Melancholic

Today I’m struggling with melancholy more than usual.  Melancholy is different from depression or sadness or grief or any other feeling in that category of unhappy/painful emotions.  It’s visceral and lively.  It takes over my mind and my heart.  My heart aches.  I ache excruciatingly, but it’s not for a particular person or thing.  It’s more in response to the fullness of life and beauty and sweet things, sweet beautiful meaningful things.  All that is good and beautiful and true flooding me can make me feel profoundly melancholic.  Why?  What is it physically that happens to me when I feel this?  Are my thoughts and feelings responses to something initiated biologically?  Or is it the other way around?  Feeling and thinking and listening make it more pronounced.  I have to do something.  Something that takes me “out” of myself.  Usually I do something mundane like wash the dishes or organize something or read a book.  Today I’m letting myself write while I feel this because I want to communicate to others what this is like.  I’m sure there are others who feel this.  It’s probably more closely related to anxiety than any other diagnosable thing.  I think the ancients considered it a type, or sometimes a sickness, or a type who tends toward this sickness.  I think today the scientific community simply wouldn’t use the word “melancholia.”  They would dissect it for possible biological conditions, most likely finding some kind of deficiencies.  Am I simply hungry?

The strange thing (although not at all strange to me) is that I find this such “native territory.”  I can remember having this feeling to some degree from the time of my earliest memories.  I know sometimes even at age three I would sit on the kitchen floor while Mom was working, and the cats were licking my pajamas, and although I liked being there with Mom, and I liked the cats’ attention, I also was aware of sunbeams falling on the floor and somehow they made me sad; I felt such a strange crux of realities; I felt present and elsewhere; I felt happy and sad; I felt belonging and otherly; I felt tangible understandings and mystery.  Of course I didn’t think all those words.  I think feeling melancholy comes from hyper-awareness, maybe too much observing while not balancing that with engaging.

So why am I writing this in this particular blog?  Does feeling melancholy having anything to do with having experienced abuse?  I don’t think it does necessarily or directly since I can remember feeling it even when my circumstances were fairly idyllic.  But I think being someone who is prone to melancholy is probably more vulnerable — more vulnerable to anything, including abuse.  I think that’s the essential requisite for experiencing melancholy: no borders or shields between sense of self and sense of context.

Sometimes I feel so full of feeling, I feel like I need to vomit.  Except that it’s not like when you’re sick and might actually need to vomit.  It’s more like when you drink a really sweet and thick milkshake too fast and your throat feels so full that you almost gag.  So often I find myself describing my extreme emotions in terms of digestive issues!  Hmm.

Is this helping me to describe this feeling?  I don’t know.  I hope that if anyone reads this who has felt this might take a little comfort in knowing you’re not isolated.  Any type of feeling of being overwhelmed can make us feel helpless and isolated.  But this too shall pass.  I won’t say “this is just a feeling” because it is also bodily discomfort and it engages a type of perspective.  But I can say with certainty this feeling of Melancholy is not your Author or Lord or sum-total of your Being or your Destiny; it’s just one of the arrows in your emotional/psychological quiver.

Another thing I find that helps me when I feel overwhelmed with Melancholy is to breathe more deeply.  I too often find myself holding my breath.  And I can hold my breath for “too long” — that’s an artifact from having been an oboist.  I remember doing exercises with my oboe teacher and achieving the capacity to exhale for over four minutes.  Exhale!

What prayer helps me when I feel this?  Lord-God have mercy on me for I am but dust.  Jesu juva; soli Deo gloria.  Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.  Jesus, hold me!

Imagining the Spirit holding me in something like a spiritual Dew-Drop helps me greatly.  Like my spirit is in the amniotic sac of my Creator-Who-Births-Me.

Abba!  Papa-Mama-Lord!  Save me!

