I Have a Mental Illness

brainThis week, the world mourned the loss of the irrepressible genius actor, Robin Williams. Typically, the death of celebs leaves me a little sad because I know I will miss their gifts. With Williams’ death, however, I grieved. Not because I knew him personally, although his acting made all of us think we did.  I grew up loving Mork & Mindy, learned to seize the day, and saw the beauty of flawed humanity in his movies.

Mostly, though, I grieve Robin Williams’ death because I am like him.

I have a mental illness. It’s called depression.

I grieved for Robin Williams’ death because I understand his struggle. I know all too well the feeling of drowning in a sea of emotions whose pull drags you to the depths of despair and won’t let you breathe. I understand how easily your thoughts and feelings can become warped by a combination of brain chemicals and difficult circumstances, leaving you unsure of what is true and what is the myth told by your feelings.

I know I’m not alone. The CDC estimates that about 1 in 10 people report a depressive episode at least once in their lives. My symptoms started showing up in seminary. I’ve taken medication for it the majority of my adult life.  Like millions of others, I take the medication because my brain is just wired differently. It’s a brain disease, just like epilepsy or ADHD.

When you see me on a regular basis, you’re not likely to see any signs of depression. That’s because, like epilepsy, it doesn’t shout out its presence. For me, depression can be managed with medication, therapy, and self-care. However, like epilepsy, depression can be triggered by any number of factors, but for me it’s usually a combination of them—stress overload; loss; sleep deprivation; poor eating and exercise habits; working too much and playing too little; having no margin in my life for stillness and quiet; ignoring my needs and emotions.

Unlike epilepsy, when depression is triggered, it doesn’t wave a red flag and say “Hey! I’m here! Deal with it!” The slide into depression is insidiously deceptive. Slow. As imperceptive as a decline down a low-grade hill. If you are not vigilant to notice the signs, some of which are unique to each person, you can find yourself being pulled toward that black hole of despair, and it feels impossible to resist its gravitational pull.

Sometimes the fog of depression is too thick to be able to find our way out. And so we get help. We see a therapist (mine rocks, by the way, highly recommend her) to talk things through. We adjust the medication. We try to take care of our bodies by getting adequate rest and exercising.
At times, though, giving in to your feelings and thoughts—as misinformed as they may be—feels much easier and less exhausting than fighting back.

And on Monday, Robin Williams stopped fighting.

I’m taking a risk in writing this blog. It may not be received with grace, especially in the Christian community, I’m sad to say. I fear the backlash from fellow believers who wrongly assume that I don’t have enough faith or am not relying on Jesus enough (you’d be surprised at how many people think that). Unfortunately, depression goes largely misunderstood. It’s not just a matter of having a rough few days. It’s not a ploy for sympathy or an excuse to lie around the house. It’s not a lack of faith or a sign of sin. People who suffer from mental illness—from depression to anxiety disorders to anorexia—still love Jesus and find their hope in Him.

It’s hard for us to reach out to family and friends. We think you’ll judge us; we think you won’t understand (and you can’t completely unless you’ve been there); we worry that you’ll look at us funny and treat us as if we have ebola. And so we suffer in silence. Talking helps us but we can’t talk. It’s a nasty irony.

Why am I writing this blog? In all truthfulness, I’m not sure. I think maybe because I’m tired of hiding this part of me from my family, friends, and colleagues. I think partly because I am weary of the stigma attached to mental illness and want to destroy its stereotypes, even if just among the few people who will read this.

Mostly, though, I am telling my story because I seek to be authentic and real in my faith journey, and doing so requires that I be transparent about all of my struggles, not just the socially acceptable ones. You know, the fears and worries that are safe to share as prayer requests in church—a sick uncle, a job interview, traveling over the weekend. I want to challenge my fellow believers to stop playing church and start living like authentic Christians, and that means I must model it first.

I struggle with depression. And I love Jesus. The two are not mutually exclusive.




My morning: A haircut, super glue, Elmo hands, and ostrich poo

watchI knew my day would require good time management. Yeah, that should have been my first clue.

My “always wants to be at school earlier than the other kids” decided that today was not that sort of day. Behind 30 minutes.

When I took off my ball cap from taking her to school (I know I’m not the only one, so don’t judge!), I had reached THAT point. Getting a trim became a necessity in order to preserve not only my sanity, but the safety of all others around me. So I took the chance and got a trim at one of those fast-cut places. It was fast, but I was still behind another 30 minutes.

