Saturday, October 30, 2010

Comparative Suffering

A few weeks ago my brother called me on a weekday afternoon - not a customary time for us to chat, but not unheard of either. He caught me in the middle of putzing with my kids; we were going outside to play for a while, then out for errands. Things were not quiet for me to give him my undivided attention. Our conversation was brief. I poked around a bit to see if there was a particular reason for his call but he didn't give one.

Later he told me that he called because he'd been having a particularly hard day. Familiar frustrations, but sometimes they build up and you want to tell someone about it. I get it. But, he told me, when I answered the phone and sounded happy he wondered what he could possibly have to complain about. That is: she has cancer and she sounds ok. How can I complain?

He's not the only one who has said something like this to me. I periodically get notes from friends who tell me I am inspiring, or that when they feel frustrated with their lives they think of me and are motivated (guilted?) to buck up.

Comparing my suffering to someone else's is not helpful. I'm inclined to do it myself. There are always people whose lives look more difficult than mine - someone with a more tenacious cancer, a deeper depression, a different challenge altogether. Comparing my pain to other people's pain is one strategy that intensified my depression.

Pain is pain. There is no way to measure my pain against yours. For a long time I felt guilty for becoming clinically depressed because I thought I "should be able to handle this." Other people's lives are hard and they don't go crazy over it. They just plug away and handle it. Why can't I?

That line of thinking was entirely unhelpful. My life was (and is) icky and painful to me. I am profoundly disappointed by it in many ways. I need a lot of help to cope with it. Thinking I should not need help didn't make anything better. Now I have support of all kinds - spiritual, emotional, logistical - and I still feel like I'm scraping by one day at a time.

I am not a hero. I'm not stronger or better than anyone else. I do not pull myself out of bed every day because I have such an admirably tenacious will to succeed. God is kind to keep me afloat when I think I will drown. I cannot explain God's grace but I know that I live in it.

I have never supposed that God compares my pain to anyone else's or to His. He loves me and cares about what I feel and what I need today.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

This Old House

Stopped by our old house today to check on things and it was like a torture session. The house looks fantastic. It smells good. If I saw it now I would definitely buy it again. Too bad no one has requested a showing in the three months it's been listed. All that loveliness for no one. And we're still paying the mortgage.

It's creepy to me to visit our old neighborhood. In some ways, I was so content with it. I liked our neighborhood and our house and our neighbors. The few years we lived there were also the most painful, oppressive years of my life so far. Poor house. I will probably never think of it fondly. More like an attractive prison.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Talk Therapy

The last week and half has been pretty discouraging to me. I'm so tired of chemo and of hoping that things will be better in a while. Last Christmas I was so deeply depressed and I remember the effort it took to get through the holiday telling myself that "next year will not feel so miserable."

Christmas is going to be hard this year. I've already written my family to tell them I won't be able to give them gifts this year because the energy that would require is beyond me. I am, once again, looking to a holiday season through which I need to tell myself, "next year will be better."

Yesterday I spent an hour with my therapist and it was so helpful. Airing all my anxieties and griefs to someone who can give them a context and affirm that everything I feel is connected to reality was deeply reassuring.

I've discovered that, on the heels of major depression, feeling sad is frightening. If it persists for more than a day I begin to worry that I'm headed to that desperate place again. I do not EVER want to go back there, where sadness is everything. I do not yet trust my ability to judge whether my sadness is connected to my circumstances or is taking on a life of its own.

In depression, I felt sad for no apparent reason. Even if everything was going well I felt sad. Healthy sadness has a reason. Chemotherapy, a house that will not sell, lingering anger toward sr. pastor, knowing I will be sick during the holidays - these are reasons to be sad.

Today I feel better. I will try to think only about today and leave the coming unpleasantness alone until I have to deal with it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Visine in My Purse

This is a guest post by a fellow pastor's wife who has dealt with depression. Her experience differs from mine in how her emotions were affected. Depression made me feel too much; the writer of this post seems to feel too little.

I carry Visine in my purse and I am not a sufferer of dry itchy allergy eyes.

I have been told that I was in the stage of my depression/anxiety journey called blunting.

blunting: a decrease in the intensity of emotional expression from the level one would normally expect as a reaction to a specific situation.

I toss between settling into being blunt or tweaking and self talking myself into a more "normal" state of being. This is the tricky thing about being me.

Do I

A. Wean down and possibly panic....or

B. Add a few more mg and resemble a zombie...

The answer for now is neither Neither A nor B. It is VISINE!

I have somewhat enjoyed my stay in the land of blunting. For a time I was very satisfied not feeling happy or sad. It was refreshing to not deal with emotions at extremes. While trying to tweak medications and leave the land of blunting proves difficult I am now realizing I have forgotten how to react to situations happy and sad. It takes a lot of energy.

So, you ask..Where does the Visine fit in to all of this? I was having coffee with a friend and telling her about my recent endeavor to leave the land of blunting. I would like to again be able feel the strong emotion of happiness and not just the thoughts of being happy. This for me involves a very long process of tweaking meds. The part that is hardest for me is THE FUNERALS. See, I am also a PW (Pastor’s wife) and I know for a fact the very first time I realized I had no emotion was at a funeral of someone I really knew, really enjoyed, and was really going to miss. Everyone around me had tears flowing from their eyes and audible sobs as I sat there. I began to feel very self-conscious of what I must look like to the mourning families at all the funerals I attend. I must look like a stone cold hard woman. YUCK that is not really me.

My very dear friend looked at me and said: “Just put some Visine in your purse! Before you walk into church squirt a little in each eye, let the make-up run appropriately and grab a tissue.”

