Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Recession, Depression, Confession

A friend told me last week she’d stopped watching, listening to or reading the news.

“Too depressing,” she said.

From gas prices to the national debt to the stock market crash, there is little in the news to be happy about. As early as 2008, when the current recession began, mental health professionals were seeing a rise in patients with depression, from Wall Street executives to hourly wage earners.

New college graduates are not getting jobs. Older Americans are losing their careers in mid-life.

Many people cannot sleep. Heart problems have gotten worse. People cannot pay their medical bills. Clinics are seeing more suicide threats.

This economic downturn—both public and private—has tested my faith. I struggle with depression. It’s not just the economy, but my stage of life—menopause—and other life situations.

The husband and I have been through some tough times. While our children were young, we chose to have one income so that I could be a fulltime home-maker. There were no trips to DisneyWorld. Part of our wardrobe was secondhand clothing. But many of our friends were in the same boat. We had all we needed and were happy.

So when the current situation hit us with a reduced income, cutting back came naturally. And God has a history of taking care of us. I leaned on that heavily. We continue to pay the mortgage and the bills, fix stuff that breaks and eat delicious home-cooked meals.

But the husband and I have switched roles. I go out to work while he stays home, busy with many projects. When I worked less hours, I used to babysit my grandkids a couple days a week. Now I see them for a few hours every week or two.

Then last spring, I got an e-mail about one of my favorite musicians, sent by one of his close friends. The musician had lost a contract that had provided him with steady income for many years. He lost his house. He and his family moved into an apartment. They were robbed; the thieves took items of sentimental value. He had health problems and, without health insurance, no money to pay for medical care.

Near as I can tell, he’s been serving God faithfully for lo these many years. He’s a creative genius when it comes to songwriting and music projects. While all his music is not about God, he has always had God at the center of his life. So God should be providing all his needs, right? God should have provided the mortgage money, right?

This really unsettled me. I felt like, gee, if God did not intervene in his situation, why should I be allowed to keep my house? Eventually, reason led my emotions back to reality: I am not him.

And then there’s the guilt. With millions of people starving to death in Somalia, how can I feel deprived that I can’t eat out as often as I used to or that I can’t take a pricey vacation?

When I realized how depressed I was, I got even more depressed.

“To fight depression, it’s important to eliminate counterproductive habits like gambling, substance abuse or over- or under-eating and rely instead on therapeutic activities like exercise, meditation and hobbies,” said Dr. Rosalind S. Dorlen, psychologist, in a Nov. 5, 2008, CBC News article.

After reading this article, I realize that I do have some healthy responses to stress. I have no addictions that cost money. I walk or bicycle nearly every day. I am thankful for my family, job, my good health and that of my husband and children. I work in the garden. I am working on a college degree. I read good books, have good conversations with friends and enjoy a glass of wine three or four nights per week.

One thing I stopped doing when my faith was in question was having “quiet time,” which consists of reading my Bible or spiritual material, meditating and praying. That was a mistake. Whether I’m feeling it or not, I must feed my spirit. Doing so gives me the ability to see things as they really are.

I’ve made other mistakes, too, which, as my vision clears, I am beginning to see.

We’re all in this together, folks. As Gerald May says in “Will and Spirit,” “…even in our aloneness we are together, for we each have it.”

Perhaps it would help to acknowledge that to each other.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Five Years Later, Still Well, Still Grateful

They say that women who survive five years after a breast cancer diagnosis have a better chance of staying cancer-free.

Such statistics are encouraging, for it was five years ago this week that a doctor pronounced those words to me, the ones that no woman ever wants to hear: “You have breast cancer.”

At first you think you’re going to die. You walk around with that feeling of dread in your gut.

Two days after that doctor visit, we had the kids and grandkids over for the husband’s birthday cookout. I baked a cake, made potato salad, spread the tablecloth on the picnic table. I went through the motions of a family celebration, but it all felt unreal. I think it felt that way to all of us. I know it did to the husband, because he would catch my eye now and then, and I understood he was in the same unknowing state as I was.

My doctor had recommended I go the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville for care. I made an appointment with the top surgeon, but they wanted a biopsy first. As I went through that procedure with a local surgeon, I still felt fearful and surreal.

Where was my faith during those first few days? I’m not sure. My prayers were of the desperate sort. Please don’t let me die, I’m not ready to die. But by the time I had my first appointment at UVa, the Psalms—which my doctor suggested I read—were giving me some hope and comfort. I’d written several verses on old business cards and tucked them into my jeans pockets, to have with me all the time.

I’d observed other people go through life-threatening diseases and it seemed their doctors always began with the worst possible prognosis. You’re going to die. You’ll be disabled for life. You’ll always have this disease. How horrible.

At that first visit with Dr. Brenin, he said, “Yes, you do have breast cancer. But you’re going to be alright.”

You’re going to be alright. I believed him. Then other people began to tell me I was going to be alright. Everywhere, they reflected it back to me.

I went through surgery, three months of recovery, then chemotherapy and more recovery.

Early on, a friend had told me not to act on fear. My pastor had prayed that God would lead me on a path to healing. Another had said that each woman has to make her own decisions. And so these three pieces of advice undergirded my confidence and guided my decisions.

My family was so caring during that time, helping in any way they could. My oldest daughter, Heidi, took off work to accompany me to several doctor’s appointments. My youngest daughter, Rachel, called me from Northern Ireland nearly every day for months. My son’s gift of humor kept me laughing.

My work buddies were awesome. They visited, called, encouraged me. One day they surprised me with gifts of hats, to cover my head after chemo.

My church home group supplied me with steady prayers and many good meals, which they delivered to my out-of-the-way home almost every day for weeks.

And the cards. When I wrote about the cancer in this column, many readers responded by sending cards. There are no words to describe how much that meant to me. I felt so loved.

So five years later, how am I doing?

I was saddened by Andrea Lohr’s recent death from breast cancer. She got her first diagnosis a few months before me. But she was a much younger, and older women seem to survive better. I met and wrote about Andrea for Bloom magazine. She was so caring and kind. Her death seems unfair.

I continue to take the supplement that studies have shown to prevent recurrence of breast cancer, along with those that support my immune system. I walk, do yoga and exercise with light weights to stay strong. I eat a vegetable-based diet along with some animal proteins. To the best of my ability, I avoid foods grown with pesticides, antibiotics or growth hormones.

That’s the physical stuff. However, I still struggle with some of the emotional issues which, I believe, had a much greater influence on my getting cancer.

Will all of this prevent a recurrence? So far, so good. But I have no guarantee.

For now, I am grateful for each day of life.