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religion

Guest Posts, Mental Health

Nevertheless She…

January 15, 2020

By Shirley O’Shea

In 2016, my nervous system fell apart, like a blue supernova of gases collapsing in on itself. After a hot, sleepless night in July I knew it was time to go to the hospital. At the age of 49, I knew when the hospital was the only place I could be sick and not have to keep trying to be healthy for the sake of my family or employer or anyone else, and at this point, anyway, such efforts would have been impossible. On the morning of July 2, I sat at the kitchen table trying to calmly sip tea and hold my husband’s hand while I waited for my psychiatrist’s call to let me know if a bed was available. I smiled at my husband; I told him I would be in the hospital for only a few days. More than three years later, I am still working on my recovery.

I work hard at recovery. I exercise whenever I can muster the mental energy to leave the apartment and elevate my heart rate at the gym, go on a hike or roll out my yoga mat. I have a strong spiritual practice. I remind myself to be grateful for the good and precious things in my life – my husband and son, the natural beauty of the upstate New York region in which I live, my faith. But sadness dogs me. I never feel that I am anywhere near good enough for….what? What?

Recovery for me means being at peace with myself, being able to abandon my inner critic as I would a toxic “friend.” Why is this so monumentally difficult for me to do? Why is peace so elusive for me? Naturally, the roots of my lack of self-acceptance run deep. It is a hell of a journey to claw one’s way out of hell.

July is my month to break. The first time I experienced a major depressive episode with severe anxiety was in 1984. I was 17 years old. I had worked harder at my studies than I ever had, because I wanted to be accepted into a prestigious university. But I woke up one morning and, instead of thinking about what I could do that day to get into Harvard or some such institution, I felt lost, oppressed by guilty ruminations and sad about everything. For a few days I was sleepless and unable to eat. I told my mother about my feelings of guilt and shame and she listened, but did nothing. Her own father had just died from liver cirrhosis caused by a lifetime of self-medicating with beer, and my father’s sister was in the late stages of alcoholism, having survived a suicide attempt in the spring; she would not survive the attempt she would make in October of that year. Therefore, my parents were completely unavailable to help me as I struggled to survive my own illness.

There were one or two moments when I opened the hall closet where my father kept bottles of whiskey for when his father came to visit. While my parents slept, I contemplated drinking as much from those bottles as necessary to send me to heaven. But I was too afraid to try.

The one thing my parents did to try to help me was to request a visit from our family’s fundamentalist pastor and his wife. They brought a carton of ice cream and as I sat next to Pastor John’s wife, I told her about taboo thoughts I was in agony about having and about which I cringe now. The woman smiled bravely – this was clearly unknown territory to her – and told me there was a Christian psychologist I should see. My parents didn’t take me. They didn’t have health insurance, and most likely a conservative Christian psychologist would have done more harm than good.

I am convinced that religious fundamentalism is not just a social evil – it destroys the psyches of emotional individuals who are predisposed to self-examination and who care about being good people. As a teenager I had beseeched my parents to attend a mainline Protestant church, but for reasons never made clear to me, they resisted. The black and white theology they imbibed at our church suited them in many ways, and it did not occur to them that it was harming me.

Two things helped me to recover from that severe episode – time and literature, specifically, Kafka, whose “The Metamorphosis” convinced me I was not the only person who was mad around here, and even made me think that, possibly, the madness was around me, not in me. Also, during my first year in college, I discovered the religious poetry of George Herbert, whose gentle verses on the love of God showed me there was a different way of being Christian – something I had already intuited. George Herbert was a priest in the Church of England, and at the promptings of a seminarian I met while in college, I became an Episcopalian – a much more humane expression of the Christian faith, and a major step in my journey to becoming a Christian humanist.

But even sound theology cannot completely rearrange bad neurochemistry, the legacy of fundamentalism, a stern upbringing and a family history of mental illness. During my junior year of college, I became absolutely driven to earn straight A’s. I pulled it off, but that summer I became seriously ill again, plagued by the obsessive guilty thoughts and frightening thoughts that I might harm others. I had an exceptionally needy boyfriend who was devastated to discover that I was weak and flawed. He drove me past a state psychiatric hospital and said to me, “That’s where they put the crazies.” In the middle of the night, I took a pair of cuticle scissors and lightly drew them across my wrists, thinking what a feeling of relief I would have if all the hot and tormented blood in my veins drained out of me. But an internal voice told me, “It’s not worth it.”

A few days later I admitted myself to the psychiatric unit at my local hospital. I was diagnosed with OCD and secondary depression. Again, even with medication and psychotherapy, it took a year for me to recover, which was really just a return to baseline. I hadn’t really learned anything from my experience.

