Despair, fear, and the decision to hope.

I used to see myself as a hopeful person. I was always seeing opportunities to plant seeds of change. I had a dream for a future where we cared for and restored the vitality of our planet. I truly believed the arc of the universe bent towards justice. I thought this way of seeing the world was intrinsically part of me. I also had faith, not in an interventionalist God, but in a greater power oriented towards justice and renewal.

Two years ago, all that disappeared in a moment.

We had just found out that Miromiro was on the way, I read an article about climate change, which predicted catastrophic, near-term outcomes. As I read, a chill passed through my whole being, closely followed by panic. I was shaking all over, my head spun, I couldn’t breathe. Over the next week the panic continued to come in waves, and in the moments in between I was close to tears. My mind completely bought into the worst case scenario, and with that came the fear that our children would suffer.

Since then, obsessional worries and an accompanying sense of dread have been a nearly constant feature of my life. There are times when I am really busy and engrossed in things at work, and I don’t notice. There are brief moments when I am captivated by the children’s laughter and forget my worries. When I sing with my choir I have an hour or two of peace. Once these moments pass, it is back again. Fear, tinged with grief. It encroaches on activities that I used to find grounding and enjoyable. Gardening now brings anxiety about whether we will be able to feed our children in a changing climate. With droughts, massive hailstorms, plagues of cicadas, and now weeks and weeks of rain drowning our spring seedlings, growing food has not been easy in the past few years! Time with my children almost always involves sadness tugging at my sleeve and trying to get my attention. Church used to nourish my sense of hope and purpose, but these days I sit there feeling disconnected and numb. I’ve become depressed, and at times overwhelmed by despair and hopelessness. Some of it is secondary sadness – I feel grief that I am missing out on enjoying my children’s first years, which then makes me more depressed, which means I miss out more, in a vicious cycle. I can’t see the world getting better, and I also can’t see myself recovering from this state.

Some weeks are a lot worse. The US election brought one of those weeks. Anxiety took the opportunity to grip me and shout in my face about how if the US pulls out of the Paris agreement, we’re going to cross that line and climate change will spiral out of control… but we might not get that far, because Trump might blunder into a nuclear war first. These thoughts left me literally shaking with terror. I cried on and off for most of the next day. There were plenty of articles on the web to further fuel my fear.

I was just starting to breathe normally again, when we were woken at midnight by a massive earthquake, bringing more immediate worries to the fore. Then there were floods.

I am grateful that just before these recent stressful events, I went to a talk by Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley, on Activism, Despair, and the Practice of Hope. I saw a billboard advertising the event, and it seemed to speak to where I was at.

Rebecca talked about hope as an intentional practice. Not something that just happens, but something we can work at. One of the things I liked most was that she spoke of hope as an act of defiance. Hope is a decision we can make. It is about courage and defiance, not necessarily optimism. She talked about various elements of her own practice of hope. These included needing to draw from a deep well – those things that give you strength and meaning, be it music, prayer, nature, community…what nurtures your soul. Prayer, confession, taking small steps to bridge gaps, and finding the job that is yours to do were also part of her practice.

“If you find hope easy, you have not been paying attention. You have not sat with someone long enough. You haven’t listened closely enough. You have not cried hard enough. You have not been angry enough at injustice. If you start with the right question and you face it squarely, you will hear and see some unbearable things. Here what I know for sure: Hope starts by looking steadily at reality. It goes straight through the middle of despair. Then it is pulled into God’s will for the world God loves so much. Hope is freely available. But it does not come cheap.” – Rev Dr Rebecca Dudley

It is a stance that fits well with the approach I use at work, and try to practise in my own life – Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Trying to use ACT in my current struggle, I try to notice the thoughts and feelings of despair, and make space for them, but not get completely caught up with them.  I try to be present in my life, in the present moment. And I try to act in line with my values. Whatever is going on in the world around me, and in my own mind, I can always choose to act in connection with my values. Among these are social justice and care for the earth. Despair tells me there is no point trying anymore. To defy despair,  I can keep on taking actions, however small, to bring the world I long for a tiny bit closer to realisation. I can speak out against injustice. Act with compassion. Plant trees.

mural

This is part of a mural created by our church – it captures our community’s values and vision for the world.

