I don’t usually do much for Lent other than think about what I should/could/would do. But this year there’s something stirring deep down. A need for silence.

My brain works in a furious rush sometimes, and most of my life is filled with incredible life-giving moments, but sometimes the energy of those moments keeps me up at night because I just. can’t. shut. off.

My brain and my soul need a break. And I need to practice quiet.

I told someone yesterday that in grade nine a science teacher asked me to stop putting my hand up to answer questions so that other students would be more likely to participate. In grade twelve a teacher told me I take up too much verbal space.

Ya, I’m long-winded. And I’m sensitive about it. Nearly every time we leave a social gathering I ask Kathryn if I talked too much. It’s only just occurred to me in the last few months that I don’t need to (and don’t even benefit from) this compulsive desire to share and record every thought that comes swirling through my mind.

Kathryn’s highest love language is acts of service, and in my desire to love her well, I sometimes need to remind myself at bedtime that it is an act of service not to tell her every thought I have had all through the live long day. And then I have to tell myself it’s an act of service not to tell her I’m doing an act of service. The woman needs some sleep.

So, because of these heart stirrings, and because of a desire to deepen my internal peace, for the next forty days I plan to spend twenty minutes a day practicing external and internal quiet. I will sit quietly and focus on my breath and as thoughts come through my mind I will picture them as leaves on a river floating by, appreciated but not needing to be captured, and I will gently return to my breath.

Silence.

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I tossed her collar on the seat next to me. The tags clinked together, and for the briefest moment, the part of me deeper than logic believed she was there.

How many car rides have we taken together? My Pavlovian response to the sound of the tags wanted to believe this ride was the same.

It was too early to go home. The sun had not fully risen yet. It was too early to walk through the front door without her. So we went to the water, her spirit-still-alive and I.

This was our stormy place, our late night thunder showers and whipping winds screaming place. This was where I could let my emotions rage with the storm.

But this morning, oh how different. I’ve never seen the water so silent. How far could I see and still make out the stone shapes on the lake bottom. No wind. No ripples. Clear glass water.

The sun rose and with it, her spirit, high into the daybright sky. I returned home and placed her collar, her red bandana, and her favourite rubber bone into a shoebox under my bed.

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Loving Sasha
September 1998 – January 2010

I feel mixed about #BellLetsTalk today. Is it a start? Yes. Is it enough? Hardly.

We need a lot more than just talk. We need practical ways to support one another through times of crisis. We need to teach people emotional coping skills (preferably as children). We need actual answers to why our brains sometimes go off kilter. We need medication that isn’t just a guessing game and that so often comes with heavy negative side effects.

I’m not the only one I know who feels frustrated hearing “if you feel suicidal, reach out and talk to someone.” Friends and family can only do so much and find it very frightening and overwhelming. And crisis lines and emergency psychiatric services aren’t much better. Generally you get held until the intensity of the moment passes and you’re sent home, maybe to follow up with your GP. You’re alive, yes, but the root of the problem hasn’t gone anywhere and you might be less likely to reach out next time if you feel there is no hope of actually feeling differently, not just being forced to stay safe.

There isn’t a whole lot that can be done to get to the root of why some people feel suicidal so often (or even just occasionally) unless we have more funding for research and adequate treatment. Far too many people are given 6-8 weeks with a therapist or psychiatrist and that just doesn’t cut it.

The wait list for DBT (the recommended treatment for Borderline Personality Disorder) in Hamilton is now over a year long. And while DBT services are expanding, its not nearly quick enough for the number of people being diagnosed and referred to the treatment. It is available in just a handful of cities, meaning hundreds if not thousands of people who would benefit don’t even get a chance. For someone who is acutely in crisis, suicidal, impulsive, behaving dangerously and feels like life is intolerable this is NOT acceptable. We need funding, and that doesn’t come from just talking about mental illness.

Bell Let’s Talk seems to focus on anxiety and depression. Yes, we need to talk about those – but we also need better understanding of schizophrenia, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and so many more. And we need to understand the complexities of mental illness, abuse, addiction, poverty, gender and race. It’s not just rich white people who struggle. And far too often the people who need treatment the most can’t afford the costly private services available and have to wait on the long waitlists.

I am so grateful to have what many others don’t – a support system I can fall back on, a net to catch me when I need it. And the resources to pay for the treatment I need (with the support of my family). What about those who don’t have either of these things? How can we expect them to reach out if we’re not reaching back?

Ultimately, awareness campaigns like Bell’s leave me desperate for so much more. My friend Kathleen said it best, “No one should have to bombard social media with free advertising for a corporation to get basic health care from our government.” Mental health care is basic health care and we need to start providing better services now, and that takes more than just talk.

Often I have moments when something will cause me to remember a choice or action I’ve made in the past that I feel embarrassed about or regret. Sometimes these things just pop into my head without any apparent reason. And I often start to feel really bad, embarrassed, worthless, stupid. I imagine that everyone who knows me only remembers this terrible stuff too.

