Sometimes you just do not know

Picture an office filled with men, each doing his own job, each living his own life. None of them really knows any of the others. (I have made all the workers men just for the ease of using the same pronoun. Any of these people could easily be a woman. The personalities and situations are not gender-specific.)

A is grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He says he is not a morning person. He does not mention his routine of three drinks every evening, with the standard hangover each day that does not disappear until lunchtime.

B is also grouchy and surly when he comes to work. He never mentions his digestive tract problems which cause pain and discomfort throughout the day but which are worse in the morning.

C is grouchy and surly but blames it on the traffic. He does not know that he has an anxiety disorder which causes him to overreact to incidents on the highway.

D is generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in good health, is involved in a strong relationship, and is in decent financial shape.

E is also generally in a good mood when he arrives at work. He is in a poor financial situation and has no strong relationships, but he is either too deep or too shallow to let these things shape his mood at work.

F seems generally in a good mood at work. He is compensating for ongoing depression, coping with life by pretending to have no problems or concerns.

G arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife started the day with a romantic encounter, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

H also arrives at work a few minutes late. He and his wife had an argument over breakfast about the family budget, but that information is far too private to share with his coworkers.

J is generally quiet at work. He is an introvert and is most comfortable working on his computer, not relating directly to other people.

K is generally quiet at work. He is developing a short story in his head and is absorbed in the characters and the plot.

L is generally quiet at work. He is planning a terrorist attack in the coming days and wants to be sure that he does not reveal his plans to anyone.

M is generally quiet at work. He hates his job and has been filling out job applications for every opening he can find.

And so it goes. None of these men really knows any of the others. They never discuss religion or politics–no one knows who in the office is a Christian, who is atheist, or who is agnostic. No one knows who voted for Hillary Clinton, who voted for Donald Trump, who voted for a third party candidate, and who did not vote. The supervisor evaluates their work without knowing which of his employees are exerting themselves in extraordinary ways to overcome problems and which are lazy and are capable of doing far more than they accomplish. When they form a team to finish a project, no one knows who is excited about the project, who is frightened by the project, and who is bored with the project.

Life is like this sometimes. We wear our masks, play our roles, and hide our identities so deeply that some of us even forget who we are. Some go home to families where they can be themselves; others must continue to play a role at home. Some have friends who accept them as they are; others perform for their friends and hide their real selves. Some can be themselves at church, while others put on an act before their brothers and sisters in the faith. Some are genuine in the face of the one true God; others try to perform even for Him.

God knows each of us–our problems, our blessings, our thoughts, even the number of hairs on our heads. He made us, and He is constantly aware of each of us. No matter who you and I pretend to be at work, at home, or out in the world, we can never fool God, and we never should try. Each of us is a sinner who desperately needs a Savior. Each of us is rescued, forgiven, and claimed for the Kingdom of God by the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. We have different resources, different abilities, and different opportunities, just as the human body consists of eyes and ears and hands and feet and many other parts. God loves all of us and can support each of us in any difficulty. J.

You can’t outrun a panic attack

According to an old quip, “Insanity is hereditary—you get it from your children.”

The first problem with that saying is that insanity is a legal term, not a medical term. It describes a lack of responsibility or accountability due to mental illness, but a medical professional word not use the word outside of a courtroom.

Moreover, mental and emotional illnesses are not communicable diseases. You cannot catch it from another person the way you catch a cold or flu virus. The behavior of one’s children can create stress that acerbates one’s illness, but stress alone does not make a person mentally ill.

If my daughter did not make me ill, at least her condition helped me to discover my own problems and to seek help. Her struggle with depression became noticeable while she was in college. When she sought help from the school’s professional counselor, he told her that she was merely homesick. Years later, after two rounds of hospital stays along with medication and counseling, she is doing better. Of course she has good days and bad days, as do we all.

To be a supportive father, I took the time to learn more about depression and anxiety. I was aware that I have occasional spells of depression. My usual response was to push my way through the bout stoically. At that time I believed that virtue is doing the right thing in spite of one’s feelings. For example, courage is not lack of fear; courage is doing the right thing in spite of fear. I reasoned that, so long as I forced myself out of bed and met my responsibilities, how I felt was unimportant. Thanks to my daughter’s situation, I became educated about what a bad approach that was.

As I read about anxiety and the way it manifests itself, I realized that I battle anxiety far more often than I face depression. Being chronically short-tempered, responding to annoyances with over-the-top rage, slamming doors, kicking furniture—these were not bad habits proving that I’m a bad person; these were symptoms of a treatable problem called anxiety. Men, I learned, are more likely to feel angry rather than frightened when hit by a panic attack. No doubt that has something to do with male and female roles in society, but I’ve done no research on that aspect of anxiety. (This is why I republished my Basil Fawlty post yesterday.)

I see my other daughters acting the same way. Twice this spring when they have been together, they have been short-tempered with one another, quick to take offense, bursting into tears because of something a sister said, fleeing the conversation rather than getting over it. I am looking for ways to encourage them to get help, not to delay seeking help until they reach a crisis, as happened to one of them already.

