Try Harder or Better?

Photo of a Man With His Face in His Hand

Photo thanks to geralt over at Pixabay.

Introduction

My last post was on the detrimental effects of untreated mental illness on those around the ill individual. It was a strongly worded post because I have strong feelings/beliefs on the topic – I believed and do still believe that it is immoral / sinful / wrong to refuse treatment for mental illness[1] (or for that matter, any significant problem we face…as our refusal bears consequences not only for ourselves but others). That said, the reaction to the article was not what I had hoped. People who were already trying hard felt I was calling them to try even harder…and if there was one thing I wasn’t trying to do, it was to call for folks to try harder…so in this post I want to develop the discussion a bit further by talking about the difference between trying harder and trying better – it is the latter I want to encourage folks to, not the former.

What Is Trying Harder?

Trying harder is when we face an obstacle and we attempt to overcome it by the same or a similar series of actions over an extended period of time with increasing amounts of willed power.

Examples:

  • An alcoholic who tries harder to stop drinking.
  • An individual with a raging temper who tries harder to be calm.
  • An individual with trichotillomania who tries harder not to pull their own hair.
  • A student failing at physics who wills themselves to do better, study more.
  • An individual who tries harder not to respond automatically to unpleasant stimuli (e.g., someone treating them poorly; an unavoidable delay).
  • Someone who wills themselves to not look at pornography.

The problem with trying harder is that (a) we aren’t getting better and thus inflicting pain on ourselves and others and (b) we generally have increasing feelings of guilt, shame, inferiority, etc. So what can we do instead?

Try Better Instead

Trying better is difficult – and this is why we keep trying harder.

Trying better is difficult because it involves (a) admitting we have a significant problem, (b) admitting we are not strong enough to overcome this issue on our own, and (c) seeking help outside of ourselves.

While trying harder may be easier in some sense it is usually futile and thus is actually harder. Thus trying better is a wiser path forward.

I’d like to say that others won’t look down on us when we admit we have a problem and seek help – but the truth is, many will, and it feels horrible. That said, let me tell you a secret: Every judgmental person I’ve met has a big gaping problem in their lives they are completely ignoring. We are all broken and half the battle is simply getting to the place where we can admit this brokenness to ourselves and others. Those who judge most are usually those who most lack insight into their own weaknesses.

Lets take a look at the examples of trying harder I laid out above but instead think about what it might look like to try better:

  • The alcoholic (a) begins seeing a counselor to deal with the emotional triggers that lead them to drinking and (b) join an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
  • The individual with a raging temper (a) begins seeing a counselor to deal with the emotional triggers that lead them to angry outbursts and (b) join a Rageaholics Anonymous group.
  • An individual with trichotillomania (a) may begin a medication to treat biochemical issues that can cause trichotillomania and (b) uses finger covers that prevent them from getting a good grip on their hair.
  • A student struggling with physics (a) requests after-class assistance from the teacher and (b) seeks additional online homework help.
  • An individual who responds automatically to unpleasant stimuli might (a) begin seeing a counselor who might treat them with exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy and (b) seeks out a support group of individuals who struggle in similar ways.
  • An individual addicted to pornography (a) installs a porn filtering application on their computer and (b) speaks to a counselor about the things that trigger their impulses to look at porn.

You probably notice a few common threads running through these examples of trying better:

  • Going to counseling.
  • Becoming involved in a support group.

Other common trying better methods included above:

  • Getting medication for illness.
  • Using aids to overcome issue.
  • Using technology to overcome issue.

Pride Comes Before The Fall

I can do it this time. The emphasis is on us and our ability. We are able. We will control our own road to health.

Pride is frequently the reason why we refuse to try better. But maybe it isn’t in your case. Maybe instead your reasoning is:

It really isn’t that bad.

I’d actually track this back to pride. We are lying to ourselves, minimizing the magnitude of our issue(s).

But maybe you say it still isn’t pride. What else could cause us to resist trying better?

Fear

When we admit weakness we disempower ourselves. We are now vulnerable and others may use this weakness against us.

In almost all situations (I won’t claim all) we will still find ourselves better off allowing ourselves to be weak than by pretending to be strong.

It is difficult but important for us to remember that while we may be weak in an area (or five) this does not invalidate us in other areas of our lives. To struggle with something is not suddenly to lose authority on everything. We are not our problems and when we honestly struggle with them we frequently find as many people give us more power as take it away…for example, when we attempt to maintain power while denying weakness others often deny us authority because of our hypocrisy (we deign to instruct others while unwilling to instruct ourselves).

Starting Better

How does one start on the road to better? Where should you start? You can email me or leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to point you to a few starting points for your specific problem.

 

  1. [1]I’m not saying it is wrong to have a mental illness, rather the choice to refuse to deal with the illness is the problem and as I’ll discuss later is usually the result of either pride or fear.

The Hidden Impact of Mental Illness on One’s Family, Friends, and Co-Workers.

Photo of Woman Punching Man in Face

This image is thanks to the generosity of Ryan McGuire and Pixabay.

TLDR;

  1. Individuals with mental illness(es) frequently don’t seek treatment because they feel the cost of treatment (in time, money, side effects) is too great.
  2. Oftentimes the mentally ill fail to consider the true cost of avoiding treatment which must include the handicaps placed upon family, friends, and co-workers.
  3. The cost is especially high when we have or interact regularly with children or teens as they lack the adult brain that can intelligently refuse the handicaps placed upon them when appropriate.
  4. We are not responsible for having the illness, but we are responsible for reducing the handicaps inflicted upon others when possible.
  5. After considering the cumulative cost for ourself and those we have substantive relationships with, does the cost of treatment still outweigh its benefits?

