For anyone who has ever had questions about their faith.

I struggle to articulate the discoveries I have been making about my faith, in part because what I believe cannot easily be squeezed into language. It cannot be condensed and compressed into words, black and white on the page.

I am only ever able to scratch the surface, if I am lucky.

Even if I had all the time in the world I would still remain unable to articulate the breadth and depth and complexity, the clear and pure simplicity, of the faith I am discovering.

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This was not always the case.

I used to find my faith far more straight forward. For every question there was an answer, for every problem a solution.

I had always thought of the truth as,

The Truth.

Capitalised and in bold.

Unquestionable. Definite.

But I have been realising to think of my faith through binaries and certainties and unequivocal facts, is childish.

As I was pondering this, a verse from I Corinthians sprang to mind (chapter 13, verse 11);

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

I dont want to remain a child forever but what does it mean to put away childish things? What does it look like to become a man (or woman)? How do I reach maturity?

I battled to formulate a definition or system by which to ensure I was no longer childish.

Unable to, I read on (verse 12);

For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.

The placement of this verse, directly after the warning about behaving childishly, seemed interesting.

Maybe this was a description of the opposite, the alternative, to childishness?

Maybe to speak and understand as a child is to accept naive simplicity as truth, to live with a dualistic mindset swallowing ideas of complete right and wrong, to live in a world where there are two sides: goodies and baddies.

Maybe to behave as a child is to see and live in black and white.

I am beginning to understand that to move into maturity I need to accept that for now I see ‘in a mirror, darkly’, and I only know ‘in part’.

Part of growing up is to realise, for now, complete truth is not possible, I cannot see the whole story, or understand all that happens.

This rings true with my experience of life.

There are many, many things I dont understand.

There have been many times when I am sure God has got it wrong and frankly if he would only listen to me we could sort this whole mess out.

I have had, and continue to have, many questions.

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But, I am starting to see that to mature is to recognise my ignorance.

Maybe my questions are a symptom of, not a reason to doubt, my maturity.

The world tells me to admit I do not know the answer is a sign of weakness. It daily reminds me to be unable to control the outcome of a situation or circumstance is to show vulnerability, and vulnerability is not desirable.

But as I understand what it means to mature in my faith, I am recognising that weakness is power, vulnerability is strength and acceptance of my ignorance is a sign of wisdom.

Do not be fooled. This is no cop out.

Recognition of my lack is not a reason to lie down and submit to anything and everything, to be passive or fatalistic.

No.

To accept my weakness and my ignorance is to surrender to an invitation.

An invitation to relationship.

For it is impossible to be in relationship with someone who knows it all, and has no space for growth or learning new things.

I can’t form a relationship with someone while holding my fingers in your ears, or deciding I already know what they think about everything without waiting for their answer.

(Which I fear may have been how I felt about and treated God for a while).

This acknowledgement of my need, of the fact that I do not know the answers, is the first step into the mystery, to the beginning of adventure.

Like a child I have wanted the guiding hand of a parent to show me the way, to protect me and guide me. But it is only as I have begun to walk on my own I have been able to fully explore and discover what delights me.

It is only by letting go the safe, familiar, monochrome faith that I have been able to step into a world of colour.

A relationship of colour.

Of contrast and juxtaposition, of nuance and subtlety, of things I haven’t thought of or seen yet.

It is alive and it is complicated and it is beautiful. img_9604

And so I say:

Here’s to uncertainty! Here’s to doubt!

Here’s to growth and questions and possibility!

As I yield to this relationship I find myself falling head over heels, surprised, confounded, dizzied.

I find myself uncovering the desires of my heart.

I find myself.

 

The wild truth about freedom.

With regard to my faith I have spent a lot time writing about what isn’t.

Exploding lies.

Debunking myths.

That sort of thing.

I write about this because it is what I have spent a lot of my time doing in my real life. Unravelling thoughts about my beliefs, chucking out systems that have become constraining.

I struggled under the weight of some repressive ideas for a long time.

No one forced these mindsets on me. In the way that most things happen it was a mix of my personality, my experiences, my choice, my upbringing, and my pride that combined to intoxicate me with the notion I was right about lots of things and stopped me from seeking out the truth.

img_4856When you have sworn by certain beliefs for a long time and defended them to the hilt, it is hard to question them. I felt disloyal to consider it.

For a long time I stayed stuck.

I didn’t realise I was meant to grapple with ideas. I thought I should just absorb them, just swallow them down like medicine. For a long while I believed this was what good people did. They just believed.

These days I am stumbling towards truth, inarticulately.

It is messy and often uncertain.

But I am starting to write about some of things that are. Some new truths.

Some things my younger self would probably call heresy.

Here is the first:

I believe in freedom.

Growing up in a loving Christian home I would have paid lip service to the idea of freedom. The word featured in the prayers of my youth. I could recite the scriptures that contained this word; about knowing the truth and the truth setting me free, about how Christ came to bring freedom for the captives.

But the life I was living did not reflect this idea.

There was always a caveat.

Jesus had brought me freedom – freedom to do what he wanted me to do. Freedom to toe the line and be good, to behave. And this can be a useful idea for a young person as it keeps them out of trouble a lot of the time. I certainly saved myself some heartache by believing this.

But faith is a living thing and like all living things it must evolve, it cannot remain static, otherwise it will decay. Food that was once a nourishment to the body will eventually become a poison.

