Sunday, October 31, 2010

St. Andre Bessette, Crutches, and Healing

In summer 2009, our family had the opportunity to travel to Canada, and some of our best memories were from visiting, St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, and the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupre , outside Quebec City. With the canonization of St. Andre Bessette (who built the Oratory) this month, I was inspired to re-post here what I had written about the crutches in June 2009. As we wind up our discussion of Beyond Blue this month, and learning about healing, I think it's an appropriate reflection.

In both places of pilgrimage, crutches figured prominently.

I'm sure I snapped more than a couple dozen photos of the crutches left behind by those healed through the intercession of St. Joseph and St. Anne. Now I only have a few because I've been fairly ruthless editing the photos we took in Canada. And I experienced such involuntary and powerful emotions when seeing them.   So I've put up a couple of the photos I took that remain.

At first, or at some point after seeing them I thought, could there really be this many people who are cured and no longer need their crutches?  How many people really need crutches these days?  I guess it was different many decades ago when these shrines were being constructed.  But still,  all these people healed?

And yet, you see the hundreds of well-used crutches and canes all over the place, and clearly people left them behind.   Even with my skepticism, at least for me, I continued to have a very strong emotional reaction, my eyes tearing up, when I would catch sight of the crutches as we spent our time at the shrines.  I think part of my intellectual reaction was from my mom, who was pretty practical about these kind of things, almost to a fault.  But still the tears flowed.

An old friend from DC wrote on my Facebook (after I mentioned we were going to St. Joseph Oratory) that she had visited there years ago and, seeing the crutches, was inspired to pray for her own healing.  And I didn't see her note until after we had been there, but I had the same thought.  I couldn't even articulate at the time what I meant by that.  It was just a wordless prayer for healing and grace.

Now, with some time away from the experience, and getting a chance to reflect on it, I recognized that what resonated with me was the common human struggle with brokenness.  For some it is an obvious problem--a physical disability.  Some are more open about their struggles with brokenness--I'm grateful for the blogs I can visit where people share their struggles and their faith journeys.

But even if we are more private about it, or it is not obvious, human life involves struggles and brokenness, even amid joy.   What is important is to be loving and forgiving to each other as we recognize that.  On our own we don't have that kind of love and forgiveness.  That is why I'm so grateful for the grace and supernatural love given freely by Jesus, however imperfect I am at accepting that grace and love.

I was in confession last week with an African priest visiting our parish, and I have to "confess" I was a little concerned, because the last time I went to an African priest for confession (a number of years back), my penance was-- an entire Rosary.  I can laugh now, but in my shock, I had to ask him if that's what he really meant.  Now I know a Rosary isn't terrible (Mary, Mother of God, please still love me for even writing that!).  But for soft old American me, going to confession to very kind American priests, I'm used to a couple of Hail Marys, and some good advice.

But this time during confession (with a penance far less than a Rosary, I might add), the priest at one point said, "dear daughter of the King," and of course my eyes teared up.  I am a daughter of the King--we are all children of the King-- and His grace and healing is available to us.  Let us be given the hearts to know that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Beyond Blue Question: Other Catholic Books, Resources on Facing Adversity?

I feel grateful to have the chance to review and write about Beyond Blue  this month, and interview author Therese Borchard.  But there are many, many books that approach depression, mental health and promote healing from a Catholic perspective.  Many books were recommended to me, and I searched around for what would be good.  I was surprised at only having a few that I found good reads & worth recommending.  I know that many people would find different books helpful in different ways, so feel free to add your suggestions.

Here are several books I found most helpful and best reads:

*Surviving Depression:  A Catholic Approach by Kathryn J. Hermes, FSP, (a sister in the Congregation of the Daughters of St. Paul) writes a beautiful account of her own struggles with depression, and tells the stories of others, in giving hope and a spiritual blueprint for healing and progress against mood disorders.

The book now comes with a companion prayer book:  Prayers for Surviving Depression and a companion journal, Surviving Depression Journal, making this an excellent series for those grappling with depression.

*Safely Through the Storm: 120 Reflections on Hope by Debra Herbeck is a slim but rich volume of quotes, reflections and poems from saints and spiritual writers on hope in the midst of suffering.  The book is divided into three sections:  "The Quotes," "The Voices" (short description of each writer), and "The Sources" (for each quote).  My only tiny quibble is that the voices (listed alphabetically), do not refer back to the numbered quote, so I can't look up, say, Caryl Houselander's quote.  Still, a wonderful, beautiful selection of voices, in quotes of varying lengths that provide hope and healing.   This would be a great book to have on hand for times of Adoration or for quiet reflection on one or two quotes.

Here's one example, from St. Thomas More,:  "I will not mistrust (God), though I feel myself weakening and on the verge of being overcome with fear ... I trust he shall place his holy hand on me and in the stormy seas hold me up from drowning."

