Depression and My Some Other Day [—at A Life Overseas]

September 30, 2019 § Leave a comment

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On September 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, I, like many of you, read the news that Jarrid Wilson had taken his own life. I didn’t know Jarrid, but his death made national news—and reached my computer screen—because he was an associate pastor of a California mega-church and because he and his wife had co-founded Anthem of Hope, “a mental health organization dedicated to amplifying hope for those battling brokenness, depression, anxiety, self-harm, addiction and suicide.”

I didn’t know Jarrid, but I know people like him, people who struggle with depression . . . people like me.

That’s not easy for me to write. I think of myself as a private person. I think of myself as someone who’s in control and even-keeled. But life is too short, sometimes much too short, to keep putting off openness and honesty for some other day.

I am inspired by those whom I’ve seen walk a path of vulnerability. Some are contributors at this site, such as Abby, who writes about her bipolar disorder. Ann discusses her depression in a post on meditation. And Marilyn blogs, “I have never spoken openly about my depression. In fact, this piece is the first piece I’ve ever written about the dark feelings that threatened to consume me.”

This is a first for me, too.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Marilyn Gardner, Depression and the Third Culture Kid,” Communicating across Boundaries, December 27, 2016)

[photo: “Pier,” by Omer Unlu, used under a Creative Commons license]

Unmasking What’s Inside for Others to See

September 9, 2018 § 1 Comment

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In the past, I’ve written about “the need for safe confidants in the lives of cross-cultural workers,” using parallel anecdotes from the world of athletics to illustrate my point. In that vein, here’s some insight from UK professional bicyclist Molly Weaver into how, in the area of mental health, the need for outward perfection conflicts with the inner need for honesty.

Actually, my introduction of Weaver is somewhat misleading. Technically she’s not a professional bike racer, at least not right now. On her website, she labels herself “Former Cyclist. Future Cyclist? Current Media Type.”

Early last year, during a training ride, Weaver was hit head on by a car and suffered 13 broken bones, including fractures in her back and neck. And yet, less than six months later, she was competing again . . . until she wasn’t. In May, she wrote a blog post announcing that she was stepping away from racing.

She makes her announcement and then continues:

I originally wrote this blog without the next part. I simply stated that I was taking a break from professional cycling, and then moved straight onto the ‘what’s next’ part of the story. I wanted to keep things private. But I’ve decided now is the time for an honest reflection.

Her physical injuries weren’t the issue, she writes. Those healed over time. It was the “mental scars”—the depression—that had stolen her passion.

My biggest mistake was doing nothing to stamp it out at the first signs of trouble. But at the time, in the grips of the demon, I couldn’t see this. I didn’t want to admit I was struggling. That isn’t who I am. I’m stronger than that.

Turns out strength has nothing to do with it. Depression can find anyone, and most of the time you don’t even see it coming.

But finding help, at least within bike racing, wasn’t easy. She tells BBC Sport that only one of her former teams had a sports psychologist. She calls this a “fundamental problem with the industry.”

Victoria Garrick is another high-level athlete who deals with depression. She’s a senior starter on the University of Southern California volleyball team, and last year she gave an in-depth TED talk in which she covers her experience as a D1 athlete, the stigma of depression and anxiety in sports, and the cultural environment athletes live in:

The culture of athletics preaches, “Where there’s a will there’s a way,” “The best don’t rest,” “Unless you puke, faint, or die, keep going.” Mental illness is associated with weakness. To appear weak is the last thing an athlete wants.

Not showing weakness is something that Weaver speaks about as well. Cycling, she writes in her blog, “is as much about your image as anything else.”

The social media lie is all too present in the world of cycling. Riders outwardly presenting the picture of the perfect life. The dream of being a professional athlete documented for all to see. For some this is probably the truth: for a lot of people it’s not.

The constant distortion of reality can be more destructive than we recognise. It looks like everyone else has it better than you. Everyone else is happier than you. But you don’t ever know what’s happening behind the filter.

I hid away my depression and put on a smile through it all. I said the right things. Some of which were true, and some of which I just wished were true. This felt like the only option. I thought I needed to paint myself in a certain light if I wanted to be successful. Mould reality around what people wanted to hear.

