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How to Deal with The Cat that Came Back: A Life with Depression

I remember listening to a children’s song when I was young about a cat that always came back, no matter how much you tried to get rid of it. In the Fred Penner classic version, the chorus goes like this:

But the cat came back the very next day
The cat came back, they thought he was a goner
But the cat came back; he just couldn’t stay away

Though the song is about a literal cat, I find it serves as an apt metaphor for other things in life. A cat that I thought I had left behind recently came back. Its name is depression.

After a six-year battle with depression, with three and a half of those years on different kinds of medication and a variety of counselors, I was finally free. My doctor had titrated me off the medication and declared I no longer had depression. For the next number of months, I was afraid it would come back every time I had a hard day or something bad happened. But it didn’t. The cat was a goner! At least I thought it was.

Four years depression-free came to a crashing halt at the end of 2017. I had been feeling off for a while but thought it would pass like all the other times. The feeling persisted, despite my best efforts to address it through engaging projects, extracurricular activities, time with friends, and prayer. I still didn’t think it was a big deal until the suicidal thoughts crept into my mind. It was then that I knew I needed help.

I felt like I had failed and was going backwards in life, especially as this turbulent time coincided with my 30th birthday. Why couldn’t I have things together like everyone else? Of course, now it is easy to see the lies in that question, but at the time it was a real struggle. I talked with my family and they encouraged me to see my doctor. He prescribed the same medication I had been on before and met with me until I stabilized. I’m grateful that medication works for me, but that doesn’t mean it is an easy road. I’ve had to continuously deal with a lack of motivation, tiredness, and self-defeating thought patterns. Sometimes I ask God why he couldn’t have given me a dog instead of a cat. Despite these struggles and the unknown ahead, I have been discovering ways to deal with my cat that came back. Here’s what I’ve learned that I can pass on to you.

  1. Though the cat may eventually leave, accept that it is here at the moment.

Fighting against reality makes dealing with it impossible. Trying to say the cat isn’t there, or that it isn’t affecting you, actually gives it more power. Accept the presence of the cat for the moment. This doesn’t mean you want it to stay, but it allows you to do what you need to do to address its presence.

  1. Take care of the cat. Feed it. Give it water. Empty the litter box. Buy a scratching post.

Once you’ve accepted the cat is with you for the moment, take care of it. Be kind to it and find out what your specific cat needs, which may be different than what other cats require. Healthy eating, regular exercise and time with other pets are all important, but easily neglected when you have a cat. You may need to see a veterinarian, or other cat specialist, too, but that does not mean you are weak in dealing with your cat. It means you are wise and strong.

  1. Talk about the cat with others. It could just be that they have cats, too.

Trying to hide the fact that you have a cat is fairly difficult. People who visit your place will probably see the cat hairs and furniture scratching. Lying about having a cat is exhausting. Although it is hard to be honest about your cat, when you are it is incredibly freeing. Not only will others be able to help you take care of your cat, you may find out that they have cats, too. Actually, having a cat is quite common, even though it seems everybody else has dogs or other cool pets that are way nicer than a cat.

I’m still hoping that my cat goes away. Until then, I’m going to practice acceptance of its presence, good cat care, and talking about the cat with people like you.

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Taking Off Our Glasses: A Leadership Lesson

I’ve worn glasses for a long time. I think I got my first pair when I was three, or at the latest, five. I’ve worn them for so long that I often forget I’m wearing them.

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I suffered from depression for six years. Everything felt so dark and hopeless, like wearing a pair of sunglasses that could never come off. I couldn’t imagine that life could look any differently.

I think how we see and engage in leadership is not so different from these experiences. We become saturated in a single perspective and we cannot imagine it could look another way. We do not even realize we are wearing glasses. So, we continue thinking and operating with a narrow, anemic perspective, believing that’s all there is. Maybe we find mentors, read books, go to conferences, or take courses. Seemingly we are engaging in good things and becoming better leaders. But all of these things are the same colour as our glasses so that we are never challenged. If something different does manage to break in, the threat of the anomaly is quickly quenched. To reference Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a popular Nigerian author and speaker, there is great danger to a single story.