*Another recently released compendium is Hidden Graces: Poems for Crisis, Struggle and Renewal selected and introduced by Gretchen L. Schwenker, Ph.D. and Matthew J. Kessler, a Redemptorist priest.  The poems are selected primarily to help those who have experienced loss, providing a way to navigate your emotions through the "hidden graces" of crisis, the authors explain. Poets from Christina Rossetti to Wendell Berry and many others, both classic & modern, provide space and reflection for those in grief and in the process of recovery.

*Prolific author and trained psychologist Father Benedict Groeschel wrote a book in the 1990s that has enduring appeal:  Arise from Darkness:  What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense.  The book handles grief, depression and other issues from Father Groeschel's sensible Catholic approach.   Father Groeschel writes in such an easy-to-read and conversational style, making it well worth a look.

Do you have a favorite read or resource to recommend in this area?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Beyond Blue Question: What Prayer or Devotion Do You Find Helpful for Promoting Mental Health?

In Beyond Blue, Therese Borchard writes of how the Rosary is a lifesaver for her spiritual and mental life.  She also shares that she has several short phrases, such as "God be with me," she uses when she finds anxiety or sadness overtaking her spirit.

I agree very much that the Rosary is an excellent devotion for calming and reflection, and drawing ever deeper into relationship with Jesus and his (and our) Mother, Mary.  I hope this doesn't sound disrespectful when I say that it  helps me get to sleep if I am ever having a wakeful night.  I like to think that it is Mary is practical and knows, as a mom, that a mom needs sleep!  I also find the Divine Mercy chaplet, especially the chanted and the sung versions, very soothing.

What prayers or devotions do you find helpful when you need calming or a mental health boost?  I'm asking this not in a way to say that spiritual practices are only for our physical or mental benefit, because we derive spiritual benefits from the practice of our faith.  But these prayers can have great impact in our life in many ways, and recognizing that is good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"Beyond Blue," the blog

Therese Borchard wrote the excellent book we're discussing this month, Beyond Blue, and it is also the title of her blog on spiritual and mental health on Beliefnet.

You can visit the blog here at Beliefnet.  I found even though I had read the book Beyond Blue, I wasn't visiting the blog that much because I just don't find the time to be online and visit all the many blogs that I enjoy.  So I signed up for an e-mail delivery of the blog, and that keeps me updated.

Some of my recent and recurrent favorites:

Today's post about friendship is really funny and also instructive, especially number 1 (join a book group, so go ahead, join us here!)

Every Monday, Borchard writes a "Mindful Monday" column with thoughtful reflections on various ways to be intentional and thoughtful in our lives.

Every Thursday is "Therapy Thursday," where Borchard shares ideas, many culled from her small but powerful volume published this year, The Pocket Therapist: An Emotional Survival Guide.  Here's a good one from that series.

If you visit the blog, what are your impressions?  Do you have other recommendations for blogs or web resources that promote spiritual and mental health?

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Questions and Answers with Amy Bonaccorso, author of "How to Get to I Do"

Amy Bonaccorso graciously answered all my "interesting" questions about her great new book I reviewed last week, How to Get to "I Do":  A Dating Guide for Catholic Women.  I think you'll find the interview a great read in itself.  Thanks, Amy!

I so enjoyed "How to Get to I Do."  What made you want to write the book?

I found that Catholics and Christians in general had a lot of dating problems, and their books weren’t very helpful.   Typically, the books were written by well-intentioned people who nevertheless lacked real-life relationship experience themselves.  As a consequence, the books tended to be formulaic and didn’t help people distinguish between idealistic and realistic expectations. 

Or, books were more theological than practical, and reading them was insightful to a degree, but led to a very academic approach to relationships that didn’t always translate well into real life. 

This whole situation frustrated me and I wanted to help.  I started writing and sharing my ideas with friends during my engagement.  I published articles and started a blog after I got married in 2008.  Everything was very well received and readers felt that I was providing a unique angle on the subject, so it led to a book deal with Servant Books in 2009.

Are your surprised by the interest from other types of people than the intended audience?  For instance,  the book could potentially be a great resource for older teenagers as they begin to discern their vocation and plan for the future.

The intended audience was single Catholic women in their 20s-40s, yet people of every category are reading the book.  Married people are interested because they may know single family members or friends who they want to help.  Men are curious about the book because they can learn a lot about how women think and what they want.  One man told me that he thought the book was very “Chicken Soup for the Soul” and could be turned into a series.  Another man told me that he obscured the cover of my book so he could read it without embarrassment while he rode the subway.  A Methodist told me that most of the book resonated with her, regardless of the Catholic title.

