When The Helper Needs Help

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How to manage stress as a crisis responder and when to ask for help

We are in a unique time in world history, one we never actually believed would happen. Daily we hear phrases like “social distancing,” “first responders,” and “shelter in place.” It can leave us feeling uneasy, fearful, and anxiety-driven.

This is the first of a series of articles that will hopefully give some guidance to anyone needing answers, direction, and, most importantly, hope.

Crisis response workers are our modern-day heroes in this COVID-19 pandemic. These men and women include first responders (police, fire, EMTs, military), public health workers (physicians, practitioners, nurses, nurse assistants, technicians, hospital staff, mental health therapists, pharmacists, etc.), and clergy (church pastors, chaplains, pastoral care providers). They are the ones who get up every day and go to work while the rest of the world is mandated to stay at home. They are the ones who are repeatedly exposed to extraordinarily stressful situations day after day, minute by minute, placing them in harm’s way. At the end of a shift, they are expected to return home to their families, ready to do it again the next day… and each day thereafter until the crisis is deemed over.

So how do crisis response workers navigate their responsibilities to their jobs, their families, and their own wellbeing? It’s not easy. And each individual is going to be different and respond different so there is not a “one size fits all” approach. There are, however some things that can be done to bring awareness to these needs.

First, there should be a clear understanding of the challenges crisis response workers face during something like an infectious disease outbreak.

  • Increase in care demand. As the news of an infectious disease spreads, more people are going to find themselves with an overall feeling of being unwell. Fear and panic can cause symptoms to appear even when they physically do not manifest. Add to that the people who are actually sick from the disease and you find many more people are presenting themselves for care. In the early stages of an outbreak, it can feel to a healthcare provider, for instance, that they have things under control. Unfortunately, as the disease manifests, an increased number of healthcare workers become sick, causing a larger burden of care upon those who are well.
  • The ongoing risk of infection. For any of the essential workers in an outbreak, there is an ongoing risk of becoming infected because of the constant contact being made with a large number of people each day. This can present a deep sense of stress and anxiety for the workers while trying to do their jobs. Add to that, the fear of potentially exposing others including family to the disease.
  • Balancing their job and support. Crisis response workers are trained from the very beginning of their respective jobs that they not only have logistical responsibilities but they are also support systems for many people. This is never so apparent than in the midst of a crisis. This is especially true in an infectious disease outbreak for healthcare workers and clergy. In a normal situation, people seek medical answers from medical professionals; spiritual answers from clergy. In a pandemic, this is heightened. The increased number of sick is multiplied by others who are feeling emotionally unwell. It can become very difficult to manage.
  • Psychological stress. People who go into a crisis response job are not in it for the money. They are drawn to these professions because of a deep desire to help others. And by helping others, there is a great internal reward. Unfortunately, during a crisis such as a pandemic, the workers can become unequipped to process the emotions they are experiencing. They find themselves on a tightrope of emotions. Most will experience fear, anxiety, insomnia, grief, and exhaustion. But they will try to push those emotions deep inside so they can do their jobs, ultimately creating a worst-case scenario for mental health.

While the challenges are many, let’s focus on the psychological stress of the healthcare worker. Why? Because psychological stress can impact every aspect of a person’s life – physical, mental, and spiritual.

What is stress? Stress is an elevation in a person’s state of arousal or readiness, caused by some stimulus or demand. As stress arousal increases, health and performance actually improve. Within manageable levels, stress can help sharpen our attention and mobilize our bodies to cope with threatening situations. At some point, stress arousal reaches maximum effect. Once it does, all that was gained by stress arousal is then lost and deterioration of health and performance begins (Luxart Communications, 2004).

What does extreme stress look like? It can be different in everyone. First, the brain sounds an alert to the adrenal glands. The adrenals answer by pouring out the first of the major stress hormones—adrenaline—for the classic fight-or-flight response. The fight-or-flight response evolved with the prime directive of ensuring our safety and survival. The pulse begins to race as the adrenaline steps up the heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles and organs. Oxygen rushes in as the bronchial tubes in the lungs dilate; extra oxygen also reaches the brain, which helps keep us alert. During this stage of the fight-or-flight response, the brain releases natural painkillers called endorphins. This phase, in which adrenaline plays a leading role, is the immediate response to stress (McEwen & Lasley, 2002). When the stress response is active for a long period of time, it can damage the cardiovascular, immune, and nervous systems. People develop patterns of response to stress that are as varied as the individuals (Selye, 1984). These responses simply suggest a need for corrective action to limit their impact (Mitchell & Bray, 1990; Selye, 1984). In other words, changes must be made so stress does not harm you or those around you.

How can you know if you are under stress?

Behavioral

  • Increase or decrease in activity level
  • Substance use or abuse (alcohol or drugs)
  • Difficulty communicating or listening
  • Irritability, outbursts of anger, frequent arguments
  • Inability to rest or relax
  • A decline in job performance; absenteeism
  • Frequent crying
  • Hyper-vigilance or excessive worry
  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories
  • Becoming accident-prone

Physical

  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches, other aches, and pains
  • Visual disturbances
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sweating or chills
  • Tremors or muscle twitching
  • Being easily startled
  • Chronic fatigue or sleep disturbances (including vivid dreams/nightmares)
  • Immune system disorders

Psychological/Emotional

  • Feeling heroic, euphoric, or invulnerable
  • Denial
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Apathy
  • Grief

Thinking

  • Memory problems
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Slow thought processes; lack of concentration
  • Difficulty setting priorities or making decisions
  • Loss of objectivity

Social

  • Isolation
  • Blaming
  • Difficulty in giving or accepting support or help
  • Inability to experience pleasure or have fun

(Adapted from CMHS, 2004)

Clearly, crisis response workers are under a great amount of stress on a normal day. But during a pandemic, their stress level is over the top. But there are some strategies that workers can initiate to take care of their mental health during this crisis.

