Stepping Out of the Shadows

Published May 16, 2018 by islandgirlinthewest

About 8 years ago I had what is described in mental health as a crisis.  I remember the day well: a few weeks before I started feeling unwell with varying symptoms from headaches, tiredness, dizziness, to slurred speech.  After several visits to the Doctor I tentatively asked if any of those symptoms could be due to underlying mental illness.  But that question wasn’t an out of the blue question because for about close to a year I had been feeling that something wasn’t quite right.  In the latter months I experienced this dread and an inexplicable fear of dying.  Okay, the thoughts in my head were telling me I was going to die.  Every time I left home I feared that today would be the day when it would happen.

The backdrop to this is that from since a young age I experienced ‘weird’ emotions and extreme mood swings, racing thoughts and moments of gloom.  I learned to accept is as part of who I was and just got on with it.  After giving birth to my daughter I was diagnosed with post-natal depression and from then on began to accept depression as part of my life.  The depression came back about a year or so after my son was born. When that crisis day happened I had been back on antidepressants for a while, was receiving counselling, and feeling rather positive about things.

On the day of the crisis I went for my regular check-up with my GP who was happy with my progress, and I remember telling her I felt positive about things.  I left the GP’s office and went across to the supermarket to pick up a few things, and then it happened:  basket in hand, I walked around the store in a daze unable to focus on why I was there.  All I could feel was everybody staring at me and it suddenly felt like the shop was full of people talking and looking at me.  I felt the sudden urge to escape, and confused, I put the empty basket down and headed back to the Doctors.  By the time I got to the receptionist I was a wreck (it was a 2 minute walk), and I tried to explain that I needed to speak with the Doctor I had just seen.  Without an appointment that was not happening so I left but only made it just outside the door where I crumbled into a heap on the floor.  I managed to ring a friend but couldn’t get the words out properly.  Luckily, another receptionist saw me and came to help, and took me in to see the Doctor.

In that moment, I knew I needed help, that all the fight in me had gone.  I remember the Doctor asking me what I wanted and I just said through the tears, “I need help”.  The events that followed involved an awful experience at a Mental Health Crisis centre who couldn’t help as I did not have an appointment, despite being sent there by the doctor (I waited over an hour in that place), but luckily my friend had come to meet me and took me the hospital.  I don’t remember much what happened then but it seemed like the longest night of my life.  I was signed off work for about 5 months and I’m thankful for the support of my husband and my friend during that time.

Memories of those few months are a blur but I think I spent most days in bed, and unable to face the outside world.  Eventually  I would try going for short walks, but even that proved too much at times.  I don’t know how I could have taken care of the children without hubby, or indeed, take care of myself.  Some days were darker than others, with moments where I would collapse, unable to speak or move.  Eventually, I was able to get back to work after an emotional re-entry to work interview.

My mental illness is something I have learned to accept but it has been a struggle –  trying to pretend that everything is okay is hard work and about 2 years ago I decided I was tired of trying to keep it all in.  The mood swings, the sleepless nights, the myriad of thoughts, the erratic behaviour, were becoming too much and I didn’t want to pretend anymore.  My best friend/adopted sister is a Doctor in the US and on a visit to see me get ordained as a Methodist Minister, asked me point blank about my mental health.  I couldn’t lie to her , she knew me too well, so we had a very emotional conversation.  She got me to do a test for Bi-Polar and insisted I go back to my doctor and ask for them to investigate if that was a possibility (that was her suspicion based on what she knew about me).

Just over  a year ago I finally received the diagnosis of Bi-Polar 2 disorder.  My illness doesn’t manifest in mania, and to be honest, over the years, having learned to mask the illness, I don’t think many people would have suspected anything.  But if there is one thing I have learned over the years it’s that no one can get through dark moments on their own.  I hear people say things like, “Just get on with it”, or “You’ve got to keep it together” and I think no, I have been doing that for most of my life and I don’t want to be that person anymore.  I joke that I am too much of a coward to take my own life (there have been times when I fantasised about dying), but the truth is, without the support of my husband and if my life situation was different, I’m not sure I would be writing this today.