The Cost of Avoiding Treatment

When an individual has a mental illness (such as Depression or Anxiety), it is far too common that he will not pursue nor receive the treatment necessary to reduce or eliminate the illness because he feel that the illness is not severe enough – that he can be handled it on his own.

Today I’m going to push back on this idea by highlighting a simple fact:

While you may not feel your mental illness is handicapping you enough to seek treatment, your family, friends, and co-workers are certainly being handicapped by it.

As John Donne described in his famous poem No Man Is An Island – every person influences and is influenced by the lives of others. Whether our illness is physical or mental – any serious/long-lasting illness handicaps those we love.

Sidebar: We who are ill should not take this as a condemnation of ourselves; acting as beggars receiving the charity of others nor should those who are whole see the ill as lesser than themselves. Perhaps in a future post I will expand on this topic. For now we are focusing on the way that our illness affects others, not on our self-perception and self-worth.

This is especially true if you have or regularly interact with children (including teenagers). An adult (theoretically) has the ability to more objectively and abstractly think about the meaning of another’s illness and thus will be able to minimize the impact of the illness upon themselves.

A child or teen will have a hard time discerning what is the healthy you from the ill you, is more likely to take ownership of the negative consequences of the illness, and the handicap may have an exponentially negative effect upon them.

Examples of Cost in “Real Life”

Enough theory, lets take a look at some practical examples of how this can manifest itself in our lives:

  • We are preoccupied with our anxiety which reduces our ability to be present for our spouse or child.
    • A father cannot stop thinking about whether he will be able to pay the bills this month and thus is unable to listen attentively to his daughter sharing her emotional struggles.
  • We are sapped of our energy by our depression so we leave the majority of the household chores to our spouse.
    • A husband feels so tired from his depression that he has his pregnant wife change the cat’s litter box. The wife contracts toxoplasmosis which is then contracted by the unborn child, who is born with severe deformities.
  • We feel great anxiety whenever there is a chance someone could be injured in an activity and thus prevent our children from participating in many legitimate activities.
    • A mother won’t allow her daughter to ride her bike even within a reasonable distance due to an overwhelming fear her daughter may be kidnapped.
  • Our depression reduces our ability to work effectively and co-workers have to pick up the slack.
    • A man works in a factory with a co-worker assembling widgets. They need to produce 1,000 widgets each day to meet their quota. The man with depression works slowly and is only able to complete 200 widgets each day, leaving his co-worker scrambling to complete 800!
  • We don’t have the emotional reserves to interact with our child in a loving and patient manner.
    • A child is speaking rudely to his father. The father is unable to think through his response to the child, instead lashing out reactively at the child with words that hurt the parent/child relationship and cause the child to withdraw more from the parent (which likely results in further rude / rebellious behavior).
  • We are overly suspicious of the motives of those around us and treat them with unwarranted suspicion.
    • A woman suspects her husband of having an affair even though he has done nothing to warrant this suspicion. The husband becomes insecure in his own character due to the repeated assertions by his wife that he is having an affair (and implicitly, that he is a “bad man”).

Challenge to Reevaluate Cost

The list could go on and on. Think about how one models – children and even teenagers imitate their parents in so many ways (oftentimes despite their endeavor not to be like their parents). Do you wash your hands obsessively? Never take chances due to crippling fear? Always have a negative attitude? Respond combatively? Assume the worst? Pull your hair out? How is this affecting the children?

The point is, when we think about whether we should seek treatment, we need to consider the cost of avoiding treatment not only to ourselves but also to those we interact with…and oftentimes, while we might be willing to pay the price personally, we cannot afford to allow our family, friends, and co-workers to pay the price.

So, take a moment and ask yourself: “How are my symptoms affecting those I love?” If you can’t see clearly the ways in which you are handicapping your loved ones, ask them to tell you. Unfortunately, they may deny it – not because they don’t see it but because your illness encourages you to respond poorly to criticism.

Yes, counseling can be scary and, at times, painful and energy depleting…and, yes, medications have side-effects – sometimes severe – and perhaps if you or I lived on an island alone the cost would be too great…but when there are others involved, well, the cost increases exponentially (as the effect is no longer just upon ourselves but upon each person with whom we have a substantive relationship).

We may wish there was another way – a book we could read, a prayer we could say, a supplement we could take, an exercise routine we could perform, a diet we could eat – and all of these may help – but do they help enough? Are we doing all we can to relieve the suffering of those we love? Or, are we putting our self-interest over the best interests of those around us?

We are not responsible for having an illness, but I firmly believe we are responsible for ensuring that the effect of our illness upon others is minimized to the extent that is possible.

People are not better off without us – we bring great value to the table – but we are responsible to bring as much value and as little damage as we can.

 

Why Is My Difficult Person So…Difficult? (What I Think I Know About Difficult People – Part 2)

If you haven’t already, I’d encourage you to read my previous (and first) post in this series on Difficult People.

TL; DR:

1. If we can understand why a person is acting as they are, we can reduce the harm inflicted upon us by their assaults and maintain a healthy self-concept.

2. There are numerous strategies we utilize to defend ourselves when attacked including: invalidating the attacker, accepting the blow, and counterattacking.

3.The issue is not that we use these strategies of defense but that we become repeatedly fixed upon one or more of them when they are not the best defense available.

4.Another defense strategy is understanding. If we understand why the person acts as they do we can recognize that their attack is primarily a statement about themselves and only secondarily about us.