First, you must meet your basic needs. Be sure to eat, drink, and sleep regularly. Becoming biologically deprived puts you at risk and may also compromise your ability to care for those around you who are depending upon your alertness. Try to eat healthy, limiting foods that make you feel sluggish. Drink lots of water while limiting soft drinks, caffeinated beverages, and alcoholic drinks. Don’t forget to take your medications properly and exercise when you can. A brisk walk outside can do wonders for your mental and physical health.

Take breaks. In other words, don’t neglect to take a sabbath. Everyone needs to take time away from the frontlines. Even Jesus took time away to rest from the constant needs of the people. The world will not implode if you step away briefly. Breaks can vary from a few moments while on duty to a full day. Give yourself a rest from tending to the needs of others. Whenever possible, allow yourself to do something unrelated to work that you find comforting, fun, or relaxing. Taking a walk, listening to music, reading a book, or talking with a friend can help. Some people may feel guilty if they are not working full-time or are taking time to enjoy themselves when so many others are suffering. Recognize that taking appropriate rest leads to proper care of others after your break. As I have said many times, you cannot pour into others when you are empty.

Connect with colleagues. Talk to your colleagues and receive support from one another. Infectious outbreaks can isolate people in fear and anxiety. Tell your story and listen to others’ stories. We were created to be in community with other people. A quarantine goes against our very nature. But it’s necessary in order to save lives. This does not mean you have to isolate yourself emotionally. Share your heart. 

Contact family and loved ones, if possible. They are an anchor of support outside your work. Sharing and staying connected may help them better support you.

Respect differences. Some people need to talk while others need to be alone. Recognize and respect these differences in yourself, those you are helping, and your colleagues. It’s very easy to compare ourselves with others and how each of us is dealing with the situation at hand. Don’t fall into that trap. You are uniquely you and that is enough. Respect each other’s differences.

Stay updated. This one is difficult because the other part of it is to limit media exposure. Clearly, we need to know what the latest in efforts, government mandates, and recommendations are. Unfortunately, these things can be hidden within negative and fear-driven messages. Rely on trusted sources of information. Participate in meetings to stay informed of the situation, plans, and events. But try to limit social media, television, and other forms of news delivery. The more you can limit these, the better for your mental health.

Self check-ins. Monitor yourself overtime for any symptoms of depression or stress disorder: prolonged sadness, difficulty sleeping, intrusive memories, hopelessness. Talk to a peer, supervisor, or seek professional help if needed. Prolonged intense stress without proper care can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Honor your service. Remind yourself that despite obstacles or frustrations, you are fulfilling a noble calling—taking care of those most in need. Recognize your colleagues—either formally or informally—for their service. Let them know you appreciate them.

Develop a buddy system. While you are often the best at determining your mental health level, sometimes crisis response workers can bury their own needs so deep they fail to recognize warning signs within themselves. During a crisis, have a “buddy” whom you trust to bring to you concerns about your behavior or self-care. And then listen! As a care “buddy”, be bold in your approach but also do it in love. If you notice your colleague withdrawing, speaking in negative talk constantly, hopeless, without spiritual support, isolating, angry, or changing dramatically in appearance, it is imperative that you bring it to their attention, as well as potentially their supervisor or family. And as always, gaining the advice of a mental health professional is important.

And finally, pray. The biggest issue that crisis response workers report is their feeling of being out of control. The truth is, within a crisis such as a pandemic, there is little that is within your control. Focus on what you can control – your actions and your reactions. You cannot control others. You cannot control the amount of work there is. You cannot control the length of time the crisis continues. But you can control your response. And that begins with prayer. God tells us from the beginning of time that He is with us, He hears us, and He answers us. Praying for the peace of mind, clarity, patience, rest, and trust can give you balance in the midst of the chaos. If you are praying for how you can fix this situation, you are setting yourself up for more stress. Trust that God is God and you are one of His instruments in this battle but you are not His only instrument. He is calling upon all of us to do this work so that our land is healed.

God appeared to Solomon that very night and said, “I accept your prayer; yes, I have chosen this place as a temple for sacrifice, a house of worship. If I ever shut off the supply of rain from the skies or order the locusts to eat the crops or send a plague on my people, and my people, my God-defined people, respond by humbling themselves, praying, seeking my presence, and turning their backs on their wicked lives, I’ll be there ready for you: I’ll listen from heaven, forgive their sins, and restore their land to health. From now on I’m alert day and night to the prayers offered at this place. —2 Chronicles 7:12-15

Hotlines

Disaster Distress Helpline

Toll-Free: 1-800-985-5990
Text: “TalkWithUs” to 66746
Website: http://disasterdistress.samhsa.gov

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Toll-Free: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
TTY: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)
Website: http://www.samhsa.gov
This resource can be found by accessing the Suicide Prevention Lifeline box once on the SAMHSA website.

National Domestic Violence Hotline*

Toll-Free: 1-800-799-SAFE (1-800-799-7233) TTY: 1-800-787-3224

 

References:

Adapted from “Psychological First Aid,” the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at http://www.centerforthe studyoftraumaticstress.org and used with permission.

Center for Mental Health Services. (2004). Mental health response to mass violence and terrorism: A training manual. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Luxart Communications. (2004). The quick series guide to stress management. Ellicott City, MD: Chevron Publishing.

McEwen, B. S. & Lasley, E. N. (2002). The end of stress as we know it. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press.

