Harry Potter, the Black Dog, and Literary Chocolate

harry potter

[photo courtesy of google image search]

It was recently World Maternal Mental Health Day, so what better time than the present to channel my inner Gryffindor (I’m actually a Hufflepuff, but sometimes you need a little Gryffindor courage) and admit that I’ve been struggling.

I knew I was predisposed to developing postpartum depression/anxiety after the birth of my beautiful daughter in July, but the black dog didn’t bite until this past January.

After months of house hunting with a new baby, getting in bidding wars, and losing on several houses in a hot market, we finally bought our first home and moved an hour away.

The stress of moving combined with sleep deprivation caused by a regressing/teething baby, and long hours of momming due to my husband’s work hours, brought the black dog out of the shadows and I finally had to admit that I wasn’t quite myself.

harry-potter-quote-poster-yawn-sane

[photo courtesy of google image search]

I’m in good company. It seems like my social media feed is full of articles written by new moms who struggle to keep their black dogs at bay.

As a hopeful romantic who always dreamed of having children, I thought motherhood would be a breeze. I envisioned blissful days tapping away at my novel with my gently cooing baby content in her bassinet beside me, and then tucking my dozing cherub into her crib at dusk and walking away, perhaps scribbling some enlightened motherly thoughts in my journal and reading a little Jane Austen before settling in for a full night’s sleep.

I thought my maternal nature would enable me to interpret every cry and fulfill all of my daughter’s needs without once questioning my abilities as a mother.

Oh, how naive I was. Motherhood is miraculous, beautiful, and life-changing, yes.

But it’s also hard as shit. 

Add some sleep deprivation to the mix (which is literally torture) and some major life changes and you’ve got some dark days ahead.

CacU2CLWwAAO4Rz

[photo courtesy of google image search]

Despite all the Bell Let’s Talk and CAMH initiatives, despite the countless celebrities and high-profile people who have opened up about their postpartum difficulties (and mental health struggles in general), it’s still so incredibly hard for me to talk about.

No matter how many hashtags and coloured shirt days there are, year after year, the stigma remains. If the stigma was truly gone, perhaps I wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable and vulnerable right now, like I’ve been wearing an invisibility cloak and have just now decided it’s time to take it off.

So there it is.

The invisibility cloak is off.

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[photo courtesy of google image search]

Although these last few months have been difficult, there’s been some light. A local mom group, library activities and outings, meds, prayer, music, daily exercise, and the support of friends and family have all helped alleviate some of the darkness.

I’ve also been learning a lot about the importance of self-care, which is particularly important as a mom when you’re constantly meeting the needs of others. I’ve learned that “me time” isn’t selfish–it’s a means of survival.

My “me time” happens every night after the baby finally goes to bed and I hand over the monitor to my husband so he can keep an eye on her for a few hours. I dive into bed, put my earplugs in, and get lost in a good book before getting some uninterrupted sleep.

Which brings me to Harry Potter.

stories

[photo courtesy of google image search]

Full disclosure: I’ve never read the series before.

Despite being 11 and the target audience when the first book was published, many Christians were leery of the series based on their “glorification of witchcraft and magic” … even though the author herself is a professed Christian.

As I grew up, what prevented me from reading the books was my natural distaste for anything with hype and desire to go against the grain.

Flash forward 20 years and I can say with all sincerity: Harry Potter has saved me. 

kafka

[photo courtesy of google image search]

Now I can see why everyone has been trying to get me to read the series for 20 years. Now I understand why, when I told a coworker my intention to read the series on my maternity leave, she said, “Oh Alison … enjoy getting lost in the magic.” Now I know why it’s such an enduring series, and all the hype is well deserved.

And although I wish I had read the books as a kid, I think they came to me at just the right time, when I needed them the most.

In that hour or so just before bedtime, I become completely immersed in a magical world, distracted by a story that has me unreservedly embracing full-fledged fandom.

lupin chocolate

[photo courtesy of google image search]

In Prisoner of Azkaban (my favourite of the series thus far, although I’m only a quarter of the way through Half-Blood Prince), Harry first encounters the Dementors, which are said to be based on Rowling’s own experiences with depression.

Professor Remus Lupin (one of my favourite characters), tells Harry:

Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.

Harry discovers he’s more susceptible to the evil creatures–he faints when they’re near while his friends Ron and Hermione do not–much like some people struggle with their mental health while others do not. It doesn’t mean you’re broken or weak.