Mental illness is a serious thing. It doesn’t make you weak for admitting you have a problem, neither is it a sign of failure.  In fact, not speaking up about it is the biggest mistake one could make. Growing up, I watched my father exhibit varying forms of mental ill health (although that is a retrospective observation), wreaking havoc on our family, but there was no help for him apart from the bottle. This year marks 21 years since he took his own life, leaving a note which simply read, “I can’t take it anymore”.  So in this week of mental health awareness, I urge you to not suffer alone.  And if you know someone who suffers with mental illness, be there for them, not necessarily to offer any advice or solutions, but just to be that person they can lean on when they find themselves falling.  Like that B.T advert used to say, “It’s good to talk”.

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Christmas is for the poor or Why I love Christmas

Published December 7, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

My Christmas tree is up! Yeah!! The lights are all sparkly and bright and they make the traditional colours of red and white stand out, resulting in, as hubby put it “a professional looking tree”. Okay I admit, in the grand scheme of things, being able to have and decorate a tree may seem trivial, but bear with me.  I love Christmas! Unashamedly so. And here’s why ….

Growing up, we didn’t have much. Now we were not unique as pretty much all my friends were poor.  You may have heard the phrase “dirt poor” – well, I had friends whose floors were exactly that: dirt. No fancy carpets or wood, just plain old dirt.  So anyway …  I remember loving the feeling that came with the approach to Christmas: my father would be in a good mood (apart form that one Christmas where he went all terminator style on our house, but that’s another story); we would most likely have food to eat; the house would be filled with handmade decorations (my mom would bring in branches and we’d make paper chains and other paper decorations) and depending on the year, we might have had store-bought tinsel and lights; friends and family would stop by each other’s homes sharing in refreshments of sorrell and ginger wine, rum soaked fruit cakes, and other yummy Caribbean delicacies.  As children, we got to stay up late listening to the adults tell stories and drink rum.

Now here’s the thing, I don’t remember fancy presents as such, although there was this time my older brother bought my sister and I a doll’s house which had everything in it.  I loved playing with that, imagining myself one day living in such luxury. It was the atmosphere that was created; it was the fact that in that moment it didn’t matter that we were poor; it didn’t matter that my dad beat my mom from time to time, or was abusive to my brother; it didn’t matter that I was wearing hand-me-downs or that my sister and I shared a room with our parents and had to live with listening to the sounds of unwanted sexual advances by our dad to our mom.  It was Christmas! A time of joy and merriment and I loved it! When I reached mid teens, things were slightly better – my older siblings worked and looked after us, particularly my older sister.  And the tradition of making Christmas special continued.  Again, it wasn’t the presents – there was no expensive or fancy stuff – it was the sense of family being together, the sound of Christmas carols and the smell of spices and baked ham.

For all I know, there were only two or three Christmases like I described: I’m sure my older siblings have different stories to tell, but that is the memory I carry with me.  Sadly, I believe that something happens when people start to do well in life: we forget about the small pleasures and we get a bit grumpy, complaining about carols being sung too early, or trees being put up in Advent – shock, horror! Actually, when I say people, I mean Christians. Seriously peeps, chill out already!  Let people have their moment, let them savour in the warmth of the Christmas season if they so choose!  I myself have been guilty of that and I’ve had to stop myself and say. “Ramona, get a grip”.

We talk about the Christmas story being about a refugee family searching for welcome and hospitality, of a baby born in a stable, and then we complain because people are starting the celebrations too early, or are spending money unnecessarily.  Who are we to judge? What do we know of others’ stories, of their daily struggles?  Maybe, just once in a year, they put their problems aside and try to find meaning in their lives.  Isn’t that what Christmas is about? Is it not a story of hope, of light in darkness?  A child born to lift us up out of our dreary existence and transport us into a place of dazzling lights and community, friendship, and hope?

Of course I know that’s not the whole of it. Of course I do not like the over-commercialisation of Christmas and the unnecessary greed that can occur during this time of year.  But we all come to Christmas differently because our lives the rest of the year are also different.  And yes, I want others to know the reason for Christmas but berating them about carols is not exactly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas is it?

I read an article the other day that talked about how those who are not in want find it easy to restrict themselves.  Think about it: have you ever heard of someone who was struggling to feed themselves talk of going on a diet? This really struck me especially as I’ve been trying to follow a pattern of reading during Advent, as well as focus on the idea of waiting and preparation.  It reminded me of how judgemental I have become because the story of my childhood is not my current story.

