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.

Parenting with a mental illness

I’ve been invited to work with a national group called Children of Parents with Mental Illness to develop a new website for dads who have a mental illness. I’ve attended a panel interstate and am contributing to a wiki which will then be morphed into the website. Next month, they’re flying down to film my story for the website.

In the course of disgorging what I’ve learned about parenting with mental illness it struck me (eventually) that parents with mental illness who are in recovery can actually make better parents! It was one of those light bulb moments for me because I realised that I’d been teaching my kids emotional and coping skills that were never taught to me.

One thing that mental illness has taught me is an emotional vocabulary. Before my mental illness, I was an emotional neanderthal. Most men are. If you ask Average Man how he’s feeling, you’ll get grunts to the effect of “not bad”, “fine”, “stoked”, “dunno”, and “alright I s’pose”. None of which are really feelings, and none are very nuanced. In fact he may not even know how he’s feeling. (Yes girls, it’s shocking!) That’s what it was like for me.

I’m still learning to be able to know and describe my feelings, but I’m on the way. Mindfulness is helping me observe my emotions impartially and notice where they are in my body and their intensity. Yes I know it’s all a bit girly by normal standards, but normal standards aren’t helpful. What I’ve found is that to be in touch with one’s emotions is to be fully human.

So these are the things I’m teaching my kids. To notice their emotions and to be able to describe them honestly and without judgement. To accept them, and yet to not feel compelled to do anything about them. Emotions are the like the car on the road outside our house. They come, and they go. We don’t jump out of our chair and race to the door and feel like we have to do something about them (unless you’re a dog). We can acknowledge emotions, experience them, and be kind to ourselves about what we’re experiencing but we don’t have to be ruled by them or carried away by them.

It’s a great way to approach difficult emotions such as pain, suffering, grief, anger, frustration, hatred, rage, jealousy, and rejection to name a few. These are really uncomfortable and hard to process for all of us, so giving kids tools to do it sets them up for life.

My fragile resilience aka easily cracked

Since I posted about feelings of happiness beginning to emerge late last year, these have continued to be more frequent occurrences. My son and I hiked to the highest peak in our state a few weeks ago and covered some 30km during the 2 night walk and it was exhilarating.

I catch myself feeling happy from time to time and bask in the feeling like the warmth of the sun emerging from clouds. I try and appreciate and savor the feelings, knowing that emotions are just like the sun on a cloudy day. The warmth comes and goes almost unpredictably. And I’m ok with that. If I can practice my mindfulness, I’ll be even better at observing and relishing those emotions when they come.

Happiness aside, my mood is generally one of being fairly neutral-contented. I’d say this is what I experience around 80% of the time. The rest of the time is divided between happy and sad. Who knows, this might be the case for a large portion of the population.

I think the thing that concerns me most at the moment, is my fragile resilience. I crack easily.

Honestly, it doesn’t take much to make me crack. A couple of weeks ago, I’d gone for three weeks without doing any pleasurable activities – fishing and the like. I had to help my father with an emergency on the farm so I flew over there to do that. I’d been cutting wood for winter, and I don’t really have a babysitter that’s easily organised like I did last year (a high schooler living around the corner from us has now gone to live with her boyfriend).

It was doing my head in and I’d started to crack the sads. I was getting irritable and frayed. My head space was narrowing. I finally got sick of it all, threw the kayak on top and left the next morning having asked my wife to come home early to meet the kids off the bus. I put in a big day on the water for only one fish, but still enjoyed it. On arriving home late around 8pm, I came home to chaos. The dishes were lying around, pots and pans and food were left out, and my wife was watching  TV. I was dismayed – I could feel my heart sinking into my socks. And that’s where I lost it.

I accused my wife of taking advantage of me. She knew I had the next day off so basically she’d done the bare minimum – feeding the kids and putting them to bed – and now I was left with the mess. It felt like going fishing for the day was a pointless waste of time, because it meant I’d be paying for it by having to deal with what appeared to me at the time to be an overwhelming mess. Of course it wasn’t, but to me it looked like it. On top of that I felt she wasn’t really pulling her weight.

If my resilience had been better, maybe I would have looked at it differently. I could have thanked her for coming home early and for at least feeding the kids and putting them to bed. I could have rolled up my sleeves and probably got it done in an hour. But I ended up blowing my fuse, giving her both barrels and storming off to bed, thinking how pointless it was to make the effort to do something to improve my wellbeing.

Three nights ago my wife, under the guise of “open communication which is good for our marriage” expressed that she still feels hurt that she’s not a Facebook friend of mine. She went on to say that I should friend her and that it would be a public display of our love which is so important to her. She wonders what other women think when they see that I haven’t friended her. She told me that if I consulted a marriage counselor about friending my wife on Facebook they would be amazed to find I hadn’t. I told her I didn’t give a toss what marriage counselors had to say about Facebook.