Teenagers are usually already thinking about relationships, so I think it would be a great book for them to read too.  I didn’t put anything in there that would be inappropriate for them (I know parents worry about that).  I emphasize the importance of women knowing who they are and not wasting time when discerning a vocation.  Chapter 2 is “Discernment is Empowerment.”  Most women do their discerning in college or in their early to mid 20s – so teens could get a head start by reading the book.  It’s also good to plant some healthy relationship concepts early, because even devout women absorb a lot false ideas and impossible expectations early on.  It can be hard to get them to see reality at that point.

As a mom who feels a certain attraction to discouraging dating (my protective husband is fond of joking, what’s wrong with arranged marriages?), I found your description of dating versus courting pretty eye-opening.  Can you give some guidance to parents who might be either years away or very near to their children dating?

Lol!  Well, different authors have slightly different definitions of “courtship.”  Some concepts are more rigid and old Europe than others.  But overall, they aren’t anchored in the real world.  My first chapter is entitled “Living in the Real World.”

Courtship vocabulary itself is inherently confusing and potentially misleading when 99.9% of the people in Washington DC, for example, are going out on “dates.”  Once couples are committed, they may be “together” – it’s not common to hear the word “courting,” even among couples who have read courtship books. 

If parents encourage (or mandate) that their children come into the dating scene using outdated language, they’re putting them at a disadvantage and setting them up for failure.   The kids will seem out of touch.  And forget about a man asking a girl’s father for a first date.  A guy recently told me, “If I did that, the father would call the cops or think I was crazy.”  People just aren’t comfortable with it.

Also, the “courtship” philosophy seems to have this built-in assumption that men are going to jump through a million hoops for a woman.  Fathers love that.  Naturally, they want to protect their daughters.  But, most of those same dads wouldn’t have jumped through those hoops for their own wife.  Maybe they like to fantasize that they would have!  Women who are dating want to see men as knights in shining armor too, and believe that they will slay dragons to embrace them, but that is a fairy tale.  If women put up too many hoops – they aren’t going to get married.  They need to carefully select only a few meaningful hoops and be realists. 

Parents can help prepare their children to be good spouses (or good clergy) by fostering a holistic and integrated approach to religion.  It’s good to know doctrine, and it’s also important to know how to put faith into practice in our everyday lives.  Emotional maturity and human virtue are needed to make everything work!  If Catholicism is only rules and history to us, relationships will suffer as a consequence because a critical piece of the puzzle is missing. 

Parents should also try not to communicate an assumption that their daughter’s life and relationships will follow a 1950s script of graduating from school, marrying their sweetheart, and only being a homemaker.  Women these days need to be equipped to deal with a myriad of situations in a confident manner. 

As I read your book, I was racking my brain trying to think of any other young, recently married Catholic woman giving dating advice and experience, and shockingly, I couldn’t think of one.  How do you think you provide a different perspective from the usual Catholic advice in this area?

I’m very practical and a realist, yet still present a Catholic perspective.  My advice is anchored in experience, and experience is a brilliant teacher.  That separates me from a lot of other writers.

I don’t dismiss women’s concerns and say “Don’t worry, God will provide the perfect husband for you.”  Or, “Don’t ever settle for anyone less than perfect – no matter how old you are.”  These were the blissful lines of misguided advice I was given.  My take is more grounded.  The truth is that we need to give God opportunities to provide.  Sitting back and doing nothing limits what God can do for us.  Women need to be pro-active about finding positive relationships.  The men I have spoken to agree with this assessment.  We also need to be mature and recognize that we are looking for a mortal man – not a dashing character in a novel, movie, myth, or legend. 

Do you have a favorite chapter or section of the book?

I personally found the “When Holy Rollers Don’t Measure Up” chapter to be groundbreaking in Catholic publishing.  I talked about the elephant in the room and it felt good!  I am so happy that I was able to give so many women a public voice.  Many of my girlfriends had experiences with devout Catholic men who displayed abhorrent behavior, or who were just shockingly immature and irresponsible. 

Most Catholic writing suggests that finding a man who is super devout and prayerful will solve every relationship problem.  This is simply not true.  While women ideally want to share their faith with their spouse, they need to look beyond their checklists and make sure who they are with has a good heart and will be there when times are tough.  Unfortunately, just looking for someone who goes to Mass frequently doesn’t offer any guarantees on that front.

Explain a little the pitfalls of “the secular sisterhood,” a term you coined for women who are hyper-pious, but have trouble in the real dating world.

This was another one of those elephant in the room topics.  Secular sisters sabotage their relationships in a lot of ways and seem to be part of a club of single church mice type of women.  They may measure every man against an impossible standard that he has no hope of meeting, even if he is truly decent and would make a good husband and father.  Perhaps they are very focused on theology, but struggle with the more subtle emotional cues that are so instrumental in real life relationships.  Maybe they want to marry an idealized theologian archetype, and hold out until they are suddenly 40 and still alone.  A lot of Catholic women are also very inclined towards tradition, but outdated expectations on etiquette and roles can trip them up in dating.

