Archive for Depression

The Melancholy Necessity of Autumn

Today I’m feeling a bit off. It’s November, which seems odd, and my body thinks it’s one hour later than my phone says it is due to the ridiculousness that is Daylight Saving. That means this week I’ll be hungry when I shouldn’t be and tired when I ought not be. Well, okay, to be fair I’m pretty much always tired (that’s the lot of an insomniac) so I can’t blame DST. Perhaps it’s more  a general sense of ennui after the busy pace of Halloween week. Too much work on the computer. Not enough reading. Or maybe it’s my cynical self doubting my district will flip, which will dishearten me yet again.

There is something a bit melancholy about this time of year that speaks to my soul. Perhaps that’s why Autumn is my favorite season, why Halloween speaks to me, why I feel most myself this time of year. Spring is beautiful, full of life and promise and hope in a way that is bound to disappoint. Then summer bleaches everything, and I melt in the too-bright sun. Winter where I live is all cold and no snow, little rain, just more cold, windy, sunny days. But Autumn – Autumn is crisp and cinnamon tea-scented, the time to dig fire logs out of the garage and boots out of the closet. It is a reminder that things can become the most beautiful in their last days, that the value of things can increase when we know they are short-lived.

Working with GriefShare this past year, and remembering the many losses of my life, has death on my mind these days. Not in a bad way, but in a “it’s going to happen to us all, to everyone we know and love” way. I am from a culture that does not handle death well. We don’t handle it at all, mostly, which does not work. For us, death is always a surprise, like we expect a different conclusion. We take care of our elderly until we can’t, then place them in homes where someone else handles death as it approaches. We have funerals as soon as possible, then expect the grieving to suck it up and move on quickly and quietly. We have little to no context for lament. We do not know the meaning of the word “keen” and we feel forever awkward with wailing.

Some cultures have assigned periods of time where the family wears all black, ceases work, where mourners weep over the open casket. Others have long parades alternating from joyous celebration of the lost one’s life to loud, communal sobbing. Some allow families to remember the lost ones once a year, every year, with photos, favorite mementos, food, and music. In some places, the entire town will show up at the local pub for the wake, telling stories for hours and hours, crying and laughing and drinking together.

But my culture is very orderly and clinical. People, if it can be helped at all, die in hospitals and care facilities. We have memorial services in churches with no casket present. We go back to work as soon as we are able because we can’t bear the free time, can’t be with our thoughts. There are no arm bands to mark the family so everyone knows. Black clothes are no longer required.

I think this is why I’ve always loved Halloween and have been fascinated by Dia de los Muertos since Ray Bradbury introduced it to me as a child. The thought that death is so close to life was somehow freeing, the idea that there can be days when we look death and darkness in the eyes and come out the other side alive and smiling.

I had a professor at university who taught about the human fascination with monsters that transcends cultures, and the psychology behind it. We must face death and darkness, evil and uncertainty, in stories so we can process these very real, very scary things behind the fictional ones from the safety of a book’s pages, which we can close, or a screen, which we can shut off.

G.K. Chesterton said “fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.”

In “Coraline,” Neil Gaiman puts it this way, “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

For me, Autumn provides a kind of sacred space for this processing. Halloween pushes us up closer to death and darkness than the rest of the year. The beautiful, yet ephemeral, turning of the leaves from green to yellow and red before they fall, leaving branches bare and skeletal inevitably leads the mind to think on the passing of time and the temporary nature of all living things.

Autumn is a thoughtful season, well-suited for pondering over large cups of tea and quiet conversations by the fire. It is subtle, and if purposefully ignored, easy to pass through untouched. But, if we stop and take it all in, if we allow ourselves to dwell in the melancholy just for a short while, we will come out all the better for it.

Jane Austen highlighted the sensibilities that only this season of Autumn can bring, as she writes about Anne Elliot, our heroine of “Persuasion.” Anne, the single old maid (thought not at all old), has no beau to walk with. Austen tells us, “her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn–that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness–that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, some lines of feeling.”

