Art and Faith (and Mental Health)

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First, I’m a writer. I’m not a fine artist, though I have utmost respect, admiration, and bitter jealousy of/for them. No, I got over the jealousy a some time back, but I did struggle for a while with how some people can pick up a pencil and magically bring forth life while I stick out my tongue, grab the crayon in my fist, and struggle to stay within the lines. I once watched a friend draw cartoons while we were bouncing along on a train. It seemed to make no difference whatsoever, as if the art required only his hand and the materials and images would translate to the page regardless of conditions.

I’m exaggerating, but I think God gives artistic expression as a gift. God is a creator, an artist. That’s the second thing we learn in the Bible about God. We learn first that God exists; second, we discover God is an artist. Those who make things, who create, reflect the image of an Artist God. Iraneus taught us that the glory of God is a human being fully alive. When we experience all of who we can be, when we live to the utmost, we glorify God. Jesus said he came that we may have life to the fullest.

I’ve come to define “artist” expansively. Your art form may be decorating, organizing, putting together an outfit you love. You might sing in front of people or just warble in the shower. Your art form may be building homes, repairing cabinets, landscaping. You may be a gardener or a surgeon. You might work in origami or drywall. My late step-father-in-law had the spiritual gift of driving. I didn’t know driving was a spiritual gift nor that it could be performed as artistry until I saw what he could do. I’ve said for years that playing ultimate is a means of worship for me. Ballet, figure skating, synchronized swimming, ultimate. Works for me. So I do mean nearly anything can be your expression of art: Does it employ your gifts and your creativity? Does it satisfy something in you? Does it make you feel a little more alive?

Some of my writer friends may have choked on that last sentence. “Does it make me feel a little more alive? Does it make me feel like choking someone? Does it make me feel like pounding my head on the keyboard?” Maybe all three.

Track with me for a second: It sounds like I’m idealizing art when I say that creating makes us feel alive. I absolutely believe it’s true. Some people find their form of artistic expression therapeutic, instantly and consistently. If you garden because getting your hands in soil makes you happy and gives you a peace and connection you can’t find elsewhere, you may have found your art. My dad gardened. We had a huge garden. I have vivid memories of his shouting at robins. I don’t mean jokingly. His gardening didn’t always look peaceful. But he found some deep satisfaction in growing food. So does my wife, though I’ve never heard her yell at a bird in my life.

Some of us wrestle with our art forms, and that, too, can be therapeutic, though it may look less peaceful. A brilliant friend of mine produces art that others label “dark,” but it’s exactly what my friend needs to express. My friend doesn’t merely scribble like I do but sells these pieces, puts on exhibits, and conveys something deep and true and hard about our human condition. That’s not always pretty or tranquil.

If we’re going to define art broadly, we then must recognize that we might experience being creators like my friend on the train whipping out a new sketch, apparently effortlessly, or, at the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, like a woman giving childbirth. We live in this crazy world in which some of us can carry a human being inside us and create. You, also, born of God, born of a woman, are creation as well as creator, both art and artist.

I am now going to give my opinion on a controversial point (for some) about art: we can glorify God with our art without explicitly trying to make our art “Christian.” A landscape painter does not have to find a way to sneak in a cross nor footprints in the sand in order to reflect God in the painting. In my view, art need not be reduced to one point nor to “saying something,” in terms of a blatant message. I’ll go further and say that preachy art may lose something. Preaching is, itself, an art. When I preach, I’m preaching. When I write, I’m not preaching. I may be persuading or exhorting. But when I’m writing fiction, I’m telling a story and trusting that the truth of the story comes through.

This could be a longer discussion which I may take up more in a subsequent post (and if you’re interested, I highly recommend reading Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water). For now, consider that a garden speaks of God. So does a person singing, because a singing voice is an instrument given by God and using it reflects who God is. If you desire to glorify God with your art form, pour your heart into your expression, be it ultimate or construction or weaving, writing or painting or dance. Find your way to create with integrity.

If God gave you artistic gifts of any kind, use them. Just that. Don’t worry if what you do isn’t perfect or beautiful or–Lord help us–good enough. Let me say that a different way: Don’t let that worry stop you or paralyze you or cheat you. God, out of love for you, gave you gifts. Made you a co-creator.

Create.

Hiding from Ourselves

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I’m writing while listening to music by someone who killed himself. 

That doesn’t narrow it all the way down.

It’s good writing music. I loved it when it came out and I still really enjoy it.

I’m thinking about depression and how we hide from ourselves. I’ve chosen to be very open that I struggle with depression, but very few people seem able—or willing—to integrate knowing about my depression into their relationships with me. The people who can handle it are people who deal with depression or anxiety. Friends who work in mental health. Maybe a handful of others.

Do my friends suck? No, they really don’t. I have spectacular friends. I’m blessed beyond what I could deserve.