Mitchell, J. T. & Bray, G. P. (1990). Emergency services stress: Guidelines for preserving the health and careers of emergency services personnel. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Selye, H. (1984). The stress of life (Rev. ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

I am sorry.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about why I gave up church for Lent. The intent was twofold. One, I wanted to bring to light a reoccurring problem within churches. But the other reason was for healing for me. It was meant as a way to get out what I was holding inside. It was spoken from a place of grief.

Over the past 24 hours, I have discovered that many in my previous appointment are upset and feel vilified. So I hope to set the record straight in a humble apology to you. I am doing so publicly so that anyone who read the previous one will know the truth and correct any negative thoughts they might have toward this body.  I have turned off comments to this post because I don’t want people to offer support for me. Rather, offer support to the church body.

I never meant to vilify anyone. I shared my thoughts and feelings. I shared my hurts and frustrations. Perhaps I should not have done so in such a way. Perhaps the best for everyone would have been to keep it inside, compacting it. Because by my trying to get the world to see that pastors are hurting and lonely, I have inadvertently hurt a group of people whom I love. For that, I am very sorry.

So, to the church, I write you this letter,

I am so very sorry for being selfish and thinking of myself. I should not have done that. I did not think about how you might feel by reading it. I did not consider that you would take it so personally. I thought perhaps you would read it and think about what you might change to better serve others, including future pastors. But that’s not what happened.

I’m sorry that I did not consider you were grieving, too. I honestly didn’t believe you were grieving because of the isolation I have felt. Little did I know that you didn’t know what to say or how to react. I did not realize that you were upset with my leaving so abruptly. I didn’t realize your silence was because you were hurting.

I’m sorry that my words were misinterpreted. I did not mean that the entire church body was not compassionate. I actually believe that the majority of the church body is quite loving and accepting of everyone. I believe you have good hearts and seek to help those in need. I have watched you serve others through local ministries, your monies, your time, and your presence. I have witnessed care as you walked with one another in times of trial as well as in times of celebration.

I am sorry that you felt like I said you did not believe in Jesus Christ. I was so incredibly sad that people didn’t believe the scriptures and tried to illustrate that. But apparently, it was interpreted to mean that I thought you as a collective church body did not believe in Jesus Christ. I know many of you do have a strong faith. But you keep your faith personally guarded and that can sometimes live others wondering where you stand. I made a mistake and should have kept that sadness to myself.  I have watched some of you grow deeper in your faith and your joy in that relationship is evident upon your face. I have appreciated conversations that have led to those “aha” moments when you realized Jesus died to redeem you. I have celebrated some of you who have stepped outside your comfort zone so that you could experience the direction of the Holy Spirit in your life. I watched and have given thanks to God for each moment.

Finally, I am sorry that some of you felt like I vilified you personally. It was wrong. I did not intend it to be that way. But my intentions fall on deaf ears when hearts are hurting.

I’m sorry.

 

 

My heart is just so tired

“My heart is just so tired.”

I had a client say that to me this week. It struck me because of its deep authenticity “My heart is just so tired.” Perhaps you feel the squeeze in the pit of your stomach, too. “My heart is just so tired.”

The past several weeks we have watched from a safe distance the turmoil that Covid19 has been causing around the world. We watched with curiosity and maybe a bit of concern. But we went about our daily lives. And then seemingly in the blink of an eye everything changed. The virus is here. Our way of life is interrupted. Our security fractured. And so we go from curiosity to fear. And we seek answers. No, we demand answers to how this went from a distant news story to a crippling pandemic.

How often do we have these same “blink of eye” situations within our personal lives? Life can be going along and then all of a sudden a pandemic consumes your very soul. Friends become strangers. Jobs become prisons. Homes become islands. And you find yourself holding on to the ledge of life with the tips of your fingers. Why? Because your heart is just so tired.

Friends, this life is not meant to be experienced alone. It’s meant to be shared with people of all kinds. Even in this time of social distancing, we need each other. Scripture tells us that God created woman because he saw it was not good for man to be alone. Throughout the existence of humankind, relationships have been a profoundly important part of God’s plan for us.

Unfortunately, we take these relationships for granted far too often. Instead of facing issues, we ignore them. Instead of healing hurts, we build walls. Over time friendships die, families split, and bitterness sets in. We bury emotions and assumptions deep within our heart, trying in vain to keep the cracks from becoming craters that the world can see. And we cry out, “My heart is just so tired.” It’s tired because it simply cannot do this life alone.

My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. — John 15:12-15

Like my client, I too find my heart just so very tired. But oh how glorious it is to know that we are not in this alone. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is with us, bearing our burdens, hearing our cries, and catching our tears. Whether you find your heart tired because of the external pandemic or your own internal one, you are not alone.

God-Sized Dream

dream

I have a dream. It’s a dream I have had for a long while actually. It’s an actual dream that I have when I go to sleep. And it’s a dream that lives in the subconscious of my mind. It’s a God-sized dream. It’s way too big for me to put into words yet when I close my eyes, I can see it so clearly.

In this dream, I am a part of a ministry team. We have a unique working relationship where we hold one another accountable, lift each other, support one another, have each other’s back, and love each other unconditionally. It’s an amazing team. It has to be amazing because the work we do is hard and risky. It is the kind of work that is emotionally and physically draining. It can impact your relationships with those you love and it can ultimately fatigue the fire of the Holy Spirit within you if you are not held accountable to rest. Yes, it’s an amazing team because it’s an amazing job.