Sometimes it’s just embarrassing stuff but sometimes it’s stuff where I’ve hurt someone, especially Kathryn, and I feel so much worse – rotten to my core. It might be from yesterday, it might be from a long time ago. When I was a kid there was a time I was mean to a good friend and made her cry, I remember that so clearly and still feel bad.

What I’ve been trying to consider in these moments is the difference between shame and regret. I definitely regret those moments that cause pain, but I think that’s different than defining my whole life by them. My whole relationship with that childhood friend was not defined by that one mean moment, and yet it’s the clearest memory I have of her. And when embarrassing or hurtful things happened in university – that’s not what people remember me for (or at least not the only thing they remember me for).

Today at work this came up. I felt so bad all of a sudden for a conflict that happened with my coworker a few months ago. I apologized afterward and things have been good since, but the memory of the conflict just sort of consumed me and in that moment became the definition of my relationship with this person.

As I walked to the bus stop, I reminded myself that this was a moment of regret, but not one that has continued to define my relationship with her and not one that defines who I am. This eased the shame quite a bit, which surprised me because I’m not used to finding a way to help shame settle down – usually it just overwhelms me until I sleep or do something impulsive/negative.

Obviously the more painful the memory, the harder this is, but I’m hopeful that this little learning moment will help me remember all the positive things when I feel consumed by only the negatives, especially in my relationship with Kathryn.

It’s okay to feel regret – it’s healthy. I don’t have to pretend like every decision I make is good or that my actions and words don’t have weight. But getting overwhelmed in a shame spiral has never once helped me make a decision that I’ve been proud of, I usually just act in ways to confirm the shame, which only makes things worse.

Remembering that those memories cause feelings of regret but don’t have to cause shame can actually help me focus on what I want to do differently, to think about how I can act more consistently with my values going forward. This is what I am working toward.

If You Feel Too Much

Jamie Tworkowski, founder of TWLOHA

If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
If this world is too painful, stop and rest.
It’s okay to stop and rest.
If you need a break, it’s okay to say you need a break.
This life – it’s not a contest, not a race, not a performance, not a thing that you win.
It’s okay to slow down.
You are here for more than grades, more than a job, more than a promotion, more than keeping up, more than getting by.
This life is not about status or opinion or appearance.
You don’t have to fake it.
You do not have to fake it.
Other people feel this way too.
If your heart is broken, it’s okay to say your heart is broken.
If you feel stuck, it’s okay to say you feel stuck.
If you can’t let go, it’s okay to say you can’t let go.
You are not alone in these places.
Other people feel how you feel.
You are more than just your pain. You are more than wounds, more than drugs, more than death and silence.
There is still some time to be surprised.
There is still some time to ask for help.
There is still some time to start again.
There is still some time for love to find you.
It’s not too late.
You’re not alone.
It’s okay – whatever you need and however long it takes – it’s okay.
It’s okay.
If you feel too much, there’s still a place for you here.
If you feel too much, don’t go.
There is still some time.

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I held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

It answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

– Warsan Shire, from “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon”

As I wake to the news of the election results in America, I pray these words with heartache and hope.

God of the universe who holds all things together:

Let us be instruments of peace.
Where there is hatred, may we bring love.
Where there is hurt, may we forgive.
Where there is doubt, may we bring faith.
Where there is despair, may we bring hope.
Where there is darkness, may we bring light.
Where there is sadness, may we bring joy.

May we seek to comfort rather than to be comforted;
to understand, rather than to be understood;
to love, rather than to be loved.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is by forgiving that we find forgiveness.
It is in death that we find new life.

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Prayer written by Saint Francis of Assisi

How can I sleep when I can’t trust my own mind?

It takes me down dark paths, wandering into woods I know I’ve been lost in before.

The constant questing, nagging, demanding fear is this: what if I’m wrong?

What if what I think will help me only makes things worse?

What if this attempt for peace of mind is really just a desperate plea for attention, for a demonstration of being loved?

Am I worth the concern that others show for me when I struggle most with my illness?

Am I just escaping my responsibilities by curling back into illness or I am actually challenging this illness with the hope for better treatment?

Aspects of hospitalization feel addictive – the safety of being surrounded by people, checked on every 30 minutes to ensure I’m not doing something to harm myself.

Nearly every trigger and method of suicide removed, a near risk-free environment.

Pressure to be productive and responsible and healthy all eased.

An enforced and regular schedule of meals and sleep, all without the challenges of cooking and tidying.

And of course, the outpouring of concern from friends and family.

But what is the cost?

Loneliness and boredom and too much time to think.

All the negative judgments of myself find evidence to support themselves.

I could curl up in this darkness, and just… stay.

Will being here really help me create long-term stability or is this just the start of another cycle of regression?

Am I actually ill or is this all in my mind?

Well, I’m back in the hospital for a medication change.

