Thursday, 17 November 2016

Johnny B: Finding the silver lining, five years later


You left in Autumn,
The leaves were turning.
I walked down streets of orange and gold.
I see your sweet smile,
I hear your laughter
You’re still beside me everyday,
‘cause I know you by heart.

-       Dianne Scanlon, Eve Nelson

Today marks Five Years without John. This day five years ago marked the beginning for many of those who loved him, of a walk through a dark, uncharted territory of grief. While addressing the overwhelming crowd who came to sit with us at his funeral, I remember saying, “When someone you love is taken from you at such a young age and so suddenly, there really is no silver lining.”

That is certainly how it felt. I’ve lost grandparents I’ve loved, and though I’ve felt sadness because they are loved and missed, there has also been a sense of celebration for a life well lived. It’s pretty difficult to muster up these same feelings for someone who is just starting to come into his own.

This evening as my two kiddos are tucked into their cozy beds (and sleeping, I hope), I’m reminded of a lyric from a song my sister Sarah and brother-in-law Nat led at John’s funeral, “Whatever may pass and whatever comes before me let me be singing when the evening comes.” (Matt Redman, “10 000 Reasons) Also, I can’t shake the words of Psalm 30:5 “Though the sorrow may last for the night His joy comes with the morning”. Yes. How beautiful this thought is and I have found it to be true. Thank you Jesus.

I now feel compelled to share something extra I’ve struggled with in all of this; something I’ve shared over the years with a select few individuals. Until now, I’ve mostly kept these thoughts to myself because I couldn’t see how my extra layer of pain was going to do anything but add to that of those already grief-stricken. I share now because that struggle has a happy ending, and perhaps my journey to get to this point, will be helpful for those of you struggling with something similar. The night has been long but I’m starting to feel the morning sunshine, and I’m happy to report I’ve learned to be singing when the evening comes. Maybe this share will help someone else sing again too.

Now to lift the bandage off my ugly scar…

A couple hours after the news broke I was on my way home to Blyth with Kyle and my brother Colin when my mind experienced a brief moment of quiet from the swirling thoughts. Then THE Question…

”So…Where is John now?”

At that moment, the implications of my belief in the Bible’s explanation of the two possible locations for us to spend all of eternity became extremely personal.  

Here it is in a nutshell:

Jesus said, “I am the Way the Truth and the Life and no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). This sounds pretty exclusive, and it is, I suppose, except that when God in human form sacrificed Himself on the cross, He paid for ALL of our junk: yours, mine, convicted criminals, all of us. This Forgiveness and Salvation has an incredibly high price, and in His love for us, recognizing that no amount of ‘right living’ and sacrifice could ever atone for our messiness, He paid for it himself. It’s a free gift extended to all of us.

But here’s the thing: like an unopened Christmas present, it’s not claimed until we choose to unwrap it. The Bible teaches that those of us who choose to recognize our need of Him and turn to Him will get to enjoy eternity in His presence (aka Heaven), and those of us who resist Him will ultimately get what they’ve been fighting for all along, eternity without Him. (Hell). The Creator wants so desperately for each of us to turn to Him, that the ‘yes’ for you is hanging on his lips already. It is NEVER His desire for any of us to end up apart from Him (2 Peter 3:9), but in His great love for you and me, will never force us to say Yes to Him, He wants us to choose this on our own.  

So there lies the rub… I believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, and this is what the it teaches… but if that’s really what I believe, then John’s fate has been decided around 2:00 am on November 15th 2011. He was gone. I couldn’t even pray for him anymore. His soul was alive, somewhere. But I couldn’t be sure of where that was.  I couldn’t be sure that he was safe with my Savior.

So, Where was John? 

The unanswered question began gnawing at my trust in my Jesus, and ultimately at my belief in the Goodness of God.

Just a little sub-text…

I’m a follower of Jesus; often a lagging, falling behind and scraping both my knees, needing to be turned around and hauled back onto the right-track kind of follower, but a follower none-the-less. Often when I meet people this gets worked into the conversation in a surface-level way. I often walk away from these conversations feeling crumby because they usually focus on denomination, doctrine and the charity work my church family is involved with, and although worthy of discussion, these things are not the focus of my faith. Any conversation about my faith that doesn’t involve my friendship with my Jesus is completely missing the point. 

Here is what I really wish I could share during these conversations…

I have the immense privilege of leading a room-full of believers in worshipping Jesus about three times a month. The incredible feeling of freedom and boldness that comes over me as I raise my arms, close my eyes and lift my voice in worship and enter into His presence is tangible and thick. It’s like feeling the rays of sunshine on your back as the sun suddenly breaks out from behind the clouds. The overwhelming freedom and joy in those moments is incredible. It’s as though Stephanie who struggles with depression and social anxiety is suddenly transformed into Stephanie 2.0, confident, bold, joyful, and more who she is supposed to be. Some people would describe this experience as ‘positive energy’. Call it what you will. I call Him the Holy Spirit.

You can’t convince me He doesn’t exist. I experience His presence daily. Dismiss me as crazy if you must, but He talks to me. Seriously. It’s not as weird as it sounds. I would be so happy to expand on that sometime if you’re curious. He’s my source of strength, wisdom, comfort, and peace. 

My GREATEST desire is for those I love to know His friendship too.

This desire often brings me to my knees. This desire fuels my passion when I lead congregations in singing, “You’re rich in love and you’re slow to anger, your name is great and your heart is kind. For all your goodness I will keep on singing. 10 000 reasons for my heart to find.” How badly I want all of my family members to know His friendship and this incredible Living Hope.

And so I pray.

But then, Nov. 15, 2011. Johnny B was no more. I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know if he had been given a chance to understand the choice ahead of him and that all of eternity was at stake. And I couldn’t even pray for him anymore. Not only that but my Source of Comfort and Peace knew this was coming, and CHOSE NOT TO STOP IT.

Where was John?

