“What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you look at this picture?” The Relief Society teacher asked me directly. The image was from a magazine and was what I would describe as mixture of Goths and eccentrically, darkly dressed women and men. I knew what the answer was likely supposed to be. But the teacher didn’t know me. She knew my name, and she knew me by the pastel floral prints that had I chosen to wear on my return to church a few years earlier. These pale prints grew within my wardrobe making me into a wraith of my former self. Choking on these pale forals, I longed for the company, asymmetrical styles, and nose rings of my pre-uber-Molly days.Read More
Every year my ward ushers in the Christmas season with a Wreath Making Party. There’s music, a program, food, and of course, wreaths. It was last night and I was asked to speak. Here are my remarks.
As I’ve contemplated the theme of this year’s program, Come let us adore him, I think of Mary and Joseph finding refuge in a stable, the shepherds and magi, following the star, but mostly I think of the sweet Christ child and the joy His birth brought to the world. Let me share with you two stories, one about finding room in the inn, the other about following the star, both about hope and babies.
Story I: Surprise. You’re pregnant.
In 2001 I was pregnant with my third child, and fell into a deep depression. Much of it was hormonal, but it also had to do with our current situation. We were living in a small two bedroom and I’d lay awake each night mentally rearranging furniture and wonder where on earth this unexpected child’s stuff was supposed to go. I already shared a dresser with the toddler. My husband also traveled a lot and I was having a hard time managing two littles on my own. How could I add a newborn?
The bigger I got, the deeper I sank. I wanted to feel joy but couldn’t. Instead I was mired in a mixture of misery and guilt. What was wrong with me that I was less than elated? How could a Mormon woman NOT see pregnancy as a blessing? Even when things were going well, the depression could sneak up on me like the shark in Jaws. One minute I would be figuratively enjoying a nice swim and the next minute I was drowning in pain and darkness. I prayed as I tucked the other two in bed at night that they would not be damaged by my foul moods. I prayed as I drove to work that I’d be able to stop crying long enough to teach the 3-hour block. I prayed when the psychologist that my OB made me see told me that my depression would go away if I just ate more salmon. I hate salmon.
I have always had a hard time getting answers to prayers. This is not to say that I never get answers–I do. Sometimes. It’s just that when God does decide to respond to my pleas me, he uses creative means of communication.
When I was 6 months pregnant, some girlfriends decided we should go to the outlets up in Maine. They knew I was depressed and thought a little retail therapy might help. And if that failed, there was a Dairy Queen nearby. Salmon was not going to relieve my hormonal upheaval, but a Peanut-Buster Parfait might.
In one of those Swedish catalog stores where kids’ pajamas cost what my wedding dress did, I picked up a little knit cap, tried it on my fist and smiled. It was mostly green, a cheery Granny Smith with a few stripes, pink, yellow, blue. It was even on sale. But the last thing I needed was more clothes. By this point I knew I was having another girl, 22 months after my last. Same age, same season, same clothes. Everything else about the pregnancy felt so overwhelming, it was a great relief to know that I didn’t have to buy a single article of clothing. So I tossed the cap back.
But when I left the store I couldn’t walk away. I told my friends I’d catch up and I stood there, trying to figure out what I was feeling. There was no voice, but I knew God wanted me to buy that green hat. Yes, the Lord speaks to people in the language and means they best understand. So what does this say about me that God talks to me through shopping? Ignoring the slight, I obeyed the prompting, feeling a little foolish (and superficial), but glad to have ANY kind of divine communication in the midst of my depression which, more than anything else, left me feeling spiritually abandoned.
That night as I took the knit cap out of the bag, I imagined the tiny, warm head that it would adorn. I could imagine the soft cheeks against my breast. And perhaps for the first time, I didn’t think about the morning sickness or sciatica, the lack of space, my limited resources. I only thought about this baby as an individual. In that moment I felt peace. There would be room enough in our house, in my heart, for this child. I held the cap and cried.