Then I would get home and take off the mask.

Now, by taking off their masks publicly, Weaver and Garrick are encouraging others to do the same, to be honest about mental-health issues, to be vulnerable in our humanity, regardless of our profession.

(Molly Weaver, “Behind the Mask,” May 22, 2018; Katie Falkingham, “Cyclist Molly Weaver on the Crash That Led to Depression and the Unhealthy Drive for Perfection,” BBC Sport, June 10, 2018)

[photo: “Venetian Mask,” by Rawle C. Jackman, used under a Creative Commons license]

You Don’t Have It All Together . . . but Neither Do They

June 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Episode four of CNN’s Mostly Human is about tech-company entrepreneurs, but when I watched it, I couldn’t help but think about another kind of entrepreneur—cross-cultural workers. Both invest themselves in often risky start ups that can put pressure on their financial and emotional well-being. And both feel the need to live up to the expectations of stakeholders.

Jerry Colonna is a venture capitalist turned certified professional coach. He works in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley, and he knows firsthand the prevalence of depression in the tech world and sees daily the mental-health toll that the start-up culture takes on its CEOs. In Mostly Human‘s “Silicon Valley’s Secret,” he talks about the disconnect between public success and private struggles, saying emphatically,

Nobody’s crushing it. Nobody is crushing it. Nobody is killing it. Nobody has it all figured out.

I have authority to say that because I’m honest with myself. It would be a mistake to think, Oh these poor little rich kids. Nothing that we have talked about is unique to the technology industry, but because the lens happens to be particularly sharp and clear right now. . . . It’s that the tech industry and the startup community in general brings to the surface forces that are at play in every aspect of our society. The human condition includes broken heartedness. The myth is that it doesn’t.

Author Anne Lamott, too, sees the reality behind the myth. She recently recorded a TED Talk with the title “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing.” Her truth #4 is this:

Everyone is screwed up, broken, clingy and scared, even the people who seem to have it most together. They are much more like you than you would believe, so try not to compare your insides to other people’s outsides. It will only make you worse than you already are.

Also, you can’t save, fix or rescue any of them or get anyone sober. What helped me get clean and sober 30 years ago was the catastrophe of my behavior and thinking. So I asked some sober friends for help, and I turned to a higher power. One acronym for God is the “gift of desperation,” G-O-D, or as a sober friend put it, by the end I was deteriorating faster than I could lower my standards.

And pastor and author Kyle Idleman writes that each week he gets to sit down with newcomers to his church and listen to their stories. “Typically,” he says, “we have two separate kinds of people in that room.”

There are some who have been around the church and God for a while. They know the rules. They know what to say and how to say it. They know what words to include and what parts of their stories to leave out. They’ve learned to wear a mask.

Then there are those who are new to Christ and the church. They haven’t learned the rules. And when they tell their story they will include a family that fell apart. It’s not uncommon for their stories to begin “I’ve been sober for . . . ” and sometimes it’s been years. Sometimes it’s been days. They don’t know any better. I’ve heard ex-cons talk about their crime. I’ve heard men of every age talk about pornography and women tell about credit card debt. Parents will talk about how much they are struggling with their kids. Kids will talk about how they’ve been lying to their parents and going behind their backs. They’ll tell about eating disorders, gambling problems, suicide attempts, and drug addictions. They just don’t know any better. And I hope nobody tells them that they’re supposed to act like they’ve got it all together. You don’t often get to see people without a mask. And it’s such a beautiful thing.

(“Silicon Valley’s Secret,” Mostly Human, Episode 4, CNN; Anne Lamotte, “12 Truths I Learned from Life and Writing,” TED, April 2017; Kyle Idleman, Not a Fan: Becoming a Completely Committed Follower of Jesus, Zondervan, 2011)

[photo: “Broken Strings,” by Teunie van Hernen, used under a Creative Commons license]

To Sit, to Be Silent, to Listen

February 7, 2015 § Leave a comment

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At the beginning of 2013, Ryan Anderson, power forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, and reality-TV star Gia Allemand were living out the perfect romance. At least that’s the way it looked to those who saw their photos in magazines and on celebrity news sites.

