College Students and Mental Health

While teaching freshman composition at UTA last semester, I got to teach on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: college students and mental health.* The subject is near and dear to me, of course, because I struggled with my mental health as an undergraduate college student. It is also still near (but maybe not dear) to me because, at this phase of life I’m in–graduate student/mother/wife/teacher–I am again battling some anxiety.

At a public university, I couldn’t talk openly about what has most helped me since my own depressed undergraduate years. That is, prayer and meditating on Bible promises to replace negative thoughts. But I did tell my students I had struggled mightily in the area of mental health, and that I had gained some victories by learning to better express myself in a variety of contexts: talking honestly with friends, arguing “nicely” with my husband (as in Rogerian argument), and practicing expressive (personal) writing in private as well as in public settings, to name a few.

“Communicating well is an essential life skill,” I told my students from the beginning. As the course progressed, I increasingly talked about good communication as an aid for better mental health. In the middle of the semester we practiced some small group communication on several “mental health Mondays.” Following, we read a chilling ESPN article by Kate Fagan, entitled “Split Image,” about a college freshman who struggled to communicate a true picture of herself and ended up committing suicide. The article begins, “On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal: star athlete, bright student, beloved friend. But the photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.” We read the long article out loud with our desks in a circle, and I posed the questions Why did she do it? and What is the “argument” of the article? One astute and un-shy student said, “People who look great on the outside aren’t necessarily feeling good on the inside. They can be living a double life.” True, that.

My class of 24 was the quietest class I’ve ever taught. Very few of my students ever spoke voluntarily in class, even to one another. But when we took an anonymous mental health survey at mid-semester, my students learned some troubling things about their classmates. One-third said they were struggling with mental health to the point that it was interfering with their normal activities. (This statistic supports national research we read in the class.) One student was clearly suicidal, based on his or her anonymous comments. Forty percent reported they were in college not because they wanted to be, but because their parents wanted them to be.

Around the time I gave that survey, a handful of students stopped showing up. A couple did not turn in their second required essay. Though all my students started strong, four of them eventually failed or took incompletes. Except for a couple students whom I couldn’t reach, the strugglers eventually admitted to me–via emails, essays, or in person–that they were struggling with depression, anxiety, or relationships (romantic or parental), or all of the above. None of the failing students was academically incapable of succeeding in the class.**

I find often in life at large–not just in college life–that our failures are due to struggles of the mind (stinking thinking some call it), and/or the inability to ask for help. The longer I observe humanity, the more convinced I become that it’s simply hard for people in general to communicate honestly  about their feelings. It’s hard for people to ask for help. Sometimes it is hard for us to even recognize or admit that we need help. This is a sad reality.

Another sad reality is a persistent belief, common among the older generations, that mental health struggles are myths. I was saddened when I read statements in my students’ final essays like “My dad doesn’t believe in depression; he just thinks people who claim it are weak.” I was also saddened to learn how reluctant my students were to simply talk openly with their parents. Some students admitted to me that they literally didn’t feel safe expressing their needs to their parents. One student wrote in her final reflection that she had changed her major from the one her parents selected (a major she hated), but she was keeping the news from them as long as possible out of fear of their reaction. Another admitted that her parents had threatened to disown her if she did not go to college.

Wow. My quiet class of twenty-four, though they didn’t speak up much in class, spoke loudly and clearly by the end of the semester: they have lots of legitimate (and normal) struggles, but they were generally uncomfortable sharing those struggles with others. They lacked skills in healthy self-expression that I believe could do much to prevent normal struggles from turning into mental health issues.

This is why I feel teaching college writing is not just a career, but also a calling. As I’ve transitioned back into professor-mode over the last year and a half, I’ve had many “aha” moments of why God has put my feet on this path. Namely, my life story has been one of figuring out how to communicate in order to achieve or maintain stable mental health. Now I can use what I’ve learned, and what I am still learning, to help young adults learn critical skills of communicating at a critical, crisis-inducing time.

Yes, communication–in a relational, expressive sense–is an essential life skill. These basics of communication are even more essential than academic writing, I believe–yet how much time do parents, teachers, and church leaders take to teach these “basic” skills? When we can’t express our feelings and/or ask people for help–healthy stress responses, by the way–we resort to unhealthy stress responses: fighting, fleeing, or freezing.

