CONTRADICTIONS

Image result for cartoon character scratching headThere has been a question that has haunted me for the past eight months, “Why do people disappoint me?” “Why am I hurt by the words and actions of others?” I have come to the conclusion that disappointment and hurt are the result of my expectations of others. Am I wrong to have expectations of others?

As a former counselor, my clients had an expectation that I would keep their confidences. Nearly every session I informed them that everything they said was confidential with the exceptions of voiced desire to harm themselves or others, confession of juvenile abuse or molestation or elder abuse, or if the courts demanded disclosure (which is extremely rare). I held that trust inviolate. Whether in the role of pastor or counselor, to me the pastoral/mental health/substance abuse counseling office was as sacrosanct as the confessional. Once I was asked to disclose to appropriate staff and faculty the content of my counseling with college students if said counseling revealed violation of school rules or codes. I strongly objected and flatly refused to do it. And I never did. In whatever setting, clients have the right to expect that their counselors will keep their confidences.

Other types of businesses and relationships have their own set of ethical and moral expectations to which we expect adherence. The same is true of my Christian walk. If I tell you that I am a practicing disciple of Jesus Christ and if you tell me the same, it comes with an implied set of spiritual, moral, and behavioral standards. When my attitudes, actions, and words contradict my profession of faith, I should expect you to be disappointed in me. And, if you fall short, you should expect me to be disappointed in you. These I call – contradictions.

Contradictions come from a variety of sources. There is/are . . .

  • Accidental and unaware contradictions. Inevitably it happens that you and I will say one thing at one time and another thing at another time and not even be conscious of your or my contradiction.
  • Rethought positions. A sincerely held position at one point in time may not last the microscope of learning and revelation. St. Augustine of Hippo lived long enough to write, “Retractions.” A work from his mature years of life that “retracted” some of his ideas recorded earlier in his youth. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, revised his journals and other writings with margin notations that expressed his current understanding. Oh, that we all would live long enough and have such a sense of responsibility to truth and accuracy to do the same to our proclamations, speeches, and writings.
  • Immature thinking on a subject. It is the evolution of thought where what was spoken at the beginning of your understanding changes with the maturing of your study. As a first time and very young pastor, I used my college class notes to lead a Wednesday night Bible study on the book of Revelation. While preparing for and teaching each lesson, I became aware that I was disagreeing with what I had learned and was now teaching. I finished the series, but never used those notes again. Over the years, my thinking on the subject has matured and is far from what I taught and began to question over 35 years ago.
  • Blind spots. These are areas that are unknown to us and unintentional. The Johari relationship window has four panes: 1) known to us and others, 2) known to us, but not others, 3) known to others, but unknown to us, and 4) neither known to us nor others. The third pane is my meaning here. It represents places in our lives that need to be confessed and corrected. They may be clear to others, but as of yet unclear to us.
  • Blatant contradictions. It is when you say or do something that you know contradicts your belief system. About three dozen years ago I was a passenger in the car of a minister who was throwing trash out onto the side of the road. The next day his sermon was about our responsibility to God’s creation. In my eyes, he spoke without much credibility on the subject.

It is this last category that causes me the most irritation. Because of my personal failures there have been some in the Christian community who have turned their backs on me. It hurts when I send a letter seeking reconciliation that gets no reply or one that is very formal. I feel anger rise when I confess and beg forgiveness for my sins, faults, and failings to another only to hear them become sanctimonious and “holier-than-thou.” One person spent our entire conversation without taking any responsibility for his/her actions, instead s/he justified them.  When I see the names and faces of people within the Christian community who have blocked me on Facebook, ignored my friend requests, or made it impossible for me to send them a friend request, I feel pain.

One author wrote, we who fail should “embrace the (Christian) community as a safe place to grow. Within holy community, we have a freedom to fall and get back up again. We shouldn’t leave when we fail!” That has not been my experience. Instead of a forgiving “embrace,” I found rejection. Instead of “safety,” hostility. Instead of a “place to grow,” a toxic and unhealthy environment. Instead of “freedom to fall and get back up again,” condemnation and ostracization. Ronald Reagan once said, “I did not leave the Democrat party, it left me.” I feel the same about many in my “family” of Christian friends, I did not leave my church family, they left me. Here I stand repentant with wounded arms reaching out for help, but many are they who pass by on the other side. (I thank God for those who did welcome me, allowed me to minister in the ways I could, and who demonstrated confidence in and acceptance of me.)