But those who only saw the glamorous images didn’t know the true story. They didn’t know that Allemand struggled with depression. And they were shocked when, in April, she committed suicide.

Though Anderson knew about the ups and downs in Allemand’s life, he, of course was shocked, as well. And he was devastated by grief. What has helped lift him out of his grief are those who are able to offer him silence, who let him share in the silence . . . or fill it up with his own words.

[To see why a blog about cross-cultural issues is interested in the topics of grief and listening, go here.]

In a video by the non-profit To Write Love on Her Arms, Anderson tells how the day Allemand died he turned to his coach, Monty Williams, for help. Williams pulled him away from Allemand’s condo and rode with him in a car:

He didn’t say anything. He just sat there with me. And I . . . there’s nothing more he could have done. . . . He stayed up the entire night. I remember . . . I just leaned down, I leaned on his shoulder and I just cried the whole night, and he just sat there, you know, and he was just there with me.

For Anderson, an important part of the healing process has been therapy, but it took a lot of convincing to get him there. And before he became comfortable with his therapist, he thought the sessions were pointless, because he wasn’t getting “the right advice.” But then he realized that getting advice wasn’t the point of his therapy:

The most important thing is you pouring yourself out to somebody. That’s what it was about for me. It was about talking to this guy and letting everything in . . . that’s going on in my mind and in my heart and everything  out.

Looking back, he says about therapy, about talking openly to a good listener, “I can’t describe to you how valuable it was.”

To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), the organization that produced this video of Anderson’s story, makes it their work to connect those who are struggling—with depression, addiction, self-injury, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and anxiety—with the help they need.

Lauren Gloyne, intern program director and benefit coordinator for TWLOHA, writes her perspective on the group’s work on their Tumblr blog. She quotes lines from the song “Flags,” written by New Zealand singer Brooke Fraser, sharing her thoughts inspired by the words:

Come, tell me your trouble
I’m not your answer
But I’m a listening ear

Maybe it’s not about having all the answers. Maybe it’s about taking someone by the hand and sharing in their honesty. Meeting them in their pain. Lending our ears. Getting in the trenches with them and saying, “I don’t know why this is. But I’m with you. Let’s walk through this uncertainty together.

Reality has left you reeling
All facts and no feeling
No faith and all fear

. . . . . .

You who mourn will be comforted
You who hunger will hunger no more
All the last shall be first, of this I am sure

You who weep now will laugh again
All you lonely, be lonely no more
Yes, the last will be first, of this I am sure

[photo: “A Drop of Silence,” by Thanh Mai Bui Duy, used under a Creative Commons license]

“Letters Never Sent” but, Thankfully, Published Instead

February 12, 2013 § 6 Comments

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken125933835_e355fbcad2_m first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

Following her experiences as a Third Culture Kid, born to missionary parents in Nigeria, and later as a missionary to Africa herself, Van Reken wrote a series of “letters,” to her mother and father, and to God, expressing feelings that earlier she wasn’t able to fully share.

While it would be easy to assume that the details of Van Reken’s story are dated—the book begins with her trip to boarding school in 1951—her expressions of honest emotions cut through the years and show the wonderings and pleadings of a heart that beats in many missionaries and their children today. But it is a heart that is all too often hidden and quieted.

One of the feelings voiced by the young Ruth Ellen is guilt . . . guilt that her inner thoughts are a betrayal of her parents’ calling. During her high-school years, she and her sister stayed in the States, while their parents returned to their work in Nigeria. As her mother and father’s departure nears, Ruth Ellen fights with her emotions, writing in a “never sent” letter:

If I throw myself into your arms and sob my heart out, it might keep you from going. And even though that’s what I want, how could I ever bear the guilt of being the one who kept you from doing God’s work? I’ve always vowed I wouldn’t be one of “those kids,” the kind that other missionaries talk about in whispers, with a sad shake of their heads. “So-and-so couldn’t come back to the field because of their children.” They must be pretty bad kids, I’ve always figured. I don’t want anyone to say that about me or our family.

And I can’t very well come to God with this because, in a way I feel like it’s all His fault.