5. The understanding approach is not always the healthy approach. We are not excusing the person’s behavior but understanding it. If we venture into excusing we have crossed a dangerous line.

6.Underneath the causes of another’s poor behavior is almost always (or is it always?) fear.

Why Is My Difficult Person So Difficult?

…I’m struggling here. I have written, deleted, and rewritten this post numerous times over a period of weeks…months. In some areas of my life, perfectionism is a great stumbling block, and writing is one of the worse. But I am going to press on, I will publish this post, in spite of knowing that it is not all it could be. Knowing that I have not done the best I could possibly do…This perfectionism is one way in which I am difficult.

Lets talk about why our difficult person is so difficult. If we can understand why they are this way we can deflect more readily the darts they throw at us…and perhaps we may even find ourselves on occasion disarming them.

If we can understand why a person is acting as they are, we can reduce the harm inflicted upon us by their assaults and maintain a healthy self-concept.

When our difficult person says to us,

  • “You are ugly.”
  • “I hate you.”
  • “You ruined my life.”
  • “You are stupid.”
  • “You are lazy.”

We have to defend ourselves. A dart has thrust – it will wound us – how do we survive? There are numerous coping strategies we utilize such as:

  • Invalidating the Attacker – We determine that they are ____ (usually some four-letter word) and thus unworthy of consideration. Anything they say is invalid.
  • Accepting the Blow – We picture ourselves as unworthy, inferior, perverted, etc. and thus when a blow strikes we are not surprised by it. It does not hurt sharply because we have already told ourselves that we are as they say we are.
  • Counterattacking – We become “righteously” indignant, throwing back insult for insult. We are louder, meaner, faster than they are and we force them to retreat.

There are numerous strategies we utilize to defend ourselves when attacked including: invalidating the attacker, accepting the blow, and counterattacking.

I wouldn’t suggest these are invalid methods of response, sometimes they may be appropriate. What I would warn against is an inflexibility in response. We tend to fall into the same response(s) over and over again. They are easy for us, even if they aren’t the best response for the situation.

The issue is not that we use these strategies of defense but that we become repeatedly fixed upon one or more of them when they are not the best defense available.

I’d also suggest another coping strategy which I believe is oftentimes the best strategy: understanding.

 

 

In my experience, when a person treats me unfairly, it is always because of something about them, not me. That isn’t to say I might not have done something unworthy – but rather that the ferocity of the attack comes from a place outside of this immediate interaction.

Another defense strategy is understanding. If we understand why the person acts as they do we can recognize that their attack is primarily a statement about themselves and only secondarily about us.

Let us take the example of a man and his wife. Both went to work one day, but the man stayed late for a unexpected conference call with a client and the wife returned home a little early. When the husband arrives home the wife doesn’t greet him with a kiss and hello but instead says “You are such a jerk, dinner has already gone cold.”

The man could respond with invalidation:

  • “She is a horrible wife. She is a horrible person. She is so self-centered. Anything she says is worthless.”

Or he could respond with acceptance:

  • “I am a horrible person. I should have been here earlier. I have no excuse for my behavior. I’m not worthy of being married to her.”

Or he could respond with a counter-attack:

  • “Maybe if you weren’t such a shrew, I would come home earlier!”

None of these options will provide good, long-term results. The invalidation increases distance and coldness, the acceptance results in an inferiority complex and oftentimes resentment on the part of the attacker, and the counter-attack – well that sets off World War III.

But what if he used the understanding approach? In this case he would try to understand why his wife was acting as she was. It would be easy to assume that she was intentionally and maliciously being hurtful – but are there any other possibilities?

  • Perhaps he had been getting home a little too late. That didn’t mean that he was a worthless person, and calling him a jerk wasn’t appropriate, but he would make a renewed effort to be on time because it mattered to her.
  • Perhaps she has had a bad day at work – her boss yelled at her, she made a mistake, a coworker dissed her, etc. – she had been looking forward to having him there to comfort her.
  • Perhaps she burnt her finger cooking dinner and then waited thirty minutes with that aching finger for her husband to arrive home.
  • Perhaps her father was always on-time and she sees being on-time as one of the primary ways in which one expresses love.

In these cases, if he takes the time to understand, he can see that there is a source outside of himself for this ferocity and can deflect the dart by understanding that this is not objectively what his wife means. He is also now empowered to pursue her with love rather than defend with animosity.

Let us consider another example. Perhaps there is a father and a daughter. The father was absent during her childhood, criticized much more than he complimented, and rarely lifted a finger to help her with any expenses (though he was able) – even when she was injured in a car accident and had large medical bills.

The daughter has similar opportunities to the husband above in responding to this behavior by her father.

  • “My father is a worthless human being. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself.” (Invalidation)
  • “I am such a horrible person. I don’t deserve any attention or care from my father.” (Acceptance)
  • “Dad, I never want to talk to you again! You are such a piece of trash! You are the worst father that has ever been!” (Counterattack)

We see similar results when the daughter uses these approaches: the father and daughter’s relationship becomes more distant and cold (Invalidation); the daughter’s perception of herself is as a worthless person and she treats herself as such (Acceptance); a war erupts with vicious words that cut deeply on both sides (Counterattack).

What would taking an understanding approach look like? In this case the daughter would attempt to understand why her father was acting as he was. In so doing, she, like the husband above, is able to deflect the dart and perhaps even engage her father in a meaningful way. But what possibilities could there be to explain his behavior?

