Although I have been a mental health professional for 28 years, I learned most about my own stigma through having lived experience with mental illness. This was 12 years ago … when I developed severe major depression.

My family had moved to Southern California from the Seattle area only 9 months before, when my husband accepted a new pastoral call. I was 36, had two elementary age children, went through a stressful re-location, and then landed the worst job of my life after arriving in California.

I had always been a goal-focused person: able to take on challenges and, in most instances, succeed.  But it seemed there were too many challenges happening all at once. I was rapidly developing anxiety problems, losing my focus and confidence, and, worst of all, finding myself unable to sleep. Combine all this with a genetic vulnerability toward mental illness … and swiftly, it became too much for me.

Although it had rarely been discussed openly, I had long been aware of  the mental illness on my mother’s side of the family. Early in life, I developed a steely determination to avoid such a fate. One of my deepest drives was to never have problems like my mother.

My grandmother had an unnamed mental illness. Nobody talked about Grandma’s ailment, and I’m not sure they knew what it was. But my father told me one day, in a rare moment of openness, that one time Grandma was psychiatrically hospitalized. It seemed she tried to jump off the roof of the house – she thought she could fly.

When I was a child, we had to be very quiet around her because of her “nerves.” Although grandma was gentle and loving, she could not tolerate lights, noise, television, or active children.

My mother is diagnosed with bipolar disorder. While I was growing up she had to be hospitalized a number of times for what was then called “nervous breakdowns.” She was treated with Electro Convulsive Shock Therapy (ECT), and took medication that made her seem less lively, detached, and kind of dull. She hid the bottles of medication in her bedroom dresser, tucked between her nightgowns. She never let us four kids see her take it.

As an observant young girl, I got the impression this medicine was something to be ashamed of because it must be hidden from others. I also learned early on that the kind of hospital she went to was not something to tell people about. Not if you want them to like you. I sure wanted to be normal and accepted, so I learned the rules quickly.

Rules we learn from our families aren’t easily changed. So, as an adult, even though I was a therapist myself, when I began having symptoms, I felt too ashamed and overwhelmed to seek help until it was too late. I plunged into the most devastating depression imaginable. Seemingly overnight, I went from being the treatment provider to being the treated patient. I no longer knew myself. I felt like I had shattered into a million pieces.

Why take the risk to share this story publicly? Why violate the rules and beliefs that I learned as a child? Especially that mental illness is something to be ashamed of, and that it is not something nice people talk about? Why? Because I have come to believe that those are lies.

In recovering from my own depression, I learned how profoundly I was affected by stigma – both external (which came from the culture surrounding me) and internal (which came from within me).

The stigma I held – about my mother’s mental illness, and eventually my own, kept me from properly addressing my symptoms as they arose.  This was not a recipe for healing. Instead, it was the key ingredient for disaster.

When I finally got treatment, my stigma was a gargantuan wall I had to break down to fully accept treatment for my life-threatening case of depression. It’s not an exaggeration then, to suggest to you this: My stigma almost killed me.

Am I a little scared to write about this? Yes. But stories need to be told. And … I spent enough years being ashamed. All it did was contribute to me getting sick and staying sick. It compromised my humanity and robbed me of my joy. My wise mother had a good reason for giving me the middle name Joy. I intend to live up to it!

The great American writer Maya Angelou said this, “You may not control all of the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

It is critical to do everything we can to combat stigma in all its forms. It was stigma that kept my mother from ever properly managing her mental illness. It was stigma that made me wait dangerously long before seeking therapy. It was stigma that prevented me from benefitting from treatment for many long months. I consider it a miracle that I even survived those terrible days.

But, fortunately, I have not only recovered, I have pro-covered. In short, to me that means I came out of it an upgraded edition of myself – Lisa 2.0 if you will. My life is fuller, more joyful and abundant than ever. I now have a better understanding of myself – both my strengths and my vulnerabilities.  I am acutely aware of the many holistic and healthy practices that are necessary for sustained wellness. My effectiveness as a social worker has been deeply enhanced. I have even worked through most of my stigma.