It’s not hard for women to break out of this self-defeating rut – they just need to change their thinking.

Do you think your views of dating have changed the longer you have been married?

I have been married for two years and have talked to many people about their relationship problems.  I am less patient with “soft-edged” writing in the Catholic community or “soft ball” answers to hard questions.   We need more honest, credible material that will resonate with fast-paced and successful professionals.

I’m also probably more convinced than I ever was that singles need the support of married people in their lives.  While not every marriage is ideal, I have found that couples can usually provide valuable sanity checks in a crisis, like “No – the way that guy is treating you isn’t okay.”  Or, “Chill out, this is not that bad…not every day is going to be like your first date.”  I think it’s really important to encourage couples to help their si

Friday, October 8, 2010

Beyond Blue Question: What Do You Do to Take Care of You?

In Beyond Blue, Therese Borchard writes about how self-care is a big part of mental health.  In my review of the book, I write about the self-care principles that Borchard recounts in Beyond Blue.  Borchard writes dramatically of how prayer and the spiritual life, attention to diet, exercise and good sleep; and healthy friendships can all help maintain or lift one's mood. In my interview with her , she addresses in particular the need for new moms to seek help whenever possible to be able to do this, but this could also apply to those caring for elderly parents, a special needs child, or just the busy-ness of everyday life for any person.

What do you do to take of you?  I don't mean this in an Eat, Pray, Love kind of way, but rather a healthy, balanced approach to taking care of yourself in order to better love yourself and those around you.

For me, one of my main "taking care of me" things is running.  I'm a slow runner, but I truly enjoy the time running as well as how it helps me feel better and accomplished.  I may not be able to keep up with housework or be stuck on a writing project, but I can finish a 10-mile run and feel awesome.  Those endorphins are real!   My weekend "long run" is a cherished time for me.

Participating in races is also a great time to get together with others and enjoy the ambience of post-race fun.  Even though I don't run very fast, I have found I really enjoy long distances.  I've completed two half-marathons this year, and I will be participating in a third this weekend.  Even writing that puts a smile on my face!

Recently, I was with another mom who expressed that she sometimes feel selfish "getting away" to run (she is actually a very fast runner) or do other things for herself.  I know that feeling too.  I think we all do, and it's okay to recognize that pull.  But I also know it makes me a better wife, mom and friend, to have this interest that is wholly mine (and that I hope to pass along to my kids).

I've been running since I was a teenager (introduced to it by my father when running wasn't cool yet :-) , but for some reason I gave it up when I became pregnant with my first child.   I now see that that was a mistake.   I didn't take up running again in earnest until about 6 years ago, and I am so glad that I did--running the occasional race and keeping active this way is important for my mental, not just physical, health.

I have many other ways that I work to take care of myself--anyone care to second dark chocolate or Jane Austen?--but I'm interested to hear yours.  What are ways that you take care of yourself?  How does it help?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Exclusive Interview with Therese Borchard, author of "Beyond Blue"

I'm so incredibly grateful to author Therese Borchard for her willingness to do a Q&A with me about her book and her message.  Even if you haven't read my review of Beyond Blue in the Post or here, please take the time to read this interview.

1.  First of all, Beyond Blue is an amazing book.  I found it difficult to read, yet so worth the emotional effort.  Was it difficult to write your story and rehash some of those dark days?

Thank you very much for the compliment. Yes, writing “Beyond Blue” was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. In order to be as real and as candid as possible—which was my primary requisite—I had to journey into places of my heart that had been long closed up and abandoned. As spiritual author Henri Nouwen wrote about in his classic “The Inner Voice of Love,” you need to go into that place of pain in order to be freed from it.

The early chapters, in particular, were difficult to write. I think I had disassociated myself from the pain of my younger years for so long because I just was so scared to re-experience that pain on any level. In writing the book, I went back through some of my journals, especially in junior high, and cried for several weeks. It was very healing. I did some inner child work, and treated the young girl I was with tenderness and love, trying to accept her and love her as I never have. I even got an inner child doll. Eric (my husband) almost took her to Goodwill one day, as if I didn't have enough abandonment and rejection issues!

2.  You write about your frustration with the stigma that mental illness has in our society.  How do you see that affecting people in seeking proper treatment or being open about it?