The question left me reeling. My trust in Jesus was seriously damaged.

My prayers were reduced to unintelligible choked out sobs. I pulled myself from the worship team and sat near the back of the auditorium on Sunday mornings at my home church sitting in paralyzed silence during worship time, listening to my church family sing songs about God’s Goodness, and how He rescues us, the whole time my mind racing, “But did you rescue John? Is he safe? Is he with you? I don’t even care about my own salvation right now, DID YOU SAVE JOHN?”

Staying in that mental head space was too intense and eventually I came out of it enough to talk to Jesus again. I started feeling panicked at the thought that another family member could die unexpectedly and I may not be sure he/she was with Jesus. I decided to do a 21 day Daniel fast (consume only fruits/vegetables and water) and spend my usual food-prep time praying for one person I was particularly ripped-up over to know Jesus as a Friend. On day 11 of my fast I was on knees, face-down on the floor praying with such urgency my body was starting to hurt, when I felt Him whisper,

“Stephanie… STEPHANIE! Stop. STOP. I hear you. I’ve got this. Him. I’ve got Him. Go eat something.”

“…Really?”

“Yes. Trust me. Go eat something.”

Conceding defeat, I ate a hunk of pepperoni from the fridge, plunked myself on the couch, my head and heart sore but finally quiet.

Fast forward to just a few weeks ago…

Over tea one evening, my friend Julia graciously shared with me a few stories from her life of being thrown into sudden grief and the comfort she had found while walking through these difficult seasons. A few days later she lent me a small book, saying it fit right in with our conversation from the night before. As it turns out, Ian McCormack’s story was the salve my festering wound needed. 

Here’s the abridged version:

Ian McCormack was stung by five box Jellyfish while diving off the coast of Mauritius. Although one sting can sometimes be enough to kill someone within five minutes, he remained conscious (albeit slowly becoming paralyzed), for a while. He was clinically dead for 15-20 minutes and came to when his body was being prepared for the morgue. His story, “A Glimpse of Eternity”, as told by Jenny Sharkey, recounts his experience with the Divine, Heaven and Hell during that hour.

As I read his story, I was reminded of a few truths about God’s character. His loves us individually, intensely, and will chase after us to save us (Luke 15: 3-6), He can fit a whole lot of conversation/revelation into a small amount of time (2 Peter 3:8), and that ANYONE who just cries out to him will be scooped into His loving arms (Romans 10:13).

I started to feel a new flicker of hope. Those few minutes John was awake before he died would have been enough for Jesus to speak clearly to Him, for John to choose safety, for him to take the hand extended to him. Even the time between consciousness and his passing would have been more than enough for the two of them to work out their stuff. And if this is true, (and I’m convinced it is), that means there’s a good chance I’m going to see Johnny B’s beautiful smile and hear his delicious laugh again someday. Thank you Jesus.

Although I have this reassurance to cling to now, I’m not going to let up on praying for people I love to know my Jesus. The freedom and joy and peace that is a direct result of His friendship is life transforming, and of course I want that for those I love. But my conversations with Him are going to be less panicky now. I can rest in His Goodness once more. For someone who takes medication for anxiety, this is of pretty huge importance, haha.

So yes, five years later I’m happy to report I’ve found my silver lining. It took me a while to see it, but I’m thankful it’s within my sights now. The ugly scar left by grief is finally healed and the long night is over. And you can be sure that today, this girl will have found her song when the evening comes.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

I am Living in a Material World and...


A couple weeks ago I watched a video on Facebook of a young teenager begging for help on a frigid New York City morning. His body was shaking from the cold, almost completely unprotected from the cold as he was covered only by a ripped t-shirt and torn jeans. The parade of winter-clothing clad walkers ignoring the young boys pleas continued for two hours (according to the video). Eventually a homeless man knelt beside the boy, shook him awake from inside the garbage bag he had wrapped himself in, unzipped his winter jacket and placed it on the unbelieving youth. The video had thousands of views and thousands of likes, with many comments praising the actions of the homeless man.
I scrolled through the comments, feeling sick to my stomach while my heart screamed, “And that person just FILMED this? For TWO HOURS? And did NOTHING? Why didn’t he put his camera down, give the kid his coat and call someone for help? WHY DID HE WAIT FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO MEET THE NEED??” I was upset and angry with this person for being completely unaware of his own indifference because of his focus on the cruelty of others. I was deeply bothered by this and could not stop thinking about it for days. Then it hit me…
"Stephanie, that kind of describes you sometimes." BAM!
What? Who? Me? I can be so focused on the cruelty of others that I fail to see my own indifference?... sigh…Oh Voice of Truth. You got me again. Once I heard it, I couldn’t un-hear it.
A short while later, Kyle and I were talking about the video, about our possessions, purging, and generosity. Without really thinking them through, these words came out of my mouth,
“You know, I really feel like if I have something I'm not using and someone else could be using it, it's like I'm stealing from them."
Almost as soon as those words left my mouth I regretted them. Really? Do I REALLY think that? Wow. Talk about self-condemning words. If I really believe that, I think I’ve unknowingly been stealing from a ton of people over the years. I mulled over my words in the last few weeks and I think I’ve settled on this… If I’m hanging onto something I no longer need or use, I’m withholding a blessing from someone else. And for goodness sake, I want to be a blessing to others. So with that thought in mind, I’ve begun a room-by-room purge.
I’ve been taking an honest look at our possessions and asking myself, “Do we use this? Do we need this? Could someone else benefit from this?” Parting with stuff I no longer use or need has been more difficult than I would like to admit and more of a clean-out-the-heart process than I would have imagined.
I started thinking about our excess possessions last spring when the leadership of my church announced that we were going to hold a free yard-sale as a part of an event called “The Big Give”. I was so pumped about this and was praying for it to be a huge success and blessing to people in our community when, “Stephanie… if you want this to be a success, you’re going to have to contribute.” Oh Voice of Truth. You got me again. Ahhh…
Matthew 6:19-21 reads, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Oh how I so badly want that to describe me! But, alas! It doesn’t. Not yet anyway. I’m fighting the natural hoarder in me every step of the way. At the moment, Madonna’s words describe me a little better than the verse in the book of Matthew does, “I am living in a material world and I am a material girl.” Gross.  
So yes, as it turns out, I’m embarrassingly materialistic and attached to things that don’t bring true fulfillment and, I speak the truth my friends…I’m finding that letting go of my stuff is HARD.
I’m working on it. It's a process. Four weeks before “The Big Give” I began my ‘what-can-I-give’ treasure hunt. Almost every time I found something I felt I could part with, an internal struggle would begin and it would take a good two or three days for me to silence the part of my brain that was telling me to keep it for ‘just in case’. In the end we parted with more than 23 boxes of stuff, and honestly, I can’t remember a third of what was in there. And you know what? I don’t miss ANY of it.. Seriously. And in the end, someone who needed it was given it for free, my basement is less cluttered and my life isn’t any less full. Win, Win, Win.
Taped to the cupboard beside my sink for over a year is a cue card that reads,
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg will give him a scorpion? If you who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11: 11-13).
I try to hang onto this thought whenever I’m tempted to start worrying about finances/stuff. I also try to remember the many times boxes of clothes for the kids and for me (when I was pregnant and needed maternity clothes) have just shown up on my doorstep exactly when I’ve needed them. I try to remember about the friend who filled my freezer with homemade frozen dinners when I was struggling in the early days with Sophie. I remind myself about the kind friends who barely knew us who took us in for three weeks while we were waiting to take possession of our new home in a new town.  
We’ve been provided for beyond what we’ve needed, and the God who has provided for us through friends and strangers before will do it again. So…with these things in mind, I continue my purge of our stuff in the hopes that our excess will meet another family’s need. And eventually, when I’ve managed to separate our excess from what we need, I can start practicing some real generosity. Heck, maybe someday I’ll have the chance to give the coat off my back to a shivering person on the sidewalk. How awesome would that be? 
Someday I hope to know that I know, that my concern about the needs of others outweighs my attachment to my stuff. Someday I’ll honestly be able to say that Madonna’s lyric no longer describes me. And until then, I’ll do my best to live as though my treasure is in Heaven and not on Earth where moth and vermin destroy (Matthew 6:19-21), and hang onto the hope that eventually, my heart will follow suit.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Confessions of a Mellowed-Out Tomboy