  • His father was always absent and as such he never learned to be present for his own children.
  • He has a deep, underlying depression which saps all the life and energy from him.
  • He feels ashamed of how he has acted towards her, too ashamed to even apologize.
  • He had to pull himself up by the bootstraps and so he insists everyone else do the same.

None of these, nor all of these put together, excuse the poor behavior of the father. But they do allow the daughter to deflect the dart by recognizing that her father’s behavior is not primarily a response to her (and her inherent worth) but instead towards himself and his own burdens.

She might even pursue him by talking to him about his life. What was it like for him as a child? As an adult? What were some of the biggest challenges he experienced?

…I struggle to be healthy in my interactions with others. While many are too quick to judge, too quick to anger – I struggle in the opposite direction. I continue to give, I resent the person for taking, I enable the person in their poor behavior.

The understanding approach is not the end-all, it is a starting point. It enables us to interact with wisdom in  a difficult situation. But it does not excuse the poor behavior nor can it be the end-all in our toolbox.

The understanding approach is not always the healthy approach. We are not excusing the person’s behavior but understanding it. If we venture into excusing we have crossed a dangerous line.

Looking Deeper

What I have been unable to elucidate properly above is the worth of finding the emotion behind the behavior. What is the person feeling that causes them to act in such a manner? In almost every situation I find the answer is fear. It may be masked by anger or selfishness or pride – but under it all is fear:

  • Fear of our darkest secrets being revealed to the light.
  • Fear of doing something we will regret for the rest of our lives.
  • Fear of standing out and failing in front of everyone.
  • Fear of being abandoned.
  • Fear of being loved so deeply we cease to exist as ourselves.
  • Fear that we will never be loved.
  • Fear that our desires will never be satiated.
  • Fear that another will take advantage of us.

Thus we see a cause (e.g., absent father) of another’s behavior – but this is not looking deep enough. What is beneath this? A fear of being smothering? A fear of spoiling? A fear of doing something different? A fear of having more asked if we give more?

Underneath the causes of another’s poor behavior is almost always (or is it always?) fear.

 

 

 

What I Think I Know About Difficult People

TL;DR:

I want to share what I know about difficult people and how to interact with them in a series of posts. There are several basic principles that are foundational to this discussion:

 

0. I know one thing: that I know nothing.

1. We are all difficult people. The amount to which we are difficult tends to increase in parallel to the length of sustained involvement with another person.

2. To be difficult is to fail to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons.

3. Individuals who are unwilling or unable to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons are extremely difficult people.

4. Extremely difficult people can be intentionally or unintentionally destructive. The severity of injury to you is generally more severe when it occurs intentionally, but the cumulative power of the unintentionally destructive should not be underestimated.

 

I greatly covet your interaction with my thoughts here – comments, suggestions, criticisms.

Introduction

I think I know something about difficult people, not least because I have been and am one. I am writing this for those who are dealing with difficult people (and that difficult person could be me!).

I write what I think I know, because, while I do not pretend to have the wisdom of Socrates, I hold to the statement ascribed to him,

I know one thing: that I know nothing.[1]

[This will be a series of posts, I am unsure how many. I hope that you will interact with what I say so that I can refine my understanding and come to know more fully what is true.]

Who is a Difficult Person?

I am. You are. We are.

[Pour out your patience upon me and bear with me for a few minutes more…I’m trying not to recycle old truisms…this should become evident by the end of this post, but along the way you may feel a bit of nausea set in.]

This brings me to a first principle:

We are all difficult people. The amount to which we are difficult tends to increase in parallel to the length of sustained involvement with another person.

In other words, many of us are nice, normal people in everyday casual interactions with coworkers, neighbors, friends, and so on. But as the length of our involvement with another individual extends over a sustained period it reaches a point where nice and normal become overwhelming burdens and we transition to being difficult.

This is why spouses can rip each other apart while treating everyone else so well. It is why children, especially teenagers, can relate so well to other adults but are at complete odds with their parents.

[We will come back to this topic at a future time.]

What Does It Mean to Be Difficult?

This brings me to a second principle:

To be difficult is to fail to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons.

[Right now we are not going to delve into the source of this contract (e.g., internal, cultural, external (e.g., natural, supernatural) nor the exact conditions of this contract (e.g., patience, empathy). ]

This occurs when our strength to maintain the social contract is exhausted – and this occurs due to the length of sustained involvement with another. It is important to note here that the reason why we explode at our good friend almost immediately instead of the stranger who just chewed us out for a period of time is because we have had sustained involvement with an individual who has utilized our strength for sustaining the social contract and thus, even though we have not been in sustained involvement with our friend, the least episode can trigger us because we have already exhausted our strength.[2]

But Are There Extra Difficult People?

We are all difficult, but surely we are not as difficult as that person?! Correct. This leads me to a third principle:

Individuals who are unwilling or unable to maintain the basic social contract that exists between persons are extremely difficult people.

You probably have several difficult people in your life right now. These individuals can be frustrating, infuriating, or blatantly destructive, even deadly. Which leads me to a fourth principle:

Extremely difficult people can be intentionally or incidentally destructive. The severity of injury to you is generally more severe when it occurs intentionally, but the cumulative destructive power of the incidentally destructive should not be underestimated.

Example of Intentionally Destructive Person:

An individual who utilizes physical force to ensure their control over a situation. While the individual may regret their action after the incident is over they choose in the instant to do something which they know will result in harm.

