mindfulness

Riker “helping” me meditate

My view that time I lay down to do a mindfulness body scan. 29 October 2015.

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NaNoWriMo Journal 2015: 11

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

I’ve got a busy few days coming up so I need to get my word count as high as possible today. Ideally that would be about 4,000-5,000 words, which is doable… provided my imagination keeps going and I don’t hurt my wrists. I’m using a new computer and keyboard this year. The keyboard has a mechanistic quality that operates similarly to a typewriter, and the physical feedback of feeling and hearing the clicking of the keys as I type has been really helpful. I think it’s improved the accuracy and speed of my touch-typing.

Yesterday, I had one of those awkward and unexpected conversations at the shops with an old church acquaintance I hadn’t seen in years. We bumped into each other and had a brief chat. They recalled our conversations when I was first diagnosed as mentally ill, about three years ago. This person immediately reminded me that in their opinion, my being clinically depressed is somehow down to me “not being happy enough.” (At least they didn’t bring out the “joy of the Lord” phrase…) They said that while they thought psychologists could be helpful, I needed to hurry up and be cured.

I don’t want to judge this person because I know they mean well and come from a cultural and religious background that would prefer to find spiritual answers for every question. It’s also a sign to me that I’ve progressed far enough in my treatment that instead of becoming anxious by feeling pressured to “get better,” I was able to calmly explain that depression is a medical disorder. As it’s the “family disease,” in my case, it’s more like learning to manage a permanent genetic disorder than magically curing myself through more gratitude and more prayer. People don’t like being told that for my variant of psychological disease, there isn’t really a permanent cure. I imagine it makes them feel uncomfortable.

The conversation was a reminder to me that as much as I like the vast majority of people I met over the years through that church, who are all just trying to find and understand God the best way they know how, the social environment is not a safe one for those of us who deviate from the socially prescribed normative behaviours of perpetual and expressive joy. Even just being an introvert is enough for people to question one’s spiritual seriousness in the loud and more expressive forms of church – for example, see here, here, here, here, here, and here  for a brief overview of the discussions going on with introverts struggling to find a place of acceptance in expressive forms of Christian religion. Not to mention the perceived problem that there are those of us who get worse while in the church context (rather than being on a continually upwards self-improvement journey). I’m currently reading the fascinating book The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care and it’s really helped me to better understand how these beliefs regarding the supposedly true causes of mental illness arise in some Christian circles. It is a terrible drain having those conversations, though.

It seems that simply by turning to a doctor and a clinical psychologist outside of the church-sanctioned counselling centre for help, I am branded as a heretic. It’s absurd. If it were any other kind of disease then seeing a specialist doctor wouldn’t raise any concerns about my religious credentials. About six years ago I had all four of my horribly painful wisdom teeth extracted in a tricky operation by a facial reconstruction specialist whose day job was rebuilding people’s faces after serious car accidents. The teeth were in such odd positions that the dentist was worried he’d possibly paralyse my face if he attempted it himself (!). No church acquaintances at any point, upon hearing that I was having the operation, asked if the surgeon was a faithful born-again Bible believer. Why? Presumably part of it was that his spiritual journey had no bearing whatsoever on his ability to remove my problem teeth without slicing through the facial nerves (as it is, the nerves were bruised enough that I never have recovered full feeling in the lower left side of my face).

Yet somehow the fact I see a highly qualified mental health specialist to help me with a complex disease mostly centred in my brain and that severely affects my quality-of-life is considered evidence of a spiritual downward spiral. Atheist surgeons, okay. Atheist mental health experts, bad. That seems to be the attitude.

And so, for all the good I’ve experienced in that church community, it is not a healthy nor adequately supportive space for someone facing my particular set of circumstances. I’m sure they would like to be supportive, and even try as far as they can to be aware that sometimes congregants do it tough, but until they actively start speaking out against the myth that mental illness is a form of demonic oppression, they will not be a safe community for those of us with these types of diseases.

I cannot trust that they won’t try to force me to quit my doctor’s health plan and send me off to “deliverance ministry” – which is basically Pentecostal exorcism – and yes, I was instructed by some former pastors there that deliverance ministry would cure me. They gave me the contact details for a para-ministry specialising in deliverance, they diagnosed my anxiety attacks as the result of Eastern mysticism, martial arts and paganism that had leeched into me via my ancestors, not to mention the spiritual baggage I supposedly had after a lifetime of Catholicism, and my husband’s long-deceased grandfather’s involvement in Freemasonry. They peddled easy answers – “if this person prays for you and you confess your sins you’ll be healed.” And of course it would cost hundreds of dollars, and despite those pastors being fully aware that I was doing it tough financially at the time, they pushed me to go down the deliverance path. I now see that as like preying on the vulnerable, the sick and the poor. In Australia, treatment for medically diagnosed mental health disorders is subsidised by the government. I think it would be so helpful if those pastors, instead of trying to develop some complex conspiracy regarding my perpetually melancholy moods which would necessitate extremely high-priced treatment, could have admitted that they didn’t know what was wrong and suggested that I see my doctor. Not that it’s their responsibility, I guess, but I’ll be honest: I have a problem with the fact that someone with, at best, a theology degree (or in this nondenominational church, no qualification whatsoever) is able to make a career out of offering life advice to people at every possible level, and even promote themselves as having the answers, without a really basic grasp of the idea that they are not actually expert in, say, diagnosing and treating diseases. Sure, pray for the sick – I’ve done that, and received that and it is comforting and sometimes really helpful and can give people the emotional strength to keep fighting and who knows, maybe God actually heals people, I can’t discount that possibility – but to put someone else’s health and well-being at risk out of a misguided sense of spiritual authority is outright irresponsible – to say the least.