We have a church building … sort of. I mean, we always have a roof over our heads, at least. But it’s not the kind of building you think of when you think of “church.” No, we meet wherever we can. Sometimes it’s a school. Sometimes it’s a warehouse. Other times it’s in a living room or community center. But we always have a building to gather in. God always provides that holy space. There are times, in my dream, where I miss the beauty of the traditional sanctuary — the stained glass and the unique architecture. But this church is a different kind of church. In my dream, this church is the people, not the building.

What makes this church different? Well, we do gather together weekly just like other churches. We gather to worship God and reset our spiritual needs through hearing the Word and sharing in Holy Communion. But the gathering doesn’t stop there. After worship, we get to work! In my dream, this body of believers has embraced the Great Commission – Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. Matthew 28:19-20  So, we go.

In this church, every single member has a role to play. No one sits on the sidelines regardless of age or unique ability. We have prayer warriors, teachers, carpenters, doctors, listeners, financial advisors, letter writers, and care providers. If you’re able to take a breath, you’re able to serve God and in my dream, all the members embrace this fact as given in Scripture. When one member fails to be all-in, the body of Christ is not complete.

There are mission teams both locally and internationally. They are trained and excited for the opportunity to serve God by reaching others in the name of Jesus Christ. These folks travel all over the world, being led by the Holy Spirit. Locally, the focus is the same yet very different. This team’s focus is still reaching the lost but specifically, the lost to mental illness. We have a program that welcomes those with mental illness. There are treatment groups led by professionals. In addition to the professional help that is free, there are support groups that focus on addiction, anxiety, depression, and others. It’s a constant hub of giving and receiving in the name of Christ. And it’s a beautiful thing.

In this dream, I see children taking ownership of mission projects where they lead and love in a way that only children can. I see youth becoming bold in their convictions while wrestling with things of the world and things of the Kingdom. I see deep Biblical studies taking place within the youth and a true Bible school within the children’s program.

The adults are hungry for the Word and the number of studies available are plentiful. There are studies for the disciple as well as studies for the seeker. There are studies to grow a couple in their marriage and studies to guide someone in their singleness. These meet all over the area, from coffee houses to kitchen tables.

And oh how we pray. We pray together. We pray alone. We pray for one another and for the world around us. We pray boldly, with conviction. We believe in the power of prayer so we claim our prayers in the name of Jesus Christ. And the results are miraculous because we pray.  We really pray.

But…it’s only a dream. And yet, God has so profoundly placed this dream upon my heart I wonder what is next. I have been struggling with the silence of God for a few weeks but now I wonder if perhaps He’s been shouting so loud it’s become deafening? Why THIS dream? Why now? There are times when I sit straight up in bed in the middle of the night after having snippets of this dream. In those moments, I try to settle back into a restful place but my mind begins spinning and the possibilities clash violently with the truth that money is the mountain I can’t seem to scale. If I am honest, I must admit that it’s in those moments that my faith lacks the complete surrender I long to have in trusting God to provide should I step off this safe ledge I am on.

 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. Hebrews 11:8

I have a dream. It’s a God-sized dream. And God often speaks in dreams. Is God speaking now… or is it only a dream?

#uncharted2020

 

Uncharted

Uncharted.

This pretty much sums up my journey with God at the moment! I have no idea what is happening or coming next, but I am trusting Him.

But trust is not easy when the silence of God grows so loud it’s overwhelming. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the wilderness I find myself in. The beauty of the wilderness, however, is that the solitude requires introspection. And often that will lead to a profound revelation from God. I think about the different wilderness experiences in Scripture. Initially being in the wilderness brings forth images of discomfort or trials. But every story leads to a God-ordained deliverance. And that is the promise I cling to, as well!

For the last three years, I have had my one word and scripture. For 2020, my word is UNCHARTED. Truthfully, my heart is pounding just thinking of posting this because it makes it real. But uncharted is where I am. For someone who is typically on top of things and knows what the next step is, being uncharted means stepping up to the edge of the unknown, closing my eyes, and asking God to push. Gosh, it’s hard, made harder due to my daily struggle with anxiety. I have absolutely no idea what God has in store for me and the ministry I’m called to do. But I know that it’s going to be greater than I could dream possible.

Hebrews 11:8 is my verse of the year. Abraham was in uncharted waters and yet he was faithful.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.”

My prayer for the year is a simple one.

“Oh my Lord, I don’t know where you are calling me to go but I will obey if you lead me!”

And my song is The Very Next Thing by Casting Crowns.

I spend all my time
Dreaming what the future’s gonna bring
When all of this time
There’s a world passing by
Right in front of me
Set my sights on tomorrow
While I’m tripping over today
Who says big things
Are somewhere off in the distance
I don’t want to look back
Just to see all the times that I missed it
I want to be here and now
Starting right here, right now
With the very next words of love to be spoken
To the very next heart that’s shattered and broken
To the very next way you’re gonna use me
Show me the next thing
I’ll do the next thing
Let my very next breath
Breathe out a song of praise to you
With my very next step
Be on a road that was planned by you
Lord, wherever you’re leading me
That’s where I want to be
Eyes wide open I see you working
All around me you’re on the move
Step by step I’m running to meet you
In the next thing, in the next thing

As 2019 winds down, it will go out in silence for me. But I will thank God for the silence because I’m certain 2020 will be an adventure only God could prepare me for!

Happy Uncharted New Year!

Link

It’s Time We Talked … Part 2 (He Wins)

adult black and white darkness face

I have always been an overachiever. In school, I was a 4.0 student. When I made my first B, I thought the world had come to an end. I still find my actions today to be led by a need to be absolutely perfect. Luckily I see that when things are not perfect, I can still function and the world as I know it did not suddenly cease to exist.