When an idea has planted itself deeply into your soul, it can take a long time to disentangle the roots. And these tendrils had wrapped themselves around my heart and through my mind. I had tarred God with the same brush the world uses all the time and for everything – a transactional one.

I believed God’s grace and acceptance was given in exchange for my behaviour and service. The consequence of believing this lie was that I spent my time trying really hard to please God while at the same time resenting him. He became a hard task master, an impatient boss. I thought he must grow weary of my inconsistency, my inability to get it right and be a good christian. I thought he was a kill-joy and didn’t want me to have any fun.

The idea of unconditional love and acceptance was one my brain couldn’t fathom.

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Over the last few years I have started to understand what it means to be free.

It is wider and bigger than I could ever have imagined.


When I was 19 I went on an ill-fated trip to Kenya with a charity. The expedition was hard and badly organised. In the middle of this difficult time we were treated to a day in Nakuru National Park. It was incredible. About mid-morning we arrived at a view across the savannah. It was like something out of The Lion King. The land stretched out before us. We saw a herd of giraffe moving across the plains, birds flying in formation, a lake pink with flamingoes. We stood still and stared. There was such a stillness and beauty and in that moment anything felt possible.

If the freedom I had known had been like my local park, attractive but predictable, safe but dull, then the new freedom I am discovering is a savannah.

Wild. Free. Expansive. All-encompassing.

The liberation is complete.

There is nothing tame about freedom, nothing manicured or fenced off. Freedom is the the whole pie, the whole nine yards. Freedom is knowing I can do anything and still know acceptance. (Yes, anything!)*

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If Jesus came to set me free, to restore relationship between me and my maker, to fulfil the promise of ultimate acceptance and belonging, he did not also have a check list for how I need to behave to accept it.

Freedom has never been about following certain rules. Hard as it is to wrap our earth-bound hearts and minds around it, there are no caveats.

As soon as we place a caveat on freedom (maybe about holiness, or sin) it is not freedom, it is control.

This freedom is not a transaction.

This is a gift.

The truth is that wild.


*Does this make you squirm? Make you want to say, “but, but… what about…?”

I know where you are coming from. I hear you. I totally get it.

You want to give me all the scriptures about living a life for God, about service and a heart of gratitude don’t you? You want to read to me about holiness and the consequences of sin. I know. But until we (because I entirely include myself in this gang) get our heads around the fact that freedom means freedom and unconditional means unconditional, we are going to spend our days doing a dance between obligation and guilt, guilt and obligation. It isn’t fun. In fact it is called slavery.

What I discovered at the river tonight.

Talisman

When the days shorten

And morning and evening seem almost to kiss

When the darkness surrounds

I chase the gold as it slips behind the horizon.

Hoping it might remain for a moment longer.

But it is gone.

 

I look down.

In my hand I am clutching three embers

salvaged from the spent flames of a nearby tree.

A quiver of gilded crimson.

I didn’t realise I would need them now

As the day departs and the darkness resumes its watch.

I hold tight to my treasure

A promise of tomorrow,

of another year.

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This poem met me on my walk this evening.

As I rounded the corner I saw the sky above the rooftops, intense orange. By the time I had walked another five minutes to the river, where I could see the horizon and the place the sun sinks, it was all but gone, a small patch of egg yolk yellow disappearing rapidly.

Some days hope and joy are only briefly glimpsed. The nights are long and the beauty to be found sparse. Some days even though you run to catch sight of something which could sustain you, it slips from your grasp.

On days like this, I have to go searching. I cannot rely on the world to provide beauty for me.

The trees in Liverpool are all but bare now. We are in the days where their glory covers the pavements and is trampled by feet busy rushing from one place to another. Without thinking I find myself collecting leaves every time I am outside. A handful of jewels, wet and shining from the rain. I bring them home wishing I could preserve them, use them to decorate my house.

But after a day or two on my kitchen table they start to curl up at the edges, becoming brittle and dry. I throw them away before they turn into piles of dust.

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I need fresh joy, fresh beauty, fresh hope, daily. Yesterday’s offering will not satisfy today’s desire. These gifts are transient, they have a limited shelf life.

My soul needs nourishment and it doesn’t often come gift wrapped and delivered to my door. I have to go looking for it, and when I find it I have to cherish it. I have to pick up the leaves, to brandish them, to run to the river to catch the sunset, to sneak in and kiss my son as he sleeps. I have to remind myself of all the good there is, especially when so much feels so dark.

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A non-scientific check list of anxiety symptoms (or, This is how it felt for me).

It was seven years from my first panic attack to a diagnosis of anxiety. Seven years without any help. Seven years of thinking I needed to get a grip. Seven years of beating myself up for not being able to stay in control.

Before my diagnosis I didn’t think I was ill and I didn’t think I suffered with anxiety. What even was that?

I thought I was a freak. And weak.

A weak freak.

I didn’t know anyone who had struggled with their mental health (or maybe truer to say, I didn’t know anyone who had ever talked about it). I had no context for understanding, no frame of reference.

The public conversation is louder now, more common place and accessible, but still, getting a diagnosis – or putting yourself in a place where a diagnosis is possible – is fraught with difficulty.

It is for this reason I am here writing a list of the symptoms, signs and side effects of my anxiety. I am going to be specific. Because it is hard to ask for help when you don’t realise you are suffering with a real thing.
If I can shorten this time where you are floundering in the unknown, unaware that what you are suffering with can be helped, if I can prevent or limit the inevitable bottoming out of your self-esteem as you blame yourself for not coping, I want to do that.

