The Gift of Helping

My Mom: “Then He began to wash the disciples feet…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

Foot-washing is the gold standard in servant leadership set by Jesus. In Jesus’ day, it was the chore no one wanted to do and having to do it marked your status as the lowest on the totem pole in the household.

Growing up, the chore in our house that nobody wanted to do was scrubbing the guest bathroom baseboards…with a toothbrush. Bathroom baseboards are basically the worst. I’m convinced no one notices them. But to my mom, a pristine guest bathroom shows that you care about the person visiting your home. You care that your guest can attend to their personal hygiene in a discreet and comfortable space.

Providing discretion and comfort for performing duties that are undignified by nature is a fairly comprehensive description of auxiliary care. “Auxiliary care,” the job description name for caregiving, requires fastidious attention to the details of completely mundane things that goes unrecognized by onlookers and unappreciated by the recipient.

In reaching out with the gift of helping toward a loved one with mental illness, auxiliary care is essential to her recovery. She won’t want it. She’ll see it as an intrusion of her autonomy and identity. You’ll have to make choices for her and impose limits on her daily activities that are resented. I’m talking about loud, thrashing, outburst-of-anger resentment too, not the much more tolerable passive-aggressive kind.

Recovering from mental illness takes way more than just taking your anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers. When you are new to mental illness, everyone who has gone through the storm before you will chant like a mantra, “Just stay on your meds.” All involved in your treatment plan and every member in your support groups will harp over and over, “Just stay on your meds.”

But I can tell you, in all honesty, that nearly no one stays in recovery by just staying on their meds. Most people require years of experimentation to find the right “cocktail.” Usually, a person needs just one medication that rights what is wrong with their brain, and then a battery of others to enhance, curb, or correct its effects. And on top of that there is a whole set of other prescriptions to support the patient’s secondary issues– sleep disturbance, anxiety, weight gain, tremors, alcohol cravings, etc. I read an article in The Atlantic, if I remember correctly, about a girl who took 17 medications at one time to hem her in.

The advocate term for being well with a mental illness is “recovery.” Like an addict. It’s not the most hopeful term.

I don’t consider myself to be in recovery but rather I consider myself to be in “remission.”

Recovery is allusive, and remission isn’t even a description people imagine. For this reason, support people quickly fade away from those with mental illnesses. Loved ones resign from meaningful relationship with the mentally ill. The perception is that they will never be well.

It is the rare person who has the bandwidth to take up washing the feet of the mentally ill. Very few people willingly take on the role of caregiver. Instead they get frustrated that “just take your meds” is either ignored by the patient, or, as is the case with many patients, psychiatrist after psychiatrist can’t seem to find the right meds to prescribe to them.

I think it is becoming more recognized now (than when I was first diagnosed) that medication is only a safety net. It is not the foundation of recovery. The foundation of recovery is lifestyle- the eight points of self-care, also called the eight areas of self-care.

  1. Physical- diet, hygiene, exercise
  2. Psychological- therapy, medication
  3. Emotional- self-reflection, journaling, stress management
  4. Social- conflict resolution, communication, participating in group activities
  5. Professional- identifying goals, professional development, maintaining employment
  6. Environmental- clean home, socializing in positive environments, getting outdoors
  7. Spiritual- personal spirituality, spiritual communities, like-minded relationships
  8. Financial- paying bills on time, safeguards against manic spending

I have listed 22 activities in 8 areas as the bare minimum of self-care efforts. Taking medication is only 1 of 22 examples of recovery-supportive habits. So do you just need medication to move toward recovery? I think not.

And have you really supported, loved, cared for, and intervened in the crisis of a love one or friend by constantly hounding them to just find, take, and stay on their medication? I’m sorry but your conscience cannot be relieved on that action alone. If you wash your hands of them at that, you really can’t say you did everything you could.

You can’t out-source the care of your mentally ill loved one to doctors and medication. It just will not yield results.

I am in remission, not recovery, but remission– I like to call it functional healing–  because my mom washed my feet for years after my diagnosis.

She did make me take my medication, at the same time every morning and every night. She did make my psychiatrist appointments and drive me to them every month.

She also took me to church as often as I’d let her. She went on walks with me every day. She monitored my diet. She wouldn’t let me have coffee or alcohol– that went over really great seeing as I was first facing the Bipolar Beast in my twenties not my teens!

She asked me annoying questions about my bills, my friends, and where I was spending my time. I resented her for it completely. Here I was a college graduate, and I felt as micromanaged as a preschooler.