As a young adult, my anxiety began to change a bit. I noticed that I was on constant red alert while at work. I felt like my employer was constantly judging me and never gave me even a small pat on the back to let me know I was doing good work. So there would be days when I would sit in my office and literally tremble because I was certain I would get yelled at or ridiculed. I never did but that didn’t stop the thoughts in my head from telling me it was going to happen.

I remember one incident when we had a board meeting. I had on a pair of grey slacks, white blouse, and an argyle sweater vest (it was the 90s so give me a break). I remember feeling pretty that day. I was getting ready to walk into the board room to help set up and my employer told me I looked unprofessional. I was stricken on the inside like I had been struck by a hand. I just sat there the entire meeting completely embarrassed. Once the meeting was over, I got in my car, pulled out of the parking lot, drove to the first side street, and threw up.

I spent my entire paycheck on new clothes.

For those who have anxiety, you can relate to the sheer struggle that I have lived with internally. It’s a deep desire to be included and accepted while also an overwhelming urge to hide away at home where you are completely alone and secure. The little voice in the back of your head constantly creates self-doubt and your eyes see the negative pieces of who you are while conveniently skipping over all the wonderful parts of your being. If you are like me, you hide this struggle. If you are really really like me, you hide this struggle very well.

I changed jobs eventually and went into the pharmaceutical sales field. Lord, have mercy! This is quite possibly the worst job a person with extreme anxiety can have. In my initial interview, the interviewer asked me if I belonged to a gym. When I told him I did not, he informed me that I needed to make that a priority. Clearly, that meant I was overweight and unattractive (oh to be that size now!). But I landed the job on the spot and was actually pretty good at it. I had to talk myself off a cliff nearly every day because it was a tough atmosphere. The front desk staff at many of the physicians’ offices were quite mean. Doctors weren’t that much better. And the competition was downright volatile.

Because I was in the car alone most of the time, I had way too much time to think. I would replay conversations in my head or overanalyze an encounter. It was ridiculous. Then my anxiety took a brand new approach to steering me off balance. I was coming home from a workday in Hopkinsville. I was on I-24 somewhere between Cadiz and Eddyville when I felt a constricting in my chest. It came out of nowhere! My breathing was labored and I broke out into a sweat. I somehow managed to get pulled over on the interstate and opened the car door for some air. My peripheral vision was growing darker by the second. I threw my head between my knees and began to pray for God to not let me die on the side of the road. This, by the way, was the first time I bothered going to God with this problem.

I didn’t have a strong faith at the time. It was something that I believed but didn’t practice at all. I did not have an understanding of a God of salvation nor did I know that I could go to God with any burden on my heart and he would not only hear it but actively work within it. Unfortunately, I really only had one friend who was a believer. She spoke to me regularly about God but I didn’t accept the truth she was offering. It just didn’t seem that important.

Obviously, I did not die on the side of the road that day but I had many more episodes of that scenario, the worst being several years ago in Louisville while my then young son was in the backseat. But I digress.

I continued in pharmaceutical sales for several years, doing very well. In fact, one year I was in the top 25 sales reps in the company and won a trip to Bermuda. The last straw for me, however, was a doctor who decided he could make some very disparaging comments to me about my personal life. I remember every aspect of that moment. Standing in the “drug hall” with no way out because he was blocking the way, I had to listen to him call me names and make really inappropriate statements about some very personal things. And he did it with a smile on his face. That small hall felt smaller and smaller the longer I stood there. At one point I had to reach out to hold on to the sample cubes just so I wouldn’t fall to the floor. Trying to “save face” while feeling as if your chest is going to cave in is not an easy thing to do. Unfortunately, a single tear did manage to escape in front of him.

I never went back to that office.

I quit the job a couple of months later.

I could go on and on about different events that left me breathless, full of doubt and overcome with fear but I think you get the point. Anxiety is a very real thing. It’s a painful, physiological, and psychological life-altering disorder. It has the potential of robbing you of some beautiful and fulfilling moments. I have fought very hard to keep this thing neatly tucked into my box of shame. But no more. It is a part of who I am and I am determined to not be ashamed of it. I think back over the years where society has deemed certain things taboo. Anxiety and depression used to be a part of that unspoken world. And yet, every one of us knows people who suffer from one or both. We must give it a name so that men, women, and children will know that they can seek help because help is available.

Today, I am a Christian counselor and an ordained minister. Oh, that journey toward ordination pushed me to my limits at times. The anxiety of fitting in, being completely judged, talked about, discarded by colleagues, and even pushed to quit at times led to a depression that I had not experienced before. Perhaps someday I’ll share about the journey toward ordination but right now I simply cannot. It was not the kind of experience it should have been. Instead, it felt like that middle school hell all over again. Even on the night of ordination, while I was all smiles and hugs, I wanted nothing more than to crawl into a hole and disappear. Looking around that reception area, I remember thinking, I’m not even a welcome guest at my own party. Feeling my heart race (it was around 138), I just grabbed my husband’s hand and asked him to please take me to dinner. In the darkness of the drive to the restaurant, I stared out the window and cried silently.

As a counselor, I am very good at what I do because I really get people. I just get them. I have lived so much of what they come to see me for and so they experience not judgment but love and mercy from me. Basically, I try to give them what Jesus Christ gave me. I give them space to simply be. I look them in the eyes and love them. I never try to fix them or make them be something or someone they are not. I simply give them space to be. And that is grace.

I still struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. And I still put on a very carefully put-together mask to hide that struggle. As a minister, it can be very hard. I find that home visits are quite possibly the most difficult thing I have to do. There are many times I plan on making visits only to sit in my car mentally talking myself through each breath so I don’t collapse on the spot. I never seem to make those visits. And that invokes a tremendous amount of shame within me. I hate letting people down. Truly.