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So, here is my completely unscientific, purely based on my own experience, in no particular order, list of symptoms that might point to the fact that you are suffering from anxiety:

1. You have panic attacks.
Maybe you think this would be obvious, but it took about 7 or 8 years for me to recognise and name these moments of terrifying paralysis and abject terror.

What a panic attack looks like for me:
Initially, excess saliva. Some people experience a dry mouth with the onset of a panic attack, but for me it has always been a realisation I am swallowing more saliva than usual. (Warning: symptoms can be physical and unpleasant, and you may find out more about me than you really want to know.)
Hot on the heels of this is an increased awareness of my heart beating in my chest, of my blood pulsing around my body. This is the first of the ‘normal’ activities of the body that I become super-sensitive to.
When I was at university studying drama we often started a practical session or rehearsal with a process I now know as body-scanning: a mindfully increased awareness of how your body is feeling. We would lie on the floor and our lecturer would say Listen to the sounds outside the body, and we would tune into the cars we could hear outside, the sound of water in the pipes and other students moving about the building. She would then say, Now turn your concentration inside, listen to the sounds inside your body, and we would become aware of our internal symphonies; the beating of our hearts, the clicking or popping sound in our inner ears as we swallowed, the sound of our breath. We were choosing to quieten our minds to hear the inner soundscape as a way to heighten our physical awareness in performance.
When I have a panic attack this awareness goes into hyperdrive. Everything else fades away and I can only hear the sounds inside my body. These sounds are not relaxing, they are of a body out of control, breathing that is quickening, a heart that is beating louder and faster.
As these sounds become louder and all consuming, I lose my connection with the outside world and feel myself one step removed, retreating into my own personal hell where no one can reach me. This feeling of not being able to escape both causes and exacerbates the downward spiral. As this occurs I move outside of my own mind, I am observing myself, I have no control.
I begin to sweat, I feel myself getting hotter, my cheeks go red. I have a strong desire to be in the fresh air.
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My mind pings about, rushing from one thing to another, catastrophising and finding the worst possible outcome for any situation I am in.
My stomach will start to swirl as my body kicks into fight or flight mode, and I feel sick often needing to find the nearest bathroom as my body empties itself in preparation for the combat that will never happen. (I know this may seem a bit TMI – as my kids would say – but I am including all the gory details because these are the things no one tells you.)
Usually the panic attack doesn’t last long and in half an hour I can be feeling myself again, however on a couple of occasions when I have suffered the Mother of all panic attacks I have had no choice but to go to sleep to reset whatever has gone off the boil in my brain. Sleep acts as the complete re-start, the hard re-boot for my brain.
Panic attacks are scary, the pinnacle of anxiety suffering.

Now the more everyday symptoms:

2. Reading is difficult.
I hadn’t read much for many years before I was officially diagnosed. It was a relief when my therapist told me this was a common side effect of suffering with depression and anxiety. I had thought it was just me: I had been exhausted, it was the baby years. I thought maybe I just wasn’t really a reader anymore (despite loving reading in my youth) maybe this was just another element of myself I had sacrificed at the altar of Motherhood. The words would (and sometimes still do) swim on the page and I found myself buying magazines to look at the pictures, somehow thinking  turning pages (even though I wasn’t reading any words) would reassure me I was still myself. When you are suffering with anxiety it is difficult to concentrate.

3. Making and subsequently cancelling plans.
This is an element of anxiety that can be very difficult for friends and family to understand. In a good moment I can find myself excitedly making plans, looking forward to a day out, or going out for dinner. However as time passes and the occasion draws nearer, my excitement turns to dread. It all feels too much and I can start obsessing about all the things that could go wrong (for me generally that I would humiliate myself or in some way be exposed as weak or stupid). My anxiety fuelled premonitions can be utterly absurd but still be enough to make me want to cancel, which I have often had to.
fullsizeoutput_368aMy very favourite people are those who get it, who say don’t worry if it is too much, or who reassure me when I have had to cancel telling me it is fine and there will be another opportunity when you are feeling better. (Never underestimate the comfort of a friend who gets it. They are worth their weight in gold).

4. A need for information.
If I do find myself in a position when an outing is inevitable or necessary I need the details: where we are going? who is coming? how we are travelling there? when we will get back? what we will be eating? This is my way of assessing for potential danger, but it is very tiresome for me and those I am with. I cannot go with the flow, I need to have the information locked down to feel safe. It all becomes a bit control-freaky.

5. Exhaustion.
When you are working twice as hard as everyone else just to get through the day by being hyper-vigilant to make sure that nothing is going to throw you off course, you end up exhausted. One way for me to stay well is to regularly have a good amount of sleep. A few nights of bad sleep in a row can make me feel shaky and more sensitive – more likely to feel my anxiety present. A week of broken nights and I need to be on red alert. Some would see this is a sign of a limited capacity, as though I am not as strong or capable as the next person.
But as Brene Brown would say (my paraphrase), exhaustion should not be worn as a status symbol. It is a sign of great strength to know your limits and be organised and pro-active to make sure that your body gets what it needs to function well.

6. A fixation with one particular thing.
My anxiety is always around health. I might be worrying about something else that has nothing to do with illness, but my anxiety will always bring it back to fear of sickness. I cannot pinpoint why this makes me so anxious, but I have been down that rabbit warren so many times now the path is well-worn and familiar. For some it is fear of death or anxiety about children, for others separation or crowded spaces, but for most sufferers anxiety seems to focus around one area in particular. Even though I can tell myself the facts about being ill – how often it will probably happen and the truth that my kids are rarely ill and we rarely get the bugs that go round school – I still fixate on it. The reality bounces off and makes little impression on the fiction my anxiety has created.

