Dory, the little blue fish in Finding Nemo has to be one of my favourite children’s film characters. She suffers from amnesia and confusion but somehow manages to hold on to her friends, her sanity and her sense of purpose, summed up by her catch phrase ‘Just Keep Swimming’. In other words when you’re not sure about anything else, do the best you can to do the days tasks and just keep at it.
My frame of mind has felt somewhat fragile for the last couple of months. I have been suffering from a deadly combination of too much in the diary, too many people in the house, and too little time to recharge. Add in a pinch of ontological despair, a sense of isolation, emotional strain, unsettling changes, actual physical pain and plain old exhaustion and you have pretty toxic recipe.
No, don’t feel sorry for me. This isn’t a pity party. Everything I’ve described is just the ordinary stuff of life. Susan Lenzkes once defined stress as being ‘stoned to death by marbles’ – nothing major, just a pile of everyday hassles – but there comes a ‘tipping point’ when we lose the ability to ‘roll with the punches’ and we find ourselves flat on the floor hoping we can stay there.
This was approximately the state I was in when I arrived at the New Wine summer conference attended by our church. Feeling jaded and just a bit cynical I never-the-less took myself along to the first main-stream Bible reading. Due to arriving one day late, the one I turned up for was called ‘Returning from Depression’. ‘Oh boy’ I thought as I collected the notes on the way in, ‘that’s scarily relevant’.
David Parker a Pastor from California was talking under the title ‘Pushing Back the Darkness’. Over a series of 5 talks he explored ways of pushing back the darkness from the interior of our personal lives by which he meant things like confusion, discouragement and loss of direction. His subjects were Defeat, Depression, Disease, Doubt and Deceit. Well there’s an uplifting series of words for you!! Actually it really was an uplifting series of talks, as he gave us solid hand holds for understanding subjects that are everyday realities for all of us. He managed to be realistic yet still give us hope and lots and lots of strategies for ways forward from each of these.
I’ll just tell you about 2 in particular from the session on depression, these from a list of about 7 recommendations: he encouraged ‘pet therapy’, his personal brand of cuddly animal was a lop-eared bunny rabbit. When life got too overwhelming, he would go out to the rabbit run and ‘cuddle a bunny’ for a while. I instantly warmed to this man! My own bouncy, Bobby dog with his joy in the moment does so much for my spirits.
The second strategy I’ll mention was exercise. I already knew this from my research from my book but it is a well documented fact that mild to moderate exercise done consistently can deliver a huge benefit in terms of mental well-being. Not being able to exercise due to the wretched, miserable foot condition described earlier in this blog was one of the boringly normal trigger factors that contributed to this state of mind in the first place.
So we sat and tried to think laterally: what could I do that wouldn’t put weight on my foot. Swimming!
Just one problem…. sooooo boring.
But okay God, if it’s going help I’ll swim but I not doing it on my own. David has also stopped exercising for the last couple of months due to a bad back and swimming is also meant to be good for that too so after a little discussion we made a commitment to one another that we would go swimming together twice a week for a minimum of 3 weeks (let’s not get carried away here!).
Not long after our return from the conference I was telling all this to our daughter on the phone, and concluded my account with,
‘ So, your Dad and I have covenanted to go swimming together for 3 weeks!’
There was a long pause ….
‘You mean ‘metaphorically’? she said
‘Metaphorically!! What the heck is ‘metaphorical swimming’? (Visions of us sitting on the sofa doing the breast-stroke actions and opening our mouths like goldfishes, I’ve done some silly things in my time as a Christian but I’m not doing that, even if it helped!)
‘No, I mean actual swimming,’ I explained, patiently. Not virtual, not metaphorical, but actually getting into the pool and using our limbs to propel us up and down.
Obviously it was the word ‘covenant’ that threw her! I should have known better than to litter my conversation with spiritual concepts. Clearly she was not expecting such a prosaic response to a seminar on spiritual life.
Apparently 1 in 10 people will suffer a major depression in their life time, for women you can double that likelihood. 30% of women may be suffering from depression at any one time. 80% of those suffering are receiving no treatment and a key reason for this is the mistaken belief that depression is a character weakness, a personal flaw, a failure of courage and that to admit to it would stigmatise them. I can certainly identify with that, I began researching it due to coming across so many sufferers pastorally (I am a trainee vicar) but have had to admit my symptoms also fitted the bill. David Parker called depression ‘an epidemic of misery at head spinning level’ by 2020 it will be the 2nd most common health problem in the world. Yet 80-90% of cases of depression are highly treatable but you MUST have a plan, a strategy for helping you recover your perspective. This plan might include medication, antidepressants help in 60-70% of cases, talking therapies, exercise, pet therapy, natural supplements or change of environment. I checked out all this info with a psychiatrist friend of mine who was also at the seminar and she said they were sound. For a very painful but honest account of serious depression you could read Shoot the Damn Dog by Sally Brampton (obviously pet therapy didn’t work for her!) She recommends CBT,meditation, Omega 3 and Vitamin B12 but it’s a book that focusses on the experience rather than the remedy, it’s very insightful though not written from a Christian perspective. If you’ve no personal experience of your own or you look down on sufferers, you need to read this book.
So meanwhile my plan is to ‘just keep swimming’. By way of encouragement when I turned up at the pool, I found they were running a special offer which means we’ve paid hardly anything for unlimited swimming for two whole months. Okay God, I get the message!
I’ll keep you posted on progress.
p.s if you are interested in the series of talks go to essentialchristian.com and put in David Parker Pushing Back the Darkness
This is really helpful. I’m currently reading up and even thinking of going to a conference on Spirituality and Mental Health Care as I’m beginning to recognise the value of things we do like our Community choir as part of a wellbeing project and wider vision.
I heard a phrase just recently ‘Mental Health is everyone’s issue’. Hope you keep afloat in every sense of the word (metaphorical and real) xxx
Isn’t it great how most of life’s problems can be addressed by an hour and a half of Disney goodness? I think I might write a new counselling model called ‘Disney Therapy’.
As a third of a prayer triplet with five and a half children, ranging from minus four months to six, ‘just keep swimming’ has become something of a catchphrase. In fact, most of the time it has boiled down to a JKS sign off at the end of text messages – a quick acknowledgement of the difficulty of life sometimes and a promise of prayerful support.
In all seriousness, as someone who has suffered from depression from the chocolate-eating treatment right up to hospitalisation, I very much appreciated your post, and your description of David Parker’s talks may finally push me into the realm of downloading. Thank you for being so refreshingly honest and still humourous.
Thanks Abbie. At the moment the talks can only be purchased as CDs and the one on depression is the second one in the series. I asked about downloads and they told me they would be available in 3 or 4 weeks time. Thanks for the encouragment I like the idea of JKS as a sign off!
Sheila, Good luck with the swimming. My GP has just told me to start running to help my fight against depression. The problem is I have just worked out that it is longer since health issues, now controlled, stopped me running than the length of time I was running! On top of that when would I find time to run? Still there must be a reason why I haven’t thrown out my running gear after 15 years!
Ouch! What about cycling instead? Still lots of fresh air and exercise but much less strain on the knees and ankles. Thanks for the encouragment.