• freedom stories,  mental health

    Filtering Feelings Through the Lens of the Truth- Jen’s Story

    This topic is close to my heart. I’ve spent many years wondering about the intersection, overlap, and difficulties related to mental health and faith. Through my own journey with depression, anxiety, and OCD I’ve asked a lot of questions about the strength of my faith, how God designed me, and how much healing is possible on this side of heaven.

    It is such an honor to share Jen’s story here, as she shares her own questions about that intersection through her diagnoses of Bipolar II. Even if you don’t struggle with a specific mental health diagnoses, there are some rich conversation and prayer topics in this week’s Freedom Story for many of us. As we filter through our own feelings and hold them up to God’s ultimate Truth, we receive clarity about who He is and who we are in Him. Jen- thank you so much for sharing with us!

    Here is Jen’s Freedom Story. 

    – – –

    Jen, thank you so much for joining me in this series. It’s an honor to share your words and your heart here! Before we get into your story, I want to know some of the fun stuff! Tell me about where you’re from, what you love to do, and anything else that will give us a little slice into Jen’s life!

    Hey, I’m Jen from Barrie, Ontario, Canada, which may have something to do with the fact that I’m cold all the time. I lived most of my life about three hours away from here, but the Lord led us here just over two years ago. I’m on staff at one of the greatest churches ever as a Christian school music teacher, teaching all grades from Kindergarten to Grade 12, so my days are never boring! I also love to teach ladies Bible study at my church and to write at home. I’ve been married to my husband Michael for almost 18 years. We have three beautiful children and are in the thick of raising teenagers. My nickname growing up was Zuska. How’s that for unique?

    Something else unique about me, after struggling with depression for many years, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II last year and now I love to talk about how my mental illness and my faith intersect.

    I’m so glad you’re here, Jen! Thank you. So, Galatians 5:1 is a key verse for our FREEDOM STORIES. It says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Therefore, do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” What was the old yoke you were living under? What was that slavery like for you?

    I struggled with depression for many years, but I would not necessarily say the depression itself was the yoke of slavery I was under. God has not yet lifted that yoke off of me and I don’t believe that He keeps us in bondage.

    I think that the slavery I was under was believing that I had to do everything myself. I didn’t see a counsellor, didn’t go to my doctor. I kept believing that I just needed to pray more or work harder. I saw depression as a defect that was up to me to fix. I believed in mental illness and have always believed that some people need counselling and medication. But for some reason, I didn’t think that applied to me.

    After a few years, I started inviting Jesus in to do some of the hard work with me, but I still felt that it was mostly dependent on me. That I must not be working hard enough or be spiritual enough. When I would go long times without feeling depressed, I would assume that I had finally conquered it. Only to have it come around again.

    In the midst of all of that, what were some of the old narratives you absorbed?

    I felt a lot of shame around it. Unless I could talk about it from only a positive perspective, as in, here is what is working for me and it can work for you too. I didn’t want to become the girl who was known for talking about her depression and for many years fought against God telling me to write about it in my blog, even though I had written a Bible study on it previously. I just didn’t want to be “that girl”.

    I also felt a lot of shame around what was going on inside my mind. Because I didn’t understand that I had Bipolar, I would have these thoughts and decision making processes that scared me and I almost felt as if there were someone else living in my mind at points.

    But as always, I soldiered on. I kept trying to work harder and be more spiritual and work it all away. When I did tentatively reach out, it was to the wrong people and didn’t help.

    What was the turning point? Was there a rock bottom or a point that you realized that you couldn’t live like that any longer?

    I stopped needing to sleep. That’s what first caught my attention. I had been like that as a teenager, but once I had little kids, this mom could sleep whenever I had the opportunity! But now I had teenagers and was not quite so exhausted and so I couldn’t sleep again. That along with several other physical symptoms made me convinced that I had some sort of early onset menopause. When I described it to my doctor I said it was like I had bipolar. Yet I was still surprised when that was the diagnosis in the end.