The daughter who survived a crisis and is receiving appropriate care had a troubling episode Monday night. Her car broke down just before Christmas; she could not afford to repair it, so she sold it “as is” with plans to buy another car. So far, she has not been able to find one she can afford, aside from those likely to last only a short time. This situation led to an emotional melt-down that had her curled up in a chair, sobbing uncontrollably. I tried to offer what help I could, but then I backed off to give her the space she needed.

At this point, her crying pushed me into a panic attack. At first I just tried to close myself in another room, but I could still feel the attack at work. My fists were clenched, and I wanted to strike myself with the book I was unable to read. I wanted to shout at my daughter, to tell her, “You are obsessing over money and property. These things are not supposed to be so important to you.”

Instead I went for a walk. You can’t outrun a panic attack, but that’s no reason not to try. Working off nervous energy with moderate exercise is always a good idea. Actually, it was a very brisk walk with a lot of hostility still boiling inside me. When cars came toward me I held my ground and forced them to change their path. None of them came close to hitting me—and at that time, I followed that observation with the words, “I’m not that lucky.” I don’t doubt that people in the neighborhood wondered about the man stalking past their houses, but I needed that walk at that time.

As I walked down one street, I saw two people on the other side of the road with flashlights. At first I assumed that they were looking for something one of them had dropped in the dark—car keys, perhaps. As I got closer, I saw that they were bagging leaves. One of them was wearing a helmet with a lantern, the kind of gear associated with miners. This oddity helped turn my thinking away from my own problems. Who in the world is so obsessed with bagging leaves that they carry (and wear) lights to do it during the night?

I was going to share that anecdote with my daughter, but by the time I got home she had gone to bed. The car situation is unchanged, but she somehow worked through her attack as I worked through mine. J.

 

Basil Fawlty and anxiety attacks

I once commented that at times it seems as though I have Mr. Spock on one side and Basil Fawlty on the other, each urging me to behave more like they behave. That passing remark prompted me to rummage through my DVD collection and watch again the classic British comedy Fawlty Towers.

For the uninitiated, Basil Fawlty is the owner and manager of a hotel in Torquay, Devon, England. He runs the hotel with the help of his wife Sybil and two employees, Polly (an aspiring artist) and Manuel (he’s from Barcelona). Basil Fawlty, portrayed by John Cleese of Monty Python fame, is arrogant, sarcastic, and short-tempered, fawning over customers who are rich or important but rudely insulting most of his customers as well as his wife and employees. Six episodes of the show were filmed in 1975, and six more were filmed in 1979. In spite of that short list of episodes, Fawlty Towers is very popular with fans of British comedy.

Now that I have become aware of my own symptoms revealing depression and anxiety, I wanted to see if Fawlty is wrestling with the same problems. I don’t believe that John Cleese intended to address mental health issues with this show, and I doubt that he is even aware of the internal struggles that might drive a man like Fawlty to act in the ways that Cleese portrayed. All the same, knowing that my occasional temper tantrums sometimes drive me to act like Fawlty (and I am tempted to “act out” like Fawlty more often than I like to admit). Irritability and fits of rage sometimes are signs, not of anger management problems, but of depression and anxiety. Even the physical expressions of Fawlty’s inner turmoil bring to mind the way overwhelming anxiety makes me want to act at times.

Fawlty has reasons to be depressed. He has chosen a line of work for which he clearly is ill-suited. He shows little love or affection for his wife, nor she for him. Guests frequently berate Fawlty or make unreasonable requests and demands of him. Fawlty wants to succeed as a hotelier, and the failure of his establishment and its workers leads him deeper and deeper into anxiety.

Of the twelve episodes, Fawlty’s struggles are clearest in “The Hotel Inspectors” (Season 1, episode 4). Facing guests who are clearly dissatisfied with their experience at his hotel, and hearing rumors that hotel inspectors are visiting Torquay, Fawlty wavers between his effort to be a good host to potential inspectors and his desire to treat his unpleasant customers as poorly as he thinks they deserve to be treated. As the episode progresses, Fawlty’s anxiety symptoms become increasingly strong until they overwhelm him.

Fawlty’s first defense against stressful situations is sarcasm. He insults his wife, his staff, and his guests with vicious humor, although often he hopes that they will not hear or comprehend his barbed remarks. He also seeks ways to blame others for the wrong things that are happening under his responsibility. As his level of stress increases, Fawlty begins to speak both louder and faster. He strikes out at inanimate objects or at the defenseless Manuel. As the attack deepens, Fawlty’s muscles begin to clench, starting with his hands but soon spreading to his arms and legs. His speaking voice becomes much higher and sometimes fails him entirely. In several episodes, Fawlty ends up lying on the floor in a somewhat fetal position, or he wraps himself in his own clothing as if to hide from the rest of the world.

I always laughed at Fawlty Towers, enjoying the witty dialogue and the slapstick humor. The show still amuses me, even though I now approach it from a different point of view. As Basil Fawlty, John Cleese openly portrays the way an anxiety attack feels. His methods of coping with anxiety and depression are not recommended, but the show can still be educational as well as entertaining.

J.