Putting the shoe on the other foot, I find treating others with awareness is tricky because I don’t want to patronize or belittle. But it’s also tricky because I prefer not to know negatives. I’m saying this about me, and I dwell in the land of knowing people’s “dirty little” secrets. I also don’t want to reduce anyone to their struggle. I don’t want to think less of them than they deserve. I don’t know any “drug addicts,” but I do know some people who wrestle with addiction. I don’t know any poor people, but I’ve lived next to beautiful, generous people who live in poverty.

I’m not “a depressive.” I’m a pastor and a writer and a husband and a father and a bloody good ultimate player (comments welcome). I also live with depression. Naming it doesn’t mean we become only that.

I’m thinking about a picture I saw recently, a collage of entertainers and famous people (how is that for categorizing instead of seeing individuals?), all quickly identifiable, all looking deliriously happy in that moment…and all now dead from suicide.

I hope you see where I’m going. Someone, many someones, did not integrate their knowledge of these people’s condition into their relationships. Maybe they didn’t want to know. The people–these mothers and fathers and children who had experienced success in their careers but also fiercely battled depression–hid it from themselves, or at least covered it up when they needed to be getting more help. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have that collage. I don’t know that every suicide is preventable–people have free will and some will make their decision no matter what we do–but I have known people who committed suicide and I know I could have done more. Could I have prevented it? I’ll never know. I’ll live with that question the rest of my life.

I’m thinking specifically of someone I knew for much of my life. We weren’t always close–for a while we couldn’t stand each other–but we had become friendly antagonists, the kind you have only with someone with whom you once had a fistfight (symbolically or literally). Sometimes you’re just friends due to proximity (see: high school), but because we’d bonded and kind of gotten each other, because we had good and bad memories together, we stayed connected.

We went very different directions. He served in the military. He never married. Tragically, he developed a drinking problem and then suffered a horrible accident. He got very depressed. His health was never right again after the accident. He had to use a lot of prescription medication, including pain medication. Then he died.

Except in between there, we had conversations. A few times he wrote me when he was clearly inebriated. I don’t know how much he remembered of those. He asked me questions. I tried to tell him about my faith.

Except. Here’s the part I live with. I didn’t want to force it down his throat. I wanted to be the cool Christian who wasn’t beating him over the head with my Bible. I didn’t exactly play coy–I was direct with him about what I believe and why. I talked about our work in Nicaragua. I made a few suggestions for him. But I left it to him to connect the dots. I told him I’d be happy to tell him more when he was ready to ask me more about it.

You might think that’s fine. You might even say, “Good for you! People shouldn’t push their faith on others.”

Yes. But then I woke up one morning and found out he’d died.

Could I have done more? Could I have helped prevent it somehow?

I’ll never know. But I could have told him more about the hope I’ve found in Jesus in my life. I could have been more open about my own depression and how I’ve felt suicidal at points in my life. Maybe he would have raised his hands and said, “Okay, enough.” Maybe. But I won’t know, will I? I was trying to give him the space to ask in his own time. I think I also wanted to come across a certain way.

So I’m not doing that again.

If you deal with depression, if you struggle with negative thoughts and wonder if all this is worth it, I see you. (I mean, I don’t, I’m staring at a computer screen, but I get it and I am willing to see you.) Hiding from ourselves does no good. I just checked in with a dear friend who attempted suicide a few months ago. That person is doing okay right now and has found support.

I’m still listening to INXS. Michael Hutchence is still dead. You’re reading this, so you’re still alive. If you’re hiding from yourself, not really dealing with your depression, I urge you to take a step. Talk to someone. It’s hard to know whom to trust with such heavy truth about ourselves. It’s easier just to smile in the pictures. A friend has said when he’s completely depressed, he isn’t going to talk to anyone. That means the conversation needs to happen now, before it’s to that point.

I have a friend whom I have told, “The morning I decide to kill myself, you’re the one I’m going to call.”

If reading that just made you horribly uncomfortable, I’m sorry, but I really don’t care (I’m sorry that I don’t care? Guess that’s what “Sorry, not sorry” means). I’m not making the same mistake again, ever, and to me that means helping others by talking about it. If being more open saves a life, I’m willing for you to be uncomfortable and me to be embarrassed. I’m even willing to have people be awkward around me or, if necessary, lose friendships. I’m not exactly sure why God put me here, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t to make you comfortable. Or if it was, I suck at it.

I’m being completely serious now–if you need to tell someone, do it today. If you have someone you need to check on, do it now. This time in January is reportedly when depression hits people hardest in the US: grey winter, bills from the holidays, New Year’s Resolutions broken…oh, and this year a government shutdown.

Do what you can, while you can. You don’t know what you’ll wake up to tomorrow.