Church people can be some of the most beautiful souls in the world. And they can also be some of the cruelest. Unfortunately, the way my mind works, I tend to focus on the cruel more than the beautiful. It’s something I’m actively working on to improve. When someone gets upset or seems to be a bit aloof, I immediately take it too personally. And then the anxiety cripples me.

I have learned that resentment and anger are intense triggers of my panic attacks. When I refuse to forgive someone or something, I can actually feel a vice take hold of my lungs and squeezing. So I have learned to rely upon scripture to walk me through forgiveness. I actively pray the Jesus Breath Prayer when that vice takes hold and once my breathing is returned to a fairly normal state, I ask God to forgive me for my inability to forgive another. I’m a work in progress.

Before every sermon, every talk, every Bible study… before any time I’m asked to stand up and speak to a crowd, I feel my heart jump up into the lower part of my throat. I feel redness begin to creep up my chest. I can hear the heart beating in my head. And my breathing becomes just a bit shallow.

And then I pray.

God, please get me through this. Please let them hear you and not me because if they hear me, they’ll hear nothing but if they hear you, they’ll hear everything. Please Lord, have mercy. Amen.

Every single time I get ready to speak, I go through this. Every single Sunday I walk in circles in my office the 5 minutes before worship begins, praying this prayer over and over. Every. Single. Time.

Anxiety is part of me. And perhaps it is part of you. Before I could really make any progress, I had to first admit that I needed some help. My husband informed me one day that I “needed medication.” For those of you who are thinking of using that line on someone – DON’T. It didn’t go well at all. But he was right. I did need some medical assistance. I take an SSRI which is a class of non-narcotic medications that help with anxiety. I take it every day regardless of how good or bad I might feel. And once I was able to get things a bit under control, my eyes were able to see the rest of the needed treatment – the spiritual component.

I was spiritually bankrupt and needed God. There was a lot of ugly stuff that had to go down before I realized the depth of my need for Him but once I acknowledged it, I found a sense of mercy and grace and acceptance that I didn’t know was possible. And you can, too. Jesus Christ saved my life. And my soul.

Praise be to God He never gave up on me.

Lauren Daigle’s song Rescue sums up my life of anxiety. It sums up the feelings of being alone, lost, scared, unaccepted, and not good enough. May this song bless you, too.

“Rescue”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3U4Q2R7ZZAE

You are not hidden
There’s never been a moment
You were forgotten
You are not hopeless
Though you have been broken
Your innocence stolen

I hear you whisper underneath your breath
I hear your SOS
Your SOS

I will send out an army
To find you in the middle of the darkest night
It’s true, I will rescue you

There is no distance
That cannot be covered
Over and over
You’re not defenseless
I’ll be your shelter
I’ll be your armor

I hear you whisper underneath your breath
I hear your SOS, your SOS

I will send out an army
To find You in the middle of the darkest night
It’s true, I will rescue you

I will never stop marching
To reach you in the middle of the hardest fight
It’s true, I will rescue you

I hear the whisper underneath your breath
I hear you whisper you have nothing left

I will send out an army
To find you in the middle of the darkest night
It’s true, I will rescue you
I will never stop marching
To reach you in the middle of the hardest fight
It’s true, I will rescue you
Oh, I will rescue you

 

It’s Time We Talked … part 1

monochrome photo of woman sitting on floorI can still remember in vivid detail the first time I experienced a panic attack. I was in 8th grade.

I was sitting in English class. My best friend at the time was sitting to my left, one seat back. The creative assignment we had just been given by our teacher was to write about the “person we hated the most.” Seriously. That was an assignment given by a middle school English teacher. Looking back, it was really a bullying 101 assignment. I mean, what kind of teacher encourages that? But hey, she was my teacher and this was our assignment.

I remember looking over my shoulder to my best friend to whisper to her my choice of targets (I’m am deeply sorry, Jennifer, for any malice thought I had towards you). But there was something in my friend’s expression that seemed off. And at that moment, I just knew.

After school that day, I slipped back into the English classroom and went to the file cabinet where we kept our writing notebooks. I opened it and quickly found the royal blue spiral that belonged to my friend. As soon as I read the first sentence, my heart began to beat faster than I had ever felt. On and on, I read words of hate, mockery, and judgment. Pretty much anything that a young girl deems off-limits was touched. My weight was shamed. My face was ridiculed. The things I enjoyed were made fun of. And at the end of the paper, the one who I believed was my very best friend wrote in her bubbly cursive handwriting, “I hate her and always have. I just feel sorry for her so that’s why I keep her around.”

I put the notebook back into the old grey filing cabinet, listened for the click of the drawer, and began to walk out of the room. Before I made it to the door, my breath was so shallow I was certain I was going to die on the spot. And thus began a life of anxiety.

I don’t really talk about my anxiety much. I might mention it casually if anxiety is brought up but for the most part, I keep it pretty much under lock and key. Even writing this now has my heart fluttering a bit faster than I like. It’s very difficult to talk about even though it is very common. In fact, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders affect 25.1% of children between 13 and 18 years old. (ADAA, 2019). My bet is that you know of someone… or several someones … who has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder or is suffering silently from one. So, I think it’s time we talked. I mean really talked.  

