What does life look like post graduation from graduate school? I am about to find out!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Give Me Something to Sing About!

Diclaimer: What I write about here is very sensitive, very personal information. It is not something that I share lightly or share looking for sympathy. I share all this because I believe it is time to be completely honest and open about who I am. It is time to quit hiding. Also, I want to add that the experiences I relate here are mine and that I do not claim to speak for anyone else even in places where I use plural pronouns. My story is not everyone's story. It is mine alone. With that being said, please read below.

Actor/comedian/entertainer Robin Williams died earlier this week by taking his own life. His death shocked and saddened many. What so many found shocking was that it was so hard to believe that someone as well-loved and well-liked and respected and funny as Williams would do that. He seemed to have it all together. How could he do that? Why would he do that?

I can tell you why. You see, I have struggled with many of the very same demons that Williams himself battled. His death shook me up because it made me realize just how deadly depression can be. I've battled depression for years now. It's something I've learned to live with and have accepted the fact that it is something I will have to deal with for the rest of my life. I think I've written on here before somewhat about it but this post is intended to be my full, honest account of what I struggle with every day. It is intended to put a human face on it and to show that depression doesn't discriminate. Even those of us who seem so put-together and so care free can still be fighting a terrible internal battle.

I think I first started dealing with depression when I was in middle school. I can't really remember specific instances but I just felt such a deep sadness in my body. I also started hearing voices in my head. Voices that told me that I was worthless and would never amount to anything and that nobody loved me and nobody would ever love me. Voices that said that the people in my life would be better off if I wasn't still around. Those voices were always there, every single day. Sometimes they were quiet and I was able to get through an entire day without hearing them. Other days, they wouldn't shut up and I would be pestered by them all day. My teenage years were rough. I dealt with a lot of self-loathing and self shame. Some of this was due to the extreme verbal abuse I was receiving from outside forces but some of it was also my depression making itself manifest and telling me that I didn't deserve to live. At my darkest and lowest points, suicide seemed like a great and viable option. It would free me from my torment and it would relieve my suffering and misery. I came very close to killing myself on a couple different occasions. I really can't say why I didn't do it. To this day, I'm unsure. Something always stopped me. Still, the belief that I wasn't worth much always was there, preventing me from fully enjoying my life.

I want to address something here that I have seen come up over and over in the national debate about suicide that has been happening this week. I've seen several people call Mr. Williams selfish for taking his own life. Over the years, I've heard that repeated over and over that people who commit suicide are selfish. For a long time, I even believed that myself and that may be why I didn't do it. However, I've been thinking back on those times when I got so depressed that suicide seemed like a viable option. I have to say that at the time, I wasn't at all thinking of it as a selfish act. To me, it seemed like a selfless one. I felt like such a terrible burden to my family and friends that I honestly believed that they would be better off if they didn't have to deal with me. I wasn't very popular and had very few friends and the friends that I did have I wasn't very close with anyway so I honestly didn't feel like anyone would miss me regardless. I felt their lives would be better off if I wasn't a part of them anymore. I would no longer be a burden to anybody ever again. So, again, suicide felt like a self-less not selfish choice.When you are in that deep a spiral of depression, you lose your ability to think logically sometimes. Suicide can seem like a good option then. It can seem like the only option. It can seem like the self-less option.

Do I wish I didn't have to battle with this every day? Yes, I really do. You can't pray it away or wish it away though. You can only live with it and deal with it in the best way possible, whether that be through medication or therapy or something else. I never know when my depression is going to hit. It can come at any time and stay for as long as it needs to. I don't get to control it or tell it when it is allowed to visit. It sets the agenda. That's the most frustrating part. I can wake up one morning and be completely depressed and there can literally be no reason at all for me to be depressed. I can be completely miserable even though things in my life are going great. The voices in my head tell me that even though I have amazing, supportive friends and am going into a career that I have excitement about and am thriving at school and enjoying life, that none of it is good enough or that I don't deserve it or that it is all an illusion and will be gone in just the blink of an eye. The voices in my head tell me that I should be miserable, not happy. It's messed up, I get it. Believe me, I wish it wasn't this way.

