Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lessons I've Learned: Part 7

I wrote a post last week about suffering being a gift and about choosing to fall on God's grace so that God may bring that gift to fulness as He desires it to be for us. I want to better spell a few things out in regards to this than I did last week.

Suffering is a gift in a few ways. For us personally, it is a gift in that it gives us reason to come to God, asking for His help and His Grace. It is too easy, when everything is going well, to set prayer aside and to let our relationship with God remain or become stagnant. Suffering can either be a reminder that we do indeed need God, or, for some, it can be a first step in a journey toward faith. Suffering is a vehicle by which God draws us, His beloved, to Himself.

Suffering is also a mode by which, after we ask for His help, God sends graces down upon us. Through suffering, He prepares our hearts, if we allow Him, to receive His graces: His love, peace, and joy and all that He desires to give us. It is through suffering that we are able to see the power of God at work in our lives, that we are able to experience His ability to turn a bad situation to good and to growth.

If everything in our lives would go smoothly and if everything was always easy, and if God would simply turn good into more good, we may take that good for granted, doubt God's power to create good, or not realize our need for God. We would not have such a chance to realize the depth of God's love for us or of His power. We would not be so inclined to draw so very close to Him and, thereby, to receive all of His gifts He wants to give us.

Suffering gives the opportunity for growth in faith and in virtues. By exercising our faith in God, our faith becomes stronger and deeper. We are likely to become more humble and more docile to God's will, among other things. Our concern for others and our charity is likely to grow, as is our desire to and ability to help others and compassionately support them in their suffering. As I wrote about also a couple weeks ago, our endurance, character, and our hope increases through suffering (cf. Romans 5:3-5).

We also have an opportunity in suffering to join our sufferings to that of Christ and to participate in His redemptive work. We are given the opportunity to allow the graces God pours out in the midst of suffering to be also used for a specific or general purpose by offering our sufferings up to God, in union with those of His Son, for a specified person or circumstance, or for general graces to be poured out on our family, church, or community. I hope to be able to write about this and explain it better in the future.

Regarding our response to suffering, we have a choice to allow ourselves to fall into frustration, anger, despair, worry, and discouragement or to fall on the grace of God. What I want to make clear is that the choice to fall onto God's grace is not a one-time decision, and it's not always an easy decision to make or carry out. We often must make a conscious decision to ask for God's help and to trust in His grace many times each day, especially on days that come with more challenges. The tendency to fall the other way will always be there as a part of our human condition, though the more often we make the decision to fall on God, the easier that decision becomes. Still, discouragement can pull us backwards, away from reliance on God, if we allow it to. It is easy, especially for someone who, like me, has a more melancholic personality, to see the more negative aspects of a situation and to see problems that need to be solved and to become focused on that. It can be very difficult to fight off that tendency in favor of a more optimistic attitude and of trusting that, with God's help, everything will work out well. When frustration and discouragement hit, this decision to fall onto God's grace must be a very conscious and prayerful one. And I frequently need to ask God's help to fall onto His grace and to hand over my problems in trust and in faith that He will indeed work through them. I also find I often need to sit quietly in prayer, handing over each problem and sitting with God for a while, before I am able to better let go and empty myself of the worry or frustration enough that God can fill me with His peace and grace. While making a decision to give problems over to God as I'm running out the door with a list in my hand is good, taking time in prayer to do so and to allow God to reach out and bless that decision is better and more effective.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Lessons I've Learned on my Journey through Depression and Anxiety: Part 6

I want to expand on something I was writing in the first part of this series: the gift of suffering.

St. Teresa of Avila, it is said, complained to Jesus one day of multiple hardships she was suffering. To that, Jesus said to her, "Teresa, that's how I treat my friends." Teresa quickly answered, "No wonder You have so few friends."

God does allow us all to suffer hardships and challenges. It may not seem right that He does not protect those of us who are doing our best to follow in His Ways from such difficulties. It may not seem right that He does not treat His friends better or that He does allow "bad things to happen to good people." But there is a gift to be found through enduring hardships and challenges, a gift that God wants so very much to share with His friends. If life was always easy and we were able to just cruise through our days, we would miss out on that precious gift.