I know, I know. My presence doesn’t exactly exude ‘Tomboy’; perhaps ‘Shy and Serious’ more encapsulates who I was as a kid. Heck, maybe that’s who I am now. I’m cool with that. But secretly, when I was growing up it’s what I was aiming for.

Thinking back on this now, I think I was the classic middle-child. I desperately wanted SOME way to stand out from the bunch, and if aspiring to ‘Tomboy’ was going to get me some attention, that is what I was going to do.  (Side note: Kyle and I followed American Idol’s final season, and as I watched one of the finalists, Avalon Young, sing Beiber’s “Love Yourself”, I found myself thinking, ‘THAT is the hero of my 15 year old self!” She’s pretty awesome.)

When I was a kid I was fascinated with a girl called Andrea who was on my baseball team. She could hit the ball, run fast, would slide into the bases, would shine during arm-wrestling contests and some of her best friends were boys. She was loud, sporty and confident. I wanted to be just like her.

For a brief season in grade four, I felt my dreams were coming true. One of the boys in my class saw me throw a football during gym period, and all of a sudden, quiet, serious little Stephanie was the coveted team member for recess football games. My classmates (read: Boys) were noticing me! The ‘popular’ girls were jealous of the attention I was getting… it was exhilarating. I decided to switch out ‘loud’ for ‘tough’ as something to aspire to.

Getting praise for being sporty, being admired for being tough, not caring about getting dirty and receiving attention for injuries became little highs I would seek out. At some point I subconsciously decided that all characteristics typically considered ‘feminine’ were synonymous with ‘weak’ and there was something morally wrong with me allowing myself to align with any of them. I didn’t feel particularly pretty or feminine anyway, and receiving snippets of attention by being the opposite was kind of addictive. I sought out many ‘face your fears’ moments over the years, not to rid myself of them, but rather to garner admiration, or at least some sort of attention from my family members or peers.

The summer I was 13 my dad and his buddies built a floating campfire on the flooded shores of Dorcas Bay under a cold clear sky of stars that looked like a glass of spilled milk. They sat on their semi-submerged lawn chairs with their beers cooling in the frigid water, feet toasting on the ply-wood platform, calling to their wives on the higher ground, joking about how the ‘MEN’ weren’t going to let a little flood get in the way of their annual campfire. Seeing my chance at upping my ‘tough’ factor (or at least at getting a little extra attention) I picked up a lawn-chair and dragged it through the water snake, leopard frog, crawfish filled water to join the increasingly tipsy bunch. I was welcomed with cheers and pirate-worthy ‘Arggg’s’ and made an honorary member of the “Studs of the Bruce” club, offered a third of a cold beer and hung out with my dad and his goofy friends for a few hours, pretending to drink my beer, watching the fire slowly burn through the platform and the embers slipping beneath the water.

Then came grade nine, which was awkward (I’m sure all but a lucky few can relate). I was bright and athletic, but not particularly pretty or confident. I was bullied for being a good student and being liked by my teachers. I wanted to be known for being something other than ‘Stephanie the Brown-Noser’. I upped my game. I cut my hair within 1.5 inches of my scalp, threw myself into cross-country, swim-team and soccer. The latter proved to offer the most opportunities for me to shine in all things ‘tough’.

In grade 10, I faced off with Victor, the Spanish exchange student during a soccer game, plowing my way through him, ending his ‘break-away’ and chance at a goal. I proudly displayed my fat lip, bloody nose and hexagon-bruised thigh to anyone who showed the slightest interest.

