The Holidays and Mental Health

2019 has flown by and Thanksgiving is approaching quickly. In the United States, Thanksgiving marks the beginning of the holiday season. While it’s easy to get caught up in shopping, gift giving, holiday parties,and decorations, the holidays may not be festive for everyone.

For those who struggle mental illness and/or grief, the holidays can be a stressful time.

When I was married, Christmas was difficult for me because of the infertility my ex-wife and I experienced. Though I love my nieces, nephews, and little cousins, it grew increasingly difficult to watch them open presents year after year while there were no children at our home Christmas morning.

The holidays can also serve of reminders of grief and loss. Maybe you lost a loved one around the holidays as you remember past family gatherings. I personally have lost three grandparents around the holidays. Going to the homes of my grandparents was always what made the holidays special, as the entire family would gather together. However, loved ones pass away and family dynamics can change due to divorce or other circumstances, leaving us with grief and loss.

The 2018 holidays were tough for me. My Grandma passed away the day after Thanksgiving. My Grandma’s funeral was on Tuesday and I received notification on Friday the same week that my divorce was finalized- a holiday double whammy.

In the coming weeks, I hope to share tips for dealing with mental health during the holidays. I just wanted to bring awareness that the holidays aren’t fun for everyone. Before you accuse your spouse, family member, friend, or co-worker of being a “Scrooge” or a “Grinch,” be mindful the holidays may be a difficult time of year for them.

Also, another aspect of holiday stress for some is the costs of gift giving. If someone bought you a gift that wasn’t as extravagant or costly as what you gave them, don’t belittle them, show appreciation. Maybe that gift is all they could afford. Maybe your gift giver didn’t have as good of a year as you. I personally dislike the commercial and financial aspects of the holidays as it becomes more about comparing checkbooks than celebrating the precious few moments we have to share together in this life.

I know this is a Christian blog, but I believe the words of the Dalai Lama ring true:  “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can’t help them, at least don’t hurt them.”

 

The Lawless Times

“Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold.”

Matthew 24:12, NASB

It is so easy to turn a deaf ear and form a cynical heart towards community decay. Newscasts are filled with stories of people being shot, crime, rape, child abuse, political bickering, and an overall disregard for established law and order. If the incidents take place blocks or miles from our comfortable existence, we can become insulated and isolated in our thinking about our community’s pain.

Jesus in His Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24-25) discusses what the times will be like before His return- wars, natural disasters, persecution of believers, false prophets, and rebellion to name a few signs. (Jesus also speaks of these events  in Mark 13 and Luke 21).

God knows our limitations as people and He knows how overwhelming bad news and events can weigh on our minds. Just the major events in our own lives- the death of a loved one, addiction, divorce, job loss, and financial problems can trigger anxiety and depression, causing us misery upon misery.

As overwhelming these events seem in Matthew 24:12, that people’s love for each other and God will grow cold, Jesus us offers us hope.

“But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (Matthew 24:13, NASB).

Verse thirteen is not dealing with eternal salvation, it is dealing with a sense of protection or deliverance in the midst of suffering.

Now that we have a reason to hope, Jesus gives us an assignment.

“The gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then, the end will come.” (Matthew 24:14, NASB).

We live in lawless times, but there is a way not to become overwhelmed and unloving regarding people and their suffering. We must reconnect with the love of God by repentance, prayer, study, and being community with other believers. As we grow in our love for God, our love for people will be a natural offspring and a platform for sharing the gospel with them. God bless you.

I Found Peace

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I am at peace. I am at peace with myself. I am at peace with my circumstances. I am at peace with the past and with God.

I didn’t have a mountain top experience nor was it a sudden revelation, I just came to be. A coworker this week mentioned that I have a different look on my face than I had in recent months. I believe my period of mourning has lifted and new life has sprung forth.

I have to say the last six years of my life have been the most difficult I’ve ever experienced. I have detailed these struggles on this blog and I believe this period of darkness inspired some of my best work. If you’re new to the blog, I briefly recap what the last six years has been like- I left a church I had been apart of for fourteen years and the changing spiritual dynamics left me wandering and questioning God. I was hospitalized with anemia,which I found out a year later was caused by Celiac disease. I was laid off from a job, which sent my career in a tailspin. Recurring flare-ups of my Ulcerative Colitis, my nephew’s suicide, my battles with anxiety and depression, and being blindsided by a divorce after eighteen years of marriage.

I was a broken man. My mind, body, and spirit were broken. I felt so hopeless and alone. I know that I wasn’t alone because I had the support of my family and my family of coworkers. I went back to church and joined a men’s group and heard the stories of men who were in my same situation. I sold the house my ex-wife and I built together, which was a burden off of my shoulders and a boost to my mental and financial health.

When I think about my struggles, I’m reminded of two Bible verses, Philippians 4:7 and Romans 8:28. To summarize, Philippians 4:7 discusses a peace that transcends all understanding, while Romans 8:28 talks about how God uses all things to work together for our good. These Scriptures don’t say that everything that happens to us will be good, but we can have a peaceful heart in the worst of times. I memorized Romans 8:28 and Philippians 4:7 when I first became a Christian, but the truth of those verses have really sank into my heart.