I think my anxiety actually started when I was much younger. I had the privilege or burden (whichever way you want to look at it) of having my father as my elementary school principal. I really didn’t mind the authority he had because, honestly, I was a good girl. But not everyone fits into the category of “well-behaved.” And those less mannered children sometimes found their way into my dad’s office for discipline. Unfortunately, their anger was often let out in ways that did impact me. I can tell you that finding my dad’s name laced with profanity on the elementary school playground was never easy. I can remember feeling this sense of fear because I knew there were kids who didn’t like him. And as I people-pleaser, I couldn’t comprehend that fact without feeling what I thought was fear. In actuality it was anxiety. Overhearing teachers talk about him in ways that were … colorful … shaped me and my sense of safety. So in my little mind, I thought if I tried harder for those teachers and if I were perfect around those kids then they would definitely see my dad as the greatest guy ever. But they didn’t so I felt like I’d fallen short.

During that middle school year, I suffered tremendously. All self-esteem left me. I worried constantly about what I looked like or what I said. I often wondered when I walked up to a group of kids if they were going to make fun of me the moment I walked away. I thought seriously of suicide because all seemed lost. I was so lonely and so fearful. And yet I buried the true source of my pain. I never told my friend that I knew what she wrote.

Several weeks later, we had a new writing assignment. This one asked us to write about something that made us sad or upset. So I “confessed” to what I had done. Once my teacher read my assignment, she was beside herself. In all fairness to her, I think it was the eye-opening moment she needed to realize the “hate” assignment was not healthy for pre-teens with changing bodies, hormones, and attitudes. She asked me multiple times if I was okay. I lied and said I was. To my knowledge, she’s never assigned that writing activity again. (Silver lining!)

I would love to say that high school was better but it really wasn’t. I just learned to hide my anxiety better. I struggled to fit in. I was smart. I was involved in so many things. Looking back, the places where I felt most at ease were the activities where I could step away from being me. Theater, the school mascot, the newspaper staff. All these things allowed me to hide my face… hide my eyes… so that others couldn’t see the fear, the desperate need for acceptance, the anxiety that took me to shallow breaths and trembling hands.

I remember one incident that still rocks me to this day. I had been out of town with my family for the weekend. When I got home, a friend called me and told me she had something I needed to see. I think I was 16 at the time. I went to her house and she had four or five handmade signs. She had pulled them from my yard while I was gone. Someone had thought it would be great fun to put signs in front of my house with a degrading theme. As I read them, the room went a bit dark as I struggled to maintain consciousness.

When you look at my yearbooks, you would think you see a happy teenager. All the clubs and sports that I was involved in could not trump the amount of self-doubt and loathing that I had. I was the master of hiding it from others but the biggest failure of treating it. From high school to college to adulthood, this anxiety controlled my life and my successes. And it’s time I start owning it if I ever expect for it not to control me.

To be continued…

 

  1. Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the prevention, treatment, and cure of anxiety, depressive, obsessive-compulsive, and trauma-related disorders through education, practice, and research.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety or depression, please know you are not alone. Call your pastor, a counselor, a physician or mental health hotline for help.

Still Called

It is February 27. I am writing this the day after the historic Special Called Session of the General Conference. My mind is struggling to focus on what needs to be accomplished today because I am focused on what the last four days have been. For those who are unaware of what I am referring to, I invite you to reach out to me for there is not enough space in this newsletter to explain. In short, the UMC delegates gathered from around the world to vote on a way to move forward as a unified body while still affirming the Holy Word.

Some of you may have read news articles about the conference. Please know that there are lots of truths as well as untruths that are being circulated. So what is true? The Traditional Plan was voted for by the delegates. The One Church Plan, Connectional Plan, Modified Traditional Plan, and Simple Plan were not approved. A disaffiliation petition passed as did a proposal related to pensions.

What does this mean and how are we affected? Today, February 27, we opened our doors as we always do. Tonight, our youth will meet at their regular time. The sanctuary will be open for our monthly prayer service. This Sunday, we will gather together for Sunday School, worship, and fellowship. The choir will sing. Scripture will be read. And the Word of God will be proclaimed through the sermon. Finally, we will gather around the Lord’s Table as one body. So, basically, friends, nothing has changed for us. We were called to serve God together before the conference and we are still called to serve the same God together after the conference.

But I would be amiss to pretend that many of us are not feeling lots of emotions right now. The headlines want you to think that we have banned LGBT+ people from our churches. That is NOT TRUE. I am saddened to read these comments from both friends and colleagues. No one has been banned from the United Methodist Church. The same rules that applied when each one of us joined this church still apply. The exact same rules. Rules that you said yes to. And that I said yes to. In the UMC, LGBT+ people are not allowed to be ordained clergy nor may they be married by the UMC.

For the past 10 years I have been walking through the ordination process. I have been examined for 10 years by people, many I did not know, who determined if I am worthy of ordination. I had to offer myself to this examination fully and without walls. There were things I desperately wanted to keep private but when you offer yourself up for ordination, you lose your right to privacy in many ways. I had to share very intimate details. I had to allow access to all of my financial history. I had to give information regarding my husband’s history, regardless of how intimate it was. This is the process. These are the rules. Being ordained is very difficult and humbling. I have watched as people, both heterosexual and homosexual, have been turned down for various reasons. I’ve watched their hearts break because they are trying to follow their calling but being told “no”. And then God does what God does. He makes a new thing. He takes these people who have been told “no” and given them eyes to see where he really wants them to minister. And a new thing grows from what was ashes.

