Sundays as an Anxious Christian

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I think that our churches are failing the masses when it comes to mental health. I have been a Christian all my life. I am more comfortable in a church service than I am in the cinema sometimes – at least I know the etiquette, and the message I’m getting, whether I’m in church in South Africa, New Zealand or England. It’s a place where I’m supposed to feel safe and where, when things are tough, I’m supposed to find love and support.

There’s nothing harder than changing churches, because those places become your home. My last true home was in Wiltshire, where I worked as the Children’s and Youth Worker at a rural church. For over 2 years I attended that church, for some of that I worked for it, and no matter what I was going through in my life, that church was there to support me and lift me up. Considering that I worked and attended there when my diagnosis of depression and anxiety took place, that church cared for me and loved me like none other. That said, it was only really leadership that knew what was going on, as I was an employee, so maybe that’s something to do with it. Either way, leaving it for Coventry was one of the hardest things I had to do.

And today I attended my fiance’s church for the first time as a regular – I’ve been before as a visitor, but all of a sudden, this is my church, the place I’m supposed to find spiritual rest.

Being an anxious christian is hard – and that’s something I think I will save for another blog post. Suffice to say, if one more person tells me ‘do not be anxious about anything’ I might well hit them round the head with my bible (not literally… I hope!). Starting a new church as an anxious christian takes a lot of courage. Picture this:

Perhaps she held onto his hand a little too tight, her nails digging into his flesh as she clung to him. The physical closeness of his body did nothing to soothe the racing of her heart, and the sweat starting to form at her forehead. It was too late now to back out… the welcomers had said something… she didn’t quite hear what so she tilted her head towards Jack and half smiled on one side of her mouth. Was that rude? Were they still talking to her or to the person behind? Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, she thought, as her breathing got quicker, her chest tighter. Ah, more welcomers, these know Jack and say hello to him as he pauses, despite the little tug she gives his arm. Her legs are shaking, she’s tired and frightened and she needs to find a seat that will become her haven for the next hour and half of her day. She lifts her head slightly to peruse the layout, the rows and rows of chairs already filled with bodies of people she doesn’t know, the chatter and laughter of children burning on her ears that only beg for peace and quiet. Jack turns to look at her and she says something along the lines of ‘we need to find a seat, now’. She doesn’t quite know what she said because her heart is beating so loud in her ears that she can’t even hear her own words, let alone those of the welcomers who continue chatting. Jack dithers on choosing a seat, she tells him to pick one quickly, and when he does she sits on it in a panic – has anyone seen how nervous she is? What if there’s communion? More people surround her as she sits on the seat that has become her sanctuary, talking to her, talking to Jack. She smiles and nods, trying to form words but knowing it doesn’t really matter because they’re all excited to catch up with each other anyway. There’s no order or service, no indication of the structure that the service is going to follow, no list of songs that she can look through to see if she knows any. The anxiety is in full control now – she doesn’t want to talk to anyone, she can hardly breathe, and she sits there staring fixedly at the floor. It’s a relief when the music starts, because she knows how to do this bit. 

It’s a huge amount of anxiety all wrapped up in something familiar. New faces, new songs, no tangible structure, not knowing how this church does things. It’s a hard thing to do. Bear with me if you will, as I continue:

The service has ended, the safe familiarity is complete and the anxiety she felt at the start goes into overdrive. Jack is out at children’s work, and no one came and sat with her during the service. So now she’s alone. She recognises the person behind her, but her back is stiff and turning around is an issue. She sits, anxiously tied to the spot that was chosen at the beginning of the service. Around her people reunite, chat about their week… start packing up the chairs. Vaguely familiar faces pass to and fro in her peripheral vision, but she’s so wound up by this point that she can’t even force the edges of her lips to lift into a smile. She sits hunched away from the aisle, wishing someone would come and talk to her because if they do that, then she has an ally against the anxiety, someone who she can borrow some strength from to fight it. But no one comes. And Jack is late. She waits for what seems like an eternity, grabs her things, and goes outside to wait in the car. 

Anxiety is a disease that attacks you at your weakest. If it’s that hard for a practised, seasoned christian, I can’t imagine how anyone without faith walks through the doors of a church. Anxiety is a monster that is trying to take the safety of Christianity away from me. I question my faith (a post for another time), I am scared of churches and gatherings, and I feel totally alone in it.

And so our churches begin to fail those with mental health issues. They welcome the newcomer, but the vaguely familiar face is left on their own. They share their stories of faith and hope, forgetting that they are the hope of Christ to those who are struggling to get by. They eat biscuits and drink coffee and talk to each other…even the familiar faces walk past without so much as a glace, and the anxiety wins.