The other thing which has made a difference in the past week was my last session with my therapist. I was talking about how despairing I felt about the world and imminent disaster. She said to me, “OK, so what if you’re right. Just say your worries do become reality. What would your children need? What would you want for them?”

Love. A sense of purpose. Connection with community. Kindness and compassion. Resilience. Curiosity and open-mindedness. Creativity. Belief in justice. Hope.

No matter how much I am struggling inside, how can I act as a parent to nurture these things in my children?

I can’t convince my mind that the future is not dark… but I can act as though there might be a miracle. Even if the miracle never comes, striving for justice and acting with love is never going to be the wrong thing to do. It might make a difference in the here and now.

And even if my brain is geared towards the worst case scenario, perhaps I can bring up my children to practise hope – defiantly.

From the outside

(Part one of two on the 2014 General Assembly)

These are my reflections, from outside and far away from the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand (PCANZ). I have so many thoughts and feelings I have separated them into two posts. This one is about the process stuff. The next one is my reaction to another decision which excludes.

This year, there were several proposals to ban ministers from marrying same-sex couples, and a couple of proposals to remove the existing  leadership rule (banning people in same-sex and de facto or civil union relationships*) The official report states:

The Rev Hamish Galloway spoke during debate saying that there had to be a better way forward for the Church to discuss what is a complicated issue. He ended his speech by laying down his voting cards and leaving the Assembly floor. Approximately 100 commissioners subsequently also abstained from voting by leaving the floor. People returned to the voting floor once voting on all sexuality and marriage matters was complete.

With a third of commissioners absent from the floor, the marriage rule passed easily. As Tim Watkin points out, it is a deeply un-Presbyterian rule. Traditionally, diverse views are recognised and ministers have liberty of conscious on matters that are not fundamental to our faith (and the learned people of the “Doctrine Core Group” have advised that this is not a matter of the substance of the reformed faith).

From unofficial reports I have heard that many people left in tears, that the moderator was in tears, that debate was curtailed on the next motion. I have heard that people saw signs of hope, that they felt something incredible happened, that there was some movement at last…

I am glad that people I like and respect saw signs of hope. I have been hoping for years that someone would come up with some sort of dramatic symbolic action. I have been advocating for a different sort of conversation, outside of the Assembly debates…

And yet I cannot bring myself to celebrate people walking out of the debate.

The national Church has been shutting me out for years. It has ruled, Assembly after Assembly, that I am not acceptable, that I am not welcome to participate in the full life of the church.

The Church has been literally shutting LGBTIQ people out of the debates about our future. General Assemblies are made up of ministers and elders (and a few youth reps). These are the decision makers in our church… and people like me are no longer allowed to become ministers or elders. While there is a lifeboat clause for existing ministers, the number of out gay, lesbian or bisexual ministers in our church has dropped. There were only a few to begin with, and with some leaving the country, or leaving ministry roles, or leaving the church all together… I only know of a couple who are left and I don’t know if there were any out LGBTIQ voices at this General Assembly. If the leadership rule is upheld, one day there will be none. We will have been silenced in the courts of the church. Despite the church’s attempts to exclude us, some of us are sticking with the church.

I want those who can speak to stay part of the Assembly, to speak for us. Our stories need to be told. I know that some allies did stay, and I am grateful for those who spoke. I know that some who walked out are allies. I am trying to understand their action as a sign of support.

I also feel frustrated at the walkout, because last Assembly the marriage ban lost by one vote. We will never know how it would have gone this time if all the commissioners had voted. Now we have another rule which excludes us.