The aforementioned fast-cut place did a fair job on my hair, but apparently they don’t do styling this early in the morning, so I had to stop at Walgreens for some quick hair gel so I didn’t look like a total dweeb while eating lunch with a friend. Behind another 10 minutes.

Unfortunately, my thrifty gene kicked in and I chose a travel-size gel I’d never used before. Same brand. Different formula. Like the difference between Elmer’s Glue and Superglue different formula. So I’m sitting in my car with my hands plastered together with goop that only a jack hammer or blow torch could separate. I decide to wipe off the layers of goop onto the closest victim in my car: my favorite jacket. Unfortunately, that jacket is fuzzy. Yeah, you know where this is going.

My water bottle must be sacrificed, lest my hands resemble Elmo. Ten minutes later and an entire bottle wasted, I can at least feel my skin enough to take off the rest of the hair gel by using an entire bottle of hand sanitizer. I have the cleanest hands in the metro area. Ok, my morning has been shot, but maybe I can manage a little work before my lunch date. I get out of the car and circle around to the passenger’s side to grab my laptop for a little writing. Then I see it.

Apparently, ostriches can now fly. Because a herd/flock/gaggle has apparently made its way to Pegram. And apparently, these birds ate something that disagreed with their finicky stomachs. The amount of ostrich poo on the passenger’s side of the car was astounding. Impressive. And absolutely gag-inducing.

I am supposed to pick up my friend for lunch, but I would never subject my worst enemy (well, maybe at Redskins fan) to the sight or smell—never mind the feel—of it because it’s all over the car handle. So, I have to stop at a car wash where I spend 20 minutes trying to power-wash the poo from my car. I think it must be the same consistency of the hair gel. I’m sure my friend will buy me lunch for this sacrifice of time.

If you’ve ever had to power-wash poo from your car at close range, then you know what happened. Yep, blow back. I finally got the poo off, but now the right side of my body is soaking wet and smells like a cross between dish detergent and car wax. I hate to be cold and wet, so the next stop was the nearby McDonald’s, where by the way, I saw the black Elvis selling newspapers again.

I commandeered the hand dryer in the bathroom for roughly four hours (or it seemed) until my clothes didn’t feel like I’d been through a car wash.

Guess what time it is? Yep, time to go pick up my friend for lunch.

Hopefully, the morning wasn’t completely wasted…I’m hoping it gave you a little laugh. And a little gratitude that your morning wasn’t as crazy as mine.


Pride comes AFTER the fall, too

steps2Pride comes before a fall (Prov. 16:18), but it also kicks in after you fall, too.

This past Sunday was just like a thousand before. I alternate duties as minister of announcements every other week, and it was my turn. After rattling off information about the fellowship meal and the upcoming business meeting, I cued the congregation to stand and greet each other. Once that commences, I usually just leave the platform and make my way to my pre-claimed seat in a pew.

This time, my rote routine was interrupted by, well, the steps leading to the stage. I cannot recall how many times I’ve walked up and down them—probably hundreds. This time, however, these benign red pieces of platform jumped up, grabbed me by the heel, and tripped me in my tracks. Either that, or I just wasn’t paying attention. I’m sure that wasn’t the problem.

Some people claim that when they fell, the world slowed down and they saw everything in slow motion. Not me. One minute, I’m looking across the congregation, and the next, I’m at the base of the stairs, sprawled out prostrate like I’m deep in wonder and worship. The fall made time speed up, not slow down.

Remember, all of this is taking place during worship service. In a sanctuary. With people all around. I am so grateful I decided to wear pants that day.

My first reaction was not to check body parts to see if they were all in their right places and in working order. I could assess that after I left.

My only thought was, “Oh, Lord, did anybody just see me do a nose dive off the platform?”

Faster than any 40-something should, I sprang up and started walking back down the aisle toward my seat. I didn’t look around. I didn’t lock eyes on any one person. I didn’t hobble or draw attention to myself. I just just started walking, silently hoping that my gymnastics tryouts went unnoticed by the congregation that was supposed to be greeting each other “in the name of the Lord.” Whatever that means. Practically jogging, I high-tailed it to catalog my wounds in the privacy of the lobby.

The rest of the morning consisted of my teaching Sunday School with my foot propped up on a bean bag (yes, from the youth room); using a wheel chair to get to the car (our church, being 60% comprised of senior adults, has a fantastic collection of wheelchairs); a visit to the urgent clinic; answering the question, “What happened?; and uttering, texting, and emailing those famous words: “I’m ok. Really, I’m fine.”

I’ve thought about those words: I’m ok. 