Overcoming my stigma allows me to share a bit of my story. I hope it may give you some understanding and help you overcome any stigma that you have toward those living with mental illness.

10 Recovery Lessons I learned the Hard Way:

  1. The pathway to joy is gratitude.
  2. What other people think of me is none of my business.
  3. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time.
  4. It is no one’s fault.
  5. I can choose to forgive myself and others for not knowing or doing what was best in times of trouble.
  6. People recover, and often develop lives that are more purposeful and satisfying than the ones they had before their illness.
  7. Wellness requires a holistic approach – supporting all aspects of the human being.
  8. Wellness is a lifelong commitment and a daily lifestyle.
  9. Getting well and staying well isn’t possible without “grit.” (Definition of grit: “the tendency to work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failures, adversity, and plateaus in progress”).
  10. Resources, education, and support are extremely important. Here are a few I recommend:

NAMI (link)

Pacific Clinics (link)

Each Mind Matters (link)

Bring Change 2 Mind (link)

 

“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”                -Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

 

 

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Sweet Honey in the Rock

Have you ever had the splendid surprise of a long-held prayer being abruptly and abundantly answered?

This prayer was on my lips in the daytime, the nighttime, quietly and loudly, indoors and outdoors, humbly and willfully, in whispers and bellows, in faithful expectancy and dull habit. But I have kept on praying – with a stubborn willingness to speak in God’s ear like a relentless dripping faucet.

Viola! God has answered my tired plea with not merely a “yes” but with a “YES, absolutely, no problem, of course, you got it and more” kind of abundance. I am bursting with gratitude.

I reflected on this blessing as Pastor Chineta gave an amazing sermon at New Hope Presbyterian Church in Orange, California. She spoke on Mathew 5, in which Jesus affirms and warns his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? Furthermore, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.”

Pastor Chineta shared tales from her story-infused childhood, when her elders continually guided her with a dual-sided message of affirmation and warning.  Her deep loving voice and authentic smile resonated through the sanctuary. We sat motionless – riveted by her passion, as she urged us to apply these words of Christ to our lives.

She brought it home as she lifted into song the well loved lyrics of the civil rights movement, anointed with the conviction of one who has lived it …

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around,

turn me around,

turn me around.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around

I’m gonna keep on walking,

keep on talking,

 marching to freedom land.”

 (Click below to hear the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round” performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock”)

We congregants were inspired by her powerful message of hope, reconciliation, and “affirming warnings” as she put it. Pouring out of the satin-robed, gospel music infused, ‘preach on sister’ call-and-response banter and community hug-fest that was this service, my husband Steve and I felt challenged and bolstered by this largely African-American community of faith.

We milled about in the narthex, discussing our reaction with friend and church member Antoinette. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology and a demanding career providing services to reach under-privileged, 0 – 5 age children in LA County. What she said struck me as prophetic.

She described how every December, she takes stock of what the last year has meant in her life, and prays for God’s blessing on the year to come. She explained, “For several years now, it seems God gives me a vision of what the coming year will be. And I have been amazed to witness, that it comes about in exactly that way. It becomes the year’s theme for not only my life, but for so many of my loved ones and people I come into contact with. This year, God’s message was, ‘This is the year of the Lord’s favor.’ I just can’t deny that it is coming to pass.”

Antoinette has recently gotten a promotion and is positioned to make a much bigger impact in the work that she loves, to benefit impoverished little people she has never met. I was touched by her humble sincerity, and wondered, “Does this woman have a gift of prophesy? We joked and rubbed against her, hoping her blessing would be contagious. But I knew in my heart, God’s favor had already come.

I claim the divine promise voiced by Antoinette. I thought about my answered prayer, and thanked God for hearing me, and confirming his intention through Antoinette. To many, this may sound superstitious.