Another example would be the individual who uses verbal and non-verbal communication in order to ensure their control over a situation. We think of this most frequently in the use of harsh, guilt-inducing, shaming words but it can also include non-verbal messages that arise in a wide variety of forms – such as the use of body language to indicate anger, aggression, or disgust.

Example of Incidentally Destruction Person:

The talker may be the first person to offer to help you out in a pinch, may be of understanding of your quirks and weaknesses, but when it comes to conversation they are unable or unwilling to follow the basic social contract principle of give-and-take when it comes to conversation.

Relationships cannot be based upon an exact balance of giving and taking but should operate on a dynamic flow of give-and-take which over time becomes roughly equivalent. That is, the roles of giver and taker should be shared between the individuals in a relationship.

One time an individual may do all the talking, perhaps several times, but at some point there must be some reciprocity. One cannot offer unending monologues to another without being a difficult person.

Another example is the giver. The giver insists on giving but will not receive. They will help you out in a tight spot, listen to you when you need to talk, etc., but when it comes to sharing about themselves – when it comes to allowing you to help them out of a tight spot or sharing with you in conversation about their needs – there is no reciprocity.

[I will explain in a future post how something that appears so good (being a giver) can in fact be destructive.]

Where Am I Going?

Conciseness has never been my gift. What am I trying to say? Where am I going with all of this? I’ve attempted to lay down here some basic groundwork which will allow us in future posts to discuss topics such as:

  • How should I interact with the difficult people in my life?
  • Why are some people more difficult than others?
  • How can I protect myself from the injuries others can inflict upon me?
  • How can I help difficult people while protecting myself?
  • Am I an extremely difficult person?
  • What should I do if I am an extremely difficult person?

And so on…

Questions and Comments Please!

It would be greatly helpful to me if you were to provide me with questions, comments, and even criticisms on the above. Help me keep from straying down rabbit trails that aren’t interesting. Help me touch upon the topics that are interesting. Help me learn as I share what I think I know.

  1. [1]Yes, I consider myself to be postmodern in my thinking, though I also believe in absolute truth. Am I allowed to combine the two?
  2. [2]In other words, we have a finite amount of strength for maintaining the social contract. This is exhausted by various interactions and events throughout our days/weeks/months/years. We do not get a fresh dose of strength for each social interaction.

When Islands of Meaning Sink Beneath Us

I subscribe to Christianity Today and in their most recent issue (Nov. 2015, Vol. 59, Num. 9) they have an article by Douglas Groothuis, a well-known professor and author of theology and philosophy with the title “When Islands of Meaning Sink Beneath Us.” (pp. 50-55) The title alone lifted my spirits, but the contents are pure gold.

Groothuis’ wife was diagnosed with fibromyalgia over twenty-five years ago and that was only the beginning of her struggles. More recently she was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable, and terminal form of dementia. Groothuis’ article attempts to make sense of this suffering – the suffering of his wife and his suffering.

Quote from Douglas Groothuis: "I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day."

A quote by Douglas Groothuis found in the article “When Islands of Meaning Sink Beneath Us” in Christianity Today, November 2015.

And Groothuis fails and I thank God he is willing to do so. Groothuis falls back on quoting angst-filled passages from Ecclesiastes (8:16-17, 9:11), listening to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and grasping at the Psalms of Lament (22, 88, 90). In the end, he writes, “Yet when I try to find the meaning in my wife’s suffering, I come up dry and gasping…I know there is a larger meaning behind it all, but I cannot parse it out day by darkening day.” (pg. 55)

And yet, paradoxically, it is Groothuis’ failure which also causes him to succeed in making sense of suffering. Groothuis writes, “Ecclesiastes tells me to embrace my ignorance within the larger circle of knowledge–to mine meaning where I can and to look ahead with hope.” (pg. 55) Groothuis seeks the answer while also accepting the lack of an answer. It is in this tension, this refusal to settle for simple answers, that we find our closest answer to suffering.

 

My Soul is Weary.

Psalm 119:28:

“My soul is weary…”

Job 10:1:

“My soul is weary…”

Statue of the "Tired Man." A reference to the poem by Attila József. The statue itself made by József Somogyi.

Statue of the “Tired Man.” A reference to the poem by Attila József. The statue itself made by József Somogyi.

Ruth Bell Graham (Sitting By My Laughing Fire):

“Lord, when my soul is weary and my heart is tired and sore and I have that failing feeling that I can’t take any more; then let me know the freshening found in simple, childlike prayer, when the kneeling soul knows surely that a listening Lord is there.”

Melody Gardot (Who Will Comfort Me on the album My One and Only Thrill):

“My soul is a weary
My soul is a weary
My soul is a weary
I said my soul is a weary”

Marion W. Easterling and Thomas Ramsey’s Angels Rock Me to Sleep (song, singers include Bill Monroe):

“My heart is sad my soul is weary
While sailing o’er life’s rugged plain
The clouds are dark the day is dreary
It seems”

Anne Steele and Kevin Twit’s Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul (song):

“Dear refuge of my weary soul…”

Josh Groban’s You Raise Me Up (song):

“When I am down and, oh, my soul, so weary;
When troubles come and my heart burdened be…”

When the Zombies Keep Coming.

Sleep settled on me before I wanted it to – 11:30 pm. Then released me from its grasp before I desired – 2 am. It refuses to return for several hours, begrudgingly settling over me at 6 am.

Having insomnia is frustrating, having it with zombies only amplifies this frustration.

Last night my dreams were literally about zombies. I’m not particularly frightened of zombies – and it isn’t the content of the dreams which is most unsettling (zombies, murderers, demons), its their zombie-like quality: they refuse to stay dead.

