Posted in musings

walking by faith: because coping with mental illness is like striving for a virtuous life

When you live with a mental illness, you get a lot of practice at redirecting the pathways of your thoughts. Sometimes it’s as simple as stopping and taking a deep breath when the first hint of an unhelpful emotion or mantra wafts in; other times it takes repeated corrections, minute by minute, guiding your thoughts out of the road they want to travel and into a different pattern.

“He’s angry at me”, my mind says – and I have to force myself to look at the facts of the situation, remember he didn’t sleep well last night, so maybe it makes more sense that he is angry at something else or just tired and not showing positive emotions well.

“I can’t do anything right”, it says again, and I have to list off the things that have gone right in the past hour, no matter how small they are, and put the mistake in perspective: I fed the kids a healthy breakfast, I got a shower, I got everyone to speech therapy on time with activities prepared, and it’s not the end of the world if they only have socks on and their shoes are sitting at home…

“You’ll never be worth anything, they’d all be better off without you”, it repeats, and I have to turn the feelings inside out, repeat what I believe in the core of my being about the innate worth and dignity of the human person, remember the irrational and inexplicable unconditional love of a child, pray for the strength to run my race with endurance as did the saints who suffered and died for their faith, lift up my head like a superhero knocked down but not out once again.

The emotions are harder to deal with, being by nature less specific of a difficulty. Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is covered in a gray mist, blocking out the color and the joy and the reason to try, and all you can do is make your way from one task to the next, drawing on reservoirs of strength you didn’t know you had, waiting for the sun to break through again. Sometimes guilt (or self-loathing, or whatever the word for it is) attacks like a fistful of knives in your brain, and you hold your breath through the mental pain and then, somehow, inhale again and lift your face to the fight once more. Sometimes everything you take in is edged with inexplicable sadness, the inverse of a silver lining, and you embrace the beauty anyway, despite the bittersweet twist in your heart.

And what I’ve been coming to realize, lately, is that this turning away from the easier path into downward mental spirals and unhelpful thought patterns, and this setting of my feet so carefully and unsteadily in new ways of thinking, is really very similar to the process of living a virtuous life. Here is my fear, dissuading me from some act of charity or justice or faithfulness – now I must turn my thoughts aside from that path, from the rationalizing of my cowardice, and take an action I very much do not have the emotional support to make. And in the act, I make it that much easier to choose courageously in the future. There is my anger, snapping out at the people I love, roughening my edges to sharp and jagged lines, giving me hurtful words to hurl – now I must close my mouth, count to ten, pray for peace and gentleness and self-control, try to look through another’s eyes, and eventually even try to speak in kindness and in calm. And in the act – in every time I try, even if I do not entirely succeed – I train my mind and will to not fall so automatically into the pathway of that vice. It’s rather a daunting thought, knowing that I have both sanity and virtue at stake here 😉 – but on the other hand, what practice I will have at it! And with God near at hand with His grace and strength, and the community of saints present to encourage and guide me, I have hope that my practice (in both arenas!) will not be in vain.

Posted in musings

the virtue of hope

One of things I have learned from my depression is that hope, while certainly made easier by pleasant circumstances and positive emotions, is most emphatically a virtue. It is possible to cling to hope with raw and reddened hands, eyes blinded by night and storm, refusing to release that slender line though every fiber of one’s body and every echo in the tempestuous wind is shouting out the futility of holding on.

Hope is not a wish list for Santa Claus, or a fantasy of a perfect airbrushed future. Hope is a conscious choice to endure, a moment-by-moment fight to persevere, a decision to stay the course despite all odds and appearances.

Hope does not aim for a peaceful and indulgent future, where every want is satiated and every inconvenience eradicated: it could not derive its lasting power from such a weak and flimsy foundation. Hope is anchored in the everlasting love of God, looking towards a future in which every pain and sorrow will be redeemed, made beautiful, and given purpose.

Hope impels one’s feet forward through the valley of the shadow of death, to which no end can be seen.

Advent, in focusing our attention on hope, does not attempt to sugarcoat the suffering of the world with carols and cookies, but rather endeavors to give us the strength and the vision to press on through that suffering without giving in to despair or bitterness. With hope, we may be as small and weak as the one isolated candle flame that flickers in the darkness this first week of the season, but we are at the same time enervated by the raging and glorious power of unleashed fire. No icy cold can put out our light so long as our wick reaches deep into the wax that is Christ in us and for us.

