How I fell onto the wagon.

I’m not sure when I started drinking to make myself feel better. I guess I started doing it without really admitting that’s why I was doing it. A social drink with a meal or a beer with a few friends is great, but tossing back a glass of red to make the churning in my stomach go away was something that grew once I realised it actually worked. My burnout had so frightened me, and the anxiety had been so severe for so long, that even when I was in recovery I had a phobia about anxiety. If I felt those butterflies, and the heightened heart rate I would react to it and eventually my go-to was the bottle. After a drink, I felt so much better. I felt calmer, I worried less – heck I practically floated.

There were a couple of downsides I could see though. One was that it slowed me down and some things became harder to do. For example, getting dinner prepared and on the table was slightly harder after a glass of wine or a beer, so I had to go slower. I must admit it was much more enjoyable though.

The other downside was that I worried I was becoming an alcoholic. If I ran out of beer or wine, I was happily drinking port, and if everything ran out, I’d be grabbing the cooking sherry and neat brandy (yucko!). I was starting to keep an eye on stocks at home to make sure I didn’t run out. I started ordering wine by the case and stocking it in the shed. 16 months ago we went away for Christmas and I took the overnight ferry to the mainland with my two boys while my wife and daughter flew across. I smuggled port in an empty juice bottle in my bag, just in case I needed it.

My wife was really concerned with my drinking and she used to ask how many I had consumed for the day. This made me angry. It was my business, not hers. I felt like she was watching me all the time so I was careful to throw the empty’s in the bin so she couldn’t keep track. I think on a couple of occasions I’d cracked a bottle of wine in the shed out the back and from time to time headed out there to toss some back. She used to complain about the smell on my breath.

I didn’t feel good going to the bottleshop on grocery day with the kids in the back seat and emerging with four dozen cans of beer (because they were on special). The kids didn’t seem to like it much either and would ask why I was drinking so much these days. When I first started my “stay-at-home” dad routine, I had the whole day to myself in peace and quiet but my anxiety would grow the closer it came to 3.45pm. At this point, the kids would burst through the door after school like the hungry Mongolian hordes descending the steppes to invade peaceful China. I took to having a drink before they got home, so I would be blissfully calm and welcoming. It was great how the drink enabled me to not get angry about the uneaten lunches, the torn school pants, the drink spilled in the school bag, the forgotten homework, the chaos, the lost school hat, and the usual bickering. At times though, the pre-school-return-invasion drink happened at 11 am. I’m pretty sure the earliest I had a drink to quell the anxiety was about 9am.

I felt a bit ashamed. It was a dirty secret that I drank that early. The only person I told was my psychiatrist. I confessed to her that I was worried about my drinking. I drank every day. She didn’t seem to be worried however, which seemed odd to me. She said that as long as I was drinking less than three drinks a day, and had two days off each week, I wasn’t an alcoholic. Although I wasn’t drinking more than three a day, I was drinking every day. I justified to myself that I was just averaging it out. Did this make me an alcoholic? I reasoned that I could have a day off any day I chose (I’m pretty sure this is what alcoholics think too). Deep down, I knew I was dependent on the drink, but on a surface level I didn’t want to think about it and found it helpful.

Interestingly, my wonderful psych didn’t make an issue of it. She gave me ideas on how to reduce the drinking but was confident that continuing treatment for depression and anxiety would see my alcohol use decrease, and it did. Kind of all by itself. Don’t get me wrong, I still drink – most days. Maybe one, maybe two beers, rarely three unless it’s a dinner party of barbeque. And yes, I still drink if my wife and I have a fight – I find it dulls the pain (resilience is a bit of an issue for me – I crumble easily). But I can go a week without drinking if I’m away, or on a fishing trip for example. I’m paranoid that I’m going to need a drink and be caught short, and I’m certainly not drinking before the kids get home from school so I can handle it better. I think I have a better relationship with the bottle now, where I can enjoy it, without it being my lifesaver.

I feel lucky.

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Do you ever get over depression?

I get asked this a bit. Usually by carers of someone with depression, but sometimes from people who are yet to recover. One went something like this.

One thing I am interested in knowing is you don’t talk about having depression anymore, you speak of it as if it were in the past. Do you ever get over it? Are you on medication? I never really asked you about the medication bit and I am leaning towards it because my girlfriend is on Zoloft and she says that she is a changed person.

It’s a good question – one that I’ve thought about for a while (I think it says a lot that I still think about depression). The answer went like this:

I would say I’ve recovered and no longer have depression but I don’t say I’m cured. Basically what I mean is I am not symptomatic anymore and I’m able to do the things I want in life without being impeded by depression.

I do still have a low level of anxiety quite a bit and have a low resistance to sadness so when I’m too busy or haven’t had much self time I tend to get sad. But other than that I’m happy most of the time.

I have changed though, so things aren’t back to the old “normal”. I do things slower. I do less and pace myself more. I am more intentional about self care. My brain doesn’t work as well. But on the upside I’m more patient, understanding, compassionate than before and value simpler things in life because I’m less ambitious. I’m more satisfied and I know myself and accept myself more.

I’m not on antidepressants anymore but they worked really well in controlling my anxiety. They really calmed me down and gave me the space to face my issues. They were important in my recovery. They have their downside (no sex drive and no feeling of happiness either) but on balance I found them useful. They work best for severe depression and anxiety and are line ball for moderate depression and anxiety. My long suffering wife says within 36 hours of me taking it she could talk to me again. Gold!

Recovery is a journey and depression is episodic so I’m not sure I’ll ever be free of it but can still lead a happy,  satisfying and rich life. I don’t regret having it. I only regret coming so close to dying before diagnosis which is why I do the work I’m doing today.