When I was 28, I worked as a paralegal at a law firm that was infamous for the mistreatment of its employees. I gave the job all my energy and dedication – I wanted to be the perfect paralegal. My second summer there I broke down again, went into the hospital and came out with a new diagnosis: major depression with obsessive and psychotic features. This time, I had a boyfriend who accepted my illness in stride, as part and parcel of someone who had ambitions of writing – the divine madness of the artist, that sort of thing. This sweet, accepting and gentle man became my husband.

Although I recovered from the worst of my symptoms – guilty ruminations, distressing OCD thoughts, sleep disruption and lack of appetite – I did not change the substrate of my mind, which was perfectionism. Perfectionism is a demon that condemns those who live with it to self-loathing and fear. Whether my illness causes my perfectionism or vice versa, I do not know and may never know. But I believe if I do overcome perfectionism, I will have achieved something greater than writing “Hamlet” or “Paradise Lost.”

I believe the genesis of my 2016 breakdown was my belief that I must be a perfect mother. Although I grew up wanting to have a career and motherhood, my illness made having a career very difficult. But I believed I could handle motherhood. It’s all about instinct, isn’t it? How hard can it be to love?

A strange and wonderful thing happened early in my pregnancy. I remember the moment distinctly. I was driving home from my part-time job at a small-town newspaper, and I realized that I could reject all the negative messages I had received from fundamentalist Christianity, or any faith, from my family – I felt profound liberation and joy. As I scanned the countryside all around me while I drove and thought these wonderful thoughts, I felt two new lives within me. Pregnancy hormones were the best anti-depressant I’ve ever had. The problem was, the moment I pushed my son out of me, the hormones immediately returned to pre-pregnancy levels and I returned to my baseline depressive thinking.

Loving a child, for me, is not a problem. But motherhood, the daily striving to meet the needs of a child, is more stressful than any tyrannical boss. And when it became apparent that my beautiful, exquisitely sensitive son suffered from anxiety and began to struggle in school, I became consumed with fear and guilt. I had failed at my most important calling yet. None of my husband’s or mother’s reassurances that I was doing my best, and all that was possible, put my fears to rest. This time, I was not failing my ego, or an employer, or a church. I was failing my flesh and blood. Psychically, I began to die.

Despite numerous drug trials and electro-convulsive therapy, my depression worsened. But I noticed that my depressions were sometimes, briefly, interrupted by times of elation and euphoria. I suspected I had bipolar type II disorder. I was diagnosed as such in 2012, but none of the medications prescribed for me worked. And then, in 2016, my mind disintegrated. I was practically unable to walk or speak. I lost 20 pounds in two weeks. I was gripped by fear that I would not be able to raise my son. Each time I walked past the cupboard where my battalion of medication bottles was kept, I thought surely now was the time to swallow them all and be done with it. But then, who would love my son? I believe the grace of God helped me to believe my life was worth sparing.

It is taking me longer to heal this time around. But now I have realized that the perfectionism I internalized and to which I am genetically predisposed, most likely due to an anxiety disorder, is my greatest enemy. Maintaining my spiritual practice, spending time in natural places and on my yoga mat are, for me, coming home. Yoga places great importance of awareness of the breath, and as a Christian, I believe I am made of stardust and the breath of God. And now, God’s oxygen is the substrate of my brain, rather than perfectionism – at least, some of the time. So I need to remind myself of this every day. It is okay to love myself as I am, just as I love my son as he is. The important thing for me is to keep going. For the sake of all the beings I love, I will.

Shirley O’Shea is a freelance writer and literacy volunteer who lives with her husband, Geoff, a psychology professor, and her tween son, Jeremy, in Oneonta, NY. Shirley grew up in the hinterlands northern New Jersey and graduated from Upsala College. She has worked as a paralegal and a first-grade teacher and newspaper reporter. She has had essays on mental health and experiencing the sacred in nature published

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Guest Posts, spirituality

Darkened Churches

May 18, 2019
church

By Terry Barr

David Joy writes realistically violent novels, mainly set in the Appalachian region of western North Carolina. One of the bloodier moments in his second novel, The Weight of This World, concerns a returned Afghani War vet who exacts revenge on a man who has skewered the vet’s dog. The vet forces this killer on an extended last trek through the mountains.

And on that death march, the vet uses a tactic he learned from his wartime enemy: before the march begins, he takes a sharp knife and carves off the soles of the killer’s feet. It makes the walking excruciating, but still possible.