But she wasn’t controlling me. She was helping me control myself.

Ten years ago, I don’t think any of us ever thought I’d be able to leave my parents’ home. My mom was only aiming to keep me from the worst outcome. That outcome being repeated and frequent hospitalization. Instead, her caregiving ended up yielding the best: I became able to care for myself fully, independently, and also to care for a family of my own.

I became able to manage the 8 areas of self-care to the extent of stability; of functional healing.

The Apostle Peter while still a hot-headed disciple of Jesus, resisted letting Jesus wash his feet. When Jesus pressed him on the importance of it, Peter goes extreme and says, “Well then wash my whole body so I can be clean!” But Jesus assures him that the feet will do it. And I think I know why. It is humbling if not humiliating to allow someone to serve you so intimately when you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself. Peter had to submit to the powerless position of being cared for by Jesus physically and spiritually. I had to submit to that powerlessness in front of  my mom. (John 13:1-17)

Thank you, Mom for offering me the spiritual gift of helping through your steadfast caregiving.

Mom and Me blog pic

 

The Gift of Helping

My Dad: “He too shared in their humanity…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

As it is Good Friday, the day the Church remembers the death of Jesus on the cross, it seems abundantly appropriate to talk about camaraderie as a function of the gift of helping.

Is it not in the spirit of friendship and shared fortune that Jesus chose a close association with us that both lead Him to and qualified Him for the cross?

Camaraderie is more than a joint membership of a team, it is more akin to a common identity shaped by shared experience. Jesus chose to share our identity as flesh and blood, and though uninfected by sin, He became the disease so that His friendship with us could initiate us into camaraderie with God. (Read Romans 8:15-17.)

Disease of the mind is a lonesome one to have. There is nothing to make a person feel so peculiarly “other” than to realize that the thoughts and perceptions you experience are not shared by anyone, excepting those who are also “other.”

As soon as I was given my diagnosis of bipolar 1 disorder, my parents scoured the internet and reached out to any and every person they could find for information about mental illness and mood disorders. One thing that they discovered pretty early on is that genetically, epilepsy is closely associated with bipolar disorder.

My dad had childhood epilepsy. So did his mom. He has recounted to me how terrifying grand mal seizures were to experience as an elementary aged kid. He told me how by the age of 12 he began to refuse medication because he felt that the meds didn’t ward off the seizures and made them worse when he did have them.

In the early days of my diagnosis, 10 years ago, when I would get insecure and agitated about the loneliness of my illness as well as the lack of understanding from others regarding what my day to day battles were, my dad would lift my face up to make eye contact with me, (and I’d keep my gaze down anyway), and he would say to me, “Nattie, hey, it’s my epilepsy. You got this from me. Bipolar is the same thing as what I have.”

To say to another, “I am of you, and you are of me. Victory and defeat, we share it all because our resources and weaknesses are the same”– this is camaraderie. It’s also a pretty good explanation of why it is that there is salvation at the cross.

There is salvation at the cross because Jesus shared with us His DNA, that was perfectly designed to make Him the only acceptable and eternal sacrificial lamb for our sins. Rise and fall, what happens to Jesus happens to us because He chooses to be fated together with us in camaraderie.

Thank you, Dad, for showing me the gift of helping through camaraderie; for not turning away from me, or speaking to me as though my marred DNA was different from yours, but rather standing with me, making what happened to me happen to you too.

 

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death– even death on a cross. Philippians 2:8

Happy Good Friday and Happy Easter, everyone!

Dad and Me Blog Post Pic

The Gift of Helping

Sonja: “No shadow of changing…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

I heard once that the most important qualification for Jesus to be the Savior of the World was willingness. He was able to do the job for obvious reasons, but more critically, he was willing to do it.

You can be just right for a job, but it doesn’t matter if you aren’t willing to do it.

In the years after my diagnosis with bipolar disorder, my friend Sonja was the epitome of helpful to me– Mostly because she was willing to put up with me!

At that time, Sonja knew my neuroses more than any other friend. We once sat down in a movie theatre together– probably to watch one of the Twilight movies– and I was overcome with dread. It was a hot day, and I couldn’t shake a worry that my little puppy-dog, who was at my house, in my yard, would get heat stroke. So we left. And she was totally cool with it.

Sonja accommodated me. I have actually never known anyone else who was so good at providing material support for emotional issues. If you could give someone a tissue for a runny heart, Sonja had the supply.

She would drive out of her way to pick me up from the bar when I had had a drink. Hyper-vigilant anxiety means that I literally wouldn’t drive after a singular drink.