I think some might say I’m having “liminal” experiences.  They might be correct.  But while I’m experiencing this, what does it matter what it’s called or how it’s analysed?  The whole essence of this is complete immersion in sensing, feeling, communing.

That’s a helpful point for me.  When I’m celebrating/ receiving the Eucharist, I feel this intensity of openness and vulnerability yet without pain.  Hmm.  What does this teach me?  I need Jesus to transport me through these “waters.”

Well, dear Reader, do you experience Melancholy?  Care to share any of your experience with me?  Did any of my ramblings give you insights or comfort?

 

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Anatomy of Ambivalence: Story of Self-Sacrifice

One particularly powerful example of my dad’s courage occurred when I was around 7 years old.  The whole family was sitting at the dinner table when there was a loud knock at the door.  We had a lovely door-bell, but as I recall, the unexpected visitor banged on the door rather than press the bell.  I remember being instantly alarmed.  My dad went to the door while the rest of us remained at the table.  I could hear his voice and another man’s.  Normally my dad would immediately invite people in, but this time I heard him go out.  The other man’s voice sounded angry and my dad’s sounded urgent.

I ran upstairs and watched out a bedroom window.  I could see the man and my dad.  Dad had taken the conversation to the front curb near the man’s car.  The other man had a gun!  It was a big gun; I think it was a shot-gun or rifle.  Learning later who it was, I imagine it was a gun the man would have used for hunting.  The angry man was yelling at my dad and initially pointing the gun at him!

I knew instinctively that my dad’s body posture was oriented to calming and consoling the man.  It looked like my dad had spread his arms out as if to show he had nothing with him.  After a while, the man lowered his gun, and dad reached out to him, maybe to take his hand.  I couldn’t hear or understand what they were talking about, but I could tell that my dad was showing the man great understanding.  Eventually the man put his gun down completely and my dad hugged him.  The man was crying.  I learned later that the man’s wife had been a patient of my dad’s.  The wife had died and the man blamed my dad.  She had some sort of cancer, and in those days there weren’t the cures or treatments we have today.

As I watched from the window, I saw the man drive away.  My dad watched him drive away.  Then I heard my dad come back inside and I ran downstairs.  My dad looked very alert yet completely worn out.  He came back to the table and we all finished our dinner.  I don’t remember how much my dad explained to all of us then and how much I learned at a later time, but I know I didn’t tell anyone at the time what I had witnessed through the window upstairs.  In fact, I don’t think I talked with my dad about that until decades later.  I do know though that at the time I believed my dad had saved his family from the angry man with a gun by taking all the risk on himself.  I can’t over-state the enduring power for me of my dad’s example of heroic courage that day.

Anatomy of Ambivalence: Basic Background

Today I want to tell you a little bit about my ambivalence towards my pacifist upbringing.  From my vantage point, I would think that anyone who understands the experience of sexual abuse on the part of the victim at all, would likely understand the goodness and necessity of boundaries.  And if you value boundaries, then you have to address the issue of self-defense or self-protection.  And if you acknowledge the correctness or healthful-ness of self-defense, then you have to contend with what it means to “turn the other cheek” and all the other teachings of Christ on which the Anabaptist stance of Pacifism was formed.

It might be helpful to give you historical background on the Anabaptist formulation of Pacifism.  But I’m not going to do that.  It’s a huge topic.  You can research that for yourself if you’re really interested.  You might also wonder what Mennonites and other Anabaptists believe and teach on that topic today.  I don’t pretend to know that; I’m no longer Mennonite; I’m not a spokesperson for those groups.  What is pertinent here is what I was taught by word and by example, mostly by my parents, and by the local Mennonite community of my childhood.