I read between the lines (right or wrong) and heard the same old tapes that always play along the lines of “if you really loved me, you would __________” which I’ve been hearing for the last 18 years. I told her to build a bridge and get over it. I told her to deal with her insecurities and to forget what anyone else thought. The language was brightly colored. I explained that I’m sick of her trying to change me, and that she can either accept me for who and what I am today, or not, the choice was hers. Just don’t try and change me.

If I had been more resilient, perhaps I could have acknowledged that she was feeling hurt and been understooding, and let it be. Or maybe that would have been just too professional and clinical. Maybe she should be telling someone else how hurt she is….

Needless to say, we haven’t been talking the last few days. Like my friend said “isn’t it worth going the extra mile to get the silent treatment?”

It’s frustrating that my resilience is so low, that if anything emotionally challenging arises, I just seem to crack so easily. My mood plummets again and stays low, until like a tug of war, I manage to pull it up again, and recover. I hope I get stronger. Self care is challenging.

I’m on some kind of weed – St Johns Wort

I’m assuming St Johns wort is a weed. Why would any plant have the ignominy of being called a wort if it was anything other than a weed? In our country we have a noxious weed called Ragwort and a lot of effort goes into its eradication and control.

But I heard good things about St Johns wort and it’s viability as a treatment for depression, so I thought I’d give it a go. I thought that I’d be a bit of a guinea pig for y’all and let you know my thoughts. I don’t have severe depression anymore, but I still have a few of the symptoms. I get anxiety at times, still lack motivation in certain areas and can’t handle the kids in large doses and generally have limited emotional energy so I still budget it closely.

I haven’t been on prescription medication for about 12 months now. Prior to that I was taking Paroxetine which I found extremely effective. It worked fast (not the 2-4 weeks that doctors recommend), but almost overnight. Its big downside for me was the numbness and loss of libido.

In terms of numbness, I remember visiting a client who has bipolar disorder. He had been off medication for seven months and just run out of food in his house as his disorder had taken over. He resumed his medication that day. I asked how long it would take to kick in and he said in 48 hours, everything inside would go quiet. I hadn’t heard it expressed that way, but I knew exactly what he was saying. On antidepressants it’s like everything goes still, calm and quiet on the inside – numb in other words. The downside of this is you don’t experience any good feelings either – happiness, joy, excitement – meh.

As far as libido goes, I experienced a loss of interest in sex and found that even if I notionally thought it would be a good idea, couldn’t climax when I was on the prescribed amount. It was a little embarrassing like “well dear, I’m about puffed now, and I really don’t think anything’s going to happen, so I’ll be climbing off now”. So that was a big downer. I’m fairly red blooded and still relatively young and never had that happen before. I scrounged through the fine print and yep, there it was.

So back to the wort. I’d heard good things, and it was time to have a go. I’ve been taking it for about a month. I miss a day every now and then out of forgetfulness (I think this is common – if medication is effective and we “feel” ok, we’re likely to forget we have an illness!). I think it is more gentle and mild than the prescription SSRI I was taking, but the modus operandi is similar. It does make things a little more “quiet” and “numb” but not to the same extent as the Paroxetine. I think it has a similar effect on libido, but that’s probably not such a bad thing… it stops me bugging my wife so much.

There are conflicting studies, just as there are with prescription drugs. Many studies show placebos just as effective and prescription drugs, but St Johns Wort is showing to be “as effective” as prescription and more effective than placebos at treating mild or moderate depression (not recommended for severe). All the research just brings me back to my basic philosophy that each individual has to find what works for them. Note – you can’t take prescription anti depressants in conjunction with the wort. There’s loads of info out there, but I think this article from the Black Dog Institute is a good start.

I think I’ll keep taking it for a while. I’ve never been on the weed before, but maybe this is one weed that a little experimentation with may be useful.

Yours truly, the Guinea Pig.

Help! I feel like a girl!

No doubt you’ve heard the sayings “wait ’til the boot is on the other foot” or “your chickens will always come home to roost”. It’s like saying “what goes around comes around” or “you get what you deserve”. Seems like there are so many ways to say it. But I’m getting mine.

Some nights of the week, my wife will walk in the front door talking to someone from work on the cell. I think she’s talking to me so I start to talk back, only to see the hand go up. I feel miffed. Slighted. Other nights after she’s arrived home, she’ll be sending and receiving text messages and I think “for God’s sake, you’re home now, enough already!”

