Monday, November 13, 2017

Please, Please Forgive Me! Where Religion Meets Mental Illness

During my adolescence and young adult years, I found myself on my knees
 begging for forgiveness hundreds, if not thousands of times.

I was in my teens when it first happened. In previous years I had been able to leaf through the new Sears catalogues without any duress. I looked at the bicycles and toys and other things that little boys look at. But then on one ordinary day I found myself leafing through the swimsuit and lingerie sections of the latest catalogue that my parents kept in their bedroom, and I was mesmerized. What had I been missing all of my life? Yes, puberty had arrived.

Now, puberty and everything that comes with it are of course natural progressions of life, but growing up in a fundamentalist Christian household meant that it also came with a major caveat. Sex and sexual expression outside of marriage was forbidden, and those who engaged in either before saying "I do" were in danger of being in God's bad books.

Along with striving to be a faithful Christian teenager - I attended church gatherings 3 days a week - I also had developed extraordinary checking and washing rituals which only later would I be able to describe as OCD. These rituals were particularly strong at night, when I would repeatedly check that my curtains weren't touching the electric heater for fear that I would burn the house down, getting out of bed to check that the downstairs oven was shut off, and checking numerous times a night that the front door was locked, lest any intruders gain access to the house and hurt my family members.

When puberty, adolescence, and young adulthood hit, my OCD collided with my sexuality and religious life in a way that was embarrassing and exhausting.

Just like millions of other boys my age, I was fixated on the female body, and strange feelings began to crop up in my body that at first I didn't know how to deal with. I found myself touching myself in places that previously had never intrigued me very much. I had heard the word masturbation before somewhere, and when I had asked one of my parents about it, they reassured me (in a way) that it was normal, "just don't do it too much." As well meaning as that parent was, it didn't help me very much as an adolescent. But the real problem with looking at the pretty women in the Sears catalogues, which eventually turned into pornographic images, was that this involved a four-letter word: lust. Lust, I had been taught, was an egregious sin. To me, someone who already suffered from OCD, it was like I was committing an abominable sin against God simply by lusting after women's bodies. One such verse in the Bible that addressed lust was Matthew 5:28, which said, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." You can imagine how much that scared me, because committing adultery was one of the acts condemned in the Ten Commandments.

This is where religious OCD, otherwise known as scrupulosity, came into full-blown presence in my young life. As a teenager and then young adult, I would view a provocative image, subsequently masturbate, then would inevitably end up on my knees at my bedside pleading with God to forgive me for my lustful actions. Ten minutes later I was back doing the same thing. This sequence of events occurred at least hundreds, if not thousands of times in my adolescence and young adulthood. It also included intense, repeated washing rituals in order to cleanse myself from my "dirty" actions. I judged myself for being a "bad Christian" and constantly worried that God was looking down on me with a disapproving countenance. I didn't realize that puberty and all that came with it was normal.

I also made an effort to read my Bible and pray every day, and felt guilt anytime I failed to do so.

Yet another aspect of religious OCD, or scrupulosity, is asking others if you are behaving correctly, and unnecessarily asking for their forgiveness. So, not only does one have to to worry about what God is thinking of them, but they worry about what others are thinking of them.

I continued this religious scrupulosity well into my days at a fundamentalist Bible college, where I continued to view pornography. I came to a crisis point where I believed that I had committed an unpardonable sin against God, and that he had kicked me out of his family. I was guilt-ridden and panicked.

Two things happened that freed me from my religious scrupulosity. One day I had had enough of the intense feelings of guilt and decided to try to drop them and let the chips fall where they may, and I also started to question the major tenets of the fundamentalist Christianity which I had grown up with. This led to my rejection of the faith and an embrace of a more liberal and authentic personal faith.

Today I realize that my former form of religion fed my mental illness, and I am glad that I am free from those days of constantly worrying that I was in danger of hell-fire just because I was a sexual being.

Religious OCD is real. Have you experienced it?