Over the last year and a half, I have seen that young people today need caring adults who won’t dismiss their struggles, but who will listen without judgment. Are you one of those adults?

If you are reading this blog post and have college-age kids in your life, or any age kids, for that matter, I hope you will ask yourself: Am I a safe place for these young people? Do I respond to their struggles and concerns in such a way that I invite them to share with me? Or do I react in ways that would lead them to want to hide from me, and not communicate honestly?

And some questions for self-assessment:

Do I know how to communicate my own needs to the people around me? When I am stressed, do I engage in healthy responses such as journaling, praying, or talking to trusted friends? Do I do the best I can with the resources around me to manage my mental health?

Aside about Managing My Own Mental Health

One of the resources I used to manage my anxiety last semester is CAPS, the free counseling and psychological services UTA offers its students. I first visited Ransom Hall (pictured above) in July of last year, when I was home for the summer and felt the familiar anxiety coming back. We were smack-dab in the midst of transitioning my mother-in-law and her possessions into our household, and me transitioning my possessions and my full-time professor position from my office at SWAU to my garage and my new office and roles at UTA. I called off a visit to see my parents in Minnesota in July because the thought of the trip, on top of everything else, was making my anxiety worse.

When I started my semester at UTA in late August, the anxiety improved for awhile–I do better at work than at home–but as the semester wore on, life crowded in on me, like it did to my students, and I felt myself struggling to breathe. I couldn’t find much time to journal or talk to friends, much less my husband (though I did pray on a lot on my commute). I was physically sick for about half the semester, so I couldn’t exercise much. However, I made use of the resources available. Ransom Hall is right next to my office in  Carlisle Hall, so at mid-semester, I sought counseling (controlled crying and venting?) again. At the end of the semester, faced with another long break at home (I felt the anxiety coming), I sought again anxiety medication at the campus clinic.

Before Christmas, I made a playlist of anti-anxiety songs and played it over and over for a couple weeks. I saw a couple friends, but not as much as I would have liked (they’re mostly all busy moms, too). After a year and a half of crazy transitions and not seeing my family, I desperately wanted to escape to Minnesota, but failed to communicate to my family how important such a break was soon enough, and never made that trip. We did fly my little brother here for a visit, though, and his presence has been a comfort. And last week my dad happened to call me while I was having a panic attack, and, hearing my sobbing and hyperventilating over the phone (a quite unusual call for us), he planned a last-minute trip to Texas during the last few days of my break. I wish I could have communicated better, earlier, and less dramatically my needs to my family, but so be it. There is a lesson in this. I am still learning to communicate my needs to the close people around me in order to take care of my mental health. I am still a work in progress. But I have learned a lot, and I have a lot to share. Sharing uncomfortably personal things seems to be the ministry God has given me, in fact, and I embrace it gladly, happy that sharing my hurt can lead to someone else’s hope.

End of Confession

You don’t need a college education to improve in these areas (communication, mental health management, being supportive of others in their struggles). You just need a willingness to be honest with yourself and others, and a willingness to listen. If you feel like you need help in some basics of communication, you might benefit from a radio interview I had the privilege of doing this past October with Adventist Radio London on “Overcoming Depression.” Praise God that depression is no longer a part of my story!

Again, Happy New Year, friends! I’ll sign off this post the way I signed off my class last semester: good communication and good mental health to you!

*Providentially, this “topic cluster” was added to the First Year Writing folder just this year–just for me, it seems.

**All the trends I’ve noted in this paragraph also applied to a 25-person Research Writing class I taught last year at Southwestern Adventist University, a private Christian school. An interesting comparison.

Two a.m. Soul Cry: Finding Release Valves for the New Year, and Your Current Season

img_5269I didn’t write a Christmas letter or send out Christmas cards in 2019. I found that, at the end of the fall 2019 semester, I was too emotionally exhausted to do much of anything but cry. All semester I went to school/work to be a student/teacher, and I came straight home to be a mom/wife. That was my semester. Everything else got put to the side. This week, our family is decompressing and ringing in the New Year in a cabin in Arkansas. I am still trying to unwind from that crazy semester, as well as the crazy Christmas season. As well as just, well, life as we’ve known it for the past couple years.

