Mindfulness – writing before exams

I’ve mentioned mindfulness a bit in this blog. I don’t practice mindfulness every day in terms of meditation, breathing, body scans etc. But I do try and practice it as a lifestyle. I try and be aware of what I’m experiencing moment to moment, not be too futuristic nor live in the past and to be aware of what’s happening inside me – my thoughts and feelings.

I try and allow my feelings to be and my thoughts to come and go without fusing with them. I try and allow my thoughts and feelings to be the actors on stage while staying in the audience. I experience the drama, but try and refrain from jumping up on stage and being part of the drama. I suppose of verge more toward the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strain of mindfulness than the Buddhist/yoga strain which emphasizes practice (thirty to sixty minutes a day of breathing, sitting etc.) I guess I would really like to do yoga and meditation, but I’m not disciplined enough (I wish I was because there’s no denying the evidence around the changes to the brain that takes place).

Some really interesting research recently came out of Chicago University around the affect of anxiety on performance. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high–stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. Interestingly, researchers showed that it wasn’t just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test–related thoughts and feelings had helped.

What they found was that anxiety and stress took up “working memory” – something like RAM in a computer or CPU firepower and decreased performance. Basically this was an exercise in mindfulness. It turns an experience of stress and anxiety, into one of observing the stress and anxiety. Of noticing it, and acknowledging it (by writing it down). How does this work? It re-engages the cognitive left cerebral hemisphere which has been deactivated as brain function has descended into the more primal limbic system where flight, freeze, fight mechanisms have taken over due to the fear, anxiety and stress.

Actions of mindfulness (such as writing) are powerful and practiced consistently can produce a more peaceful, lower stress, richer life experience and the body of evidence continues to grow.

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Luckly I didn’t go to church last week

Every Sunday morning I wait for my wife’s creativity to emerge – usually about 90 minutes before church starts. It’s really funny and I actually look forward to what she’ll come up with each week.

Last week it was “Hey, do you want to come to church because after that we can visit your mate John who broke his back a few weeks ago and he’s home now?”

No, I didn’t want to go to church and visit John afterwards. If I wanted to visit John, I’d just visit!

There’s no pressure though and it’s all very amiable. I know she’d like me to go with her and the kids. She knows I don’t really want to, but that I probably would if there was a half decent church nearby (I enjoyed Father’s Day at a mates church three hours away). The church I used to pastor is now run by someone who studiously ignored me, never mentions anything about the past and refused to come over for dinner with us when they first arrived despite us inviting them twice. Me attending there was never going to work – for him, and I guess now for me – even though when I resigned due to depression I had wanted to stay involved.

But I have changed so much in the almost three years I’ve been gone. I see things so differently – I probably wouldn’t fit in anyway.

Last week, I’m so glad I didn’t go. My wife came home and in the afternoon was reading in bed. “How was church this morning” I asked genuinely interested. She was mad. It all came tumbling out. The pastor had said God had been speaking to him this week and asked everyone who desperately needed healing to stand. Then he asked anyone desperately needing forgiveness to stand. And the third category was anyone desperately needing a breakthrough to stand. Then he pulled his swifty; he asked all those standing, to pray for all those still seated. The premise was that if you’re desperate for God, you’re in the right place. And if you’re not desperate, you’re in need of prayer – from the desperate

I would have been one of those seated ones. I would have been prayed for by the standing, along with anyone visiting, or possibly new, or maybe those who are not yet identifying as believers… All of us together would have collectively been made to feel like there was something not quite right in our lives. I would have been fuming. What a dick!

My wife is right. Everyone has a season. There are seasons where we feel desperate. There are seasons of contentment. Who is to judge what season we’re in? My favorite paradigm is one of a journey. On a journey there are times of trouble and good times, there are twists and turns and it doesn’t matter where you are on your journey as long as you keep journeying and don’t get stuck in any one place for too long. No-one can judge where you’re at, nor should they.

Today, we had our babysitter stay overnight, so the car is full. There was no creative “Hey I was wondering….” But after last week, I think all her creative juices all but dried up.

The Sadness

He emerged from the bedroom for the first time as an eleven year old with hair sticking out in unusual places and seemed a bit slow getting started for the day. I remembered that last night he’d wanted to talk but I was too tired.