The author of the above statement is one who passed me by. Is this a blatant contradiction or a blind spot on his part? “Christian community could have given (a fallen person) an opportunity to flourish in faith and life,” he says. Does he think that statement includes me? Unfortunately, I have found it best to hide my failures from the Christian community and make them known to God and a very few confidants alone. The risk of rejection and condemnation is too great to disclose to the Church. This “haven of rest” for the redeemed Christian can become an anchorage of death for the fallen. Therefore, I stay silent. It robs me of an opportunity to share what God’s grace can do and has done, and it robs them of the joy in rejoicing with a lost son who has returned home.

I know the cause of my woundedness – expectations – yet the question goes beyond the cause. It is not enough to identify the why, I need to determine the next step. In my estimation, there are three possibilities. I can . . .

  • Shield myself from all pain. Although that sounds reasonable, pain actually serves a valuable purpose in our lives. If I ignore the pain, I risk greater injury, not less. If I harden myself to my feelings and emotions, I leave myself without empathy. Star Trek’s Spock is an example of this brand of Stoicism. He is presented as a praiseworthy character, but he is stunted in the department of relationships and pleasure. By suppressing the painful lows, he also loses the pleasant and exhilarating highs. My personal pain has taught me too much and afforded me too many opportunities to help others to give it up.
  • Become a cynic or skeptic. A cynic is one who distrusts the motives of others, and a skeptic is one who distrusts belief systems. The cynic questions whether you have God in your life, while the skeptic questions whether there is a God. If I cannot believe that people are who they represent themselves to be, then I must logically question the same in myself. As a Christian, it leaves me without assurance of my standing with God and without confidence that God can truly change you or me. It is only a small leap from there to question if God is really active in our world today or is He distant and uninvolved. Ultimately, it leads to questioning the very existence of God. I believe in redemption – the power of God to change people from the chains of sinfulness to appropriated and actual righteousness.
  • Choose to believe redeemed people are who they say they are. I choose to believe the grace of God can change people. I choose to pray for those who intentionally or unintentionally cause me pain. When I am hurt, disappointed, or disillusioned; I choose to believe in God. For I have found that God is always good, faithful, true, and trustworthy.

Will I be hurt again? Most definitely. I will be frustrated. I will be annoyed. I will be offended. But I choose to embrace all the negative risks that come with loving and believing in people.

Our LORD be with you.

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I Am Stuck

Image result for boots stuck in mudIf you have wintered in a climate where the snow flies and the winds blow until there are large drifts and closed roads, you know what it means to be stuck. If you have driven in a field, yard, or on a dirt road during a rainy spring, you know what it means to be stuck. If you have tried without success to solve a problem that appears to have no resolution, you know what it means to be stuck. But, you can shovel your way out of a drift, and push or pull your way out of the mud. You know you can get unstuck, eventually, even if you have to wait for the snow to melt or the mud to dry. And, there are very few problems mathematically or socially that cannot be solved with some knowledge and cooperation. However, I am stuck emotionally.

For the past three years, I have gone to counseling regularly for help with my major depressive disorder and the emotional stress from some disturbing experiences in my past. It took a few months to get stable, but afterwards I made good progress. My depression is now in a mild to moderate state and life is much better. However, the things haunting me in my dreams and many waking hours continue. My counselor tells me, and I acknowledge the truth of her observation, that I bring up the same subjects each session. So, there you are, I am stuck.

Here is the kicker – there is a way out, but I do not know if I want to take that path. My therapist has told me there is a treatment called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing or EMDR that has shown great promise for people with single or multiple episodes of trauma. In fact, the clinical and field trials show great success – over ninety percent for single episodes and over seventy percent for multiple. Apparently, I am in the “festering wound” stage emotionally and I need to activate my brain so it will remove the block in order that my healing may continue. I am told that it will help me become an objective observer of my experiences rather than an active participant.

My question is, “Do I want that?” Do I want to look at some of these troubling issues from a distance like a spectator? You see, my concerns are near and dear to my heart and they are very active, ongoing issues. I pray about and over them. Cry and get angry. Feel hurt and emotional pain. Ask the question “why?”, experience frustration, and wonder how others cannot see the answer that is so clear to me.