I still don’t have words to express all the feelings I have about my personal life right now–except perhaps what I could only get out in some free verse in October. One night after coming home late from a night class, I couldn’t sleep, and a poem spilled across my notebook pages at 2 a.m. (This was unusual at this stage of life. My readers know I’m not a poet.) Perhaps what comes through in the poem is that I don’t know how to tend to some important relationships right now while also trying to stay mentally sound myself. I feel like, for the past few years, every six months or so we have had a huge life upheaval: two job losses, moving to a new state, a mom-dad role switch, the death of a parent, a parent added to the household, two new jobs, re-entry into graduate school…what have I missed? Anyway. stressful times.

My dad has a tradition of sending out an annual Christmas poem, and since I didn’t write any Christmas communications, I’ll dedicate my October poem to my dad, and to my mom, and to my brothers, Kyle and Caleb. All of these dear ones live at least a thousand miles away, and I have seen none of them for at least a year and a half. I also dedicate the poem to my good-humored husband, Buc. One needs a sense of humor at times like these. During stressful seasons we humans need some release valves like crying, talking with friends, writing poetry, or doing whatever leaves us with a little more peace. May you take your human and/or artistic license in 2020 and do whatever emotionally uplifting, nonviolent, non-destructive-to-relationships, and legal things you need to do to weather whatever season you’re going through. God bless you, Friends, and Happy New Year.


Showing Up
10/20/19

Sometimes life is about showing up
being present
hugging a screaming, inconsolable child
saying I love you or
praying with you
when, really, that’s all I can do.
I can’t fly over the ocean to you
or even across five states for you.
I can’t take my family, your grandsons,
to visit you.
I have nothing to give.
Nothing but wishes and prayers and a
heart full of emotions I can’t express.
Life just doesn’t cooperate.

The house is a mess.
And I have to go to work.
And I could work my life away,
forgetting to stop and sit with you.
Neglecting to sit and eat with you.
Not bothering to look you in the eye.
Just giving up trying to connect…
because connecting seems so hard.

Where do we go when we run out of
answers?
When Mom, Dad, Husband, Wife, and “Higher Education”
cease to fill us, delight us, comfort us?
And when, after a lifetime of reading and
school and straight A’s, we can’t learn
what we need to know, no matter how
much we study?
Only here. Crumpled in a chair at 2 a.m.,
heart racing, praying, knowing I don’t
know much of anything. But it’s okay.
He knows.
You know, God.
You know it’s going to be okay.
The world doesn’t rest on my shoulders–
it rests on yours.

And so.
I can breathe. I can sit. I can put
work away. I can leave that dust.
I can give up so many expectations
that never did anything for me
but strangle me.
What if Mom is not all put together?
(And I mean she, and I mean me.)
I’ll speak for myself and say
I’m a mess. Emotionally.
I can clean all day–clean my life away–
but what will that do if I alienate you?
I’m sorry, Family.

I see me now, or I’m starting to.
It’s not totally my fault. I didn’t make
this mess (completely). But neither did you.
It’s a long legacy, passed down to us from
our first mother, our first father.
We’re just the latest installation in a
forever-back line.
We were gifted the curse at birth.
And so we grow up nasty and defiant,
a collective screaming child. Rude, disrespectful,
selfish, self-centered “I’s.”
Our parents wounded us, though it’s the
last thing they wanted to do.
We grew up to do it, too.
We’re messy people, producing more messy people.
Heaven help us–Jesus help me.
For on my own, I can do no better than
live out this human legacy.
Human nature tells me to leave–
don’t stay the course–do what’s easy.
Emotions go cold–play mind games.
Get angry, bitter, blame him, blame her.
Don’t take responsibility.

But.
You came to change the story,
Jesus. You came here, by me–right
beside me, and us, in this mess.
You flowered in the fray–
a tender shoot from dry ground.
Unsupported, despised, rejected.
Unfairly treated, betrayed, and abandoned.
Abused, misused, and unfairly accused.
If anyone had the right to be angry,
it was you.

But what did you do?

