Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Caring about the world when your brain's a dumpster fire: A Guide for Beginners

Actual photo of the inside of my brain
My level of anxiety has been through the roof this week.

This is super annoying, for two reasons.

One, it's our first week with all the new students moved in to the residence hall, and so I want to be meeting people and remembering names and making a good first impression and all that, and instead, my mind is imploding.

And two, other than that, I really don't have that much going on right now, and so there's no good reason for me to feel so anxious, and it's frustrating as hell to be overwhelmed with anxiety when there is nothing actually to be anxious about.

This is so real. 

There are a lot of people right now who have lots to feel anxious about. There are relief workers and trauma care providers and faith leaders who are in day five or six of responding to drastic human need in Houston and in Southeast Asia. There are folks organizing in places like Charlottesville who are trying to do good work while still having nightmares about stuff they saw earlier this month. There are LGBTQ Christians whose newsfeeds are once again filled with nonsense questioning their holiness, their belovedness, their calls.

And then there's me. I'm anxious because my brain decided to be anxious this week.

This is, like I said, annoying. It's just part of my experience of living with mental illness, and I have lots of supports in place to manage it, and you don't have to worry about me or anything, and also it sucks and that's that.

I was trying to journal out some of the unproductive stuff raging around in my head the other night, and I happened on a favorite passage in one of Paul's letters to the early church in Corinth: "To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good" (1 Cor 12:7). And I scribbled out in my journal:
What do I say to my brain when it tells me I'm a drain on the common good? What does the Spirit say to me when my brain is telling me I'm a drain on the common good?
That's a pretty good summary of what my brain does when it's in one of these anxiety spirals: tells me I'm a drain on the common good. I know it's not true. I know mental illness lies to me. But the messed up part of my brain can be pretty convincing at times.

What I would really love to be able to do is just ignore the voice of anxiety, ignore the voice of depression, ignore the voice of bipolar -- whatever the heck we want to call this stuff. But when I try to just stuff it down and move on and get back to working for the common good, that voice figures out how to infiltrate my efforts and comes back louder and stronger.

So here's a few things I'm working on this week. Maybe they'll be helpful to you. Maybe not. But I'm feeling the need to write some things down, because sometimes that's how I figure out what I think about something and how I can handle something.

Maybe this is a sort of beginner's guide for caring about the world when your brain's a dumpster fire:

1) Shitty First Draft Journaling / The Anxiety Bot

The idea of writing a Shitty First Draft came from Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird, and recently Brene Brown drew on it in her book Daring Greatly to talk about owning our personal stories. The SFD approach means journaling out the story you're telling yourself, in all its honesty and rawness and immature glory, so that you can look at it and reflect on it and come to see it for what it is. When it comes to anxiety and depression, I wonder if an SFD can play a similar role as Paul Ford's AnxietyBot program, which was a demonstration of how easily predictable and programmable the voice of anxiety actually is. So I've been writing out all the crap my brain is saying to me so I can take a look at it and say, "Wow. That's a lot of spam."

2) Radical Acceptance

This is something I learned about in Dialectical Behavior Therapy. After I wrote down a bunch of crap my brain was trying to tell me on Monday, I wrote: "This isn't how I wanted to be feeling at the start of a new school year. But I am feeling this way." Meditating on this a bit helps me to acknowledge the reality of what's going on in my brain, and keeps me from going to this place of "You shouldn't feel like this, you have no right to feel like this, you're crap for feeling like this" -- a faux ethical voice that is just anxiety reasserting itself in the guise of good. Instead, radical acceptance says: "You are feeling like this. You don't want to be, but you are. So this is where we are starting from, and it is the only place to be starting from. It is not good or bad. It just is where we are."

3) Victory Column

A trick I started back when I was in and out of the hospital in 2011, the Victory Column is a simple concept. When I'm not doing well, I assign any task I accomplish to the Victory Column. Get out of bed? Point for the Victory Column! Walk the dog? Victory Column! Send an email? Victory Column! Leave the apartment? Victory Column!

There is no Losing Column.

It's just a playful way to remind myself how many little things I do in a day, and how big those seemingly little things really are in the face of mental health challenges.

The Victory Column also helps me build some momentum. For folks struggling with anxiety and depression, there are days where just getting out of bed is a monumental challenge. If getting out of bed is a victory, and taking a shower is a victory, and walking the dog is a victory -- see how that can start to build into being able to do the next thing, and the next? It's not always like that -- and it's ok if it's not -- but sometimes, that does the trick.

4) Solidarity in the Groaning

There's a little book I refer to often called Listening to the Groans: A Spirituality for Ministry and Mission, by Trever Hudson. In it, Hudson, talks about three "groans" that occur in Romans 8 -- the groans of creation, the groans within ourselves, and the too-deep-for-words groans of the Spirit.