I used them to deflect any offers of help because I was embarrassed. It’s hard to accept assistance when you know what caused the injury—face-planting in front of your congregation. Nothing heroic like saving a child from harm or rescuing an injured dog in the road. I missed a step. Or two. I just wasn’t paying attention, and wham, there’s an impression of a body imprinted on the carpet.

I’m fine. Really.

How many times have I uttered those words in pride? Not wanting anyone to know I’m hurting. Not taking a risk to be vulnerable. Not wanting to let down my plastic Jesus smile to admit that sometimes, just getting out of bed in the morning is a miracle in itself.

I know I’m not alone. How many times have you said, “I’m fine” when you weren’t? How often do you (or I) let pride dictate your interaction and connection with others? How often do you utter those words because you think that’s what everyone really wants to hear? Have you ever declined someone’s offer for help because it meant you were in need? And you were afraid to own up to your own brokenness?

Pride sucks out the vibrancy and intimacy of your relationship with God and your relationship with others. When you fall down, and you will, don’t let pride enter the picture. Be honest; be vulnerable; be transparent. Such openness is the door to your healing.

In the meantime, when you’re on the platform at your church, grab the handicap railing when stepping down. Trust me. You won’t regret it.

Disappointing God

daughter disappointedSince December, my time in solitude before God has been squeezed out. My normally quiet house (during the day) was filled with the noise of a rambunctious 8-year-old on Christmas break. We traveled to Oklahoma. When we got back, we had a major leak in the sunroom—my place to sit quietly before God. Furniture was shoved to the sides to avoid the water. Our couch was literally on its side. Buckets were everywhere. Not exactly a place where you can forget life’s demands to hear from the Holy One. 

I’ve known for a while that my relationship with God has been off-center. Wonkie. Out of rhythm. So what did I do? Nothing. For several weeks, I’m afraid to say, I avoided God as much as possible. I know. Counterintuitive. And impossible. Don’t judge.

I finally asked the question, Why are you running? Why are you avoiding the silence? 

The answer was swift: I don’t want to be still because I know I have disappointed God. 

I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one who has felt this way. More than once. If you were honest, really honest, you’d admit that you’ve felt that way before. More than once. You’ve avoided the Silence because you were sure that God would be unhappy with you, like a disapproving parent who has caught his child in a lie.

Where does that come from? Part of it (for me) is my people-pleasing tendencies. Part of it is the pressure that because I’m a church leader, I’m supposed to have it all together. (HA!)

At the heart of the matter, though, is this faulty idea that my actions (or inaction) toward God will dictate His response to me. Here’s how it plays out: If I have my quiet time, God is happy. If I lose my temper with my husband, I’ve lost God’s favor. If I remember to pray before a meal, God listens in. If I forget, God leans back a bit. Talking about Jesus? Bonus points. Giving into fear? No dessert for you.

In churchy terms? A works-based faith.

Even after 20+ years as a believer, I still forget sometimes that God’s love toward me is not influenced by my behavior, good or bad. The cross has proven that. He is not a punitive God. Grace has proven that.

I know what you’re thinking because I’ve made the same objections: But what about those verses on discipline? What about the idea that God hates sin? What about that stuff about being held accountable for our behavior? 

All of it is true.

But none of it was intended to drive our relationship with God.

Fear is not God’s motivator. Love is.

God is more concerned about in my living in fear of disappointing Him than in my wandering. Fear paralyzes.  I can’t fully and freely love Him and be afraid of disappointing Him at the same time. Wandering still suggests a returning home.

What disappoints God more than my sin is my running from Him.

So I think I’ll turn back toward Home.

What MY bad haircut tells YOU

barber poleI got a haircut this week.

Or rather, I got a really bad haircut this week.

Really bad.

Like, I-don’t-have-to-get-a-haircut-for-months sort of haircut. With the help of a little product, I think I could make it spike all over. A human porcupine, I could be.

Why should you care about my haircut?

Because it has taught me an important lesson about how often and how easily I judge other people. And I’m willing to bet you do the same.

I’ve been paranoid about how others would perceive me in my new coif. Or mini coif. Would they brand me masculine? Would they judge me as unconcerned about my appearance? Would certain church members prone to gossip make me the topic of the week?

As I was obsessing about how I might be judged, God chose to speak. Or rather, whack me upside the head.

Pam, you’re worried about how others would judge you because of your hair. You’ve been obsessed about being branded,  being the object of others’ wagging tongues.  Take a good look in that mirror you’ve been gazing at all week: you are guilty of the very things you’re worried about. 

And as always, He was right. After all, He is God.