I don't always tell people when I'm feeling depressed. I hide it pretty well. I don't like dealing with all the attention or the questions or the probing that telling people would involve. I have social anxiety disorder and Asperger's so being the center of attention is really difficult for me. This is also why I don't always tell someone when I'm feeling suicidal. I don't want to deal with all the attention and exposure that would bring me. Sometimes, I don't want to talk. I just want to be left alone to cry or feel sad in peace. This is why I take some issue with the whole "if you need help, get it" mentality. I don't always want to ask for help because of the attention it will bring me. I don't want to deal with all the questions or scrutiny or probing that will come about if I tell anyone I'm suicidal. Plus, what if word were to get out publicly to all my friends and family? I would feel so ashamed and so embarrassed and even humiliated and that is not something I want to be put through. That is guaranteed to make me feel much worse, not better. Instead of putting the onus on the person suffering, how about others around that person reach out to them instead? Look them in the eyes and ask them how they are doing. Be sincere with them. Maybe they still won't tell you. That's ok. Don't demand that they do. Don't shame them into telling you something that personal and private. Also, keep in mind that even if you do tell them that they are loved, that they may not believe you. I don't always. Doesn't matter who tells me. The voices in my head say otherwise. They say that that person is lying or just being nice or polite. How could anybody love me, a messed up screwup of a person who can't do anything right? These are the things that they tell me sometimes. These are the things that I live with.

Can I say with 100% certainty that I won't ever be suicidal or try to take my life again? No, I can't. I wish I could but I can't predict the future. I can't predict just how bad things might get for me someday or how bleak things might seem or what the voices inside my head will tell me. I hope I don't get to that point ever again. I certainly don't plan to. I plan to live a long, healthy life and die an old man surrounded by my loved ones. However, I also have to be realistic here and just admit that I can't say with any degree of certainty what might happen to me in the future. Am I ok now? Yes, I am actually. It's been a few months since my depression last hit. I'm feeling good at this point in my life and hope those feelings continue for a long while. Do you need to be worried about me? If you want to be, sure. Know that I do go to therapy and that my therapist has been really great at helping me mute the voices in my head. She might literally save my life someday. However, no method is 100% effective so there's no guarantee that I will be ok even with therapy. My depression can come back at any moment.

I think what I want to close this with is just a reminder to be kind to everyone. You don't know what type of battle they are fighting. We all are fighting some type of battle. The only difference is the combatant. I will also say that unless you yourself have battled with depression you don't get to judge those of us who do. Don't tell us that our problems are trivial and that there are starving children in Africa so what do we have to be depressed about anyway? That doesn't help. That trivializes my problems and insults me and my intelligence. Yes, I know there are starving children in Africa and people being blown up in Gaza and murders happening in Chicago. I know all that. That doesn't mean that my problems aren't real or aren't important or aren't worthy of attention. Treat me with kindness, not hostility. Treat everyone with kindness. Be gentle. Be supportive. Be a friend. Don't take offense if we have a hard time believing you when we say you care about us. We know you do. Our depression wants us to believe otherwise. The voices in my head tell me otherwise. Why would you want to be friends with me? Why would you care about me? Don't you know how messed up I am? You should stay away at your own risk so I don't become a burden to you later on. Get out now while you still can.

Like I said in the disclaimer, I didn't share this hoping to get attention or to elicit sympathy. I simply wanted to be more open and honest with everyone who happens to read this, whoever you might be. I wanted to put a human face on this illness that so many people struggle with on a daily basis. Just know that even if you see me laughing and smiling and making up a spontaneous song and dance routine that I just might be crying on the inside and may not even be able to tell you why.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

We Are Each Other's Angels

Today, I was blessed to preach at the church that raised me. It was an honor and privilege to be among them today. The service went great and people loved hearing what I had to say. For those of you who couldn't physically be there, here's the text of my sermon. Hope it brings you some comfort during these turbulent times. Scripture texts were Micah 4: 1-4 and Matthew 5: 7-12