7. A sensitivity to alcohol and caffeine.
When I am in a bad patch I know that increasing the amount of caffeine or alcohol I consume can be disastrous. The side effects which on a calm day I would be unaware of can, on a bad day, send me down a black hole. The journey of anxiety through my body can happen two ways: from my thoughts which then creates a reaction physically, or, physically symptoms ie. shakiness or increased adrenaline from caffeine or alcohol consumption, triggering a wave of anxious thoughts. (Either from the inside out or the outside in). The side effects of more than usual caffeine or alcohol can make me feel out of control and the physical symptoms pattern match to the those that occur in a panic attack sometimes causing one to occur.

8. An inability to relax or switch off.
It is hard to unwind when you are on high alert 24/7. Activities that I would normally find relaxing cease to be a way to rest. When I am feeling particularly anxious I find myself vaccilating between two extremes: hyper-energetic, working at 100 miles an hour, fidgeting and unable to sit still – the busyness a way of not having to think about the state my mind -, and an almost comatose state: either asleep, or zoned out from the rest of the world watching mindless television, non-communicative. These two extremes are not conducive to happy relationships. It is difficult to connect to others in a relaxed and fun way when you are anxious, as all your energy is used up on surviving.
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This is not a complete list but if you are feeling at all like I have, or if this list seems to describe a loved one, maybe it is time to make an appointment, to be brave and head to see the doctor or a therapist.

The situation may feel hopeless but I assure you, it is not. There are strategies you can put in place that will improve your situation, and quickly. Even if you are not sure, but are wondering if you might need some help, don’t let the voice of accusation that says everyone else can cope you just need to try harder, win out. You can only begin to get better once you first acknowledge there is something wrong.

I’m with you. You can do this.

What kind of day has it been?

1. It started on Monday night. I received a text informing me that the flight I was to take first thing Tuesday morning from Manchester to Heathrow, to connect to my flight from Heathrow to Charlotte, had been cancelled.

2. After spending sometime on the phone to BA last night my flights were re-booked with American Airlines. Unfortunately when I arrived at Manchester Airport (possibly the busiest airport full of the most grumpy people early in the morning), after waiting for an hour in a queue, I was told that despite the phone call and the print offs I had in my bag, I was not booked on either flight for today.

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3. Half an hour later I was booked back on the flights and had to run through security (not easy) arriving at the gate as the flight started boarding.

4. The flight left on time at 9:40am. By 10:30 I was being served meatballs. I am not sure whether this was for breakfast or lunch or dinner, but it didn’t seem to make a lot of sense regardless of your time zone.

5. A smooth flight and arrival in Philadelphia ahead of schedule. Passport control, customs, baggage claim and baggage re-checked in for connecting flight to Charlotte.

6. Two hours waiting for connection only to get to the gate (final person in the queue) to be told that I was not in fact booked on the flight I had the confirmation for. Another run to another desk where a lovely lady, after numerous phone calls finally got me on the flight.

7. As the plane took off I realised that it was highly unlikely my luggage would be with me. I was right, so another desk and another kind lady who arranged for my bag (still at Philadelphia airport) to be brought to my hotel once it had caught me up and landed in Charlotte. (It was dropped off at 2:30 am – and thankfully left at the reception desk as I was fast asleep by then.)

These are the unequivocal facts of the day.

But there is a story that is much more important than this list.

This story is of a day where every unexpected situation was dealt with without anxiety.
And although I had one moment of blinking back tears (at the gate in Philadelphia – I am human after all), I was fine.

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When I heard about this opportunity to go the writers’ workshop I am here to attend my first thought was this was impossible and I couldn’t manage it. Fear has a loud voice.

But I have learnt enough not to reject new opportunities out of hand.

For a while I lived with the thought.

I dreamt about being the kind of person who would fly across the world to meet a group of people she has never met in the flesh, the kind of person who copes with the unexpected, the kind of person who is up for an adventure.

After the encouragement of my husband, and my lovely book club ladies who gave a strong voice to the opportunity and potential of this trip (if nothing else, my great friend and often editor Marita observed, it would make good content for the blog!) I took a deep breath and booked my flights.

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Since then, although I was expecting to, I haven’t found myself agonising about this decision. I haven’t felt overwhelming anxiety about it.
I was nervous to leave the kids, and felt the weight of the lists and arrangements to enable life to carry on as normally as possible for them for the 5 days I am away and when I told someone I was coming on this trip I couldn’t help but make a little squeal of apprehension.
But I haven’t been waking in the night with my heart racing, and the night before I flew I slept pretty well.

And yesterday if I had known in advance all that was to happen I would have been convinced that anxiety would be prowling after me, waiting to destabilise me, to take my legs out from underneath me. But it didn’t. I was okay.

Turns out, I can do hard things.

Turns out, the hard work is worth it.

Turns out, people are kind, and a dose of gratitude and a winning smile can accomplish a lot.

Turns out, it is possible to change and get better.

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If you feel hopeless or that you will never be able to be brave again please let me reassure you, you will.

And if you feel regret for all the years you have missed (as I often do), let me tell you (and remind myself) there is still time for us.

Parenting: Learning to be honest about the messy reality of life.