This is ultimately why I wrote the book … to educate people in hopes that we can eliminate some of the stigma. When I was getting ready to send out copies, I made a list of the people who would really “get it” and appreciate the book. I wasn’t going to give a copy to the family members and friends who I thought would shake their head and say something under their breath about victim me being caught up in my wounds. But Eric said to me, “It’s easier to give this to the folks who will agree with you. If you are serious about this mission of educating people about mental illness, I suggest you give it to those who might be confused or ticked off.” So I did. And I received some cold, apathetic responses. I expected that. But a neighbor approached me in tears and said she better understood a family member, and a good friend of mine called me up in tears. “I know I must have been one of those people who said hurtful things to you, and I am so sorry,” she said. “I just really had no idea what you were dealing with until I read this.”
One of the most hurtful statements was when a friend asked me, “Do you WANT to get better?” which suggests that getting better is only a matter of willing ourselves to get better, and that if I stayed suicidal for two years it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I think, if someone says something like that to me again, I might say, “Does a person with cancer or diabetes want to get better? Would you fault a person because their chemo wasn’t as effective as it should be? Mood disorders are organic illnesses, too, that can’t always be managed with will power and discipline.” Another confusing statement is that antidepressants and other medicine merely suppress your emotions. I have done a fair amount of research on that, so to that person, I would say, “If you are taking too much of a drug or are on the wrong one, maybe, but my experience is that they have allowed me to feel more deeply.”

3.  You call motherhood a “perfect storm” for you and other moms that could allow your depression to flare up and become particularly severe.  How does that happen?  What can moms do to avoid or prevent problems from occurring?

Yes, the early months of motherhood are the perfect storm for mood disorders to develop. You take a woman whose hormones have been rearranged and sold at a garage sale. You give her a kid who doesn't sleep (in my case) for more than three hours for five years in a row. And you lock her in the house alone with this crying thing, so that she sits there in isolation most of her day.
Sleep deprivation and isolation alone, with perfectly balanced hormones, is enough to ship someone off to the psych ward. Dump unto that the Irish-dancing hormones, and you're guaranteed a mess.
My mess fit into a neat diagnosis of Bipolar II, which I like to call the smoother, softer kind of manic depression.

 Could I have prevented the mess?
Possibly, as least my hospitalizations. Here’s the advice I give moms, especially new moms, and most definitely new moms that have family histories with depression and anxiety:
* Beg for help. I advise you to get on your knees, to skip all those manners and laws of social grace that keep you from pleading with your in-laws for some help. Barter with them, negotiate, promise to name the next kid after them if they babysit for a night, ANYTHING you possibly can to get some free help because you are going to need it, and the less of it you have, the more risk for developing a serious mood disorder. If your relatives are unable to assist, buy the help. Cash out the retirement funds for this one. Trust me. You'll be glad you did.

* Sleep. Part of the reason I'm so adamant that you get help is because the longer you stay sleep-deprived the better chance you have of winding up like me ... in a psych ward. Brain experts have always made the connection between insanity and insomnia, but new research suggests that chronic sleep disturbances actually cause certain mood disorders. You stay up one too many nights with that crying baby, and you are bait for a mental illness. Not to scare you. But, again, BEG FOR HELP so that you can at least get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep ... consistently. Don't follow in my tracks and get your first night of slumber in a hospital.
* Hang on to you. The second biggest mistake I made as a new mom was throwing my old self into a locked closet until, well, I graduated from the outpatient hospital program, where I learned that motherhood doesn't require chucking my prior existence: my interests, my friends, my career, and so forth. In fact, the nurses there convinced me that if I could recover a little of my old self, I might even be a better mom. So I hired a babysitter for a few hours a week, which allowed me to pursue some writing projects, go on an occasional bike ride, and have coffee with a non-mom friend and talk about something other than poop.

4.  One of the things I loved most about the book is that you are not  “all or nothing” about your recovery, in the sense that you employ so many strategies and tools to maintain mental health, from medicine to good nutrition to coping skills.    Talk a little more about the benefits and limits of “alternative therapies.”

I find it odd that most people are either opposed to antidepressants or acupuncture. Look, if they both help you, use them! I know that our bodies, minds, and souls are so connected that any disruption in one area is going affect the others, and healing in one area definitely crosses over into other body systems. So I really do approach my recovery from a mind-body-soul vantage point. Which means that I’m religious about working out five times a week and eating as well as I can; I take six fish pills a day in addition to my pharmaceuticals; I try to practice mindfulness whenever I can; and I employ cognitive-behavioral strategies in addition my psychotherapy. If you have a mood disorder that is as severe as mine, alternative therapies are probably not going to cut it. But I always advise people to start there. Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can be enough to treat mild depression and anxiety.

5.  Beyond Blue is very moving and sometimes hard to read because of the intensity of your experience, but also laugh out loud funny at times.  I found the humor so helpful because of the serious subject.  Why is humor good for you?