A friend of mine from college very recently lost her nearly-3-year-old daughter to a sudden illness. In the words of a mutual friend, "She is by far the nicest, most kind, unselfish, hardworking person I know." Why did this happen to her and her daughter, of all people? Yet, she is demonstrating the most amazing faith and grace during this difficult time. She is an inspiration to me in dealing with such a devastating blow, and I'm sure she is an inspiration to others as well. I'm also quite sure she will grow through this experience and that the experience will draw her family and herself even closer to God.

We hear on the news of natural disasters, whether it be tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, or earthquakes, as well as disasters inflicted by one human on others, such as school and theater shootings. What devastation. What heartache. Yet, in the midst of that, stories come out of people helping and comforting each other, of beautiful testaments to forgiveness and to faith, of courage, of generosity. And behind the scenes, people are growing in their generosity and charity, in their ability to survive and even thrive under difficult conditions, in their appreciation for what they do have and for the people who are with them, in their faith and hope in God.

I have been going through some old papers, trying to organize and pack for an eventual move. On reading through a few things I had written four, five, and six years ago, I am amazed at the growth I have gone through as a direct result of my move to a new, unknown town, my miscarriages, and my sudden anxiety. I am left absolutely awed and grateful for having had those experiences, for they have taught me a great deal. I have something now that I certainly did not have then. I have very distinct sense of the difference, but it is difficult to put words to it - faith, hope, peace, and joy are words I would use if I were to try to explain it. I can see more clearly the growth that has already happened and see that I am continuing on that path and that growth is continuing and will continue. Going through these many difficult moments and difficult years has been a challenge, and, for long stretches of time, I couldn't see the way to the end of the suffering; yet, looking back - and looking forward now - I can see that it has all been worthwhile. I wouldn't want to be back where I had been, but I certainly am grateful I was there.

That is how God treats His friends. Yes, we suffer. Everyone suffers - some more visably, some more internally. But it is what we do with that suffering that matters. If we give our suffering to Him, our suffering is never in vain. There is always good that comes from the difficulties we go through. Always. 

God can see what is ahead of us and what He is doing in our lives so much more clearly than we can. He can see everything, while, if we're lucky, we can see the next one step we need to take. Often times, we are going through life completely blindly. But God knows the way, and He sees the end of our present suffering. He sees the glorious results of His grace working in us through that suffering.

I have believed with all my heart for some time that suffering brings with in an opportunity for growth, an opportunity to grow closer to God and to become a more faith-filled, more hopeful, more joyful person. Suffering presents an opportunity for God to work in our lives, to show us His power and love and the beauty of His plan. It gives us the reason to open our hearts and lives to Him - to realize our need and reliance on Him - and to surrender ourselves to His loving grace.

And if we take that opportunity and give ourselves over to Him, even in the midst of frustration, anger, resentment, despair, or anxiety, we will be amazed by what He does with us and in us. That is how God treats His friends. 

Presented with suffering of any kind, we have the choice to allow ourselves to fall into frustration, anger, despair, or unneeded worry, or to fall onto the grace of God. If we do make the choice to fall on the grace of God, that doesn't guarantee we won't experience some of those negative emotions. But if we continue to make that choice, God will bring us through them, to the other side, better off than we had been before. If we allow ourselves to fall the other way, we will likely be caught up, instead, in those negative emotions and negative attitudes. 

God will never force Himself on us; we must choose Him and choose His way. This is difficult when we can't see the end result. We must make the effort, again and again, to step out in faith, knowing that, though we can't see it, the end result will be something amazing - something better than we can imagine. God would have it no other way for us, His beloved. 