So, instead of trying to rush through the process of medication changes I am now at a much slower steady pace thanks to the Visine in my purse!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


It has a been a rough week. I had a chemo treatment a week ago and am starting to feel like I'm just crummy all the time. I have these stupid side-effects with me every day, like so many yippy dogs nipping my ankles and barking that it's-not-even-a-bark little noise. They won't do any permanent damage but they can irritate the bejeebers out of me.

Meanwhile, Husband is having a rough go. I think he hoped (as did I!) that moving away from our old congregation would provide nearly instant relief from the pain we felt there. It didn't. It's starting to look like we might need to organize our entire lives around getting well for a few months. I'm physically ill, he's emotionally/spiritually ill. It's very, very, very hard to acknowledge that we are profoundly limited right now.

I happened upon a little book about cancer and skimmed it for interesting bits. The author described someone's experience with cancer and noted that he thinks "toxic stress" in the patient's life contributed to the development of cancer.

I'm pretty sure the author is not a physician, and I think he's just musing there, but it planted the idea in my mind that perhaps I would not have developed cancer if I'd not been under severe stress. That is, "Did sr. pastor give me cancer?"


Of course I have no idea and it's kind of a stupid thing to ponder, but every few weeks I discover new layers of anger over his incredibly, stunningly self-centered behavior. I had so few conversations with him and all of them were about him. What is that? How does that happen? Someone told me that the definition of narcissism is thinking that everything you say or do is right because you are the one saying or doing it. I cannot fathom seeing the world that way.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Cancer vs. Depression

So many times in the last month I have told my friends, who are surprised and delighted by my mental and emotional health, that I find cancer much easier to cope with than depression.

Cancer sounds ominous and miserable, as it is, but it is not messing with my brain or my heart. My cancer is, as cancers go, manageable. My prognosis is very good; I am plodding through several months of chemotherapy, but I know when to expect it will end and that helps me cope with bad days.

Cancer is also a public illness, where depression is largely private. Everyone in our congregation knows I have cancer and they have some idea how to talk to me about it and how to help me. They bring me meals, they care for my children, they pray for me. I can talk about feeling crummy or being sad that my hair is falling out.

Depression was a completely different experience for me. I felt isolated and always uncertain with whom I might talk about my depression. Mental illness is hard to understand. For someone who has never suffered from depression it is hard to figure out how to be helpful.

In the midst of depression I lacked perspective beyond my own experience. The world seemed dark and hopeless and I found it hard to understand the hopeful things other people said to me. It felt like they were talking in fairy tales and I was living in the real world, a dark tiny world of endless sadness.

The couple of times that I felt vaguely suicidal, usually in the form of wishing someone else who was more competent could live my life for a while, my therapist told me that was not normal. Healthy people, she'd say, see unpleasant circumstances in their lives as a challenge, but one they take on because it's their life. I could hardly imagine it. Who would want to live the life I was in then?

Now I understand it. I hate cancer, but it is part of my life and I will cope with it the best I can. God's grace is sufficient, one day at a time, and someday this will end.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010


I have followed with interest the blog of a pastor coping with depression and coming to terms with needing a therapist. When I needed the care of a therapist, one appeared before me as if by magic. Her counseling style and personality seemed perfectly suited to my needs. It rarely occurred to me that I'd been spared the arduous process of choosing a therapist.

Then we moved. While my depression has lifted and a million things about my life seem better I am not confident enough to be apart from the care and attention of a professional counselor. The upheaval of moving, coaching kids through a move, cancer, a new congregation, approaching winter.... it seems ripe for a repeat appearance of my Great Foe, depression.

Finding a therapist is hard. On my list of considerations:
Insurance coverage/cost
Therapeutic style
Christian perspective
Gender (I am more readily at ease with a woman)

It doesn't work to ask around about a good therapist the way I do about dentists and hair salons. Recommendations for mental health care require a little discretion. My husband identified a couple of good people to ask, as did I. Some of our inquiries were fruitless - generated no names or suggestions that did not suit us for various reasons. He finally found someone who referred us to a useful list.

Then I sorted through the list and eliminated most of the names off the bat. Some have specific areas of expertise - family conflict, teens, etc. Others had religious affiliations that are inappropriate for me: buddhism, new age, or branches of Christianity with which I am not comfortable. One Christian counseling office near us posts its intake form online. I browsed it and noticed this item: "Does the client consider him/herself to be born again?" I understand that question to refer to an understanding of the Christian faith with which I do not identify. I don't want to battle off theological questions in pursuit of good mental health.

During my husband's vicarage year - an internship during seminary - we visited a therapist together because we felt overwhelmed by loneliness and stress. Being far from family and friends, in an unfamiliar and challenging situation, was sometimes confusing for us. The counselor we saw was not helpful. She couldn't figure out what our problem was, so she spent half and hour talking to my husband about nurturing his inner child when he preaches. It was very weird.

I landed upon a Christian counseling practice with an office near my home. My schedule is so full of doctor visits and child-tending responsibilities that travel time could seriously limit my ability to see a therapist as often as I could need. I judged from the web site that the practice is overtly Christian but respectful of the fact that clients are looking for mental health care, not theology lessons.

I described my first appointment as "auditioning a new therapist." It was important to me to remind myself that establishing a therapeutic relationship is my decision. I felt perfectly at ease with this therapist and appreciated the questions she asked at my first appointment. I discovered that she is also married to a pastor and recognizes everything I describe about my anxieties related to that role. Her affiliation is with a different denomination, but every reference to Christian faith falls inside of what I think of as Apostles' Creed Christianity: things we all agree on. She has not asked me if I am born again.

In the course of writing this blog, I've made friends with other pastors' wives who realize they would benefit from professional counseling. For some of them, identifying a therapist who meets their criteria is an arduous process. I pray for them, that God will provide what they need and give them eyes to recognize it when they see it.