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.”

 

Dogs are just Four-Legged Toddlers

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At this stage of my life, I have no children- except for the four-legged, furry kind. Yes, I am part of the community who identify themselves as “fur parents.” I don’t call us a family, because we are a pack. Being a fur parent for me is just a natural outgrowth of how my family viewed dogs. Our dogs were never pets, but part of the family. The dogs lived in the house with us, they watched TV with us, and played outside with us. Having a dog in the house was like having an incredibly hairy little brother or sister. I never understood how people could keep their dog chained up outside or in a kennel 24/7. Dogs, like people, need companionship and the need to be part of a family.

I am neither a child expert nor am I an animal behavior expert, however I have made several unscientific observations between toddlers and dogs. I have a younger sister, younger cousins, and nieces and nephews, so I’ve watched children grow and develop into adults. I’ve also had a dogs from puppies to the end of their lives. For those with children, imagine if your child was a toddler for ten to fifteen years and that’s life with a dog. Scary, huh? Drum roll please! Here are some of the reasons dogs are four-legged toddlers:

Privacy? What privacy?

I’ve heard complaints from many mothers about how they can’t even go to the bathroom without being bombarded by their children. It’s the same way with dogs. If I don’t close the bathroom door all the way, I receive numerous visits while attending to the call of nature or trying to bathe.

Mine! Mine!

If a child can pick up an item, put it in their mouth,or run off with it, it’s theirs. Mine! Mine! The encounter between grown parent and toddler becomes a wrestling match more fierce than any main event at a Wrestlemania. The difference: dogs try to be sneaky about it, but give themselves away. Once you see that sneaky look from your dog, the race is on! In trying to pry open a dog’s mouth to get the object, I feel I missed my calling as a lion tamer or alligator wrestler. Some of the things I’ve taken out of my dogs’ mouths over the years: nylon knee highs, socks, used tissues, cotton swabs (a particular favoirte of dogs), clumps of grass, squeakers from destoyed dog toys, and random bits of trash when we take walks.

They like to fight when you’re on the phone.

I know my sister and I probably argued when my mom was on the phone. I’m sure all of us have at one point. That’s why I believe we pay our penance when we become parents/fur parents. All it takes is for the phone to ring and the chaos ensues. I don’t know how many phone conversations I’ve had when my dogs decide to play tug-of-war or the youngest dog wants to pester the older dog. When this starts, so does the finger snapping and the muted “shut up,” “quiet,” or “knock it off.” I try to go to another room and they follow me (see Privacy? What Privacy?).

They act up when you have company.

Dogs, much like people, are creatures of habit. Although they can’t tell time, dogs just have instincts, they know when it’s time to eat, when you’re coming home from work or school, and when it’s time for bed. However, a knock on the door can upset that routine and it’s time to go into “protect the pack mode.” Even if the dog is familiar with the guest, there could be several minutes of noise, which can and will disrupt conversations with your visitors.

Sibling Rivalry

If you grew up an only child, your parents dedicated their time and attention solely to you. However, what happens when you have brothers and sisters? You have to share your parents’ time, attention, and affection. We humans by nature are selfish and greedy- we want what we want when we want it. Sibling rivalry develops when it becomes a competition for a parent’s acceptance.

“Mommy, look at the picture I drew.”

“Hey, mom, look at me instead because I made the honor roll.”

“Mom, look at me I climbed Mount Everest.”

“Mom, look at me, I’m going to Mars.”

This principle works in dogs as well, because of the pack mentality. When you’re petting one dog, the other one nudges in between. You’re playing with one dog, the other brings their toy for you to play with them instead. Just like with rival kids, there will be growling and barking.

You wouldn’t trade them for the world.

All joking aside, I love my dogs. I would do anything to protect them and to provide for their needs. When your dog looks at you, you have entered a judgment free zone. All I see in those eyes are unconditional love and acceptance. Yes, there are days when they wake me up too early, days they embarrass me, and days when they make me mad, but deep down I know I will love them until their dying day and they know that. I will happily endure the water trails and brown triangles on the floor, the cold noses on the face, and the scattered toys throughout the house because with those things come hugs, cuddles, and kisses. Be thankful for your two-legged and your four-legged children because they are a gift from God. The next time you’re trying to install a new garbage disposal and your dog sticks his head under the sink, remember, he just wants to be where you are.

Book Review- Dark Nights of the Soul

All of us go through periods of suffering. Whether it’s the death of a loved one, a divorce, a job loss, an illness, a crisis of faith, all of which can crush our spirits and cover our lives in darkness. It’s not only these unpleasant times that will come to define us, it’s also how we respond when these times come. Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. The book title inspired by the 16th Century Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross’ poem “Dark Night of the Soul.”