Mark Andrew Nouwen

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Living With Anxiety: Listening To Your Inner Voice

“There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” ~ Howard Thurman

Soundtrack - Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
                      Lyle Lovett - Lyle Lovett

It's a chilly Halloween Day here at Chapters/Starbucks here in Waterloo, Ontario. I've just finished my first Starbucks Pumpkin Spiced Latte of the season, and am following it up with a Pike Place roast. I just moved back here to Waterloo Region a handful of days ago, and already the language of Starbucks is coming back to me. It's not medium, it's grande.

As it is every day, I am experiencing a degree of anxiety. Living with generalized anxiety disorder is not fun. As I said in last night's blog, it feels the way you would if, while driving down the highway, you were confronted with a transport truck barreling down the wrong side of the road toward you. Except with GAD, you pretty much feel that way all of the time. Unease, panic, having a hard time being in the present moment.

Today is a particularly rough day. From the time I woke up I have felt a degree of panic. "Well, what's wrong? What are you panicking about?" That's the thing. People with GAD don't need a reason to be panicked, we just are. Part of this feeling is very familiar; it's the same way I felt while living in a verbally and emotionally bruising and unstable household. Back then I had good reason to feel panicked as voices were raised and doors were slammed. However, now I am 39 years old, I'm not living in an abusive situation, yet the same feeling remains.

It's at times like this when I find it almost critical to listen to my inner voice. I think we have two voices within ourselves, one positive and one negative. The negative voice is strong and pulls me farther from my true self. It's an earworm that says things like, "You'll never amount to anything," "No one could ever really love you," "Look how pathetic you are compared to everyone else around you." And it goes on and on. It's the voice that says "You'd be better off if you were dead." This voice, these messages can sometimes be crippling and they add to the feeling of panic. This voice is the devil on one of my shoulders.

The positive voice can be called many things: the inner voice, the Higher Self, perhaps The Holy Spirit for some people of faith. For me, I call it my authentic self or Higher Self. It's the angel on the other shoulder. It says reassuring things like "You are worthy of being loved and of loving," "I'm proud of you for getting out of bed today," "Have confidence in yourself," "Stay here, right now, in the present moment." And so on and so on.

Listening to the inner voice, the authentic self, is particularly essential for me as I live with GAD and PTSD (are there any letters that I'm missing?). These messages are what keep me going, what keep me alive on this planet. That and good friends, good music, and a good drink. For a long time, until somewhere in my twenties, my inner voice took a back seat to what I thought my god wanted of me. I would be obsessed (oh yes, I forgot OCD) with what I thought this god thought of me and how "he" wanted me to act. I had been taught that humankind was originally sinful and that rather than trusting ourselves (or any inner voice which might be authentic), I had to trust in this god. My voice was always secondary. It wasn't safe to listen to, let alone obey my authentic self, within my household and within my religion. Thankfully, my views on the nature of humankind changed over time, and I have bent my ear toward my own authentic voice. It's the voice that says "You are wonderfully unique and I love you," "There is nothing to be afraid of right now," and so on. It's the voice that urges me toward boldness and confidence rather than panic and fear.

I hope that wherever you are in your life, whatever you wrestle and struggle with, that you will be able to take time today to listen to the angel on your shoulder and kick the devil's ass.

Mark Andrew

Monday, October 30, 2017

Moving Forward When You're Scared To Death

Generalized Anxiety Disorder feels a lot like if you were headed down a busy highway and all of a sudden a transport truck was barreling down the wrong side of the road, about to hit you. Imagine that panic, and then imagine how I feel almost 24/7.

Good Evening. It will come to no surprise to most who are reading this that I suffer from mental illness. For those who need a refresher, I suffer from complex PTSD, general anxiety disorder, and major depressive disorder. I used to be very public about it, even starting a campaign years ago, the goal of which was to destigmatize mental illness. That was when I was very active - in my congregation, with a political party, and otherwise. But things changed approximately 4 years ago and what I thought would be a week or two rest-stop at a family members house turned into me seeking help down there in that small city and relocating there for 4 years. During those 4 years I saw an individual therapist, attended at least 4 or 5 different therapy groups, and juggled around with my medications (with the aid of a psychiatrist). I reconnected with family which was great, but lost connection with most of the friends I had made in the larger city.