This trend continued throughout high school and as a young adult: I didn’t wear make-up, I wore large shapeless t-shirts, I insisted ‘Guinness’ was my alcoholic drink of choice. I taught myself to play guitar and started listening to ‘Dashboard Confessional’ to impress the summer camp boys (side note: this totally worked). On one occasion I enthusiastically volunteered at a summer camp to empty a giant blue recycling bin that had been filled with loose garbage (no gloves were available) to convince others I didn’t get grossed out easily. I was lying to myself. Let’s be serious.  

It took a terrible season of Tree-Planting in Northern Ontario to cure me of some of this. One day, after falling in a swamp for the 15th time, I stood knee deep in the muck, cold and shivering, covered head to toe in swamp water, dangerous amounts of DEET, and bug bites, I stood for a long moment staring at the trees before announcing to the blackflies, “I do not like to be cold. I do not like to be wet. I do not like to be covered in mud. I’m ok with admitting that.” This was big step for me.

In University I started admitting, at least to myself, that I cared about how I looked. I began wearing jewelry and clothing that fit properly, I bought some perfume, started hanging out with other girls regularly and began dating my future husband. Being this new Stephanie felt strange, but I surprised myself by feeling pretty great about it too.

Seven years later, our beautiful Sophie was born. We wanted her gender to be a surprise; and if I’m being totally honest here, part of that was so we weren’t drowning in pink if our baby was a girl. I was a little militant about being anti-‘pink’  during my pregnancy, which I had kind of forgotten about until Sophie was about six months old. Sophie and I were at a neighbourhood carnival our church was putting on when a sweet Jr. High girl I taught piano lessons to asked me about Sophie’s overalls and blocks.

“I’m sorry Sweetie, I’m not sure what you are talking about …”

“STEPHANIE!! You SAID your kid, boy or girl was going to just wear overalls and play with blocks, not barbies!” 

She looked at Sophie (who was wearing a hand-knitted sweater with pink buttons, faux-denim pants with a pink belt and pink shoes.), then at me and started giggling. I had to laugh at myself as well; this kid very seldom was an overall-wearing block stacking gender-neutral baby.

Like all parents, I had lots of ideas about how I was going to parent my kids and the kind of kids I was going to raise. I’ve had to loosen up over the years. When we couldn’t afford all new clothes for our babies and our generous friends dropped off boxes and boxes of clothing for us to use, I had to lose some of my ‘anti-pink’ attitude.

The summer Sophie was two, she was wading in the Ottawa river with her friend Hope, who flashed her newly painted hot-pink toenails at Sophie. Sophie decided right then that pink was her favourite colour. Whenever she was asked, “Why is that, Sophie?” She would respond, “Because pink is a HAPPY colour.” And you know… she’s right. It is a happy colour.   

That winter Kyle took Sophie shopping for a new snow-suit. A very ecstatic two-year old arrived home a while later calling to me, “Mummy, MUMMY! Come see my new SNOW SUIT!!” “I just want you to know” Kyle told me gently, “This is the LEAST girly one we could find…” Out from around the corner came Sophie, proudly displaying her new hot pink, faux fur hooded, Hello Kitty emblazoned snowsuit. “Mummy!” She yelled, “It’s PINK!!” Yes, yes it was.

Recently a friend was sharing with me about an incident involving her son. “You know,” she told me, “I just really want him to know that there is something wonderful and beautiful about being a boy!” I’ve thought about that a number of times over the past month. I think the flip side of that is what I’ve slowly been convincing myself of since I was a young adult, there is also something really wonderful and beautiful about being a girl.

I admit I still get a weird rush out of doing something somewhat gross or requiring a lot of my strength; when I find myself still standing at the end of it, I’m pretty elated. I still love playing soccer, I love feeling confident and strong and capable, and yes, even ‘tough’ sometimes. There is nothing wrong with all that. But I’ve hit a point where I can embrace the following about myself as well: I really REALLY hate getting my feet or hands in the mud, I like putting effort into my appearance on occasion (make-up is still a somewhat rare occurrence), and wearing clothes that fit properly is important to me. That’s also a part of who I am, and that’s ok.

These days I try to keep 'Joyful Confidence" at the forefront of my mind when I let Sophie choose her clothes and day after day she gravitates towards tutus, or dresses, worn with hot pink dress-up gloves and fairy wands. I’ve started to enjoy that painting our nails together is routine activity. Sophie is dressing as Princess Elsa from ‘Frozen’ for Halloween, which a few years ago, I would not have been ok with. Traditionally Disney Princesses don’t do a whole lot, wait around for their princes to come rescue them and wear pretty clothes. Not cool. However, after watching the movie and realizing that Olaf the snowman’s definition of love was one of the best I’ve heard, I’m beginning to embrace Disney Princesses… I know, right? What is this? My 20 year-old self would not recognize me.

I also try encourage both my kids to jump in muddy puddles, I try not to make a big deal about clothes getting dirty, Kyle is teaching Sophie Gracie Jiu Jitsu (she’s slowly becoming a Ninja), and she wears a blue-jays ball cap in the summer.

In the end, what I want is for Sophie (and for myself too) to be confident and embrace who she is. It’s my job to help discover with her discover how she is wired and grow into those things. It’s not that I want her to reject traditionally ‘girly’ things, but rather I don’t want her to be limited in her interests because she was born a girl.

We’re both growing as we go along. I’m learning to embrace tea-parties and tutus, twirling contests, playing dress-up and ‘getting fancy’ (aka putting on dresses and makeup and jewelry), while introducing her to frog-catching, soccer and the wonderful world of insects.