Sonja brought me Slurpees when I was pregnant. My first (and second) trimester weird automatic gag-inducing food was water!– of all things. So, I constantly felt like I was thirsting to death.

We usually call these types of things “favors” and don’t think much of them. Sonja was definitely the friend that heard, “Can you do me a favor…” all the time.

We should think more of favors. When a person is consumed with anxiety or is incapacitated by depression, they often need favors. They need material support to make it through a day of emotionally paralyzing obstacles.

It’s important to know that a person with a mental illness gets stuck on things that you probably don’t. We get stuck on our dog being outside on a hot day, and we can’t get over it. We get stuck on feeling unquenchably thirsty, and we can’t get over it. We get stuck on the prospect of getting pulled over by a police officer, and we can’t logically work through what your blood alcohol level is four hours after one Jack and Coke.

Going out of your way for a person like who I was in the high days of my illness took a consistency of effort that is truly admirable. Doing one favor once is nice. Sonja consistently made efforts to bring me things I needed and take me places I needed to go for years.

Those little accommodations being met did very big things for my anxiety. Sonja’s consistent willingness to stop-gap these quirky needs became a kind of safety net. I didn’t feel alone. I didn’t feel stranded and unprepared. The fact that she was always willing to help, meant that when I was seized with fear, I knew there was someone who I could call who was familiar with my weirdness, and she was probably going to help me if I asked.

When you offer the gift of helping, willingness is of primary importance, but consistently being willing is the apex.

Thank you Sonja, for giving me the gift of helping through your consistency of aid, your constancy of friendship.

Sonja and Me blog pic

The Gift of Helping

Julie: “Neither height nor depth…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

You’re not supposed to remember anything from your time in psychosis, but I do. Some have tried to cast doubt on these memories: “Surely, you don’t remember what you did; what you said.”

Yes; I do. The parts I’ve forgotten were under heavy sedation, and even then, the dreams are vivid and permanent. I might add– frightening. They were frightening dreams of familiar objects set in an unfamiliar dimension.

One memory that is snap-shotted into the album of my experience at “Garden Pavilion”– a local euphemism for the locked door psych ward– is Julie taking a seat next to me on a vinyl couch in a glass enclosed “rec room.”

She put her arm around me and let my heavy head, half lucid and full of pharmaceuticals, fall into her lap. She stroked my hair in an automatic motherly response to my sleepiness, probably a way she knew how to do as her son was three years old at the time. All of the dopamine and cortisol that had been conspiring to keep me awake finally settled and let me fall asleep in her firm presence of unmoved friendship.

Nearly two weeks later, she was sitting in my hospital room, I took off on a delusional rant of prophetic proportion. Jules stopped me. “Nat, they’re never gunna let you out of here if you keep talking like that.” Something snapped right within me when she said that. The meds were leveling me out chemically. So, now, I just had to kick the conspiracy theorist thinking habits that I had fallen into during four weeks of seeing the world from an entirely right-brained, mushroomy perspective. It was time to re-enter Earth’s atmosphere.

With my release impending, my parents started to panic because it turned out that while manic I spaced on paying my insurance premium. I couldn’t remember the password to my online insurance portal. My parents were days away from the grace period ending, after which time I would have no medical insurance to cover 14 days of hospitalization. With hundreds of thousands of dollars hanging over our heads, my parents asked Julie to get the password out of me. I couldn’t remember it, but she figured I’d be able to type it out if given a keyboard. So she brought me two pieces of grayscale paper taped together– an image of her computer keyboard that she had photocopied. Julie for the win!

Julie was convinced that I would continue living a normal life as soon as I was released from hospital custody…I mean, care.

Within a week of coming home, Julie put her professional reputation on the line and invited me to a work event. Unfortunately, the psychiatrist I saw the day after I left the hospital didn’t feel that bipolar 1 disorder was an accurate diagnosis, so he had cut my lithium dose in half. The tailspin was already starting while I drove with Julie up to San Jose for the wine expo her organization was participating in. I’d be back in the hospital a week later, and so would Julie.

Every visiting hour, lunch and dinner, she was there. “Always order the cake,” she’d say. “The hospital contracts with Layers Cakes and it’s fabulous!” Fabulous is Julie’s word. It was nice to hear her say “fabulous” in that weird, creamy-foamy-blue, plastic place that was slightly gray all over from the smudges of too many daylight-deprived hands pressing against its walls.