My name is Javier. I am 10 years old and I am from the country of El Salvador. El Salvador is a country that has been wracked by violence and bloodshed for over 30 years now. Many of my friends have lost relatives due to the extreme violence. My own parents were murdered just last week. I was told that I needed to get out of El Salvador and head north to the United States, where I would be kept safe and free from violence. Instead, I’m being kept back at the border and told that because I’m an immigrant, I’m not welcome in this country. I thought the United States was a land where immigrants could come and be free and safe from their own countries. Now, I have men at the border pointing their guns at me and threatening to kill me if I attempt to cross.
My name is Kat. I am 22 years old. Last year, I came out to my parents as bisexual. They didn’t take the news well. In fact, they kicked me out of the house and told me I was not welcome to come back. Now, I’m homeless and forced to live on the streets. Did I mention I’m from Chicago, a city that is supposedly progressive and inclusive? How could this have happened then to me? Why don’t my parents love me for who I am? How could they do this to their own daughter? Why am I forced to live on the streets? It gets cold here in Chicago in the winter and I am forced to find some sort of shelter during those months. Last month, I was verbally harassed by a police officer. Two weeks ago, I was sexually assaulted by a man who thought that because I was homeless, it meant I didn’t mind being taken advantage of. No one should have to live like this. No one.
My name is Jonas. I’m 15 years old. Last month, my best friend was shot dead in another school shooting in another town in the United States. He was one of 15 victims. What’s sad is how little press coverage his death got. School shootings are so commonplace now that nobody really even bothers to report on them anymore. They have become just another fact of life. It saddens me that the life of my best friend and my other classmates weren’t worthy of being mentioned on the evening news, as if their lives weren’t important enough to warrant coverage. Why did this happen here? Why does this happen anywhere? Why are the lives of our citizens not worth more to our politicians and lawmakers? Why is my best friend dead and no one is being held accountable?
The stories you just heard are, in part at least, fictional. Javier, Kat and Jonas are just characters I made up in my imagination. However, the stories they share are, sadly, all too real and important. In our New Testament reading today, we hear Jesus say, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Let’s think about that line for a second. “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Um, really? When I look at this scripture text and then read the news headlines, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus would still be saying this in our modern times.
You’ve read the stories, I’m sure. About Gaza and Russia and Ukraine and South Sudan and Venezuela and Iraq and Syria and El Salvador and it becomes increasingly clear that we live in unstable and violent times where peace is really hard to find and where people who try to make peace are seen as irrelevant and useless and not as important. We live in a world that glorifies war. We live in a world that is constantly showing us images of terror and violence and death. In our country alone, there have been 74 school shootings since Newtown, CT and our government has done absolutely nothing to address this. Children are fearing for their lives and are being gunned down every single day and yet we are so beholden to the gun lobby and so in love with our guns that we can’t even see that our current ways of living are not doing anyone any favors.
Is this the world where the peacemakers are blessed? A world where we give medals to people who kill others in combat and call them heroes? A world where we execute murderers so we can prove that we are tough on violence? A world where we tell children like Javier that they need to return to their own countries because we don’t want them draining our resources? A world where LGBTQ people like Kat are still subject to bodily harm and even death in more countries than we can count?
This world is where peacemakers are blessed? Really, this one? It sure doesn’t seem like it to me. I’d love to hear what Jesus would have to say to us now. I’d like to think that even he would just give up, throw in the towel and retire to a house in the woods and live in exile. It would certainly be easier to believe that.
“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation. Neither shall they learn war anymore.” It’s a great passage, isn’t it? One that pacifists love to trot out all the time to justify why they are against war and violence. Yet, I’ve seen no evidence either in our modern times or even our ancient times about this ever being the case. We are a world that knows how to conduct war all too well. As a friend of mine recently put it, “I used to believe the world could change. I’m not so sure anymore.” It’s hard not to agree with that sentiment, especially when looking at our own history.
Two weeks ago, I traveled to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to attend a week-long retreat with prominent Celtic theologian John Philip Newell. We spent a week in the desert talking about God and participating in silent meditative walks through the beautiful landscape there. It was during one of these walks that we were asked to reflect on the statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” We were asked to think about what that means to us and our context.
