Listening to Pain

Vulnerability time: I called a crisis line last week, overwhelmed by the level of pain flooding in from seemingly all angles. Some of the pain is stemming from my own emotions, but a lot of it right now is empathy and heartache for people I deeply care about.

The crisis counsellor suggested I just need to “put up boundaries.” That I shouldn’t take my friends’ suffering on to my own shoulders. That I should protect myself first.

We tell ourselves that our individualistic society is what is best for us. We think our focus on me-first is what enables us to reach our best potential. My time spent living in intentional communities says this is bullshit. Self-care is essential. But we forget that caring for one another is a form of self-care.

To be clear, I’m not walking around with a basket, collecting the misery of every person I meet, and wrapping myself in it like a patchwork quilt. What I am doing is trying to be a listener. Trying to say, I want to understand what you are experiencing. Trying to say, you aren’t alone – I feel that way too sometimes.

The reason the pain I was feeling from others reached an overwhelming level last week was because we lack the tools to do this well. What we need is better ways of experiencing pain together and learning how to release it. Protecting ourselves from the pain of others, ignoring the suffering all around us, does not change anything. Reaching into pain together and carrying each other through it is the only way I’ve found healing.

I want my heart to grow softer when confronted with the pain of others, not harder. Building walls to keep out the pain of others will only serve to trap me in my own.

We need each other. Desperately.

Keep reaching out friends. I’m listening.

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Breathe

How do we breathe when the world is on fire? So many nights I have asked this question as my lungs turn to stone. If the world is dying, then surely I will die with it too.

I first asked when I saw the picture of the little boy on the beach. Drowned as he tried to flee from war. Drowned as cruise ships circled in the same sea as his rubber raft.

I asked again when I heard the story of a woman born into sex slavery. Born to be owned and devoured by powerful men. I didn’t want to believe it was true.

I asked yesterday, after the play about racism. I know I am racist, it is knit into my being by the society that raised me. Undoing those knots is uncomfortable and my hands are clumsy.

My actions support a racist system in ways I don’t even understand. Giving power to some through the oppression of others. I feel helpless to make any real progress, afraid my ignorance will cause more harm.

I asked again tonight watching her performance, a voice for all of us who have been there too. Surrounded by others, claiming life over death. He could not destroy her.

Judyth Hill says to wage peace with my breath. To imagine my grief as the outbreath of beauty. She says that our lungs can transform, can bring healing to a broken world.

So I will expand into this despair. And release hope with my breath. I won’t look away, I will breathe in their pain.

If the world is on fire, I will breathe in the smoke. Through the flames, I will breathe out love and I will breathe out love and I will breathe out love again. I will listen.

It’s all that I have.

*Wage Peace, Judyth Hill. https://www.judythhill.com/wage-peace.html

Redemptive

I lay in bed
Scrolling, scrolling, scrolling
The news a weighted blanket
Crushing my anxiety into despair

I get paralyzed here
Often, too often
Perhaps there are magnets in the mattress
And iron in my blood

There is so much to do
Cat hair is collecting around the piano again
Even practicing quiet and being mindful
Have become chores

I text her to say
“Is humanity redeemable?”
By which perhaps I mean, am I?
“Yes, through love and vulnerability” comes her reply.

And so I begin by making lunch.

To Be Well

I want so desperately to be well. To be recovered.

I want illness to be something of my past, something I’ve endured through and learned from. The cumulative experiences of past relapses holding me up to make the choices I know are best in the moments of the most pain.

I want to treat myself and Kathryn with love always, to not misdirect my anger toward her. I want to choose coping skills over isolation and shut-down.

I want to believe it doesn’t always and it won’t always feel this way. To believe all the moments that come after this one are worth enduring this one a little longer.

I want to be well.

Come and Sit

Tonight, I light a candle in a blackened room,
And I invite the darkness to come and sit.
Together, what is shadowed,
Will wax and wane with what is lit.

I remember beauty,
So much deep beauty,
In me, in us, in this life and in this world.
Tonight, I remember beauty.

I remember pain,
So much deep pain,
In me, in us, in this life and in this world.
Tonight, I remember pain.

It rips my heart to just be still,
Burns my hands to hold dark and light.
My limbs are restless, I want to flee,
I fear the dark of night.

The shadows mock any memory of joy,
Claiming they were never real.
And so I split one from the other,
To cope with all that I feel.

I can’t breathe in the depths of despair,
No consolation my sorrow could ease.
Mine has become a fragmented existence,
Denying light, my only release.

I have yearned for hope to be tangible,
More than symbol, more than a story.
The promise of rescue, the Son as Immanuel,
But I’m not sure anymore if it could be.

