Confessions of a She-Geek

August 25, 2014

Depression: Regina George of Mental Illness

Filed under: Media,Mental Health,Movies and TV — Teresa @ 4:54 pm

It’s been a while since I posted anything; real life stepped in while I was busy making other plans, and before I knew it, months had slipped by.

But when I found myself so deeply affected by Robin Williams’ suicide, I felt compelled to post something on Facebook that apparently hit a chord. Once the original post went up, I kept thinking of more that I wanted to say. Rather than adding comments upon comments to my own FB post, I decided to collect my thoughts on the subject and put them all in one place in a proper blog.

With all the news about Robin Williams’ suicide, one major point that seems to keep coming up is his ongoing struggle with depression. I can relate; my heart aches for the pain he must have felt to take such drastic steps. As time went by and more details emerged, we learned that Mr. Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at some point. Whether that was a factor in his choice to end his own life is a matter of speculation. I don’t presume to know what he was thinking when he made that choice; nor do I think it’s any of my business. However, I do feel qualified to speak as someone who’s been living with depression for most of her adult life.

Here’s the thing. When depression sinks its teeth into you, you are not thinking clearly. Your perceptions are skewed and you become your own worst enemy. You lie to yourself, insisting that depression isn’t a “real” problem, that your friends and family don’t want to be bothered with your whining and self-pity, and that they’d probably be better off without you dragging them down. There’s the fear that all your future holds is even more pain. Or worse, that if you talk to someone about it, they won’t care.

If you find yourself thinking that way, please, please tell someone. It’s the depression talking, and depression loved nothing more than trash-talking. Your family and friends want to help you. They do care. Your death would cause your loved ones far more pain than listening to you sharing yours. This hit home for me when someone I love came to me and told me how much he’d been struggling. I knew things weren’t right, but had no idea just how bad it was until he opened up and asked me for help. Words can’t express how deeply grateful I am that this person talked to me. Talking alone didn’t fix the problem, but it was a start and a necessary first step in addressing the issue.

While depression can be caused by many things, believe me when I say that it is not self-pity and it is not whining. It is deep, ongoing pain which could be situational, mucked-up brain chemistry, or some combination thereof. What separates depression from the periodic blue periods that are part of normal human existence is that depression does not leave of its own accord. Frankly, depression is a vicious, spiteful bitch who will mess with your head for kicks. Depression makes Mean Girl Extraordinaire Regina George look like Miss Congeniality by comparison. Depression lies. Depression manipulates. Don’t believe what it tells you.

I’ve come to see living with depression as being much like living with diabetes. It can be deadly, but with the right treatment and self-care, it’s totally do-able. And yes, the right treatment (i.e., what works best for you) may involve medication and/or therapy. Even with treatment, you will most likely still go through some rough patches – but you’ll also be better equipped to weather those storms. Your thinking clears up and you can recognize when depression starts trying to creep back in.

It’s also important to remember that the proper treatment won’t leave you wandering around in a haze of perpetual bliss. It’s not meant to. But when you hit the right combination, you’ll be on a more even keel. Many years ago, I got a pair of snowshoes as a Christmas gift. The first time I tried them out, I couldn’t see much of a differenced between walking with snowshoes and walking without them. It seemed to me that the snowshoes weren’t working, since each step was a good 6 inches deep – until I took one off and promptly sank up to my knee. For me, that’s what treatment is like: it’s snowshoes that keep me from sinking into the really deep snow.

August 21, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

One thing I find interesting about The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is how the author uses her life story more as a framing device for discussing spirituality than an opportunity to talk about herself. I’m not saying that Teresa removes herself from the equation (although I get the sense that if she thought she could get away with it, she would have); more that she picks and chooses anecdotes specifically to illustrate what happens when faith grows and one’s connection to God deepens.

Early in the book Teresa focuses on the fundamental concepts, describing how to lay a solid foundation of faith through prayer. There are several types of prayer, Teresa explains, and people will progress at different speeds and achieve different levels of connections with God. Most people will be able to reach a point of inner calm, where they connect to the Spirit within them. These people will be rewarded with gifts of the Spirit and will happily remain at that point of spiritual development.

A few people, like Teresa, will have deeper, more mystical spiritual experiences. As Teresa’s development progressed, she began to “hear” and “see” God. Teresa says that this doesn’t mean hearing and seeing with physical senses, nor is she referring to the mental “voice” that we hear when we’re thinking. The “hearing” is more like suddenly knowing or understanding something that she would otherwise never have known or understood.