Sundays as a christian are tough in familiar settings. They’re tougher on your own, wondering if anyone will notice the devil on your back.

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The Wrath & The Dawn, Renee Ahdieh

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Chosen for me by my loving fiance, who thought that I needed something a little lighter than some of the stuff I normally read, I have raced through The Wrath & The Dawn with eagerness. A well written tale based on the Arabian Nights, Ahdieh paints a picture of a tortured king and the young woman stubborn enough to save him with finesse and skill.

The Premise

I have never read a version of Arabian Nights (Disney’s Aladdin does not count!) but was familiar with the concept prior to starting this novel, and a few chapters in had to put the book down and check that it was deliberately following the popular framing I knew already existed. Once satisfied that this was a deliberate narrative choice, I was able to settle down to enjoy the novel.

Shazi has volunteered to marry a troubled young prince, who executes his brides at dawn and has done for several months. The death of Shazi’s best friend has driven her to seek retribution against the man who caused the death, but instead she finds herself puzzled by the quietly spoken boy-king she faces. Two young people carrying heavy secrets, seeking to be understood in a world that can’t understand them find comfort in each other… but this is not to everyone’s pleasure.

The Verdict

I have enjoyed this novel surprisingly much – so much so that its sequel is on the way already (it is nice to read a duology rather than a 14 book series for a change!). Ahdieh takes a well known narrative frame (that of the queen telling stories to save her life), but focusses more on the surroundings of the story than that stories themselves, which from what I know is what the original Arabian Nights does. Her subtle nods to the original tales are clear and respectful, but it is obvious that her real fascination was with the couple, the development of their relationship and their individual motivations.

The parallel between the two main characters, Shazi and Khalid, is striking. Khalid, a murdering king, meets Shazi and decides for one night to hold her execution. Shazi, an innocent girl in love with another man who has never hurt another person, has entered the royal palace with the intention of killing Khalid. Her murderous intent is driven by the death of her best friend, while Khalid’s breaking of habit is driven by wanting to get to know the girl in front of him. Her anger and his interest collide several times, creating the complex romantic narrative outside of the normal ‘boy meets girl’ trope. Ahdieh shows their confusion with depth and skill, exploring how the couple can possibly come to be in love when their motivations are so against each other. The real heart break is when Shazi learns why Khalid does what he does, and suggests that he should kill her too. His determination to keep her alive, at the risk of losing his kingdom, is the greatest show of love the novel contains, as is the lead up to the final love-making scene in the novel – a stark contrast to the business-like transactions that have gone before. Ahdieh shows the internal conflicts of both protagonists thoroughly, and whilst there are occasional overt comments that stand out for the obviousness of the statement they put forwards, it is mostly done subtly and gently.

Ahdieh shows a world very dominated by men, where women have a role to play in the grand scheme of things, but always in a subservient manner. This suits the setting and style of the writing, but does raise several questions – why is Shazi the first to halt the king? What right does Tariq have to demand she go with him? Is her father wrong in not stopping her from marrying the king? There are 2 women in the novel – Shazi and Despina. Shazi is in an arranged marriage with the threat of death hanging over her, and Despina is a pregnant maid who dares not dishonour the father by telling him the truth.  Both are, in their own way, strong characters, but the perceptions around them are that they need rescuing, taming and controlling. Shazi can hold her own against Khalid’s enemies, but Tariq cannot accept her independence and still sees her as a beautiful thing to be rescued. Khalid is the only male who comes to any realisation concerning Shazi’s independence, when he agrees that she is not a ‘thing’ to be sent away, but it is his love for her and fear of losing her that drives this and not a change of attitude towards women. Some of the repression experienced is difficult to read, albeit culturally sensitive.

It is interesting that when putting this into a genre I immediately went for ‘fantasy’. Magic and the supernatural only play a small part in the main narrative – the curse that Khalid is under happened prior to the events of the novel, and whilst Shazi’s father’s experiments with magic are interspersed throughout, they only really appear towards the end of the narrative. However, there is a strong sense of a fantastical culture and the writing suits the fantasy genre. I will be interested to see how this develops in the conclusion to the series.

This was an interesting take on an age-old tale, filled with innovative thinking and expression. It wasn’t full of surprises or shocks, not for a seasoned reader, but it was a nicely decorated and intriguing narrative filled with some stunning descriptions, especially of the clothes, and characters with depth that was expressed with skill and charm. Definitely recommended, though likely to a teenage audience!