Is any beauty worth this pain?
Worth the cost it takes to endure?
Forgetting that I have ever felt light,
Will I remember it when it returns?

Redemption seems like fantasy,
Things with feathers fly away.
Hope has not nested here,
She does not seem to stay.

I could choose to extinguish this candle,
Put an end to my light, my spark.
I could deny myself life to drown in death,
End the dance between light and dark.

But maybe, maybe they can’t be separated,
Maybe that isn’t my goal.
Could I have one without the other?
Without them both, would I still be whole?

All these questions are my pain spilled out,
Tearing at old wounds and new.
When beauty and pain mingle tonight,
Perhaps, the only way out is through.

And if this is true, could I find a way,
To hold both dark and light.
To believe that birthing is dying and dying is birthing,
And it is this that makes all things right.

In the grief of love, and love forged by grief,
Searching for answers and finding none.
Mystery in shadowed places, gift in unknowing,
Rebuilding and being undone.

Wandering, finding, and losing again,
Tension between dissonance and peace
The sun rises and sets and rises again,
Acceptance is my release.

Yes, terror and sadness may sweep me away,
Anger drowning the love at my core.
But God and my body and time and grace
Will wash me back up on the shore.

Sometimes barely alive, sometimes gasping for breath,
Agony beating against my chest.
Yet I will live through even the darkest pain,
This endless cycling of wrestling and rest.

And so, I cling to the light of this candle,
This desperate symbol, this urgent need.
A relentless aching for a day,
when all might be redeemed.

Tonight, I light a candle in a blackened room,
And I invite the darkness to come and sit.
Together, what is shadowed,
Will wax and wane with what is lit.

Burning

I’ve learned to cope by separating the world into black and white. That’s how it’s been. Church taught me “right” and “wrong.” The good and the bad. The saved and the unsaved. Sin and repentance. Heaven and hell, here on earth. Here in my every day life. Each moment a choice between life and death. Here, burned into my soul.

I wish I could believe in the in-betweens. The lost and wandering and finding and losing again. The mingling of light and dark. The mystery in shadows, in unknowing, being undone and rebuilding again. The grief of love, and love forged by grief. Helplessness in the face of great suffering and power in a small act of kindness.

Beyond binaries. To hold and break both life and death, like the bread and the wine, like his birth and death and life again.

I hold both life and death. I am dying and being reborn. These words my pain spilled out, both scarring and healing me.

I wish it could be enough to sustain me. But I constantly find myself returning to this place of black and white, this splitting, dissociating, fragmented existence. Denying myself the possibility of hope when faced with the suffering all around me. Forgetting that beautiful moments have come with a price, and duped into believing I will never pay those costs again.

It’s so dark these days. Night falls fast and lasts a lifetime. When will spring return? Will spring return? I remember light. But I don’t believe in it anymore. Will I remember it when it returns again? And will I remember then too the darkness?

Trying to hold both light and dark, it all just seems so grey.

You, who have shown me honesty in your faith and in your doubt, in your questions and your assurances, in your brokenness and your beauty. You, who are both strength and vulnerability. Brave and full of fear. You, with your heart of gold and your anger and your grief. Betrayed and full of grace. Shamed and full of pride. You’ve shown me colours I haven’t dared to believe in.

You are this mix of light and dark, not grey but burning. Like the flame that burns from blue to white to yellow and orange and red. Turned to smoke and lost amidst the night air.

You are the incarnation, the advent I so desperately need. The coming of the Christ, “for Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his.”¹

Keep burning. We need to see you. I need to see you.

 

¹Hopkins, Gerard Manley. “As Kingfishers Catch Fire.”

Resonant Breath

This blog is a place where I explore what hope, community, love, and peace mean to me. It is where I process my darkest moments and where I find light. Hope and peace are characteristics that must be cultivated like a garden, and writing is one expression of that work.

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I’ve been writing about my struggle with mental illness (specifically Borderline Personality Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder) since the beginning of 2013, although my blog contains many other posts on spirituality, LGBTQ+ issues, and stories from my experiences working with adults with developmental disabilities.

I write because it is therapeutic. The blog is called Resonant Breath because I am always learning to live one moment at a time, breathing deeply and allowing my experiences to resonate within me.

I am striving to live mindfully, peacefully and justly in all that I do. All of life is made up of small choices between life and death. Each decision we make leads us closer to one or the other. Resonant Breath is a place to remind myself that I have the power to choose life in each moment, and that life feels fuller when I pay attention to the choice.

Illness Doesn’t Exist Inside a Bubble

Some days my experience of mental illness is really hard on me. Some days it’s really hard on the people around me. It makes it so extra shitty knowing I’m hurting and disappointing the people who love me.

