05 March 2011

Caution: Falling Moods Ahead

Dear Lissy,
One of the great concerns I have for you as an adult is learning to handle life Biblically.  I want to use these letters to map some of the submerged dangers in the river of life that snag many a woman with godly intent.  Today I'm going to focus on discouragement and depression that are the result of your reaction to circumstances.  I'll hit other causes of discouragement and depression in future letters: pain, failure, betrayal, physical changes, or even medications can cause real and deep depression, too.

Most circumstances that cause discouragement, and even depression, are unavoidable. 

Change = Loss
Any time God changes your surroundings, you will lose something.  College.  Marriage.  Motherhood.  Moves.  Deaths.  In many cases, like marriage, you will gain far more than you lose.  But there is still a loss you have to recognize and talk about with the Lord.
When you leave home for college, for example, you will be excited.  New friends, dozens of fun activities, challenging courses in a field you've chosen, and a potential for love all lay bright in your mind.  But then you'll face difficulty with a roommate, struggle with a difficult course, become overwhelmed with your class and work schedule, or feel lost in the giant campus church.  Your mind will instantly fly back to the warmth and love you remember at home, and you will feel the loss of people who have known and loved you all your life.
This is the moment of truth. 

Loss demands a reaction.

Escape is the first, and most common reaction when we are faced with an unexpected loss.  We try to drown out the sorrow with more activities, lose ourselves in media -- books, movies, tv, internet, music, or run to a comfort food, the gym, or the mall.  You may not even realize you're facing a loss at this level.  All of these escapes are knee-jerk reactions of the flesh.  If you find yourself over-busy; or your time consumed by media; or your diet, exercise, or spending habits changing; you are already caught in the rip-current of a loss.
You are in danger.
Escapes will drown out the noise, but they will never quiet it.

Discouragement is the second step downward when you have lost something precious (and usually intangible).  Quite literally, you lose heart.  Life seems tedious and pointless.  Activities and people that once brought you a great deal of energy and joy lose their luster.  You've become consumed with the escape you first chose, and others are noticing your addiction.   The noise within disturbs your internal rhythms at this level, and your sleep patterns are distorted.  Discouragement is usually accompanied by peckishness, too.  You will find yourself becoming increasingly short-tempered with the people and environment surrounding you.

Depression is a continuation and intensifying of discouragement.  You will continue to withdraw from activities and people you once loved.  You may find yourself sleeping or daydreaming for large portions of the day.  Often even basic needs like personal grooming, meals,  bills, and tidiness are neglected.  You feel like a dead person in a live body.  Nothing makes you happy or sad or angry or excited.  You simply exist.

Despair is the final, and often fatal, reaction to a loss.  You simply refuse to live without the thing you have lost.  You would rather die.

Let's go back to that moment of truth.  How do we prevent this whole deadly whirlpool from dashing your life to smithereens?  It is far easier to avoid a known pitfall than climb out of it!

Stay in the Word.  Remain constant in private prayer.
God will change your platform often.  He will never change your purpose of glorifying Him, edifying other believers, and reaching the lost.  We return again to submission to God's plan for your life, humility before Him and others, and obedience in your new role.
More importantly, He never changes.  His presence is the one constant in a life fraught with change.  Allow his attributes to replace the happiness you lost.  When you head to college, remember this.  His care is far more intimate and constant for you than mine.  He is always available to talk.  He will always provide, often silly things that only have value to you.  His Spirit will give you sweet counsel from His Word, and it will be all the more precious because it wasn't filtered through a frail, human mother.

An actress changes roles almost yearly.  She wins awards for how well she portrays her particular character in that play or film. Some roles suit her personality and skills perfectly and are a joy to play.  Some roles stretch her acting abilities, and make her a better actress.  Her performances are dependent on her willingness to follow both the script and the director's vision for how her character fits with the story being told and the other actors.
2 Corinthians tells us we are made a "spectacle", quite literally an "arena" in the Greek, from which God displays his power and glory both in this world and in the one unseen.

Develop a plan of action with a godly friend or mentor when you know you are anticipating a life change.
Ideally this will be someone who knows you well and has already navigated this section of life's river.  This plan should be a concrete set of actions you will follow as you begin your journey through into this new stage of life.
It is helpful to set up an "if-then" type chart that identifies common challenges.  Returning to our college scenario...
IF I have a personality conflict with a roommate,
THEN I will speak with her directly and calmly, not gossip or retaliate
IF I am struggling with my course work and feeling overwhelmed,
THEN I should make an appointment with my advisor.
If you have pursued the follow-up action without results, it's time to contact your mentor for further direction.

