Saturday, July 30, 2016

The picture that never made it to Insta... and the text that changed so much (A Journey in Grief - Part I)

It's been over eight months. I walked into church alone that morning. My man had taken a day trip, and I don't normally go to church without him, but I needed to be there that morning. I had gotten the text on Friday saying that she was on life support and to pray. My heart had been heavy ever since. I wasn't sure how to pray. Part of me just knew there would be another miracle, just like that test showing her blood free of the cancer cells had been a miracle, just like the transplant of bone marrow from her brother had been a miracle.

They had thrown a party that day, the day of her transplant. They called it her new birthday. There had been cake and games and so much joy and thanksgiving. Four months had passed since then.

I had been with her just a month ago. Made a special trip into town because I missed her. We had coffee together. Her body ached. I knew something was off. She never complained, not ever, but that day she couldn't sit still. I could see the weariness in her eyes.

As always she talked of God and His faithfulness. Told me that the whole point of life is to see the majesty of God and that if we aren't seeing that, there is no point. How she's made it an exercise and was teaching her daughter to do the same. But for the first time, I could see her fighting. Up until then, she had made the battle look almost effortless. She wore that Armor of the Lord like a second skin... like her true skin. She did always say that she never felt like her "earth suit" fit quite right, and I could tell that day that it all felt even less right. And it threw me off.

I've never really forgiven myself for that... for not knowing how to respond to her pain. For asking her to leave the comfort of her home and meet me. For telling her about my own struggles right there in the midst of hers. I know that's how she wanted it. She loved me. She loved pouring into my life. She lived to make Him known and she made Him known to me every time we were together. If we hadn't gotten that time, we would have missed so much, so maybe it's time I let that go and just give thanks.

I cried when I left her. As I dropped her daughter off at their house after we saw that musical together, the one about spoonfuls of sugar and shooting stars, she asked me when I would come back. "Whenever you want me to," I replied. "Be careful what you say... I'll hold you to it," she smiled. "I hope you do." I hugged her one last time. I remember feeling like I might break her if I wasn't careful. I got in my car and pulled out of the driveway. That's when the tears started to fall and I hoped she didn't see. Moving, planning a new life, leaving your friends. It's all so hard.

So yeah, a month later, I walk into church. The choir was singing that morning. I pulled out my phone to take a picture. I was going to post it on Insta with the caption: "When things look their darkest, that is when we must sing the loudest. Worship is always the answer to our heavy, burdened, and broken hearts. Eucharisteo always precedes the miracle." I thought about how this is exactly where she would want me to be. This is how she taught me to live. The way that God taught me to live through her.

I never did post that picture. Because that's when I got the text. I'm sorry to say that she passed away this morning. My heart plummeted and the tears rose. I was out the door of that sanctuary so fast.

It's been over eight months since she died. And I'm still not over it.

Friday, July 1, 2016

How Do You Spell Hope?

In a box somewhere in the guestroom closet there is a journal filled with words from 18-year-old me. I think of it every so often. She inscribed it to me before wrapping it in brown paper and tying it with string (a la Sound of Music, of course!). A single word and her initials. "Write."

A single word can be prophetic, and hope can be spelled so many different ways.

It's funny how I can look at the cover of a journal and be transported to an entirely different season of my life.

That's the one I used to write notes about youth group sermons and notes  to my friend in the pew in front of me.

That one went with me everywhere in high school in case some brilliant, poetic inspiration struck me, whether in class or at lunch.

That one traveled with me to China and tells the story of God making a way for a dream to come true.

And then that one... That one she gave me for my birthday two years ago along with the Chinese silk pillowcases because she loved to feed my obsessions. And in some bittersweet irony, its final pages contain the outpouring of my grief over her death.

These bound pages have surrendered themselves to my ink and my tears and the depths of my heart. They have been my constant companions. Paper and ink can somehow chase away clouds and take down demons. Slay dragons and remind me how to breathe. Stem the flow of tears and tear down the walls that confine me.

I spell hope with five letters: W-R-I-T-E.

I read an article the other day about "high-functioning anxiety." In it, the writer lists all the things she does to combat her anxiety.

It’s always looking for the next outlet, something to channel the never-ending energy. Writing. Running. List-making. Mindless tasks (whatever keeps you busy). Doing jumping jacks in the kitchen. Dancing in the living room, pretending it’s for fun, when really it’s a choreographed routine of desperation, trying to tire out the thoughts stuck in your head. 
I so wished that she could see me applauding her on the other side of the screen. I wanted to tell her that those outlets are pure gift. They don't have to be "a choreographed routine of desperation;" they can be a blessed dance of hope, steps toward freedom, declarations that you have the power to control your emotions and your anxiety and your depression and everything else that tried to beat you down and bind you up. It does not have to rule you, at least not all the time. You can rise above, one step at a time.

