Making Space for Healing

During the quarantine of ‘20 we cleared out two crawl spaces, the attic and the shed. We found a lot of things we had forgotten; most of it went to Goodwill, a little to the landfill, a few items went back into storage, and fewer still returned to the land of the living. It was therapeutic, getting rid of useless stuff in the attic, but the most practical thing we cleared out was the shed. We use the shed for storing bikes and yard tools and other odds and ends. It took work to sort it all out and reimagine how to use the space, but now that it’s done, it’s easier to get to the useful and necessary things for everyday life.

About nine years into the cycle of depression and anxiety that stole so much of my life, I came to the conclusion that I would not get better unless I made space for healing. I needed breathing room, or I would drown. I needed to reimagine my life; to see life without depression and anxiety as its defining characteristics. This meant leaving my job and accepting a season in which healing was the priority. It meant moving one of the biggest things in the shed so that everything else moved.

Much of the way we are told to treat depression is adding something to our lives; a pill, a counselor, a diet, an exercise regime. Those things may have their merits, but they can also be a matter of working around stuff that needs to move in order for us to live well, and to get healthy. We might need to remove and reorder things rather than adding things. We may just need space to heal.

Depression has gravity. It draws things into our lives we don’t necessarily want or need. The longer depression remains in our lives the more it sets up its own miniature solar system of misery. People and tasks, attitudes and habits begin to orbit around the depression. When this continues for a long period of time, we are dehumanized; we become depressed people; eventually we become depression itself. This is part of the disease and plays a role in perpetuating it. Our vocabulary changes. Our countenance changes. Our bodies change. We need to break up the system. We need to reimagine our lives and make space to change and heal.

When I worked as an intelligence officer in the navy. I met a civilian who worked with the tech side of our organization. He was a nice guy and once in a while we’d chat. One day he told me he didn’t like his job very much but it paid the bills, and he had a lot of family obligations with college aged kids, and he had a mortgage and… a shed full of stuff. I asked him what he really liked to do. He told me that even though he had no experience in medicine, he thought he’d like to be a doctor. While he was talking it hit me – why did he have to keep doing life this way? I blurted out “why don’t you quit your job, apply to school, and become a physician’s assistant?” It wasn’t premeditated. It just came out. I remember the look on his face. There was this shadow of doubt and then I said something like “why not just look at it as a possibility? Think about it differently. It’s your life after all.” Not long after that I transferred to a new command and lost track of the man.

A couple years later I went back to my old office and I ran into him. He was a different man. His countenance was different. His physical energy was different. Before I could ask him about the change, he told me he was about to finish up PA school. He said that after our talk he went home and discussed the possibility with his family and they were for it. The process had been tough on them and had caused some disruptions in their lives, but they’d gotten through it. He was so thankful and insistent on praising me that it felt like too much. It was almost embarrassing. I hadn’t done anything. But as I think back on it now, I see that it was a big deal. He had never taken the time to reimagine his life. He had never given himself the space for things to change. All it took was a suggestion. It made all the difference in the world. When he was willing to move the one big thing – his job – everything changed.

I don’t advocate making change for change sake. If you are fairly functional you may not need to move the big things. You may be able to improve your life with less drastic measures. But if you are dealing with treatment resistant depression, you need to make space for healing. You need to create a season in which healing is the priority. You need to make a big change to break up the depressive center of gravity in your life.

Do you want to get better? Are you sure? What seems so big that you won’t consider moving it? I left my job and took a significant pay cut. I changed the center point of my community and had to alter the way I related to most of my friends. I made some people mad and disappointed others. Everything shifted, but now I know how to get to the essentials without stumbling over stuff. There is room to breathe.

Take some time to think about your life. Do you have to keep doing the job that is sucking your life away? Do you have to live in the place you don’t like? What if you didn’t have to make the same amount of money? It helps to think of space to heal as a season for healing. Maybe you love your job but it stresses you out and keeps the shed too full for other things. What if you stepped away for a year or two? And what if you moved to another place for a season? Birds migrate, we can too. Maybe all you need to do is reimagine your life and it will be enough to break you loose from depression’s gravity. Go ahead and dream it. Live anywhere and do anything. Allow yourself the freedom to be free.