Lupin tells him:

You are not weak, Harry. You have nothing to be ashamed of.

not weak

[photo courtesy of google image search]

The kind professor, who is also stigmatized, gives Harry chocolate after his first experience with the Dementors–the chosen remedy to sweeten sadness. Eat, Lupin says. You’ll feel better. Chocolate won’t prevent the Dementors from coming back. It won’t completely cure Harry from being affected. But it helps.

magical

[photo courtesy of google image search]

The black dog may always be lurking in the shadows, ready to bite. The Dementors may come and go and sometimes you’ll find the strength to ward them off. Sometimes you’ll feel them drain your peace, hope, and happiness.

But you’ll get up again. I promise. You’ll find the things that sweeten your day, that save you, that reveal God’s love to you, however small … be it chocolate, tea, friends, therapy, nature, or the power of a good story.

You’ll find your way home.

Always. 

home

[photo courtesy of google image search]

If you’re struggling with postpartum depression, don’t be afraid to get help! There’s some great resources through Life with a Baby (if you’re in Ontario) and Postpartum Progress.

Hope is a four-letter word

He is my light, my strength, my song

He is my light, my strength, my song

Hope.

A small word that feels so flimsy, tenuous, whisper thin.

Dandelion seeds scattered with breath.

Just have hope

–a punch in the gut.

A four-letter word, bitter and twisted in the mouth.

Like hinging your life on nothing.

Air.

A concept.

Because:

My circumstances are too deep, too dark, too heavy.

Suffocating with their too muchness.

And I can’t hold them with human hands,

And my eyes can’t see for the tears that blind.

And hope is a slap on sensitive skin.

hope is a white flag

hope is a white flag

But maybe that’s the point.

Nothing is ours to carry.

To plan. To plot.

To wrestle into being.

To hold on tight with human hands, so weak.

To see with human eyes, so myopic.

It’s light, a letting go.

It’s heavy, an anchor for the soul.

It’s hinging your life on everything, because in the end, there’s nothing left but

Hope.

It’s everything.

Despite the bad news.

Despite the diagnosis.

Despite the years of waiting.

Despite the years of yearning.

Despite the pain.

Despite the despair.

Despite the rain.

Despite the scorching heat of the desert,

Despite the thorns and stones of the wilderness.

Despite the feasts of others when you’re dining on crumbs.

Despite the failure, the fears,

the groaning, the tears.

Hope is both the stubborn holding tight,

Hannah’s silent prayer, Jacob’s I will not let go until you bless me grip,

And the wild, free-fall from great heights,

letting be, letting live, letting go.

In Christ alone my hope is found;
He is my light, my strength, my song;
This cornerstone, this solid ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My comforter, my all in all—
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone, Who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save.
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied;
For ev’ry sin on Him was laid—
Here in the death of Christ I live.

There in the ground His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain;
Then bursting forth in glorious day,
Up from the grave He rose again!
And as He stands in victory,
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me;
For I am His and He is mine—
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death—
This is the pow’r of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No pow’r of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home—
Here in the pow’r of Christ I’ll stand.

“In Christ Alone”
Words and Music by Keith Getty & Stuart Townend
Copyright © 2001 Kingsway Thankyou Music

after the rain, the sun

QUOTE it is well

Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty, to carry within oneself the unanswered question

– Elisabeth Elliot 

It’s hard to accept that you are in control, that you have a plan that’s good.

It’s hard to trust in a story I haven’t written myself.

I wish I could skip ahead a few chapters and see what’s next.

Then I’d be able to trust you. Then I’d be able to relax and enjoy my life and not get bogged down by the what ifs.

Then I could say with confidence that your promises are good.

But it doesn’t work like that, does it? It’s not that easy.

I guess there’s purpose in the process.

Your will is in the waiting.

If I knew all the answers to my deepest questions, I’d only trust myself–my efforts. My abilities.

I wouldn’t cling to you so desperately, the bleeding woman with nothing else but hope.

If I knew it all I wouldn’t need you. You’d be a benevolent benefactor I’d acknowledge on occasion–“thanks for everything!” and our relationship would dissolve into YOU GIVE and I TAKE.

I would miss the unexpected joy of a miracle, the tiny ray of sun struggling through the clouds when it’s rained and rained and rained without stopping.

I would learn nothing in the dark times, the hungry times, the wandering, the wondering in the wilderness.

I wouldn’t see the beauty in the brokenness, the way you whisper in the wind:

I’ve got this.

So I relent.

I relinquish control to the one who orders the storm to still.

I silence my soul to the rhythm of waves on the shore.

It is well.

Confessions of an Anti-Bridezilla

photo courtesy of google image search

photo courtesy of google image search

I’m getting married in 5 months and I refuse to be a Bridezilla.

