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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Foundations of Counselling

Last month I began a Masters of Counselling program via weekend intensives. The first subject is "Foundations of Counselling". I am thoroughly enjoying the course but it is also, emotionally, very confronting. As part of the learning process we take part in triads. These are standard counselling practical groups where there are 3 students; one is the counsellor, one the counsellee and the other is the observor who reflects back upon completion of the counselling session.

At the outset of the course we are told that, if we are a counsellee, we can choose a fictitious scenario but, apart from the fact that this is difficult to maintain, it is also more natural to share from our own journey. What has interested me is that firstly there are a number of people on the course who come from quite traumatic backgrounds. I guess this shouldn't be too much of a surprise because the best therapists are those who can truly empathise. I have been very heartened to engage with others who have suffered abuse and have overcome this setback in their childhood.

I think what has encouraged me the most is the strength of the human spirit to overcome. Over the past 3 intensives I have heard some painful stories and, yet, at the same time I have seen people who have families, jobs, a faith in God and who are persevering in regaining control of their lives. As someone who is training under a Christian framework I am not discounting the role of God in the process of healing but I do want to emphasise the resilience in the human spirit.

As I have reflected I have realised that it is easy for me to live my life as a victim of my childhood but there is the opportunity for me to rise above this. I have been encouraged that having been married for 11 years; raising 3 boys and studying at Masters level despite coming through a serious mental breakdown in a considerable achievement. I don't say this to boast but simply to encourage those who may need to see the possibilities that we all have to rise above our circumstances in some way.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Married Life

Today my wife and I have been married for 11 years.

11 happy years? 11 blissful years? Let's just leave it at 11 years.

This year I have come to realise some things:

Marriage is blooming hard work and anyone who says otherwise is in la-la land.

I have been a poor husband for much of our marriage. Some of this is due to my struggles but some of it is down to my selfishness and lack of regard for my wife. I finally believe that in 2007 I am "getting it". Some of the credit for "getting it" is down to our wonderful marriage counselor and also to my wife's grace and forgiveness.

Tonight we are going out for dinner and for the first time in a long, long time I can truly tell my wife that I love her and she has reason to believe me and trust me.

Made is whose image?

I want to draw attention to a post by Sally at Eternal Echoes. With my interest in mental health and the lack of love and regard often found in the church I found this an excellent reflection. Mostly I was challenged and moved by the poem at the beginning of the post which I have reproduced here:

I challenge you

to look beyond the label

you give me,

of gender,

of race,

of sexuality,

of disability…

.

I challenge you to see me

as I am;

unique

created by God,

made in Her image,

fashioned by His design

.

I am a walking talking work of art;

Human, just

like you!

I feel and bleed…

I love and laugh…

.

If you were to see me

and not the label you have given me,

we might talk and laugh,

and love together.



Synchroblog - Persecution

This month's synchroblog is on the subject of persecution. Here is the list:

Check out my other Synchroblogger friends at the links below:

David Fisher - Be the Revolution
Mike Bursell - Mike's Musings
Restoring Our View of Humanity at Eternal Echoes
Persecuting the Marginalized at JohnSmulo.com
The Ends Justify the Means at Calacirian
Billy Calderwood - Billy Calderwood
Seeking First Righteousness at Tim Abbott
Jamie Swann - More Than Stone
Persecution and Martyrdom at Handmaid Leah
"Don't squash the counter-revolutionary/the plank in my own eye" at Jeremiah
The Martyrs of Epinga at Notes from the Underground
Terrorism in Christianity at The Rivera Blog
Persecution or Poor Elocution? at "Hello," said Jenelle

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Theological Acid Test

A friend and I were discussing certain theological positions that appear to be governed more by the prevailing world view of the people involved and less by faithful Biblical exegesis. I came across a quote by Dallas Willard on Just Wondering which, very succinctly, gives a good measure for theological propositions:

"The acid test for any theology is this: Is the God presented one that can be loved heart, mind, soul and strength? If the thoughtful answer is; 'Not really,' then we need to look elsewhere or deeper."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Good Labels/Bad Labels - part two

As part of this time of reflecting I have had cause to look back upon my own, personal, journey. What I choose to share here is a window into my life. It is not the whole story but it does highlight some of the difficulties in living with, and defining, mental illness.

Mental illness. The term itself conjures all sorts of images, many of them negative. I use the term because my predominant struggles are with damaged emotions and thoughts and "mental" illness seems to fit as good as any. I work with men with mental illness and witness, first-hand, the biases and misunderstandings prevalent in Australian society. What I have been blessed to discover is that underneath the labels and history there are special men who simply want to live their lives as best as they are able.