Years later, as Ruth Ellen ponders her approaching wedding to David Van Reken, she expresses a distrust of God, developed from many years of having, as a TCK, to let go of what is dear to her:

I can’t believe God will let me keep David. It’s like He’s dangling Dave on a rope, letting him come closer and closer. I’m afraid that at the last moment, when I put out my hand to take him, the string will be jerked back and God will laugh.

“Ha ha. Thought you finally had someone you could keep. Don’t count on it. Whatever you depend on, I will surely take that, so that you’ll depend solely on Me.”

Ruth does get to keep David, and the two are soon joined by a baby daughter. But depression comes to Ruth, seeming to be at odds with the spirituality that she longs to possess. “How many hundreds of testimonies have I heard about the joy that Jesus gives?” she writes. “He surely isn’t giving it to me right now—or maybe I just don’t know how to receive it.”

Her depression becomes deep enough that she thinks about suicide:

I’ve actually wondered what it would be like to take pills and never wake up. But in my heart I know that wouldn’t solve anything. I have a child I’m responsible for, and I want to see her grow up. And I want to live, if I can be the person that I’ve always thought I had the potential to be. But right now that seems like a hopeless dream.

Then, using words that are reminiscent of those penned by the Psalmist in Psalm 13, she writes,

The thread I’m hanging on to is an intellectual belief that God still has a purpose for my life. I can’t imagine how He can ever put all the pieces back together and make me whole, but it’s my only hope. I told Him today that He could forget helping me to do better—there’s nothing left of me to help. If He doesn’t do something new, I’m finished.

But there is hope. There is help for her to do better. And it comes in the form of a new friend, Linda, who opens a path for Ruth by sharing her own personal struggles in a Sunday school class. This is something that Ruth hasn’t experienced before, and it gives her courage. This leads to many conversations with Linda, in which Ruth shares her pain, and Linda listens without judgment.

Within a few years, the Van Rekens are preparing for their own missionary work in Africa, and Ruth continues to learn how to function without hiding behind masks. Sometimes the masks come off gently, as with Linda, but at other times, they are pulled off forcefully, as when a pastor shares from the pulpit about some of her struggles. But to her amazement, she writes, when “[t]he awful, naked ugliness of my soul was exposed, . . . I was still accepted!”

Healing also comes through forgiveness: forgiving her parents for her many separations from them and forgiving “all those who locked me up with pat answers or quick words of encouragement, when what I needed was understanding and a hug.” Following the death of her uncle, Ruth gets a different kind of response from Jesus: “He held me and understood. He acknowledge my pain. He didn’t try to talk me out of my hurt. . . . I’m learning about God as the Comforter and binder of broken hearts.”

But in letters dated less than two years later, as she and David are serving in Liberia, Ruth writes that the depression has returned. She tells God, barring a change in the next month, to let her die. In her conversations with God that follow, she learns that she has not addressed all of the anger that is leading to her depressed feelings. She still needs to “forgive” God.

“Why don’t you leave me alone?” she hears herself say. “Ever since I came to Liberia to serve you, You’ve done nothing but bad things to me. I’m sick and tired of it.” And she hears God say to her that he isn’t at all shocked by her anger. He can handle it. “You can love someone and still be angry at him,” God tells her. Acknowledging this anger is an important step for Ruth, a step that leads to more healing.

One of the final letters penned by Ruth is dated 1984. That’s 24 years after Ruth Ellen had voiced her struggle with guilt because she wasn’t the perfect missionary child. In it, she says, after reading through all of her previous letters, that there still was one more person to forgive:

I can forgive the little girl I was, for not being all she thought she was supposed to be. The greatest joy has been to understand for the first time in my life that God is the “God of all Comfort.” I could not understand that until I recognized how much I needed His comfort.

Ruth’s story is one of faith and anger and hope and fear and sadness and peace, all flowing one into another. It is a story beautifully and sincerely told. It is a story that can speak to generations of TCKs and cross-cultural workers and to those who want to understand them. And it’s a story that continues. Last year, Van Reken published a newly revised edition of Letters Never Sent, containing 30 additional pages, with photos and an epilogue addressing her later life, including a bout with cancer.

