack of sleep, etc. We talked for a while, and then called a therapist.
My wife saw what I couldn't see: something was wrong, and I needed help.

I sat down for my first session, and tried my best to explain what was going on. It was difficult. How do you explain, "Sometimes my body shuts down for upwards of 90 minutes for no apparent reason?" But I told her everything, and then I said, "It makes no sense, right? Does this sound like anything rational at all?"

"Sounds like anxiety."

"Really?" I said. "Anxiety makes a person shut down entirely?"

"It can."

I've kept going to therapy regularly since that first meeting, and it's been really, really good. We're starting to get to more of the root of why I have anxiety, and what kinds of triggers cause me things like shutdowns, panic attacks, and lack of sleep.

Shortly after I started going to therapy, I began telling some people that I was in therapy for anxiety, and sharing some of the symptoms from which I've suffered. Almost immediately, however, I stopped telling people.
The reason being (and I didn't expect this in the slightest), some of my Christian friends heard me try to describe my panic attacks and responded with "I think you might have a demon."

That's right.  "I think you have a demon." (Or a variation, like "something demonic is going on inside of you")

It's important to state at this point that I love these friends, and know that their response came from a desire to help, but hearing them say "I think you have a demon" did nothing but anger me. Talking about my own mental health is incredibly awkward as it is, and their response seemed to minimize what I'd been experiencing.

"I think you have a demon" is not what I was looking for.

I was angry after hearing a few "demon" responses, and brought this anger to my therapist. She responded, "We all have our demons."

I said, "No, you don't understand. People think I have a literal demon living inside of me."

She said, "We all have our demons."

"No, you're not hearing me. In the church world, 'demon' doesn't simply mean something you struggle against. It's a real, actual, living, evil force. And people think that something like that is the cause of my troubles. They think I have a real, actual, living, evil demon inside of me."

"We all have our demons."

Me (wanting to knock the pictures off her desk at this point): "No, these are church people. They see demons in scripture, and they see my mental issues, and they think these problems are caused by a demon."

"I know. But you need to remember that we all have demons."

"I get that we all have demons."

"Right. And you need to realize that. You fixate on your anxiety. And yes, that is a part of you. But it's not everything about you. Your anxiety is only one part of you. And you're not strange or different because of it. We all have demons. But this is only one part of you, and it does not define who you are."

There's a story in the book of Mark about a guy who has such a severe mental illness that he constantly cries out, rips his clothes, and cuts himself. He is repeatedly bound up in chains by his hands and feet. He broke through the chains, and the people chained him up again. The people feared this man. Jesus approached the man and commanded his impure spirit to come. The man shouted, begging not to be tortured. Jesus sent the impure spirits into a herd of pigs that was close by. The pigs immediately dove from a cliff to their deaths.
The author writes that after being healed, the man was "clothed and in his right mind." The man who had torn his clothes and cut himself is now fully clothed and mentally well.
The people around him should be thrilled. This is a man who lived a life of agony, the likes of which we could certainly not understand. This is a man who scared the people so much that they chained him up. They should be joyous that he is now well.
But they're not happy.
They're concerned about their pigs.

I look at this story, and see a man who was considered to be less than human. His demon/mental illness/impure spirit was what defined him, to the point that the people repeatedly bound him in chains.
But a big key to this story lies in the fact that he ends up "clothed and in his right mind." He is a person, and his personhood is restored to him by Jesus. While the crowd may have defined him by the most painful part of him, he was more than just his impure spirit. He had a demon. His demon controlled him for a significant amount of time. But his demon did not define who he was.

Jesus tells him to go back to his people; to show them what God did for him. The people thus far have not responded to him in kindness. They chained him up when he was unwell, and when he was made well, they were angry and afraid because their pigs were destroyed. The man has to assume that the people will continue to treat him poorly. Still, he went. And the story ends with the note that "all the people were amazed" at his story.

When the man goes back to his people, he does not share a story of how he overcame his own weakness. We hear a lot of those stories in our world today. "I was born with no legs, but I learned how to overcome my disability and make it in this world." This is not one of those stories. This man could not overcome on his own.
Nor does the man share a story of how his friends helped him overcome. Quite the opposite: they chained him up! And when he finally was free of his pain and suffering, they were angry about what his own freedom cost them! When he was made well, their pigs--their belongings--were destroyed.

No, this man shares the story of how God healed him. God's power shined in his weakness.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul writes,
"in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weakness. For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:7-10).

We do not know what this 'thorn in the flesh' was, but it's clear that it was something consistent and painful; an issue that was difficult enough for him that he pleaded for God to take it away (I relate). But Paul was also reminded that he's strong in his weakness, because God's power shines in human weakness.

Paul remembered that God's strength is made perfect in his weakness.

The man with the impure spirit was healed when God's power shined in his weakness.

I had coffee with a fellow pastor shortly after the counseling appointment in which my therapist reminded me that "we all have our demons." I told this pastor about the people who thought I had a demon and how angry that made me, and I mentioned how my therapist gave me a new way of looking at their comments. He listened for a while, and then said, "She's right. We do have our demons, but our demons don't define us."
He paused for a bit, and then said, "You know the others were right too, right?"
I looked at him for a second and then said, "The ones who said I had a demon?"
This is a guy who has been a pastor for a long time, and I normally appreciate his advice, but I was about ready to break his glasses in half.
He continued, "If you believe in spiritual forces, and if you believe that there is a force of evil in the world, then you should also realize that Satan will leverage any weakness or hurt that he can. So if you're able to hold every part of your life together, but anxiety is causing you consistent and severe difficulties, then it makes sense that Satan would leverage that."