In 2004, upon leaving seminary and embarking upon a role as an associate pastor in a church in Sydney, I was diagnosed with depression. Thanks to organisations such as Beyond Blue awareness and understanding of depression is becoming a lot healthier in Australian society. Visiting a GP and coming to terms with depression, then, wasn't as difficult as I had imagined and I received generally positive support.

As 2004 went on mild depression developed into chronic depression and in October 2004 I was put on the maximum dose of anti-depressants. This dosage means that, when I need a new prescription, the doctor has to phone through to an administering body for permission to prescribe this dosage. I found myself in a new category of society. My journey was really only just beginning.

As 2004 came to a close my ability to function as a pastor steadily became worse. I came to realise that mild depression is something that people are willing to work with but chronic depression, especially as it becomes debilitating, is not so well received by society and, sadly, even by churches. I was no longer as effective in ministry and the church was paying my wages. My pastor's response to my declining productivity was to meet with me once a week to methodically work through my diary for the past week. Suffice to say this simply put more pressure upon me and only served to increase the sense of guilt and failure.

In 2005 I was referred to a psychiatrist in Sydney who wasn't sure at first in what category to place me. As we worked together he found that a mood stabiliser was very effective in moderating my condition and he diagnosed mild bi-polar. This "label" caused a significant shift in my self-esteem as I began to fear that the condition would deteriorate. As I began to research bi-polar spectrum disorder I came to the conclusion that I didn't fit this "box". I returned to psychiatrist with my self discovery and he agreed that I didn't have bi-polar!

The psychiatrist concluded that I had bouts of depression, obsessive tendencies and anxiety. This was very general but at least it was honest. As a result of realising the vagueness of psychological categories I set upon my own research. As I read books and trawled the internet I eventually came across Borderline Personality Disorder. For the first time I was able to read about a condition that fitted my life. I shared the information with my wife and it was a breath of fresh air into our lives.

Does this label help to lift the burden from my life. Not at all. This is something I will come to in a moment. What the label did was to give us something to work on. It gave me something concrete to take to my therapist. We live in a society where there is "well" and "not well". We have failed to fully appreciate that there is a whole spectrum in between these two poles.

As well as health and healing there is such a thing as "managing" or "learning to live with" a condition. Does this approach display a lack of faith and trust in God. I suppose for some people it would but I have come to learn the immensity of God's grace. I am preaching now and believe that my preaching is more real and far more powerful as I have come to recognise my potential but also my need of God's presence in my life.

The label doesn't change very much on the surface but it gives some direction for healing and it helps me to see how much more I need God in my life. I am tired of hearing about the "happy" life, the "better" life, the "good" life. These concepts only foster guilt and resentment. I prefer to think of the life that I live and I am striving for an idealised goal. I am living life the best that I can and seeking to honour God in the process.

Good Labels/Bad Labels - part one

I have had a longer than anticipated hiatus from blogging. There has been a lot of turmoil in my life these past few weeks and when I did feel like blogging I was simply too exhausted to squeeze in those last few minutes before bed. I have the whole of this week off work and, consequently, have time to enjoy my family and also reflect on a number of areas that I have been pondering lately.

A blog isn't the place to reveal one's life to the world in its' entirety but I do feel a need to share an outline of our journey for purposes of prayer and reflection. My middle son, who is 6 years old, has been having quite pronounced behavioural difficulties; he began kindy in February and every week has been in trouble for, basically, being defiant and rude. At home he has been having some very bad tantrums.

The reason that I mention this is because this, and a couple of other issues, have caused me to think about what it means to be a Christian, a Christian family and also the place of labels in society.

I am an ordained Baptist pastor although not employed by a church (which is a good thing). Simply by being recognised as a "pastor" brings an extra burden for some people and I must confess that, in the early days, I put pressure on myself. But the fact is that my children are normal kids with their own struggles. My role is not to force them into a pre-determined box of Christendom's design but to help them to become all that they can be. Thomas, my middle one, is called to be Thomas and no-one else. He isn't called to be the me that never was or to be a child from a movie; Thomas is called to be Thomas.

As we have struggled through the gamut of options from elimination diets through to testing for ADD I have learnt a great deal about what it means to love unconditionally. When a child is punching and kicking you it pushes a heap of buttons, especially with a childhood like mine. To be honest I have been less than perfect and have made my fair share of mistakes but I am called to love my children and everytime I fail in this I get back up and call on God to show me and equip me to be the best father that I can be.

Why am I sharing this? Probably to unburden a little but mostly to say that there is no clearly defined Christian family; no perfect Christian father; labelling kids as ADD, ADHD, Behaviourally Challenged etc. doesn't get to the heart of the matter that what is needed most is patient, enduring love and support. Rather than joining in the shouting I now spend a lot of time sitting with him and learning to listen to his fears and concerns and seeking to help him work through them. Much like Jesus I suppose.