The cap sat on my dresser for the next 3 months as a reminder of the comfort and knowledge I had received. It became a talisman, a symbol that my baby and I had not been forgotten.
Camille’s arrival signaled the departure of my depression. The moment she left my body I felt as if the clouds parted and the sun began to shine again. She wore the cap many times. I joked to my husband that it was the “cap of many colors,” representing my love for her. And now it is hard to imagine not having her in my life, hard to imagine that carrying her was such a burden on my body and spirit.
She arrived two weeks before Christmas, and we were crowded. Our tiny apartment became a mini Hong Kong, as we put shelves on top of dressers, got bunk beds and just kept stacking stuff up up up. But there was room for this precious child, and as we celebrated the savior’s birth, I had never better understood the joy of the nativity, that a tiny child could so enlarge my heart and fill my soul with love. There was room aplenty in the Inn.
Story II: We have some bad news for you…
In 2005 , I was once again expecting. This time I was elated but nervous as I’d lost 3 babies the previous year. My OB sent me to the high-risk practice at the Brigham and I underwent so many tests that I often felt like I’d been abducted by aliens. At 9 weeks a somber nurse told me there was a problem and ushered me into the genetic counselor’s office. I heard the words cystic hygroma, severe defects, chromosomal abnormality, and termination. I stopped listening and just concentrating on breathing
Once again I found myself pregnant and depressed. Every time I went to the doctor it got worse. The cyst was growing, and my doctor would list for me all the things that might be wrong with my baby—if I even made it full term. (The irony that this other depression surrounds being desperate to have a baby is not lost on me) Every time I went into her office, I felt bereft. She was like the dementors from Harry Potter, sucking all the light and joy out of me. I felt as if I’d never be happy again.
I turned to the Lord and prayed my heart out. I prayed for strength, for comfort, for a manageable disability. At church I remember looking at certain women, and thinking “So & so has REAL faith. She is the kind of woman who gets miracles, not me.” I wasn’t jealous of bitter—nobody’s mad—just observing that it seemed certain people get the yes answer, and others, like me, got the “not this time sweetheart.” Sometime around month 6 I had a conversation with a friend who’d also had a “we have some bad news for you” pregnancy. Her advice to me was simple. Ask God for what I wanted. Even if it was a miracle. Just ask. The Lord loves us and wants us to come to Him with our righteous desires. She said that there would be blessings in the asking, regardless of the outcome.
So I did. And it was terrifying to ask for a miracle, to lay my broken heart at His feet. I was so afraid that I couldn’t take the pain if my desires weren’t granted. But God heard my prayers and gave me a gift. Hope. I remember it felt tangible, this gift of Hope that I could choose to take or not take. It wasn’t a warranty against pain and suffering, or a guarantee of a glittery and shiny outcome. But it shone brightly, like a star you might follow through the desert or a wilderness. And I followed. The first thing I did was “fire” my OB. If I was going to make it I needed to find someone who could also also allow for the possibility of a good outcome. Next, a dear friend organized a fast for me, contacting many of our friends. The idea of being on the receiving end of sacrifice made me really uncomfortable. But I could not deny that their faith bolstered mine and gave me a peace that felt like being wrapped in one of those warm, minky blankets they sell at Costco. By month 8 I had the courage to go ahead and prepare the nursery. I painted it a happy lavender and my sister sent me the bedding she’d handmade for her daughter. I followed the star of hope and had faith that whatever awaited me in the manger would be a blessing.
Fast-forward to 3 days before Thanksgiving. As it came time to deliver the baby, the room was filled with doctors and nurses waiting to see what they would need to do for this child. None of it stressed me at the point. I knew whatever happened, God had heard me, comforted me, and I would not be left alone. Our child arrived chubby and healthy and it made us smile to have medical professionals dub our daughter “the miracle baby.” I felt like the Holy Family as hospital personnel and friends streamed in and out of our room to behold our miracle baby. “Come let us adore Him,” I thought. Dave named her Beatrice, bringer of joy and blessings. Thanksgiving took on new meaning for our family as we all drank in the beauty of our answered prayers.