The importance of rest

Attorney and church mediator Blake Coffee (great name) recently blogged

“Nobody wants a surgeon operating on them when that surgeon is in a state of exhaustion.  Nobody wants a pilot flying their airplane when that pilot is sleep deprived.  Nobody wants truck drivers operating 18-wheelers on our highways when they are falling asleep at the wheel.  When none of us in our right minds would trust our physical well-being to an exhausted person, why do we trust our Spiritual well-being in the hands of an exhausted minister?  More importantly, why, when we are the minister, would we think we can minister effectively when we are at the end of our rope physically?”

He advises that we listen to the words of Jesus to the disciples to come away and rest and warns against the dangers of not doing it. Obviously I was stupid enough not to heed the words of Jesus because I overworked, burned myself and others, developed severe depression and anxiety and finally as I became suicidal stepped down to seek treatment. Knowing that R&R is important isn’t enough. As I responded to Blake, there are some really good reasons why we don’t rest and they run very deep.

Part of it is due to the our “philosophy of ministry” and part of it is to do with the kinds of churches we run, some is due to congregations expectations and some is what we put on ourselves.

For example, we demand extremely high volunteer commitment and attendance levels, so some pastor’s I know of, continued to attend their church even while they were on leave. Stupid I know – but we’ve got to walk the talk right?

Others take little of their leave because they feel like God is promising them a “breakthrough” and that they’re in a season of sowing etc. and to take a break would somehow be unfaithful, or faithless and result in not getting the “miracle” they’re expecting. In other words they “spiritualize” their over-work and thus deceive themselves. Self deception is really difficult to self diagnose!!

Our business-styled contemporary churches run off the CEO charismatic pastor model. The senior pastor is the Steve Jobs of his little patch. Everything revolves around him. He is the vision caster, the primary voice – the lynch pin if you like. We don’t like to admit it but it’s true (we like to teach that Jesus is the center). But when the pastor’s out of the picture the church is just in a holding pattern. No-one likes to work hard to build, then take time off and see things possibly decline. It’s a function of the model we’ve chosen.

Another reason I didn’t take enough time out was because I knew work would be piled up when I got back. There are just some things you can’t delegate. Things were piled up enough as it was so my mindset was one of “work hard to get the monkey off my back then rest”. Unfortunately, I never cleared my inbox before becoming too ill to do it despite some nights sleeping under my desk.

So I guess I’m saying, it’s good to know that we need time off, but there are very deep reasons why pastor’s are expiring at a rate of 1500 each month due to burnout, conflict, or moral failure according to New York Times (August 2010) and it’s not for a lack of knowledge about rest.

The woes of modern church leadership

Shaun King the founder of cutting edge, 700 plus congregation of Atlanta’s Courageous Church created a stir in September when he stood down stating “I have pushed as hard and far as my mind, body, and spirit can healthily go before crashing”. He had tried to transition the church to a emergent style missional church and it killed him. My stomach churns as I read the story that his wife Rai told on her blog.

2 years into it, after 300+ sermons, who knows how many songs, people coming, people going, stressful lead team meetings, raising money from outside sources because the people who attended the church didn’t actually give enough to support the church, Shaun got frustrated, a few leaders got tired and left, …

Thus Shaun had a vision for “the shift”…as it has come to be known.  After searching the scriptures and seeing Christ’s ministry for what it really was we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the spectator sport we Christians call CHURCH.  So we said, let’s stop meeting every Sunday.  Let’s instead, meet in small groups in each other’s homes.  Let’s share a meal and learn how to be true disciples of Christ.  Let’s all serve together.  Let’s have each small group belong to a cause group that addresses a need in our city. 

We talked about it, met about it, argued about it, preached about it, sang about it, and read books about it for months.  And for the most part, people were buying it.  As a matter of fact, the month before the shift, when Shaun was preaching the hows and whys of what were about to do was our highest attendance and our highest offering in all of 2011.  We thought that meant people were actually ready to be radical and courageous.  4 months later, it’s clear that what that meant was that people love HEARING about being radical and courageous.  It gets our juices flowing and makes us feel all powerful.

(We thought) let’s… create time to serve God instead of serving ourselves by getting high off of church services.  If people aren’t in church every Sunday, maybe they’ll serve instead.…FAIL!  What most people did after “the shift” is go to another church on the Sundays we didn’t meet….

Shaun and Rai fought tooth and nail to lead their congregation out of a Sunday-focused, program-oriented, volunteer-intensive all-consuming contemporary church, but after three months, 85% of the congregation wanted it back to the way it was. They both burned out and crucified themselves on the altar of ministry in the modern church and fell on their own sword. My heart goes out to them after experiencing similar pain for similar reasons when we transitioned somewhat unsuccessfully to a cell based church.

Rai went on to say

The truth of the matter is, Shaun is simply exhausted.  Pastoring people has been 10 times better than my best hopes and 100 times worse than my worst nightmares.  Unless you’ve done it, you will NEVER understand it.  It looks one way from the outside looking in, but trust me, you don’t know the half.  Pastors are the sickest, loneliest, most depressed people in church.  That’s why they have affairs, that’s why they die at the age of 42 from heart attacks and drug over doses.  That’s why every time you turn on the TV there’s a new scandal, and a fresh news story about the latest greatest to fall from grace.  Taking criticism day in and day out from people who swear up and down they know better is exhausting.  Having people leave for stupid, selfish reasons is exhausting.  The divorce rate for pastors is among the highest of any other group in the country.  Shaun and I have decided we’d like that to not be our story.

Another good pastor burns out and falls by the wayside leaving us just one more reason to wonder, is there a better way to do church?

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.

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.

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.