Psychiatric medicine has come so far in being able to treat people who suffer from debilitating depression and anxiety. And yet the system is still so far from perfect. When your current meds begin to lose their effectiveness as tolerance builds up in your body, you basically start back at square one in trying to find a medication or combination that will create long-term stability.

And because I’ve had such negative reactions to some meds, and have such high impulsivity when I feel suicidal, the risks are too great to be a guinea pig outside of hospital anymore. So I’m here, and I’m committed to getting better, and I’m grateful that the staff admitting me last night was compassionate and understanding and more importantly, recognized the severity of my need.

Being here (on the same unit I was on in 2014) is both nostalgic in an odd way and frightening. The last time, a hospitalization we thought would be a few weeks stretched on and on for months until a whole year had slipped away from me.

Kathryn keeps reminding me to let this all unfold as it will, cultivate hopefulness that I will get back to my life soon – hockey starts this week, I miss my clients at work, my friend’s wedding is next weekend, the GS Halloween Party the week after that. I don’t want to miss any of this.

And so in the most difficult moments I will ask for help and use my coping skills and remember it doesn’t always feel like this. I am not here to escape my pain. I’m here to confront it and find a better way of managing it.

I came out to my friends and family at the age of 25.  Three years prior, one of my university professors had come out as a gay Christian. Before hearing her story, I had never heard the two terms used in cohesion with one another.

Growing up in a Pentecostal church, being gay was so far removed from my experience of ‘normal’ that it did not once cross my mind in a conscious way that I might be gay. It was only after hearing my professor’s story that I began to examine my own life, attractions and relationships.

That journey was painful. Coupled with my vulnerability to depression and having Borderline Personality Disorder (undiagnosed at that point in my life), trying to process that I was not who I always thought I was – and not who my family, church and friends expected I was – was like trying to swallow fistfuls of cement. Coming out to oneself is always the first and hardest step of accepting who you are. And that’s just the beginning. The idea of having to share this dark shame with another person paralyzed me. I was physically and emotionally sick for a long time before I started talking to people who were able to help me see the beauty in who I am as a gay Christian.

One of those people was Wendy Gritter, executive director of New Direction, an organization that actively seeks to “eliminate fear, division, and hostility at the intersection of faith, gender, and sexuality.” She had counselled a few other gay people I had spoken with, and on their recommendation I connected with her. I still remember her expression the first time we met, when she told me “there is no shame in being who you are.” The sincerity and determination in her voice pierced through my walls of internalized homophobia. This was the first time a straight person with a religious background was affirming my sexuality.

From there, my world of acceptance grew. As I found more safe people (and realized just how many of my friends and family were accepting and affirming), it became easier to overcome this internal shame and wrestle through the difficult theological questions that I faced as a Christian who had grown up believing homosexuality was sinful.

The result has been an incredibly loving relationship cultivated with Kathryn, sharing who I am more authentically with my friends and family, and the dismantling of a spirituality built on fear of punishment. In its place, I have found room to grow as a Christian that believes God is drawing all life toward Love, and that my role is to practice this love and learn to cultivate trust when fear is tempting.

I still sometimes revert to that internal homophobic fear that worries if gay is synonymous with broken, sick or sinful. What I return to again and again in these moments is this – I have to believe that a life modelled after Jesus must be motivated by love, and so as St. Teresa of Avila said, “the important thing is not to think much, but to love much, and so to do what ever best awakens you to love.” A life lived with love as the motivator, and in conscious opposition to fear, is the one I am after.

There’s a reason I am sharing this with you. Imagine having to wrestle through all this shame and fear without the support and acceptance of the people closest to you. Imagine if I had never met another queer Christian. Imagine being a child or a teenager who is a sexual or gender minority, fully aware of how different you are, and fully aware of the rejection you would face if anyone ever found out. I was incredibly lucky that most of my fear of rejection was unsubstantiated. I weep for those that do come out and are abandoned by family, barred from their churches, pushed toward damaging “reparative” therapies or simply ridiculed for being different.

Despite growing cultural acceptance of LGBTQ* identities, there are still kids in Canada growing up in churches and families that are not affirming, and at worse are abusive toward those that don’t fit expectations of ‘normal.’ All the fear and shame I wrestled through nearly killed me (literally). I can’t imagine the deep pain of those who have to experience this as adolescents in isolation.

This is why the work of New Direction is essential. The gay/queer community is not always fond of Christians, and vice versa, and you can imagine funding for an organization that exists in such a tense place can be scarce. This fall, New Direction made the heart-wrenching decision to lay off their Youth Coordinator due to funding. This is devastating. We must be doing MORE to reach kids and teens who fear the only way out of the closet is by death.

If you think the work of New Direction is essential, please consider making a donation (choose General Fund and indicate in the comment if you would like it to be specifically for youth outreach). To really make a difference, become a monthly sponsor. This is a tangible way you can stand up to the homophobia in our churches and society, and make a real difference in someone’s life. I’ve seen it happen in my own, and there are so many more hurting hearts to reach.

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