In the end, I’ve decided to scrap my previous ‘tough not-resembling-anything-girl-ish’ agenda with a focus on ‘Joyful Confidence’. And as I work towards that in my parenting with both my kids, I can feel myself changing a bit too. I’m so thankful Sophie has opened my eyes to the joys of twirling skirts and crowns, dress-up gloves, pretending to be princesses, and yes, even to the fact that pink is a happy colour. Slowly this beautiful gift of a child is helping me to discover new things about myself and to learn that there is something beautiful and wonderful about being a girl after all. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

Hello From the Other Side: Winning my Battle with Anxiety and Depression



I’ve been seeing frequent Facebook posts lately about Depression and Anxiety in the name of ‘Raising Awareness’. You know the ones: the ‘Please Share’ kind. It has become pretty mainstream in the last while to talk about ‘Raising Awareness’ about mental health; so much so that recently my daughter’s school had a ‘Wear-Purple-to-Support-Mental-Health-Awareness’ day. She’s in JK – it struck me as somewhat odd to ask four-year-olds to participate.

A couple weeks ago Sophie’s class was involved in a Terry Fox run. As we sat at the kitchen table the night before the run, I tried to explain to her about Terry Fox and what he raised money for, and what cancer was. For a four-year old who spends a lot of time talking about teeter-totters and Paw Patrol, this was pretty heavy stuff. I didn’t actually find out about the latest ‘awareness raising’ effort until after the fact. I’m kind of glad. When Sophie is a bit older I will gladly broach the subject with her, but talking about mental health stuff right now is a bit too heavy for both of us because, well, she’s four, and for me, the subject is personal.

Hello, I’m Stephanie and I fight a daily battle with Anxiety and Depression… Yep.

Truth be told, a take a couple pills every morning that do most of the fighting for me. A year and a half ago however, things looked different. I was fighting on my own and failing, routinely. This had been my story for a while. In the end I found courage to seek help and hope that I could feel better in the stories of others dealing with something similar.

Eventually I spoke with my family doctor, was referred to a counselor, I was assessed and followed up with by a psychiatrist, and (this is a big AND) I decided to take her advice. In the last year and a half I’ve made the daily choice to grab the ropes thrown my way, to toss aside my ‘I-Can-Manage-This-On-My-Own ‘ pride climb out of the pit.

And finally, I’m out. So here it is, my ‘Please Share’. This is my story.

Hello from the Other Side.

When I was six months pregnant with Sophie my brother was killed in a house fire. Like the rest of his family and friends, I was devastated. I found mental and emotional safety in my routine, compartmentalizing my grief so I could make sure my baby was still growing and healthy. Three months later I was holding a beautiful baby and my routine was scrapped. As it turns out, my routine was my only line of defense between me and my grief. Add healing from an emergency C-Section and a failure-to-thrive baby to the mix and I had a full-blown physical/emotional spiral on my hands. I was taking a lot of pain-killers (healing from a C-Section is no joke), I lost my appetite, I had trouble sleeping and I was crying four times a day. I was unraveling and was at a loss for what to do.

Well-meaning individuals attempted to comfort me with sentiments like,

            “Everyone goes through this, you’ll be fine.”
            “Oh you’re doing a great job, just sleep when the baby sleeps.”
            “I had trouble too, I just kept trying and it turned out ok.”

You can imagine just how helpful these thoughts were.

I started to experience what I now know is a common symptom of Post Partum Depression: I started catching myself daydreaming about ways to harm my baby. The basement stairs, the knife set in the kitchen, the gas stove, the bridge that I crossed routinely all became potential threats. My brain would quickly and creatively turn something in nearly every situation I was in into a potential instrument of violence. It was as though someone else was channeling murderous thoughts into my brain. NEVER was I worried that I would act on those thoughts, but I was worn down from fighting them away and constantly felt confused and guilty about them being there at all. Above all, I was terrified about what would happen to me or to Sophie or to my family anyone knew what was happening in my head.

After 10 weeks I called my family doctor.

(Deep Breath), “Hello… I’m a patient of Dr. R’s. I think I am struggling with Post Partum Depression. I would like an appointment please.”

“Sorry. He’s away for three weeks.”

“I don’t think it would be wise for me to wait another three weeks to speak to someone. Is there anything you can suggest?”

“I can make you an appointment for when he returns…”

No suggestion for a local health clinic, no women in crisis line, no online resource, nothing. I put down the phone and cried.

A few weeks later a well-meaning individual told me about a mother who murdered her children, “Now THAT person had Post Partum Depression”. Wonderful. I heard this as, “You really need to pull yourself together. You’re fine. Things aren’t as bad as you’re saying they are. Other people have it worse than you do, you just need to suck it up and keep going.”

Thinking back on this, I think this person just didn’t know what to say. If I had been in her position a few years before, I wouldn’t have known what to say either. I recognize she didn’t mean what I heard, but in my state, I was physically unable to filter those thoughts.

I told myself to Pull. It. Together. “You’re fine. Get some more sleep. Start eating properly. Just pray about it more. You can do it.” I saw a counselor a couple times. I tried to make myself busy. The terrible thoughts didn’t get much quieter I just managed to increase the volume of other thoughts.

A few months later a friend whose mum was working on a Masters Degree was asking for help with an assignment regarding PPD and I was on the list of volunteer guinea pigs for a dry-run. She knew nothing of my situation. I read it, sobbed my way through the questions and realized that ‘willing’ away my depression had been ineffective. I decided to ask for help a second time. I found an e-mail address at the back of the pamphlet. I can’t overstate the courage it took for me to send that note. No response came.

I started clutching Sophie closer when we crossed the bridge. I panic prayed with every step, turning my back to the railings trying and failing to not think about tossing her over the side. I stopped watching the news; every horrible scenario captured on cameras would all of a sudden become a “What if this was to happen to Sophie” mental game. I would have terrible dreams about abandoning Sophie. I had uncharacteristic moments of rage and sadness. Through all of this I was weighed down with guilt. The thoughts and emotional roller coaster came in waves. I kept going. 

A couple years later, sweet Asher was born. Another frightening birth – one month too early, an excessive amount of blood lost. He wouldn’t ever wake up to eat. He was physically incapable of breast-feeding and would often vomit up milk and blood. I could feel myself beginning to spiral.