Most of what I have seen, read, and experienced regarding leadership is from a white, Western, male perspective. This is not a bad nor a wrong perspective, but if it becomes my only set of glasses, then it is incomplete. Some time ago I came across Next Leadership. It’s a UK-based organization founded by Kate Coleman. Not only is she a woman, but she was also born in Ghana, and has been a pioneer for women in leadership in a number of areas. Her book ‘the 7 Deadly Sins of Women in Leadership’ was the first book I ever read on leadership by a woman. For the first time in my life, I saw a different perspective on leadership, and discovered well articulated, unique challenges for women in leadership.

A number of months ago, I found another book on sale: ‘Dare Mighty Things: Mapping the Challenges of Leadership for Christian Women’ by Dr. Halee Gray Scott. This was my second book on leadership by a woman. Both Coleman and Scott recognize that from the outset, many women are disqualified for leadership based on their gender, especially as it relates to specific theologies among Christians. However, they write presuming (and presuming correctly) that women do have leadership gifts and are already leading in all kinds of arenas. Through these books, I began to see more of my glasses.

One particular aspect stuck out to me from Scott’s book. In her studies, she focused her thesis on perceptions of female leaders serving in para-church ministries. She discovered one of the unique challenges for women in para-church leadership (and likely in Christian leadership in general), was the discrepancy between how good women were perceived compared to how good leaders were perceived.

When women display the desirable leadership traits – confident, competent, assertive, and bold – they cease to be viewed as warm and caring and are instead perceived as tough, aggressive, and domineering. This creates a double bind, because if women act in ways consistent with gender stereotypes, they are not viewed as competent leaders, but if they act in ways consistent with good leaders, they are not liked. In political circles, these women are called ‘iron ladies’. (p.107)

Scott adds, “since perceptions of female leaders strongly correlate with perceptions of successful leaders, but greatly contrast with perceptions of women in general, it means that Christians view female leaders as exceptions to the rule” (p.115). From my own experience, her research results ring true. I’ve had to decide that I will use my gifts and pursue my calling regardless of how favourably people view me, as a woman or as a leader. More women than I can count have told me they could not do what I do. This could be true, since we are all given different gifts and abilities (1 Cor. 12). However, even those that could lead likely believe it is not possible. Scott concludes, “whether we like it or not, we do not think a woman can be both a good woman and a good leader” (p.107). We lose out on capable leaders because many women consider this price too high to pay, and choose instead to act in ways that will gain them social acceptability as a woman.

How can we move forward? The first step is to realize the danger of a single story about leadership, and have the courage to seek out other perspectives. Imagine you actually are wearing a pair of glasses, and that leadership can look differently than you may have believed until now. With your new and evolving viewpoint, challenge others to see beyond what’s right in front of them. Use whatever privilege you have to encourage people, especially women, to pursue leadership in ways that are unique to them. Whatever you do, refuse to let a single story dominate the leadership landscape.

When the Nameless Have Names

“It’s so hard to wait. All of us are waiting.” Razia* looked at me with her w14241621_10157380559890697_1156738265325242717_oeary brown eyes, not expecting me to do anything, but happy to speak English and share her story. She was one of many Afghans, Syrians, Iranians, and Iraqis I met this past week at refugee centres and camps in and around Athens. Most of them are waiting for their papers to move on and settle into another country.

Mustafa, his wife, and their two daughters, came to Athens some months ago from Afghanistan as well. He showed me photos and video of their journey on his phone. Afghanistan to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and now Greece. I wondered how they were alive after seeing the cold, barren land they traveled through. “Our youngest daughter almost died from the cold on the way here, but we came so our children could have a better future.”

Ahmad and his family, from Iran, were volunteering at one of the care centres. “I have been to Canada to present at conferences. I have a PhD in meat science. Now, I’m a refugee.”

Pari*, holding nearly 2 year old Fatima, welcomed us into her small, white tent with a smiling face. She and her husband, Hassam*, had been staying there for the past seven months. I asked if they had family staying in the camp. She said they were all in Afghanistan. “Can they come visit you?” I asked. “No, it is impossible,” she replied, sadly. Then I heard why. Many marriages in Afghanistan are arranged by the parents, but they married for love. Pari comes from a rich family, and Hassam from a poor family. Hassam’s family didn’t agree with his choice, and were trying to kill him. They were still not completely safe, even in this camp thousands of miles away. When I asked if they would move on to another country, like most of the other families hope to do, Pari told me it was too expensive. What will their future be like, living in this tiny tent?