God wants nothing less than for us to experience His amazing love, joy, and peace. He won't settle to give us any less than that. But the condition of our humanity, of our sin, is that we are blind to it - we are separated from it and from Him. From that standpoint, then, suffering of any kind, including anxiety and depression, is a gift. It's a gift that God uses to open our eyes, to bridge that separation, to induce us to reach out to Him in our need and to choose Him so that He can fill our hearts with His love, joy, and peace, so that He can draw us closer to Himself. That's what He has done and continues to do for me. That is what He is doing for my friend who recently lost her beautiful daughter. That is what He does for His friends. I am grateful and blessed, then, that He considers me to be a friend.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Lessons I've Learned in My Journey: Part 5

If you are new to reading these posts, you can find part 1 here.

A friend of mine, who also has anxiety, pointed out to me one day that she has noticed on many occasions that, just at the time that she thinks she is doing well, her anxiety returns full force. It was interesting to hear her say that because I had noticed that too with my anxiety, and, like her, I was frustrated with that fact. It gave me a sense that I was fighting a battle that could not be won. 

It was one of those things I had noticed but had not yet reflected on to any great degree. I had simply noticed that on occasions when I was praying with less intensity and with fewer expressions of my trust in God, the anxiety would begin to creep back in. In my prayers, I would express this frustration to God. "Why can't You just heal me?" I'd ask Him. "Why must I pray so intensely at all times in order for You to continue to give me this peace I long for? Why do You take it away so quickly if I let down at all?" I was finding it very difficult to maintain the level of prayer, both in terms of time and intensity, that seemed required to maintain the peace and continue the healing that God was giving to me.

As I began to reflect on that after talking with my friend, I do believe that was God reminding me of the need to pray without ceasing and to continuously dispose myself to His loving power. It is during those times that I am feeling better that I pray with less fervor, that I begin to try to stand on my own without His help, and it is then that a portion of my anxiety returns, causing me to once again realize my reliance on God and to pray with deep need. It is a difficult task, but a very worthwhile one, to continue on in prayer even when things are going well, constantly being mindful of His presence and His help.

Jesus tells his disciples in Luke 18 a parable about a persistent widow who many times begged a judge in her town for a just decision in her case. The judge, at first unwilling to listen to her, did eventually listen due to her persistence. He says that God will hear our prayers much more speedily than the unjust judge but makes the point that we must "pray always without growing weary" (Luke 18:1).  We are called to pray always and to remember that, no matter whether things are going well in our lives or going poorly, God is an integral part of all aspects of our lives and all situations in which we find ourselves. God doesn't want us to just ask once or twice and then leave Him alone. He wants us to ask Him for all we need, at all times, and never forget His presence or power at work in our lives.

St. Paul also calls us to this unceasing prayer: "Do not grow slack in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord," he says. "Rejoice in hope, endure in affliction, persevere in prayer" (Rom 12:11-12). It is easy to grow complacent and to simply go through the motions of living. There is so much to do and take care of each day and so much to plan for and prepare for regarding the future. It is easy to get distracted from prayer or to put it off for minutes or days. Whether things are going well or not, it is difficult to constantly express trust and gratitude. And, in all honesty, constant prayer can be tiring.

Yet we are called to rejoice, endure, persevere. I find it interesting that St. Paul places the word "rejoice" right there with the words "endure" and "persevere." And "hope" with the word "affliction." It seems out of place at first, but really he touches on one of the great mysteries of our faith. Affliction can lead us deeply into a beautiful, amazing hope. As we endure, through prayer, in affliction, we grow stronger in our faith and, by experience, know that we can, with God's grace, make it through anything. We know, even more, that God will carry us through anything. 

I have looked at those people with envy who seem to be happy in any circumstance, who express joy and hope no matter what worries or concerns they have, who have a special sparkle in their eyes. I can't say I am always joyful in all circumstances, but I do see God's hand helping me to remain hopeful in many various circumstances - as long as I persevere in prayer. 

I like how St. Paul puts it earlier in his letter to the Romans: "...we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the holy Spirit that has been given to us" (Romans 5:3-5). Affliction does indeed produce endurance when we rely on God's grace rather than falling into despair. Just as continuing to exercise through the point of initial fatigue strengthens our heart, lungs, and muscles so as to increase our cardiac and muscular endurance that over time we are able to exercise longer or more intensely, so does continuing to persevere in affliction and through prayer increase our endurance for continuing to persevere through other afflictions in the future and increase our faith that God will carry us through. 