You showed up.
You prayed, You pled, You loved, and You bled.
You cried and You prayed, even while betrayed.
You kept Your eyes on the skies and on
better days (One day
you will see me coming in the clouds,
You said.)
Still–You prayed and You pled, and You
loved, and You bled.
You didn’t turn cold or deny the pain–
You uttered this refrain:
God, if it is possible, take this cup from
Me. But if it’s not possible, Thy will
be done.
And God didn’t take the cup away, because
this suffering was Your mission.

And when they beat You and hit You,
kicked and spit at You–tore off
Your clothes and dressed You in robes,
nailed Your body to a tree,
You prayed,
Father, forgive them for they know not what
they do.

Oh, what those eyes could see.
Me. (And I mean you.)
How could I be so stupid?
Life wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Forgive me. I didn’t know what I was doing.
And I still don’t know what I’m doing, Lord.
And I don’t know how to fix it–
this pain in me and this pain around me–
And the pain inflicted on me, and the pain
I inflict on others.

But praise God.
I don’t have to know.
Because it’s not my job to know.
And it’s not my job to fix it.
You know, and it’s Your job.
That’s why You came and lived
and prayed, and pled, and loved, and bled,
and suffered, and died,
and rose again.

It’s 2 a.m. and the night is almost gone.
Day will rise, hope will rise, again.

And sometimes, like today,
life is just about showing up.
Being present.
Hugging a screaming, but consolable, child.
Saying I love you to my husband.
Sending I love you’s to my mom, my dad, and my brothers
(thousands of miles away).
Praying with a friend who’s with me now.
That’s all I can do.
And that’s all I have to do.


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Shooting for a B (A Message for Christian Perfectionists)

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“Fast asleep.” by ClickE is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

I’ve spent a lot of my life aiming for perfection. But there’s something to be said for shooting for a B, and even simply showing up (if you bring a good attitude, of course). These are some things I said recently while doing an interview with Adventist Radio London (ARL) on the topic of perfectionism. (I was asked for the interview after my article, “Breaking Free from the Perfectionist Trap” came out in Vibrant Life Magazine in June.) The interviewer, Vanesa Pizzuto, said that the thought of “shooting for a B” made her cringe. But she agreed with me: “We can’t do everything perfectly.”

No, I can’t do everything perfectly.

I am still trying to let that truth sink in, because letting go of my perfection still makes me cringe sometimes, too. But I know this is crucial advice for me, a lifelong perfectionist. I am juggling many balls right now–wife, mom, graduate student, teacher, church member, public speaker, freelance writer–and I desperately need to be able to prioritize. I need God’s wisdom to show me when perfectionis called for, and when just showing up, or just a little preparationwill suffice.

The brain surgeon in the operating room needs to aim for perfection.

The auto manufacturer preparing airbags (and many other car parts) needs to aim for perfection.

Life and death matters call for a measure of perfectionism.

But most of my daily tasks aren’t life or death.

To the extent that I believe this truth–that the bulk of my daily choices don’t matter that much–I can either live in a state of peace or a state of anxiety. I’ve been there, done that with the perfectionism-and-anxiety thing…and I’m sick of it. So I am admitting the error of my ways (in this area), and reciting these crucial truths to myself:

  • It’s okay to shoot for a B sometimes
  • It’s okay to just show up sometimes (without an exhaustive plan in hand, but with a good attitude in heart and mind)

Contrary to my anxiety-feeding fears, nothing catastrophic is going to happen if I don’t have:

  • A perfectly clean house
  • Perfectly healthy and balanced meals at every meal
  • A perfectly toned body and my perfect weight of 125 pounds
  • Perfectly planned lessons for each class I teach
  • A perfect schedule for my kids that I follow to the letter
  • A perfect record of daily reading my Bible (I’m just being honest…it doesn’t happen every day)
  • Every reading assignment as a graduate student (and there are many) completely read and thoroughly annotated

These are some of the things that make up my daily life, and, at various points, they all have caused me anxiety. You know it’s a really bad day when I’m stressing over all of them! But as I continue this walk of life, this spiritual journey, I hope I am getting a little better at recognizing this trap of perfectionist thinking (and its domino-effect-anxiety)–and then promptly turning it all over to Jesus.