I remember as a child a puppet that haunted my dreams. I was always in a room – but a room with no visible ways, ceiling, or floor. It was defined – it existed, but I could not see what it consisted of. It was always dark – and out of the darkness a puppet would drop to torment me.

I don’t remember the puppet ever actually doing anything – it just tormented me with its presence. It would disappear and then reappear. It would be gone and then it would be there again – dropping out of the darkness t frighten me.

Some of these zombie dreams face similar monstrous opponents – the serial killers and demons – but I’m not really afraid of any of these monsters, I’m just exhausted. I do everything possible, necessary to eliminate them but they always return. It is an endless loop of me trying to fend them off – usually not so much for my own sake as for those around me, especially those I love.

Somehow the door I just locked, the enemy I just killed, the defense I just built is always being undone, unlocked, unkilled. I’m not afraid as much as I am tired.

Last night it was zombies – literal zombies – and they just wouldn’t leave me alone. The scenario and the participants changed a thousand times over – but the constant threat of the zombies remained.

At one juncture I found myself in a metal trailer with all the doors locked and windows secured. I lay on the floor with dozens of other individuals. We were all wrapped in our sleeping bags, hoping we could outlast the assault of the zombies.

There was a TV. Of course there was a TV. And while the entire world had gone to hell, there was electricity for the TV…and of course, on the TV was playing zombie movies. I tried repeatedly to turn them off, but every time I turned them off someone else turned them back on. There was at least three of them – and by turns I’d end up as a participant within each one. It was a dream inside a dream.

I’m not huge on dream interpretation. I don’t look in every nook and cranny for meaning – but when I have a dream which repeats itself over a span of time, I don’t mind looking to see what exactly my sub-conscious may be trying to work through…

In this case, as in every case of these monstrous dreams, I seem to be processing, very abstractly, the feeling of helplessness – a lack of control – over some aspect of my life.

It could be financial difficulties, a ruptured relationship, a difficult decision, or ongoing health troubles. The monsters of the dream, the frustrations of the dream are simply a sleeping representation of the obstacle I find myself facing in the daylight.

I awake feeling exhausted and my muscles are sore from being clenched through the night.

I stumble into the shower and let the hot water pound against my frame…hoping some of my muscles will get the message and unclench.

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Apparently I fell asleep at the keyboard with my fingers still on the keys.

Allie Brosh on Depression.

Intro

I recently posted some excerpts from Allie Brosh’s  book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. Today I’d like to offer up a few more from the same, from her chapters entitled “Depression Part One” and “Depression Part Two.”

This is Something

I figure I should tell you a few some-things:

  1. The book is better than the excerpts. Brosh has these wonderful comics that make up the larger portion of the book and illustrate what she says, so you should probably read the book.
  2. The book contains a significant amount of profanity, if this is an obstacle for you, well, you probably shouldn’t read the book.
  3. After reading Depression Part I, I had to seek reassurance that I wasn’t, necessarily, supposed to find the chapter funny…which I didn’t…it felt far too familiar. Depression Part II on the other hand, managed to mix me up emotionally – part of me felt reverberations of the sickness that has controlled my life at various times and sundry places but the other part of me couldn’t stop laughing…this doesn’t necessarily mean that things were actually funny, I have a threshold of discomfort after which I start laughing.[1]

The Good Stuff

“Some people have a legitimate reason to feel depressed, but not me. I just woke up one day feeling arbitrarily sad and helpless.” – 99.

  • We need a new word. There is depression and there is DEPRESSION. Experiencing depression sucks, but it is almost always correlated to experience (loss, sickness, etc.) and tends to evaporate over a limited period of time. Experiencing DEPRESSION is usually without obvious cause and thus has no intention of alleviating when an certain experience fades into the past, since there is no certain event to be correlated with it.[2]

“I tried to force myself to not be sad….But trying to use willpower to overcome the apathetic sort of sadness that accompanies depression is like a person with no arms trying to punch themselves until their hands grow back. A fundamental component of the plan is missing and it isn’t going to work.” – 100-101.

  • Some forms of depression can be overcome by willpower, counseling, whatever…some forms of DEPRESSION don’t. Brosh offers an excellent example of what it is like to tell someone or attempt to overcome DEPRESSION through various endeavors of the will. I like to use the analogy of someone who has had a leg amputated – we don’t keep telling them, “If you just start running, your leg will grow back. I know it. You just have to believe it.”[3]

“In a final, desperate attempt to regain power over myself, I turned to shame as a sort of motivational tool.” – 102.

  • This links back to her earlier attempts at overcoming procrastination. Shame is a powerful motivator, but in my experience it is a short-term fix that has long-term consequences.

“Slowly, my feelings started to shrivel up. The few that managed to survive…staggered around like wounded baby deer, just biding their time until they could die and join all the other carcasses strewn across the wasteland of my soul.” – 111.

  • Powerful word pictures, this resonates with my soul.

“And that’s how my depression got so horrible that it actually broke through to the other side and became a sort of fear-proof exoskeleton.” – 119.

  • Sometimes I can experience some relief from DEPRESSION by reading books about grace. They remind me that God loves me as I am and that I don’t need to impress others, so I can stop caring so much about what others think – or even what I think. That said, this is no cure all, and its efficacy for me is limited and sporadic.

“At first…the invulnerability that accompanied the detachment was exhilarating. At least as exhilarating as something can be without involving real emotions.” – 124.