“This is different.” I would tell myself “He’s just not well, you’re just tired. When he’s better and you get more sleep you’ll be fine.” Whenever I started sinking, I would force myself to focus on this. Eventually after a few months he did get better. Eventually I did start getting more sleep. On the day I woke up completely rested yet still had to pep-talk myself into getting out of bed I had to admit the obvious: I wasn’t fine. Then the game changer… instead of catching myself daydreaming about harming my kids, my thoughts did a subtle switch to considering ways to harm myself. Quickly realizing I had entered a new, more serious danger zone, I picked up the phone, and scheduled an appointment to be assessed by a psychiatrist.

Fast-forward a few weeks. After an intense hour and a half in the psychiatrist’s office I was told,  “Well Stephanie, you definitely have PPD, and you’ve had it in various waves since Sophie was born. Also…you have Chronic Anxiety. You’ve probably had it since before you could talk.” Of course I did. After that conversation it just seemed like she was stating the obvious. Finally, as my friend Bev puts it, the monster was out from under the bed.

I left that appointment cried-out with a prescription for anti-depressants. It took me three days to get up the courage to fill it, and another few days to actually take them. Within a week I felt a difference. After two dosage increases, I felt like myself again, something I hadn’t felt for three and a half years.

I walked around in a bit of a daze for a week, trying to come to terms with the diagnosis, “Mental Illness. I have a Mental Illness…” This admission was simultaneously heavy and freeing. I finally had a reason for my obsessive violent thoughts, my mini panic attacks, my crying bouts and my general lack of ‘happy’. Not only did I have a reason, I now had a plan for getting better. Thank you Jesus. I shared first with my Mum, then some close friends, who surprised me and encouraged me by sharing their own similar stories.

Not all the people I have shared with responded well. In hindsight, I think it has been because they have been caught off-guard and just didn’t know what to say.

If you’re reading this and you’re lucky enough to have never had to deal with something like this before (and I’m so glad you haven’t), here’s a response that is always welcome. “Thanks so much for sharing. That sounds really difficult. Is there something I could do to make life easier for you? Have you spoken to your family doctor?” This shows concern, is an offer to help and a wonderful suggestion for professional help. Memorize this.

So this is where healing journey with depression and anxiety sits. Crossing bridges with my kids isn’t so much of a problem anymore. I can watch the news again, although I confess I choose more carefully what stories I read. I lose my temper a lot less frequently. I cry a healthy amount. I no longer catch myself daydreaming about harming my kids or myself.

I consider all of this a win.

I don’t love that medication is my solution for now. But for now, this works. I feel like myself and I am thankful: Thankful and Relieved. As a dear friend from University told me once, “If I had diabetes, I wouldn’t think twice about taking insulin. If a doctor recommends medication to help me with another part of my body, why should I hesitate?” Why indeed. Now instead of dealing with symptoms all my waking hours, I think about it for one minute every morning as I down my apple-juice.

I am so thankful I decided to pick up the phone and try one more time, to speak up, be vulnerable and take the advice of my doctors. It wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. I’m so glad I decided that I deserve to feel better.

So there you have it – my ‘Please Share’. Maybe you can relate to some of this, or all of this. Maybe, like me, you’ve tried to reach out for help and received instead a fresh wave of shame.

Please. Be courageous. Try again. Make an appointment with your family doctor. Ask for a referral to a counselor, or a psychiatrist, or both. Tell a professional EXACTLY what has been going on in your head. Trust her expertise. Take her advice. Share with a trusted friend or family member. If they respond badly: THAT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. Try again with someone else. You can do it. Be courageous: because you too, deserve to feel better.

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Coming out of the closet… on same-sex marriage.


What are your thoughts on same-sex marriage?

The question caught me off-guard. It’s a question I’ve done a pretty good job of avoiding, honestly, over the last number of years. I remember engaging in conversation only once on this subject, years ago, with a friend to whom the question was personal. I stumbled my way through some thoughts that I’m sure left her feeling confused and me feeling crumby. True to form, in an effort to avoid a debate I did the most non-confrontational thing I could think of, answer without really answering. Excellent, I know. Confession: I struggle with anxiety. I try to avoid disputes not just because it’s uncomfortable to disagree with someone, but because my stomach gets all in knots and I get diarrhea. I avoid confrontation so I don’t get physically ill. Gross, but true.

I stared at the computer screen for a couple minutes, started to type an answer, erased it, tried again, deleted it again and then… four words.

[SPOILER ALERT] “I’m not for it.”

Shocking, right? 

I recognize that mine isn’t a popular opinion to go public about, especially not in my own family – a large group of intelligent individuals who are much better debaters than I am, often smarter and faster on their toes with a passionate answer. I’m more of a sit by the computer and map-all my thoughts out kind of person. I’m seriously not interested in a debate, to gain cheerleaders or raise the ire of an angry mob.

So why this post?

I’ve been thinking deeply the last few days about my hesitation to engage in this conversation over the years and think I’ve landed on an honest conclusion. I’m posting this because I’m uncomfortable with the assumptions people may have about me because of some of the titles that describe me: Christian, Pastor’s wife, Conservative, Evangelical, Pentecostal etc… (sometimes read as: Old fashioned, brain-washed, closed-minded, intolerant, hateful, homophobic etc..) Thinking that people who have known me for years may think these things of me because of my faith is very upsetting. I’m hoping that sharing these thoughts may help us to view each other with a little more compassion and grace, whatever your stance may be.

Anytime the subject of same-sex marriage arises, it seems as though we are all quick to shove each other into one of two camps. One is seen as accepting, loving, and tolerant, and the other as hateful and homophobic. Therefore if you want to be seen as a kind and loving person, you can really only have only one option. I’m less concerned with the popularity of my stance than I am with being forced to stand in one of these two camps.

Is it possible to step away from these battle-lines? Are kindness, love, respect and compassion possible even in the face of such an important disagreement?