The Glass Painter’s Daughter, Rachel Hore

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The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore tells the story of a young woman, called home to London from her international travels as a tuba player after her father falls ill. Her journey to reconciling her strained relationship with her father is supported by the journal of a woman a hundred years earlier, whose life reflects that of Fran, the protagonist.

I’m not really sure what genre to put this book into – popular fiction feels wrong, but it doesn’t slot into anything else except for possibly a romance, but then that doesn’t do it justice. It seems strange thinking of something set in 1998 as historical fiction, but then it also hits that genre through the use of Laura’s journal, which is based in the Victorian era. So it’s a bit of mish mash. The book was bought for me by my future mother-in-law, who when I stayed with them after spraining my ankle was given the impossible task of ‘choosing a book for me to read on the train’, since I didn’t have any reading with me! She did well in choosing something that isn’t quite in my usual genre but that I did enjoy.

Reading this I frequently asked myself why I was reading it… it was all well and good, but it was so normal, based around events that could happen to everyone and told in a very realistic manner. There wasn’t a sense of disbelief having to be held at any point, it all just felt very normal. Perhaps my love of fantasy is what is causing the problem here, but to me, fiction is only really worth reading if there is a sense of the unbelievable, or if I’m truly learning something from it, like with fiction based around war, or believable but tense… I don’t know, there was just something missing from this book that would have really drawn me in. There wasn’t really tension – even the small crimes that did take place were mellow and controlled, and the characters were well thought through but there wasn’t really anything interesting about them. The whole thing felt a little disappointing in that sense. I was able to leave the book sitting for days and felt no draw to read it… not sure I’m really making sense at all here, it was just lacking!

However, Hore is clearly passionate about her writing and the subject. The characters were well thought through and extremely realistic, complete with flaws and unreasonable behaviour that you could truly see someone enacting. The knowledge of creating stain glassed windows and the clear interest Hore had in this procedure came through, and the fact that I learned about the process without even really knowing that I was means that Hore not only did her research thoroughly but portrayed it organically throughout the novel.

Fran was a likeable enough protagonist with an interesting background. Her character developed throughout the novel very naturally, but this was tempered by her commenting on it herself (‘the past three months had changed everything’), which is something I always dislike because it makes the narrative too self conscious.

I enjoyed Laura’s narrative, and how Hore used the tool of the journal without making it boring, transforming Laura’s journal into a third person story instead. This made for an interesting parallel as the two very different women explored their feelings and dedication to their families. I feel like Hore rushed over some of the emotion Laura could have shared – she didn’t feel real, too martyr like and pragmatic in the face of a lot of tragedy, but she was the highlight of the story for me.

Overall the book was fine, there was just no spark about it that really made me passionate about finishing it, and then writing about it. Perhaps this is a reflection of my depression, that I rarely get excited about anything at the moment… but I wouldn’t seek Hore out again actively. Maybe we’ve finally found a genre (whatever it is!) that doesn’t really interest me…

Moving Day

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So, I know I’ve just started writing my blog daily, however, I am moving house tomorrow! And we don’t have wifi set up yet. So I might got get the chance to for a little while.

Tomorrow I am leaving Coventry, where I currently live, and moving in with my fiance Jack in a flat that we have rented together! It’s the first time we’ve lived together, and the first time either of us have rented an unfurnished apartment. So we’ve already gone bed shopping and bought a brand new bed for ourselves, but we really have a mish-mash of furniture between us and nothing that useful (like a sofa or chairs) so it’s going to be a bit of an adventure that we’re happy to take together, of course.

As you can imagine, moving with anxiety and fatigue (and depression) is a bit of an issue. I had melt down in Wilkos today because I couldn’t find boxes… I literally walked out the store, leaving Jack holding what we had already picked up to buy, and had to sit on a bench to settle down. It made me very stressed and anxious. Jack’s been amazing – he’s done a lot of the cleaning and packing all day today and the flat is looking ready to leave. I just feel really out of control, and really tired and really stressed.

So… bring on moving day!

“Maybe you should go to bed earlier”

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The last time I went to my doctor, before I had the appointment that had me signed off work, I told them this:

“I don’t think I’m really suicidal. Like, I don’t think I actually want to die. But I’m so incredibly tired, exhausted, just tired all the time, that it makes me want to kill myself, because I don’t understand how I am supposed to be alive and be this depth of tired all the time.”

My Head of Department and mentor at the school I was working at understood that I was ill, but she kept telling that ‘everyone is tired‘ and ‘welcome to your first year of teaching’. And don’t get me wrong, I appreciate that everyone gets tired, and of course anyone on any teaching training programme is tired beyond imagining. The problem is, I’m tired beyond imagining when I’m not doing anything. Adding work on top of that, especially the intensity and number of hours that teaching requires, and maybe I can start to see where things started going wrong.