At the beginning of the year, I posted about this year being a year of restoration, and it has become that, a period of restoration. Being at peace doesn’t mean that everything has worked out and is resolved like a sitcom, drama or movie. Finding peace means that no matter what happens, you’ll be okay. You’ve made it through previous hard times and you’re going to get through this.

 

Depression is a Storm Cloud

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By Michael W. Raley

Depression is a storm cloud lingering over you,

Waiting to ruin a beautiful sunny day.

Depression is a predator stalking its prey.

You see the predator coming, but you are too paralyzed to move.

Before you know it, you are in the grips of depression,

Struggling to fight,

Struggling to breathe,

Struggling to live.

Depression goes beyond feeling sad,

As it is a battle for the mind, body, and soul.

I have become adept at hiding depression,

But I cannot snap out of it,

I just adapt my day and work around it.

Depression becomes a natural part of the landscape,

Like a tree with deep roots that are intertwined and difficult to remove.

Depression also serves as a highway marker,

Letting you know where you’re at and how far you have come,

While also reminding you that you have many more miles to travel

And many more battles to fight.

We must continue to fight, even on our darkest days,

For we must fight for ourselves, our loved ones, and for our suffering brethren.

 

 

This House

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By Michael W. Raley

This house was once a symbol of love,

A sanctuary from the problems of the outside world.

This house was a home where faith ruled,

Where challenges were met and conquered.

Love has now been replaced by brokenness

And faith has been met with thunderous silence.

The sanctuary has become a prison,

For I am bound up with chains of failure.

This symbol of hope has become a monument to folly.

As I live alone in my thoughts,

I find myself in the throes of misery and depression,

Still trying to make sense of this new normal.

I seek to be freed from this burden of wood and concrete,

So that I may begin life anew.

That Elusive Hope

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By Michael W. Raley

Hope- a desire or expectation for a certain outcome-

Can remain as elusive as a treasure out of reach.

Even when the hope seems reasonable,

The path is still fraught with difficulty.

This constant difficulty, in turn frustrates our hope.

A vicious circle indeed!

We pursue hope in faith, in our hard work, in fortune, and a lover’s embrace,

All of which can be taken away,

Leaving us empty once more.

Reality has a nasty habit of sucker punching us,

Whether it is the doubt, the layoff, the disease diagnosis, or the lover’s departure

Or all of them at once.

“It has to get better,” we say to ourselves.

“There must be more to life than this,” we muse during a frustrating moment.

Hope, even in the most realistic appraisal of a situation,

Still flickers in the darkness and calls out to us.

By the grace of God,

I arose from my nightly slumber

To face another day.

Therefore, there is still hope.

 

 

 

 

Learning to Balance

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By Michael W. Raley

If not for the darkness of the night,

We could not appreciate the beauty of the morning light.

Without understanding the depths of depravity and sin,

We could not comprehend the hope and promise of redemption.

If we set our hearts to love and the joys which follow,

We will experience the pains of heartbreak and sorrow.

For most of  us to be thankful for the blessings of prosperity,

We first live through soul crushing lack and poverty.

As we begin to accumulate the wisdom of a sage,

We lose the vigor and vitality of our youthful age.

Thus, life is learning to balance the pleasure and pain,

Realizing at times we must let go if we seek to gain.

 

 

The Introverted Christian

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I am an introvert and I am okay with it. I am by nature a shy, quiet, and reserved person until I become comfortable with a person, a group, or a social situation. I prefer a quiet Friday night at home or the solitude of a bookstore as opposed to some loud bar or club. However, the “extroverted world” has tried to make it out like there’s something wrong with me or the millions, possibly billions out there like me.

“You have to look out for the quiet ones.”

“Why are you so quiet?”

“You need to come out of your shell.”

“You don’t talk much.”

My introversion not only comes in conflict with everyday life, but also in the business and the fundamental evangelical church worlds. I have been a manager, I have preached sermons, I’ve volunteered to coach a church league basketball team, I went on a mission trip and fulfilled The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), but people were still standoffish and not accepting of me.

The place where I struggled the most with my introversion was the church. In my early twenties up to my mid-thirties, my now ex-wife and I attended what is known as a Charismatic church, which believes that the gifts of the New Testament (healing, speaking in tongues,casting out demons, etc.) are still in effect today. If you are unfamiliar with the Charismatic church, it’s along the lines of the Pentecostal/Assemblies of God denominations.

Worship in these “Full Gospel” type of churches can get rowdy, as people jump up and down, wave flags, run around the sanctuary, raise their hands, and so on and so forth. However, I was always very reserved in my demeanor, choosing to worship God on my own terms. I’m not a hooting and hollering person, it’s not who I am. With my old church being around 300 people, others took notice of my demeanor and I received “churchified” statements concerning my introverted nature:

“You got a spirit of fear.”

“You need to be bold.”

“Quit resisting the Spirit.”