To be fair, I can’t even really say what others intended to teach me; I can only tell you what I learned, what I absorbed.  The point of this is not to assign blame (or credit).  My purpose is to articulate what it is I observed, learned, absorbed, and what is now an “issue” for me.  To begin, I will say that most of what I observed of my parents, I framed in my mind as positive, to be emulated.  Their behavior tended to exemplify what they taught.  Given the apparent agreement between their words and deeds, their teaching was potent.  My memory of my impression of the teaching/ example of other Mennonites in my childhood community (as individuals and as a group) is that others were mostly conformed to the official teaching of the Mennonite Church, but weren’t quite as powerful an example to me of how to live it.  I viewed my parents as mostly heroic in their discipleship.

I saw my parents give not only out of their bounty, but also sacrificially.  I saw them give their time, talent, and treasure to others in need, out of their love for and obedience to Christ.  I’m not saying they were perfect people.  Yet, although I know I idealized them as a young child, their actual characters and behaviors were genuinely and consistently Christ-like enough that even when I began to see them as real people (in all their wondrously flawed complexity), I continued to respect and admire their choices.  They were living their beliefs as well or better than anyone else I’ve ever known.

So, naturally, I have long admired the pacifist ideal and wanted to be a pacifist.  Sometimes I’ve even said “I AM a Pacifist; I’m just not very good at it!”  But the crux of the matter is: what do I really believe about self-defense?

***

Let me back up a bit.  My parents did indeed teach me to “turn the other cheek,” and I understood that to mean: 1) If some-one strikes you, don’t attempt to stop them with any sort of violent force, and 2) Don’t retaliate.  They also taught me that “living in peace with others so far as it is up to you” meant 1) Look out for others’ needs, and if you can contribute to their well-being it’s a good thing to do so; 2) Intervene for the under-dog; try to help others resolve conflict if you’re in a position to do so; 3) Be just with everyone and if the balance of cost has to fall one way or another, let it fall on you; 4) Root your sense of security in Christ; 5) Value living fully in God and relationships and experiences, not so much things and acquisition.

Whether my parents intended it or not, I also absorbed a distrust of military, police, and government in general.  I got the idea that what gives those institutions power is force, and often violent force, sometimes even lethal; and the fact that those entities considered lethal force a legitimate option made them for me “wordly” which meant not godly, not of Christ’s Kingdom.  All “worldliness” was to be avoided; I was not to “yoke” myself with people who had made “worldly” allegiances.

I remember having many discussions in our family about hypothetical scenarios where one would have to choose between using force to stop an attacker or accepting their actions.  The message I always got was three-fold: 1) It’s okay to explore ways to avoid harm (run, hide, stop the attacker with less-than-lethal actions); 2) But never ever kill another human-being, no matter what; 3) Pray the Lord keep us safe from such situations.  I don’t remember ever being counseled to call the police.

As a young child, this teaching of how one should face danger contributed to my sense of being a minority (I saw Mennonites as a minority even though my town was a mini Menno-mecca because I knew that our teachings were not popular in the general public.)  It also greatly enlarged my sense of vulnerability.  I knew I didn’t have the normal protections which I thought most of the world had available to them.  To some extent this made me even more vulnerable to victimization in any situation or relationship.

However, I was also taught courage.  Not only did I hear my parents tell stories of past experiences when they were spared harm (either by divine intervention or by their creative maneuverings), but I also witnessed their peace-making in real-time.

Read in my next post of a time my dad consoled an angry, armed man.

Intro to Anatomy of my Ambivalence

Ambivalence: having both attraction and aversion for something.  Most people would think this is a bad thing.  Usually it is at least problematic.  For me, it is something I experience more often than most people I know, more than they admit to me anyway.  Ambivalence is often judged as a weakness, as if the person feeling it can’t make up their mind.  When I experience ambivalence, it’s not that I can’t make up my mind; it’s that I’ve decided to give equal consideration to two opposing views, at least for a time.  It’s actually a sign of the strength of the flexibility of my mind, and my powers of imagination.