What some people don't realize, especially those who don't suffer from a mental illness personally or even have a family member or friend who suffers, is that often, mental illness does not go away. At least that's my experience with it. It's the gift that keeps on giving and giving and giving. It's relentless.

For those who aren't familiar with complex PTSD, it's different from "regular" PTSD in that it is "a psychological disorder that occurs as a result of repetitive, prolonged trauma involving harm or abandonment by a caregiver or other interpersonal relationships with an uneven power dynamic." While I'm sure genetics are somehow involved, my "repetitive, prolonged trauma" came at the "hands" of my father. I put hands in quotation marks as my father never hit me, it was all verbal and emotional abuse and abandonment. (Note: I am glad that my father is in so many ways a changed man and that we have a pretty good relationship today). But it subsisted throughout my entire childhood, so the trauma was severe. It is said that "Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me," but that is just a lie. Words matter. Unspoken words matter too.

The main symptom of my complex PTSD is a severe case of generalized anxiety disorder. There are at least 6 symptoms of GAD, including:

  • Excessive worrying and tension - For me this means being anxious about almost everything and worrying about everything, from family and friends, to my health, to a job or lack thereof, etc.
  • Tiredness & Difficulty Sleeping - For me this means having a level of fatigue 24/7. Some of this is caused by the medication I take, but some of it is just due to the fact that my mind is constantly worrying about something. Like a hamster in a wheel.
  • Headaches - Luckily for me this is one symptom that has escaped me.
  • Problems Concentrating - For me this means that certain menial tasks such as reading a few pages in a book is very hard, or sitting down to write a coherent blog post as I hope this one will be. Performing tasks are exceedingly difficult because I am always concentrating on what I should be worried about.
  • Frequent bathroom trips - Again, for me this is one symptom that has escaped me.
  • Irritability - This can sometimes mean that miniscule problems seem larger than they really are.
This video does a pretty good job of describing my life. I will write more below the video:

So where am I today? A few days ago I moved back to the city where I had a lot of friends, involvement in my congregation as well as political party. I got to feeling very isolated where I was and knew that a change was in order.

While I am excited about the prospect of seeing old friends and making new ones, GAD is always there, mixed in with bouts of depression. Simple tasks like re-learning the bus system or getting to know where the grocery store is amp up the stress levels to near panic. GAD feels a lot like if you were headed down a busy highway and all of a sudden a transport truck was barreling down the wrong side of the road, about to hit you. Imagine that panic, and then imagine how I feel almost 24/7. It's exhausting, it truly is a suffering. Some people prefer to say that they "live with mental illness," or are "fighting mental illness." I call it for what it is: a suffering.

I write this blog tonight in order to express myself, and also give you a glimpse of what living with complex PTSD and particularly GAD looks like. For now I am telling myself "Small steps, Mark Andrew, small steps. Try to live in the present moment and complete tasks as they come; don't obsess over them in advance. This is really hard for someone with GAD. The reality is that I am living in a nice home and already connecting with people I care about. It's just hard to see that reality sometimes.

Thanks for taking the time to read this.

Mark Andrew

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

I Get Along Without You Very Well. Of Course I Do.

I get along without you very well, of course I do.

I never think of that night back in college when I held you for hours in complete silence, when we just stared into each others eyes. I don't remember that they were the most intimate moments of my life. Of course I don't. I don't remember the disappointing end when I ended things because I thought a supernatural deity was jealous of my love for you.

I never think of that New Years Eve when I kissed you for the first time, a first for me. I don't remember that your dog ate all my Christmas chocolates, or how you dumped me two days later.

I get along without you very well, of course I do.

I never think of that day walking along the beach in my hometown when you decided I truly needed to learn how to kiss, or how great of a damn kisser you really were. I don't remember a tumultuous end.

I never think of what could have been with you, but wasn't because I was too scared.

I get along without you very well, of course I do.