    I was devastated by this diagnosis. I had just recovered from the hardest year of my life the year before and was thrown by the fact that God would ask me to walk another hard road so quickly. I felt as though my world was spinning out of control.

    That sounds like a huge turning point and a really challenging time… After that diagnoses, what changed? (What actions did you take/truths did you discover/community did you connect with to help you find move forward)?

    I got a diagnosis one afternoon and was in a counsellor’s office the next morning at 9am. God had lead us to him for marriage counselling, so I already had someone to go to. I poured out the whole story through tears and then it finally occurred to me to ask him, “do you even do this?” He assured me that yes, he did counselling for bipolar and we started down the road of hard work to learn how to live with this new reality.

    The hardest thing for me to accept was that I could no longer trust my thoughts. I viewed everything through the lens of bipolar and that lens often skewed reality. For someone who prided themselves on their common sense and independence, that was a really hard reality.

    After a few months of hard work, I had a breakthrough. The Lord had been teaching me something in the Psalms months earlier. As I look back, I know that He had gotten this truth into my heart so I would be ready. The psalms often begin with really hard emotions. Even wrong emotions. Thoughts like, God you’ve abandoned me. It would have been better if I had never been born. I wish that I could fly away. The psalmists had these honest and raw conversations with God. Usually by the end of the psalm, they are praising God for His goodness and deliverance. I used to think that was just the end of the story. They were upset or in pain or in trouble and God delivered them. But then I realized something important.

    In many of the psalms, the goodness of God is described in the future tense. As in, God has not done this yet, but I believe He will.

    The psalmist were not afraid to lay it all out there. To acknowledge their feelings. They weren’t afraid to tell those feelings to God. But then they returned to what they knew. It’s like they said, this is what feel, but this is what I know.

    That is so powerful! I will be chewing on that for a long time.

    Tell me about your life of freedom. What does it look like for you now?

    That phrase, this is what I feel, but this is what I know, has changed my life. I run to the only source of truth – God and His Word – and I filter everything my bipolar brain tells me through that phrase. And now I can identify what is truth and what is not. That’s not to say that it’s an easy process. Far from it. But there is a freedom in truth that cannot be found anywhere else. And that freedom is available for us all, bipolar or not.

    Knowing that I can come to God with all my mixed up feelings, all the untruths I’m believing, all the times I just want out of life, and He is not scared of them, not offended by them, and even welcomes that honesty, that gives me the freedom to not be ashamed of who I am. And the truth of God’s Word tells me what I know, no matter what I happen to feel today.

    There is a beautiful freedom in being okay with my feelings, but not having to live my life by them.

    Do you still wrestle with those old struggles? What do you do on those days to fight for your freedom?

    I wrestle most days still. And with my diagnosis, I probably will always have some struggle. And that’s why I have to continually remind myself of truth. I read my Bible, I talk to God, I print out verses for my fridge, I’m honest with my counsellor, I’m surrounding myself with an awesome group of friends. There are a few people outside of my immediate family who are not afraid to ask me if I’ve been sleeping, or how I’m doing. And I answer them honestly. It’s a beautiful thing to be getting the help I need.

    Are there any key scriptures, quotes, or books that have been helpful for you on your journey into freedom?

    Psalm 42 has always been a very important chapter to me. I wrote a Bible study on depression using this chapter long before I realized that it followed this format of, this is what I feel, but this is what I know. The psalmists talks about his soul being cast down. Cast down is a term referring to when a sheep has fallen on its back and cannot get back up. If a shepherd doesn’t rescue that sheep, it will die.

    I have often felt like that. Like my soul has been cast down and I might die without help. Yet at the end of the psalm, the psalmist encourages himself by repeating what he knows. That God is his help and his hope. He is acknowledging how he feels, but relying on what he knows.