It’s an ongoing struggle. I won’t lie. But as I said in the interview with ARL, the best thing I can do, when roiled by unrealistic visions of A-plusses in every detail–the best thing I can do, is stop. Stop it right there, thoughts. Call out these unrelenting sky-high expectations for what they are: traps of the devil. And confess to my Creator:

God, I’m sorry for entertaining these thoughts. You are my Creator–You are the Author and Finisher (and the Perfecter) of my faith. Forgive me for focusing on myself and my limited abilities, and not on You, Your omnipotence, Your omnipresence, Your omniscience. Forgive me for taking on a yoke that You never intended for me (Your yoke is easy, Your burden is light!). Forgive me for giving in to fear, and getting derailed (again).

I need You so much, Lord. I need you every moment of every day. Thank you for being with me, whether I acknowledge Your presence or not. Help me to put my thoughts on You, and take courage. Help me to remember that You created me for a specific purpose in this world–and that purpose was not to be perfect in every way, but to do the work You intend for me. Help me daily to separate the (eternally) important from the insignificant. Help me remember I don’t have to figure out my life alone. And help me to remember, and truly believe, that whatever You want me to do, You will help me to do–with Your power, not mine.

Now, I’ve said that most of my daily decisions don’t matter that much. For those of you who feel uncomfortable with that thought–or if you cringe at the thought of shooting for a B–let me just be clear. As a Christian, I do believe, overall, that what we do during this life matters. I believe that our choices, our actions, our obedience or non-obedience to God, will ultimately lead us to eternal life or eternal death. And, speaking as a parent, I accept that my actions can either pave the way to heaven or pave the way to hell for my children. So I don’t take my daily decisions lightly. With that said though, I often take the small details of every day much too seriously.

If my day is chaos, and the kids aren’t going along with my perfect “plan” for the day, which is more important: making sure they eat from all the food groups today, or teaching them about Jesus? See my point? I can drive myself crazy (and I have) trying to check all the boxes in every category. But we aren’t living in a perfect world. I’m not perfect, the people around me aren’t perfect, and conditions are rarely ideal. Thus, some things gotta give. The key is asking God which things can go–and then homing in on the things that really need doing (and realizing that sometimes the things worth doing can be done at a B level).

If you struggle with this perfectionist trap (and you know who you are:), won’t you join me in asking Jesus for wisdom to separate the life-and-death (really important) matters from the daily (not-so-important) details? Only in Him can we hope to live the “perfect” life–meaning, the life He intends us to live–and only as we adopt a biblical perspective can we begin to envision what God’s perfect life for us actually looks like. Courage, fellow perfectionists! May God help us all on this journey.

Life Transitions and Writing Updates

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This picture was taken a few days after Christmas at a quaint Bed and Breakfast in Granbury, TX, where I finished the rough draft of my current manuscript and enjoyed a little time away with the hubby.

Hi Friends! My blog is woefully neglected these days, but for good reason. My husband is being severed from his job next month, and we are trying to figure out what we’re going to do next: where he (or I) is going to work, where we’re going to live, and how we are going to pay for stuff.

Life has been stressful, to say the least. But we are still counting our blessings, because we still have lots to celebrate–with the birthdays of my two beautiful boys topping the list, and some exciting writing projects besides.

We celebrated Sam’s fourth birthday on January 21st with his first official “friend party”–a simple, but wonderful affair! Never underestimate what a few balloons, cupcakes, and friends mean to a child! (Sam was so excited that he claimed every day after January 21 was his birthday, until we finally took the birthday banner down on February 12!)

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Then a few weeks later, on February 11, we celebrated Seth’s second birthday with a quiet day at home and some angel-themed activities–angels being Seth’s current obsession! Never underestimate the value of family time, some DIY cookies, and a blow-up angel to a toddler! What special moments these two birthdays were in the midst of a stressful season.

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On the writing front, I have finished my third book, a modern-day novel about Psalm 109, with Paul Coneff and Straight 2 the Heart Ministries, and am currently working on edits. (Here’s a link to our first book, The Hidden Half of the Gospel, in case you have yet to check it out!) I look forward to announcing an online release date within a few months! (Titles are still being discussed, but following you can see a few options we are considering.)

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Finally, I have recently partnered with a new Adventist mental health blog called Ending Pretending, which appears on the AbideCounseling website–to write two articles about depression that I hope you’ll check out:

“I Thought I Could Never Tell. I Was Wrong.” 