So I keep my Christmas traditions going and drive my family mad in the process as I try to recreate the feelings of childhood Christmases, wanting them to savour each moment we spend together.  And this is why I say Christmas is for the poor: it is a time when families come together to make memories, and the excessive buying of presents perhaps for some might be a way of creating memories for their loved ones that they themselves did not have, or an attempt at masking the dreariness of their lives even for a day. This Christmas put your judgement aside and instead ask, what can I do? How an I help create warm memories for those around me and in particular those who find he season a struggle? And if you don’t know who or how to help, why not volunteer at Crisis?20171206_215708.jpg

Merry Christmas!!

 

It’s Okay Not to Feel OK

Published December 4, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

The Psalms offer a rich diversity in expression of emotions, from joy, to laughter, to tears, to anger, to pain.  Not surprisingly, most people look to the Psalms when faced with situations they can find no words or explanation for.

Today’s thought challenges a society that thrives on being pain-averse, in an age where self gratification and self care go hand in hand.  Don’t get me wrong, I like most people, want to live in a pain free world; when tears are the result of uncontrollable laughter as opposed to deep, searing anguish.  This reminder is timely because as we look at the Christmas story we tend to bypass the emotional turmoil of the characters, jumping straight ahead to the birth of a baby, because surely, that’s what Christmas is all about? Indeed it is, but to make a convenient detour from the darkened alleyways of the story and into the dazzling lights of Christmas means we miss out on some important truths: that the baby was born into a family which had its fair share of darkness; in a time where, just like today,  there were those who lived in dark alleys of their minds: who spent their days hidden in plain sight, trapped in caves  built by themselves and by others.

Here’s the thing, though: who are “they”? Is it not in fact, “we”? Are we not the ones mangled by the inescapable voices in our heads, wearied by the torturous memories of experiences past, and burdened by the constant drip-drip of news stories full of gloom and doom? Where is the lament? Where is the crying aloud and raging at our inner pain of all that threatens to consume us?  Zechariah and Elizabeth knew such pain.  Barren into their old age with no prospect of their family name being passed on – in that context this was no light matter.

Okoro, (Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent) suggests that lament serves to remind us that things are not as they should be (I’m using this book as my Advent reading so will refer to it from time to time).  As I think about this, I see Lament not as a place in which to live, but as a stopping point, or something to pass through: we do not remain in Lament but we recognise it as part of a bigger set of events, and so we acknowledge its existence; even choosing to rest in it for a while.  To rush through lament is a bit like having your eyes closed for parts of a journey – you tend to miss things that way.  In a weird sort of way, lament serves as a reminder that we are human.

So, what burden are you carrying?  What is your cause of lament? Acknowledge it and find a different kind of freedom: “It’s okay NOT to feel okay”, and until such time as you find your way through the fog that’s threatening to envelope you, and into the light,  “Linger Attentively Midst Each Niggling Thought”.

 

Advent 1: Waiting with Unanswered Prayer

Published December 1, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

For Advent this year, I am reading “Silence and other Surprising Invitations of Advent” by Enuma Okara.  I chose this book because it offered short reflections in an easy to read manner, but I was also pleased to find Advent resources from a non-white author – don’t judge me 🙂  20171201_135505.jpg

Today’s reading focused on the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah as ‘forerunners’ to the Christmas story, with an emphasis on waiting for prayer to be answered. I love the notion of sitting with Elizabeth and Zechariah, as they go through the pain of not having children, and their determination to continue with the work God had called them to.  This is timely for me, as I have been feeling frustrated of late that my appointment as a Minister in a new Circuit was not going the way I’d hoped.  I had begun to feel restless and questioned my place and the ‘rightness’ of being here.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit friends in Texas and the sermon on the Sunday spoke right into how I was feeling.  I felt challenged by the idea of ‘preparation’ as highlighted in the message: that sowing needs to happen before reaping.  These concepts are not new to me: I had lived them in the past, but it seemed I had forgotten and needed a reminder.  I wanted to see results now: I wanted things to be wonderful and glowing today, not in a year’s time.  Thing is, I’d forgotten how to wait, choosing instead to grumble at God for what I felt he was ‘doing to me’.  So reading about Zechariah today was another gust of wind from God in my direction, and I’m learning that I am not as chilled out as I’d like to think!