ABSOLUTELY.

I’d like to introduce you to some beautiful individuals I’ve had the joy of sharing life with over the years.

Meet Martha*, a friend from my Dawson City YT days; a proud lesbian and a talented singer songwriter taking some much-needed time away from her uber-conservative Christian parents. I consider it an immense privilege that I was able to share living accommodations, employer, and friendship with her that summer. When she first discovered that four of her new housemates were Christians, she left the house upset, and didn’t return for three days. When she finally appeared she courageously set aside her preconceived notions about what being a Christian meant, and decided to give us a chance. I’m so thankful she did. We had an intense and honest conversation. She shared what she believed with us, thanked us for listening and told us she would be happy to hear us out too. We told her that probably anything we had to say she had heard before and we really just wanted to be her friends. She got choked up and left the house again, but came back within a few hours this time. The rest of the summer we hung out a lot, often the two of us sitting in the little communal kitchen, guitars in hand, strumming and singing taking turns improvising song lyrics about the cave man across the river. Her talent inspired me; her honesty gutted me. We approached life with different worldviews and were able to navigate a wonderful friendship in the midst of it. I’m a better person for knowing her.

Meet Annie*, a former colleague of my husband’s before his pastor-ing days: fun and artistic, a painter, a wonderful momma to three and an unashamed lesbian. We weren’t shy about sharing about our faith, she wasn’t shy about sharing her views on life, which we often did over delicious food and chocolate. Our conversations touched on faith, food, parenting, sexuality, her artistic pursuits, etc…she not been out of the country when Sophie was due, we would have asked her to be our doula. Although we’ve lost touch, I’m so thankful for those conversations and the chance we had to be friends. 

Meet Carol* an energetic, joyful schoolteacher I met in our running group. We’d run together a few times a week and as we huffed and puffed all over Guelph she shared with me about her struggle with fertility treatments.

Meet Matthew*, a University friend of mine who was debating ‘coming out’ publicly; he lived in my residence on the same floor. We had a night class together so once a week he would wait to walk me to class and always accompanied me after class in the dark so I’d feel safe. I’m so thankful for his kindness.

Meet Jasmine* and Ashley*: two women from my university days, who were dating when I first met them but who are married now. One of my first hangouts with them was shortly after the unexpected death of friend. They came with a pile of other young women, way too many for my small basement apartment, so we could all grieve together. That night there were more than 15 of us on our knees singing worship songs, crying out to Jesus for her family and weeping together over the tragic loss of our friend. What a beautiful and powerful moment. We were able to experience something so important together, grieve together, and comfort each other despite our world-view differences: a difficult but beautiful evening. I’m thankful for that memory.

So, no, I’m not for gay marriage, but I’ve found in my own life it has been possible for me to carve out deep meaningful relationships with a foundation of mutual care and respect with a number of beautiful individuals who happen to be homosexual in spite of a difference of opinion.

So, I’m going to remain a comfortable distance from either camp. I don’t care for a fight. I’ll probably never march in a Pride parade, and I will DEFINITELY never hold up a sign in a turn-or-burn campaign focused on homosexuality. But I promise to be a safe person to disagree with. I promise to not let a difference of opinion determine whether or not someone in my life is treated with kindness, friendship, love and respect. Can this not be considered a beautiful place to stand as well? 

* All names have been changed to respect the privacy of the individuals mentioned.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

This one time I met a Nigerian Prince... Seriously


Kyle and I slipped out last Friday evening to attend a Robin Mark concert at Lakeside Church in Guelph. The lovely wee man is from Belfast, Northern Ireland and has precisely the same accent as one half of my extended family. Although it was nearly a sold-out show in a room with a 1000 person capacity, I felt like I was in my Aunt May's living room with the McChesney/McShane connection. Hearing that accent makes me feel there's someone in the room who understands me. There are few feelings of comfort like it... I needed only a wee cuppa Earl Grey and a Rich Tea biscuit, and I would have been in my version of heaven.

The concert was lovely; an evening with my man, enjoying that familiar voice leading 1000 people in beautiful songs of praise. The highlight of the evening, however, was when I met a Nigerian Prince. Ok. I almost met him. Well, I was in the same room as him as he played a drum set. Stay with me.

While introducing his band, Robin Mark arrived at his drummer and with a smile this Irishman told us he would keep the story short; ha. Keeping stories brief is not the strong suit of any of my relatives. I knew we were in for a good one. This is how he introduced his drummer...

(Side note - if any incorrect details are apparent, please post a comment with the correction. I only heard this tale once, but some stories simply must be repeated at the risk of some minor occurances of misinformation.)

In the 1960's, a young man came from Nigeria to study in Belfast. While there, he fell in love with an Irish woman. After a while the young woman became pregnant, and when word of this soon-to-be grandchild found it's way to Nigeria, the young man's father collected his son, bringing him home in shame.

Letter after letter was sent from the young man to the mama-to-be, who ripped up each one without examination. As such, the young woman remained ignorant of the truth about the child's father, why he left and of the blood ran in the veins of the child she was carrying.

32 years later, no longer a child, Nicky decided it was high time he spoke to his father. After a few security hoops, the phone was finally connected to the right office in London,

"Hello? Who is this?"
"This is Nicky McWilliams."
"..." ... "I've been waiting on this call for 32 years."

Unbeknownst to him, a young man born and raised in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Nicky was the son of a Nigerian Tribal King. His father now occupied the throne. Nicky was by rights, a Nigerian Prince.

Soon after, Nicky was flown to Nigeria to meet his family and to be a part of an adoption ceremony (in which he had to dance - Mr. Mark says he saw a video of this and has to testify that his drumming abilities come from the African connection, but his dancing legs have Belfast written all over them).

At a banquet held for the extended royal family while Nicky was visiting, his father, the King, stood up. "For the past 32 years, at every banquet held for this family, a portion of meat has been set aside, for the long-lost prince. Today, we do not need to set a piece aside. My son, finally, is here."