We can see, then, how affliction and endurance produce proven character. In looking up the definition of the word character, there are references to moral and mental properties that are distinctive to an individual person (cf and to the way in which a person acts on the morals, ethics, and values in which they believe. Endurance in affliction can have a strong effect on how a person learns to react to various situations and on their ability to act in a way that reflects their morals, ethics, and values. Practicing a skill helps us to improve in that specific skill, and practicing acting on our morals and on our faith strengthens our morals and faith so that they become a greater part of our character and thereby increase the strength of our character.

And as we grow in strength of character and grow in faith, a growth in hope naturally follows. We feel stronger to face adversity and to face afflictions, and we see that we can thrive and grow in any circumstance, again by God's grace. Afflictions are not as strongly a source of despair but can actually become a source of joy as we work our way through them. As I have worked through particularly difficult times, I actually have found myself thanking God for the growth and lessons I know will come from those situations He allows in my life. Not that I don't wish I could learn and grow without these struggles, but I know they will be worthwhile in the end.

St. Paul, in chapter 5, also refers other sources of hope: the love of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, and our reconciliation to God and salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In short, these gifts point to how important we are to our Father and to His Son, despite that we do not add in any way to His Glory, and remind us that He is always with us and has not left us to suffer on our own. He wishes to share in both our suffering and our joy. When Jesus ascended into Heaven, He did not simply leave His friends. Soon after, he sent His Holy Spirit to remain with his disciples and all those who follow Him. He promised that those who love Him would be with Him for eternity and opened the gates of Heaven for us, that we can always look forward to living fully in His peace, joy, and love after this life and experience hope in knowing that is our future. And for us Catholics, we know that He gave us His Body and Blood as a result of the sacrifice He made for us on the cross in order to be even more physically and tangibly with us throughout our lives.

God wants so much for us to experience His hope and joy - to experience His love. Not only to know it intellectually and to be able to rattle off Bible passages or quote famous theologians but to experience that love that is spoken of in those sources. Affliction is one powerful way in which He reaches out to us and calls us to Himself. It is a powerful tool He is able to use to open our hearts so that He can fill them with His joy and love.

To live with such hope as is simply gifted to us by God and as is produced within us through growth in the face of affliction is worth the effort we put toward the unceasing prayer we are called to. God's allowing me to return to a state of anxiety, to a state of relative suffering, so easily when I do not put forth that effort is actually a gift in that it is a reminder of the call to prayer and to trust. In prayer and in trust, this affliction and suffering does produce endurance, character, and eventually hope and even joy. In fact, as I conclude this reflection, I can't hide the smile that is growing on my face - a smile that is the direct result of this hope and joy that I would not know if it wasn't for the difficulties I have experienced and those I continue to experience. It's a direct result of God and His grace and love working directly in my life. And for that, I am grateful.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Lessons Learned on My Journey through Anxiety and Depression: Part 4

It has been nearly two years now since the onset of my anxiety. As I think over these last two years and see how much I have learned and how much I have grown as well as how much I have suffered and continue, to a much smaller degree, to suffer, I’m at the same time grateful for this experience and filled with regret. I still am filled with questions of why? Why did I have to go through this, and why do I still need to experience anxiety to the level I still do? To some extent, I can answer these questions. My faith has grown exponentially, as has my strength, my character, and my tolerance of suffering. And I know there’s still growth that needs to happen. I am not there yet. And, really, I don’t know if I’ll ever be “there.”

The primary thing I continue to suffer from, besides the increasingly rare incidence of actual anxiety and the on edge feeling I more often feel, are constant palpitations. I feel these palpitations most notably as a strong pulse in my hands and in my head. If I stop to notice them during the day, they are there. But they are most obvious when I lay down at night, whether it’s because of my position or because I am finally still enough to notice them.  As soon as my ear hits the pillow, the palpitations sound through my head, and I feel them in my hands resting on the pillow or blanket, and they often run through my body. While not disabling and not of big concern to me, they are a nightly reminder of the anxiety I have experienced and continue to experience since January 2011. They keep the question at the forefront of my mind as to whether this anxiety and these palpitations have been caused by a physiological change in my body or whether they’re stress-related. And they remind me that I am not back to normal.