  • I’ve been complimented at various times in my life for my stoicism – my ability to remain calm in tense situations – I’ve come to feel that while this is sometimes a strength I exercise it is oftentimes the result of an inability or fear of expressing emotion.

“…my experiences slowly flattened and blended together until it became obvious that there’s a huge difference between not giving a —- and not being able to give a —-.” – 124.

  • In other words, Brosh found that her cure (not caring) was not a cure. Not caring can help, but there is a great difference between choosing not to care and not being able to care no matter how hard one tries.

“…I could no longer rely on genuine emotion to generate facial expressions, and when you have to spend every social interaction consciously manipulating your face into shapes that are only approximately the right ones, alienating people is inevitable.” – 126.

  • This makes social interactions extremely exhausting. One has to constantly and intentionally do what others do naturally – smile, frown, scowl, inflect, look away, look at, and so on.

“It [depression] isn’t always something you can fight back against with hope….It [encouraging to find the happiness, optimism, joy in life] would be like having a bunch of dead fish, but no one around you will acknowledge that the fish are dead. Instead, they offer to help you look for the fish or try to help you figure out why they disappeared.” – 132.

  • If you have experienced depression it is tempting to encourage those with DEPRESSION that they can overcome it – just like you did. Except, this is akin to telling someone how they will get over AIDs based on your experience with the flu.
  • Ouch, I know that hurts. I don’t mean to minimize the pain one experiences through events – my pain and suffering has never been more intense than during event-driven depression…but it ended (errr, the pain became less frequent, intense…), DEPRESSION oftentimes does not.
  • A core difference is in hope. There is hope for healing from depression, but DEPRESSION oftentimes saps the last hope from our soul.[4]

“…I somehow managed to convince myself that everything was still under my control right up until I noticed myself wishing that nothing loved me so I wouldn’t feel obligated to keep existing.” – 136.

  • I’ve been here. I’d add that another motivator is fear of the unknown. I don’t believe suicide is a ticket to hell, although this opinion was/is common among Christians…that said, I don’t particularly want to take a chance, even if it is only 0.000000001% that I could end my life and end up in an infinite and eternal suffering.[5]

“I have spent the vast majority of my life actively attempting to survive.” – 137.

  • All of us attempt to survive. Life is hard. But it is perhaps better to say we all attempt to live. To survive (in this case) is not to live, it is to continue to exist.

“I had so very few feelings, and everyone else had so many, and it felt like they were having all of them in front of me at once. I didn’t really know what to do, so I agreed to see a doctor so that everyone would stop having all of their feelings at me.” – 144.

  • The amount of feelings other have is overwhelming – especially when these emotions are “caused” by our DEPRESSION.[6]

“I call this emotion ‘crying’ and not ‘sadness’ because that’s all it really was.” – 148.

  • This is a great description. I watch movies/TV and it is not infrequently that I find myself sobbing. Sure, the scene was sad – but was it that sad? No. Can I see other scenes ten times as heartbreaking and not have moist eyes? Yes.
  • For me, movies/TV seem to act as a trigger…and usually only when I’m alone. This may be why they act as a trigger – they allow me to express significant emotional angst without “causing” others to become emotive.
  • It is REALLY hard to be emotive when other people respond by being emotive and then need your emotive support. This results in not only facing one’s own emotions but now the emotions of another and the “feeling” that one “needs” to fix their emotions.

Concluding Thoughts

If I may, I’d like to offer two suggestions to those who love the DEPRESSED:

First, don’t assume that the depression you have experienced is the same as his/her DEPRESSION. Even if you have had DEPRESSION, don’t assume that his/her DEPRESSION will respond to the same remedies.

A good exercise is to pretend you have never experienced depression and you are trying to learn about this entirely foreign phenomenon. Ask questions, accept the answers, don’t foist your own experiences onto the other.

Second, as hard as this is to believe, oftentimes the best thing you can do for him/her is to stop. Stop trying to heal, comfort, help. I can’t speak for everyone else, but for me, there are few things more agonizing than to see others stop living b/c I can’t live. Offer to walk with me, to join me in the experience, to help…but accept that sometimes you simply can’t help.

It isn’t your problem any more than if the individual’s problem was a mortal wound or a chronic disease…and what the person needs from you can vary. Using the analogy of a mortal wound, someone might need to go to the bathroom – and need you to “help” them (carry them, support them) in getting there – but you know that helping them go to the bathroom is not going to cure them, you are just helping them go to the bathroom.[7]

Thanks

I’d like to end by just saying thanks to those who love those of us who struggle with DEPRESSION. Your willingness to care about someone who sometimes, perhaps most of the time, cannot be helped is admirable. Sometimes we may never know the difference you make in our lives, but there is a difference.

I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and to consider what it looks to love well someone who is depressed. I’m not suggesting this is an end-all. I’m just sharing what is true of my experience…and I, personally, believe there are many causes and forms of depression, each of which may require different remedies (and some which are simply incurable).