After cooking his birthday dinner my head was feeling tight and I was done talking so I’d said we’d talk in the morning.

“Did you still want to talk about something this morning mate?”

“Yeah.” he said tentatively with maybe just the tiniest break in his voice. “What should I do today?”

He was obviously still raw. He’d been dobbed in for doing something he hadn’t done, then been punished for it at school despite doing his best to explain. It was his eleventh birthday and he’d been hoping for the best day ever. Now today he doesn’t want to go to school. It was his mates that dobbed him in and he didn’t know what to do about it.

He said even mum didn’t know what to do either.

Christ. If his mum didn’t know what to do what hope do I have, I wondered. She’s the relationship guru.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he sat in front of an over-filled bowl of Weet-Bix and wiped them away on the sleeves of his green woollen school jumper.

Mum had said he had lots of friends. He wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure either. At his age, friends come and go. Besties today, but acquaintances tomorrow. Things are fluid in primary school land. But what should he do today? I read between the lines. How could he play with his mates as if nothing happened when they stabbed him in the back yesterday? And how could he confront them and fix it? Would anything make it right?

“Do you have to do anything today?” I wondered if he had detention or any other consequences from yesterday.

“No.”

“So if you don’t have to do anything … that gives you options right? You might not actually have to do anything at all”. I explained that sometimes when I try and fix things when I’m sad or angry, I usually muck it up and make things worse.

We stand in front of the bathroom sink and brush our teeth. I put my arm around his little shoulder. I’m still thinking. I feel his sadness. Easy answers evade me. I try to talk with toothpaste in my mouth but it it’s just garble. I spit in the sink on top of his spit and say “You know what mate? It wasn’t right what happened to you yesterday… but it’s not wrong to feel sad.”

“What do you mean Dad?” He sounded open. Gotta love how inquisitive kids are.

“Well, feeling sad is just part of being human. Everyone feels sad at times. Do you remember that book we read about the boy who had anger*? Sadness is like that too. Sadness goes away if you take care of it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, do things that you feel like doing today to care of yourself and allow that sadness to pass away by itself. Be kind to yourself and your feelings.”

“Like maybe play with Reid instead of the others?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. He’s a good kid. Or maybe just hang out with Ella and Erica or go to the Library. Whatever makes you feel a bit better.”

Then my brain kicks in and I come up with something. “Hey I’ve got an idea. How sad are you on a scale from 1-10?” I ask.

“Umm maybe about 5…?” He said thoughtfully. Not as bad as I thought. I thought he’d put it up around seven or eight.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You write down on a bit of paper what you think your sadness will be like at bedtime and I’ll write down what I think it will be and then tonight we’ll have a look and see how close we are.”

“We’re going to Ella’s for a BBQ tonight aren’t we?” he asks.

“Yep”

“So I’ll probably be happy after that.” He’s catching on.

We wander over to my study, and grab a sticky note each. He thinks, then scribbles, and sticks his note inside the front of the top drawer. I write on mine and stick it inside the drawer and slide it shut.

EPILOGUE

It’s 10.30 pm as we pull into the driveway. I smell like chops and sausages. The kids are exhausted from their swim and I just want them in bed. I check on the little one. She’s not happy that she can’t find the ripped off hem from her comfort blankie so she’s sooking. I threaten that I’ll find it and confiscate it if she doesn’t stop. She stops.

The middle one has made a hammock by hanging his doona on the underside of the top bunk. He’s curled up inside it looking like a possum in it’s mother’s pouch.  I’m too tired to care. He hands over his MP3 player that he’s not allowed to listen to because he hasn’t been focussing at school and is distracting others – according to the teacher who rang me while I was at work today.

The newly eleven year old has disappeared. He’s the responsible one. Doesn’t need checking on. I lift the lid on the fish tank and sprinkle some food in. I just want to go to bed. Dad’s arriving tomorrow … house is in a mess…. radiator in the Hilux needs replacing…. Then I remember the sadness.

The eldest appears. He’s remembered too.

“Dad! My sadness – It’s gone. It’s a zero!” This was better than expected. I feel happy – proud too.