I really appreciate Hudson's insight here. These days, after any tragedy, whether caused by humans or nature, there's this weird internet argument that breaks out over the term "thoughts and prayers" and how that isn't enough and people should be doing something instead. Which puts me and I think probably a lot of others in sort of a weird position, because yeah, it's not "enough" to pray about something, but who thinks it is? And also, sometimes there isn't something to be "done" right away -- like, please don't rush to Houston right now to volunteer, it's unsafe and you won't help, you'll hurt, they'll need volunteers months from now, ok? I mean, if you have money, give it, but also there will be a lot of money coming in right now -- give in six months, too, ok?

But as I wrote to my students back when I worked at American University:
In one sense, no — prayer is not enough. Action is needed. But in another sense — yes, prayer is enough. For Christians, the spirituality that we express in prayer is an orientation toward and a communion with Jesus Christ. And this Jesus to whom we pray is called Emmanuel, “God with us.” This Jesus stands in solidarity with all those who are victimized and oppressed, all those who are hurting and mourning, all those who are afflicted and sorely pressed. When we read the story of the Crucifixion, we are reminded that in Christ God stands in solidarity even with those feel forsaken or abandoned by God. When we pray, we open ourselves up to the movement of the Spirit of Christ, which is always the Spirit of solidarity, of reconciliation, and of love in action. Prayer is an expression of solidarity that leads us into further action; and, conversely, our actions of solidarity and advocacy are expressions of prayer.
All of which I say just to say this: when I am feeling overwhelmed -- actually, underwhelmed might be a better metaphor for it -- by the voice of anxiety, it is very helpful for me to remind myself that taking a bit of time to listen to the groaning going on inside of me is not a distraction from the common good. My soul, too, is part of the common good -- and just as importantly, the voice telling me to ignore my hurt and shut up about it and go and do something about the state of the world isn't actually a healthy voice, and it isn't going to lead to healthy action. Solidarity with the hurt of the world can start exactly by first going deeper into one's own hurt, and finding there the wordless groans of the Spirit in solidarity with the groans of the world.

So it's not only ok, but good for the world, for me to take a little time, and breathe, and pray, and let the anxiety waves settle down some so that the water can get a bit clearer and I can see that the bottom isn't actually that far down. There's solid ground to stand on.

Prayer from Trevor Hudson's Listening to the Groans (Upper Room Books, 2007, pg. 32)

It's objectively true that there's bigger, more harmful stuff going on in the world right now than what's going on in my mind. It's just as true that the only place I have to start working toward the common good is here at home. So I will do that, faithfully, and trust that the Spirit will continue to manifest Herself for the good of all.

Onward we go, one tiny act of courage at a time.


Thank you for reading! I always hope my writing on mental health and mental illness is helpful to folks. If it's helpful to you, you might be interested in my upcoming book, Christ on the Psych Ward, which will be available for purchase soon. I'm also happy to speak to your community or organization, and you can email me with questions or comments. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Charlottesville, Supremacy, and What's In Our Eyes

"The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!" -- Jesus, in Matthew 6:22-23

"Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye." -- Jesus, in Matthew 7:3-5


I'm still not sure whether I should write something about Charlottesville.

For one thing, Leigh has already written about our experience of the day, which you can read here. She says powerfully most of what I can think to say about the day, other than the one or two times when we were in separate areas and thus have separate accounts. We were there in response to the call from Congregate Charlottesville -- their website is here, and you can read an article about their organizing here.

For another thing, I've been hesitant to write because I think my voice is about the last one that needs to be centered or amplified at this moment. White, cisgender, male, hetero, Protestant Christian -- all the markers of my identity mean that, at least on the surface, I have much more in common with the armed extremists who descended on Charlottesville last weekend than I do with the communities the marchers' chants and weapons targeted. There's a very good reason that the church where we volunteered that day took extra precautions with me, searching me before marking my hand with a green Sharpie heart: physically, there was little to distinguish me from some of the white nationalists marching that day. I could have disappeared into the crowd.

So we need to be listening to women of color right now, to trans and queer folk, to Jews and Muslims. With that in mind, here are a few voices other than mine that I'd ask you listen to first, before you listen to mine:

-- Interview w/Rev. Traci Blackmon of the UCC, Dr. Cornel West, and Dr. Jalane Schmidt, all of whom were in Charlottesville
-- Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza reflects from Charlottesville on what pastoral care looks like after this weekend's violence
-- Lisa Sharon Harper of Sojourners asks if America is willing to pick up its cross
-- The Center for Inclusivity, co-founded by my friend and colleague Alicia Crosby, shares words for people of color; people with other marginalized identities; and allies and accomplices searching for collective liberations
-- My chaplain colleague here at Georgetown, Rev. Rondesia Jarrett Schell, offers a brief and powerful reflection on her reaction to the events in Charlottesville, and calls us to be midwives for the birth of a better world

If you've done all that, and you still want to read what I've written, that's cool. But first, here's 8 suggestions for action from organizers in Charlottesville that you should check out.