I judge people without a second glance. I’ve labeled people—gang members, homosexuals, health nuts,  motor head, geek, Pharisee, needy, insecure, arrogant, materialistic, self-absorbed—without ever speaking a word or knowing their story.

I want people to love me for who I am, not for how I look or what I do. Yet, I have been guilty of dismissing people because of their clothes, habits, voice, walk, and yes, hair.

The question for you is simple: are you guilty, too?

4 Words to Give You Hope

forgottenI was reading by Bible recently and came across a verse I have a read a jillion times. I’ve focused on it during a retreat. Probably even taught on it in my church.

I love the verse.  I know it by heart. But I never saw these particular four words before. Sure, I’d seen them, but I’d never let them sink in.

I will not forget you.

The words are contained in a beautiful passage in which God promises to remember His people in the midst of their pain:

“But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me,
the Lord has forgotten me.’
‘Can a mother forget the baby at her breast
and have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget, I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands;
your walls are ever before me.’”—Isaiah 49:14-16

God has used this verse a number of times to speak to me, but never quite in this way.  It was such a reminder that my Savior will never abandon me, that His watchful presence is never-ending. He doesn’t stop caring for me, even for a nanosecond. Even when every circumstance seems to indicate His absence.

He promised that He wouldn’t forget about me…

Even when I’m folding laundry—again—for the 19th time this week.

Even when I feel forgotten and unappreciated, even by the most important people in my life.

Even when the phone rings and the news isn’t good.

Even when the dog pees in the crate—again.

Even when I don’t know what step to take next and the landscape is foggy.

Even when there’s too much month left and not enough money.

Even when I’m too tired from ball games and homework and freelance and everyday life to take another step.

Scripture tells us that nothing separates us from His love (Rom. 8:38-39), and this verse proclaims to us that nothing ever separates us from his protective presence.

And I pray those four words give you hope, too.

God. Won’t. Forget. You.


5 Things Your Pastor REALLY Wants

shepherdOctober is “Clergy Appreciation Month.” In my Southern circles, “clergy” means “pastor,  preacher” or the closest minister-type who can offer the blessing over the food. Youth pastor. Music minister. Children’s director. You know, those folks who lead specific areas of ministry in your church. October is officially the month when we’re supposed to show our appreciation for them.

Being on church staff part-time, I guess I qualify as clergy part of the time, which gives me a unique perspective into the world of ministry. It’s sort of like losing a loved one—you never really understand what it’s like until you experience it. Having been initiated into the “minister’s” club, I thought I’d share with you what your pastor/minister/clergy/director/shepherd/priest really wants for Appreciation Month. It’s what they would say if they weren’t afraid of offending, angering, or generally hurting anyone. And they would say these things year-round, not just in the month of October.

1. I want to be myself. It gets really, really tiring to feel like you have to put on your ministerial smile when you’re sick, when you’re discouraged, when you’ve just been blasted in the hallway because someone moved the memorial plaque in the senior adult’s classroom. All of us want to be real, honest, authentic. Give us the freedom and safe space to do so.

2. I want you to accept my quirks. Don’t expect pastors to be perfect. They’re not. They are sinners saved by grace just like you.  Accept that your pastor may not tell the greatest jokes. That he is not a morning person. That he doesn’t really like to make hospital visits. That he isn’t great with details. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for him.

3. I want you to lead. If God puts on your heart that your church needs to do something, then more than likely, He is asking YOU to lead out in that ministry. Your pastor is supposed to equip church members to do the work of the church. He’s not supposed to be doing all the work by himself.

4. I want you to stop complaining. Nothing will kill the spirit of a church quicker than complaining. Be an agent of positive change, not negative stagnation. Remember, the nation of Israel was prone to complain, and God disciplined them in severe ways.

5. I want time with my family. Being a minister (even on a part-time basis) means being on-call 24/7/365. Phone calls in the middle of the night. Emergency trips to the hospital. Being at the bedside at death. Performing weddings. Attending yet ANOTHER Christmas party. It’s a never-ending stream of activity, all of which takes the minister away from his (or her) family. If he takes an afternoon to watch his kids play soccer, applaud him. Offer to keep his kids (at YOUR HOUSE) so he can have a night out with his wife. Surprise him with a gift card to a movie theater (yes, ministers like movies).

Speaking from experience, I can tell you that being on church staff is flat. hard. No matter what the size of the congregation. So give your minister/pastor/clergy/shepherd/priest your support. Pray. Encourage. Send notes. Silence foolish critics.

Not just in October, but every month of the year.

What else do you think minsters/pastors/clergy would say?