John Green published a book recently called Turtles All the Way Down. He has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and has talked about it in interviews and youtube videos, and the main character in the book deals with similar obsessive and debilitating “thought spirals” to John.

After reading all through the night, my heart broke open as the main character comes to a point of saying, “I knew now for sure. I wasn’t possessed by a demon. I was the demon” (pg 229). She has new insight into how her illness is hurting – how she is hurting – the people she loves and in that place of deep suffering her identity becomes totally consumed by her illness.

In my healthiest state, I can understand that the “demon” of illness is separate from my own identity, that I am not the diagnosis I have. Writing reflections like The Bear help me to articulate this separation, and reflections like Emotional Gifts help me to remember the important strengths I bring to my relationships. But in those darkest moments, which are usually when my choices and actions are hurting the people who love me, it’s hard to remember that distinction.

I know I can’t and shouldn’t blame myself for having this illness, but I also know I am responsible for my choices and actions. Sometimes my choices (even when they are influenced by illness) hurt the people around me. It’s important for me to acknowledge that the way I respond to illness is hard at times for the people who love me – and important to acknowledge the difference between this reality and equating myself with “the demon.”

John Green was asked on a reddit post, “Have you found a way to help your friends and family relate to your mental health struggles or a way to deal with it if they don’t?”

I think his answer gets at the heart of this need to acknowledge how my response to my illness is interconnected with the way those who are close to me experience it.

He responded:

I think I wrote the book in part because I wanted to give people who care about me a way into the experience of obsessiveness. But even if they understand how hard it is for me, I still have to understand how hard and exhausting it can be for them when I’m not emotionally present in their lives in the way they need for me to be.

I don’t think there’s any easy way out of this problem. I think the best we can hope for is a kind of mutual empathy: The people who love me know that my psychic pain is real, and that it is difficult to manage, and I understand that it also negatively affects them. My commitment to them is to try to treat my health problem with consistency and care, and to pursue treatment when I am sick. Their commitment to me is to stick with me on that journey.

We need better support for people who are dealing with mental illness, but we also need better professional and social support for their loved ones (friends and family beyond just spouses/children). It doesn’t help anyone to treat people who are dealing with illness (physical or mental) like their actions and choices in response to their pain doesn’t impact others, or that those effects are trivial compared to the person’s own suffering.

Illness doesn’t exist inside a bubble. I’m not the only one who suffers because of my illness. My family and friends suffer at times too. It’s hard to live with this reality.

 

Support

Last week I was a panelist at an LGBTQ+ Mental Health and Faith conference organized through Generous Space. One of the questions I was asked was what we can be doing better as individuals and church communities to support people who deal with mental illness. Here’s the response I had prepped beforehand for those that may be interested.

(Sidenote: I think this is relevant far beyond christian communities.)

1) I think it’s important that as christians and in our churches, we find ways to express difficult emotions in healthy ways. Feeling anger, doubt, fear or despair is seen as negative and sometimes even “sinful” when these are actually natural and needed emotional responses. Our emotions help us understand what is important to us, and how we relate to ourselves and the world around us. Denying the role of these important emotions encourages individuals to just wear masks of happiness around each other and struggle alone in silence.

So, we should be asking ourselves – are we talking about these emotions in our churches? Are we practicing feeling them in healthy ways? How can we give each other space to release them, and have them validated, instead of just suppressing them? Are we talking about emotional coping skills and actually practicing them together?

2) Churches are often pretty good at organizing support around those who are experiencing physical illness. I remember a lot of casseroles that got dropped off at our house when my brother was sick. This is the kind of response people who are experiencing mental illness need to, not just emotional and prayer support but help with the practical needs of life and recovery – so show up with some groceries, or walk their dog for them, or wash some dishes after having a coffee with them. If you don’t know, you can ask someone what they need or want. Maybe they just want to stay in their pajamas and watch tv, so offer to do that with them.

It’s hard to ask for help when you are struggling because we are so conditioned to hide our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which is why we can’t just wait for a mental health crisis to start building safe and supportive relationships. You know long before you start to struggle who will accept you and be there for you, and who you will feel judged by.

3) It can be hard to avoid giving people advice or trying to solve their problems for them. It’s uncomfortable to sit with someone else in their pain. We need to get better at this, and it will only happen if we practice and make mistakes and keep trying and encourage honesty about our vulnerabilities.

4) And then, equally important, is giving people opportunities to give back too, to share their strengths and not be defined by their struggle. We who are sick are not fragile, we might be tired or scared or hurting but we are also resilient and resourceful. We need opportunities to show this to others.

New Life

Three years ago, I wrote a piece called Through the Screen Door. It was written from a hospital bed, during a long admission that seemed to have no end in sight. Hope felt next to non-existent. I didn’t believe that I would ever get better, or be able to build the life with Kathryn that I had imagined.