“That’s great mate. Let’s check our numbers” I say.

He pulls his out first. It’s a three. Now my turn. A two. Happily, we were both cautiously wrong.

His problem hasn’t been fixed, but like dark clouds scudding across blue skies, the sadness has been allowed to pass and maybe, just maybe the problem isn’t as big as it first appeared to be either.

 

*Anh's Anger is by Gail Silver and published by Parallax Press.

The Return of Anxiety

I’m home alone this morning. I love being alone. No one talks to me. Being a Myers Briggs iNtuitive, my inner world is really important to me. My wife has taken the kids to church. She’s started going again and the kids love it. I think one of the reasons she’s going is because she’s back on antidepressants so she can manage ok. This time she says she’s going to take them daily until she’s better (my fingers are crossed).

I have struggled for a few months with anxiety. I recently did my 09-10 tax and had a blowout. I was threatening to whack the kids and yelling at them. I was in such a state I was reaching for the beer to try and calm down. I’m not sure how long the anxiety has been simmering, but I didn’t become aware of it until June when I organised a mindfulness seminar. After the two day training I felt really anxious. At times I was sucking deep breaths and the knot was back in the stomach. I wondered how a mindfulness seminar could make me anxious, but I realised after a bit that it had just increased my awareness of what was happening inside me.

There was a little bit of denial that was going on too. I wanted to believe that I was better and was fooling myself into ignoring what was happening in my body.

The”why” took me a lot longer to figure out. Work was fine. My home duties were going smoothly. Parenting was all good. I’m still not going to church so there’s some cognitive dissonance still rattling around down there but I don’t think that’s causing any anxiety. Then I realized what it was.

I was getting to a point of hyper-vigilance with my wife. She was erupting on a regular basis and becoming really tense. Seemingly out of the blue she would crack the shits and start riding the kids. While this would make me tense and increase the heartbeat I wouldn’t get involved lest the wrath be turned on me. I figured the kids could absorb it. There were times that I’d chipped in a thought and received a full dose. I even recorded one of them on my iPhone and it’s frightening. So her anxiety, was causing my anxiety. I was walking on egg-shells afraid of her anger and what she could say. It’s not very tough, but if I’m honest, this is what was happening on an emotional level (the brains more primal limbic system) – not a cognitive one.

It’s really odd how she couldn’t see it though. Even a few weeks ago she was insisting that I wasn’t well and that I needed to go back on medication and get treatment. She felt that I was the problem. But somewhere along the line she’s been able to get some space and get in touch with what’s happening inside her and realise that she’s not well. She has used antidepressants before but pops them like Panadol. The problem with this is that it calms her down, but it’s only after an episode of lashing out and spinning out of control which isn’t much good for us. She’s never followed the psych’s recommendation of being on them for a solid period of time while engaging in talking therapy to unpack what’s going on.

But this time she says she’ll do it. So far, so good. And my anxiety has almost all but disappeared. I’m not vigilant or wary of her anymore – which is a good thing in a marriage! I feel in the main part happy again and calm. Now I only feel anxiety in “normal” stressful situations (meeting a tax deadline, running late for an appointment – that sort of thing). I’m still hyper sensitive to stress where I react to the stress and stress about stress, but I’m working on that. As I say, the only way to make a marriage work is if each one owns their own shit.

Antidepressants; to pop or not?

Recently I was invited to speak to a few groups who train people in suicide prevention using a one day course. It’s a brilliant course, one that I completed last year and thoroughly recommend. I generally share my story of depression and having strong suicidal tendencies which led me to research deadly methods to end my life. In the course of conversation afterward the topic of anti-depressants arose and the fact that those under treatment are notorious for not taking their medication. For those of you who’ve cared for someone on medication I’m sure you’ve all asked the question “did you take your meds today?”

Asking that question is a bit like my uncle who as a boy climbed up onto the roof and as his father was passing underneath dropped a brick on him and asked “did that hurt?” It’s going to attract the same kind of response my grandfather had. He hauled the mischievous boy down, gave him a hiding and said “did that hurt?” Be prepared to don a flack jacket and helmet prior to asking the question.