So if you have found something that lifts you out of your depression or anxiety, even just a little bit, go forth and DO IT. Own it. Don't be ashamed. Be intentional about making time for it. Find a friend to hold you accountable when you're feeling an "episode" coming on. Don't view the outlets as a crutch or a sign of your weakness. View them as keys to the door of freedom, and use them!

If it's dancing in the living room, do it. If it's reading a book, do it. If it's playing with needles and yarn or canvas and paint, do it. If it's solving a puzzle or baking a cake or serving a homeless man lunch or running through your apartment complex or jumping in the pool even though you can't swim or putting words out there into cyberspace for anyone or no one to read... DO IT.

Embrace your outlets with a brave and risky intentionality. Because the God of Peace can speak in a million different places and hope can be spelled a thousand different ways and you can find it. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

Breathing Through - The Fight to Believe

So much breathing through lately. I find myself shushing out loud as I try to fall asleep, as if I am trying to calm my own mind and heart the way I would a child. Here on the verge of tears because I'm separated from my husband on the airplane.

Breathe, child. You're okay. Just breathe.

My jaw hurts. It was hard to sleep last night. I'm annoyed. I went to see my therapist a couple of days ago. Walk in discouraged and heavy. I had thought I was ready to move on alone. I thought maybe I didn't need her to walk with me every other week anymore... And then I had to call and ask her to move my next appointment up on the calendar. I tell her how it feels like I'm back at square one. She assures me that I'm not and I agree with her. I just don't really believe her. Story of my life lately - I agree but I fight to believe.

I just had to tell myself to exhale again. I'm aware of the muscles in my jaw. I picture myself turning a bunch of tiny vice grips, loosening them one by one. Yes, we all do have our vices.

It's been more change recently - big change, hard change, painful change. It's been more grieving, more fighting. I choose fighting for joy far less than I would like, and I choose fighting against my husband far more often than I would like to admit.

Exhale. Loosen. Release the vices.

Nagging. Criticizing. Fixing. Controlling. White-knuckle gripping. All so much easier than the sitting, waiting, listening, releasing, breathing. I get a choice though. I am capable of choosing grace and doing the hard thing. He can make me strong. I agree, but I fight to believe.

I have to wait a moment for the plane to steady itself in the air before I can continue writing. Strange idea, that - a plane steadying itself on some invisible air stream, the tension of the lift and the drag lending balance somehow. The tension could steady me too, anchor me to the One who saves and make me stable. I agree, but I fight to believe.

My breathing is becoming easier, but my muscles stay tight. One thing at a time. That's how this journey works. One thing at a time.

I feel like we're under attack, my man and I, like we just can't seem to catch a break. No respite from the struggle. Sometimes, when I know he won't notice, I look at him and I wonder if we haven't made a mistake. I know. I haven't been his wife for six months yet. We should still be in that blessed honeymoon stage, all googly-eyed and love-struck. But some days it feels like we're being struck by something else entirely... something painful. And I just wonder if maybe we weren't....

Her voice stops me. God is providential and omnipotent. The marriage covenant is ordained by Him and sacred. He would not have allowed you to make a mistake. He would have stopped you. He loves you both too much to just let you go. It is hard. It takes so much more work than anyone ever warned you. He may even be allowing an attack on your relationship, but it will all come to an end that you can't even imagine - for His glory and your good. I agree, but I fight to believe.

You are loved. I agree, but I fight to believe.
You are valued. All is grace. You are safe and where you belong. He wills only the best for you and His will will be done. I agree, but I fight to believe.

And this journey? It's like recording over a tape that's been playing in my mind forever. I got the first part down and went to play it back only to find that there's more. So we'll start here and keep going. Yeah, it's the same old tape we're working on, but we're not back at the beginning; this is a whole different section. That's fighting to believe.

Or maybe it's like if I decided I wanted to paint those red dining room walls in that little old house I used to rent... If I just decided they needed to be white instead. One coat isn't enough. Put it on. Let it dry. Go again. That's fighting to believe. And that is how I will walk this path. I will keep layering it on. I will keep fighting to believe.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Day I Realized I had a Mental Illness

I did a phone interview yesterday. The people from my life insurance company had to call and ask me some questions about my "mental illness." I guess I hadn't realized I had a mental illness. It was humbling. I felt so vulnerable. All those questions!

How long have you struggled with this condition? What was the trigger?
Are you on any medication? What type? What's the dosage? How often do you take it?
Are you under the care of a physician? Is this person a psychiatrist?
Are you under the care of a counseling professional or psychologist? How often do you see them?
How many days of work have you missed relating to your illness?
Do you consider your illness a disability? 