I believe in the theory of the rubber band. Your brain (sanity) is stretched, and stretched, and stretched, and stretched to where it … ZAP! … just snaps one day, and from that day on, everything in life is somewhat hysterical because you can’t believe how messed up the world is. You see everyone around you trying to walk straight while juggling five heavy suitcases of baggage … and for some reason, it’s funny, and you know you can’t take life so seriously. As G.K. Chesterston once said, “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Laughing makes me less scared. It provides more space between an event and my emotions so that I can hold on to sanity a second longer than I can if I am without humor. Plus, it’s hard to laugh and cry at the same time. So if I’m laughing, chances are that I’m not crying.

6.  You write eloquently about your Catholic faith, and how certain practices, such as a daily Rosary, aid in your mental as well as spiritual health.  How do your faith grown and changed with your experiences seeking mental health?

I wrote in the first chapter of Beyond Blue that I was both blessed and cursed by my Catholic faith. Blessed because I had so many beautiful traditions and rituals and stories and things to cling on to. For a person prone to OCD, Catholicism is a goldmine for that repetitive weird ritual stuff that gives you some kind of comfort. And, as I said in the book, there is a saint for everything: for panic, for alcoholism, for hopeless causes. Yah! But it was because of my scrupulosity as a young girl that the adults in my life failed to recognize my mood disorder. They thought I just had a peculiar and intense faith life.

During my suicidal two years, my faith kept me alive. I remember sitting in the car after I drove home from the last day of my intensive outpatient program-after the nurses basically told me I was out of luck-if you weren't fixed in 8 weeks, they couldn't do anything else for you. I had tried absolutely everything, but I still wanted to die.

So I issued God an ultimatum in the car. I sat there, with a bag of about 20 bottles of prescription drugs next to me (which was my exit out of this life), and told him I was getting the hell out of this place because I had tried everything, EVERYTHING, and nothing was working. Obviously He didn't give a damn. I shouted, "Give me a sign I'm supposed to hang on, or else I am out of here. I am so out of here if you don't let me know you are with me!"

After about 20 minutes of wailing, I decided to go inside and, on the way into my house, checked the mailbox. There was a letter written by a woman I had met at a conference, and she sent me a medal of St. Therese that was an exact copy to the one that I had been carrying in my pocket ever since the depression set in.

I knew from that point on that, even though I didn't always feel God's helping hand, that I must somehow try to have faith in him.

7.  What message would you have for Catholic Post readers who either themselves or have loved ones who struggle with mental health issues?

I want folks to know what I wish I would have known when I was in the Black Hole, and that message is articulated beautifully by William Styron in his classic, "Darkness Visible":
If depression had no termination, then suicide would, indeed, be the only remedy. But one need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation; men and women who have recovered from the disease-and they are countless-bear witness to what is probably its only saving grace: it is conquerable.
Man, I love that paragraph. And I have to remind myself of it every time I hit a low cycle and am fretting that I'll never be able to hold down a job or being a suitable parent. Depression IS conquerable. Even if you never find the right medication combination, or fitting therapist, or good support group. It WILL pass.
My other piece of advice is to expect people NOT to understand. Because the stigma around mental illness is still so very thick. Even people who think they understand it seldom can appreciate the nuances and complexities that mood disorders bring to a life. It's not about you. So don't get your feelings hurt. It's simply a lack of awareness and education. I still only have about five people in my life who really get it. I wish it were more, but that's enough. And as long as you own your health philosophy, you can't get lost.

For family members, I’d summarize my advice with this line that my mentor taught me: “Err on the side of compassion.” I don’t think tough love works well when it comes to depression and mood disorders. There’s a time to challenge your friends and family members, and there’s a time to simply hold their hands. I would do the latter.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Some Great Reads: Fiction for the Whole Family on Encouragement

The a "Catholic encouragement" books, the theme loosely for the month of October, is far from perfect wording (I'm up for suggestions!) but I did select that as a good alternative to "Catholic self-help books."  

After all, the main book I reviewed, and that anchors our discussion, Beyond Blue, is not self-help but a memoir of Therese Borchard's journey of seeking help and hope during a lifelong struggle with mental health issues.  And yet reading it, as I wrote about in my review, I found it not only a moving read, but a book with genuine "take-away" messages that we can all employ in our own lives.

That's not true just of memoirs about specific issues that many people grapple with, but also true of novels.  Fiction can do a lot of things to help us process--informing, soothing, and just plain taking us away from our current troubles.