  1. [1]This is awkward, e.g. if someone has just injured themselves, I may find myself laughing – not b/c it is funny but b/c it relieves the overwhelming overwhelming-ness of the event.
  2. [2]That said, while depressed one often desperately searches for the cause of these feelings (or lack thereof) and one may find various “triggers” that caused the depression, but imho, these may be “triggers” but they are simply the experience that happened to trigger the depression, if it hadn’t been this event it would have been that event.
  3. [3]Okay, maybe some of us do that, which I think this is pretty mean…I recommend Mark Rutland’s Streams of Mercy for a mature understanding of healing.
  4. [4]Sure, there is always hope. I could win the lottery, I could grow wings and fly. But these are unlikely enough that they cannot serve as adequate grounds for a hope that provides inspiration for life.
  5. [5]Does this demonstrate weakness in my faith? Sure. Am I going to pretend that my faith is not weak? No. I’d like it to be stronger, I seek to be stronger (not so I can kill myself, don’t worry, I’m not suicidal.), but I’m not going to pretend I am.
  6. [6]Cognitivate Behavioral Therapy (CBT) teaches us that no one can “cause” our emotions, I think this is true to a great extent. We cannot take responsibility for how others act, nor can they for us (though we oftentimes do).
  7. [7]And it is “just” in the sense of not being curative, but it is so much more than “just” in the sense of the blessing you bring to the individual. I like to refer to my baseline on a scale of 0-10. 0 is deathly awful, 10 is ecstatic. I may be at a 2 (life is awful) and need to go to the bathroom, if you help me to the bathroom I may be a 3 for a few seconds (life is one speck less awful). To the external observer it looks like the endeavor was worthless – but I experienced relief in some sense for a second or two.

A Little Fun with Procrastination

I’ve been reading a book recently by Allie Brosh entitled Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened. The first two chapters (Warning Signs and The Simple Dog) were okay – but I found chapter three (Motivation) hilarious and insightful. May I share? Good.

“One of the most terrifying things that has ever happened to me was watching myself decide over and over again–thirty-five days in a row–to not return a movie I rented.” – 34.

I’m glad I’m not the only one with these issues. Mine spill over to the library – I don’t borrow library books much anymore, seeing I have single-handedly funded several libraries with my late fines throughout my relatively brief life.[1]

I believe that Redbox machines are the devil and a trap. They promise me I can borrow a movie for $1 knowing full well that by the time I return it I will have accumulated an additional $4 in late fees. Therefore, I generally refuse to rent Redbox DVDs, choosing instead to pay extra to watch something on Amazon Unbox.

“I keep allowing it [procrastination] to happen because, to me, the future doesn’t seem real. It’s just this magical place I can put my responsibilities…” – 42.

This is actually a symptom of AD(H)D. Once upon a time I thought maybe I was spiritual b/c I didn’t worry as much as some people about the future,[2] nope – its just me putting things in magical places.

“Procrastination has become its own solution–a tool I can use to push myself so close to disaster that I become terrified and flee toward success.” – 46.

Ugh. Why is this so true?

“A more troubling matter is the day-to-day activities that don’t have massive consequences when I neglect to do them. I haven’t figured out how to solve the problem in a normal way…” – 46.

Shaving my face.

Washing the laundry.

Taking out the trash.

Paying the bills.

The other means of coping Brosh mentions is shame. By shaming herself that she is a bad person if she doesn’t do x she can sometimes motivate herself to do x.

I can identify with this. Unfortunately, shaming oneself to do x oftentimes results in a mounting sense of failure which paradoxically causes one to resist doing x all the more, meanwhile y and z have piled onto the party.

Speaking of procrastinating, I’m supposed to be reading the chapters on depression, but I’ve been meandering around the other chapters taking my time getting there…

And this blog post…no, no, it has nothing to do with procrastinating…I never blog in order to procrastinate.

Okay, I’m going, I’m going. I’ll be productive, really.

  1. [1]Ummm, yes, I’m being hyperbolic.
  2. [2]Ironic coming from someone with an anxiety disorder.

Dear God, Where Did Those Stormclouds Come From?

I hate to admit it.
I have been doing well

better than well.[1]

There have been ups and downs,
life still throws me for a loop on a regular basis,
but overall I’ve had more up than down…
and I don’t remember the last time that was true of my life.

Winslow Homer's The Fog Warning (1885).

Winslow Homer’s The Fog Warning (1885).

But for the last several days…
the dark clouds have descended on me…
the gnawing in my chest throbs
my brain feels so sloooowwww
balls and chains hang from my arms, my feet
and every move is a struggle.

I have been making such good progress
I am tempted to smile and keep on going silently…
I feel embarrassed that it has come alive again…
I knew intellectually that it would return on occasion…
but now it is here in the flesh and I don’t want it.

I don’t believe depression is my fault or yours.
But I still feel ashamed to be weak.
And that is why I can’t stay silent.

My silent shame projects shame upon others, who struggle like me.
So I declare it – here I am, world, and I am weak…
And I will refuse to be ashamed…
And I will refuse to shame you for your weakness…

I’m so happy for those of you,
whomever and wherever you are,
that live with the true face of peace and contentment

But for the rest of us, I take off my plastic smile
And let you know this is me.

The me I’d rather not be but am.
And the road to better is so much longer,
and so much farther…
And I grow so tired…

I’ve tried the usual remedies…
But the enemy is too strong…
My attempts to make it dissipate…
Dissolve…fall…lose…cease
Exercise.
Eat better.
Talk with friends.
Take a break.
Read.
LOUD music.
PUSHing through.
warm showers.
light therapy.
medications.
journaling.

But it clings to me and refuses to dissipate…
And so I wait…
I continue to throw my pebbles at the monster…
But they don’t seem to make a difference.

I’m not asking or expecting anything from you.
I know it is hard, especially for those who love me most
Not to be able to help me…
But sometimes the only way is through…
And through is a process over time…
A process from which
“…a little love in my life…
a little love in the dark…”
can’t
“kick start me and my broken heart”[2]

  1. [1]Maybe a few months, which isn’t that long – but it is long for me.
  2. [2]From Rixton’s Me and My Broken Heart.