So these are my lines of feeling, meant to draw attention to that influence Autumn has “on the mind of taste and tenderness.” These are my lines to encourage you to lean into the melancholy, just a little bit, just enough to be reminded that true beauty is worthy of appreciation, death will come to all, and that Christ is our St. George – he has slain the dragon for us, so we no longer need to fear death.

How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 – Trust God with your Future

One of the scariest parts about growing older when you are single and childless is all the fears attached to it. What will happen to me as I grow even older and more frail with no partner to help and no children to care for me? Where will I live since I can’t afford a home on my own? In those times when we live alone, we fear what will happen if we choke with no one there to save us.

Tip 5: Trust God with your Future

The financial stresses on singles are very real as singles tend to earn less money, have a higher per-person cost of living (from rents to cell phone plans), fewer options for retirement and health care plans, and on average pay more in taxes than joint filers. Single women, in particular, are literally at a loss when compared to others financially.

This fear about my future was one of the main things holding me back from being able to truly enjoy my single life for years. Even when I was happy in the moment, knowing I was right where God wanted me, the second I thought ahead anxiety would creep in. In the counseling room, I often heard “right now, I’m fine being single, but when I think about being single in 5-10 years I start to panic!”

To be honest, whether we are single or married, we never know what the future may bring. Marriages fall apart, people die, financial markets collapse, health declines, and unforeseen circumstances hit everyone. When I got down to it, I realized my struggle wasn’t just fearing being single in the future, it was fearing what could happen in the future at all.

The solution for this fear? Faith. Faith that God will continue to do a good work in me, just as he promised (Philippians 1:6). This does not mean I make horrendously foolish decisions. I still try my best to be responsible with what the Lord has entrusted to me, seek wise counsel, and plan ahead. But I don’t allow the fears regarding my future to take over my heart and mind. After all, “it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:20-21).

ProTip:

When you start to fear the future, turn these worried thoughts into prayers. Remember God’s faithfulness throughout your life so far, look back on all he’s brought you through. And remember his promises to never leave nor forsake you (Hebrews 13:5).

I hope that each year of your life brings you more confidence and contentment in God’s plan for you.

Do you have any tips that could help other singletons experience aging with greater peace and joy? Share them in the comments below.

If you missed any of this 5 part series, check out the first 4 tips below:
Tip 1: Celebrate with Friends and Family
Tip 2: Reassess Your Priorities
Tip 3: Recognize Celibacy as Worship
Tip 4: Embrace Having Nothing to Prove

How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 – Reassess Your Priorities

Even before celebrating the actual day or month with your friends and family, the thought of turning 40 often leads us to rethink where we are at in life. Instead of fearing this process, avoiding it, turning 40 (or any other milestone) gives us a great opportunity to look at our lives and see if there are some changes we should make to help us grow into our next decade.

Tip 2: Reassess Your Priorities

In the last couple of years leading up to turning 40, I’ve been reassessing my life. Necessitated by experiencing a season of rather deep depression as I had in my teen years, I took stock of my life in my mid to late 30’s and started to ask some new questions. I had been pretty certain I was where God had wanted me over the last decade, and had therefore been pretty content (with the yearning for a spouse yet present). I loved my city, my church, my friends, my ministry. But now I was pretty sure it was time for a drastic change.

In my 20’s-30’s, most of my life had been committed to my career as a teacher and to building friendships in my local church. These were good, fulfilling things – I was helping others and had support and love. But as I got older with less energy and more desires outside of my job, it was impossible for me to give as much as I felt was necessary for me to continue teaching at that level. Almost my entire identity was caught up in being a teacher, my pride, my purpose in life, and it became overwhelming.

I also stood by as friend after friend found the love of their life, got married, had kids, and often moved out of the city so they could afford a house and settle down. I yearned for family, for something more permanent. I was exhausted by having to find new apartments, new roommates, and the thought that I would be doing that for the rest of my life hit me hard.