A character who enacts this sort of violent revenge has to be single-minded and obsessed by red-hot passion, right? We can’t like him or appreciate the rest of him, can we? Well, not exactly true. We have to take him as wholly as we can; we have to be willing to see what he sees and consider the meanings of his past, triggered by his observations. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Trauma

MY GHOST BODY’S THOUGHTS

November 29, 2018
ghost

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault and eating disorders

By Cyndie Randall

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.”
– Fred Rogers

“Survivors feel unsafe in their bodies. Their emotions and their thinking feel out of control.”
– Judith Lewis Herman

The carpet was bitter this morning. It jammed itself between my toes – the first resistance – and burned the skin on my knees like tiny pin pricks.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I never say “Amen” without remembering the empty, sweaty hands I’ve held in countless circles of healing.

Several complex galaxies were pushing on my back by the time I stood up, each so heavy that I went looking for my daughter and apologized to her immediately.

“Why are you sorry, mama?”

My body told me I’d be crawling back into bed after tea, so I answered her by giving an advance on the second apology.

The third one came a few hours later – “Oh my! Sorry!” The clock read 1:30 p.m. and I was still wearing a tattered nightgown when her friend bounced up the driveway and to our door. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Holidays

Nun Gimmel Heh Shin

December 22, 2017
hanukkah

By Magin LaSov Gregg

The LeVees

In our sodden delta parish, December means sweater weather, fleece parkas, fairy lights twinkling along the bayou. At night Carl and I sip monk beer on our back patio while a cat curls up at our feet. We sit beside azalea bushes, in the shadow of oleanders, and watch the pale moon glow. Autumn leaves don’t change colors here. They dry out, become brittle and papery, then fade from green to brown by Hanukkah.

This year I’m observing my second Hanukkah in Louisiana, and I’ve done the thing I never expected to do. I said yes when Carl asked me to marry him. At this time in our lives, he’s a Baptist minister, and he serves a small congregation known as the “gay church” in town. He’s the only minister between Jackson, Mississippi and Shreveport who will officiate at same sex weddings. Recently, I fretted when he stood in a gazebo across from the court house and blessed the union of two women while cars whizzed along a busy road –– this is 2006, nine years before Obergefell v. Hodges. Our parish carried David Duke during his bid for U.S. Senate. And a few years before I moved to town, someone left a burning tire on the front yard of one of Carl’s colleagues, who’d spoken out against Christian prayers being broadcast on the intercom system of a local high school. I tell few people I’m Jewish, and we keep our address unlisted. Yet Jews view me with suspicion too. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Sexuality

Jesus Loves You!

September 17, 2017
jesus

By Michelle Cruz Hine 

Jesus loves YOU! She repeated. There I was, in the bathroom with no way out. I know, I said. All I could think of was the exit door. Afterwards, even the word afterwards, like that happening, the violation of someone spewing their uncomfortableness with you. Her thoughts echoed through my head:  She just needs Jesus. Jesus will save her. I wish I had thought of something else to say; I am Buddhist, or I’m Jewish, or something like – the truth…

I wish we could play this whole scene over again, one in which I am not just saying yes to escape. One in which I am calm, cool, and collected. I would’ve looked right at her sweet brown concerned eyes and said, is it because I am a lesbian that you feel the need to ask me about your Jesus? That was what it was. That was the unspoken truth in that bathroom, coming out of her mouth, and hiding beneath Jesus. Why is it always Jesus?

To be fair, her intentions were not to hurt me. She really does want me to find her god, and then I will be okay. This is not okay. I’m tired of people hiding their prejudices and homophobias behind their religion. What she really wants to say to me, and is saying to me, through her scapegoat is: What is wrong with you? What is wrong with you? Don’t you know there is another life out there for you; one where you can be loved by god, accept his love and you will be normal. What is wrong with you? You are living in sin and this is not right. You are not right. You are not right. Can’t you see Jesus Died for you, he loves you.

There are always homophobic micro aggression behaviors surrounding me, ALWAYS. But sometimes little things just come at your mind a bit more and stay with you. Literally, the night before I ended up in the bathroom with this lady, I saw a gay couple in an Ikea advertisement. My wife and I had gone over to my mom’s house. I picked up her O magazine, opened it, and there it was. Instantly, I felt joy. A smile ran across my face. I was so happy. I shouted, look – there are two men in this advertisement! And they are an interracial couple! (My wife and I are an interracial couple, I am white and she is Latina) I had never seen a gay couple in a magazine advertisement before. I started to think how great it would be to see at least one gay advertisement in every magazine. I am slowly noticing more changes in advertisements, but for the most part, it seems pretty stagnant.

