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. 

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