    Thank you for sharing that image and the Psalm, Jen. Both are so relatable, no matter where we are in life or what specific circumstances we’ve been through. 

    Okay…last, because I’m a big believer that gratitude lists help us remain present and fight our battles, tell me 3 things you’re grateful for right now.

    I’m thankful for my counsellor. He is leading me through one of the greatest battles I have fought. And he’s doing it well.

    I’m thankful for gift cards – yesterday and today I got to buy books, get Starbucks, and go for a massage.

    I’m thankful for sunshine. It’s been a dark and dreary winter so far here in Ontario but today there is fresh snow and the sun is shining on it. New snow and sunshine always seem to remind me that God’s mercies are new every morning.

    – – –

     

    Jennifer Holmes is a wife, mom, Christian School music teacher, and writer who also happens to have Bipolar II.  She’s exploring how mental health and faith intersect and invites you to share that journey.  She loves to blog and share on social media, often at night all wrapped up in blankets.  Follow along at jensnewsong.com and on Facebook and Instagram (her favourite) @jensnewsong.

     

     

     

     

     

    P.S. Want to read more Freedom Stories? Find more stories of hope and freedom from others here. Also, special thanks to Alex Loup for the picture to accompany this post (via Unsplash; graphic created with Canva by Heather Lobe).

  • control,  intentional living,  mental health,  weekly prayers

    Manna and Morsels

    I had coffee with a friend, and we talked about the times of life where everything feels overwhelming and complex.

    We looked over at her sweet baby, napping in the booth next to us. We sipped on hot coffee in paper cups and talked about the seasons of life where we can’t see the path forward. We talked about the fog and the paralyzation of depression. She and I both have encountered the darkness of depression and the crippling weight of anxiety, and we’ve known in those times that God is there. But He has also felt far away.

    On those hard days and in those dark seasons, getting out of that pit can seem like a daunting, long road. Even if others could show us a charted path towards healing and towards intimacy with Christ–even if there are steps or courses we could take–we likely feel like that is more than we can handle.

    I am one who likes a good plan. I like to know the 12 steps I can take to find peace, the 3 things I can do today to feel less anxious, the 10 Scriptures I can meditate on to remember that God is light in our dark times. But what if even those “simple steps” seem too daunting? Sometimes 12 steps are too far ahead of what I can see, and that particular long path seems overwhelming. And 10 Scriptures? How do I pick where to start? Thinking about the 3 things I can do TODAY reminds me of the 17 things on my to do list that I haven’t done yet, and all of it seems like more than what I have the energy to tackle.

    So we can start by asking for manna.

    MANNA

    In the Bible (Exodus 16), there is an incredible story about a group of people (the Israelites) who were delivered out of slavery in Egypt by a man named Moses. As Moses and another leader named Aaron led the Israelites out of Egypt, they entered into a wilderness, where there was nothing to eat. The people complained to Moses and Aaron that they were going to die of hunger.

    God spoke to Moses and told them that He would take care of the hungry people.

    “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” (Exodus 16:4-6)

    The bread from heaven was called manna. God made these daily provisions for the people, even with meat (quail) in the evenings. Moses said that through these provisions,

    “At evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord, because He has heard your grumbling against the Lord.” (verses 6-7)

    When they went out to collect their bread for the first time, like flakes fine as frost on the ground, they asked what it was. Moses reminded them “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” He repeated the commandments of how they were to gather it, ensuring that each person would have plenty to eat– “enough for their fill that day.” And He warned them not to leave any of it over til the morning.

    BUT if the people feared that God would take care of them again the next day, and tried to gather more than their daily portion? The warnings were that the leftovers would either melt with the heat of the sun, breed worms, or smell.

    And yet… what happened?