Let’s Talk About

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[Mental Mealth Awareness Month is May.  That’s way too far off.  So I’m calling this Early Mental Health Month. We’ll come back to it again in May.  My friend Michele Sandberg, a psychiatrist and military veteran, agreed to write a guest post on identifying and treating depression. Please, share this if you know anyone who might benefit from it.]

Depression. It’s a word with a Latin origin (deprimere which translates to press down) that has meaning across many fields in our world: astronomy, geography, meteorology, economics and human psychiatry. It’s most ubiquitous use in our culture today, however, is the latter in describing the human condition and one’s brain processes. Depression can be related to or caused by a host of factors to include genetics, physical health changes, seasonal changes, holidays, and other environmental triggering events. Depression can mean something slightly different for anyone I talk to.

My background is in mental health, so the stories I hear can be extremely varied due to many factors, including the individual’s experiences in life, hereditary factors and emotional supports available to the storyteller. The threads that run through most stories includes a sense of hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, or emptiness. Accompanying symptoms can include decreased or total lack of energy, poor appetite, poor sleep, lack of interest in previously pleasurable activities, and sometimes thoughts of self harm. Anxiety can also be a huge accompanying presence or completely absent. (One might think of depression as a spectrum to include major problems with anxiety on one end and no anxiety at all on the other.)

Why talk about depression? Well, it’s truly everywhere in our culture. Depression (what mental health people call depressive disorders as a diagnostic category) is common among many age groups (with the highest prevalence currently in 18-25 year olds) and occurs more often in females. Many people find it difficult to discuss the topic of mental health with others. Perhaps someone was told “it’s a sign of weakness” to be depressed (or whatever mental health concern is expressed) or “you’re not trying hard enough.” Mental health disorders have nothing to do with strength/weakness or mental effort on the part of the individual.

The social stigma surrounding mental health issues still persists despite attempts to educate the public and proactive attempts with patients in routine medical checkups. As a military trained psychiatrist, I can tell you that, years ago, many military members would rather be sent off to war than be sent to a mental health clinic appointment. (I hope that the military has less stigma against mental health concerns, but I wouldn’t hold my breath that it has changed significantly in the last 25 years.)

If we as community members can discuss mental health issues candidly, we might find that we are not so alone in our struggles. Imagine if a medical disorder, such as diabetes, had such a strong stigma. Would patients check their blood sugar regularly during the day as needed? Would a patient stop using their medication because they didn’t want to “rely” on something to make them feel better and live a healthier life? Would a patient call a friend or health professional if they needed help with some aspect of their medical care related to their diabetes? Perhaps you’ve heard similar comparisons before between physical and mental health diagnoses. Truly, there is little medical difference. There are many medications and other treatments for depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.

So, what if you think you or someone you care about is suffering from depression? Well, again, depression is common and there are degrees of severity. If you just experienced a huge loss (of a loved one, a job, a home, or other major stressor) keep in mind that an emotional response of sadness/grief/anxiety to a loss or a large stressor can be normal. However, if mood and other symptoms (energy/sleep/appetite, etc) become affected and persist for at least two weeks, it is reasonable to talk to a primary care provider for assessment or referral to a mental health clinician. A provider can assess whether your response is a normal emotional response versus one that suggests clinical intervention.

How do you know if you need help now? Possible symptoms include: if your sleep is poor, your energy level is low to nonexistent, your appetite has taken a nosedive, and/or you don’t want to hang out with your favorite people in your life like you might have in the more recent past. Of course, another clear indication that you need help is when you don’t care about your own life or want to end it altogether. Please know that feeling suicidal is treatable (like diabetes) and that people want to help and can help you or your loved one. There are people who train and spend their careers treating others whose thoughts of self harm keep them from living normal healthy lives.

Again, the term “depression” has varied meanings in our culture. What I might call depression as a clinician might look very different than a high school student talking about the depressing day ahead, or a retired widow’s depressed state, or a single parent’s depressing week in trying to solve a rent crisis in the family’s home. BUT, all might have a true clinical depression and could benefit from treatment.

 If you’re still reading this, I want to give you some final (and truly sobering) thoughts and statistics on suicide.

 -Asking someone if they are thinking of hurting themself does not “plant the idea” of suicide in a person. Also, It is far more important to ask the person if you are worried about someone’s safety (and get the person help if they are suicidal) than not to ask at all.

 -40 percent of all people who complete suicide have made at least one previous attempt.
-Individuals with serious drug or alcohol problems are six times more likely to complete suicide than those who don’t have those use issues.
 -8 out of 10 people considering suicide give some signs of their intentions.
-Females attempt suicide twice as often as males.
-Males are four times as likely to die by suicide.
-Firearms account for 51 percent of all suicide deaths.
-Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, but the second leading cause of death in people 15-24 years of age.
-From 1999 through 2017, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. increased 33%.
-Save this number in your phone contacts. It might someday save the life of you or someone else you know. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255