When marriage equality was happening you would hear the far left, in the gay community and outside of it, saying, we don’t want marriage, marriage does nothing for us, down with the marriage institution, forgetting the benefits and protections that come from being legally married.  You could hear some tones of, they are just trying to normalize being gay, or making it a trend. Are you kidding me? These words still ring through my blood. Do you have any idea how great it would be to be normal, to not hear that Jesus will save me as an adult. This is the problem. The LGBTQI community will never be normal. We just won’t. I would love it if we were! There would be no more slurs of that’s so gay, or worse = name calling, bullying, and murder. Suicide rates would go down, and homelessness within our community, especially among the youth, would be almost nonexistent.

My marriage does not save me from anything, but it does allow me certain safeguards, and it does let kids and teenagers know that they can dream about their wedding, if that is what they want, they can have kids, that one day their life will get better. That they are not perverts, that they are loved, that they are normal.

I wish I could go back into that bathroom and respond to her let’s have a private conversational question with a pre written note-

Dear Anonymous,

If you are concerned about my wellbeing and my love for Jesus, then I will please have to ask to you to keep those thoughts to yourself. My religious views are not the same as yours and need to be respected the way that I respect yours. If there comes a time when you would like to be honest with yourself about your real problem with me, then perhaps we could discuss that, or not, depending on how I feel.

Sincerely,
Your Lesbian Colleague who loves herself.

Michelle Cruz Hine is a comical full time lesbian, who lives with her wife, two cats, and a small 5lb. Chihuahua named Bootz Noche. She is also an ESL teacher, teaching grades 5th through high school, and dabbles in adult education. In her spare time, Michelle enjoys writing personal essays, journaling, and volunteering with LGBTQ youth.

 

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Guest Posts, parenting

Purple Ball Day

June 16, 2017
purple

By Maureen Langloss

One April several years ago, the grocery store near my daughter’s school displayed a bouquet of plastic balls in all shapes and sizes. Spring in round, inflatable form. A particular purple ball caught my eye as I passed to pick Ainsley up from kindergarten. Purple was Ainsley’s favorite color, her only color. The ball registered that first day. Enormous and impractical and unstore-able. I desired it the second. By the third, I was imagining it in my daughter’s tiny, growing hands. On the fourth, I couldn’t sleep with worry that this ball would be gone before I got to it, purchased by someone who wanted it more. But there it was still in the store window the next afternoon, practically glowing. Screaming “AAAHHHHHHHHH.”

I zipped the ball into a giant canvas bag, much like a magician hides the egg in his mouth. Ainsley filled to the brim with curiosity when she saw me carrying it. I opened the bag slowly, with great ceremony, as she peered inside.

“It’s Purple Ball Day!” I announced.

“Purple Ball Day!” she shrieked, like she already knew what that meant. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, religion, Vulnerability

What I Learned From My Muslim Neighbors

January 29, 2017
religion

By Jessica Yaeger

Recently, I went to the “Get to know your neighbors” event at my local Islamic Center. My dual goals were to learn more about a religion I knew very little about, and to show support to our local Muslims who I imagined were not feeling particularly supported by the words of our newly elected President.

On the way there, I was anxious about how it would go. How many people would be there? I had tried to dress appropriately to be respectful, but had I succeeded? Why can’t I think of any intelligent-sounding questions to ask if I am put on the spot or in a face to face conversation? Will this be safe or will there be violence there from.. someone? Good grief, I know literally not a single other person attending, what I am thinking?!

Once I arrived, I saw I was one of hundreds of folks who attended the event, young and old, men and women, many different faiths and races. The brief introduction to the Islam faith was not only incredibly educational, it also was entertaining. When I had imagined visiting for the evening prayers, I had not visualized I’d be laughing so much! Our tour guide (there was one for the ladies and another one for the men) was funny, but also gracious and knowledgeable, and assured us that no question was stupid or off limits. As a result, our group of women, who were Muslim, Jewish, Christian, atheist and more, had an incredible dialogue that touched on scripture, God, prophets, head coverings, woman’s rights, and even terrorism. It was only 30 minutes of my life, but those 30 minutes changed me. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, religion

Wooden Bird

January 6, 2017
mountain

By Nancy Townsley

The father bends over the son, just as he did so many years ago when the boy was asleep and he murmured prayers for him, tenderly pushing his sand-colored bangs aside while asking the deity he used to believe in to make the child good and wise and kind. He would watch the comforting rise and fall of his boy’s chest and listen to his shallow breathing on those late nights, after he had finished reading and writing in his knickknack-crowded study, something he could do even with the TV blaring. Wedged between the philosophy and poetry sections on his bookshelves sat a faded Pinocchio puppet with two broken strings, the Yoda beanbag that used to make his daughter laugh, and a ball made entirely of rubber bands, all remnants from when his life was more Presbyterian, “decent and in order” as the church liked to teach, crowded with tasks and responsibilities that required him to keep a calendar with to-do lists scribbled into it, lest he lose his way.