My problems are three in number. The first is with my ex-wife. There are some unresolved issues that I have attempted to settle without success. My goal is not that we would become besties and have standing invitations to each other’s events. No, I want an amicable relationship in which we share what we have in common – our children and grandchildren. This has been my prayer for nearly four years now.

Sure, I would love to be rid of the nightmares with the accompanying screams, yells, physical thrashing in bed, and fighting to stay alive in life-threatening situations. I would love to make the conflict dreams that are filled with arguments, disrespect, and aggravation end. It would be nice to have the subtle needling stop. No more “alternative facts” spread.  And, an end to using our children against me.  But, at what cost – less concern? Satisfaction with the status quo? Indifference?

The second of my frequent topics with my counselor is the loss of my ministerial credentials. Actually, it is not so much the loss, but the refusal to give me a path to reclaiming them. When I asked to be put under discipline in order to be reinstated, I was refused. No one interviewed me. I was not asked to produce character witnesses nor were any contacted. There was no guidance given me about the process or what the ministerial committee required. My defense was not asked for or recorded. The decision appears arbitrary to me, and I was told an appeal would be pointless. Do I need to just let this go? I have held a ministerial license of one kind or another since 1975. It was one of the things that defined me to others. Is there a way to feel differently or look more objectively at what appears to me to be a decision based on less than all the facts?

My third concern is my greatest. Two of my three children refuse to talk to me. Diligently I have sought reconciliation with them. I have written letters of sorrow, accepting blame and guilt, and asking for forgiveness. The efforts I am making to stay in touch with them are ongoing. I send them letters on New Year’s, Valentine’s, Easter, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and anniversaries. They have chosen to not respond to my outreach. When I was diagnosed with cancer I thought surely they will contact me now, but it was not to be.

Both profess to be Christians, and one works at a Christian organization and travels in ministry almost weekly. One of the them says I am forgiven, but continues to shun me. Not only was I not invited to their wedding, but some of my relatives were not invited simply because they helped me in a dark and needy moment. They blocked me on Facebook from seeing their site and had their spouse do the same. That does not look like the forgiveness the Bible espouses and which I once preached and emulated.

Am I wrong to believe that forgiveness and redemption cannot abide with shunning? Is it too much to ask conservative, evangelical Christians to live up to the Bible they profess to believe in? Sure, I hurt and offended them. I was not a good father after my depression went clinical. Anger, isolation, and emotional distance were what they experienced from me for many years. They have a right to feel wronged – I do not deny that; however, “all have sinned” and yet God seeks to save and redeem the sinner.

Maybe the image of what I was is so seared into their minds that they seem unable to see the new man I have become. Perhaps they fail to see me as redeemable, and therefore are blind to the redemptive work that continues to make me a better man. It appears there is so much insulation about them that they cannot or will not allow themselves to trust me and be vulnerable enough to give me a chance.

Is it too much of me to expect a Christian to forgive and act like it? Will EMDR rewrite my brain in such a way that I can see their side of things and conclude that they are justified in their continuing behavior? Will I suddenly have an epiphany that forgiveness and redemption can be interpreted to exclude rather than include? Do I want to not feel so troubled, disappointed, and hurt?

The answers are not readily evident to me, thus I remain stuck. I am open to solutions, but if they involve escape, indifference, and/or distance, I am not sure I want to be a buyer. What do you think will help me get unstuck? Response are welcome.

Oh, the Pain!

Image result for self-harming

In 2003 I was given the task of starting a brand new program from scratch. The purpose of the program was to help individuals with long term psychiatric hospitalizations to achieve the least restrictive community environment possible and provide them with the supports needed for them to be successful. I was given a $200,000.00 budget and sent out to set up the rest of the program on my own.

From the few directions I received it was my understanding that patients housed longest in the hospital were my target cases. The state hospital sent me a patient list from longest to shortest stay. I chose the top twenty as my client base. Every one of them had been in the hospital from just over a year to over eight years. This is how Brenda[i] became my client.

On my way to meet Brenda I reflected on her case. She apparently had a normal childhood until she was eight years old. On a cold December night her family – two brothers, father, mother, and herself – were in a terrible accident. A drunk driver coming at a high rate of speed crossed the yellow line and plowed head-on into their car. Brenda was the sole survivor. For her the pleasant and secure life she had known was now over.