Usually when I’m willing to harbor ambivalence, it’s because I’m seeking a “third way.”  I’ve actually made a strong decision to look for a new paradigm.  Sometimes I find (or create) that new view; other times I don’t and I accept that I have to make a choice much like others before me.  Even so, I really don’t see the world as filled with dichotomies.  I believe there are a few absolutes that form the context for our thinking, experiencing, believing, choosing.  But within that frame of What-Is-Real, there is a multitude of spectrums.  So why not explore new nuances, creative combinations of unexpectedly compatible complexities?

There you have my briefest of introductions to my view of “ambivalence.”  My particularly puzzling issue, something important to me that continues to cause me much ambivalence, something I have yet to resolve or re-frame for myself is: Pacifism.

Next post will give a bit of background on what I was taught regarding a pacifist lifestyle by my Mennonite parents and childhood community.

 

Self-Soothing Strategies

Every person needs to know how to self-soothe.  From new-born babies needing to know how to return to sleep to newly pubescent teens coping with surging hormones, to every adult whether they be survivors of any sort of abuse or not, we all need ways cope with uncomfortable feelings.

“Soothing is what good parents do when their children are upset. It often involves soothing touch that is warm and comforting. It can involve words that are reassuring, empathic and hopeful. It may involve activities that are physically, intellectually or sensorially nourishing, such as taking a walk, reading a favorite book or sharing a special meal. It can also involve daily practices that are spiritually uplifting and inspiring, such as meditation. When you can perform this type of caring for yourself whatever your chosen activities may be then you have learned to self-soothe.” (from ASCA’s “Survivor to Thriver” Manual — On-line Version)

Ways I self-soothe:

  1. Take a nap.  I can sleep almost anytime anywhere if it’s silent and dark, but an afternoon nap is especially luxurious.
  2. Pray; praying is always comforting for me.  No matter what else I’m feeling, no matter what my concern, I feel anchored when in conversation with my Abba-Creator, in communion with Jesus, abiding in the Spirit.
  3. Listen to music (usually classical or comtempo-Christian, sometimes blues).  I like to start with music that is the same mood I’m feeling and then transition to music expressing my desired feeling.
  4. Play my piano.  I enjoy playing repertoire I know, reading new scores, practicing challenging pieces I’m working on, my own compositions, and sometimes improvising.  I won’t improvise for anyone else; that’s an extremely personal activity for me, but it’s sometimes a way I pray.
  5. Journal.
  6. Light a candle.
  7. Read an engrossing book.
  8. Put on a perfume or lotion with a relaxing scent like lavender or rose; I also really like the original Jergens because it reminds me of my mother when I was a very little girl.  She often carried a small bottle of it in her purse, and when at church, sitting in the pew, she would let me put some on my hands.  I felt like such a lady!
  9. Take a steamy hot shower, or if it’s a steamy hot day a cool one.
  10. Repeat a short prayer or mantra, like:
    1. Jesu juva; soli Deo gloria; or
    2. The Glory Be (Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit; As it was in the beginning, is now and every shall be; world without end.  Amen.  (It’s amazing how, no matter my circumstances, praising God for Being God is uplifting to my whole being.)
  11. Sometimes when I have felt over-whelmed, experiencing no particularly bad feeling, just a little disoriented, or possibly on the verge of panic, I simply take note of What Is.  I observe my surroundings and list mentally what I see in concrete terms of What Is.  It’s remarkably effective for me.  No-one taught me to do this.  I remember the first time it occurred to me to do this.  It was when I was walking to my first class on my first day at graduate school.   I was so aware of so many new things, all at once; it was helpful to list them to myself, one at a time.
  12. Simply breathing very deeply and very slowly is extremely helpful.

My goodness!  It is quite lovely to think about how effective are these techniques/ strategies, and most of them are entirely without cost.  Thanks be to God!