My constant tiredness is still being explored medically, with an appointment at a rheumatology clinic in the near future being the next step. I’ve had blood test after blood test, examination after appointment and several different doctors, and no one can tell me what’s wrong with me. The only thing that keeps being repeated is this idea of ‘chronic fatigue’, but everyone is so reluctant to diagnose it – it’s next to impossible to pin it down at the moment. But something is wrong with me, and until I have a better name for it, chronic fatigue is all I have.

Let me tell you a bit about what that’s like.

I’m tired. All the time. I can sleep for 6 hours, 8 hours, 10 hours, I can take naps or not take them, I can be out in the fresh air or resting inside all day, and there is not a single moment where I am not TIRED. It’s just constant, relentless tiredness. It often starts in my legs, where lifting one leg up and putting it in front of the other one is a really conscious effort because they’re so heavy. Like when you wake up from deep sleep and you have mild sleep paralysis and they feel heavy to lift. My legs feel like that during the day. I feel weak, so weak that I can’t even lift my bag to take it home, or struggle to open the door. My commute to school was 20 minutes – sometimes I’d be so tired I’d have to take a break after 10 to make sure I was safe to drive. My eyes will feel like I’m having to force them open – whereas we normally use our eye muscles to blink, I feel like I’m having to actively engage them to keep them open. My head gets foggy, I can’t form proper sentences.

Then comes the pain. Just pain all over my body. My legs aren’t just heavy, they hurt. My back aches, like a serious muscle ache. Now, I do have a historically bad back with ongoing problems and a slipped disc, but this isn’t always to do with that. My whole body aches, like a recovering twisted ankle. It hurts so much. Sometimes, my nerve endings get so sensitive I have to strip all my clothes off and find a way to lie that aggravates the least number of nerves and just lie there still. Those are the times where Jack can’t even snuggle me to make me feel better because I hurt too much, and those are the times where the depression really starts to kick in because even Jack, with all his sensitivity and gentleness, cannot help me.

Sometimes I feel like this by 10am. Sometimes I go a day or two without it getting that bad. But I repeat, I am tired all the time. There is never a waking or sleeping moment where I’m not. Even in my dreams now, whatever character I am is tired, too tired to go on.

It feels like it’s never going to end. I can’t remember a time I wasn’t like this – I’ve been told that I wasn’t, but I can’t remember it.

Being tired like this creates a vicious cycle – several in fact. Tiredness feeds anxiety and depression, and they in turn feed the tiredness. There are often several days in a row where I can’t even leave the house, and I eat because I’m a comfort eater and I gain weight because I can’t exercise because I’m too tired to leave the house. When I was working, I ate drive through McDonald’s at home far too much because I wasn’t up for cooking. This tiredness, this depth of exhaustion, impacts every waking and sleeping moment of my life and never in a good way.

And trust me when I tell you I’ve tried all the advice. I’ve tried eating well. I’ve tried setting a regular schedule. I’ve tried more sleep, less sleep. I’ve tried naps and resting and specific concoctions of vitamins and minerals that are supposed to help and nothing does. Nothing helps this tiredness.

It is endless. And I feel like it is killing me.

Oh Brave Warrior

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Today has been a heavy day for reasons that aren’t mine to share. So I don’t have much to say. Instead, I thought I’d share with you the feature image of this post, which I will also insert below so you don’t have to do the constantly scrolling thing!

My fiance Jack drew this for me last year when things were really bad. He tried to capture the demons that afflict me, and the battle I face every day to combat them. It was the first time I had ever seen my fight with depression through someone else’s eyes and I always return to it when things are really bad. This is the first time I’ve shared it in a public place.

Depression breaks down your soul until you don’t feel like a fighter anymore. Until you’re tired, so tired, and the only thing you look forwards to is the end. I always undermine how I feel because ‘it’s not as bad as someone elses’ experience’ or ‘I get to work’ or ‘I wake up in the morning’. But what I fight is real, as tangible as the demons Jack painted. And to see myself as a warrior…

Well, it helps me to fight another day.

(find and add my gorgeous artist on instagram @narrativejack)

https://www.instagram.com/narrativejack/

“You can’t cure depression with ice cream”

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This post is inspired by and its quotes (including the title) are taken from Bill Bernat’s Ted Talk “How to connect with depressed friends” available here:

 

I have a friend who for several years dated a man with diabetes. I may be slightly biased when I say this, but she was phenomenal. She went away and researched the condition immediately. She learned more about it than I even thought possible. Over the course of a couple of months she became an expert, supporting her partner in managing his condition, keeping the ‘right’ foods and supplies in the house and helping him as he pursued different routes to manage his condition better. She went from knowing nothing, to being the most caring, supportive and knowledgeable partner this man could have had, because she was able to understand the condition and its treatments.