With no surviving relatives Brenda was placed into the foster care system. Troubled by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and recurring depression she became a difficult child to care for. In the system she was moved from house to house and family to family. By the time she aged out she had gone through twenty-seven placements. The longest stay was nineteen months and the shortest less than a week. Some of the homes were great, but they were eventually overwhelmed by her myriad of issues. In other homes she was physically, emotionally, and sexually abused. She bore a scar from her left ear across her cheek to her nose where she had been slashed with a kitchen knife from an angry foster mother. On another occasion she was raped repeatedly by her drunken foster father and his equally drunken buddies. As a result she became pregnant. She was strongly urged by her social worker to have an abortion, which she did.

Besides the PTSD and depression she was later diagnosed with a border-line personality disorder. She started self-harming when she was twelve and at the time I met her fifteen years later she was still cutting herself and swallowing foreign objects. Brenda was considered to be the most difficult case in the state and she was now my client. I was just beginning my third year working in the mental health field.

When I met with her it was hard not to notice the amount of scarring on her arms. (I was told that her inner thighs were nearly as bad.) There was not a place on either arm where she had not cut herself from her biceps to her wrists. This alone was unusual since most cutters use their dominant hand to cut their non-dominant arm. Because there were so few places left to safely cut she had begun to swallow. Hair brush handles, knives, and spoons were the most common things she forced into her esophagus. Her stomach was grossly distended from the multiple surgeries undergone to remove what she had swallowed. Soon after becoming my client a surgeon told her that if she required another surgical procedure he could not guarantee that she would survive. Thereafter, she quickly told someone when she had swallowed in order that she may be scoped instead of subjected to the scalpel.

Few people understand the pain that the Brendas of this world experience. An event like witnessing the unnecessary death of your parents and siblings and being left to wonder why you survived is extremely traumatic. Ripped from all you know you live the rest of your childhood without a real home and a forever family. Raped, abused, and discharged from what security net you have when you reach the age of majority you are left to your own devices. You barely know how to function in the world and you live from one disaster to another. Every relationship you have starts intensely and ends chaotically. You are a frequent visitor to your local psychiatric hospital. Finally, the court takes away your rights and once again the state becomes your guardian. No one wants you.  You such a danger to the safety of yourself and others that not even local and regional mental health agencies will serve you. So you live in a locked facility for over three years. Is it any wonder you hurt so deeply?

On one occasion I was with Brenda immediately after she had cut herself. I got some antiseptic spray, a sanitary wipe, a topical antibiotic ointment, and some gauze to treat her wound. While tending the wound I began to speak to her in a low, calm, and sympathetic tone. I said to her that she must hurt an unbearable amount to harm herself in this manner. That she was trading her internal pain that she could not see and was helpless to do anything about for an external pain that she could both see and treat. I went on to say how helpless she must feel about her personal trauma that it was actually a relief to have an injury she could put a Band-Aid on. When I finished she looked up from under her hair that hid most of her face and said, “How do you know?” We had quite a long talk after that.

Self-harm is trading one pain for another, persistent for temporary, unseen for seen, and emotional for physical. It is not an attempted suicide or a scheme to get attention. It is a response to crushing internal conflict. It is repeated when one is under stress, in a difficult situation, or when certain dates and months come. Brenda self harmed during December, the month of the accident that stole her family from her, and the days surrounding July 4, the date she was raped. The memories were too excruciating to bear so she turned to the only coping mechanism she knew.

For three years I worked with Brenda until I was asked to assume a supervisory position. I passed her case onto another very capable mental health worker. The last I heard, she was living in a stable home and had ceased self-harming. She taught me a great deal about pain.

It is hard to pin down exact figures for those who self-harm. It is estimated that 20% of females and less than 15% of males engage in self injury. The age of inception is generally pre-adolescence to early teens. In more recent years cutting has become “popular” with endorsements by celebrities and instructional web sites. It makes it more difficult to separate those with a mental illness from those who do it for entertainment. Although self-harming is a symptom of borderline personality disorder, it can accompany eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and conduct and oppositional disorders.[ii]

No one needs to be left in this kind of agony. If you or someone you know is self-harming, tell someone and seek help from a professional who is familiar with self injurious behavior. If appropriate, get medication to address the underlying mental illness. As one identifies the core issues s/he can become more aware of triggers and learn how to better cope with stress and emotions, boost self-image, improve relationships and social skills, and learn problem-solving skills.[iii] There is hope.