Yes, I’m starting to feel a little bit overwhelmed at the amount of work that still has to get done because holy heck it’s a lot of planning, but I refuse to give in to the societal expectation that:

  • Weddings have to cost a bloody fortune
  • Weddings have to be obsessively planned, over-analyzed, gleaming beacons of perfection
  • Brides have to be tightly wound stress cases plagued by ulcers who, upon the Big Day, are so anxious and sleep-deprived that they can’t even enjoy themselves and end up snapping over small things like napkins that aren’t folded properly
  • Brides have to starve themselves and work out like an Olympian in order to “fit into their wedding dress”
  • Your Big Day is your day to be a celebrity and you have the right to tyrannize everyone around you with all of your wedding expectations based on Four Weddings, craploads of romantic comedies, and Pinterest.
photo courtesy of google image search

photo courtesy of google image search

I’m sorry, Wedding Shows on TLC, Slice, and the W Network.

I just don’t buy it.

The other night, my fiancé and I were in Starbucks, going over our budget and the details that still need to be worked out. I took my blue-and-white Wedding Planning binder (complete with coloured tabs and multiple checklists) out of my bag and wondered, as I often do, what the other Starbucks patrons must be thinking about me (narcissist much?):

Oh look, there’s a typical, very organized bride-to-be planning the biggest event of her life. 

I became conscious of myself acting in response to that expectation. I adopted an orderly, authoritative tone when discussing our checklists. I slouched, rested my chin in my hands, sighed often, played with my messy hair, and then I thought,

What the heck am I doing? 

I don’t have to play this game. I don’t have to get stressed out just because it’s expected of me, because that’s the lie being fed to every engaged couple by the billion-dollar wedding industry. Frankly, I don’t need any help in that department.

Yes, I want to have a beautiful wedding, and I hope that the food is delicious and that guests enjoy themselves and that the venue is decorated nicely and we all have a good time. But I don’t want to give myself ulcers and make everyone else miserable in the process.

It’s just a day – an important day I’ve been dreaming about since I was a little girl, and a day when I pledge myself forever to the love of my life – but a day nonetheless. If, at the end of the day, K and I are married, that’s all that matters.

If it’s true what they say, that planning a wedding is the beginning of the marriage, then I don’t want to spend this time sweating the small stuff. I want to enjoy this season and not lose sight of the joy and blessing that it is.

Because I’m pretty sure Bridezillas don’t have any fun and it’s my wedding, darnit! I’m going to have a blast!

Trouble been doggin’ my soul since the day I was born

architect of my mind, smooth the planes

Anxiety is not only a pain which we must ask God to assuage but also a weakness we must ask Him to pardon; for He’s told us to take no care for the morrow — C.S. Lewis

So is it true what they say?

That I can live a carefree, unfettered existence and not worry about a thing?

It seems so impossible, so irresponsible, so unlike me. What would my mind do if not eternally ruminating over nuances, scrutinizing interactions, infusing meaning into silences? What would I do with all that time?

You have the Creator of the Universe living inside of you. Every distraction, every anxiety, is designed to keep you from living a supernatural life based on that fact. Living in the rest of God empowers you to find the rest of what God has for you — Steve Thompson, from Colossians 1:28

So maybe that’s it. Rest. Remaining calm in the midst of chaos. Keeping the peace within at any cost, even if it means pulling away, closing my eyes, and breathing because it’s the most important thing in the world. Not fretting, not speculating, not analyzing, catastrophizing, obsessing, because my mind feels that if it’s not picking apart something it’s not being responsible.

Flip it the other way around. Maybe it’s the thinking that’s the problem, the nucleus of negativity, the kink in the system. Maybe being responsible means resting, slowing down, allowing love and light to fill the dark corners.

Maybe the absence of fear is peace, a wave unfurling on the shore.

let go, give in

Looking for the Great Escape

I need a vacation.

"trouble been doggin' my soul since the day I was born ..."

I feel like, in admitting that, I will elicit the response Jerry Seinfeld gives when the unemployed George Costanza announces he’s going to the Cayman Islands: “What? You’re going on vacation? What do you need a vacation from — getting up at 11 a.m.?”

(For the record, on my days off, I usually get up at 8:30 a.m., which isn’t nearly as indulgent as 11 a.m.!)

Even though I haven’t gotten a lot of hours so far at the new job and the freelance thing is slow going, I’m mentally drained from the anxiety — and thus, the physical exhaustion — that a genuine, full-blown quarter life crisis brings. Anxiety has, since I was a kid, been that tireless pest waiting in the wings whenever the smallest of crises arises, blowing it up to exaggerated, breath-reducing, stomach-twisting proportions. “Worry just will not seem to leave my mind alone,” Ray Lamontagne sings in the song “Trouble,” and I heartily concur.