As a physical therapist in an outpatient clinic, I would at times treat clients with neck pain and related headaches. I would perform a treatment called a suboccipital release in which I would put pressure with my finger tips at the spot where the neck meets the skull. I would enjoy feeling those muscles relax under the pressure of my fingers. The first indication of this relaxation was typically a pulse – the patient’s pulse – beginning in that area. I never grew tired of feeling that pulse and, every time, would tell the patient I was working with that this pulse was beginning, and they would typically notice a relaxation soon after that. But, after the anxiety started and while I was still working in that clinic, the pulse in my own fingers was too strong to be able to feel my clients’ pulse. I remember being irritated by this, again not only because of the palpitations themselves but also because of what they represented. I have no doubt that the palpitations would still affect my work today if I were continuing in that role.

The anxiety and on edge feeling continue to affect me in other ways. I still have my triggers such as the boys’ behavior and excess clutter. I still find I can’t relax in certain situations like I have been able to in the past. And at times, I am more irritable in normal situations as well.

Yet, I’m hopeful. I know I am doing so much better than I was even six months ago, and I really can’t even compare how I’m feeling now to how I was feeling almost two years ago. And I believe I will continue to get better.

I also strongly believe that every trial comes with the opportunity to grow and that God, in His wisdom, uses all things to bring about good if we trust in Him to do so. And so I am grateful for the opportunity to continue to grow and eager to find out what it is God wants to teach me. I do believe He is teaching me to be grateful even in the midst of continued concerns and uncertainty. I believe He is teaching me to focus more on what He has done in my life and what He has given me rather than on what I still do not have. I believe He is teaching me patience – to know that He brings about what He knows we need at the most appropriate time.

This obviously relates directly to my anxiety and palpitations. I certainly am grateful that my anxiety has decreased to such a large extent, despite continued palpitations. If I continue to feel the way I do today for the rest of my life, I know I can live a wonderful, fulfilling life and that the small amount of anxiety I continue to feel will not greatly impact this. God has obviously been leading me through this journey and has not left my side, and He is healing me.  Based on this, I know He will remain faithful to His promise to remain with me and to bring about even more good in my life. But I know I cannot rush the process. The best thing I can do is to continue to follow what I believe to be His promptings, to stay hopeful, and to do the best I can each day.

I see these lessons taking shape in another way in my life as well. Five and a half years ago, we moved to the town that we currently live in. A three bedroom duplex was quite obviously placed in our laps. We had planned on living in that duplex for 6 months to no more than a year before buying a house and were sure to tell our landlord that. More than five years later, we still live in the same duplex. While I badly want a playroom for the boys, more counter space, and a dishwasher in addition to the three bedrooms and two bathrooms we have, I know we do have what we really need and we will be fine if we need to live in this house for several more years. Even if that means squeezing 5 people into 1000 square feet of living space this coming May. I know also that many people have less than we do. And so I’m trying to remain grateful for this home we have been given and to focus more on what we do have in this duplex rather than what we are lacking. It can be difficult to focus on the positive when the negative seems to be so much more obvious.

In short, through these and other uncertainties, I am learning that life is a journey. It’s not a journey of perfection, but it is a journey of goodness because God is a part of it. Because of that, my disposition in this journey is not to be one of worry and distress but one of trust and gratitude. There will undoubtedly be times when I slip into the mode of worry and distress, when I am caught up in the negative, but those times are nothing but reminders to renew my commitment to express trust in God and gratitude for His leading me through this journey. There will be times when the journey is more difficult or more frustrating, but those are also reminders of how much I need God and how important it is to follow Him. I have been through difficult times before and, with God’s help, have made it through stronger and better than before. With God’s help, I know I will make it through every new obstacle stronger and better than I am now.