It is also helpful to identify actions that are counter-productive.
It is not a good idea to call home for 3 hours on a Friday night because you are bored and lonely.  That simply reinforces the loss.  Skipping a meal because you have no one to go with will only add to your misery.  Have some easily prepared meals available in your room, or reach out to someone else who is lonely and invite them to go with you.

Identify your escape behaviors, and make a "911" call to God and a godly friend the minute you get caught in their current.
Following an extremely difficult time in my life this fall I leaned heavily on a friend I knew to be a woman of the Word.  I vividly  remember calling her because my sleep patterns and energy levels had changed, and I was scared.  She graciously dropped everything, listened as I sobbed out my heart, and brought me back to reality.  Because she knows I am a voracious reader, the Holy Spirit was able to custom tailor her advice. "Spend extra time and study in the Word.  Journal your thoughts and prayers.  Here's a book that you should read that deals with your exact situation."  Lots of hugs.  Waterfalls of love and prayer.  Liss, I was back on my feet in a day.  It's not always that fast, but God was gracious.

Maintain normal routines.
This seems like a no-brainer when you're not discouraged, but when you are, it can become an ascent of Everest.  There is an ocean of documented evidence that a life without routines breeds depression.
Get dressed.  Fix your hair.  Put on make-up.  Tidy your living space.  Pay your bills.  Eat a healthy diet.  Get fresh air and exercise.  Faithfully attend church services.
Our college scenario falls apart here.  You will probably never have your life as regimented as you do there!  But when you first bring that little bundle home from the hospital, or you move to a new city, maintaining routines is vital.  If you have a friend who has given birth, been hospitalized, or lost a spouse or child, step in and help her maintain her routines until she is strong enough to resume them.

Keep a gratitude journal.
The darkest forest is where fireflies shine brightest.  Make it a habit at every stage of life to record blessings, large and small.  This becomes especially important during times of change.  It is doubly important when that change has no inherent rewards.  Losing a job, a child, a spouse.  Moving to a part of the country where you don't know anyone.  Facing the rest of your life in a wheelchair.
Provide yourself a sure way to refocus not just on new responsibilities, but on new blessings.

Seek new ways to fulfill your God-given purpose.
How do you possibly find anyone to witness to on a Christian college campus?  You don't.  You get into an extension or service ministry that places you amongst the unsaved.
How do you encourage or exhort fellow believers as a freshman?  Keep your space neat.  Join the missions prayer band.  Sign up to tutor another person who's struggling in a class you're taking.  Be on time for classes and work, and work cheerfully and diligently.
How do you glorify God? Submission. Obedience. Humility.

If you find yourself wrecked, bleeding, and alone on the rocks of discouragement, depression, or even despair, it's time to seek counsel.
Even the best maps can't prepare you for every eventuality.  Sometimes you need EMS.  If you have already reached the point of discouragement, depression or despair, you need another believer who knows the Word and is willing to stick with you until your boat is back in the water.  Sometimes that's a professional counselor, perhaps someone in church leadership or a NANC certified counselor.
Often it's better to stick with a friend or mentor who has proven their faithfulness to God and you over the years.  They've stuck with you through thick and thin.  Given hard counsel along with the hugs.  Ask them to help you identify and deal with the loss.  Make yourself accountable to them for time in the Word, prayer, and any other problem areas.  Let them know you're still struggling, even if it's been months or years:  they can't help if you don't remain open.  There is no shame in falling, even repeatedly.  The shame is in staying down.

I hope you never know the depths of discouragement and depression that can follow change.  My heart is that whatever the Lord hands you, no matter how bitter, you will trust His heart and remain tender and obedient.  This life is a vapor, a moment.  It is also an arena.  You are being watched over by a loving heavenly Father.  You are being watched by a great cloud of witnesses who have gone before.  You are being watched and imitated by those who live with you.  Draw your strength from the Source.  Use the resources He has so graciously provided:  His Word, prayer, His church, godly friends, books, music.

And never, ever forget how very much you are loved.

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