    “But they did not listen to Moses. Some left part of it til the morning, and it bred worms and stank. And Moses was angry with them. Morning by morning they gathered it, each as much as he could eat; but when the sun grew hot, it melted.” (verses 20-21)

    God had to re-remind them that they were to just take enough for one day at a time. Their lack of trust in Him required repetition- that He would provide, and then God showing again and again that He would in fact do it.

    The people ate the manna for forty years, until they came to a new land.

    Every day for forty years (that’s roughly 14,600 days), there was manna.

    MORSELS

    How often do I get ahead of myself and try to figure out the next steps on my own? How many times have I been in seasons of waiting when I begged (demanded) that God show me the whole path ahead? How frequently have I stressed about provision, with crippling fear that He won’t take care of me? How many days have I woken up and thought about everything I needed to do that day, without a thought of prayer or consulting with God to lead the way? I cannot tell you how many journals of mine are filled with confessions of not trusting God to lead the way and trying to take control back into my own hands.

    Sitting with my friend, I was reminded that there are some seasons where we are just called to simply rest. In the daily act of surrender to Him, we get to stop wrestling and just ask HIM to be our fill. When we let Him show us one step at a time, one day at a time, He is faithful to give us a way forward. Sometimes they are baby steps- tiny morsels. But as my friend shared, morsels can be savored. With gratitude for the flavor that comes with each small bite, we can remember that He carries us through the wilderness and is faithful in His provision and protection over us.

    There are some times where we don’t need to chase down complex systems or plans, but just go back to the basics:

    Just choosing one verse to pray all week long.

    Reading a psalm before bed. Just one.

    Stretching in the morning and thanking God for the morning light.

    Taking a walk and noticing the droplets of dew on the grass, or picking a few small flowers to carry in your hand.

    Sitting for a longer period of time than the busy schedule might seem to allow for coffee with a sweet friend.

    Making a homemade meal and thanking God for the ingredients, for the home in which to cook it, for the body that it nourishes.

    Asking Him to show us the next right thing and learning to be still and wait for HIS guidance.

    There are some days where we just have to ask for manna, and trust that God will bring it.

    And sweet friend? He will.

    A Prayer for Manna and Morsels

    Lord, we ask for a taste of a manna today. You tell us in Your word that Your mercies are new every morning. Will You show me a new mercy today? Help me to have eyes that are opened to see Your miracles- Your provision in the daily needs that get me through this day; Your care and compassion for Your people, including me; Your sovereign knowledge of my life, that I can trust that You know the way and will guide me to walk in Your will, even when I can’t see the whole path forward. Forgive me for the times that I try to take control or look to other sources to be my guide. Lord, I open my hands to receive Your lavish love — help me to savor every morsel that You give me today.

     

     

    *Special thanks to Simon Wilkes and Isaac Mehegan who provided the images to accompany this post (via unsplash).

  • anxiety,  faith,  identity,  mental health

    What does God think about OCD?

    I- Chipped Paint

    You have searched me, Lord, and You know me.

    You know when I sit and when I rise; You perceive my thoughts from afar.

    You discern my going out and my lying down;

    You are familiar with all my ways.

    This week, I sat on a familiar couch across from the familiar face of my counselor and talked about my recent anxiety struggles. About flare-ups in my people pleasing and old thought patterns that sneak up way too fast and overwhelmingly. About my shame for still struggling with OCD, and codependency, and sin, and basically … not being perfect.

    When I was a child I have vivid memories of spending time on our wooden swing set that my dad built in our backyard. My siblings and I would go outside to play after school while mom cooked dinner. Instead of playing on the swing set, I would sit on the landing above the slide and fixate on the peeling paint. It would bother me greatly if an area was starting to chip or peel, so I would hyper-focus on peeling it away in strips to remove those seeming imperfections. Lost in thought, in somewhat of a trance, I would pull away the old gray paint to reveal the red wood underneath. It was strangely satisfying and calming but also a little unsettling in the aftermath — when my mom called us in for dinner, it would snap me out of the trance. I’d look down at the grass and see far more dried and chipped paint than I had intended to remove, and would be embarrassed for this strange habit. Eventually, in later years, I developed a form of OCD as a way of coping with my anxiety called trichotillomania, a rare disorder on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum that leads individuals to pull out their own hair. The trances with this reminded me of my paint peeling days, though the impact was far more damaging than an old backyard swing set missing its paint.