It’s been 25 years since Ruth E. Van Reken first published Letters Never Sent, but I hope it doesn’t ever become a book rarely read.

The above quotations are taken from the 1988 edition of Letters Never Sent. The book was first printed in the US in 1987 under the title Letters I Never Wrote.

[photo: “unreachable,” by Daniel Zimmel, used under a Creative Commons license]

Henri Nouwen’s “Inner Voice of Love”: Finding the Path Home

November 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’m a fan of the writings of Henri Nouwen. Before his death in 1996, the Holland-born author and theologian served as a Catholic priest; taught at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, and at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard; worked with Trappist monks in New York’s Abbey of the Genesee; lived with the poor in Peru; and became pastor at a L’Arche community for the mentally disabled in Canada. Along the way, he wrote over 40 books.

One of the hallmarks of Nouwen’s works is his honest sharing of his personal struggles. This is probably nowhere more apparent than in his Inner Voice of Love, originally a series of “secret journal” entries written during a period of deep depression. In the introduction to the book, Nouwen writes that it was only at the urging of friends that he decided to have The Inner Voice of Love published.

In the book’s pages, Nouwen touches on themes that strike chords with many cross-cultural children and adults, global nomads, and others who are physical or spiritual “strangers in a strange land”—with those who are looking for a community and home to call their own. In fact, it was shortly after he joined the community of L’Arche, what he called his “true home,” that Nouwen was faced with his depression. “Just when I had found a home,” he writes, “I felt absolutely homeless. . . . It was if the house I had finally found had no floors.”

Over the course of the next six months, Nouwen moved from agony “to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity.” Following are some of the “spiritual imperatives” that Nouwen wrote to himself during this journey, as he sought the path home:

Coming Home and Trusting Your Heart

Sometimes people who do not know your heart will altogether miss the importance of something that is part of your deepest self, precious in your eyes as well as God’s. They might not know you well enough to be able to respond to your genuine needs. It is then that you have to speak your heart and follow your own deepest calling.

There is a part of you that too easily gives in to others’ influence. As soon as someone questions your motives, you start doubting yourself. You end up agreeing with the other before you have consulted your own heart. Thus you grow passive and simply assume that the other knows better.

Here you have to be very attentive to your inner self. “Coming home” and “being given back to yourself” are expressions that indicate that you have a solid inner base from which you can speak and act—without apologies—humbly but convincingly.

Sharing Your Pain as a Fellow Traveler

You wonder whether it is good to share your struggles with others, especially with those to whom you are called to minister. you find it hard not to mention your own pains and sorrows to those you are trying to help. You feel that what belongs to the core of your humanity should not be hidden. You want to be a fellow traveler, not a distant guide.

The main question is “Do you own your pain?” As long as you do not own your pain—that is, integrate your pain into your way of being in the world—the danger exists that you will use the other to seek healing for yourself. . . .

But when you fully own your pain and do not expect those to whom you minister to alleviate it, you can speak about true freedom. Then sharing your struggle can become a service; then your openness about yourself can offer courage and hope to others.

For you to be able to share your struggle as a service, it is also essential to have people to whom you can go with your own needs. You will always need safe people to whom you can pour out your heart.

You Are Welcome Here

Not being welcome is your greatest fear. . . . It is the deepseated fear that it would have been better if you had not lived.

Everything Jesus is saying to you can be summarized in the words “Know that you are welcome.” Jesus offers you his own most intimate life with the Father. He wants you to know all he knows and to do all he does. He wants his home to be yours. Yes, he wants to prepare a place for you in his Father’s house.

Keep reminding yourself that your feelings of being unwelcome do not come from God and do not tell the truth. The Prince of Darkness wants you to believe that your life is a mistake and that there is no home for you. But every time you allow these thoughts to affect you, you set out on the road to self-destruction. So you have to keep unmasking the lie and think, speak, and act according to the truth that you are very, very welcome.

(Henri Nouwen, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey through Anguish to Freedom, New York: Doubleday, 1996)

[photo: “To die by your side,” by Hugo Marcelo Mendez Campos, used under a Creative Commons license]

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