Now, this lady was so kind and objective. There was no tone of judgement in her voice. Still, all those questions are enough to leave anyone shaken and feeling insecure. They're enough to make anyone want to hide. Because I just had to answer what she asked. I couldn't tell her my story. I couldn't explain to her what brought me here, or tell her about the everyday victories that surround me. I couldn't shift her perspective and make her see the reality of how I live. But if we had had the time, this is what I would have said.

Hi, my name is Stephanie Campoverde, and I struggle with mixed anxiety and depression. And I'm done hiding it or feeling shame over it. I am getting better. And I'm learning. And even though I still have bad days sometimes, it is good. I was diagnosed four months ago after going through pretty much every major life upheaval that a person can endure in just over a year. I started in a new position at work. I moved into a new home. I reconnected an old friend from high school and we fell in love. One of my closest friends was diagnosed with leukemia. I became engaged to that guy from high school. I quit my job. I was offered an amazing position at a new school. I moved to a new city. I started yet another new job. My friend died. I got married. To say that I had a lot to process would be an understatement. The fact is though, I didn't give myself the time to do that. Not as much as I needed anyway. I didn't think I had to. Most of those things were great things. People don't need to process good changes. I was wrong.

The truth is, I am a high achiever who thrives on success, high performance, and a sense of control. I am so richly blessed. I love Jesus. From the outside, I lead a charmed life. On the inside, I live in constant fear that something is going to break... like that mask I wear. Oh, that would be the worst... if this facade cracked and someone saw who I really am. So I clenched tighter and tighter, and shame tightened his grip too. I grew more and more afraid of conflict. I tried harder and harder to do everything right and make my life into this dream that I was supposed to be living. One that would match what I saw all over the internet. One that would exceed every expectation I felt others placed on me. I couldn't keep up. Finally, I was so drained that I couldn't even do the things I loved anymore. I was so discouraged that I started lashing out or running away or hiding or hyperventilating. Some of the signs were obvious. The tears. The shortness of breath. The clenching of muscles. Some were more subtle. A critical spirit, especially toward my new husband. Sleeping later. Wanting to stay home more often. And some weren't noticeable to anyone but me. The constant tension in my jaw and shoulders. Feeling like every day was an uphill battle. An unrelenting sense of heaviness. That continual sense of fear and foreboding. Racing thoughts.

It took a long time, but I finally realized that I needed help. I realized that I could not pick myself up on my own. I wanted to. I wanted to be strong enough to take care of myself. I wanted my husband to be strong enough to take care of me. But nothing was working, so I finally took the plunge and made an appointment with a counselor. And here's what I learned...

Depression and anxiety can affect anyone for any reason. There are ways to control it through diet and exercise and taking up hobbies. You can retrain your inner voice to speak differently. You can count gifts and give thanks and practice seeing the beauty around you. You can learn a lot of things and do a lot of things. Sometimes these things can be enough. But sometimes... sometimes the chemicals in your body can't keep up with the stress you're going through and you end up having to take a pill each day just so your body stands a chance. And regardless of what your journey looks like, you realize that nothing is quite as you thought it was.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign of blessed strength. Admitting your brokenness is not giving up; it is giving yourself room to be healed. Taking a pill is not copping out; it is taking in what your body has been missing for so long.

So yes. One could accurately say I have a mental illness. It's not severe, but it is real. It is part of how I live my life. It means that I've had to miss work so I could get help. It means that some days and activities are harder for me. It means that, for this season, I am on medication. But it also means that I have learned how to take care of myself, to love and appreciate who God made me to be (as well as the process of redemption that is helping me become more and more that person), and to embrace others who fight and struggle on a daily basis with whatever. I thought that strength was making it through on my own, but for me, strength was getting the help I needed. And I'm glad that I did. And my life insurance company should be glad too, because my quality of life is a thousand times better now than it was when I was living in denial and pretending I had it all together and could conquer the world. I am not ashamed.

Monday, May 9, 2016

To the Woman in the Mirror - A letter to the depressed and anxious part of me

To the woman in the mirror:

The truth is, you scare me. I roll out of bed in the morning, knowing I will have to face you and I am afraid. I never know who I will see looking back at me. I hope that you will be beautiful and strong, full of hope and joyful anticipation for all that the day holds. I hope you will look back at me with eyes that say, “Mercy is new every morning. Great is His faithfulness. Believe and live.” But that’s not how it’s been. That’s not how it always is.

Sometimes you just stare blankly at me with tired eyes. Sometimes those eyes are swollen from the tears which soaked your pillow through the night. Sometimes they are wild with anxiety, with some inexplicable fear. Sometimes you can’t bear to look back at me. The heaviness of the burden you carry reaches all the way through you and even your eyes lower under the weight of it. Your failures. Your sense of worthlessness. Your lack of interest. Sometimes the confusion behind your eyes is more than I can bear. Where does it all come from? Will you give me answers? I can see you begging me, pleading with me like you plead with everyone around you, to notice, to help, to fix, to heal, to protect, to put you back together again after you humpty-dumptied right off the very wall you built to protect yourself. The truth is, I detest you, your weakness and brokenness. And for a while that made me detest myself.