    II- Tears

    Before a word is on my tongue, You, Lord, know it completely.

    You hem me in behind and before, and You lay Your hand upon me.

    Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain.

    For most of my life I’ve been a writer. It’s often been private, in diaries, journals, short stories not shown to others [I’m just getting brave enough to share it]. In my bedroom, I have a box full of old journals, and on the nightstand next to my bed, I have a stack of the three most recently filled within the past year. Each one represents so many stories and wanderings and prayers and tears worked through quietly, mostly on my own or with the Lord.

    My counselor and I have walked together through 5 huge years in my life. These 5 years have carried total humility and honesty, growth, forgiveness, and transformation. She knows me better than anyone on this side of heaven. In the beginning of our time together I remember sitting on the edge of my seat, leaning forward with knots of fear in my stomach– fear of saying some things out loud for the very first time, showing someone else the way my brain works, fear of judgment, and overwhelmed with where to start in processing my heavy burdens. When I would begin to cry in those earlier sessions, I would quickly shut off the tears and put a smile back on my face, saying, “But I know it’s going to be okay.” Yet, every single session my counselor has met me with gentleness and grace. And at the end of every session, no matter what I’ve shared, we have ended our time together with prayer. These days, I sit nestled into the couch with comfort in this safe place. I let the tears flow freely, knowing that there is healing that comes with the fullness of that expression of overwhelm, grief, confusion, sadness, anger, or whatever those tears represent. I come into our Tuesday evening times together, able to share with her what I’ve noticed lately, what I’m learning, ready to share the newest pages of my journal out loud, with no fear of what she thinks of me.

    Once, when I showed her that I was about to finish another journal after only 3 months of starting it, she asked if I was proud of that fact. I said without hesitation, “yes.” We both knew the hard work represented in those pages. But even more than that, they represented for me the bravery of saying the words out loud. There was freedom in that.

    Lately we have been talking about this work we do, of retraining the brain to take on new thought patterns. And how even after 5 years of work there can be new work to keep fighting against 25 years of established patterns. But now, I AM doing the work of creating new patterns. This week, on that couch, I sat with tears in my eyes about my obsessive thinking and how it has gotten out of control lately, sometimes about great things like writing and creativity, and sometimes about things in my past or worry for the future. I asked her to be frank with me (I’ve asked her this question before too, but sometimes just need to hear the answer out loud)– is there something really broken with me? Is the way that my brain works really messed up?

    III- Light, Tea, Psalms

    Where can I go from Your Spirit? Where can I flee from Your presence?

    If I go up to the heavens, You are there; if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.

    If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,

    Even there Your hand will guide me, Your right hand will hold me fast.

    If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,”

    Even the darkness will not be dark to You; the night will shine like the day,

    For darkness is as light to You.

    To my question about my brain… my counselor met me with gentleness and grace, as always. She affirmed that the quirks of my personality {obsessive thinking, extreme motivation, my empathy, my creative brain, even my perfectionism} are part of how God made me and formed me and loves me. When these qualities and thought patterns get out of control and go into overdrive, I enter into discomfort, darkness, pain. But these quirks? They are also some of the qualities that make me an excellent researcher, someone who is innovative and bright, good at coming up with new and creative ideas, fiercely loyal, strong in my faith, a wonderful friend/sister/group member, a good communicator, and a tender-hearted human with a heart for serving others in this world with love and kindness. When I become aware that those quirks are in overdrive or are blocking me from putting my full identity in Christ, I can take a moment to breathe and have compassion for myself. Then I can use one of the tools in the toolkit I’ve assembled in these 5 years to get back to being grounded and centered, knowing that I am loved for exactly who I am. To let the light back in.