I have thought a lot recently about how to enable my kids to move from the ‘infant’ part of their childhood into their teenage years. How to begin to prepare them for greater independence. How to teach them to think and act for themselves and make good choices that reflect their values.

I have thought a lot about where those values could come from and how it might be possible to instil values that will serve them well, that will give them a happy and peace-filled life.

I think this may be impossible.

I cannot guarantee they will immediately pick up healthy values, I cannot guarantee they ever will. I have very little power in this situation.

But I am trying to move from a parenting style that has been fairly protectionist in outlook, to a parenting style that is more engaged, more transparent.

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When they were little I shielded my children from the horror of the world. I turned down the radio or changed the channel when a report about the war in Sudan, or the refugee crisis came on. I didn’t want my children’s delicate and impressionable minds filled with images of babies washed up on beaches, of earthquakes and tsunamis. I wanted them to be able to be children. To have years free from the worries of the world.

This was not a bad policy. Although it may have been a little extreme.

But now my children are growing up. It is important they begin to learn how to engage with the world. They need to know the reality of what is happening to other people in other places, even if it is confusing and painful, even if it makes them upset or frightened. They need to see the truth that they are unbelievably fortunate. They need start to think about how to act in a way that is considerate and responsible, in a way that is aware of the reality of being alive here and now.  To not start to teach them about the complicated reality of life would be to cosset them, to wrap them in cotton wool. It would be America in the Second World War: protectionism for their own comfort and security.

And sure, it would protect them, but it would also separate them. It would create a culture and expectation that is not healthy or outward looking. It would not teach them how to be citizens of the world.

It is hard to change my stance. They are still my babies and my reflex action is to want to shield them from the messy parts of life, but I know if I do this I am not giving them the tools they need to live. I am not teaching them how to question, I am not showing them how to engage and wrestle with the difficult things of life.

I am also showing them a very skewed image of what the world is like. I am in danger of infantilising them.

And no one, absolutely no one, wants toddlers forever.

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But all change is bittersweet and as we voyage out into new territory, the safe place we are leaving behind looks so appealing, so enticing.

Teaching our children the reality of what it is to live in a broken world is not just about global issues – it is also about the difficulty of living in community and being honest about our own weaknesses and struggles.

Recently we have had cause to explain to our children that even grown ups can fall out and not all friendships are smooth sailing. We have tried to remain generous and open-minded. The kids have, on the whole, responded brilliantly to this unexpectedly changing landscape.

Hopefully through this situation we are opening their eyes to the reality that even amongst good people who love each other things can be difficult. Maybe we are even showing them how to navigate relational challenges.

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Maybe not. If it turns out we have handled it really badly hopefully we will have another conversation about how we should have managed this tricky situation and maybe they can learn from our mistakes. They are certainly learning that we are fallible.

Many months after all her friends were bought them, we eventually allowed our eldest to have a phone. She isn’t allowed to take it out of the house and she isn’t allowed to take it upstairs. (We are a little bit Victorian like that). We are trying to talk a lot about how we, and others, use technology and to try and make decisions together about how, as a family, we will navigate this next season, without allowing the internet and all its contents to rush like a train through our household.

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(*not her phone – we are not that cruel).

We are trying to show the kids that the ability to communicate and access information is a gift, but one that has to be respected, because like all powerful things, it can be harmful.

So far, so good.

(In a couple of years I intend to write a post about all the things we have got wrong in raising teenagers, fear not, I have no assurance of any success in this arena.)

For now though, my eldest talks to me about the text messages she has received and how they make her feel. We talk about FOMO and how to be proactive, not reactive. We talk about how to navigate the complex friendships of twelve year olds, the competition and heightened emotions.

And it is not just the kids who need to learn how to engage.

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(*not my baby. A quick cuddle with my gorgeous nephew.)

At the dinner table, the one time of the day we all sit down together, I am trying to be more deliberate in my conversation. I am starting to share honestly about my day, not just ask and hear about theirs. I tell them about the decisions I am making in my work, about my struggle to be disciplined and I ask them for ideas and suggestions. I am trying to be honest about my failures and my successes.

This is pretty tricky actually. Harder than I expected. For a long time I wanted to keep a bit of my life back for myself. To have some stuff that was just for me. It was a way of staying sane. If I held a portion of me back, in my marriage or with my children, then I wouldn’t feel completely overwhelmed by their needs and their ideas.

I think I thought it was the only way to retain the essence of who I am.

But I am learning how to reveal my whole self to Matt and the kids, to show them the things I find hard and to share my plans and dreams with them. This is a conscious decision and is not without its challenges. As I have learnt to look after myself I have also had to re-address my behaviour with my nearest and dearest. It is no longer essential to keep a portion back for myself, I don’t need to be protectionist about my own self. I am learning to engage and offer all I am. It is a slow and ungainly process.

If this blog post feels unfinished, that is because it is. This is a work in progress. We are. But we are putting one step infront of the other and learning and trying and failing, to love each other better and share our lives better. To move from protectionism to engagement in all areas. Wish us luck.

 

This is for you if you are in despair.

Today is World Mental Health Day.

I was going to repost a previously written blog, but instead I felt a strong urge to write to you today, if you are in despair.

I know how you feel.

I have been you. I have been terrified to leave the house. I have felt I had no control over my own body. I have felt my brain was alien and unpredictable and I could no longer rely on it to tell me the truth.

I know what it is like to wake in the night and be consumed with fear, to be able to hear blood pumping around my body, to know the sound deafening in my ears.