(originally published June 5, 2015)

Novella

Last spring I started writing a short story. After a while, the characters took over the story. They changed their names, and they kept extending the action until the short story became a novella. I was curious to see how it would end, when suddenly they told me they were done. I allowed the story to rest for a while. This week I pulled it out again, dusted it off, and tweaked it one last time. You can now read this novella by clicking on the word “novella” near the top of this page.

Someone once said that the first words to every story are “what if?” In this case, the story began this way: what if a young pastor was asked by his old flame to give counseling to her and her husband? I could imagine any number of possibilities, and it was interesting to toy with them as the story developed. Please believe the disclaimer at the start of the novella: Any resemblance to real people or real situations is unintended and purely coincidental. I would not want any reader to think either that this story is autobiographical or that it betrays confidences.

I hope you enjoy my novella. J.

Blaming the victim, or, how can you say that?

I wrote a while ago about the advice one of my out-of-town relatives gave me, telling me to relax. That one post, and the response it has generated, has made me think about the other things people say to those of us who battle anxiety and/or depression. This list of things other people say is by no means original—you can find high-quality posts on the same subject here and here, for example—but these comments clearly show that those other people have no idea what they are saying with their helpful advice.

“It’s all in your head.” Well, of course it is. Did you think I blamed my feet for my anxiety and depression? All-in-my-head doesn’t make it less real or easier to bear. When you tell me that my problems are all in my head, all you are really saying is you can’t see my problem, so to you it doesn’t exist.

“You’re just being selfish.” “You’re just feeling sorry for yourself.” Anxiety and depression may, in some ways, be connected with selfishness, but they are not caused by a selfish nature or proof that the struggling person is more selfish than others. I’ve known people struggling with cancer who were very aware of their illness, to the point that they could talk about nothing else. For that matter, I’ve known people struggling with allergies or with the common cold who seemed obsessed with their illness. When a person is sick—and knows that he or she is sick—awareness of the sickness and its symptoms are inevitable. The cancer or the cold can be measured, though, whereas the anxiety and depression cannot be measured. If you don’t have cancer, you don’t know how the person struggling with cancer really feels. If you don’t have depression, you don’t know how the person struggling with depression really feels.

“Keep yourself busy doing things for other people, and you won’t have time to be anxious or depressed.” When people are emotionally paralyzed by anxiety or depression—unable to get out of bed, or unable to leave the house—it is a bit cruel to suggest that they can change their feelings just by keeping busy. I am blessed in that I have never missed a day’s work or a social obligation due to anxiety or depression, but I can attest to the fact that forcing myself to do my job or to attend someone else’s party did not ease my symptoms one bit. The wave of panic that hits while I’m sitting at my desk is there all the same. It does not matter if I keep working or if I hide under the desk. The main reason I don’t hide under the desk is that I don’t want to call attention to myself.

“Cheer up.” “Relax.” Yes, I would do these things if I could. Telling me to do those things does not make me more capable of doing them. If I could force myself to relax or to be cheerful, don’t you think I’d rather do that? As it is, I fake it as well as I can, just so I don’t bother you so much with my problems.

“You need to learn how to manage stress.” Honestly, I’m not sure that a strong connection exists between stress and anxiety. If I worried about something specific, my worry would be natural and acceptable, wouldn’t it? It’s the free-floating anxiety that puzzles you. Maybe you think that stress management and a positive mental attitude are all that is needed to win the fight against anxiety and depression, but the professionals who have studied cases like mine would, for the most part, disagree with you.

“It’s all your fault.” All right, no one has said those words to me so bluntly. But isn’t that exactly what is being said in every one of the examples given above? People in our society have mastered the art of blaming the victim. They seem to think, “If you are sick and I am not, I must be doing something right, and you must be doing something wrong.” We know that many broken bones are caused, directly or indirectly, by careless or dangerous behavior. Why not go to the emergency room and tell everyone who enters with a broken bone that, if they had been more careful, they would still be fine. Go to the pharmacy and tell everyone buying cold and flu medication that, if they took better care of themselves, they would not need the medicine.

According to the Bible, the Lord allowed Satan to test the faith of a man named Job. Job lost his wealth and his ten children, followed by his health. Three friends came to visit Job, and he began eloquently describing his depression. The three friends assured Job that his problems were his fault. “God doesn’t make mistakes,” they said to Job. “You are getting what you deserve. Change your life, and make yourself right with God, and your problems will cease.”

Job told his friends they were wrong. Then the Lord appeared and also told them they were wrong. He promised to forgive them when Job prayed for them. He restored Job’s blessings, without ever telling Job the back-story of why his problems happened in the first place.

The world is not fair. Good people suffer. Bad people get away with evil deeds. Blaming the victim solves nothing. If I had the courage, I would say to all these well-meaning advisors, “Be glad you don’t have the problems I have, but don’t be smug. I’m glad your life is going well. Please be a bit more patient with me as I try to manage mine.”

J.

Note–I wrote this several weeks ago and never got around to posting it until now. Getting to bring a family member home from the hospital last night had me too busy to compose a new post, and I remembered that I had several older ones in reserve. You are welcome. J.