Does God do this? Does he give a faithful servant a message, and then deliver on it to those who have ears to hear? Could 2014 be a year of God’s favor? I choose to believe.

You may be wondering about the answered prayer. You see, my husband has been an ordained Lutheran pastor for 25 years. We came to Southern California in 2001 for him to serve a church that after nine years, had to be buried. Even though it became financially unsustainable, he continued to shepherd his flock for a year without pay. This is just before our children were headed off to college. I was scared and frankly, a bit indignant with God. What a disaster! It broke my husband’s heart and shook his confidence.

But I knew, that as sure as God had seen me through the darkest times in healing me from depression, he would sustain and deliver Steve and our family from this hardship. I clung to the promise “weeping lasts for a night, but joy comes in the morning.”

Steve subsequently went through a total career and identity change to become a leadership consultant, starting a business called TurningWest. He has showed incredible resiliency, determination, creativity, and courage to forge through this transition. The first three years have been lean and a bit scary for a security-minded person like myself. However, Steve has remained fastidious and hopeful, despite the odds in this post-recession economy. And God has slowly and steadily blessed his efforts.

But suddenly, during the last couple of weeks, the contracts have been rolling in at an astounding rate. His home office is lit afire with phone calls and emails from the many people he has reached out to in boldness. Now, and for the foreseeable future, he not only has enough work for himself, but for several other colleagues partnering with him – all with families, losses, needs, and dreams like ours.

This work is a win-win proposition.  Each job is producing phenomenal results for the clients – all who have largely humanitarian, justice-oriented missions. Steve will make the world a better place through the work of Turning West. I am so proud of my husband. And I am indescribably thankful to God, who has heard and answered my prayers.

I believe that for me, 2014 is “the year of the Lord’s favor.” May it also be so for you.

For these promises are ancient, and prophesied in the sacred book of Isaiah:

Isaiah 61:1-3

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
 to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, 
to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
 the oil of joy instead of mourning,
 and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.
 They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.

 

 

 

Now that I have been blogging for nearly a year, I guess I can be honest with you about one more thing: I have serious food issues. This will be no surprise to my colleagues who witness me foraging through their desktop candy dishes for late afternoon chocolate fixes. It’s probably obvious to anyone who knows me: food and body image have been core struggles of mine since puberty. My deepest fear is not flying, earthquakes, abandonment, disfigurement, death, or even damnation. My biggest fear is getting fat.

A rational person could point out, that since I am so obsessed and hyper-vigilant about my food intake and exercise output, serious weight gain seems highly unlikely. But in this one area, I admit, I am not rational.

The strange part is, I have always been pretty close to what the medical charts say is my “ideal weight.” But, paradoxically, I have usually lived far outside of my “ideal body image.” My concept of my body size is a pretty good barometer for my mood. If I feel crummy, it typically means “I feel fat.” If I feel great, you guessed it, “I feel thin.” But I am actually usually at the same weight, despite these divergent feelings and discordant self-concepts. I know it sounds completely crazy … can anyone identify with this?

I can’t stop evaluating my size, weight, and fat content. I am on a constant and vigilant search to determine whether I have gotten fatter or thinner since yesterday. And trying to account for salt intake? That takes it to an impossible level of analysis. Each angle, article of clothing, or change of lighting brings the prospect of revealing whether indeed I am fatter or thinner. This is a never-ending source of self-satisfaction or misery.

I find myself assessing the quality of any day by the number of calories I consumed (e.g. less calories = better day). And, believe me, it is usually too many. Thank goodness I am so diligent with exercise or I would be as big as a house. It is absurd, I know. It’s self-defeating, irrational, unhealthy, perhaps misogynistic, and certainly vain. But I can’t seem to stop!

My desperate goal is always this: to lose 10 pounds. That’s it. That is the source of my unhappiness. Ten fricking pounds! Why can’t I let this go?