I have heard a lot of people saying that they are sick of the debating. That it is getting us nowhere. I’ve heard that people are being “wounded” by the debates. I struggle to see how they can feel as wounded as those who are directly affected, whose lives are being debated.

As I’ve said before, the “sides” of this debate are not equal. The debates started because a group within the church decided we should have rules so that the whole church must abide by their views. Some of us keep debating because we want to create space for our views. We want space to live faithfully to God’s call in our lives. We are not saying that the whole church should abide by our views. We are not saying that all congregations should have an LGBTI minster. We are not arguing that all ministers should be obliged to marry same-sex couples. (Weird, anyway, to think that a couple would insist someone who did not support same-sex marriage would be ideal to lead their marriage.) The state recognises a diversity of views and gives ministers the right to discriminate if that is what their faith calls them to do. This church is not leaving ministers the right to NOT discriminate.

As Rob at St Ninian’s sums it up, the issue is not about marriage. “The issue is whether the PCANZ is a church that means what it says when it says all are welcome.  Whether the church is able to allow a diversity of deeply held views alongside each other or whether there can be only one point of view acceptable.”

Walking away from the debate does not leave us in a neutral position. The current situation is one where there is space for only one point of view.

So yeah, I’m glad that there is a desire to do things differently… But I wish a dramatic stand had been taken before Assembly. Or I wish that a symbolic action, a disruption, could have happened without walking out. I think only a different sort of conversation will help us move forward, but it needs to happen alongside Assembly processes, because that is where decisions are made. For a diversity of views to be respected, General Assembly will need to vote to change the rules.

Rob reminds us (after Edward Hayes) to associate with the hopeful.

I am trying to understand the signs of hope some saw at Assembly. I am wondering how the signs of hope are going to be shared. I have had several conversations with people who had similar reactions to me when they heard about people walking out, but they had not heard anyone say that there were signs of hope. I am trying to feel hopeful that the walk out will inspire people to take action, to make meaningful conversations happen, to find a way for us to move forward.

I also am glad that at General Assembly there were people who stayed, who raised their voices speaking out for justice. Their voices give me hope.

So, these are my thoughts about the events of General Assembly. They won’t match up with the experiences of people who were there, but the PCANZ has said this is all I can have: General Assembly from the outside. The church from the margins. This is my point of view.


The rule bans anyone “in a relationship outside of a faithful marriage between a man and a woman” from holding leadership positions in the church. A cynical person might think that it was carefully worded so that those who supported could argue that it’s not discriminating against people. But it is. Only some of us are being told that we have to choose: we can choose to be with the love of our life; that means choosing not to be accepted by the church.

Things that make no sense

Today is the last day of mental health awareness week and the theme has been “connect.”

Since early on in my experience of mental illness the internet has been a source of connections. I’ve searched for information and found webpages written by others and I’ve recognised my feelings in their words. I’ve blogged about my own experiences and heard from others that they found my words useful. In the past year I’ve connected with groups on facebook and their support has been a lifeline. Sharing our stories can make them seem a little less scary and we can find ourselves a little less alone. So here’s another chapter in my story.

I have bipolar. I’ve been “out” about that diagnosis for as long as I’ve had it. It has helped me understand what went on for me and explain to my friends why I acted the way I did. Bipolar is easy for me to write about. But that’s not what this post is about.

Last year, something different struck me. Suddenly, like a huge tree falling in the heart of my life. The fact that it came so suddenly, and that it happened only hours after one of the happiest moments in my life, made it somehow more awful.

That night, our daughter had arrived. After years of hoping and planning and dreaming. After months of carrying, loving, waiting and wondering… she arrived. She was placed, warm and wet, on my chest. She was turned away so I couldn’t see her face, but I reached up and held on to her slippery little arm and felt a rush of joy and adoration. Then she was whisked away for a short time, and the drugs which should have helped during the birth finally kicked in, and things became a blur, and exhaustion settled in.

