So much of what I'm reading online these days sounds like many of you are experiencing post-Christmas crash and crush from looking at all the coming challenges of the new year. A few stave off January darkness by snowbirding south or snowboarding north. Those who can't escape bear down to work harder or smarter, resolve to declutter, lose weight, exercise more, make a life plan, do this, do that - all good things - but the undercurrent carries the despairing sense that we've been here before and nothing is ever good enough to exact lasting change.
Some are obsessed with "doing", goal setting and comparing (10 ways to Declutter, Four Steps to Improving, 7 Habits, The Best Way to Do the Right Stuff for the Wrong Reasons). Or learned apathy drives others to refuse, rebel, or mock the "resolutioners" with cynical humour or outright Debbie Downer criticism.
The depth, cold and darkness of winter, creeping age, fatigue, chronic pain all take their toll. Yet we seek to do, be, act, live better because our very nature is imprinted with the creative drive to do so.
I write this because I recognize the cycle in myself. The bleak midwinter wants to bury me emotionally under the long nights and piled snow. I have found some specific actions have made a lasting change for me. These are habits of which I still must remind myself daily. There are apps available to help track and/or remind me of activities and goals. Change does not happen overnight and even after good progress is made, change in circumstances or relationships (job, death, birth, marriage, etc.) unearth areas that have not previously been addressed. I'll list the order in which I began to tackle my own problem areas, but I don't think there is a particular formula. This is not a "how to" but rather a "what helped me" blog post. Start where you are, where you feel you are ready (or completely desperate) for change.
A. Emotional Health
I started here about five years ago. There is no easy button, no quick fix. I just knew I was a mess. Angry, overweight, depressed, and in deep need of healing.
We cannot heal what we don’t acknowledge. I addressed this in a two-pronged approach: support groups and professional counseling. I realized I was powerless over compulsive behavior and the tendency to do the wrong thing. I would often lose my temper with family and others. I saw the toll this was taking on everyone. My life had become unmanageable and I realized I needed help. I attended Freedom Session, http://freedomsession.org/ a modified 12-Step group based on emotional healing and the power of God. It provided tools that helped move me forward from where I was stuck in my hurts, habits and hang-ups. I learned to get out of denial, stop lying to myself, stop the blame game and identify the original wound being triggered by current events. It helped me learn how to heal.
In addition, I had been seeing a clinical psychologist for a number of years, since my son was born. When I started in 1994, I was suffering from post-partum depression but it was undiagnosed for three years. Later on, I met with her on occasion when life got overwhelming. I continue this practice. A professional is trained to support you in ways your friends and pastor cannot.
B. Mental Health.
Professional clinical counseling is also a great aid in mental health and intellectual processing, and I also cannot emphasize too strongly the need for many to have medication which helps resolve the chemical imbalance of the brain which often leads to irrational thought. Just as we take medication to keep our blood pressure stable or insulin to help diabetic conditions or other medicines which replace functions of organs that may have been damaged, we also must see there is NO stigma to taking medication to help the most important organ, our brain, to function as it is designed.
If our brains are working as they should, then we can reason and learn and absorb and make effective, healthy decisions. One way is through reading experts or inspirational writing which educates and encourages us and helps us to understand and act differently, in ways that will help us rather than harm us.
I read two significant books which assisted me in understanding two key areas in which I was stuck: perfectionism and discontent. Brene Brown's book "The Gifts of Imperfection" helped me stop beating myself up for always falling short of my ridiculously high expectations. And Ann Voskamp's "1000 Gifts" was a dare to live fully by opening my eyes to the beauty right in front of me, large and small, every day. To see it all as a gift. “Nothing is a given. Everything is a gift.”
C. Physical Health
I saw my doctor on a regular basis, yet I often did not disclose to him the true nature of how I was feeling until I was in crisis. My late husband struggled with depression and anxiety and this greatly impacted our relationship. While I could not help him, I had to help myself. Like the airlines caution you about the oxygen masks, you need to put your own on before you help others, I needed to get better myself so I could be of any use to him. Sadlly, he refused to see a counselor, a medical doctor or to consider medication for his condition, and this ultimately resulted in his suicide.
I put depression and anxiety under the “physical health” column because I believe the majority of these conditions start from physical causes, not “wrong thinking” or “spiritual failure”.
I decided to see a Naturopath who specialized in food sensitivities. She identified my intolerance for wheat in all forms and I eliminated it from my diet. I experienced an immediate lift in my physical health. The chronic heartburn almost immediately disappeared. My hiatal hernia stopped acting up, except in high stress situations. The Naturopath also put me on a regimine of vitamins, supplements and natural remedies for stress and anxiety. I began to feel better than I had for decades. I also significantly reduced my intake of soft drinks like Coke, stimulants like coffee and replaced them with unsweetened juices, herbal teas, water or club soda. I also reduced my sugar intake, which reduces inflammation and cravings.