You see, the kids and I haven’t seen her all day. By the time she gets home, the kids have an hour before bed. They all have stories to tell about their day, but she’s still making calls and firing off texts. I wonder why she couldn’t get it done during work hours. I wonder why it can’t wait until tomorrow. I’m always up to my armpits in the sink, or trying to dish up food, couldn’t she help get the meal on instead? I feel hurt. Snubbed. Aren’t we important too? Doesn’t she want to talk to us? I feel like a desperate housewife longing for some attention when the husband gets home.

Then I remember all too well. When I was pastoring, I did it all the time – and worse. I did it from my bed late at night. I would sit outside in the driveway on the phone. I would get phone calls on weekends dealing with all kinds of problems. I would take calls in the car on family trips. One burned out pastor I spoke to said his wife once called him on his cell while he was in the house. She claimed she wanted to hear him talk to her like he talked to his parishioners. OUCH!

The rationale is hard to escape. I used to figure that if I can fire off a few texts, make a few calls, it will get the monkey off my back. It will ease the pressure – alleviate the workload. After all, if I can just get to these few things, it will only take few minutes and tomorrow won’t be so hectic. If it doesn’t get done today, it will pile up and tomorrow will be hell. There’s a lot of merit to the mentality and it’s so easy to buy into.

But the message it sends to loved ones is that work, and other people are more important. And it’s not the time spent doing it, it’s having your mind in two places. You’re physically present, but your loved one’s don’t have your presence, and that is more hurtful than if you’re not present at all.

I feel for anyone trapped in a job that is so demanding, it overflows into their family life. It’s not a nice place to live in. Now that I’m on the receiving end, I know I’m eating humble pie and getting my just desserts, but I still can’t help feeling like a girl when it happens to me!

ZEN

I have been practicing what I like to jokingly call Zen. It’s a private joke in my own head of course, but it’s just a cute way to remember what really is mindfulness.

I’ve been noticing more about mindfulness lately. My psych has given me a few tools. One is the good old mood chart, where twice (or once) a day, you record your mood on a chart. That way you get to see over a period of time how your mood varies, and you can also see patterns. Twice a day is good because that could help uncover diurnal depression, but it also shows when you’re likely to feel ok and you might be able to schedule things into those parts of the day.

Another mindfulness related tool is to journal using the following prompts:

Thinking (what’s on my mind)
Feeling (describe my emotions)
Body (aches, tension, stiffness)
Senses (see below)
Hopes (what I am hoping for today)
Fears (what I’m worried about)
Dreams (what am I looking forward to)
Intentions (what am I going to do today)

Obviously you can write as little or as much as you like on each of these subheadings. Again, if you journal, you get to see hopefully some improvement, but also patterns. I journal online because I don’t like writing by hand.

Senses are important. This is probably one of the best grounding techniques. Basically you find a spot and make yourself comfortable and then one by one observe each of the senses.

What can I hear? Right now, the wind, and the washing machine and the dribbling of the fish tank.
What can I feel? Cold hands on the keyboard, one knee in the back of the other (I’m crossing my legs).
What can I see? Bushes, trees – a Mac screen!
Taste? The aftertaste of Pepsi Max and last night’s sleep (haven’t had brekky yet).
Smell? Not much right now – but I tried!

You get the idea. It’s a great technique. All part of my zen.

Finally, (this is the most important one for me right now) slowing down and taking my emotional pulse rounds out my zen. If I catch myself hurrying, hustling, getting caught up the hurly burly, I consciously slow everything down. It’s not much different to watching the gauges on the dash and slowing down if exceeding the speed limit. I really don’t want that adrenaline pumping unless I need to fight or flee something. I ask myself “how am I feeling?” and then ask myself why I might be feeling that. I really try and be attentive to my emotional state and acknowledge it.

So there you have it. My zen is geared to carrying ourselves through each day with poise, and grace, inner peace and a kind of transcendence. I like to think of it as being a modern-day contemplative.

What I needed from my wife

Got a call from a teary partner of a friend of mine on the weekend. Apparently he’d spat the dummy and she’d taken off with the two kids. He is being treated for Attention Deficit Disorder and has made loads of progress over the years but it got me thinking about what I needed from my wife when I was at my worst, and I thought I’d write about it, in case partners of pastors are trawling about and stumble across The Scrapheap Pastors blog.

I needed a wife who was secure. Unfortunately my wife was not emotionally independent enough from me to not take my behavior personally. Maybe no spouse could be, but she wasn’t able to impartial enough to see my behavior independent from her sense of self. What I’m trying to say is that she took my outbursts, impatience, intolerance and irritability to mean that I no longer loved, cared for or respected her. She then reacted to me out of a sense of being rejected. She interpreted my emotional state through her lenses of insecurity and came up with the wrong conclusions.