That post was about picturing kids playing in our backyard, knowing that some day Kathryn and I would be raising those kids together. It was about imagining a time when mental illness wasn’t the driving force in our daily life, and about using all we had learned through my illness to teach little ones to live with hope deep within them.

We had gone to a fertility clinic earlier that year for an initial consult. We had also spent long hours researching and talking about the pros and cons of anonymous vs known donor sperm. We had not set a specific timeline in motion, but we were well on our way to beginning to grow our family. I remember Friday nights spent wondering how much sperm was being tossed away in houses all around us.

I’ve wanted to be a mother since I was little. Probably since I knew that babies came from mommies’ tummies. I was the girl eager to babysit the neighbours’ kids, always volunteering in the nursery at church, enraptured by the pregnant women and babies that seemed to constantly flow through our community. I remember my grade one teacher, who had gone on maternity leave, bringing in her newborn infant for the class to meet and trying to get as close as I could to see the tiny one’s eyes, her lips and fingers. I was the little girl that imagined my wedding and picked out my kids’ names long before a healthy relationship was ever a reality in my life.

So when Kathryn came along and we got married, it seemed logical to start planning for kids almost immediately. I had a new motivation too – I desperately wanted to see her be a mother, and see aspects of her reflected in our children. I was in love with this woman, and couldn’t wait to nurture her through pregnancy and care for a child together. I probably would have agreed to pregnancy on the honeymoon if she was up for it. It’s a good thing she’s more practical about these matters.

But she was on board with planning for kids within a couple years of the wedding. She had never imagined getting married before she met me, and couldn’t imagine herself as a parent until I showed her what I saw in her. She developed a unique bond early in our relationship with my then ten year old niece. As more friends began having children, she too started to catch the baby bug. It was incredible to watch how children were drawn to her very laid-back approach. Even kids deemed timid eventually found their way into her lap.

And when that long year of hospitalizations came in 2014 and interrupted all our plans, it was painful for both of us. When our second niece was born that fall, my heart simultaneously burst and broke each time I watched Kathryn hold her, care for her, play with her and teach her things. I was so amazed (and still am!) at all the potential in her small body, at everything she had learned each time we saw her – to lift her head, or make eye contact, or roll over. The first time she said our names my heart melted.

But it wasn’t our time. I was ill, and getting better was the priority, and although it was the wisest thing to put off pregnancy-planning, it was still painful. So we actively imagined the future in order to build hope, we put the building blocks together piece by piece so that one day, it would be our turn. We bought a onesie and a teether together as a promise to each other that although the time was not yet, it would be.

Those items have been sitting in our cabinet next to my childhood stuffed bear and Kathryn’s stuffed lion for three years now.

And this spring, after a lot of processing with Kathryn and my therapist, we made the decision to let go of that promise. With the recent relapse of my illness came a realization that we may not ever be able to promise each other the stability that raising children would require.

A few people we have talked to have said, “you’re still young, you will change your minds.” Others have assured us that I won’t always struggle this way, that we can and should look forward to long periods of wellness. It’s also true that lots of people parent, and parent well, with mental illness.

There are a lot of reasons why we’ve made this choice, but here’s the key – even if I could guarantee five years or ten years of stability, the chances that at some point a deep struggle with suicidal ideation will re-emerge seems very likely. I’ve been dealing with suicidal thinking since middle school. And it seems that every time I finally begin to say I am free of the torment, it comes rushing back in to defeat me. I am not willing to put a child in a position where suicide is introduced to them as a way to cope or escape. It’s so fucking hard to reroute that neural pathway. And the stakes are way too high.

In some ways Kathryn has had an easier time accepting this new reality. Of course she has grieved through this process as well. But her world didn’t shatter the way mine initially did. It’s possible that part of the reason is because she had begun to question our plans earlier than I had. She says that her only desire is to have a fulfilling life with me, and that she’s spent a lot less time defining what that means to her. She also didn’t spend her teenage years imagining nursery colours or reading parenting books.

The message of a woman’s role as mother has bombarded me daily through this entire emotional process. The movies we watch, commercials on television, comments from others, and our own damn hormones all seem to reinforce motherhood as the ultimate definition and purpose of womanhood. I weep with all of you who have been accosted and accused by these messages. You aren’t alone in your grief, for whatever your reasons. We’re learning to sit with it too.

I don’t expect others to fully understand our decision. It’s true that things may change in the future, this isn’t written in stone. For now, for us, we decided we had to get to a point where we were okay with not being mothers, that our lives would not be defined by that role. And accepting that has been its own step toward hope. We’ve had to reimagine our future together. We’ve had to take apart all those pieces in order to find out what we have left to rebuild a new life.