After eight months I was finally ready to tackle my body shape and fitness. I set before me the goal of health, not just a certain body shape or a target weight. Exercise to feel good, not to feed your ego. Physical exertion in safe ways releases reward endorphins in your brain which help you feel good. I jump-started my program by signing up with a personal trainer. I would arrive at our session feeling down, tired, discouraged and invariably I would leave rejuvenated and happy. On Nov. 27, 2012, I posted: “Amazing, how being pushed past my own perceived physical limits by my skilled trainer helps me see how strong I really am. Feels good. Taking nothing for granted. So grateful for this new period of health.”
There are also direct links between my nutritional intake and my emotional and mental health. I must drink at least two litres of water per day and eat balanced, whole foods, minimizing prepared foods high in salt and sugar (hint: choose foods that don’t have an ingredient label). Don’t be obsessed by tracking any one thing or denying yourself. Any extreme is unhelpful. To eliminate or emphasize any one food group (i.e. low carb diet, vegan, high-protein, and so on) is to put ourselves at risk to physical, emotional and mental disease, not getting the holistic natural nutrition our body and mind need to live in optimal health.
D. Spiritual Health
I have always believed in the power of the scriptures, as the Living Word of God, to be spiritual food, a truth anchor in the midst of mood swings, or a thermostat that controls the emotional temperature of my life, a fertile garden where I can grow and gain wisdom. Two other significant books I read during this time were Brennan Manning’s “The Furious Longing of God” that helped me understand how much God pursues me, is crazy about me, and loves me completely. As you can understand, this goes a long way toward emotional healing as well as spiritual. The other book was “The Inner Voice of Love”. This is Henri Nouwen's journal from the most difficult period of his life, when he suddenly lost his self-esteem, his energy to live and work, his sense of being loved, even his hope in God. Although he experienced excruciating anguish and despair, he was still able to keep a journal in which he wrote a spiritual imperative to himself each day that emerged from his conversations with friends and supporters. I found it not only resonated but encouraged me – a spiritual leader who was also depressed yet learned to see God and hear God’s voice in the darkness.
On Nov. 27 I also posted, “Some have lost faith because of terrible circumstances. Isn't that the time when you would most want to rely on God's strength, comfort, healing and love?” Please know that a few years before, I had nearly despaired and seriously questioned God’s love and goodness, due to very difficult circumstances of my life, but this statement shows the distance I had come in healing from that wounded place to the present moment of wanting to rely on God.
Little did I know that one week later my husband of 31 years would die by suicide. The presence of God in the moments and days following was so tangible, I could physically feel myself being held, covered, carried, by Love.
I don’t know where I would have been or how I would have survived if I had still been in the days of pain and denial. Sometimes these traumatic situations force us to a life change or a break down. I began reading the scripture again with renewed vigor, for all the strength I felt draining away in the crush of preparations needed to be restored. For months afterward I soaked in the trilogy of books written by Dr. David Benner: “Surrender to Love” which helped me discover the heart of Christian Spirituality, “The Gift of Being Yourself”, the sacred call to self-discovery, and “Desiring God’s Will”, which is all about aligning my heart with the heart of God.
Since those days two years ago, I have studied to become a spiritual director but found I am not yet emotionally strong enough to bear the deep burdens of others who are still in a very wounded place. I hope, one day, to delve more fully into this field.
E. Relational Health
Life is best lived in community. We clearly see what happens to those kept in solitary confinement. A supportive group of family and friends who encourage us, have the courage to care enough to confront us when needed, keep us accountable and point out where we might need to practice more healthy habits and behaviors.
I had two small groups: one of just a few women and a mixed group of six couples I/we met with on a weekly basis, some more often on a social basis: one on one for coffee and/or Bible study or just social time. They were my confidants, my soul-sisters, my brothers in Christ. I could tell them just about anything and know they would keep it in confidence, pray for me, help me work through it, even give wise advice if I asked. Several times, especially after my first husband’s death, I felt a great restlessness and was tempted to do something impulsive like quit my job or sell the house or run away. I would call one of those small group members and meet with them and they helped keep me steady. I am deeply indebted to each one who held me and helped me in my weak times.
So, there you have it. A long list of things I have done and continue to do. Through it all, I learned if I want to be different I have to BE different. Don’t continue doing the same things. Make the hard choice to do something more effective and keep it up, one day at a time, one step at a time.
F. Recreational Health
Finally, creative and recreational outlets are also important to having fun and getting moving in fun and enjoyable ways. I took up photography, glass fusion, swimming, hiking, camping, singing and renewed my writing, blogging and poetry. I even dabble in art and sketching and took a turn at scuba and parasailing. Others quilt, knit, crochet, cross-stitch, ride horses or motorcycles, snowshoe, ski, skydive, and the list is endless. These are the things that bring zest to life, the reason we want to be healthy – to enjoy all the good gifts in God’s beautiful creation.
I’m still in process, but I’m healthier now than I have ever been in every area I have discussed. I don’t take this for granted – I have to choose this every single day. I still battle areas where I haven’t yet had healing but I am so grateful for the life I have, the friends and family who support me and the God who created me to live in this kind of freedom.
I hope you might be helped by something here. If you have other books or practices that have helped you get unstuck and you would like to post about it in the comments, feel free.
Now go live and laugh and love.