Did Satan leverage the hurt of the man with the impure spirit? Was his weakness made worse by Satan? Did Satan leverage the hard hearts of the people who chained him up? Did Satan leverage their attachment toward their belongings, making their belongings (the pigs) more important to them than the mentally ill man among them?
Paul obviously saw his 'thorn in the flesh' as something used by Satan.
My anxiety is real. It's there. It's a part of me. Would Satan leverage that for his own ends?
Probably.

What I do know for sure, is that our weaknesses are a part of us, but do not define us.
We all have our demons, but they are just a part of us. They do not define us.
And our weaknesses are not the end of the story.
In our weaknesses we are strong.
For God's power shines in our weakness.

God's power shined when he healed the man with an impure spirit.
God's power shined in Paul's weakness.
In our weaknesses we are strong, for God's power shines in our weakness.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

i made a game

I have anxiety.

Anxiety is fickle.

Is fickle the right word? I don't know.

Some days are good, and some are bad.

Heck, some weeks and months are bad.

And when things are bad, often they're really bad.

My anxiety has gotten progressively worse over the past couple of years. Therapy is helpful, as are various meditation techniques. Still, the bad can be really, really bad.

I heard an artist say that painting her experience of anxiety, panic, and depression was therapeutic for her. I know of another person who wrote music to express what he experienced. I thought that doing something like that might be good for me.

The problem is, I don't paint. I don't draw. I don't write music.

I gave up pretty quickly on the idea of expressing my anxiety artistically.

But then, about a month ago, I was playing Shadi Torbey's excellent solitaire card game Onirim. In Onirim, you're working your way through dreams and occasionally encounter nightmares, which will destroy you slowly until you either die or barely win.

The art in the game is stunning (Some people say "ugly." Those people are wrong), and the nightmare artwork does evoke the feeling of a nightmare.

That's what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a game similar to Shadi Torbey's designs, which are all simple to learn, quick to play, solitaire games. Most importantly, however, they all give the player a high level of stress and tension. Torbey's games, to me, are all about the feeling they produce.

I wanted to make a game that (somewhat) replicated the feeling of anxiety. Occasionally, things are okay; but often, things are absolutely overwhelming. Sometimes I'll feel at peace, and then all of a sudden, panic attack.

I didn't want to make a game that explains anxiety. I just wanted to put the feeling that I experience from anxiety into a card game.

So I did.



The general idea for ANXIETY has basically remained intact from idea to final product. I originally envisioned a picture of a head on the table, with a greater and greater amount of darkness covering the head. I also wanted to express how anxiety tends to affect me differently depending on the day or hour. Both of these ideas quickly fused into one idea: there would be three tracks above the picture of the head. Each of these tracks would represent different symptoms of anxiety that I regularly experience. As these tracks filled, it would become darker and darker over the head.

My original plan was to randomly scatter darkness cards throughout the deck of cards, similar to the way nightmare cards are shuffled into the deck of dream cards in Onirim. However, I wanted there to be a metric ton of darkness cards, as anxiety often feels all-encompassing. If I were to make that many darkness cards, the game would be relatively unbeatable, since there would be more bad cards than good cards.

While I was sliding some of the makeshift cards into some black-backed card sleeves, I realized that I could make dark-backed cards, and the darkness could be represented by the backs of the cards instead of the fronts.


A couple of pictures from the early prototype, with a Crisp Meat Burrito in the upper left. Crisp Meat Burritos do not come with the game.


Each card, I realized, should have both bad stuff and good stuff (names weren't important at this stage). When the player draws a card, there would be two pieces of information: 1. what kinds of effects are causing harm to the player, and 2. a way to play the card and hopefully heal the player a little bit.

Symbols representing "bad stuff" on the top, and "good stuff" for the player to do in the blue section.


Deciding what the cards would do took a long time. I didn't go into designing the game with much of a plan. I simply mathed out how much and how often the 'bad stuff' would hit each of the tracks, and then I came up with as many interesting ideas as I could for what each card might do for the player. As I playtested the game, many of these cards changed (it was absolutely unbeatable for the first ten or so plays). However, the basic structure of the game hardly changed from this point.

The game board in all its glory



The player tries to rid the deck of cards, without letting their Panic Level reach 20. At the start of the turn, when the player draws a card, they first look at the bad stuff on the top of the card drawn. There will be a series of symbols that correspond to the three tracks on the game board. For each symbol on the card, the player takes a card off of the top of the deck, and places it face down on that symbols track above the game board. There are three tracks, representing sleeplessness, difficulty breathing, and intense worry/dread (each of these being responses to anxiety that I regularly experience). If there are ever three cards on one track, and the player needs to place a fourth, they DO NOT place the fourth card, and instead moves the Panic Level up one space. If it ever reaches space 20, game over.
If the player gets all the way through the deck without reaching level 20, they win.


The panic track (the die has no purpose. It's just a token to move along the track)



After playtesting the game around 50 times or so, I mocked up some cards, and had them printed via DriveThruCards. They came out really great.

 The backs of the cards are no longer plain black, but have a lightning symbol on it. Why? The image just made me a little tense when I saw it, so it seemed to fit the theme. Also, the picture of a head ultimately became a brain.






I only really made this game for myself. Somebody said to me while I was making it, "This could actually help people with anxiety." I'm guessing not. The process of making the game was therapeutic for me, but I don't know that playing the game would actually help anyone.
In addition, the effects of anxiety in the game are ones that I've experienced, but anxiety affects people differently. So playing the game is probably not going to help someone else work through their anxiety, as they probably experience it differently.

It is a fun game, though. Again, I made it only for myself, and never really intended to sell it, but as DriveThruCards is a print-on-demand service, and I already uploaded the files, it takes zero effort for me to actually make it available for purchase. So I did.

If you want a copy, you can get one here.