We can change. We can be healed. You can reimagine your life. It will cost others and you will need others to help you, but depression is already costing others around you and asking others to help us is ok. You can ask me. I’d love to help you. I bet there are folks already in your life who will help too. Let’s do it. Let’s clean out the shed and make space to heal. It helped me a lot and it can help you.

Depression & Emotional Bandwidth

For many years we hosted Chinese students who lived with us while going to high school in the States. We seem to be a family that can adapt to having people in our home and, for the most part, it did not create disturbances in the way we lived. We just treated them like they were our kids and they treated us with respect. Two of them grew to be what we now call our “Chinese sons.” We’ve been to China with them and met their families and while they are now living in other towns they often come home to be with us. We love them. Our kids love them. They count them as brothers. We made room for them in our lives. And there was more room.

When my daughter was born I discovered many things, but the most profound was the expansion of my Grinchy heart. I knew I loved my wife and family, but the first time I saw my little girl I realized there was a new dimension to love I’d never known even though I’d seen it playing out in others all my life. I thought I knew it but then I experienced it. It was like seeing triangles all your life and suddenly discovering they were just sides of a pyramid. My heart could do things I didn’t know it could do.

A few years later we decided to add another baby, but not before we talked long and hard about it. We were so in love with our little girl. Would we be able to love another person this way? I had my doubts. It really troubled me. What if bringing another baby into our lives meant we didn’t love either one the way we loved the first? We talked with people who had already done it and they all said the same thing: you don’t understand it now, but you will be able to love them both with your whole heart. I admit I wasn’t fully convinced, but being forearmed with the expanding heart experience from having our daughter, I agreed to try it again. And again my heart surprised me. Love surprised me. We loved our son the same way we love our daughter; comprehensively and profoundly. I had to change my paradigm again. It seemed the triangle wasn’t just a pyramid; that my heart was more like a paper football made of a very large piece of paper and it could keep unfolding – maybe infinitely. There was more room.

During this time I began teaching a Sunday School class. It was only a little group of people to start, maybe eight of us. Each week I noticed this feeling inside me that started to grow. I didn’t know these people very well but the feeling was like an echo of the love I felt for my family. The class grew and visitors began to come and I found myself telling them I loved them. The words just came out of my mouth without much thought. I got some strange looks but I couldn’t help myself. Soon I began to realize I really did love these complete strangers. Some of them became people I knew intimately but that happened later. My heart was doing that thing again; unfolding and making room for more and more people. There was more room.

I’m betting that a lot of people understand this love thing better and more naturally than I do. My wife is more wired to love first and ask questions later. I’m more cautious and contemplative. But even if you don’t love many people I bet you feel a desire for it. We feel the desire to love and be loved and we sense the possibility. It’s in us. There is a huge emotional bandwidth for love; it might be infinite. Test it out and be honest: can you imagine a scenario where you love too many people? Would you ever be able to tell someone “I’ve got so many people who genuinely love me, I just can’t take another”? No. We are wired for lots of love.

It took me a long time to see the other side of this emotional bandwidth thing. Feeling bad about people has the opposite affect on our hearts. I mean exactly what I say. It’s not just hating people that goes to work on our hearts. It is holding people in a place inside us marked “this space reserved for idiots.” This may not be too problematic for those who are relatively emotionally healthy, but it is deadly in people with depression and anxiety. It can choke off emotional bandwidth to the point that we can’t function.

One of our Chinese students who lived with us was a big time online gamer. It usually wasn’t a problem, but at nights when we tried to stream movies and he was running his games, it sucked up enough of our WiFi bandwidth that every five minutes we got the spinning circle of death buffering thing. It made me very unhappy. It’s no fun trying to watch a movie in three minute segments. It ruins the whole show. Feeling bad about people can do this to us.