In answer to the hope of the world, He came. To give us the hope to endure to the end, He came. In His coming, in the Christmas manger, in the weakness of a newborn baby, is all the strength we need.

Posted in musings

wrath

I wonder if everyone has a specific vice (as in, a tendency towards a general category of sins, vs. a specific sin itself) that proves most challenging for them, most difficult to remove, most damaging to their relationships and their own souls.

Mine would have to be wrath.

Misplaced, disproportionate, uncontrolled anger, strengthened by self-righteousness, latching onto my soul with bitterness and smoldering resentment.

The kind of flaring, volcanic passion that makes me, with all my gentle parenting ideals, wanting to slap my kid as hard as I can because he keeps laughing in my face and climbing out of bed when everyone is exhausted and needs to go to sleep.

The kind of all-consuming, fiery emotion that leaves me unable to focus, unable to work, unable to pray, unable to give back and build into the lives of others around me until I can manage to fight it off or sleep it off.

The kind of suspicious bitterness that remembers a past grievance and holds onto it forever, always expecting a repeat of the offense, never trusting completely again once the other person has made a mistake or sinned against me, withholding true forgiveness.

The kind of irrational reaction to events that responds as if every inconvenience or misunderstanding were a personal attack or insult or rejection, that makes me want to burn bridges between friends simply because of a chance word or my perception of the expression on someone’s face.

When I imagine being free of the presence and power of sin in my life, when I imagine what it would be like to be holy, the biggest change I envision is the disappearance of this dark and ugly anger, the liberation of my soul from its clutching tentacles. It was this vice that led me to pray the sinner’s prayer at 7 years old, that impelled me to more deeply fall in love with God at age 12, that continues to both be the bane of my existence and the thing that pushes me back to God asking for His mercy and forgiveness. Is there some way that these passions, in me and in others, can be redeemed and used for good? I don’t know. That kind of transformative power isn’t something I can picture right now, but maybe it is one of the incredible gifts God has in store for us. All I know is this: that my wrath is set to destroy me and everything I hold most dear, and that I need to pray, as so many have prayed before me:

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

Posted in family life, musings

grace in my inadequacies: striving for virtue as a mother of toddlers

Some days, as a parent, I just get so frustrated, so irritated, so impatient that it literally takes all I have not to yell at my kids. They usually aren’t doing anything wrong, either – just normal behavior that pushes my buttons.

Those are the days that remind me just how much I still need to grow in virtue and holiness.

Are my charity and compassion really so small that I can’t respond with a kind word and a helping hand when my toddler is whining for help wiping his nose because he’s sick and congested? It’s not loving, it’s not just, to snap at him every time just because I can’t handle the sound that he’s making because of how miserable he’s feeling – all it does is add to his sadness and upset by pushing him away from what should be his source of comfort and gentle love.

Are my temperance and self-control really so stunted that I can’t push back a meal or miss a little sleep because my boys need me for something that they can’t handle on their own? Can I not set aside my physical needs temporarily in order to take care of these little people who are depending on me for so much, and who in general have to bend to my schedule and my desires time and time again?

Is my joy so fleeting and shallow that the small irritants and storm clouds of everyday life are sufficient to wipe away my smile and bring a harsh edge to my voice? Am I really so far from the Root of happiness and peace that every small problem raises my temper or deadens my laughter?

Is my patience so short that I can’t deal with a toddler’s incessant questions or a baby’s irrational tears? How can I hope to teach them to love people well if I can’t love them well for who they are through their normal developmental needs?

And the hard answer to hear is yes, my virtues are that weak and undernourished, that immature and small. Sure, some days we have together are beautiful and by God’s grace I am living well in those moments, but in general – when I am tired, when someone is sick, when work is stressful, when Paul and I are having trouble communicating well, when I’m worried about someone I love – in general, in the normal stressors of life, my virtues aren’t strong enough to keep my feet in the path of holiness. At any rate, they still need the help of massive amounts of willpower and even more massive amounts of prayer!

My solace in those moments is knowing that the pain of striving towards virtue, the strain of denying my inclinations time and time again, the practice of coming back to God for mercy and grace hour after hour, will all result in an increase of virtue, in the same way that the aches and pains of exercise lead to greater strength. God wants us to grow in holiness, so His grace is extended for us for this purpose without stint or reservation – all we have to do is seek it and cooperate with it instead of pushing it away to pursue our own pleasures. It’s just a lot easier to say it that way than to actually live it out…