The “seeing” is more like becoming aware of someone whose presence cannot be determined by physical senses: “[One day while I was at prayer] I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body or the eyes of the soul… I most clearly felt that He was all the time on my right, and was a witness of everything I was doing.”

She describes invisible light and inaudible sounds, and struggles with finding a way to fully convey the experience to her priest and the other sisters in her order. When her priest asked Teresa how she could be sure that this was real; that it was God’s presence, Teresa could only say that she just knew it somehow. I can imagine that must have been frustrating, but it also makes sense that someone who’d progressed to a point in spiritual development that most people will not reach, would struggle to express what it was like.

It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where McCoy asks a newly-resurrected Spock to describe the experience. Spock replies that he couldn’t do that because McCoy had no frame of reference, and therefore no words would be able to explain it in a manner that McCoy would grasp. To paraphrase McCoy’s response, McCoy would need to die himself in order to understand Spock’s description.

How do you explain the color blue to someone who is blind from birth? The best you can do is look for a metaphor; something within the listener’s experience that might get the concept across. But when push comes to shove, the only way to see what blue looks like is by seeing it. It seems to me that this was what Teresa ran into. She knew of no words to fully express something that was so far out of most people’s experience, so she used the words see and hear as metaphors in an attempt to make herself understood. But she was frustrated, because these words fell short.

When you consider that Teresa is describing communing with God, is it any wonder that words failed her? That she was unable to explain because she was experiencing God on a deeper, less-filtered level than the average person? According to the Bible, when God manifested to humans, He used different methods. For Moses, it was a burning bush. Other people had different experiences. Was this because the interactions were tailor-made for the humans involved?

One reason I love TV shows like Eli Stone and Joan of Arcadia is because they explore this concept: how different people experience God. In Joan of Arcadia, God puts it this way: “I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this. I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize. You see, I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m “snippy” it’s because you understand snippy. Do ya get it?”

This actually meshes with Teresa’s account: it’s clear that the people around Teresa experienced God in ways very different from her. Parenting experts say that parents have a different relationship with each of their children. What works with one child will not work with another. And parents will get the best response when they use an approach that fits the child in question. I think the concept translates pretty well to prayer. If prayer is connecting to/communicating with the Father, it makes sense that the Father will interact with each child in a manner that best fits the child.

That’s something to keep in mind.

August 10, 2013

So What’s the Point?

As can be gathered from my posts, a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is praying and service to God regardless of what you might get out of it. While Teresa never denies that God does reward and bless those who serve him, she emphasizes that this should not be the prime motivator.

I’ve been wrestling with this concept for the past several days, trying to wrap my mind around what that really means for day-to-day existence. What is the point of serving God, really? The obvious response is that we serve because serving God is pleasing to Him, and pleasing God is A Good Thing.

Then I got to thinking, but what does serving God really mean? What form does it take? Prayer and worship, yes – but also providing assistance and comfort to our fellow human beings. Yet the act of helping other people helps us feel better about ourselves and the world in general. And prayer and worship help calm and center us, contributing to our sense of well-being. So while these things are pleasing to God, it seems inevitable that we will benefit as well – whether we plan to or not. We’re blessed despite ourselves, regardless of our intentions.

Yesterday one of my brothers and I were having an e-mail conversation and somehow got on the topic of It’s a Wonderful Life. My brother hates this movie. He sees it as the story of a good man engaged in a life-long struggle to do the right thing and help other people, only to be sucked dry and beaten down in the process. There’s no retribution for the bad guy, and the good guy gets nothing but trouble for his efforts.

I can see where he’s coming from, but since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies of all time, I felt compelled to mount a defense. As I composed my reply, it occurred to me that I’d never really examined my fondness for this film. In trying to articulate my thoughts to my brother, I discovered something surprising.

This film which I’ve cherished for years explores the same theme that I’ve been mulling over: serve God (which much of the time manifests as serving others), and there’s a good chance that you will reap some benefits in the process. Don’t do it for the benefits themselves, but enjoy them.

When the movie opens, we see George Bailey growing up in a small town, wanting nothing more than to get out of what he sees as a confining, stifling environment. He dreams of traveling the world, then going to college and becoming a world-famous architect. Due to events beyond George’s control, he never gets to do these things.