“When Life Feels Too Hard to Handle”

Well, those are the headlines, for now. If you want more updates about how I am handling the stress in my personal life, you’ll find them in the second article above (“When Life Feels Too Hard to Handle.”)

But let’s keep this post nice and light. Thanks so much to all you who continue to read and support me in both writing and in life. Your encouragement, and prayers, really mean so much! Blessings, Friends! Until next time.

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Here’s a New Year’s picture with my love and husband of almost thirteen years (Whaaat?)! Anxiously awaiting what God has in store for us in the coming year!

Getting Help

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Photo from Creative Commons

Life held no joy. I dreaded every day. I didn’t understand my behavior, so I couldn’t help myself. And I was making my family miserable. Three weeks ago, I finally sought medical help for over eight months of what I’ve learned was uncontrolled Anxiety (not postpartum depression, as some moms on a Facebook group suggested). And now I am able to breathe again. Able to sleep again. Able to cope again. Able to praise God, even in a time of vast uncertainty.

On the day I finally decided to go to the doctor, I was hyperventilating, again. I hadn’t slept well the previous night, again. The kids were demanding ten million things of me and I kept repeating, “Oh God, Oh God, Oh God,” literally too paralyzed by anxious thoughts to be able to help them. I felt, as I have so many times in the last eight months, that I just needed to get away and have a mental breakdown. I needed a weekend away to regroup, or even a day. But when you have two little kids and no family around, you can’t really do that. My course over the past year has been, instead, to explode. I have been a scary mommy. And a selfish wife.

When things came to a head this past month, which they did after my husband was laid off (due to a merger), my explosions turned to sob sessions. I saw what my Anxiety was doing to my family (although I didn’t know it had a name), and I knew it had to stop. I just didn’t know how to help myself. Thank goodness I had the presence of mind to take some good advice.

Two good friends, who have also been spiritual mentors to me over the years, recently revealed that they are getting counseling for emotional issues or life stresses, one of them also taking medication. Getting this knowledge was like getting permission to get counseling myself.

The counselor I saw suggested my root problem was perfectionism (which cannot coexist with parenting toddlers), but she also said I might benefit from Anxiety medication. I agreed with the diagnosis of perfectionism, but was resistant to medication. One week after my counseling session, on the horrible day I described above, I decided it was time to put aside my Christian pride and ask for some drugs.

Friends, it was the best decision I have made in a long time.

I haven’t been on medication for thirteen years—and I don’t feel it helped much in the five years I took it (ages 15 through 20). The healing I finally found for depression eight years ago (age 25) as described in my book, came through Scripture and prayer…but guys, life has changed since then. My hormones have surely changed, as the counselor pointed out. I’ve had two babies, we’ve had two moves, lost the support of family nearby, and now we have lost a job and face another new start.

It’s no wonder I’ve had some anxiety. I just didn’t realize it was anxiety with a capital A. Or that I could get help for it from a pill.

Some of you will be curious, and I don’t mind sharing (because that’s what I do around here): I’m taking Lexapro nightly, and Xanax as needed. The first week, I needed the Xanax daily to battle a beast that was raging out of control. During the second week, I needed it less and less, and now in week three, I haven’t needed it at all. The Xanax, that is. But the Lexapro seems to be working wonders.

I’m happy to report that joy is returning to my life. Equilibrium to my emotions. And sleep to my mornings. Praise God, sleep is again possible from the hours of 3 to 6 a.m. I have not blown up at my kids for days, and I am starting to repair the damage I did to my marriage over the recent rough months, when I was too busy clawing my way through each day to lend any real support to my husband, who is now facing his own brand of (lower-case) anxiety due to job loss.

I know there are deeper problems to face—chief most my perfectionism, which has surely stolen much joy from my family over the years—but right now I am simply thankful to be able to breathe. To be able to sleep. To be able to praise God because I’m not hyperventilating. And to be able to parent my sweet, but explosive little people without exploding myself. Oh, thank you, Lord, for helping me to get the help I need, right now, in this uncertain time of life.

Friends, if you are struggling like I’ve struggled, and if it has lasted for months, and if you’ve tried talking, praying, or making otherwise drastic changes, but nothing is working, don’t feel bad if you need to seek medical help. A prescription is not necessarily forever. But it might be the lifeline you need for a particular season. That’s where I am right now. I’m going to keep praying through my perfectionism, but for now, I’m thankful for the pills that are allowing me to cope.