I needed a wife who was healthy. Two weak and unhealthy individuals makes for a recipe for disaster. One healthy individual and one sick one can stand a chance. I needed a healthy wife who was able to own her own emotional state and look to others to meet her needs where I couldn’t. My wife didn’t see me as being unwell. She saw me as being a bad husband, so the tack she took was to try and point out how I was failing as a husband at meeting her needs which of course compounded my problems. She has since learned that if her emotional needs aren’t being met by me, she’s responsible to get them met. That takes a whole lot of pressure off, and makes it more likely that I will actually recover and meet her needs.

I needed a wife who could spot the signs. I remember the moment some two years after experiencing depression and receiving treatment, when a little book fell into my wife’s hands about spouses of partners with depression. She read the book and identified with all the stories of spouses and how they felt and what they experienced. We sat in a little cafe and she told me she finally accepted that I had depression. I nearly fell off my chair. I actually couldn’t believe that she’d managed to maintain a steadfast denial for so long despite the bleeding obvious. To have a spouse who can recognise the signs as early as possible would have been invaluable.

I needed a wife who could intervene. Obviously being a man, we never listen to our spouses when they point out our weaknesses of flaws (it’s a man thing). So having a wife suggesting that I have anxiety or depression would have gone down like a lead balloon. But I do listen to a close circle of friends that I have around me that I’m very transparent with. If my wife had gone to them and told them exactly what was happening at home and how she felt about it, intervention would have been swift. Sadly, she didn’t talk to anyone about what was happening, not even her close friends. She only spoke to my interstate sister and a couple of cousins of mine overseas. I think she’s a private person and she felt ashamed at the way she was being treated and didn’t want anyone to know.

If you’re a spouse of a partner with depression, hopefully these ideas can give you some way forward. You’re not responsible for your spouse, but you have a responsibility to your spouse and you definitely are responsible for your own emotional health and need to take positive steps to trying to stay as healthy as possible yourself, for the sake of your marriage and family.

Emotional Budgets

In the space of nine months or so, I had a pastor in one of my centers leave his wife, daughter and newborn son and cross over to the dark side. He moved in with a woman to whom he was giving marriage counseling, started taking recreational drugs, smoking and drinking. He blew out big time. I had to try and sort out the aftermath. Later that year I had to fire another of my pastors in another center as he was simply undermining me and our organization and was failing in his duties.

Then to cap it off, my youth pastor decided he no longer wanted to be under my leadership after I challenged him on his relationship with his PA. I fired him and he left, taking his PA with him, my childrens pastor, his family, and my youth music director and his wife to allegedly plant a church 250 miles away. Within months he had an affair with his PA and left his wife. Never a dull moment in church life!

As leaders we are looking at budgets all the time making sure we stay in the black – not in the red. Problem is, we only look at it from the money angle.

The way I understand what happened to me is that we all have an emotional budget. There is emotional energy in, and emotional energy out. If you live at zero or in the red for an extended period, you’ll go bankrupt and anyone who’s bankrupt knows it’s a long journey out of bankruptcy. That’s how I understand burnout.

I’m getting better all the time at knowing what my emotional budget is looking like. I know when I’m starting to deplete. I understand better what depletes me and the “cost” of various tasks, responsibilities, relationships or events. I also know what feeds my bank account so I can make deposits.

To recover from depression, means making sure there’s more emotional strength in than out over an extended period (about the same length of time that it took you to erode your balance into the red).

For pastors who are trained to push through, persevere, ignore their emotions (because only faith counts), never say die, we are just a burnout waiting to happen.

Emo Vocab

I can’t speak authoritatively about women (I try to because I’m a smarty pants) but I reckon women have a better emotional vocabulary than men. The describe nuances of emotion better than men and that vocab gives them the ability to understand and express their emotions which is much healthier than us men.

Emotional authenticity is vital to emotional health. Men see the red oil light on the dashboard but not the red light on the emotional dashboard because we aren’t “in touch” with our emotions in general. If you ask a man what’s wrong he’ll probably say in an agitated voice “NOTHING’S WRONG!”, meaning something’s wrong but he just doesn’t know how he feels about it. When pressed he’ll say “I’M JUST ANGRY” and it’s the situation that’s making him angry. Try and talk about the anger e.g. where it comes from and he won’t know. He’s just angry. But the reality is he’s either afraid of something (he’ll never admit to that of course) or he’s hurt, threatened, disappointed, sad, worried or all of the above.

Somehow we need to help men develop their emo vocab. I’m starting with myself and my boys. Why do the gals have to have all the fun debriefing with their girlfriends leaving us to grunt at each other?