This is just a glimpse into the lives of many who have fled their homes because of political instability, terrorism, family threats, and a host of other reasons. Their lives are incredibly difficult, and their futures uncertain, but their past was enough for them to feel like they had no choice but to leave. I have no idea what that is like. I can’t wrap my mind around what they think, feel, and experience each day. I found myself wishing that I could escape. That I hadn’t even come. It was so much easier when they were ‘just’ nameless people on the news. I cried and I prayed. I asked God why. I still don’t have those answers, but I have experienced a small piece of God’s heart for the poor and oppressed.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” – Psalm 46:1

Now, I’m on my way home, and although there’s a sense of relief, there’s also a twinge of guilt. I have a home. I realize the privilege I have that I can choose how much of the suffering in the world I want to see. I can turn off the news, but for Razia, Mustafa, Ahmad, Pari, and Hassam, it is their everyday life. I’m more connected now, but I fear I will easily forget them. Will you remember them with me?

 

*names changed

Get Tired, Maybe Something Will Change

I’m tired of being told what I should and shouldn’t wear,

Because men abdicated responsibility for their impulse control.

I’m tired of men debating what I can or cannot do,

Because somehow deciding my life is their role.

I’m tired of asking to be included.

I’m tired of fighting to be heard.

I’m tired of job and pay inequity.

I’m tired of hearing about girls denied an education and forced into child marriage.

I’m tired of women being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms, simply because they are women.

I’m tired of rape victims being asked what they were wearing,

Because their assault is thought to be deserved or desired.

I’m tired of gender stereotypes dictating how we live our lives,

Because maintaining boxes is more important than allowing freedom to live according to passions, gifts, and callings.

I’m tired of feminism being considered a dirty word.

I’m tired of men trying to convince me my tiredness is irrational.

I’m tired of a lot of things.

Maybe if more of us were tired things would change.

 

Standing up, not standing by

You know those stories about someone being beaten in public, and no one bothering to help? It seems they have become common, with various ‘scientists’ even staging experiments to try to determine factors influencing the public’s involvement. I always believed if it were me in that situation, I would be the one to speak up. The one to step in and stand up for the victim. It turns out it is harder than I thought.

I was sitting in Starbucks with a friend last night. We were chatting and I happily enjoyed my chai latte (with soy, of course). It was only after a while that I noticed a couple sitting towards the front of the store. They had various books and a laptop on the table, so I assumed they must be students. It was amicable enough, until I saw him get up, slam his cup into the rubbish bin, and slap her laptop shut. A tear glistened in her eye as he left. Shortly afterward he came back, sat down and started to speak roughly in another language. I tried to be discreet but couldn’t help glancing often in their direction. When he noticed me, he pulled her closer and grabbed her arm aggressively. I didn’t know what to do. Was this the time to go over and say something? Or was it just a couple’s argument that was none of my business?

I saw that some other customers had also noticed the behaviour. After what seemed liked forever, but was probably only 5 or 10 minutes, he angrily packed up her things, and grabbed her arm, forcing her outside without her jacket. I looked at the other customers, asking them if they knew what it was all about. They didn’t, and we both wondered if we should say something as the couple continued arguing outside. After some deliberation, a group of us went and confronted them. We offered to take the girl home or to help her inside. Teary eyed, she refused and said, “it’s okay, thank you” over and over. The guy looked sheepish as I told him, “It’s not okay to treat someone like that. You have to treat her with respect.” Eventually, we went back inside, my hands shaking with adrenaline and anger.

Of course this was not a public beating or rape (though I did wonder how he treated her in private if he was willing to be this aggressive in public!), but I believe we did the right thing. Physical aggression of that kind is never necessary and should be called out as inappropriate and abusive. But I couldn’t believe how long I sat there debating at what point it became okay and even important for me to step in.