But something else spoke to me in today’s reading: “waiting with unanswered prayer”.  I tried to think of what prayer I was waiting to be answered and the thought hit me: “you’d need to be praying”.  I felt chastised at the thought of my lack of prayer. With all my wantings and desires and grumbling, I have not been praying nearly enough!  So how could I even begin to wait with unanswered prayer?  It’s contrary, don’t you think? In essence, I have been waiting in idleness, expecting to reap that which I have not sown.  It’s a bit like standing in the shower waiting for the water to heat up without actually turning on the tap!  Nothing good can come out that and you’ll only end up feeling cold and miserable and still not clean!  A pointless exercise!

Advent is a time of waiting, of preparation.  It is not a “twiddle your thumbs” kind of occasion – it requires action and involvement.  And what better way to start Advent off than with prayer?

 

 

This Too Shall Pass

Published October 12, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

Some good stuff here…

Eclipsed Words

“And this, too, shall pass.”

This is a proverb indicating that all material conditions, positive or negative, are temporary and time solves all problems.

I once read that the great Abraham Lincoln used to have a grand affinity for this proverb. On September 30, 1859, Abraham Lincoln included a similar story in an address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in Milwaukee. This is what he said;
“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.”

How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!

When we are in trouble, we feel that we are the only person who is facing these mountains full of doubts…

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In the Shadow of the Cave

Published October 12, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

For the past few days my creative juices have not been flowing as I’d liked and I’ve been struggling to do anything, which is always a sign that my mental health is taking a down turn.  This morning I felt like I just did not want to “people” and couldn’t muster energy to do much.  So as a way of distracting myself, I decided to go along to help with packing of goods as part of the hurricane relief effort for Dominica. On the way home on the train I took my notepad out and just started writing.  The following is what resulted.

Coerced by the darkness, I crawl into the hollow cave, succumbing to the overshadowing that filled my being.  The jagged walls lay bare before me, and I trace my journey through their defined appearance. Scars so deep, calloused by years of dark thoughts and emotions.  Moving further into the cave I am aware of how comfortable it feels yet I am conflicted by the thought that this is not where I belong or where I need to stay.

In a corner of the cave something catches my eyes: an object object glistens in the furrowed knots of the cave’s walls.  Looking closer, I see the glare of what looks like a precious stone.  Nestled in the cold, brown muck it stands as if in resistance to what is happening around it.  I try to pry it away but it stubbornly refuses my invitation to leave.  Yet, it speaks to me: there is a familiarity about it which makes me wonder if I belong to it.

The darkness threatens to engulf me but the strange “light” keeps me alert.  In a weird sort of way, I am aware of the presence of both and it feels okay.  Then it dawns on me that the glistening object was birthed out of the dross and muck of the cave walls.

And so I lay myself down in the cave, and hope that when I awake from the slumber of darkness, there will be more gems to discover.inside cave

Eyes Don’t Lie

Published March 3, 2017 by islandgirlinthewest

All it took was the question, “What’s wrong with your eyes” from a friend, to bring it all back.  I remember walking home dazed with the thought ‘I need my mom’ searing through my mind.  I remembered the curious looks from passers-by and the concern expressed by Ma Robinson, “Child are you alright”, which made me curious as to why she asked that.  I hurried as fast as my 12 year old legs could carry me and with all the strength I could muster despite the feeling of absolute weariness I was experiencing.

When I got home, no one was about so I climbed through an open window, making my way quickly to the nearest mirror I could find.  I was not prepared for the image that stared back at me and in utter horror I broke down in tears and terror. My face was a picture of bruising and bloodiness: my lips were swollen to beyond its normal size and I could barely see past the discolouration and blood from my left eye. What in the world would cause someone to do such a thing to another? Had I deserved it?

It was carnival season in Dominica.  That morning I had gone to the beach with one of my older brothers and his family – it was the thing most Christian families did during the season of revelry, perhaps to keep them from temptation.  When I returned home there was no one there.  I knew exactly where my mom would be: she would be at her sister’s home, perhaps sitting on the front porch, watching the world go by.  It was one of the few places we went when were not at church or school and I always looked forward to spending times with my cousins as we were all about the same age.  I thought I would pay my dad a visit before heading to my aunt’s. The hope was that my father would be in good spirits and perhaps I could relieve him of some cash J He wasn’t in and as my brother lived on the same street, I went there instead.  Making my way back up the street, I encountered a parade of street revellers. There was an array of colours and fascinating costumes of all descriptions, and the loud beating of drums, pans and all sorts of household wares-turned instruments, could be heard amidst the energetic calypso music that embodied the carnival atmosphere.