I thank God, literally, that I ignored His servants on deliverance. In fact, in true Pente fashion, at the time I felt that God told me very explicitly, “You don’t need a certificate from any deliverance ministry to prove that you are saved by Me. I have enough grace for you.” And I’ll be honest, that’s one of the only times in my 14 years of Pentecostalism that I was utterly convinced God spoke to me, and which was later confirmed by other “prophetic” believers. I know, it’s crazy. I won’t try to defend it nor explain it away. I am convinced that however that message came to me, it was the truth I needed to hear at the time and it protected me from a potentially dangerous situation. I shudder to think how much damage the pastors would have caused if I had followed their advice. I’d quite likely be in a psychiatric ward somewhere.

Back to Nanowrimo. The other things that have helped my writing have included:

  • exercising more. Part of the mental health plan my doctor helped me develop includes aiming for a minimum of half an hour of exercise 3-4 days a week. The more diligent I am in exercising, the better I feel and the clearer my mind becomes. I’m also weighing myself about once a fortnight to track my weight. I wouldn’t normally but I gained a heck of a lot of weight in the last two years thanks to an increasingly sedentary lifestyle and my depression pushing me to self-medicate with junk food and alcohol (never a good idea).
  • doing an hour or so of housework each day. Having a cleaner writing space and knowing that the work and school uniforms are washed is a weight off my mind.
  • deactivating my facebook. That alone has prevented me from losing precious hours of my existence that may otherwise have been poured into the hostile abyss that is essentially just a forum for dichotomous political ranting and maybe it’s just my early forays into nondualist philosophy speaking, but I find it a huge jolt to re-encounter perspectives that operate out of a “if you’re not 100% in agreement with me then you’re 100% wrong” ideology. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Thomas Keating or Richard Rohr, so I am guilty of that kind of thinking, too. But I find facebook really just feeds the worst aspects of who I am, inciting me to defensiveness, impatience and useless anger.
  • mindfulness. I’m using a guided mindfulness meditation series on iTunes U. It’s been genuinely helpful in improving the quality of my sleep. I also let the kids listen to the guided ‘body scan’ meditation before bedtime and they really like it.
  • prayer and contemplation. I know, I know. As my friends and family watch my slide into seeming-heresy and de-conversion, depending on who I talk to that’s a sign of my progress or a sign of my abject sinful nature rising up in a wild rebellion against the Creator. However, the reality is that my prayer life is a central aspect to my existence. I’ll write more on that another time. For now I’ll just leave it at the sense of gratitude that the more I travel through life, the more I see God (or love or life or force or a sense of meaning and purpose, choose your preferred term) in everyone and everything.

Current word count: 28,594 / 50,000 words

Today’s writing soundtrack: Polaris by Tesseract. Again. I just really like their music. It reminds me of all the reasons I first picked up bass guitar as a teenager.

What I’ve Been Reading Online

It’s October which means the happiest time of the year (in my humble opinion) is coming up: Hallowe’en and NaNoWriMo. I just love having that month to revel in fun and joyful and creative things. It’s a time where I allow myself to pursue my interests – something that as a stay at home mum isn’t always easy.

Hallowe’en in Australia is nowhere near the proportions of significance that it reaches in, say, North America, but for as long as I can recall it’s been one of those optional occasions on the calendar where those of us with a Gothic leaning can celebrate all things spooky. However, cue marrying a then-strict Pentecostal Christian and it was goodbye Hallowe’en for several years. As I have shifted away from the extremely strict, black-and-white religiosity that tries to control every aspect of worshippers’ lives, I’ve found myself able to relax and just enjoy Hallowe’en, the way I enjoy the old The Addams Family tv series and atmospheric black metal music like Aquilus.

Another angle on Hallowe’en in Australia is that here it actually lines up with the Pagan celebrations of Beltane, whereas in the Northern Hemisphere coincides with Samhain. And the imagery and concepts surrounding Samhain are more like what Hallowe’en is about. Not to mention that pumpkins are not a seasonal vegetable here at this time of year. But all hand wringing over dates and propriety and spiritual warfare aside, I think it’s a bit of fun and quite frankly am far beyond quibbling over church debates as to the One True and Correct Way to Respond to Hallowe’en. Which, of course, my old church friends will likely see as evidence of my slide into heresy but, hey, that’s their problem.