I bring this up, because I thought of it today when I was looking for an image for my blog. How many pictures have you seen out there like the feature image used in this post that are needed to explain diabetes? I did a quick google search, and most of the images that came up were practical ways to combat the disease (the implements used to measure blood sugar and the needles or pumps used to deliver insulin). Depression needs more because there is no simple way to understand it.

As much as I relate to the feature image of this post and find the artwork beautiful and pertinent, I think that such pictures can sometimes cause anxiety in the healthy, especially those who have no experience with depression except for the fact that their friend has just told them that they are suffering. Depression is so individualised that there is no way to truly understand it. There are hundreds of different treatments, and they might work for 100 people, but there are another 100 people out there that they will do nothing for whatsoever. So we turn to art work and poetry and creativity to express our illness, which I think can sometimes be isolating for those who don’t suffer. I’m not criticising, I’m just reflecting (and up pops the anxiety!) because I am one of those people who finds this type of artwork helpful in expressing how I am feeling and I appreciate those who create it.

Bernat’s talk offers some chance for reflection on my own depression, some ideas for those who might struggle to connect with sufferers of depression and some comedy – all wrapped up in 13 neat minutes. His definition of depression – “The absence of the ability to ‘just get over it’ is depression” – is especially heart wrenching, because if there is something I want more than anything in the world, it is simply to get over this.

One of the things that really stood out to me was this advice to friends of the depressed:

“don’t take a negative response personally”

One of the things that I love about Jack is that when I’m having a bad day, he’ll suggest a bunch of stuff that might make me feel better, then he’ll take his cue from my response. There are some days where a bath seems possible, and some days where it doesn’t. There are some days where eating chocolate seems okay, and some days where it doesn’t. What I love is that Jack respects my limits no matter how I express them (and sometimes I come across as angry/defensive). He still looks after me though. If I refuse food/drink, for example, he’ll hug me for a bit so I feel safe, then he’ll emerge later with some food. Something that I need, sustenance that he knows will help but that I can’t even face thinking about. It isn’t until it’s in front of me that I know that it’s what I need. Even then, sometimes I can’t eat it all, and he never gets angry at that.

Alternatively, he knows that sometimes I’ve said no because I can’t manage all the steps – going upstairs, running a bath, getting into it, getting out of it, getting changed… and he’ll take control and take some of those steps out of my hand. I’ll go upstairs and find a bath already running, with towels laid out ready for the end of it, and sometimes, if we need to go out, I go downstairs afterwards and he’ll have laid out my clothes for me so I don’t have to make too many choices at one time. Things like that help to make the bad days bearable. But he never, ever, gets angry at me if I can’t do something. He might get upset and frustrated at the situation, or angry that I’m suffering, but he holds no anger towards me. I hope that everyone has someone in their lives like that.

One thing that I think is really not understood by the masses is this:

“we feel it (depression) in our bodies. It’s a physical thing for us.”

Depression is about so much than just feeling sad. I get a really bad pain in my side on really bad days. It’s like a muscle pain, but deeper, almost like I’m being stabbed constantly. It’s like when you’ve laid on one side too long and then it won’t stretch out… I don’t really know how to describe it. I get tooth ache or ear ache which will disappear the next day. My depression doesn’t just control my mind, it takes over my body too, making putting one foot in front of the other too painful. My limbs get heavy, to the extent that I have to crawl up the stairs because I can’t walk. It’s a painful experience and when you feel like you’re losing yourself to this illness already mentally, it is just a cruel trick of fate that it impacts you so severely physically as well. It was reassuring to hear someone else confirm that this is a part of the illness, because I feel so broken so constantly, I feel like it must just be me.

Today is a bed day for me. I’ll probably mostly just binge watch Criminal Minds and move only when necessary. My brain is too tired to read, too active to sleep. This is why I was signed off work, to give me the space to rest like this, yet I find it so hard to do – to rest and ‘recover’. Because unlike when I fell down the stairs at my friend’s flat and sprained my Achilles tendon 2 weeks ago, I can’t see or feel any difference to my ‘injury’, no matter how much rest I get. I just feel like I’m sinking, trudging my way through a life that doesn’t feel worth living, exhausted and sad all the time.

Depression isn’t a cloud hanging over me, or a veil colouring my sight. Depression is deeply rooted inside me. And I’m not sure how to get it out.