I have wanted to hide, and felt shame. I have not known who I was or how to go on. I have wanted to disappear, in every way possible because carrying on felt too hard, too difficult, too painful, too unpredictable.

I know how you feel.

I know the despair that rises up to meet you in the morning and settles on you like a fog as you finally manage to get to sleep.

And I want to tell you. Don’t give up. Please.

It is possible to get better.

I know because I have.

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It has been a complicated route to this new peace, and along the way there have been delays, false starts and wrong turnings.

I am not going to pretend to you it has been easy.

Because you already know that isn’t true.

I know how hard you are working, and how you long to feel differently. I know you wish it was as easy as ‘snapping out of it’, or ‘pulling yourself together’.

If only, hey?

My path to peace has involved every aspect of my being. I could not just treat the chemical imbalance with drugs (which I have) without looking at the environmental aspects of my life. There would be no point going to therapy to talk through and understand the mindsets and patterns of behaviour that have made me ill (which I have) without thinking about my home life and the kind of community (open, vulnerable, supportive) I want to be a part of.

We are not just flesh and blood, we are also spirit and soul. We are not just hormones and synapses, we are also heart and home. And we need to attend to our whole self.

This takes time.

It is okay for it to take time.

Let me encourage you. As you inch, step by step, hour by hour, to a greater understanding, as you continue to walk forwards, things will get easier.

If you would have told me a five years ago, or even one year ago, I would be feeling as I do now, with more energy and peace and hope, I would have struggled to believe you, because I felt so bad for so long. I know the despair, I know how all encompassing it can feel. But please, hear me, you can get better.

Somewhere in the mix of anti-depressants and therapeutic practices, long walks at the river and lots of rest, I have found myself again.

And this me I have discovered is at peace. I know who I am and what I should be doing with my time. I am not constantly confused or distracted by the other, well-meaning, voices who have good suggestions. I do not feel the need to appease everyone else, I have found good boundaries that keep me safe and enable me to live well. I can enjoy time with friends and adventures and hard work. And I know when to get an early night, cut back on the caffeine and spend time in my garden.

I trust myself to know what I need to remain well.

Mostly.

And I have a husband and friends who will give me the nod if I am filling my life too full and be brave enough to lovingly suggest I might need to slow down, if they can see stress building.

It is not just me who has been learning. We learn best together.

And the unexpected, particularly amazing, thing about recovery (because, like an addict I know this is a life long journey into health I am walking, not a quick fix) is the gifts that you find along the way. Not gifts for yourself – feeling well is good enough – but gifts for others.

Your story, your experience, might be exactly what someone else needs to hear. We need each other because this is a complicated beast we are fighting and we all bring something unique to the battle.

Our stories are our weapons, gifts that slay despair.

But today, for now, don’t worry about fighting, and don’t worry about trying to make yourself better. Don’t strive, that won’t help.

Let my story start to fight your despair

And your part today: keep putting one foot in front of the other and know you are not alone. Don’t give up, hear the truth – it is possible to get better.

Take it from one who knows.

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For when you think you should be able to snap out of it.

A few years back I noticed a book lying around. It was by a Christian speaker, one of those women who talk in authoritative statements, wearing power suits in bold colours.

I never read the book, but I remember it’s title, which shaped itself as a command.

It was called ‘Don’t Dread‘*.

Oh, if only it was that easy.


I was raised on stories of overcomers. I was told testimonies of people who through their faith had seen the breakthrough. I heard these stories in church on a Sunday, and round the dinner table. All the testimonies seemed to me to have a happy ending: healing, salvation, success, victory.

For a long time I believed this was what a Jesus-follower should look like: a strong, determined, passionate person who fought the good fight and never gave up. A person who didn’t dread, who defeated dread through the courage of their convictions.

But as my mental health crumbled I started to believe that I wasn’t, couldn’t possibly be, one of those people.

It was after the birth of our third child, our son Ed, the wheels really fell off.  And, after the strong encouragement of my husband, I sought professional help and was diagnosed was with post-natal depression and anxiety.

I believed I wasn’t strong enough.

If only I was better at intercession. If only I was a holier person. If only I had more courage and a tidier home. If only I was more organised and more positive. If only I read my Bible more and, even occasionally, had a quiet time.

I tried really hard to be an overcomer and beat my anxiety, but it didn’t work.

Victorious people would be able to control these feelings, I believed. I needed to bury my pain, keep it out of sight. Because if it was exposed then everyone would see the naked truth of who I was.

Of course, that doesnt really work, and the more I tried to keep my panic attacks at bay, the more I sought to control and contain my emotions, not acknowledging them or processing them, the more anxious I became.

Every now and then, just when I had thought I had it all together again, I’d find myself sliding out of control. My inner anguish manifesting itself with physiological symptoms. Heart rate increasing. Breathing difficult. Temperature rising. Stomach swirling. And the world slipping out of my grasp.

The shame was overwhelming.

Accepting that I needed both medication and counselling was hard. It was humbling. I had not been able to do what I thought Christians should be able, through faith, to do: to make myself better, to pull myself together.


But at the lowest point, when I had nothing to give, I found some truth. The kind of precious truth you only discover when you are mining in the pits of despair. It was there God met with me.

He wasn’t waiting for me to act like an overcomer and he didn’t expect me to pull myself together.

He also didn’t heal me instantly and give me a miraculous story to end my testimony with, but he gave me hope. A hope to counter the dread. He taught me that I didn’t need to keep up appearances because he loved me. And he showed me that I am not alone even when I feel I am.