I have cried a lot the past four days over the hateful words from all sides of the conference. What I saw was not a witness for Jesus Christ. What I saw from all sides was hate-filled and volatile. And I pray for it to stop. Because there is a world out there full of needs and hurts and fears who need us to stop fighting and start being the disciples we claim to be. Our personal convictions may differ but they should not define us. This church recognizes everyone’s self-worth, gifts, and beauty as children of God. Love does not mean we must always agree. Somehow that has come to be the meaning for our world today and it is wrong. We can love recklessly while disagreeing. Jesus did it all the time and showed us the beauty in it.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that this has come at the beginning of Lent, for we are definitely in the wilderness as people called Methodist. As we engage on this journey through the Lenten wilderness, we must make a careful examination of ourselves. Are we making kings of our ideologies, obstructions out of our theologies, and temples out of our screwed-up notions of who’s in and who’s out? Are we in the way or are we making room for The Way? Perhaps we’re afraid that if we get out of the way, the God might just show up and prove us all wrong? That happened once – over 2000 years ago on a cross on Golgotha.

Friends, I don’t know what is next for the United Methodist Church. I do know what is next for Arcadia UMC. We are going to continue to be disciples of Jesus Christ. We are going to love with accountability, serve with compassion, be merciful without enabling, and point to Jesus at all costs.

“This is the church. Here she is. Lovely, irregular, sometimes sick and sometimes well. This is the body-like-no-other that God has shaped and placed in the world. Jesus lives here; this is his soul’s address. There is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. She has taken a beating, the church. Every day she meets the gates of hell and she prevails. Every day she serves, stumbles, injures, and repairs. That she has healed is an underrated miracle. That she gives birth is beyond reckoning. Maybe it’s time to make peace with her. Maybe it’s time to embrace her, flawed as she is.” — Rachel Held Evans Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

Serving Him Together, Pastor Janean

I am a child of God

Over the past few days, I have experienced a wave of emotions due to the announcement of the defeat of two constitutional amendments in the United Methodist Church.

The first proposed amendment was for gender justice, which would have given a voice to women and girls around the world.  The new paragraph in the Book of Discipline would have read: “Men and women are of equal value in the eyes of God.” In addition, it also would have stated that the church should “seek to eliminate discrimination against women and girls, whether in organizations or in individuals, in every facet of its life and in society at large.”

The second proposed amendment would have changed the wording in our Book of Disciple’s paragraph 4 to add the words “gender,” “ability,” “age,” and “marital status” to the protected groups as those included in the church. Essentially, we would be saying that none of these groups of people could be discriminated against in the church.

And yet, these two amendments failed to pass a 2/3 majority vote around the globe and in our own conference.

Men and women around the world who have been chosen as voting delegates by their churches, some ordained in the church as elders and deacons, some as laity, boldly claimed that women and girls are still not embraced and affirmed as equal worth within this body of believers. This group of voters failed to claim that the United Methodist Church should never discriminate against people due to their gender, their ability, their age or their marital status.

For this, I grieve.

I grieve because as members of the United Methodist Church in the United States of America, we should be the first to stand in the trenches for the women and girls around the world who are still deemed second-class citizens, at best, and just property, at worst. But our own delegates could not affirm the equality and worth even here in this great nation. If we can’t affirm this, what does that say about us?

I know that many read these two amendments with fear and distrust, certain there was some underlying scheme hidden within to further enhance some issue they disagree with. But that simply wasn’t the case. If you read the Book of Discipline’s first seven articles, you will find that women and girls are excluded from protection. Why? Because women and girls are not viewed as equal worth in many of the countries around the world. The Book of Discipline is the unifying church constitution. It’s what makes the Methodist Church “United”. It’s why we are called a connectional church. But here in the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences, we couldn’t even agree that women are equal and should be free from discrimination. 

We failed.

Having spent time in Africa last year, I met with several ministers of the UMC in the country of Tanzania. They were all men. And they all had a sense of suspicion around this group of American women clergy who were visiting. They were welcoming and friendly but also kept us at arm’s length. I dare say for some, we were the first women they had ever heard preach. And preach we did. We shared the Gospel… the very same Gospel that they share. And yet, women are still not included as equal and worthy. So, I grieve. 

But while I grieve, I also know that I must acknowledge that not every Annual Conference failed women and girls, young and old, married or single, of all races, and all abilities. For that reason, I will stand alongside the Annual Conferences who unanimously affirmed women and girls — Finland, the Philippines, Mozambique, and South Africa.

Yes, women have been ordained in the United Methodist Church for 60+ years. But there are still many many churches here in the United States that simply will not accept women in the pulpit. There are still many United Methodists who verbally assault women who preach. Some people like to misuse Scripture as a way to marginalize women. Yet they conveniently forget that Jesus himself chose Mary Magdalene as the first apostle, revealing himself to her after the resurrection and giving her the commandment to “go and tell the others”. Women have been used throughout the pages of Scripture to proclaim God’s Word. Sarah, Deborah, Hannah, Ruth, Mary, Joanna, Susanna, Priscilla, Phoebe. And God continues to use women and girls today.

No vote. No debate. No paragraph in a book that is barely followed will ever define me. My definition comes from the ordination that I received at my baptism. I am a child of the one true God. As a deacon, my calling is to Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. I take that very seriously. I will fight for the marginalized around the world, including the women and girls who continue to be abused, raped, sold, and persecuted. I will speak for the women who feel they cannot speak in the United Methodist Church around the globe and close to home.

For the ones who have been told God does not hear them or see them as worthy, I pray.

For the ones whose churches won’t allow women to preach… or even speak out loud, I pray.

For the ones who have had their cries ignored by the church, I pray.

And for the men and women who have affirmed these anti-Christian behaviors, I pray.

I am a woman.

I am a minister.

I am a deacon.

I am a mother.

I am a wife.

I am a daughter.

I am a sister.

I am a disciple.

I am worthy.

I am made in the image of God…. and so, my dear sister, are you.

IMG_0559

Stephanie is my little friend with the big heart. – Tarime, TZ