[[UPDATE 8/31: Here's a National Call to Conscience from the group we went to support, Congregate Charlottesville, for you to read and sign]]

So. Here's what I've got.

Saturday, August 12
I recognize their eyes.

I don't have many details about what happened, at least not yet. A car has driven into a crowd of counter-protestors, we assume deliberately, murderously. Now, people are stumbling into the church where we are volunteering, being helped into the medic station or further along the hallway where mental health and trauma specialists are waiting, only to be quickly overwhelmed by the need.

Later, I will see the video, recognize some of the people we talked to, handed water to, gave rides to, tried in some small way to help.

But at this point, I don't know how close they were to the attack, what exactly they saw.

I don't really need to know, though.

I recognize their eyes.

I don't make the connection consciously, not in the moment. But I've seen eyes like that before. In faces covered in the dust of homes destroyed by an occupying military. Or staring blankly at the halls of the psych ward, concealing brains that, for some reason, have decided to turn against themselves.

I think I've probably had those eyes, before. Its hard to know. There's not usually a mirror on hand, and those eyes aren't much interested in checking in on themselves, anyway.

Those eyes have seen something they shouldn't have had to. Those eyes are not seeing the world as an integrated picture, but as a series of fragments, fragments with sharp edges that can cut you if you're not careful, and often even if you are.

Those eyes are what fresh trauma looks like when its reflected in our ocular system. 


"The eye is the lamp of the body," Jesus says. The way you see the world illuminates or distorts your bodily reality. The white nationals and fascists and literal Nazis who marched through the streets of Charlottesville, I have to believe, have a distorted view of reality, an angry and fearful view clouded by hatred and tinted with lenses of violence. I looked into some of their eyes on Saturday, and was terrified by what I saw. Not surprised. But terrified. I've seen those eyes before, too. The light in them is darkness.

But I'm not thinking about their eyes right now. I'm thinking about the eyes of the people who limped or jogged into the church. I'm wondering what this attack does to their vision of the world. I'm wondering how we care, not just for people's bodies, but for the lamps of their bodies, and for the souls those lamps seek to illuminate.

How do we care for people who have looked through the fragments of a reality that seems whole, have seen beyond it, to something terrifying, and broken, and hurtful.

There are communities, whole communities, whole generations of communities, who have been staring through those violent fragments for a long, long, time. Look close enough, and their eyes tell the story. Their bodies tell the story. Their bodies reflect the reality they have seen through the shards.

Saturday, August 12

Leigh and I are driving a chaplain to UVA Hospital to care for people being brought in with physical injuries and psychic trauma. On one corner, a group of white nationalists have gathered. Many have their shirts off so that we can see their swastika tattoos. They are armed with guns and clubs. They are chanting, "White Power! White Power! White Power!"

We are at a stop sign, and I cannot avoid making eye contact with them. In a moment of complete surreality, one of them stares at us, then turns to the street, looks both ways, and waves us out into the intersection, as if to say, "It's safe. Go ahead."

It is not safe to be here, not even close to safe, but of course we are white, and our skin disguises our reason for being there. We drive past the group as they continue waving their flags -- Nazi flags and Confederate flags and American flags, all together. I cannot avert my eyes.


I've been thinking a lot this week about eyes. About those eyes. And about specks and logs in eyes. To be clear, I don't think white nationalism is a "speck" -- it's a hell of a lot more serious than that. We saw a lot of swastikas and a lot of guns and heard a lot of chants of "White Power" on Saturday, and we weren't even in the thick of things. If that's a speck, it's a doozy of a goddamned speck. I use the profanity advisedly and not, I think, in vain.

But it's easy for me to condemn white nationalism. Not easy for people to put their bodies on the line to resist them, but easy to condemn with my keyboard, here in the nice air conditioned student center next to my apartment at Georgetown. Easy to say, "Nazis are bad."

Harder to look at the white supremacist log in my own eye. Harder to see the ways I benefit from systems that advantage folks with my skin color, or with my gender identity, or with my religious beliefs, over other folks. Harder to look in the face unflinchingly at the way this country was built for me and people like me, on the backs and over the spilled blood of black people and brown people. 

I shared this on Facebook already, but I'll share it again here: one role I have at Georgetown is facilitating bystander intervention trainings. During those trainings we do an activity where students collectively arrange different types of behaviors on a spectrum, from "Low Visibility (i.e. tends not to make the news)/High Occurrence" to "High Visibility/Low Occurrence." The activity gets us thinking and talking about the ways that behaviors that are easy to ignore can create the context for more overt interpersonal violence. Positive bystander intervention means not only waiting until the more overt, high visibility end of the spectrum to intervene, but thinking critically about what intervention looks like at the low visibility end of the spectrum.