I have described my battle for mental health as the very best worst thing to ever happen to me.

Because the process, this journey, which has undone me, has taught me that in Christ’s upside-down Kingdom, my vulnerability is my strength. I am finding that as I stop hiding and start to expose the things I have been most ashamed of, my confidence is growing. I am realising that his power is made perfect in my weakness.

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I don’t have to dread, but this is not something that is achieved through my own self-effort.

It is something that is given to me when I surrender.

 

*I still haven’t read this book, but I am sure it isn’t anything like as bad as I thought (maybe).

 

 

In loving memory.

I haven’t written for a few days. Life kind of took over.

Sometimes best laid plans have to be put to one side to deal with the important stuff of real life.

Last Thursday was my 37th birthday. It was a fine day, I caught up with a few friends, and received some lovely gifts.

Last Thursday was also the day I said goodbye to my Nan.

My Mum phoned at about 3:30pm, as I was finishing coffee with some friends, to say it looked like the end was close and I might want to make my way over to see Nan sooner rather than later. So I did.

I shared some precious moments with her, before she went home.

Nan was 95 and had been telling us for a while she was ready to go. She was tired and missed her husband, my Grandad, who died 8 years ago. (She told me those last 8 years had felt like 80 without him). She was almost completely blind, her sight had been failing over the last few months, and very thin, the cancer in her lungs causing her too much discomfort and tiring her out too much to retain any energy for eating. She held my hand tightly and we told each other that we loved each other.

Believing in eternity and grieving are not incompatible.

In my family we are living this truth at the moment.

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Nan died on Friday evening. She was an amazing woman of faith, convinced about heaven and not afraid. She had the end of life she had wanted: she wasn’t in pain and she wasn’t in the hospital. She was in her own home, surrounded by family, cocooned in love.

And with all these blessings, even in a death as good as this one surely was, there is great sorrow.

Because she is no longer with us. And we miss her. And while our souls are at peace and not afraid, we know this part of life, here on this earth with Nan, is over.

And we grieve in this knowledge.

To grieve is not to deny heaven.

When you truly have loved, it is good to truly grieve.

The grieving is the gift you receive if you loved well.

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I believe I am an immortal soul, held in a mortal body.

I believe we all are.

My body will die, but the core of who I am, the essence of me, will live on, somewhere, somehow, for eternity.

I don’t know what this looks like, and I don’t know how it will be. My understanding is limited to all my earthy brain can comprehend. Occasionally I hear a whisper, I see a glimpse, of what it might be like. In those moments when time falls away and for a small fragment of time everything is like it should be, when the only thing that matters is our love for one another. When I go and kiss my son as he sleeps at night, when my eldest discovers something for the first time – a new author or idea, when my lovely ten year old cartwheels across the garden in the sunshine.

And if everything froze for that moment, all would be well.

Moments of perfection, of suspended heaven.

But time is not frozen, it marches on; minutes and hours and days. And it is from within this structure we understand life. Time is the God-given framework we live within.

Our lives are divided up into tangible parcels, each day waiting to be unwrapped and revealed.

And the finite nature of life is one way we define its value.

We know the cost of lost years to a job and or relationship that made us unhappy. And we know we cannot put a price on time spent with loved ones.

Part of the value of life is found in the fact that it is temporal. That we are mortal.

In my heart I believe we are more than flesh and blood, that we are eternal beings, but believing in something you cannot see or fully understand is hard. And as I stretch into this difficulty I feel the friction between two realities: the immortal soul and the earthly experience.

The more I have pondered this, the more I am grateful it is hard to think about eternity. I’m glad I struggle with this belief and find it impossible to live with an awareness of heaven all the time. If these ideas preoccupied me I would miss out on the beauty of living here and now. I would miss the joy to be found in this earthly body, on this planet, at this time. The messy glory and wonder and splendour of it all.

It is because I am fully alive here and now, I can hold the precious time-wrapped memories of being with my Nan; of the trips to stay with her when I was young, of the twin room my sister and I shared (complete with the tin of sweets awaiting our arrival), of her presence and wisdom as I grew up married and had children, and of the precious conversations we have shared in recent years.

My recollections of life with Nan are bittersweet, because she is gone. She imparted ideas and wisdom and love to me that will last forever, but the happy memories are for now tinged with sorrow.  I cherish the time we spent together, and somewhere in my soul I know I will see her again, but now is a time to grieve, because she is not here and we miss her.

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On loving Jesus and taking anti-depressants.

My therapist tells me that she believes it probably won’t be long until there is a test, a blood test or something, that will tell what is chemically happening in your brain. To ascertain that something isn’t right, some chemical or hormone isn’t being released correctly or in the right amount (forgive me – I am no scientist).

This would distinguish between mental illnesses that requires chemical intervention and those mental illnesses that can be alleviated by environmental changes and talking therapies, without the need for the pills.

And although we shouldn’t have to prove it, we shouldn’t need that validation, it would make life a lot simpler.

It would answer the critics who think that those of us who suffer just need to pull ourselves together.


When I was first prescribed anti-depressants nearly seven years ago, I went through (what I now know as) a fairly normal emotional cycle. Relief, to have a potential solution. Fear they wouldn’t work. Shame, I needed to take the drugs in the first place.

Relief. Fear. Shame.

Relief. Fear. Shame.

These three ideas, on a loop.