Now at Christmas, I identify with many of the players. I see myself in the harried and busy innkeepers who can’t find room in the inn–and I am reluctant to judge them as I suspect they too were super stressed and eluded by peace . I see myself as a distant traveler following a star, weary but hopeful that I can survive the journey, praying that the gifts I bring will be sufficient. But mostly I strive to be like the tired but faithful mother who looks to the Holy Child and finds faith and joy. Oh Come Let us Adorn Him!Read More
Tomorrow marks a few milestones for me. My son turns 1 1/2, and despite his frighteningly early birth and warnings from doctors that we could be dealing with a lot of delays and health issues, he’s pretty close to normal on the developmental chart and is healthy (robustly so) and strong (he handles the stairs in our second-and-third-floor condo at now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t speed). It’s the 23rd anniversary of the Berlin Wall coming down, something seared into my brain because I’d spent several weeks the previous summer in what was then the Soviet Union, and despite people talking in cafes about independence and our translator’s curiosity about free markets and the nuts and bolts of owning a small business, Eastern Europe still looked like an unpickable lock. It’s the birthday of a few friends, one in particular whom I’ve known since childhood.
Tomorrow also marks a year since I signed myself into a psychiatric ward, suicidal, untrusting of family, resentful about church, furious with my husband, feeling desperately alone. I stayed for a week and a half, waiting for a new combination of medicines to work, waiting to trust myself around sharp objects and empty spaces. I slept a lot, went to workshops and meals when I felt I could, put together jigsaw puzzles and then pulled them apart again.
While I was in the hospital, one of the occupational therapists on the ward handed me a list of events that could trigger post-partum depression. Nearly all of them applied to me. Unexpected pregnancy? Check. Complications during pregnancy? Check. Early delivery, baby in NICU, long-term separation of mother and baby? History of depression? Recently stopped breastfeeding? Check, check, check. I hadn’t chosen any of these things. No wonder I was feeling that my life was in freefall, that nothing I did had any effect or meaning.
I think I re-emerged from the depression seven or eight months later. I couldn’t give you a day when I knew I was going to be all right; I still have afternoons that yawn at me like enormous sharp-toothed beasts. For the most part, though, I am myself again, and I am grateful.
About that post-partum checklist: Everything on it represented either an outside stressor or an internal hormonal shift. We are good at recognizing stressors for what they are, but hormones are stealthy, and they are serious. Men are subject to them too, of course, but the word “hormonal” conjures up a specter of a wild-haired, wild-eyed woman at the end of her rope, screaming at her children and threatening her husband with a carving knife or cast-iron skillet. It’s chiefly a female attribute, and it stands in for unstable, unbalanced, irrational, emotional — the opposite of what men tend to pride themselves on being. Label a woman hormonal and she is immediately the other, the unknowable, an embarrassment.
I have a lot of resentment about this, but other than pointing out that hormonal changes are actually normal, I’m going to leave the men-have-hormones-too, emotional-is-neither-better-or-worse-than-analytical arguments for another time. Because yeah, hormones have huge effects on me. I knew that I was pregnant each time — taking a pregnancy test was only ever a confirmation of something I’d already known from fatigue, nausea, and blurred vision. I can feel it when I ovulate. I know when I’m too weepy or too angry or too withdrawn (or maybe just more weepy or angry or withdrawn than usual) that my body is marinating in some new chemical mixture.