This graphic communicates a similar idea re: white supremacy. It's not perfect -- I don't know that "socially acceptable/unacceptable" is exactly the right language, especially since there are plenty of social contexts where, for example, racial slurs are considered socially acceptable. (One of the benefits of the spectrum activity is that students discuss why they put different activities on different parts of the spectrum, which can be very illuminating for the whole group.) But it communicates an important idea that is worthy of your consideration. In Charlottesville, we saw overt, (literally) unmasked white supremacy's dangerous, violent face. But we all participate, albeit often unknowingly, in allowing the less overt contexts -- the silent majority -- that lets the overt stuff continue.

All of which is to say: there are things we white people can do, actions we can take, to remove this white supremacist log from our eye, or at least to whittle it down, piece by piece, speck by speck.

So by all means, let us begin. It's far past time we see clearly.

Saturday, August 12

We are driving home. A few minutes ago, we gave two women, one black, one white, a ride to their car. They, too, have come from D.C. together. One of them has her knee wrapped in a thick bandage. Later, in the video footage, we would recognize her screaming, screaming, screaming. But we don't know, then.

Well, we know. But we don't know.

Perhaps we still do not.

I am driving. Leigh is in the passenger seat. She is looking out the window, but her question is directed to me.

"Where do you think Jesus would have been today?"

I keep my eyes on the road, rapidly blinking tears out of my eyes.

"I don't know," I say. "I don't know."


I still don't know, not really. Somewhere surprising, I suspect. But I do have some suspicions about where Christ was that day.

The Body of Christ was there in the clergy who sang as they held the line, against tear gas and pepper spray and clubs and hurled insults and death threats.

The Body of Christ was in the churches who opened their doors to those who needed water and medical assistance and a space that was safe, whether they were white or black or brown or Christians or Jews or Muslims or atheist anarchists who would never step into a church on a Sunday.

And the Body of Christ is in the bodies behind those eyes. I believe that with all of my being. I believe that because I've read a story in my Bible in which Jesus asks why God has abandoned him, and those eyes, whether or not the mouths beneath them are familiar with words about God, are asking that same traumatized question.

It has been strange, this week, trying to put the finishing touches on my book about mental illness when my eyes and my body and my heart have wanted to be in Charlottesville. "Why am I writing about this right now?," I've muttered to myself, several times.

But I've kept writing, because the book at its core isn't about mental illness, not really. Here's a quick excerpt from the introduction:
This book emerges from my journey with mental health struggles, but, ultimately, vulnerability is what this book is about. Sharing my story is an exercise in vulnerability. Just as importantly, the images, reflections, and fragments of thoughts about God and faith and ministry that have stumbled their way out of the labyrinth of my personal story are tied together, not by a particular diagnosis, but by the theme of vulnerability. What my story reveals, if it reveals anything at all, are hints of a more vulnerable understanding of God and faith than much of what has been common in the mainstream Christian discourse of our present age. When I look at the Christian story, I see at its center a vulnerable God, a God in tension with the ways we have classically described the divine, a God far too susceptible to suffering and surprise to fit too comfortably into the clothing of omniscience, omnipotence, or omnibenevolence. The God whom I have met along my journey with mental illness, disguised often in a stranger’s face, a community’s embrace, or the long and lonely darkness of a sleepless night, is a God whose vulnerability creates the conditions for solidarity with those struggling, hurting, and wondering why.
That God, I could add, is the one disguised behind those eyes that stare through the fragments of trauma.

And that God, present in weakness and hurt, is the opposite of the God of supremacy--white supremacy or male supremacy or Christian supremacy or supremacy of any other sort you can muster.

That God has no desire to restore some imaginary greatness to our nation or any nation. That God has no interest in such "greatness," because it always has and always will manifest itself in violence to those deemed not-great.

Those eyes. Those eyes have seen what that "greatness" really looks like.

Saturday, August 12
We are in the church, after the attack on Water Street.

Someone yells, "He's got a gun!"

People begin to panic.

I try not to bolt, try to remain calm, but move with the crowd. Leigh keeps her cool behind me. For a terrifying moment we are separated. I think to myself, "I can't believe I left her behind."

I look around at the frightened people around me as one of the mental health volunteers speaks in a steady but loud voice: "I need everyone to stay calm. I'm going to need everyone to take a breath and calm down."

I look around, and I look into the eyes around me, and I see the fear I am feeling reflected in their eyes.

In those eyes.

The church is on lockdown, but the immediate aggressor has left. I work my way back to Leigh, feeling nothing but shame. She hugs me and whispers, "Non-anxious presence."

Where is Jesus, right now?

In the Spirit, who is breath. In hands that offer healing. And hidden behind those eyes. 


"We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." -- John 1:1-3