Now that I have the advantage of looking back and perspective, I know what I should have said: “If God knew me before He created me (Jeremiah 1:5), wouldn’t He know that I was going to be this way?”Or maybe I should’ve pointed out that Jesus, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, and others in Scripture sought out God in solitude and in their own ways. If they didn’t follow the crowd in seeking God, why do I have to? Also, if God accepts you as you are, wouldn’t that include a quiet nature as well?

Please don’t misinterpret, I am not speaking out of bitterness or putting anyone down. I am simply sharing my struggle with who I am. I spent a lot of years worried that there was something wrong with me, like I would not be fully accepted by God or anyone else. I don’t want you to face that same struggle.

As of this post, I am forty-two, divorced, starting over with God in a much larger church, and I am coming to a place of accepting myself. I am who I am. I prefer to share my faith by embodying my faith; I seek to build relationships as opposed to threatening with hell fire. It took me a long, long, time, but I have finally accepted myself just as I am. It may be a contradiction in terms, but I am an introverted Christian. God bless you.

Book Review- Rising Strong

rising strong
Image from Random House Books

Shame, regret, failure, and vulnerability are words that can trigger visceral reactions and bring to the surface long suppressed emotions. However, if we are to move forward in life, we must come to terms with these issues. In her book Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brene Brown provides a masterful roadmap on how to recover from life’s setbacks.

In Rising Strong, Brown draws from her experience as a social worker, academic researcher, wife, mother, and stories from everyday people all the way to Fortune 500 companies to weave a tapestry that reflects the simultaneous beauty and mess that is life. Rising Strong is more than a conventional self-help book, as Brown encourages her readers to dig deep and “rumble” with the issues at hand and to live through the process on a daily basis.

(If you are unfamiliar with Brene’ Brown, I would encourage you to pull up her TEDx Talks on YouTube).

All of us fall and fail in life, but Brown states the importance of vulnerability, which she defines as, “The willingness to show up and be seen with no guarantee of outcome -is the only path to more love, belonging, and joy.”1 Even during the times we fall flat on our faces, the rising strong process reveals to us who we are and allows us to draw upon our inner strength.

While Brown discusses embracing the failure, she warns against downplaying the emotional effects of it: “To strip failure of its real emotional consequences is to scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them both so important- toughness, doggedness, and perseverance.”2

Early on in the book, Brown outlines the Rising Strong process, which she uses throughout the process. “The goal of the process is to rise from our falls, overcome our mistakes, and face hurt in a way that brings more wisdom and wholeheartedness into our lives.”3 The other elements of the Rising Strong process includes what Brown calls “The Reckoning,” “The Rumble,” and “The Revolution,” which involve recognizing how emotions and feelings influence our behavior, owning our stories, and writing a new ending, respectively.

If you are serious about making changes in your life and you are willing to do the dirty work, I highly recommend Rising Strong. Brown lays down the gauntlet for a life changing challenge, as I saw it in light of my own recent life events concerning my health, divorce, and starting over.

Brene Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Random House (2015): xvii.

Ibid, xxv.

Ibid, 37.

Learning to Live in Grace

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Faith and grace often rise up during our lowest times. My walk with Christ has enabled me to overcome and work through very dark and difficult situations, such as sickness, family issues, mental health, career and financial struggles, and the dissolution of my marriage, all of which have taken a physical, mental, and spiritual toll. I haven’t been perfect in my faith or responses, but I am learning to live in grace.

My church is doing a series called “90 Days with Jesus,” where Monday through Saturday, we read one chapter of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I am halfway through Mark, which is just action packed with miracles and powerful teachings from start to finish. What has always struck me about the gospels is how a person’s lifetime of physical or emotional suffering came to an instantaneous end when they encountered Jesus. However, if many of us were to be honest, we’ve read these stories and petition God as to why He’s never healed us or a loved one of an affliction, why He’s not listening to our prayers, we wonder where are you, God?

God’s grace provides us with the strength we need to face our daily difficulties. Grace and faith should be realistic-not every situation is going to end in a miracle. There will be dark times, there will be struggles, but we must remember to rely on God’s strength to carry us through those times.

The Apostle Paul faced what he called “a thorn in the flesh,” which was a constant struggle in his life. In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul talked about his struggle and how on three different occasions he prayed God would take it away, but God did not. Some people  would argue Paul was physically sick, others would state Paul’s thorn was the constant persecution he faced. I personally lean toward the persecutions as his thorn. Even spiritual giants such as Paul had their struggles and that should comfort us. We must remember that God is working to perfect our character and prepare us for long-term growth, even if it comes at the expense of our perceived short-term comfort, as Paul wrote:

Because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, for this reason, to keep me from exalting myself, there was given me a thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to  torment me—to keep me from exalting myself!  Concerning this I implored the Lord three times that it might leave me.  And He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:7-10, NASB).

So as we go about our day and our lives, let us remember that during the weakest moments, God’s grace is to be our strength. We must change our mindset concerning our suffering and difficulties and look for God’s guidance and direction. As we look toward God, our faith will increase. God bless you all.