I spent my walk observing the beauty of where we were. I spent my time reflecting on just how much natural beauty there is in the world. It gave me a sense of inner peace. That’s when I realized something. Perhaps Jesus isn’t talking about external peace, a peace that is so rare and increasingly hard to find. Perhaps Jesus was instead referring to an inner peace, the kind of peace that comes along only when we search for it. I’ve discovered that when you are at peace within yourself, it is very hard to have any desire to seek revenge against others. Perhaps that’s the kind of peace that we ought to be pursuing, a peace that calms our hearts and quiets our fears. A peace that results in contentment, not anger. A peace that comes about through Jesus and through our belief that Jesus is working in our hearts and in our world to make everything better.
Last weekend, I went to Indiana for a retreat that I look forward to every year. It is a retreat for all LGBTQ people that are in the Presbyterian ordination process. This is a community that knows all too well the sort of violence and hatred that others in the church are capable of. This is a community that knows personal stories of being rejected and abused by others. This is a community that could easily give up on the church. Many have. Yet, many of us have chosen to stay with it and are continuing to seek ordination in the church. Perhaps we’re crazy. Perhaps we’re weird. Perhaps we do it because we know that we can find some sense of inner peace and contentment through each other. We support each other, love each other, help each other through the process and in that helping, we start to find some sense of peace about everything.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Perhaps that’s the kind of peacemaking we should be pursuing: inner peace. We can help each other get there. I can’t help but wonder what our world would look like if we started helping each other achieve inner peace. Maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to strike back in anger against each other. Maybe our children could go to school and feel safe. Maybe in our own quest for contentment, we might find that the world actually is capable of changing and our own inner cynicism and bitterness will melt away.
Let me clarify something here that I know is perhaps nagging at some of you. I’m not at all advocating for a withdrawal from the world or for us to focus only on ourselves and not on the problems of the world, vast as they are. What I’m instead advocating for is a different approach, an approach that emphasizes our own inner capabilities to change the world. When we find inner peace, we thus strive for outer peace. When we are at peace within ourselves, it can spur us on to action, action that will bring peace to others like Javier and Kat and Jonas. What might that action look like?
Best selling author Anne Lamott recently posted a compelling answer to that very question on her Facebook page: “I know that if I want to have loving feelings, I need to do loving things. It begins by putting your own oxygen mask on first: I try to keep the patient comfortable. I do the next right thing: left foot, right foot, left foot, breathe. I think Jesus had a handle on times like these: get thirsty people water. Feed the hungry. Try not to kill anyone today. Pick up some litter in your neighborhood. Lie with your old dog under the bed and tell her what a good job she is doing with the ruptured ear drum. I try to quiet the drunken Russian separatists of my own mind, with their good ideas. I pray. I meditate. I rest, as a spiritual act. I spring for organic cherries. I return phone calls.
I remember the poor. I remember an image of Koko the sign-language gorilla, with the caption, "Law of the American Jungle: remain calm. Share your bananas." I remember Hushpuppy at the end of Beasts of the Southern Wild, just trying to take some food home to her daddy Wink, finally turning to face the hideous beast on the bridge, facing it down and saying, "I take care of my own."
I take care of my own. You are my own, and I am yours--I think this is what God is saying, or trying to, over the din. We are each other's. There are many forms of thirst, many kinds of water.”
Beloved, we are each other’s angels. So, take care of each other. Don’t let this crazy, violent, topsy-turvy world get you down. Find inner peace. Find contentment. Help others find theirs. If you see a homeless person on the street, help them. Offer them a hand up. If you hear about a school shooting on the news, find out what you can do to help the victims and survivors. If you hear about violence toward others trying to immigrate to the United States, ask yourself what you can do to be a part of the solution, not the problem.
Maybe it won’t do any good. Maybe tomorrow, Javier will still not be able to immigrate across the border. Maybe Kat will still be homeless. Maybe Jonas will still be grieving the loss of his best friend. Somehow, though, I think our efforts to find peace, real peace will do some good in the long run. I think it is worth trying anyway at least for the sake of Javier and Kat and Jonas. They deserve better. We deserve better. We can do better.
“Now, go answer your calling. Go and fill somebody’s cup. When you see an angel falling, won’t you stop and help them up? We are each other’s angels and we meet when it is time. We keep each other going and we show each other signs.”