“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.”                                                                   Ken Baldwin, Golden Gate Bridge jump survivor.

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[i] This is a compilation of stories made into one in order to protect the confidentiality of the original clients. Names have been changed.

[ii] Source: Healthy Place.com

[iii] Source: Mayo Clinic.com

The Costs and Blessings of Depression: Physical Effects

Depression not only affects the mind, it affects the body, too. Before I was diagnosed with clinical depression I was beset with headaches. After going to the doctor I learned I was having cluster headaches. Little did I know, and the doctor did not tell me, that cluster headaches are a symptom of depression and stress.

About four months later I started having severe intestinal pain. I was in and out of the hospital for an ultrasound to look at the gallbladder, then for an endoscopy, later a colonoscopy. Nothing! After doing some research, I suggested to the doctor that I had IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and he agreed. Again, no one told me IBS is a sign of depression and stress. Only later did I find out “depression can cause headaches, chronic body aches, and pain that may not respond to medication.”

A study by Harvard Medical School concluded, “Pain is depressing, and depression causes and intensifies pain.” For a year I experienced excruciating pain daily without relief. My doctor referred me to a gastroenterologist who then placed me in a clinical trial. I was told this new drug was “the best thing since toilet paper” for IBS. It had no effect. Finally, the gastroenterologist sent me to another gastroenterologist who was reportedly the best in the state.

Within a couple of days I was in the new doctor’s office. His first words to me were that someone must have pulled some strings to get me in to see him so soon. He told me he had seen worse, which was of very little comfort to me. I was praying to die because I could not bear the pain and my dear parents thought I was dying. He prescribed me a medication and dismissed me back to my family doctor.

The pain went away. If I was ever lost on a deserted island, I decided, this medication had to be there, too. But, after the headaches were gone and after the IBS was under control, I was left with my deep, deep depression. No one had to diagnose me with depression; it was all over me from the core of my very being to all the things that I touched. The emotional pain was greater than the physical.

Depression has physical side-effects. They include insomnia or hypersomnia. I have had both. Hypersomnia affected my relationships and my work. Insomnia affected my sanity. The appetite can change. A doctor warned me of my weight gain, I told her that food was my only friend. After several years of depression I was 112 lbs. overweight. My last episode of severe depression my appetite vanished and I lost 80 lbs.

Constant fatigue, loss of energy, and persistent lethargy can dog the person with depression. In the throes of my first clinical episode my family wanted me to go Christmas shopping with them. I did not make it through J.C. Penny before all my energy was gone. I spent the shopping day sitting on a couch in the common area of the mall. Two hours of physical activity is about all I can take these days.

Depression affects memory, concentration, and decision making. I definitely experienced short-term memory loss. Muscle aches, arthritis, headaches, migraines, back pain, complications to and/or worsening of other illnesses can all be symptoms of or the result of depression. “It is easy to dismiss these symptoms as stemming from another condition, but they are often because of depression.” It is reported that two out of three people with depression will report an increase in aches and pains. Depression can suppress the immune system. It has been linked to heart disease. “Sixty-six percent of suicides are depression related.”

“Where are the blessings?” you may ask. The weight loss is a blessing. Depression is not the preferred method to reduce body mass, but I have maintained for nearly two years now. Eight inches from around the waist and two inches from the neck are gone. As I shed the pounds, I also decided to eat healthier. I feel and look much better.

Another blessing came as I learned to listen to my body. It is my warning whistle. If my sleep is too much or too little, or I start to have back problems, or my IBS flares, I know depression is at the door. My body faithfully tells me if I am slipping into another severe depressive episode. It is as though my body and I have joined together to keep me healthier and free from the dark dungeon of depression.

Finally, I learned compassion and empathy for those with severe mental and physical illnesses. While visiting a quadriplegic man in the hospital I sensed that he was despairing and asked to kiss him on the forehead. After we prayed he told me that I was one of the most compassionate men he had ever met. As I was walking out of the hospital, I breathed a prayer of thanksgiving to our LORD for allowing me to genuinely touch the soul of another hurting person.