The realization that I didn’t have to continue to live the way I had in my 20s and early 30s was freeing. The realization that I was not a slave, therefore did not have to stay in the same job, opened up worlds for me. The realization that I did, in fact, have a family – a permanent one – with my mom and my siblings, my nephews, and my niece, was somehow new to me, a revelation. The realization that I was okay with giving up financial security and professional reputation in order to pursue a different type of job, one where I didn’t have to work 70-80 hours a week, one where I’d still having time for my family, friends, and counseling ministry without only getting 3-4 hours of sleep a night, this new awareness was groundbreaking for me.

ProTip:

Remember that you don’t always have to live your life the same way. As you approach a new decade, it might be time to reassess what your priorities are now. You may find they have changed. Don’t be afraid to change along with them.

Swing by the Awkward Spinster tomorrow for the next tip in the How to be Single, Celibate, and Happily Turn 40 series.

Not Everything is Terrible

Looking back over my blog, I realize that I often highlight the negative. If you only know me through this blog, you definitely see my struggles and my cynicism, but I’m not sure if you can see my joy. Perhaps joy is actually more difficult for someone like me to express in blog form because there can be something so ineffable about it, something hard to put my finger on.

After struggling through my last bad bout of depression two years ago I made some radical changes in my life (which I explain in my first ever Awkward Spinster blog “Life, Episode VI”). One of the things which has really helped change my outlook is learning to consciously realize not everything is terrible, and to actually put in work to change my focus from all the bad things to the good as well. For this pessimistic soul, this takes continual effort and does not come naturally.

Perhaps this shift in thinking doesn’t come naturally for you either, so I invite you to try out the following steps for a bit and see if they help. If you’re an optimist, that’s awesome, keep reading for tips for your not-quite-so-perky friends, or for the inevitable crash that will happen when things don’t turn out quite as brilliantly as you thought they would (Oops, my cynicism is showing a bit too much!).

So, here are the Awkward Spinster’s 4 steps to realizing that not everything is terrible:

Recognize the Excellent Times

Philippians 4:8 tells us: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

But how can we think on these things if we don’t even realize they’re happening? In the midst of hard times, it can be difficult to see past our struggles. The first step I have to take to overcome my pessimistic mind is first to even recognize that truth that not everything actually is terrible, no matter how much it might feel like it is. I must pay attention to and acknowledge the true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy things as they happen.

Last Monday, I got to spend an evening with two of my best friends. As we sat on the patio drinking good wine, eating good food, and talking I realized that for once, all three of us were happy. At the same time! For a few years now, we’ve each gone through some tough times personally, physically, and professionally, but in this moment we were all doing well. Instead of letting that realization pass by, I acknowledged it out loud. Somewhat incredulously, with a huge grin, I asked them “Wait a second, are all three of us actually happy with where we’re at right now?” They responded with big smiles as we toasted this precious moment.

You see, the three of us have picked each other back up from hard times, encouraged one another, and prayed with and for each other time and time again. It was important for us to pause and acknowledge this wonderful moment, to not let it slip past.

It’s also helpful for me, when trying to see the good things in life and not just the bad, to celebrate the excellent times in the lives of others as well. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” I’m pretty good at weeping with those who weep, but we also need to rejoice with our friends and family in their good moments!

My little niece is so excited about birthdays and Christmas, pretty much any opportunity for gifts to be opened. But when my nephew had a little graduation party, she struggled to enjoy it in its entirety because she didn’t know how to rejoice with him when he was being celebrated instead of her. She is just beginning to learn the freedom and excitement of being genuinely happy for others’ good fortune instead of giving in to jealousy.

I have found soul-deep joy in the marriages and children of my dear friends, even though God has chosen not to give them to me. Enjoying when lovely things happen to those around us, even if things aren’t particularly great in our lives at the moment, can help us see past ourselves and remember there is good. Instead of feeling sad or bitter when we’re stuck at home while a friend goes on a lovely vacation, our love for them can lead us to feel happiness on their behalf, which spills over into our own lives.