And when I stopped taking the anti-depressants a year and a half later I was nervous, but quietly confident. I knew I had come a long way, learnt a great deal, and was, to a large degree, healed.

There was a certain pride in having stopped taking them. I had battled and done the hard work (changed my lifestyle, done many hours of therapy, and learnt new techniques for relaxation). I felt it was a new day, an opportunity for a new start.

(Although you have to wonder if there is a pride in not taking them anymore then maybe the shame that comes with being prescribed them in the first place isn’t that unexpected, I digress…)

I truly thought I was one of those people who had one slump, one period of depression which needed medication. I believed I was one of those people who would have the story of the illness, followed by learning, then recovery, then health. I thought the illness would be a thing that had happened, that could be boxed away separately, not a part of who I was.

I knew I wasn’t perfect, and I had a lot to learn, but from a chemical point of view… well, I thought that bit was done.

This year, in January, in conversation with my therapist we decided that I needed chemical support again. I have written extensively about this decision, it was a hard one, but ultimately one I am very glad I made. You can read about it here.

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I am sure that most people who read this blog are lovely and non-judgemental about those of us who take the drugs, but I have a feeling this is not a universal response.

In fact, I know it isn’t.

In Christian circles we seem to have a problem with antidepressants, maybe more so than outside of the church. We don’t talk about it much. And when we do, we like to talk about it in a ‘they used to but thank God they don’t need them any more’ capacity. It is easier, cleaner, less messy. It chimes in with the version of the gospel we like to tell, of healing and health and resurrection.

But, you see, I love Jesus and I am sure he is fine with my drugs.

In the morning, almost as a joke, as I take my pill (citalopram*, as you asked) I say ‘thank you Jesus for the drugs’. I look at my husband and we laugh.

We laugh because of the distance we have travelled.

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I used to find it hard to reconcile my anti-depressants with what I knew of scripture. I would remember what it said in the Bible about having a ‘mind like Christ’, and about how we were being ‘transformed by the renewing of our minds’. There was a lot of talk about taking every thought captive, and the power of positive declaration.

And there is good in all these ideas. But when your mind is a constant stream of anxious thoughts, so much so that you cease to function, it is impossible to take every thought captive. Even with all my energy, the best will in the world and a strong wind behind me, I couldn’t do it.

And there were times, in the last few years, where I felt so angry with myself. So frustrated that I was not able to just get past this. So cross that I wasn’t able to reconcile the truth I knew in my soul with the 100mph anxiety train in my brain.

It was easy to feel like a failure, because surely Jesus should have been enough for me? If he was transforming my mind, then why did I need the drugs?

But there is a difference between knowing the truth in your heart and soul, and being able to translate those truths to the working of your brain.

I can’t categorically say why I have ended up in this position, where I am daily medicating because of a mental illness (because let us be honest, that is what I am doing).

I think it probably has a lot to do with many, many years of abuse.

I am not talking about substance abuse, or alcoholism,

…but being addicted to proving I was worthy.

This was the emotional abuse I put myself through.

My self-worth was based on how other people saw me. I wanted my work colleagues to think I was hard working, creative and intelligent, my parents and peers to think I was a good person, Godly Mum and a loyal friend, my husband to think I was fun, committed and sexy, and my kids to find me available, emotionally intuitive, and energetic.

I was desperate to be seen as a woman who had it together.

And I pushed myself harder and harder to try and prove it.

Until I pushed too far, and something short-circuited in my brain. Something snapped.

I wonder if the surplus adrenalin and cortisol I produce is my brains way of trying to enable me to work at the pace I had set. A pace that was and is totally unsustainable. A pace that had me on my knees, barely leaving the house, tied up with guilt and feeling like a failure.

I’m no medical professional but this is my best guess.

All I know is my brain isn’t working like it should and I can’t fix it on my own.

The antidepressants help. They give me the volition to live well.

Since taking them my adrenalin and cortisol surge in the morning has calmed and I am far, far less anxious. When I suggest going out for dinner, or taking a trip somewhere my husband frequently asks, “Who are you?” because it has been so many years since I have behaved like this. For me, the drugs are part of my solution to being able to live well and I am grateful for them.

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I often wonder how much easier it would be for those around me in church if I could stand up and give a testimony of healing. If I could point to a certain scripture and reveal that declaring it over my mind consistently, or finally understanding the truth changed everything.

I wonder if some people would find it easier if I could stop writing about mental illness as though it is part of my identity.

But it is.

This is my brokenness.

And I’m (mostly**) okay with that. Because I firmly believe it is my brokenness that makes me beautiful. Vulnerable, messy, complicated and imperfect, for sure. But beautiful.

 

I am a recovering people-pleaser and responsibility addict. I am a recovering restless soul, who didn’t know how or when to stop.

And part of my recovery is daily understanding what grace means.

And part of my recovery is true connection and vulnerability with people who love me.

And part of my recovery is taking the pills.

I need all three.

I need Jesus and my people and my drugs.

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* Other antidepressants are available! But seriously, it can be a complicated process to discover which antidepressant is the right one for you, it is most definitely not a ‘one size fits all’ situation. If you are in the process of trying to figure this out – good luck. X

**Mostly… well, hey, I’m human, who doesn’t have days when they wish everything was perfect and they were completely well.

The photo of me above is by no means perfect, it is a little blurry which frustrates me. I can’t remember which one of the kids took it, but I like it. It shows me as I feel a lot of the time now: windswept, in my rain coat with no make-up, vulnerable but present, and pretty good.