You see, woman in the mirror, I thought you and I were the same. I thought that we were one. I thought I could look to you and see my identity. I thought that you defined me. I thought that I was the sum of every feeling, every fear, every burden that you reflected back to me. I thought the things I saw in you were my reality, and I could hope for nothing more. It took so long for me to even consider that I was wrong.

But one day I reached up to touch you. One day I decided that I wouldn’t be afraid of you anymore. One day I decided that I would not let you define me or control me. One day I decided to be strong and courageous, so I reached to touch you. You were cold and hard. I pulled back and touched my own cheek – soft and warm. You and I are not the same after all.

You are nothing more than a reflection on glass. No wonder you feel so fragile! But I? I am flesh and bone and blood and muscle and breath and soul and mind and nerves and… ah yes, I had forgotten… A vessel of the Holy Spirit. You are flat – all depression or anxiety or vanity or fear or failure or brokenness. I am so much more. You are reflection. I am real. You are my image. I am made in His. You do not define me. Oh yes, I do struggle with all the things you show me. I am broken. There is absolutely no doubt about that. You are a part of me, but you are not all of me, and you are certainly not forever. Tomorrow you will look different, just as I will. All of these things I see in you? They will pass. He will bring redemption and healing and mend the broken parts of me. And I will tell you this: Sweet woman in the mirror, I will learn to love you as He loves me. I will learn to be thankful for you, because you drive me to His thrown of grace. I will learn to never fear you, but instead to embrace you and speak life to you. There is more than this. There is healing in His arms, and you remind me of that. So I will remind you, oh broken reflection, tell you the thing I most long to hear: Take heart and fear not. Mercy is new every morning. Great is His faithfulness. Believe and live.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

31 Days of Open Grace - Day 27

I have it written on my mirror. These four words: Taken, Blessed, Broken, Given. These are the words that Henri Nouwen says describe us our life as the Beloved. We are taken, chosen, received, embraced by God as His child. Then we are blessed by Him, given a hope for our future growth and redemption, made aware of the gifts He has given us and our potential to be used as instruments of change in the lives of those around us. Then we are broken, made aware of our smallness, our insufficiency, our deep need for Him. Then we are given in love, in service, in creative contribution, in worship. It is a beautiful idea, but the beauty has been hard for me to see lately.

So I take the marker and I circle the last two words: Broken, Given. The I draw and arrow: I am here. Then I circle the first two words: Taken, Blessed. Another arrow and the words: I want to get back here. Then I circle all four words and I write a final set of words: Wholeness is found here.

Wholeness is found when we live taken, blessed, broken, and given. I have been focused on the last two. I have been feeling the brokenness and I have been giving nonstop, but I have not taken the time to soak in the miracle of being taken and blessed. I'm not really sure what I want to say about this, except that I can force myself to live broken and given. I can clench the fists and squeeze every last drop of myself out. But then I only end up empty and worn. But to live taken and blessed requires the opening of the hands to receive. Once those hands are open, they don't close again. They overflow through all the cracks and give life. And that is the way to living whole. Opening the hands and then overflowing, rather than clenching the fists and pushing through. The try-harder life cannot be sustained. 

Monday, October 26, 2015

31 Days of Open Grace - Day 26

I run to the grocery store to pick up that one ingredient we need for supper that I left off the list when I went yesterday. It's been such a hard day. The pain in my jaw is my witness. I have been clenching so tightly these days. So I walk in, head down, focused on getting that one thing and getting on with life, but they draw me in like a magnet. There are gladiolas in the flower section today. Tall and bright red pushing through the green leaves and opening. Always pushing through. Always opening. I look for the bunch that reminds me of me, the one that wants to open but isn't quite there yet, the one that is just pushing through looking for space to open up. And I find it, this one bunch of orange blooms, and I take them home. I hold the stalks close, like a beacon of hope that will teach my heart how to beat again, teach my eyes how to see again. And I tell him when he looks at them - They're just because. Just because the world feels heavy and dark and hard and broken and ugly and I need just one thing to remind me that at the end of it all, there is beauty. I need just one thing to remind me that life is beautiful, no mater how I feel. I need just one thing to remind me to let the openness be what helps me push through. And orange is such a brave color.

And here's what I've learned today. I've learned to choose the breakthroughs that come in the little things. I've learned that while I want to push through so I can find the space to open, it is actually the very act of opening that creates the space for which I long. Life is still beautiful. And orange is a brave color.