Instead of becoming an architect, George winds up running the savings and loan that his father started. This wasn’t what George wanted, but he did it to honor his father’s wishes. The savings and loan stays because George recognizes that it’s something the townspeople need, even though George would rather be doing something else. Understandably, George isn’t seeing much benefit to himself in all this; he has little to show for all the hard work.

But the benefits are there. They take the form of the loyalty, friendship, and love from the people around George. He doesn’t recognize these benefits, possibly because he’s too close to them, or maybe because they’re not easily seen and measured. But when George is at his darkest time, his friends and loved ones rally around him. They’ve got his back, even though George didn’t realize it. When he needed help, it was there – and likely wouldn’t have been if George hadn’t spent his life helping the people around him. George’s service was rooted in wanting to honor his father’s wishes and to help others. But ultimately the good that George did came back to him.

In thinking this through I can’t help wondering if true altruism is really possible. We seem hard-wired to feel better about ourselves when we help other people, which encourages us to give more help, which adds to the sense of well-being, and so on. It’s an upward spiral. And really, where’s the down side of this? That we feel good about ourselves and help the people around us?

It seems to me that such an arrangement would be very pleasing to God – even a form of service, by building His Kingdom on Earth. Serve God, by helping others, which makes us feel good about ourselves, which encourages us to help others more, which increases the service to God. I’m not sure it matters where in the cycle you start, because in serving others you can’t help but serve God, and in serving God and others, you can’t help but feel good about yourself.

So the initial motivation becomes a moot point, because it’s all going to happen anyway. “Do it because I said so” leads to “hey, this feels pretty good”, which leads to more doing. Oh, that’s tricky.

August 4, 2013

Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

Humility is a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. Teresa describes true humility as being essential in preparing oneself for spiritual development. Self-examination, she says, is crucial to achieving and maintaining this state of humility.

As Dr. Eric Elnes of Darkwood Brew said in a 2012 webcast, “You really can’t  move forward in this whole life of spirituality unless you are also willing to be broken apart.” Although used in a broader context regarding what it is to be a Christian, the sentiment applies here, as well. Knowing who we truly are, faults and all, makes it possible for us to approach God honestly and without self-delusion getting in the way of truth.

At the same time, Teresa says, we must avoid the pitfall of questioning God’s desire to connect with us. While it’s natural to wonder what God could possibly get out of such a relationship, we must not use that as an excuse to avoid working toward a deeper connection with the Maker of All Things.

It put me in mind of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street where a police detective comments that he can’t figure out what motivation led the suspect to commit the crime being investigated. The detective’s pragmatic partner replies that their ability to work the case is not contingent on understanding why something happened; just knowing what happened, and how. Teresa takes a similar approach to prayer. We don’t need to know why God wants us to draw nearer to Him, or what He gains in the process. It’s enough to know that He wants us.

Once the self-examination is done, and we’re laid bare to ourselves, what comes next? The obvious answer is working toward eliminating our flaws, striving to make ourselves more worthy of the gifts that come as a side effect of prayer. This is an admirable goal, but Teresa also mentions the need to cut oneself some slack: “We should not worry ourselves to death even if we cannot think a single good thought. We are unprofitable servants. So what do we suppose we can do?”

In other words, we should persist in our efforts toward self-improvement, removing those things in ourselves that impede our progress – but we should also keep in mind that spiritual development is a process, not a destination. And the process is not one we’ll ever finish. It’s a lifelong journey in unfamiliar territory, and like most journeys of discovery, it won’t necessarily follow a straight path. Don’t expect it to be a linear progression.

If faith can be defined as a river, keep in mind that rivers may flow in a general direction, but they are also full of eddies and currents. Accept that in some parts of the river you may move more quickly and steadily than others. Don’t expect to be in full control. Do your part, and stop trying to change the river.

Which brings us back to humility – recognizing our limits and shortcomings, and doing the best we can anyway. That is a lot more easily said than done, and also brings up a troubling question: does this humility thing mean we should just be content with where we are and not strive for more?

No, actually. Teresa isn’t saying that we should stop trying to deepen our faith and expand our understanding of God. She’s just saying that once the connection is made, we shouldn’t expect to be in charge of what comes next.

To go back to the metaphor, we are canoes in the river of faith. A canoe in good repair will work much better than one that’s damaged and weighted down with unnecessary junk. We need to make sure the canoe is in good working order. Make repairs when needed. Clean it. Remove the stuff that’s cluttering it up. Once we enter the river, God will control the pace and the direction; we just need to stay in the river to make progress.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.