Just as our hearts seem to be created for infinite love, just a little criticism, ill will, judgment and – drum roll please – CONDESCENSION – is like one of those tiny little pellet sponges you can get at the Dollar Tree for your kids. Drop it in some water and sproing! It’s a big ole T-Rex. We are just not made for the stuff. Another test: isn’t it true that you can remember a slight against you longer than you remember a compliment? Isn’t it more likely for you to tell a friend that someone was rude to you today than to tell them someone did you a courtesy? Be honest. What’s more common?

Emotionally healthy people are not bitter people. It could be that the seeds to our depression and anxiety are sown by others but watered by us. If this becomes a habit we can end up with a whole prison block of people we keep in our hearts that we feel bad about. And we have to house them and feed them and make sure they don’t escape. It’s exhausting. It steals emotional bandwidth. It is the opposite of adding more people we love. There is not more room. I really believe there is no room at all for these negative feelings. Even one is one too many.

Part of my recovery has been the rejection of bad feelings toward anyone or anything. I became aware of the need to clear out the prison; release the captives and quit being the judge, jury, and executioner for those who offend me. I discovered it took too much energy; it was contributing to me beginning to buffer in real life. isn’t that what depression and anxiety feel like? Buffering – not present in our own present. Spinning wheel of death.

I have a suggestion for you. I would take this to the extreme. I would not allow a single bad feeling about anyone to take up space in my heart. And I mean it. Not a politician. Not a celebrity. Not a past lover. Not a current boss. Not a sports person. None. No one. Not a single one is worth me losing my emotional bandwidth. This takes practice. I realized I’d grown so used to harboring bad feelings about certain people that they were confined in maximum security. It took me a while to even find the keys to unlock the cell doors. But little by little I emptied the jail. And you know what? It wasn’t the bad guys who got free, it was me. Try it. Depression and anxiety feel bad enough, jettison the unneeded bad from your heart. And if you want to accelerate the process try something else: love a stranger. Love someone who has no way to give you anything in exchange. You don’t have to do something large. You don’t even have to talk with anyone to start loving them. How about this: think about how nobody really knows the deep pain inside you and how they probably think you are doing ok but you’re not. Now look at the next stranger you see and consider that they might very well be feeling like you do. Let your heart feel for them what you’d like someone to feel for you. Healing happens a little unfolding at a time in little moments that aren’t far away. You can do it. We can do it.

Addicted to Medicine

If you feel bad and you expect medicine to fix you, it changes the way you relate to medicine. I don’t mean pills; I mean the capital “M” Medicine. The term used to describe the huge swollen mass of accumulated knowledge and practice that educated folks allude to when they say things like “look at all the amazing advances in Medicine over the past fifty years.” The system. There have been some truly amazing discoveries in medicine through the years; so many in fact, that from a distance we can be deceived into believing medicine has all the answers. That’s too broad a statement, I know, but it’s a reasonable starting point. And it’s a dangerous one. Before you get sick; before something goes wrong beyond upset stomachs, headaches, or broken bones, the average person could be forgiven for believing medicine does have all the answers. Doctors are glorified in our culture. They are upheld as the most intelligent and capable among us. Whether they seek it or not we ascribe a kind of nobility to them. Beyond the individuals themselves, medicine itself is glorified. It’s like we feel a need to celebrate the knowledge of our bodies as if we’ve climbed the highest mountain; we are masters of the heights. But, suffer from an ailment like depression and fall into the hands of medicine, and you’ll learn a harsh truth: doctors are all just practicing medicine; that doesn’t mean they get it right.

Unmet expectations are the source of our greatest frustrations. I entered into the medical system believing treatments existed for every ailment. It was just a matter of time and testing to get to diagnosis and on to treatment. Of course I knew that all treatments didn’t work, and some ailments are terminal, but it never entered my mind that medicine would eventually look at me and shrug it’s shoulders. But that’s what happened, and it took a decade to break me if my addiction to medicine.