I tend to be more old-fashioned in my likes and dislikes of modern fiction--give me Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope any day.   What bothers me most about some kids' or young adult fiction is a kind of hyper-realism, where every blemish and event must be recounted in horrific, or just sad, detail.  I can think of quite a few books in this category, but I'm not going to recommend those today.  Here are some ideas of books that tackle topics related to mental health, but from a more sensitive and hopeful perspective:

*Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan tells the Depression-era story of Esperenza, a Mexican girl raised in privilege and who ends up in migrant fields in California.  I can't believe I did not know about this gem of a book previous to discovering it on Treasure Chest for Tweens, but it is luminous.   I cannot imagine why it did not win one of the big children's books awards, like the Newberry Medal.   Esperanza herself appears to experience mild kinds of panic attacks at different formative times, and her mother is hospitalized both for Valley Fever (caused by the dust in the California farm fields), and depression.  These are handled empathetically and realistically, and there's no fairytale ending, but a sense of hope permeates.  The author's note at the end explaining how some of the events mirror her own family's experience is very beautiful.

*Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo.  This book was actually made into a fairly decent movie, not true of many books (other than Jane Austen).  But the book itself is much better, handling the issues of a mom's alcoholism and abandonment with grace and sensitivity.  The characters in the book are just that--"characters" as in a typical Southern novel (not my favorite genre, showing I really liked this book)--each has his/her own quirks and foibles, but these are celebrated and not condemned. 

*Leap of Faith by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley.  This is another true gem I discovered from Treasure Chest for Tweens.  This needs a post all of its own, and will have one in the future.  Wow!  Abby decides to convert to Catholicism, at first to annoy and get the attention of her atheist parents, after she is forced to go to a Catholic school when she is kicked out of public school for attacking another student.  Beautifully handles bullying, the mystery of faith, the RCIA process (really!) and life in a Catholic elementary school.   I don't know whether author Bradley is Catholic or not, but she's written a Catholic (and catholic) book that is sensitive and beautiful and hopeful.

Right now I'm drawing a blank on others--these are all recent reads at our house.  What are some books that you would recommend for younger readers that handle some sensitive issues really well?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Meet a Reader: Sister Jacque Schroeder

Here is this month's "Meet a Reader" feature.  I'm delighted Sister Jacque Schroeder agreed to share her reading loves with us.   Sister Jacque is well-known to more than generation of TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) and Cursillo attendees in the Peoria area.   I wrote about her lector skills here last week.  Thanks Sister Jacque!

Who: Sister Jacque Schroeder

How you know me:

I’m Sister Jacque Schroeder, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Immaculate Conception since 1966.  I’m currently in Pastoral Care at OSF St. Francis Medical Center, but I’ve been privileged to serve our diocese in many ways.  I have been an elementary and junior high teacher & principal, spiritual director for the TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) and Cursillo Movements, and formation director of my Franciscan religious community, and a pastoral care worker in the Standing Rock Reservation in our sister Diocese of Rapid City, SD. Over the past 30 years I’ve also enjoyed been privileged to journey with many people in the ministry of spiritual direction and retreats.

Why I love reading:

My mother set the pattern when I was very small.  She read to us every night before bed – Bambi was my favorite.  I loved listening to her read because she made the story come alive in my mind as well as in my heart.  With such a superb example one would have thought that reading would come easily to me, which it did not.  I’m told that between 1st and 2nd grade I completely forgot how to read.  It apparently was not too traumatic since I don’t even remember it – I was far too interested in riding my bicycle and playing outside.  However, that event started another tradition in our home:  all of us (there were 6 children in our family) had to come in for an hour in the afternoon during the summers to read.  I mostly enjoyed books about horses and families while growing up.  In spite of this (and the speed reading courses in college) I remain to this day a painfully slow reader.

My favorite book(s) and why:

How does one choose a favorite book?  For me, it is not possible.  However, a book that is representative of my reading loves is The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.  As a children’s book, written as much or more for adults as children, it disarms the reader and allows him/her to go to the heart of reality.  It combines wonderful adventure with the intricacies of relationships among family and friends.  Most of all, it tells our Ancient and Primal Story – The Paschal Mystery – revealing the Goodness, Fierceness and Beauty of our GOD Who is Love.

For spiritual reading, probably my favorite book is the 16th century classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by  Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J.,   I keep it with me, go to it often, and recommend it to anyone called to the ministry of spiritual direction --and, indeed anyone seeking to go to the heart of our journey with the Lord. The book is actually a collection of his letters to those he directed in the spiritual life.  Two scripture quotes come to mind that sum it up quite well:  “Do whatever He tells you.”  (John 2:5)  And “My food is to do the will of my Father.” (John 4:34)  A particularly helpful quote from his writings for me is “Perfection consists in doing the will of God, not in understanding His designs.”  I continue to discover that my need to understand is about me, whereas my need to be obedient is about GOD.  The second brings far more Blessings, Grace and Peace into our lives.

What I'm reading now:

I just began reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.  It is the real life accounting of a man (Mortenson) who stumbled into a Pakistani village in 1993, after failing in his attempt to climb the most difficult mountain peak in the world (K2).  The generosity and kindness of the villagers moved him to promise to return and build a school. This he did – and much more.  He began a humanitarian effort, enlisting the help of many people worldwide, from many walks of life, and began the Central Asia Institute to build schools in impoverished areas.  Over the next decade he built 55 schools – especially for girls.  I think that this book will make obvious the truth that, in the long view, books are a far more powerful agent for world peace than bombs can ever be and that the most powerful agent is, of course, true friendship. 