When You’re Stuck…in Writing, in Life…Try This

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Presenting a writing workshop in Des Moines, IO in September

In the past two months I got stuck twice: in my writing/speaking life and in my personal life. This is nothing new, and neither is my finding that writing problems resolve more easily than personal problems. But what is new is how I’m dealing with the stuck-ness: first, notecards. I’ve found that when I’m overwhelmed—with ideas, with emotions—simply transferring those thoughts to some notecards helps me organize in writing, and helps me cope in life.

In September, notecards helped me complete my presentations for the women’s conference I spoke at, and this month, notecards are helping me articulate some personal problems I can’t seem to straighten out on my own, or even in prayer right now. While I’ve decided to seek Christian counseling for these personal problems (read more in my next post), writing my overwhelming thoughts on notecards has facilitated a small emotional release when I don’t have a listening ear at my disposal.

If you’re stuck either on the writing front, or overwhelmed in your personal life, maybe you can try what I’ve tried.

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The two sessions of my writing workshop were well attended. I coached about 80 women on writing their stories for God’s glory, and I hope they are well on their way to sharing those stories with others!

On the Writing Front

In the months leading up to the Iowa Missouri Women’s Retreat, I struggled to write my presentations: a sermon and a writing workshop. Every time I opened my laptop to work on them, I typed more and more words as my ideas spiraled wildly…without ever reaching conclusion. There was so much I wanted to say…but I would only have so much time at the conference. I had to be selective and concise in my talking points.

(Last year at a different women’s retreat I had four talks to develop my ideas…and it was considerably easier to prepare for that conference because I had so much talking time.)

Finally, after trying to write out my sermon both verbatim and in bullet point form too many times without success, I got out some notecards and started jotting down my points shorthand—one thought per card. Over several days, as more ideas came to me, I jotted them down, too, and slipped them into the deck where they seemed to fit.

This simple process of writing on notecards, as opposed to writing on paper or typing on a laptop, freed me up to introduce any and all ideas that came to me in my writing process, because I knew it would be easy to discard the extraneous ones later. (Though some of my ideas were total rabbit trails, jotting them down somewhere was valuable because it kept me fluid in my writing process, kept me moving, when I just wanted to stop.)

As the cards accumulated, I began to find the shape of my talk, and I also figured out what didn’t fit. In the end, I returned to my laptop and typed out my speech, a mix of bullet points and fully developed paragraphs (I’m still finding my way as a speaker), but now it came easier because I had an outline: my notecards.

When it came time to present, I knew my delivery wasn’t perfect, but I felt that my presentation was valuable to my audience, because my writing/preparation process had allowed me to zero in on my best, most pertinent ideas, and discard those of lesser importance.

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I spoke to about 150 women for a Sabbath morning session about how, when, and where to share our stories, especially when life feels “dark.” I am trying to take my own advice and start back at square one with one trusted person, a counselor, until life makes more sense again. But since part of my ministry is sharing my personal struggles and victories with an audience, I’ll probably share bits of that journey on this blog, too:)

After I presented my sermon and writing workshop, women came up to me to thank me for my talk/writing tips, some saying my message/material was exactly what they needed to hear. Still other women said they had read my book and it was great and would I sign it? It was a heady experience being treated as such a religious authority …especially because I know what they don’t: since the events of the book ended (really, since I’ve become a mom), I’ve been a mess of pent-up ideas and emotions, so much so that I have decided I need some professional help to sort them all out.

On the Personal Front

Until my first counseling session, I’m using notecards, and other small releases, to help me cope. For those moments when I can’t find quiet, space, time, energy, or listening ears to process, I can find fifteen seconds and a pen. I can write one phrase, or one sentence, and tuck it into a discussion box that I plan to take to the counselor. I can put that negative thought or problem away from me, from brain to pen to paper, until I have true time and place to process. And then, I can quickly pray:

God, here is the mess the best I can describe it in these few seconds. I desperately don’t know how to fix it, but eventually I know I need to deal with it. Please hold this for me—keep me safe from it, keep my kids safe from it—until I have the proper time and space and listening ears to process it.