I remember feeling slightly uncomfortable as I tried to manoeuvre my way past the crowds, hoping that no one would see me, therefore causing my Christianity to be questioned.  And then I saw him. My dad, making his way towards me. I smiled in anticipation at his greeting but instead came the weight of his open palm against my cheek. “What are you doing in the carnival parade?” he asked accusingly. I tried to explain but my words were inefficient in combatting his anger.  He pulled me roughly away, almost dragging me. I tried to pull away which made him even angrier, perhaps at the very thought of my insolence to him as the parent. He marched me up to his house and I thought the most that would happen was a strong telling off.  How wrong I was!

When we got inside the house, my father began hurling accusations at me, telling me how inappropriate it was for me as a Christian to be in the carnival parade.  Again I tried to explain but it was no use.  Then it got worse. He started raining down on me with blows using his fists as a weapon against every part of my body. I was stunned at what was happening, especially when he then went into a rant about how awful my mom was and that she was having an affair with someone. The blows came thick and fast, and despite my attempts at self-defence, I was no match for a grown man.  I don’t know if my dad’s hands got tired because the next thing I knew, he was reaching for the giant medical encyclopaedia from the book shelf, and was using it to hit me.  At one point, he stood on my chest, using his feet to stamp his anger into my fragile body. Everything became a blur after that point then it was over. I stood immobilised not sure what to do until he told me to go home. I was weak emotionally and physically and at some point in the beating had stopped crying – maybe that caused him to stop. Who knows?

So when I saw my battered face in the mirror, the tears came like a flood.  I am not sure how long I cried for.  I washed my face as best as I could and made my way to my aunt’s house to meet my mom.  All the way there, I kept thinking if only I had just done that in the first place, things would be different.  In other words, I blamed myself.  When my mom saw me, she asked, “Who did that to you?” When I told her it was my dad, she was livid and wanted to go to the police.  I begged her not to. After all, how do you stand in court against your own father?

The thing is, I shouldn’t have been surprised at my father’s behaviour, but I was.  After all, wasn’t I the favourite, the spoilt one? I had certainly seen his anger before but in the times it was aimed at me, I had done something wrong, so in a sense, it felt valid.  I had witnessed his anger at my brother as he stood, cutlass in hand and saying to him, “Come let me kill you.”  I had witnessed his rage at my mom when he beat her senseless numerous times, forcing her on one occasion to run away in the middle of the night, leaving us three younger children at home with him.  But she never stayed away for long – she always came back to him.  “For the children”, is what she said, wanting us to grow up in a home with two parents.  Even after she finally left him she could not escape his rage.  I remember coming home one day and finding my mom all battered and bruised. She had been on her way back from my aunt’s to get some chicken to cook us a meal. My dad met her in the streets, gave her a beating and took the chicken away.

So that day when my friend asked about my eyes, I looked in the mirror when I got home, and it all came flooding back.  Perhaps the worst thing about all of this, was having to go to school only a few days after this happened, full of shame.  I remember one boy laughing and teasing me about my dad hitting me for ‘being in the carnival’.  I never felt such rage before – I could have strangled him.  But that was part of the culture in which I grew up – it was common for parents to beat their kids without judgement.  I think it was after that day I began to hate my father.  Any respect I had for him went out the window the moment he brought his fist to my face.  I stayed away from him for months and my mom had to beg me to visit him. “After all, he is your father”, she said, reminding me that scripture asks children to ‘honour their father and mother’.

It would be very easy to read my story and feel some sort of pity for me.  But I encourage you to see beyond my pain and look deep into your own soul.  I have thought a lot about sharing this publicly, and I feel the time is right.  During this period of Lent I am reading ‘Let me go there’ by Paula Gooder, and it is an interesting insight to the idea of going into the wilderness.  For me, this remembering is part of my wilderness and I am prepared to go there.  Because you see, the wilderness is not merely drought or emptiness, it can also be a place of surprises and refreshing that we can only experience by ‘going there’.  So as you read this, I invite you to join me in the wilderness, if you can.  Embrace all that comes with it and be ready for the pleasant surprises. But more so, I pray you meet with God who is the Lord of the wilderness.