At the very beginning, Moore informs us that getting through a dark night of the soul is not for those looking for a quick fix:

“If your main interest in life is health, you may quickly try to overcome the darkness. But if you are looking for meaning, character, and personal substance, you may discover that a dark night has many important gifts for you.”1

Moore adds that we can sense a time of growth and preparation during difficult times:

“Sometimes in your darkness you may sense that something is incubating in you or that you are being prepared for life. You are going somewhere, even though there are no external signs of progress.”2

Moore brilliantly draws upon the struggles of patients in his years of therapy practice and how they navigated through their dark nights. Moore also weaves in the tale of Jonah from the Bible, tales from mythology, and the real life struggles of writers Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, Emily Dickinson, and others, who found meaning in the midst of their suffering.

Moore’s theme throughout the book is to guide us in how to properly frame our dark nights, embrace them, and seek to growth from the darkness.

“Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.”3

Moore touches upon the dark nights that can occur in life, relationships, spirituality, creativity, health, and aging, often using non-clinical methods, to help the reader understand how to get through the dark times. One way to navigate the dark nights, according to Moore, is to develop a philosophy of life, which he defines as:

“A philosophy of life is a bundle of wisdom you have gathered from your reading and experience. It is not a rigid ideology that allows no development and complexity. It’s a living thing, a developing idea about life that belongs to you alone.”4

I know on a personal level that whenever I find myself going through a period of suffering, I question the purpose of said suffering. I contemplate the purpose of my existence and my lot in life. However, Moore puts it succinctly, while drawing upon a them of Stoic philosophy:

“Where you fit in the scheme of things is not your choice. Your job is to deal honestly and generously with the fate given to you. It may be a brief life of sickness. You may be the most ordinary of people. On the other hand, you may be called sometime in your life to make an extraordinary act. Your task is to be prepared for the invitation offered, the chance to define yourself by an important choice.”5

I find Dark Nights of the Soul to be an excellent read and I recommend it to anyone facing a difficult time in your life.

1Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals.New York: Gotham Books (2004): xiii.

2Ibid, 4.

3Ibid, 7.

4Ibid, 32.

5Ibid, 298.

The Ever Encroaching Reality

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By Michael W. Raley

Things weren’t supposed to turn out this way.

Yet, I find myself dealing with the fallout

Of my life to this point.

I am fighting for sanity and survival,

While God remains silent.

My prayers bounce off the walls and ceiling.

I face another day without help from on high.

My spirit is laid low and my mind is clouded

To the point I can’t think straight.

I am hesitant to trust my decision making process

Because a few of my choices led me to this place.

There are positives, but I must remain focused

On the ever encroaching reality of today.

 

This Unexpected Second Chance

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By Michael W. Raley

I never thought I would’ve ended up here,

After all the hard work, sacrifice, tears,

The late nights, the prayers, and conquering the fears.

I gave you everything I had, even my youthful years.

I now find myself in middle age,

Getting ready to turn the page

On a chapter I didn’t plan to write,

Like an unexpected fog rolling in on a clear night.

However, I am learning to embrace this unexpected second chance,

Even if it was born of the most unpleasant circumstance.

My heart and spirit for a time were broken and frail,

I am now determined to clear my path and blaze a trail.

 

 

 

 

A Year of Restoration

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As 2018 ended and 2019 began, the word restoration kept springing to mind. To restore something whether it be a relationship, physical health, or house, simply means to bring an item back to its original state. Restoration is my word for the year as I seek to rebuild my relationship with God and my life.

Restoration in the Bible, like our word in English, can mean many things, such as the restoration brought about by prophecy, healing, the restoration of the Temple, and the restoration of the merciful/righteous. My focus on restoration will be the aspect of returning to God after a period of sin and trials.

2019 will mark twenty years since I first accepted Christ, and it has been a wild ride. I have faced many trials over the course of these years, which have often led to me questioning God’s plan, my decision making, leaving church, going back to church, and so on and so forth. I truly admire those who have spent their lives serving God without reservation or hesitation. I would like to get to that point and stay there.

This year I am working on restoring my relationship with God, while continuing to grow as an individual. There are numerous verses, Old and New Testament, concerning coming back to God after sin and trials. I would like to share a few of them.

“And the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will Himself restore you and make you strong, firm, and steadfast.” -1 Peter 5:10 (NIV).

“And when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I’ve commanded you today, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you.” -Deuteronomy 30:2-3 (NIV).

“Restore us, God Almighty; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved.” -Psalm 80, verses 3, 7, and 10 (NIV).

As we go forward into this year, let us be mindful of God’s grace. No matter what we’ve gone through, even if the situation pushed us away from God, we can always come back to Him. God bless.

The Loneliness Strikes at Night

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By Michael W. Raley

The loneliness strikes at night,

Right before time to go to sleep.

I don’t want to be alone,

So I try to put off the inevitable.

I stay up, fighting the loneliness until I’m exhausted,

Before finally going to sleep.

The next battle is trying to stay asleep,

As I toss and turn in weariness.

I wake up just as exhausted

As when I went to bed.

This house is just too big and too quiet

Without you here.

I’m over the heartbreak,

I have yet to adjust to sleeping alone.

Where I used to reach out and hold you,

I now grasp at the empty space.