I had all the classic traits of an addict. I arranged my life around getting access to my substance – the medical system. I spent tons of money on it. I couldn’t think of changing jobs without accounting for a medical plan that would keep me close to my medicine. I let it abuse me. I showed up for office visits on time only to wait and wait for my “fix”: a visit with a doctor with too many patients and too little time to spare on me. I kept going back to it even when it gave me nothing and sometimes made me worse. I thought about it all the time. I lived for the hope that the next hit would be the one that really made me feel better. I spent hours and hours searching the internet for doctors who had a new way or a deeper understanding of my condition. I gradually came to realize my addiction but I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe my Medicine; our Medicine was failing. Just one more time. Just one more hit.

What’s rock bottom for the person addicted to Medicine? When do you give up on it and admit you can’t go on pursuing it? You see the issue. Heroin? Yes. Dope? Sure. Even if you’re addicted to work you can give a good explanation for walking away. But medicine? Try to tell people you’re giving up on medicine and you’ll see the look in their eyes. Crazy.

Is it difficult for you to get into this headspace? Imagine living with no health insurance. No doctor to call your own. How does that sound? How does it feel? Now imagine telling your family and friends you aren’t going to pay for health insurance for you or your family any more. What kind of response do you expect to get? Before you get all squirrelly on me, I’m not saying you need dump health insurance or doctors. It’s just a thought experiment to get you to see that we have a relationship with Medicine that needs to be examined. If you can’t see your life without it, you need to ask why and you need to ask what it is you expect of it. You see? It has the potential to abuse you if you blindly give yourself over to it. And just in case you think I’m excluding them, I feel the same way about “alternative medicine” and “homeopathic medicine” too. All of it. It’s all addictive.

Let’s take a step back from the glorification and addiction and give ourselves permission to get healthy with or without all mighty Medicine. Let’s remember that almost 2000 years of medicine was based, to a large part, upon the color of fluids that drained out of bodies. There were years upon years of practices like “bleeding” performed by all members of the medical community; a practice so unquestionably accepted as “orthodox” and “good medicine” that a doctor who wouldn’t bleed a patient would have been suspected of quackery. Every one of us has the potential to fall into the trap of believing we live in the cultural moment of all moments; that in our time we’ve reached the state of the art; and we know more and better than we ever will. Medicine is not unique in having a short memory for embarrassing episodes. Let’s agree that there are probably things we are doing which will look as foolish as the bell bottom jeans I wore in eighth grade (there are no surviving pictures out there…I hope). If we do this we can free ourselves to look elsewhere for healing while at the same time keeping a healthy relationship with medicine. Give yourself permission to live without medicine. Get separation from it and then decide how you want to relate to it. Maybe you’ll find you don’t need it or maybe you’ll decide to come back to it; hopefully not as your master, but as your servant or your friend.

In closing I’ll remind you again that I’m not writing to people who have a good relationship with medicine or medicines. I’m writing to people who are suffering from depression and anxiety that is either treatment resistant or is not helped very much by “state of the art” medicine. People like me. From my years of reading about this, I believe there are many of us out there. I want to help them. Healing is possible, and we don’t have to put all our hope into medical advances. It’s a big deal to give yourself space to walk away from things that don’t work for you and just breathe. The energy you’ve used on medicine can be used elsewhere. Have courage and hope.

How to Help Others

A person who makes claims on you to get them well will also blame you when they don’t.  Why graft a branch into another branch? The vine is healthier than the healthiest branch.   If you want to help others get well, don’t let them depend upon you for wholeness – point them to genuine wholeness, perpetual health, authentic holiness.  These only exist in one place, actually in one Person.  Jesus was so healthy that death couldn’t kill him, it could only coronate him.  Attach the broken to this him and let them have full life.

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My Children Laughing

I love the sound of my children laughing.  To this day it delights my heart in a way nothing else does. I have no doubt the Father in heaven loves the sound of our laughter too. CS Lewis said “Joy is the serious business of heaven.” I don’t think we can be healthy where there is never any laughter. And I think God would say to all of us what John Candy said of his niece in Uncle Buck: “I don’t think I want to know a 6 year old who isn’t a dreamer or a silly heart.”