However, I never intended this blog to be the place where I vent my emotional frustrations — that’s what my personal, for-my-eyes-only journal is for, and I’m much more guarded than that! (One of my friends is always saying I’m a closed book and I must say I really love that in a way!)  So I will leave you with some quotes, verses, and poems that have been nourishing my ruminating mind …

gleaning wisdom from multiple sources

“There is nothing that wastes the body like worry, and one who has any faith in God should be ashamed to worry about anything” — Gandhi (found on my sister’s fridge)

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the centre of your life” –1 Peter 5:7, from The Message Bible

“Fear can keep us up all night long, but faith makes one fine pillow” — Philip Gulley

“Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, I’ll try again tomorrow” — Mary Anne Radmacher

sometimes, like the Cowardly Lion, we forget we're the kings of the forest

” […] Life is not hurrying on to a receding future, nor hankering after an imagined past. It is the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you” — R.S. Thomas, from “The Bright Field”

“So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you’ve ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything you do. You must realize that something has happened to you; that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you” — Rainer Maria Rilke, from Letters to a Young Poet

“None of us is immune to the pain of rejection, but the more we grow in maturity and self-worth, the less likely we are to take it personally. When we acknowledge that rejection is not an indictment of our being, but an experience we must all face again and again if we put ourselves out there, rejection becomes easier to bear. The only sure way to avoid rejection is to sit mute in a corner and take no risks. If we choose to live courageously, we will experience rejection — and survive to show up for more” — Harriet Lerner, Ph.D. from Fear and Other Uninvited Guests

Now live courageously my friends. Hold your heads up high and when life knocks you down, remind yourself who you are and get back up again. And again. And again and again.

The Upside of Down

I read a fascinating article recently in The New York Times by Jonah Lehrer called “Depression’s Upside,” which surmises that depression may not be all that bad and is, in fact, quite beneficial.

I highly recommend you read the whole article, but basically the following points were made:

  • Rumination — the act of turning thoughts over and over in your mind — rather than a form of pessimism and waste of energy, helps people learn from mistakes, solve problems, make decisions, and better themselves by constantly replaying and obsessing about the past
  • Antidepressants aren’t as useful as one may think — sometimes the pain stems from a real problem that can’t be merely medicated away
  • People who are depressed are generally more attentive, aware, and have a better grip on reality
  • The correlation between depression and creativity is inescapable — those who are more self-critical produce more refined works of art and writing and are less aware of personal achievement, therefore increasing production

I have mixed feelings about this essay.  At one point, a psychiatrist says that much of the stigma attached to depression (and other mood disorders in general, I think) no longer exists in this day and age.  I would have to disagree on that point and would argue that while we’ve come a long way from the Medieval times during which those who suffered from what we know call mood disorders were thought to be possessed by the devil and were subjected to torture, depression is still greatly misunderstood.

Despite the fact that the number of people with depression is increasing (or more pharmaceutical companies are benefitting from overdiagnosing people; you be the judge), there’s still this pervasive mentality that it’s someone’s fault that they’re depressed or anxious.  Especially in the Christian community. “Why can’t you just be filled with the joy of the Lord?,” “You just have a lack of faith,” and “Why are you letting Satan get you down?” are some common questions, whether stated or implied.

Well, easier said than done when you consider a genetic predisposition to depression and anxiety, as well as malfunctioning amygdalas and low levels of serotonin.

I do agree, however, that you can’t medicate away depression. I don’t think there is any cure, although a combination of antidepressants and therapy may help.  I also believe that God can heal people of mood disorders, but healing is often not instant. It may take years. A lot of people don’t realize this.

As to depression actually being beneficial rather than a debilitating disorder is a new concept to me, and probably the most fascinating point in the article. I’ve often wondered at the mysterious connection between mood disorders and creativity. It makes sense when you think of some of the most creative people (Plath, Woolf, Hemingway, and Cobain all come to mind as extreme cases) and the prevalence of mood disorders among them.  Even though the disorder causes great pain, it can also produce some brilliant works of art.

So is it worth it?  Should those with mood disorders learn to embrace their unsettled minds?

Can it be positive to be negative?

Is trying to be optimistic just a waste of time?

Sometimes I wonder, as I have a predisposition to pessimism, if expecting a negative outcome is better than being blindly optimistic since you can always be pleasantly surprised when things go well, and you protect yourself from being disappointed. At the same time, there’s no joy in pessimism either and it seems to show a lack of faith in a way.

Like anything, I suppose, it requires a balance.

As Lehrer states in the article, “wisdom isn’t cheap, and we pay for it with pain.”