So we got onto talking about why people go off them all the time and in the main it’s basically all about the downsides:

Firstly there’s the stigma. One bloke describe them as “old lady pills” – and even old ladies don’t want to take old lady pills, let alone the rest of us. For someone with depression whose self esteem is scraping rock bottom, the blow of having to take meds is yet another bitter pill to swallow (no pun intended). It took me months to fill the script I had while I struggled to accept that I needed them.

Second I had no feelings on antidepressants. I didn’t feel angry, frustrated, and irritable which was great – but nor did I feel any joy, hope, or happiness either. Interestingly I didn’t even feel fear when I should have (riding a mates Yamaha 450 dirt bike through the scrub at full tilt should have triggered some red lights in my head but it didn’t). I just felt totally calm. It was millpond still inside, but in an uncanny way.

Finally my performance in the sack took a big nose dive – one thing I like to think I was pretty good at (what guy doesn’t?). Now I sucked at that as well. My libido went on holidays and didn’t leave a forwarding address. This is the biggie and this is the one that was raised by the suicide prevention group leader. Everyone she knew who was medicated went off them frequently because they didn’t like having a non-existent sex life. I found that by going off them for 48 hours things worked again, but the crankiness returned pretty quickly and I was back on them again. Still, having my libido back even if it was just visiting was a good thing.

So do I recommend taking antidepressants? It depends. For severe depression it’s highly recommended. That in conjunction with therapy is a proven effective treatment. The meds are like floaties. They’re not the solution, but they do support you while you learn to swim. For moderate depression – maybe. But studies show that talking therapies (in particular CBT or Mindfulness Based CBT which I prefer) work at the same rate of effectiveness. For mild depression meds aren’t recommended. There’s a whole host of things that can help there from exercise to eating well, sleep, recreation etc. that will do wonders. For more on what works for depression, check out beyondblue’s comprehensive publication (clicking this link will download the pdf)

For us, medication was critical. Within 48 hours of starting, my wife said I was totally different and that she could talk to me again and have a normal conversation. Profound peace and calm returned to me and all the aggression and irritability totally dissipated. I was much better to be around. It was the pressure relief valve I needed to give me the breathing space to deal with the issues that had caused me to become so ill.

For you? That’s something that only you can and should work out for yourself.

Wanna write a Christian bestseller?

#106 The Side HugMy cousin is a real thinker. He graduated an engineer, then became a patent attorney and never married, so not only can he think, he’s got the time and energy to do it. He’s basically a self-taught theologian. I really applaud thinkers. They get a bad trot in Christendom – written off as all talk, no action. But I think generating ideas is action and can certainly be a catalyst for action.

Anyway, cuz really has a message about the Father heart of God – which he says is the apostolic message that’s getting drowned out across modern western Christendom by speakers and authors talking about principles for the successful christian life – e.g. seven steps to a powerful prayer life, three easy stages to holiness, five ways to a horny God-honoring marriage. He wants us to come back to the Father heart of God but to do it, he needs to do some pretty solid and heavy exposition of Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 6-8 and everything else in the bible.

When I asked him who his audience is, he says the man on the street – average Joe Believer. But when he tells me what it’s going to take to support his position it sounds like the only people who would be able to digest this high-fibre, zero fat, low carb, extreme protein power bar of thought will be  scholars. I explained to him that there are a couple of issues with the rest of the audience.

Firstly, there is the dumbed-down audience that love reading the latest from TD Jakes and John Bevere on a certain topic usually outlining how to master a certain aspect of the Christian life (western christian mindset). Today’s Christians are saved by grace and then bust their boilers and give themselves nose bleeds working out their salvation by mastery i.e. applying “proven” principles to get results to be a successful, God-honoring believer (never mind that following Christ and the idea of “mystery” has fallen by the wayside). We might be saved by faith, but we definitely live by trying to figure it all out in individually wrapped bite-sized portions.

The dumbed-down audience want to read “safe” authors who are recommended by their pastor or someone else “safe”. Author’s must be able to demonstrate their personal success (i.e. mastery) by leading a large church, loving a happy family (all smiles), speaking at big conferences, owning two large houses, traveling to over 40 countries, writing best seller books translated into 93 languages, having 80,000 twitter followers, with a ministry on TV broadcast to the said 40 countries and soon into outer space (don’t laugh about the outer space, I personally know a pastor who is trying to broadcast their worship and music into outer space).