Linger in the Sweet Moments

Once we recognize that we are, indeed, in the midst of a particularly sweet moment, we can do our best to linger in it. This isn’t always possible, as some moments of grace and goodness are fleeting. But I’m actually starting to realize that, even in the midst of my busy days, I have the ability to pause a little longer and change the course of my day ever so slightly by lingering in these moments of joy.

When we recognize that good things aren’t always big things, then even pausing on the walk from the car to the classroom to look up to the sky can help change my focus. After all, Psalm 19:1 tells us “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

I blogged a bit about my quest to find more beauty in life, and once I’ve found those moments I’m trying to stay in them a bit longer. I’m an efficient worker, so this takes practice for me. It can feel wasteful or hedonistic at first – but it is necessary and life-giving, bringing glory to God and peace to our souls.

This Sunday afternoon, my mom invited my brother, his wife, and son over after church for lunch. She told them that I needed to blog, so probably wouldn’t be able to stay outside with them for very long, but they were welcome to stay as long as they liked. But the minute we set up the little paddling pool and Benji jumped in with glee, my heart was filled with incredible joy.

Several times I tried to head back in to my desk to work on this post, but I kept ending up back outside with the family, laughing with my sweet boy as he splashed around with sheer joy. Instead of stressing me out because I didn’t get my writing done when I’d planned on it, I came back to my laptop after they’d gone, inspired and refreshed. Prioritizing that beautiful time, choosing to linger outside, helped change my perspective.

Be Grateful for all Good Gifts

Acknowledging and extending beautiful moments should naturally result in feelings of gratitude. Interestingly, even if these feelings don’t come naturally all the time, we can develop them with practice. On joyous occasions, our gratitude should bubble out of us like children at Christmas who can’t stop thanking their parents for getting them exactly what they wanted even though they weren’t sure they’d get it.

James 1:17 says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Each moment of beauty, each time of rest, each bit of peace we experience, each laugh and smile – these are all gifts from God.

When I watch my little nephew giggle with such pure glee from splashing in the water, when I see my brother and his wife laughing with him and experiencing so much pleasure watching him have fun, I am overcome by gratitude to God for giving us this moment.

As we recognize awesome times, and try to linger in them a bit longer, our gratitude should extend to others as well as God. By stopping to thank my mom for making us lunch and getting the little pool, it helps me appreciate the thought and effort she put in to making this day happen. By thanking my friends for having me over after a long day of work, making me drinks and cooking for me, I’m noticing even more little things which were gifts that night.

I’m learning that a heart filled with gratitude is a bit less easily darkened by depression.

Remember the Not-Terrible Things

My last tip is to fix all these little joy-filled moments in your mind to remember when things do get terrible again. Because they will. That’s not the cynic in me speaking, it’s the reality of this world. And for those of us prone more to negative thinking or even depression, it’s easy in the hard times to forget the good, it’s easy to feel like things will always be this bad. This is when we must preach the truth to ourselves over and over again – after all, Philippians 4:8 begins by telling us to think on “whatever is true,” it is the first thought on which all else hangs. And the truth is that God is good and he loves us.

If we’ve rehearsed thinking on these things – the times in our lives he has given us good gifts of children’s laughter, majestic skies, good meals with friends, an endless array of beautiful things both big and small – then in our darker moments we can remind ourselves that not everything is terrible, even if it feels like it is.

Psalm 116:5-7 states “Gracious is the Lord, and righteous; our God is merciful. The Lord preserves the simple; when I was brought low, he saved me. Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.” Our souls can return to rest in these memories instead of letting the negative ones swarm over us completely.

These steps aren’t the magic bullet to contentment and happiness, there is no such thing. But they’ve helped me through the past couple of years. They’ve helped me this Sunday, as I struggled once again with trying to fit into a church family, yet ended up feeling like the bastard child yet again. Even now, I can choose to spend my mental energy replaying the difficult time I had this morning, or Benjamin’s laugh.