Lights! Coffee! Music!

older-couples-lets-dance (How I might look)

You know how filming movies starts with “Lights! Camera! Action!”?  For me, moving into my day starts with “Lights! Coffee! Music!”  I can rise at any hour if I really NEED to, if there’s a specific thing I’ve committed to do at a specific time that requires the early exit out of dream-land.  However, I am naturally a late-riser.  I’m not proud of the fact.  In my milieu “sleeping-in” tends to be looked down upon.  But I’m no longer truly ashamed of the fact that my natural wake time is 9:00 a.m.  I’ve always been this way.  Although most of my life has required I get up around 6:00 a.m. and I have managed my sleeping and waking accordingly, now that I am “retired” from “external commitments” I let myself return to my natural rhythms.  I usually stay up until mid-night or 1:00 a.m..  My body seems to prefer 9 hours sleep.  Whatever my waking hour, get me going is greatly facilitated by music.  When I hear music, it is as if the interior, essential Me wakes up; without music, much of me remains dormant.

I’m thinking about this because my “hot spot” or area where I need to work on bringing a healthful balance into my life is my physical health.  On my scales at home I weigh 165.  At the doctor’s office I weigh 159.  (I think they should really record 160, but the nurse is likely sympathetically taking a low reading!)  I used to be 5 feet 3 inches, but I’m a little bit shorter now.  I have a smallish frame (bone structure).  So I think my ideal weight would be around 115.  In college I weighed 110-115 and I felt great.  I ate well and I was naturally very active.  By “naturally” I mean that my daily activities incorporated a great deal of walking and other gentle-yet-constant activity.  I would be very happy to lose 40-50 pounds of fat, and gain some muscle weight.  I don’t really care what number the scale reads, I just know I need to lose fat from my midriff.  And I’d like to be physically stronger.

The approach I believe I SHOULD take in addressing my health is to eat better and to incorporate regular exercise into my daily routine.  So why don’t I do this?  Why haven’t I done it yet?  Simple answer: because other things have been a priority.  Why aren’t I doing it now?  Well, I’m starting to look directly at the issue; so, there’s no more “not doing it.”  Even so, my top priority is addressing my emotional health, healing my self-regard.

I think this is a good ordering of priorities because I’ve noticed that now that I am letting myself put my Self as my top priority, I have had more energy in general.  I “feel like” doing more things.  I want my approach to all self-care to be one born out of love and joy, not fear or shame or obligation.  I want to develop an attitude of joy and celebration in feeding myself, rather than dreading food as a danger.  I want my chosen modes of movement to be just that rather than dreading dutifully doing demanded daily drudgery!  So what’s my next step?  Find a great dance-inducing CD, and dance!  As for eating: find a few recipes for easily combined fresh ingredients.  Maybe have a theme for each day.  Somehow make the plan fun.  Maybe more on that next post.  Time to dance!

children dancing (How I feel!)

The Power of Peer Support

Farm Friends Rob MacInnis

Support Network

It is important not to try to recover in a vacuum. You do need help from like-minded and empathetic survivors and trained professionals.. . Learning to trust others and to turn to them for support is a crucial step in recovery. Doing so challenges one of the basic notions that arises from a history of abuse: namely, that people are dangerous.  [from ASCA “Survivor to Thriver” on-line workbook]

The ASCA workbook suggests listing “everyone you can think of whom you can call for support during times of need.”   I won’t list people by name here, but on my list I’ve included a few people from my family, friends, and ASCA group.

I am grateful I have people in my life I can trust.  Just knowing I can trust them makes a significant difference in my experience of being in the world.  Gaining some experience with ASCA, I was inspired to begin a similar support group/session with a friend.  Finding this kind of peer-support to be so helpful, I decided to begin this blog.  For me, blogging about my experience is a part of shattering the vacuum that can shackle victims to faux-shame.

If you, dear reader, have experienced any kind of violation or abuse, I encourage you to get not only whatever professional help you might need, but equally importantly: find peer support.  While professional therapy has its own merits, I have found peer support to be more effective in terms of freeing me from the “vacuum.”