Cuz, I said sagely, we all know you write to this audience to make money – a necessary evil, but then you pour this money into your “vision” so the ends justify the means.

The other audience he could try is the non-churched Christians, post moderns and emergents. The issue with these guys is that they don’t want to look at the bible as a text to be sliced and diced and analysed. The bible isn’t seen as a constitution or wiki on the Christian life. It’s seen as a true, earthy, primal story made up of many stories about many people, the central character being Christ. The overarching story is about God and people. So if the bible is a narrative, your writing might want to be…. a narrative! And it better be released for Kindle as well.

I explain that modernism takes a technical, analytical, systematic view of the bible producing works like “systematic theology” but emergents don’t want to analyse, they want to synthesise. They don’t want technical, they want organic. They don’t want more information, they want relationship. They don’t necessarily want more knowledge of good and evil, they want life, community, worship and they want this in a social justice, eco-friendly, sustainable and all-inclusive package…. don’t even think of using the word “exposition”.

If you write to these guys, you might want to invest in some pop culture (Erwin McManus has his own clothing line and Rob Bell should definitely have his own line of spectacle frames) or maybe you could practice writing stories. Christian fiction is the new non-fiction! Just look at the success of The Shack. After all, everyone loves a good story don’t they?

Parenting with Mental Illness – The Downside

In my last post on parenting with mental illness where it dawned on me that when in recovery, we do have certain advantages in parenting, there is also a dark downside for children. You see I’ve come to also realise over the last few months that I’m experiencing more anxiety that I thought I was and that I was either misinterpreting it, or refusing to acknowledge it because of my determination to get better. A two-day mindfulness seminar put paid to my suppression though. Slowing down enough to actually observe what was going on inside me (thoughts, feelings and sensations) revealed the anxiety simmering away in there.

How does this affect parenting? Hugely.

I’ve noticed (in another lightbulb moment) that much of the time I’m parenting out of anxiety. Anxiety is informing my decisions and how I behave toward the children. If they’re getting a little rambunctious  in the rear seat, I remind them of the rule about no rowdiness in the car, but sometimes even just a little laughter, giggling and squirming can actually really irritate me. This means I repeat the instruction, by which stage they’re too excited to calm down and they continue  – muffled giggles now. At this point I’m beyond irritable, I’m angry. I smacked them all after a trip recently with a chinese fan one of them had. Another trip, I made them stand outside the car to “cool off” even though it was raining. I nearly wound down the window on a highway and threw a telly tubby out after it was swung by the small one into the big one’s face (accidentally of course). Imagine what I’m like if there’s an argument in the back seat!!!

In actual fact to be honest, none of their behavior was bad. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just being kids. When they’ve grown up and left home, I’m sure going to miss that giggling. I know that if I’m doing better, I probably wouldn’t even react – in fact I’d probably giggle with them. Seeing three squirmy kids eyeballing each other and making one another laugh really is a funny sight and would make a great memory. Unless you’re experiencing anxiety.

Parenting out of depression and anxiety means we’re not parenting out of values. We’re just trying to control our children in such a way as to manage our symptoms. It’s unfair to kids to somehow make them responsible. I really regret doing this, and now that I’ve realised it, I’m trying to pay attention to it, but it’s really hard to separate out my motives sometimes.

I’ve noticed with my wife that the kids do certain things to trigger her anxiety, but it’s more around fear. She will try and control them so she doesn’t feel afraid for their safety. This is really stifling and the kids and I hate it the nagging. “Stop doing that!”, “Come away from there”, “Move away from the edge”, “Get down from that tree, “Don’t touch that”, “Stay closer to me”. She doesn’t even like them walking the 100m from the bus stop to home without being supervised because they have to cross two streets. The fear and anxiety is just too much for her.

Having said all this, I guess the question in my mind is “will this harm my children?” Hopefully not. But it’s certainly not what I want for them or for us. I want to live a life and parent out of my values not my illness. I want what’s best for my kids, not what’s least harmful.