In one corner of the room, next to the door, a wooden hummingbird with its wings spread wide hung suspended from the ceiling in a vain attempt to fly.

+

But this day, and this hour, are radically, horribly different. The son is cold, mostly frozen, like meat just taken from the freezer. His eyes are shut, ice still clinging to their dark lashes. His angular face is contorted and bruised black-and-blue. His fingers are curled, as if they’re grabbing at something, and stiff to the touch. There is a large patch of dried blood on the side of his head, the result of untold trauma. He is still, lifeless. The boy, now a man, is dead. Continue Reading…

courage, Guest Posts, Intimacy, Marriage, religion

The Vigil

November 2, 2015

By Julia Park Tracey

Nobody likes a scarlet woman. That’s what they call you when you have an affair with a priest. That’s what he calls me sometimes, joking, “Maybe we should stone you.” Sometimes, affectionately, he calls me, “The Woman at the Well,” for the Biblical story of the woman who was living with a man who was not her husband. Once we began our congress, he read his canon law book, citing where he had entered into a state of concubinage and was therefore in breach of his promise of celibacy. As his concubine, I am his accomplice in sin, and thus, upon our attempted marriage, we become excommunicated – not by any pronouncement with trumpets or fanfare, but automatically, without hesitation, like the toast that comes with your Denny’s breakfast.

He doesn’t hold it against me, much, how I took him from the priesthood, until later, when he realizes what he has given up. We rather celebrate it, something kindred to Romeo and Juliet, how our love transcends the laws of man – but surely not God. Why would God bring us together, if He hadn’t meant it to be thus? After some deliberation, a year or two of dalliance, the priest decides he cannot continue living a lie. He has spent almost every night in my bed, creeping toward the rectory at midnight, then at two, then four, then six a.m. as the months pass. He begins to get sloppy. I visit him in his quarters,  the parish rectory, which we have dubbed The Erectory. The other priests cannot help but see and notice that he is never there. But there is a brotherhood, a Code, and no one tells. There are whispers, but no cataclysm so far.

One night we drink too much, flail among the bedsheets, and I fall asleep in his arms. When the sun begins to seep across the room, I startle awake and pull on my crumpled dress and heels, eschewing my stockings and jewelry. It is a pretty picture of a woman who has been well tossed and tousled, make no mistake. As I reach for the doorknob to tiptoe out, I spy a note on the floor, pushed underneath the door.

There was a fire last night. No one was hurt. Just thought you should know.

It is signed by the pastor. Continue Reading…

Binders, feminism, Guest Posts, Truth

A Pocket Field Guide to Being Patriotic in a Newly Military Family

April 23, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Kathryn Roberts

When a sibling joins the military, adopt the flag. Accept it all blindly, a patriot at heart unwilling not to support the mission. Ignore your doubts.

Slap him on his back, the child you sang bedtime songs to, now a soldier fighting for your country. Do this even when you despise the politics that drove your country into war under false pretenses. Do this even when he demonstrates no understanding of the current conflict or the region whose language he intends to learn.

Wear the ribbon. Believe the rhetoric.

Because, if you cannot support your brother–who in the anonymity of the Army is now your country–who can you support?

****

When you go to his swearing-in ceremony, keep your mouth shut when the recruitment officer who signed away six years of your brother’s life informs him he must attend church every Sunday during boot camp to avoid punishment. Hold it tightly closed when he tells him that foregoing the service would mean his commanding officer would not receive the two hours off and would find chores punishing enough that he will be so eager to worship a god that he never misses a service again.

Stifle the part of you that asks if there is more than one service. If there are choices for the soldiers who’ve signed up — many of them video game addicts who associate war with pixels that regenerate in a different spot after each kill so they get another chance to come out on top.

Do not ask if they can choose between an evangelical Christian sermon (like the ones your parents drilled into you) or a Jewish Sabbath the night before or an Islamic service. Or even a non-punishment producing Atheist option.

Silence yourself in the name of duty because suggesting that coerced religion in the armed services is tantamount to forced religion in the country will call into question your brother’s honor. Your country may disown you. Your parents will disdain you, even as the sibling who traveled across country for the ceremony. Continue Reading…

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