I am hesitant to continue on this subject. It’s grueling to write about something that I don’t feel any mastery over. I find myself in a daily battle with my weight and body image – seriously, right now I can quote to you the caloric content of every morsel I have eaten today.

The topic of women and weight is so emotionally charged, so politicized, so fraught with potential for misunderstanding. Will overweight women hate me for being so self-obsessed and neurotic when I am actually NOT FAT? Will goal-oriented fitness buffs discount me as a low-self-esteem wreck? Will Birkenstock-clad make-up free therapists shake their heads in dismay? At age 48 and out of the dating pool for almost three decades, shouldn’t I be, well, over this? Perhaps the malevolent face of Madison Avenue notions of feminine beauty smiles at my distress.

I learned years ago to adopt a mindset of “What other people think of me is none of my business.” But this weight issue is more about what I think of myself, and that’s where I get stuck. It seems to me there are two choices: accept how I am, embrace it, and be happy. Or, decide to make a change, apply my best effort, and achieve it, like I would any other life goal. Why is this so hard?

The weight fixation actually gets more intense and obsessive when my stress level is up. But that is precisely when my desire to eat everything in sight ratchets up as well. It creates a ridiculous kind of push-me-pull-you sort of double-bind; my competing drives declare war on each other. Sure, it’s obviously a control issue. I’ve taken enough psychology classes to get that much. One could argue that, because so much of life seems arbitrary and uncontrollable, I zero in on some matter like weight, body size, and calorie consumption to offer an alternative method of feeling in charge of my life. Sounds like a recipe for an eating disorder. That’s not what I want for myself. There must be a better way.

I just finished reading Women, Food, and God and am attempting to apply some of the principles that author Geneen Roth suggests. She talks about how we use food to numb ourselves and to avoid experiencing our feelings.  She tells attendees at her seminars, “Compulsive eating is a way we leave ourselves when life gets hard. When we don’t want to notice what is going on. Compulsive eating is a way we distance ourselves from the way things are when they are not how we want them to be. Ending the obsession with food is all about the capacity to stay in the present moment.” She suggests that “Staying where you are with what you are feeling or seeing or sensing is the first step in ending the obsession with food.”

This is the question I keep trying to answer: Do I need to try harder, or stop trying so hard? Perhaps I just need to approach it differently. What may be most needed is an attitude of acceptance and surrender. Acceptance of who I am, what I am feeling, and how things are, NOW. Surrendering to what life has brought today. And acknowledging the choices I bring along the way. Accept what is, and embrace my capacity to make choices. Be aware of, and willing to change poor habits. Don’t numb out, don’t turn on “automatic pilot”. Really feel. Really choose. Fully experience the feelings and fully experience the food. The weight will take care of itself.

Being more gentle and flexible with myself helps with the control issues. I like the 80/20 rule. If I eat well 80% of the time, the other 20% of “not so great” eating will be okay. Disaster will not ensue. This helps rid me of an “all or nothing” mindset – which is a set up for disordered thinking and disordered eating. I also am working on living by Ms. Roth’s Eating Guidelines:

1. Eat when you are hungry.

2. Eat sitting down in a calm environment. (This does not include the car).

3. Eat without distractions. Distractions include radio, television, newspapers, books, intense or anxiety-producing  conversations or music.

4. Eat what your body wants

5. Eat until you are satisfied.

6. Eat (with the intention of being) in full view of others.

7. Eat with enjoyment, gusto and pleasure.

 

A few books on the subject of diet, health, and exercise that have provided some wisdom and guidance to me are:

Fat is a Feminist Issue (by Susie Orbach)

-Feed Your Body, Feed Your Brain (by Daniel Aman)

-Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy (by Walter Willett)

-Secrets of Skinny Chicks (by Karen Bridson)

-Eating Mindfully (by Susan Albers)

-Women, Food, and God (by Geneen Roth)

 

 

“Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness.”

-poet Galway Kinnell