Mr. Mark then motioned to his drummer and requested of the audience, "Would you now all join me in welcoming to the stage, PRINCE Nicky McWilliams!"

I love this. The man didn't become a prince at the moment of realization at the age of 32. Although he had not been aware, he had been a prince his whole life. His surroundings, his paycheck, his up-bringing, his circumstances, his fame, or lack-thereof, did not take away from the truth of who he really was.

What an illustration!

Hearing the tale of the Belfast-raised Nigerian Prince reminded me of another I heard years ago called "You Are Special" by Max Lucado. 

Punchinello, a wooden 'Wemmick' lives in a town where all day people go about covering each other with stars or dots. The most admired and celebrated Wemmicks had the most stars to display. Those who were teased, and insulted sported the most dots. Punchinello, was one of the latter. One day he meets someone unlike anyone he had seen before: a Wemmick with no stars or dots. When asked why she doesn't have any, she says they simply don't stick because every day she spends time with Eli the carpenter. After Punchinello works up the courage to visit Eli too, he starts to lose some dots when he dares to believe Eli when he is told, "you are special because I made you...". 

And, what a great reminder. If I was to strip away others' perceptions of who I am, my 'success' at my work, the size of my bank account, the measure of prestige I may enjoy placed on me by various positions, titles or degrees, I would still be a person of worth because I belong to and am loved by the Someone made me. Just like Prince Nicky McWilliams, the truth of who I am and my worth as a person remains regardless of my life's circumstances of who acknowledges it. 

Ephesians 2:10 says that we are God's handiwork, his masterpiece, created with a purpose in mind.  

Whether or not we feel like masterpieces, (honestly, many days I feel far from it), or worthy of being called "God's handiwork", that doesn't take away from it being true. 

You. Me. Masterpieces. Uniquely and lovingly created by God himself.

Incredible.







 



Saturday, 16 November 2013

Beautiful Things

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust.
                                                                                 - Gungor

A few weeks ago, my friend Jordan Raycroft, a Canadian singer songwriter with mad talent, asked if I would be willing to fill in at a performance for his usual violinist. I felt incredibly honored to have been asked and quickly agreed. After a few marathon practice sessions, I found myself in a tiny back room of a church having a pre-show band meeting with a bass player and jazz drummer I had only just met wearing make-up (a rarity) and new clothes I hoped would fool the audience into thinking I belonged there.

Opening for Jordan’s band was a 17-year old girl, playing her guitar and pouring out her heart to a room full of youth. She was kind of country, and I smiled to myself as I heard her sing of summer camp romances, broken hearts, hope and expectation for what lies ahead. I felt I was listening to the slightly more confident younger version of myself - less jaded, more hopeful, laughing easier.

I started wondering at faded hopefulness wondering in my own life; what caused it and how to wake myself up to it hope again.

When I first started this blog, I was determined to recapture the Joy in my life, and honestly felt like I had begun to succeed. My motivation began slipping when I heard story after story of friends dealing with their own heaviness:

A dear friend, cancer free for two years, in and out of the hospital battling complications and medication side-affects

Friends of my in-laws, sharing with me their fresh grief over the sudden, unexplained death of their son, in his early 20’s

A woman I love as my own sister, and have known for nearly a decade, breaking the silence on horrible abuse in her own life

A friend’s child lost to cancer

My own experience has softened my own heart to others’ pain and I began to feel like there were just too many reasons to bleed. The Joy Project was temporarily abandoned.

Since then, I’ve begun not to just know but rather to know and internalize, that experiencing Joy isn’t the result of a one time battle, but the fruit of a continuous struggle to notice all that’s good in your life already. Ann Voskamp describes them as ‘gifts’.

You can read about her journey HERE.

Something happened earlier this week that inspired me to pick up my sword again – to find things to be thankful for and to continue this battle for Joy. On Saturday morning I sat in a room full of women while a friend of mine courageously picked up a microphone and publicly broke the silence on a history of abuse in her own life. She shared what she had experienced, how it continued to affect her as an adult and the coping mechanisms she has used to emotionally and mentally deal with her pain. She is one of my closest friends. I love her dearly. I had no idea. I could feel my heart breaking.

Then she did something that amazed me and gave me hope for my own journey.

She put her cue cards down, moved to the keyboard and sang a solo version of Gungor’s You Make Beautiful Things”

All this pain
I wonder if I’ll ever find my way
I wonder if my life could really change at all.

All this earth
Could all that is lost ever be found?
Could a garden come up from this ground at all?

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of the dust.

You make beautiful things
You make beautiful things out of us.

All around
Hope is springing up from this old ground
Out of chaos life is being found in You

What Truth. What courage. What hopefulness.

This woman amazes me.

I’ve been thinking lately about the story of Joseph, one of the 12 brothers from which Jewish lineage stems. This is the ultimate tale of beautiful things coming out of the dust. As a youth, Joseph was beaten and bound by his own brothers, thrown into a pit and later sold to some Egyptians. For years afterward, he suffered slavery, false accusations, and imprisonment until much later he was brought before Pharaoh to interpret a dream. As a result became Pharaoh’s 2nd in command, in charge of planning and implementing a food rationing/storage system that would later save the lives of his brothers, preserving his family line.

Here’s the part I’ve been hanging onto.

When Joseph is faced with his brothers again, who are at his feet and terrified of his planned course of action to repay them for their cruelty, this is how he responds,

“You meant evil against me,” (the Hebrew word used here means ‘weave’), “But God rewove it together for good.” Genesis 50:20

For Joseph, for his brothers and for all of Egypt, God made something beautiful out of the dust.

And He can do it for us too.

He gives good gifts. His timing is perfect. His ways are not my ways, but He has the whole picture and I don’t. Until things become clearer, I’m going to trust and know that hope is not the stuff of fairy tales. It is for me too, and although I may not yet see it, something beautiful will come out of this dust.