And I guess what I really want to say with this post is, first, that sometimes our bodies betray us. We secrete chemicals that change our reaction to the world around us, that alter our lens on reality. I think it must be inherent to mortality: these bodies of cells, dependent on DNA copying over and over correctly, dependent on chemical messages, dependent on small electrical charges lighting up parts of our brains, have constant failures. It’s in the design. It’s miraculous that it works at all, so none of the failures are surprising, and some of the failures are bound to be distorted messages that say “null” instead of “whole,” “harm” instead of “bless.” Things break down. It doesn’t mean that the universe has betrayed us or that the presence of God has withdrawn. It just means that we are mortal and our bodies fail in infinite small ways. Sometimes, like starfish, we are self-healing. But sometimes, because we are social beings, we need someone else to help us heal.
The second thing I want to say is that things do regrow and heal, and that we are not alone. You are not alone. Someone — a visiting teacher? — made a list of people who knew me and loved me, people I could turn to when I felt most helpless and most unloved. Phone numbers. E-mail addresses. I left the list hanging on my refrigerator for months. I rarely used it, but when I did my friends never failed me. Even reading their names made me feel safer. Following this blog and hearing other women’s stories made me feel less “other.” I spent hours reaching out to my Mother in Heaven, asking her for help and feeling her beside me, whispering to me that I would be all right someday, that the only way around was through. I read and re-read Sara Burlingame’s Prayer for a Friend Contemplating Suicide and thought, Other people have been through this, and they have survived, and I will too. It has been a year, and I am still here, and I made it through, and I will keep making it through.
Who and what do you turn to when you feel alone? What are the things that help you see more clearly or feel more connected?Read More
When I was young, I was often frustrated that one of the only things my peers knew about our faith concerned the negative aspects of the Word of Wisdom. They had a good grasp of the things that we don’t do, without having the same grasp of the positive things that we do do and believe.
Many years later, and many, many states away from my Oregon homeland, I found myself on the East Coast for grad school. I am still not certain if more people smoke and drink there, or if I was just more aware of it, but either way, I began to feel immense gratitude for the “negative” tenets of the Word of Wisdom that had previously caused me some frustration.
What exactly was I grateful for? That my lungs and liver had the greatest opportunity to be clean and healthy, and that I was free from these specific dependencies. While years and residences have again changed, I feel the same measure of gratitude for the Word of Wisdom–both the negative and positive aspects of it.
From the Life
Lesson 19 begins with a story from the life of a young George Albert Smith. He was very sick with typhoid fever, and his doctor advised his mother that it would not only be good for him to be on bed rest for a certain number of weeks with no solid food, it would also be good for him to be given coffee.Read More
Let’s just dive in here, because this message is a bit awkward. We all know this directive; at least once every conference, if not once every session of conference, a story is relayed about members jumping in to help out a person, family or community in sudden distress. The stories are beautiful and inspirational, and we can easily envision ourselves as serving each other in an emergency. As a result of our own humanity, most people share a sense of urgency when we hear of someone in crisis, but the thing is… I don’t think this message is best served with a side of crisis. Rather, I think common sense and positive habits are much more effective in performing “action in time of need.”
Consider the term “action”. Dictionary.com relays that action is “the process or state of acting or of being active.” It is not a response; it is a state of being. So here’s a big fat no-brainer, yet I think is important to address: Action does not equal REaction. Yet I think the formal message is worded in a manner that only addresses (teaches) reactionary service. Consider the message:Read More
Guest Post by Kristel
Kristel is a life-long member of the church living in Australia. She served a mission in New Mexico, and is wide open for life to bring her adventure. She is one of six children, enjoys landscape photography, fishing and travelling.
Growing up I had always heard words to the effect of, “if you are struggling, find ways to serve others”. Thinking about those words when I was in a period of hopelessness and emptiness bugged me a little – those words were not what I wanted to hear – how could I possibly motivate myself to find ways to do something for someone else! What about ME?? If I’m the one struggling – people need to help me….right?
These words eventually rang true to me when I served an LDS mission. On my mission in New Mexico, I came to know of the joy of helping, sharing and supporting others in need. Ultimately, I learnt that I am truly the one that benefits most from doing something for someone else.Read More