The bystander effect tells us that the more people there are around, the less likely an individual will step in and help. However, just because something has a name does not mean that the behaviour is acceptable or encouraged. If we want to, we have the power to redefine the bystander effect. We can help if we are alone, and we can be even more likely to help if there are others around. I truly believe each of us has a responsibility to stand up for our fellow human beings when they are in need, not stand by and watch as they are mistreated. Let’s stand up.

Shhh…Speak Up! On Silencing the Reality of Mental Illness

Suppose I were to tell you that I had a bad heart or a broken leg. My guess is you would probably respond with a sympathetic ear and an offer to help.

But suppose I told you I was hearing voices, had debilitating panic attacks, or repeated suicidal thoughts. I would probably watch as you avoided my gaze and shifted uncomfortably in your seat. Or, I’d hear you say something like, “Don’t be silly. Stop talking about those things.” “Just think positively.” Or even, “Snap out of it.”

The truth is, there’s a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness, even amongst those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent. An even greater truth is that even those who are otherwise well informed and intelligent can be struck by a debilitating mental illness. Mental illness does not discriminate. It can strike anyone, anywhere. Even those who feel impervious to its reality. I think I was one of those people.

I always thought I was a strong and ‘in control’ person. I avoided the so-called ‘messy emotions’ and put forth an image of someone who was consistently put together. I would have responded like the hypothetical person above if someone had told me about their mental illness. I never believed it could happen to me. But it did.

I had just come back to Canada after a year overseas, and I wasn’t prepared for the reality of the transition. I struggled immensely, and I never really came out of it. After a few months, I went to university and the darkness followed. There were good times, but inevitably, I would end up feeling swallowed by a deep sadness. I remember a friend saying to me on different occasions, “I think you have depre—”. But each time she couldn’t finish, because I cut her off with an emphatic “No! That couldn’t happen to me!”

Months and months went by, but nothing changed. I was getting more and more desperate as hope slipped through my fingers. As much as I hated to admit it, I began to consider the thought that she may be right. Finally, with much agonizing, I went to the doctor. My worst fears were confirmed. I had depression.

For some time I couldn’t even say the word, because the reality was too painful to bear. Besides, I believed I could figure out a way to ‘kick it’ on my own. If I tried hard enough, prayed long enough, trusted God enough, then somehow it would disappear like a bad dream.

It was an extremely lonely and isolating place to be. I was terrified of others, especially those in my church, finding out about my ‘condition.’ I thought that if they knew, they would see me as weak and reject me. It’s not that anyone said these things outright, but mental illness was never a topic of discussion, so by virtue of omission, it became a breeding ground for assumption and fear. So, while I wasted away inside, I put on a good face and pretended I was fine.

But nothing seemed to help. I fell further into what I was starting to think was hell on earth, and I lost hope that my life could change. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I decided to try medication. It sounds like an easy decision, but to me it confirmed the fact that I was weak and a failure. My fear increased because of what might happen when I would have to disclose these things on applications or such things in the future.

Medication was a long road full of changing doses and types to try to figure out what worked for me. I was very blessed to have doctors that cared, supportive family and friends, and a good counsellor. After four long years of being on and off different medications, I was able to come off slowly with the advice of my doctor. Words can’t properly express the joy I experience when I say that, by God’s grace, I have been off medication for just over one year, and depression free ever since. I never believed that this could happen, but it has, and I am so grateful.

Now, having lived through mental illness myself, I’m no longer the seat-shifting, gaze-avoiding, stigma-enforcer. I know what it can be like, and that’s why I’m speaking up. When we speak about it, we command the fog of misunderstanding, stigma, assumptions, and fear to flee. We clear the air and make space for truth. We’ve learned to accept and help those with bad hearts and broken legs, so why not those with depression, schizophrenia, or anxiety?

Let’s ‘shhhh’ those people who tell us to be silent, and speak up about mental illness.

If you’re reading this and you are suffering from some sort of mental illness, be it depression or something else, please know that you’re not alone, you’re not weak, and you’re not a failure. Actually, to make it to where you are now means you’re quite strong. But please don’t make the mistake I did and keep silent, trying to fix things on your own. Find somebody you trust and get the help you need.