 I do believe God honors these prayers—and these pleas for help—found on this writer-mom’s humble notecards.

In my next post I will further explain my reasons for seeking counseling, and perhaps give an update of how the first session went. Until then, please send me a message or a comment if you’ve had a good (or bad) experience with counseling or, on a lighter note, notecards (or some other writing strategy).

A Time to Speak, and a Time to Be Silent

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Photo from Creative Commons

What should I say at this stage of life? This question has pained me lately as I prepare to speak at my third women’s retreat. Last week, with the deadline edging closer and closer, I panicked. I felt a sense of oppression settle over me. I don’t know what to say about this stage of my life to inspire others.

I’ve had my basic framework for the talk for awhile, but it’s the guts I’ve been struggling with. Here’s the framework: I will talk about sharing our stories for God’s glory at three levels: with God, in a small group, and in public. These are ideas I’ve developed before in former talks and this post. I believe God wants us to examine our stories to experience His working and to share His work in our lives. But after the events I shared in Ending the Pain, my motherhood story began. And oh, I am having trouble telling this story for God’s glory.

Now, if you look at my beautiful kids and beautiful life and wonder how can this be, I would just ask you to research the personality type Melancholy, and have a little compassion. Melancholy people, though perhaps not “depressed” or suicidal, have their own emotional battles to fight every day. Right now, with two small kids, no family nearby, and an imminent job change/move to we-don’t-know-where, I’m fighting lots of emotional battles. (Praise God, I’m nowhere near where I used to be emotionally, though!)

Anyway, the more I trolled my recent notebooks for inspiring mom stories, the more discouraged I became. There have been bright moments—yes. But by and large, when I search my memory and my recent writings (unpublished), I feel sad. Lonely. Still a little angry about certain aspects of my motherhood story that are too raw to share right now…except with family and close friends.

When I visited my parents in Minnesota recently, they witnessed my momming in midstream; they noted my struggles; got their hands dirty as grandparents; and gently observed some “areas for improvement.” And it was healing to be seen, to be soothed, by my own mom and dad, stepmom and stepdad as well. (We haven’t spent nearly enough time together since the kids were born). I also received a healing prayer session from a friend whom I’ve prayed for many times. That trip was a great start to some self-reflecting and praying that I really must do regarding my mom story…at some point. But now? Do I have to make sense of my mom story now, in time for the women’s retreat?

Would you believe I was actually hoping to do just that, in order to find “new material” for my latest talk? I was hoping to read through all my personal writings in the last three years since kids, examine all my negative feelings, pray a whole bunch over all of that, and come up with a tidy bow to put on the story.

What?! As I reflected on this, I realized I was contradicting the very process of healing I believe in: a process that took me years and years before I was able to bring Ending the Pain to its satisfying, inspirational conclusion.

 My mom story is not done. I don’t have to share it with this audience right now, I finally realized yesterday, while heaving a big sigh of relief. As Ecclesiastes says, “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecc. 5:7). And that’s when my oppression ended.

Who put this idea in my head, anyway? Certainly not God. Oh, friends, Satan is at work. And he especially attacks and tries to distract when we are trying to do something for God—such as speaking about Him to a large group. We are not to be surprised by the fiery trials that come from Satan when we give our lives to God; it’s part of the Christian walk (1 Pet. 4:12).

And here’s a little lesson in life for everyone, not just writers and public speakers: God is not the author of confusion. So if we are choosing to do something that brings darkness, oppression, heaviness—we have to question whether the idea really comes from God. I believe my recent speaking anxiety was a ploy of the devil to distract me from doing the work God planned in advance for me to do (Eph. 2:10).

At some point, when I am further removed from this stage of life, I need to come back, read those early mom writings, pray over them, pray with friends, and share the lessons I learn with anyone else who wants to read them. But right now, I neither have the time nor the emotional capacity to do that job: so I will concentrate on the job that God has given me right now: raising my kids and inspiring a group of women this September with the gleaming story God’s already given me. God has more work for me to do, but it doesn’t all have to get done today.

 Thank you, God, for clearing my head about this, and for rebuking the devil, so I can do the work you’ve prepared for me to do at this moment. Help me take life one step at a time and not get sidetracked with tasks whose time have not yet come.