It had been a long week. I’d had contractions four nights in a row, and then our baby arrived and cried and fed and cried through the fifth night. Gradually the fuzziness of the drugs wore away, but instead of the joy returning, darkness began to seep in. Within a day it seemed to have spread through most of my being. I ached with it.

At first I told no one. It made no sense. We had our beautiful baby at last. This was to be such a joyful time. I tried my best to be joyful. I acted the way I had expected to act as a new mother but it seemed to take so much effort. I felt like there was there small part of me that was still able to notice how beautiful our daughter was, how amazing, but that part of me was dragged down by the weight of the darkness that was taking over.

At some point in the first few days I managed to tell L something about how I was feeling, and I was relieved to find that she didn’t recoil in horror. I was even more relieved to realise that she loved our baby so much she could love her for both of us.

During her first few weeks I breastfed our daughter, I cradled her in my arms, I bathed her gently, I sang her lullabies. I did everything I had expected to do but felt nothing that I had expected to feel.

Sometimes I felt as though I was looking through a window at the happy scene of how things were meant to be. We announced Windhorse’s arrival, “we are very very happy to share the news…” because L was so very very happy, and I wanted to be. And because birth announcements aren’t meant to read “One mother is over the moon with joy at the arrival of our baby and the other is sad and numb and falling apart. Baby is doing well…” That’s just not how things are meant to be.

L encouraged me to talk to a couple of friends, and eventually I did. On the phone one of them listened to me talking about how distant I felt from my own baby and said “that must be heartbreaking for you.” And I wept, because it was. Heart breaking. And then I realised that must mean that I had a heart. And if I had a heart that could break, maybe I had a heart that could love again.

We told a few others that I was struggling but mostly I didn’t want people to know. I didn’t want to have lots of people asking me if I was feeling ok, or giving me advice or telling me things would get better. I just couldn’t bear it.

After a few weeks I we contacted the maternal mental health team and I started taking antidepressants. The psychiatrist I saw said that the role of hormones was sometimes overemphasised in postnatal depression, but in my case he thought hormones were the cause. In the past I have had experiences of severe mood changes linked to hormonal changes and the timing seemed to line up with the pattern of prolactin levels after birth. I also went back to an art therapist I’d seen in the past and I found the art therapy process immensely helpful.

Slowly, things started to get easier. As I went through the actions of being a loving mother, I felt my heart catching up. The darkness started to drain away and the full range of emotions flowed back in to the space it opened up. After about six months I still felt sad but I felt back within the range of normal emotions.

It has been fifteen months now. There are times when I still feel a little numb around the edges. There are days which are really, really hard. But mostly I feel alive and I am filled with amazement and delight as I watch Windhorse learning about the world around her. Today she got up onto her feet without pulling herself up on something. Then, after watching some older children intently, and trying several times without success, she suddenly managed to put the lid onto a felt pen! Witnessing these tiny, wonderful feats, my heart is full of love for this determined little person.

It has been hard writing this post. I feel apprehensive about hitting the “publish” button. I feel like my experience makes no sense and no one will understand. But then, mental illness never does make sense. It can happen to anyone and at any time. Even when you think you’ve got what it takes to overcome it, it can come up from behind and hit you in a new way.

There’s something else that makes no sense. Hope. Even when you think you’ve got nothing left, it can come up from behind and open you up in a new way.

I’m going to finish this post with some pictures I did in art therapy, and a poem I wrote years ago. L found it and read it aloud to me tonight. If someone reading this is in a dark space at the moment, I hope a glimmer of hope will find you soon. Arohanui. Hang in there.

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Singing

A korimako is singing,
but the sky is still dark.

Why do you sing, foolish bird?
maybe the sun won’t rise today

maybe the sun
has forgotten the way to the sky

maybe the sky
has given up fighting the clouds

maybe the clouds
are heavy with tears

maybe the tears
will blind the sun

maybe the sun won’t rise today;
the sky is still dark

but a korimako is singing
“The sun will rise again.”