I never think of just how goddamn drop-dead gorgeous you were or how I fell for you hard. I don't remember that your Mom couldn't stand that we were together because I wasn't of the same faith as you. I can hardly recollect that sexier-than-all-hell night when we grabbed a bottle of wine and lit those candles and how wickedly perfect it was as we made out to Nina Simone's "Nearer Blessed Lord." Of course I don't remember riding away from you on a train on another continent after things ended on the vacation from hell.

And I never think of you, the one who things seemed so synchronous with from almost the beginning, or the sheepish crush I had on you before we even started. I don't remember you driving away.

I get along without you very well.

Of course I do.

Mark Nouwen

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Hello, Again...A (Re?) Introduction To Me

Perhaps the face accompanying this post that you're reading is a familiar one, perhaps it is not. It could be the case that it's an older version of a face which you haven't seen in quite a long time. Whatever may be the case, welcome to my little article.

I am guilty as charged for being "one of those." By one of those, I mean, someone who has, fairly regularly, dilly-dallied with his online presence, most overtly through my adding and then subtracting people from my Facebook friends list. There have been times where I have hovered around the 500 mark; currently I am somewhere around 130. There is more to this than just having a love/hate relationship with Facebook. For a long time, not weeks, not months, but years, I have been highly decompartmentalized. Due to various circumstances in my life - some incurred upon me, and some by me - I have more than often led quite a fractured life; I haven't been able to integrate well.

I have lived with mental illness/complications for most of my life - this may or may not be a surprise to you. I sort of think that none of us are completely healthy, rather, we are on a sliding scale when it comes to our mental and emotional health. My mental illnesses, are caused by several factors - this is the case with most people who live with mental illnesses. There are environmental factors, chemical factors, social factors. Some of these can be prevented, some cannot.

One of the ways that I have dealt, or attempted to deal with traumatic events from my past, has been to decompartmentalize. If I shove something, or an entire section of my life into a box and place it into a dark corner of a dark, cobwebbed room, then I don't have to think about the trauma that took place during that period of my life.

I have a few boxes that I didn't touch for quite a long time. Among them are:

1) The Burwell Box - I grew up in a small village of 1000 people, called Port Burwell, in southwestern Ontario. There have been times when it seems like a dream - and one that I'd rather wake up from and quickly forget. This may come as a surprise to some who may be reading this and are thinking, "Wait, he always seemed pretty happy. He was kind of goofy, liked playing on the baseball team, etc." But, you see, sometimes when other, hidden, dark things are also happening, in my case emotional and verbal abuse, then some of us take on black or white thinking. Rather than trying to examine what was positive and helpful from a particular area in life, from what was traumatic, can be just too painful, especially when you try to do so without the help of a good therapist. Thus it was much easier - and likely a helpful defence mechanism at the time, to tuck everything from my childhood into a box and place it in that dark room.

Slowly, I have been dusting off that box and taking things out and looking at them; this is part of the re-integration process. I last visited Port Burwell this past summer, and it was an incredible healing experience, like a warm blanket being placed on you after you come in out of the frigid cold.

2) The Christian Box (For the sake of time, this will include The High School Box and The Bible College Box) - From the time I was born until my mid-twenties, my entire identity was solidly encompassed within fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity. There was us (the saved Christians) and them (the unsaved people around us, and it as our job to try our best to influence them to become like us Christians. This was my understanding. From as far back as I can remember, I went to Sunday School, church services, youth Bible studies, youth activity nights. When I entered high school in Aylmer, Ontario, I was highly involved in the Christian Students Network. During this period of time, I was also involved in music leadership at churches that I was involved in. Skipping ahead, I moved to Kitchener, Ontario to attend Bible college. I made a lot of good friends, and again was involved in leadership (again on music teams, on a missions committee, and as a dorm resident advisor.) However, two things happened during my time at Bible college that would radically change my entire worldview, and just as importantly, my view of myself. Due to hideous false guilt, followed by a questioning of most of the core tenets of fundamentalist, evangelical Christianity, I came to reject Christianity altogether. I left Bible college without graduating. What followed for several years was what I call "my teenaged rebellious years, just a decade late." Late-nights filled with angsty, navel-gazing vodka-filled writing ensued; I was quite miserable for the most part. I was uncertain of many things, except for one: I wanted nothing to do with Christianity. Period. I remained friends with several Christians, but let others fall by the wayside. Looking back, part of this was, again, a kind of defense mechanism. I felt hurt (and admittedly still do to varying degrees) by the brand of Christianity that I had lived under for all of my life, and it was easier to just not be around people who still espoused the beliefs that I no longer believed in. However, in taking responsibility, I let some important friends down. In the intervening years, I wrote many a blogpost railing against that form of religion, and I got a thrill going toe-to-toe with people on meaningless Facebook debates.