Nanowrimo is, as I have repeatedly mentioned, an annual writing event that takes place in November. For all thirty days of November, the challenge is to write an original first draft of a 50,000+ words story before the clock strikes midnight, local time. I entered (and “won,” that is, submitted a 50,000+ word manuscript to Nano’s word counter) in 2013 and 2014. In late October and early November, every bit of brain space, energy, creativity and writing ability is poured into Nano. As a result, if I share any blog posts during that time they’ll probably be Nano-related. In the last two years I wrote regular updates on the Nano process. I had positive feedback about these and so I will attempt to do that again this year. Look out for them (and hit the follow or subscribe button so you can watch my progress!).

I’ll add that I’m fully cognizant of the solemn critiques and negative views on Nano. It’s a predictable sociological phenomenon that any “movement” will usually spur a counter-movement (take any political movement and you won’t need to look far before finding a group of people indignant and certain that the movement is wrong). There is a whole lot of despair that Nano doesn’t produce high level literary authors, though there are the occasional notable success stories like Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, the first draft of which was written for Nano. Now, quite frankly I don’t feel the need to explain or defend why I love Nano to those who disagree with it or lament that it only gives hyped-up and over-caffeinated wannabes the sense that we are writers. I literally do not care if other people don’t enjoy Nano – simple, don’t do it. I thought it was an insane concept when I first heard of it too, especially as I’d just come out of a two-year honours research stint that resulted in a measly 18,000 words. How could I, who scraped together 18,000 words in two years, possibly think that I could write 50,000 in one month? But I will say that for some of us, that fast pace is thoroughly enjoyable as a one-off, a challenging and messy bit of creative writing fun with tangible goals and the support of a lovely online community and a way to link up with other local writers through Nano-organised regional events. The reality is that after years of university, having set deadlines fires up my writing powers in a way that my hectic and clinically depressed day-to-day existence doesn’t. Many of us Nano participants are people who live and breathe writing, or we would if we could, but sometimes real life steals from that. We can’t all have the luxury of a home office and blissful hours of pre-dawn writing, as wonderful as that would be. Nope, my pre-dawn routine is hauling myself out of bed and chauffeuring reluctant kids to school and then spending hours on all that housework stuff that comes with being a stay at home parent and not to mention trying to eke out an income as a struggling artist. In November I get to say to the family, “Hey, don’t bug me, I’m writing,” and yet for them there’s a light at the end of the tunnel that this madness only lasts a few weeks before normalcy resumes. And as for the rest of the year, other writers who take themselves very seriously and perhaps deserve to, still don’t get to decide whether or not my daily routine meets their expectations of literary adequacy. Whether I return to my Nano manuscripts or not (and personally I always do) is not their concern. Just sayin’. As for me, I would rather be a voice of encouragement, spurring on my friends and complete strangers that read my blog to attempt to explore their creativity – whether they one-off write a Nano novel and get the t-shirt and the inherent gloating rights that come with it, or if they “only” wrote 500 words, that was 500 more than they had written before, or they suddenly decide to paint despite not having touched a brush since it was a required subject at school, or they do one of those complex adult colouring books and make a pretty mandala, I don’t care what it is. I just love seeing people pursuing the life affirming, the creative and the opportunity to challenge themselves. Even if they never go anywhere with it. Surely the world would be a kinder place if we poured our energy into life affirming creativity rather than, I don’t know, never trying anything lest the worthier gatekeepers of literary success get all offended that mere commoners dared to put pen to paper.

The arts should not be the privileged domain of the highly educated and highly organised. As an Arts / Humanities graduate, I am a firm believer that Arts is intrinsic to expressing our humanness. Why should the unprofessional hobby writer be scorned for their efforts? Further to that, Nanowrimo doubles as a charity, supporting literacy programmes for underprivileged schools. Those of us who compete are able to buy the merchandise and donate to the charity and do so knowing that some of that goes towards teaching kids to read.

Phew. Anyway, while I’m busy being a Wrimo in November, I won’t be writing as frequently on wordpress. To keep my readers occupied, here are some interesting links to online articles I’ve been reading.

ASTRONOMY

VEGETARIANISM & VEGANISM

  • Skool of Vegan on Instagram – a webcomic exploring the reasoning behind veganism.

HISTORY

MINDFULNESS

  • A BBC article called, “The slow death of purposeless walking.” I wholeheartedly agree with the movements for slowing down and unplugging and letting the natural world catch our attention.
  • On the topic of the social movements for slowness, if you haven’t heard of it, check out the work of Slow Food who seek to counteract the high intensity pace of modern life and call us back to eating thoughtfully prepared, culturally relevant and holistic foods as part of a lifestyle of mindfulness.