    So this week, I pulled out some of those tools. I spoke with my loving dad on the phone. I ate a healthy black bean burger and sweet, fresh pineapple for dinner. I played the piano. I am drinking peach ginger tea or a spicy cinnamon variety of hot tea in my favorite mug in the evenings. And I’m going back to my favorite Psalm- the one that reminds me of the Truth of who God is and that He loves me no matter where my mind goes (Psalm 139, written throughout this post).

    IV- Paper and Stained Glass

    For You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb.

    I praise You because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    Your works are wonderful, I know that full well…

    How precious to me are Your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!

    Were I to count them, they would outnumber the grains of sand—

    when I awake, I am still with You…

    Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts.

    See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

    The other night, while on the phone with my dad, I looked over and saw this piece of art that I created a few years ago. When my OCD was probably at its worst and my life felt utterly out of control, I discovered an interesting world of paper cutting and the art of scherenschnitte. This folk art form from Germany which literally means “scissor cuts” became a new creative outlet for me to channel my perfectionism, anxiety, and OCD. In those moments of digging into my artwork, it is me, the paper, an exacto knife, and worship music. Entering into a new kind of trance, I get to hyper-focus on slicing straight lines and chipping away at the pattern before me. My favorite designs are ones like this with symmetry, order, a calming pattern to cut out–the ones that remind me of stained glass or a fractal. This design, created out of a season of disorder and darkness, is such a clear and tangible reminder to me that I crave order, creativity, and color. And that hard work, generosity, and hyper-focused motivation and thinking are part of the fabric of who I am. I am working on having GRACE for myself for how much I have grown and for who I am. And reminding myself that He is crafting me into something beautiful, even in my brokenness.

    The mind of God and all of His ways are mysterious to us–I don’t believe that any man will ever be able to comprehend the Lord’s thinking fully here on earth. Here’s what I DO know though, from spending the past 5 years digging further into His word, praying, and pressing into His truth:

    • He calls us to “be still” before Him, for He is God (Psalm 46:10)
    • We were created in His image (Genesis 1:26-27)
    • He calls us fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139)
    • He has so much grace and mercy for us (Romans 3:23-24; Hebrews 4:16)
    • He is a stronghold in times of trouble (Psalm 9:9-10)
    • He rejoices over us with singing (Zephaniah 3:17)
    • He refreshes and restores our souls (Psalm 23)
    • He bears our burdens for us (Matthew 11:28-30)
    • He knows every thought in our hearts/minds (Psalm 139:3-4, 23)
    • The peace that comes from Him is far better than any peace I can find in this world (John 14:27)

    I do not know the details of your struggles. But God does. He loves us and calls us to love others in the same way. So I want to encourage you to find balance–more grace, less self-condemnation. More rest, less striving. More community, less isolation. If you’re wrestling with what it looks like to have a healthy mind and how these things seem ingrained in the fiber of your being, try to have compassion, mercy, and gentleness for yourself. After all, YOU were fearfully and wonderfully made by a loving Creator– in His very image. He is crafting you, too, into something beautiful, with every single part of who you are.

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    P.S. Do you battle with keeping Truth at the forefront of your mind? Do you wrestle with lies, insecurity, anxiety, depression, OCD, mental battles of any kind–anything that pulls you away from the present into a rabbit trail of fear, worry, or restlessness? I would love to share some of my favorite Scriptures with you in the form of a free printable I created. These 11 powerful Truths are some of my favorite Scriptures to come back to when the lies get loud in my mind and heart. Though I know prayer and Truth are a component of a holistic solution, I encourage you to print it out to hang on your mirror, next to your desk, or to cut into note cards to encourage a friend for the hard days.

    Enter your email here to get your Scripture cards. Be encouraged. You’re not alone.