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Review: How to Get to "I Do" by Amy Bonaccorso

How to Get to "I Do":  A Dating Guide for Catholic Women is a treasure of sensible advice from the recently married Bonaccorso about dating, its pitfalls and the difficulty of making a healthy Catholic match in our modern world.

I love so much about this book it’s hard to limit myself to just a few things, but here goes:

*She recommends singles seriously discern their vocation to either marriage or to the religious life.  If the answer is marriage, she recommends getting busy to help make that happen.  It is work, but worth it.

*Bonaccorso learned to look for flexibility, compatibility and maturity in potential mates more than just passing a Catholic or political “litmus test.”  She recognizes that marriage, even with the grace of the sacrament, requires a lot of work and two people committed to grow together.

*Cute: there are little snippets of commentary from Bonaccorso’s husband throughout, and he doesn’t always agree with her.  I love that realism!

One of the reasons I so enjoyed this book is that I, like Bonaccorso, met and married my Italian husband in Washington, D.C., and I experienced some of the dating pitfalls she writes about so engagingly.  But she’s a lot more mature than I was as a newlywed, and I appreciate her sharing her grounded perspective.  How to Get to ‘I Do’ would be a great book for young singles to read (and discuss together!), but even for older teenagers to read and discuss with parents on discernment.

Check back next week when I'll have an exclusive (and fun!) author interview with author Amy Bonaccorso!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Catholic Post Book Group Review: Beyond Blue shares Hope and Persistence in Mental Health Journey

This is my review of Therese Borchard's Beyond Blue  that appears in this weekend's print Catholic Post.  Look next week for an exclusive Q&A with author Therese Borchard.  I think it's appropriate, but coincidental, that this review appears in print and here on October 1, the feast of St. Therese, the Little Flower.  Happy Feast day to Therese Borchard and all "little flowers."

You‘ve probably heard the old quip about the man who prayed to God every night for to win the lottery.  Faithfully the man prayed, night after night, unceasingly pleading to win the lottery.  Finally, he heard the voice of God: “You need to meet me halfway here—buy a ticket.”

Sometimes, people of faith can be prone to fall into a dangerous tendency, expecting prayer and a deep relationship with God to cure all ills in ourselves, in our relationships, and in our world, without any help from us.  Yet that’s not truly Catholic.  What is Catholic is to recognize the good in the world that God made, and utilize that good, along with our faith to help overcome difficulties (if not exactly win the lottery).

Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression & Anxiety and Making the Best of Bad Genes is a searingly honest look at Therese Borchard’s struggle with mental health issues.  Borchard, a writer (formerly a syndicated young adult columnist for the Catholic Post, among other newspapers, and currently author of the popular Beyond Blue blog on Beliefnet) writes the book from a Catholic perspective, but the book is really about the good tools she uses to get to and maintain wellness.

Beyond Blue is terrifically written, but frankly, at times it’s hard to read.  Borchard shares low points that include two hospitalizations, dozens of drug combinations, bad physicians, and suicide plans.  So why read the book?  Let me quote from Borchard herself:

“My sincere intention for Beyond Blue is that anyone who struggles with anxiety or depression—even in the slightest way—might find a companion in me, some consolation in the incredibly personal details of my story, and a bit of hope to lighten an often dark and lonely path.”

I think she has absolutely succeeded with this intention—and much, much more.

Everyone can learn from the self-care principles Borchard recounts in Beyond Blue as part of her recovery.  She writes well of how prayer and the spiritual life, attention to diet, exercise and good sleep; and healthy friendships, can all help maintain or lift one’s mood.   For many people, practicing these can be enough to achieve or keep on an even keel.

But we also learn from Beyond Blue that for some people, even those who haven’t been through Borchard’s deep struggles, this kind of self-care may not be enough.   And we can and should be enormously grateful to God for the minds of scientists and physicians who create medicines to treat the mind just as they treat the body.

The overarching message of Beyond Blue is something a dear priest friend likes to say: “Keep on keeping on.”  For most, that means “keep on” practicing self-care principles.  For those who find themselves in crisis, that means “keep on” reaching out for help, and “keep on” trying to find the right counselor or physician if there is not a good fit at first.  If medicine is helpful in your journey, “keep on,” as Borchard did, working with a medical team to find the right combination of medicine and other tools to achieve mental wellness.

Jesus said, “I came so that they may have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10).  Beyond Blue provides an honest, inspiring and hope-filled look at how one brave person continues to seek that abundant life.