In every way, Julie acted herself in the hospital. She used words like “fabulous.” She told me to “act right.” She referred to my hospitalization as “your vacation.” She got buzzed in twice a day for all those days and sashayed to sit with me at the dining tables like the boss that she is. She was real, and she brought me back to reality.

Julie was a crisis-resistant friend. She was not about to be shaken by a little delusion. She wasn’t going to put on some alternate personality to deal with me in my altered condition– which pretty much every one else did. I was all broken up, but she held her integrity.

Anyone who is caught up in chaos needs a crisis-resistant friend. When a girl you know is being turned inside out, she doesn’t need a friend who is barely holding back how grossed out you are by her entrails. She doesn’t need you to show up repressing how scared you are of her. She doesn’t need a friend with a nice, bland, “helper” mask on. She doesn’t need you secretly wondering if you ever really knew her.

She needs you to show up undeterred by the mess. She needs you to keep a laser-like focus on who she really is. She needs you to be crisis-resistant!– for you to continue to be yourself no matter what, and for you to allow her to be herself no matter what. You have to know for her that she’ll come back sooner rather than later.

This is the only way to truly reach anyone that is any kind of “lost.” Crisis-resistance. Boldly show up in truth and confidence until the person in the dark regains consciousness in the light.

Thank you Julie, for exercising the gift of helping by refusing to back down or bend in the face of my personal disaster.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39

Julie and Me Blog 2

The Gift of Helping

Brittany: “A friend who sticks closer…”

In “The Gift of Helping,” we are exploring the spiritual gift of helping and how it applies far beyond the scope of acts of service at church. The gift of helping is a series of scripture meditations orbiting around personal anecdotes about 10 people who helped me in life saving ways in the last 10 years by exercising the unassuming gift of helping.

“Boundaries” is every therapist’s favorite word. In the emotional landscape of today’s West, every person is to have a clearly thought through and established list of every behavior they will accept, every attitude they will not, and a plan for how they will present themselves in every still frame of their lives as fully enforcing their own little set of Ten Commandments.

I have never heard of anyone successfully, or consistently, re-enforcing their $150/per word boundary statements in the context of their actual relationships. Why, is a simple explanation. Relationships require flexibility. Flexibility is a thing that a boundary is not.

Relationships with difficult people– you know, like ones whose world have just been shattered by psychosis, whose friends seem to fear them, and whose churches do not want them– relationships with difficult people require Elastigirl, supermom of The Incredibles, capable of actually turning her body into a parachute while she falls with you.

Brittany was a year behind me in high school. She was home waiting to start grad school after college. I can’t remember how we reconnected, but I was just out of the hospital and spending all my time in bed.

All I wanted was to be able to do normal things. Things like take a shower, eat a meal, wear clean clothes, and do more than move from my bed at 1:00pm to the couch until moving back to bed at 10:00pm.

Brittany, whose vibe as long as I’ve known her is full of sweetness, pep, and an ability to turn an idea into an action, offered to meet me at Carmel Beach to go for walks on Mondays and Wednesdays.

And she meant it. Mondays and Wednesdays. Like all of the Mondays and all of the Wednesdays.

We walked and talked the length of Carmel Beach for hours over weeks. Every Monday and every Wednesday, Brittany would text me to confirm that we were meeting. Sometimes I wouldn’t text back. My alarm would have gone off half a dozen times, but many days it just wasn’t happening for me. Sometimes, Brittany would text that she was at the beach waiting for me, and I’d tell her then that I wasn’t up to it.

Were Brittany a “boundaries” kind of friend, our walks would have happened maybe twice or three times. Thankfully, Brittany is a “persistent” kind of friend. She was a “selfless” kind of friend. A friend that bounced back from my offenses. A friend who put up with my prickliness, listened to me bad mouth a God whom she loved, and never stopped engaging with me.

Brittany also shared with me what was going on in her life. I was not a project, I was her friend. After hearing about her secret crush, I later got to attend their wedding. She wasn’t evangelizing me in my lostness, she was sticking with me, for real.

“A man of many companions comes to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother,” Proverbs18:24.

In the months fresh from my mania, psychosis, diagnosis, and prognosis, I definitely did not have many companions. I did have one companion though, and she stuck close despite every reason to feel disrespected by me.

Companionship is a function of the spiritual gift of helping that builds up God’s church. Companionship sticks. It takes walks. It calls. It reschedules. It tries again. It rolls with the punches. It shows up, and is ready to be real.

You cannot underestimate the way in which you can rebirth life into a person by tenaciously spending time with them.

Brittany, thank you for extending to me the gift of “helps” through your companionship.

Britt and Me