Not everything was terrible today, after all.

*The fabulous “Not Everything Is Terrible” bandana pictured above was a gift from a dear friend, and was designed and screen printed by artist Janine Kwoh. You can find her fabulous work for sale at her Etsy shop: kwohtations

When Memories Come

Today, as the communion cups were finishing their rounds, I sat looking at my hands holding the tiny plastic cup filled with grape juice. And in that moment, I remembered my father’s hands holding a similar cup. Large, strong, tan fingers dwarfing the delicate glass (they were glass back then). As a child I used to watch him, fascinated by how graceful he could be, the cup balanced in his left hand as the finger of his right hand swirled around the rim over and over again. I wouldn’t blink, not wanting to miss if he would spill a drop or get any of the red juice on his finger, but he never did. Now I hold my communion cup just like him, in my left hand as my right hand absently traces its thin plastic lip, unintentionally echoing my father. One of the many ways I’m like him without even meaning to be, I suppose.

Lately, memories like this have been flooding back unbidden though not unwelcome. Little specific moments of time past keep popping up in my memory, brought on by sights, sounds, even scents. Unexpected and strange. While the world changes around me, flowers blossom, trees leaf and grass turns green again, my mind keeps remembering people and moments past.

It’s hard to describe.

I’ve been reflecting on how odd it is that my limited human brain has the capacity to be the only place a specific version of a person exists anymore. Often, my memory is spotty or nonexistent, but then there are these pieces of people, vivid and real, that I will never forget.

An old boyfriend who was once young and sweet and kind but became violent, racist, and angry. I don’t think of him often, but as I stumbled across a video from “The Phantom of the Opera,” which he loved back then, memories came flooding back of the sweet him, pieces of him that no one other than me will remember.

My last serious crush, a funny, witty, complicated man who died a few years ago, suddenly and way too young. A picture of him appeared on Facebook this week, unattached to anything in particular, he just seems to be on more than one person’s mind lately. And in my mind he will always be laughing, beer in hand, twinkle in his eye, trying hard to make sure everyone around him is comfortable and noticed, including the socially awkward me.

Childhood friends I used to spend so much time with who slipped out of my life when I switched schools in the middle of my freshman year. The church I’m now attending is a newer version of my old church, so familiar faces from my past surround me, recognizable but not really known because of over two decades of interruption. I knew them in awkward youth, and they knew me. I wonder how much of that version of me they see when I walk into the room now. I wonder what I’ve missed about them in all these years, what has been lost or gained.

And when one of my former students posted online that he wonders why God took his dad away, didn’t answer his prayers to spare his dad’s life, I think of my dad. And I can tell him I know how he feels, because I was almost the exact same age, because I prayed that same prayer, because I had those same questions. Because I still miss him. And in my mind, beautiful bits and pieces of him still live on.

Out of all things created, the human mind is the most astounding to me. As the flowers in my backyard and in my favorite garden blossom back into life, my mind somehow resurrects people from my past. It’s a kind of haunting – memory – and not totally unpleasant. Sometimes it’s nice to wipe a tear or two away as each vignette slips by, to remember those I have loved and lost, to realize how bizarre life is because, though people are not permanent, they can stay the same forever in my mind.

I wonder, when I’m gone, which memories of me will haunt those who love me. What song will always whisk them back to a concert with me? What scent will remind them of a Disneyland trip with me? What odd mannerism will reflect my influence? What book will forever be associated with my name?

Until we meet again in heaven, what pieces of me will survive in minds and hearts? I will leave behind no children to bear my name, my legacy, just memories.  I pray they’ll be beautiful and silly, sweet and uplifting. May I live my life in such a way that my memory leads to a couple sweet tears instead of bitterness, to small smiles and deep sighs instead of anger, to joy and, ultimately, to thoughts of the love of Christ for each of us. A girl can dream.