I am fairly certain that I will always, at least periodically, speak out against certain aspects of fundamentalist Christianity, since there are ways that living within it impacted me very harmfully, but really, when all you can speak about is what you do not believe, that says something in itself. I know that I alienated quite a few people by my tirades.

It's getting a little later on in the night, and the wick on my oil lamp here in St. Thomas, Ontario is dying out, so I'll briefly conclude. For just over a decade, I remained in Kitchener, Ontario, and I made very little progress, in several areas of my life, including treating my mental and emotional illnesses. I hopped from one therapist to another, one prescribing doctor to another. I stayed at a job that payed the bills, but one that I was not passionate about, which I have learned can be pretty close to soul-killing; however, again, I met some great friends where I worked, and they were particularly gracious to me. In addition, I did have highly positive experiences working on the executive of the local NDP riding association. Undoubtedly what I miss the most about Kitchener is my Unitarian congregation. They are like my family and I miss them on almost a daily basis,

Mentally and emotionally, I have my good days and my horrible days. In September of 2013, I relocated to the county where I grew up; I live in St. Thomas, about forty kilometers from where I grew up. I am taking the time for both one-on-one and group therapy, and to concentrate on my continuing healing process (much of which includes re-integration and taking those boxes out of the dark room, which still has quite a ways to go - do we ever stop?) I am happy to be volunteering at my local hospital, and still love to read (mostly on spirituality and religion) and to write.

In closing, I suppose this article is my way of walking back into a conversation and re-introducing (or in some cases introducing) myself. I suspect that I have hurt some people by my actions (or inaction) or words. There are bridges to be mended, in time. I guess for now, I'm just saying, Hi, I'm Mark Andrew Nouwen, how are you?

I can be reached on Facebook. Please feel free to Facebook "Share" this article if you think we have mutual acquaintances.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Years Song For The Broken-Hearted

for those whose situation does not yield for a cup of kindness here.
for those who will still wonder where their next meal will come from in 2016.

for those who have long given up on 2017 and 2018,
and the years beyond long long ago when you were deeply hurt.

for those who lost their jobs in 2015 and are tired of all the paperwork to complete
in order to receive benefits that are pathetically shrinking.

for the disabled, either short term or long-term,
mentally, physically, or in any way.

for those for whom holidays lost their meaning long long ago,
perhaps during childhood.
instead they shine a light on a shattered innocence and faded laughter and dreams.

for the lonely.

for all of you, I have been to many of your desolate places.

i wish you a spark of hope, some warmth for your heart,
and a silent prayer that despite all appearances,
you will know the simple but life-giving fact that you are loved and lovable.

a sincere happy new year 2015, my sisters and brothers
~ mark andrew nouwen

At The End Of The Year

At The End Of The Year

The particular mind of the ocean
Filling the coastline’s longing
With such brief harvest
Of elegant, vanishing waves
Is like the mind of time
Opening us shapes of days.
As this year draws to its end,
We give thanks for the gifts it brought
And how they became inlaid within
Where neither time nor tide can touch them.
The days when the veil lifted
And the soul could see delight;
When a quiver caressed the heart
In the sheer exuberance of being here.
Surprises that came awake
In forgotten corners of old fields
Where expectation seemed to have quenched.
The slow, brooding times
When all was awkward
And the wave in the mind
Pierced every sore with salt.
The darkened days that stopped
The confidence of the dawn.
Days when beloved faces shone brighter
With light from beyond themselves;
And from the granite of some secret sorrow
A stream of buried tears loosened.
We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination.

John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008)