Relationships and community

I met with my new therapist this past Tuesday. Nothing new, really, except that she and I are new together. I talked about loneliness, and told her the steps I’m taking to reach out to others to ease the alone-ness. She didn’t offer much, other than that I was doing the right things. She did remind me that I can quit the things that aren’t working.

So I’m giving myself permission to take the pressure off of Bible study. I’ll keep going, for the discipline of study, and sharing with other women. But I’ll not expect to make great friends there – that hasn’t worked so far, so I’ll lower my expectations. I won’t feel guilty about missing a week and going out with a new friend to visit and share lunch. I’ll keep it all in balance.

I have plans with another friend for breakfast together. I’ll go to work and meet with my individual students. I’ll enjoy my free time with my husband on the weekends and we’ll adventure out in our Mini-convertible.  We’ll occasionally meet his coworkers and spouses after work, for a drink or dinner/campfire. I’ll keep trying.

I had an epiphany while writing this post. I’m not just longing for relationships. I’m hungry for community.

When I had school-aged children, it was easier to have groups of friends, based on different activities our kids enjoyed. And I had my friends at work – we were a close bunch! But as an empty-nester, I’m needing to find new ways to meet people. I long to belong to a community.

I’d really like to get to know people at church, and the best way to do that is to join a small discipleship/fellowship group. But my job goes into evening hours, so that makes those meetings impossible. Maybe my work schedule will be different after the holidays, and I can try it then.

It’s taking so much longer this time.  Usually, by the time a year has passed, I can start to see roots growing, start to feel at home. For whatever reason, I’m finding it harder to do here. Harder to break into relationships. To feel settled and part of a community.

I hunger for that bigger connection. For deeper friendships. For people I can share my day-to-day with. Right now, I can thank God for the one person with whom that relationship is growing. We share about our kids, our churches. We talk about work. Our friendship is slowly growing deeper. So thank You, Lord, for her.

Maybe once my evening schedule is freed up, I can join a book club or knitting group. Or a connection group through church.

It’s just going to take more time. Lord, I need more patience!


Finding a church

We’re shopping for churches. Sort of. I mean, we’d have to attend to officially be shopping, and we aren’t really trying yet. In the five weeks I’ve lived here, we’ve been to one church one time.

I don’t like the shopping analogy, but that’s what it is – trying on different congregations. Finding a church to attend regularly. Trying to determine if it’s a place where we want to become active participants, where we can contribute to the local body of Christ. Where the message of the Gospel is taught. Where we can become engaged, not simply entertained.

Some people never miss church – it’s where they are, every Sunday. On vacation. In snowstorms. Not fair-weather attenders, but faithful followers. I can’t say that’s me. I know church is important, and I have been an active member of several congregations in my lifetime, where I’ve been able to serve and be ministered to. But not since my childhood have I attended every single service the week has to offer. Not even close.

When we were first married and we missed a Sunday, I was overwhelmed with incredible guilt. Hard to distinguish if it was the Holy Spirit, or my own accusations. But like anything, it became easier to miss the more I missed. When I felt particularly guilty about missing, I might do a Bible study lesson or watch a sermon online. Not always because I wanted to, but sometimes simply to assuage my guilty feelings.

These are not pretty things I’m admitting to. I’m not proud of my spotty attendance in this search for a new church home. And I don’t want to make excuses. I’m hoping that if I write it down, it will help me figure out why it’s so hard.

In the 15 months we lived in Florida, we attended 3 different churches – repeatedly each time – until we finally felt like we might have landed in one where God could use us and we were comfortable. We were just getting settled into a routine there; that lasted a few weeks, and then we moved to VA.

So now we start over. Like I said, we’ve been to one church one time. We haven’t been back, nor have we been to the other churches on the list of potentials. It takes effort, and it’s easy not to go. It’s hard to always be the strangers, the ones sitting in the pew alone. A greeter shakes our hands and we are welcomed. Barely.

But I’ve been in this place before, and I know that relationships happen in small groups, in repeated fellowship. So I’m joining an evening women’s Bible study at this church. Maybe it will make Sunday mornings easier.

The 2 Hour Support Group

The Monday Leader Lady ran another Depressed Anonymous (DA) group, on Fridays – not as structured, and it met for 2 hours instead of one. When I began attending, there were several other people there too, but since it was small to begin with, when folks dropped out, it was noticeable. There were many times that there were only two or three of us. This had a huge impact on group dynamics – it’s hard to have the group’s input if there is no group. These times became more about mentoring. And that was ok – our Leader had lots of encouragement and practical advice to offer.

We’d start the same as Mondays – read the Serenity Prayer, the Statement of Concern, the 12 Steps of DA, and a few general guidelines. Then we’d share our about ourselves in a traditional Round Robin. If we finished before the hour was up, we’d often read from the book we were using to help us understand depression and a 12 Step program, in this case, Codependents’ Guide to the 12 Steps. Then we’d take a short break, refill our coffee, and come back together after 10 minutes.

Leader lady would sometimes use Fridays to offer guided meditation during the second hour. This was one of my favorite Friday afternoon activities. She would paint a picture for us, outline a scene. She’d mention details but not specifics, like “A bird flies overhead,” and in our thoughts, we would choose what kind of bird. We filled in the colors, types of birds and flowers, sounds and smells. It was very focused and detailed, and also incredibly relaxing. She would describe the scene for 15-20 minutes. Then she’d encourage us to gently open our eyes. We’d often share our private pictures with each other, and I was always amazed at how different our interpretations were.

We were not hypnotized. She simply helped us focus our thoughts in a relaxing scene. For me, her words often helped me recall a place or time, like my grandparents’ house at the lake, or an anniversary beach trip. I know that at the end of a stressful week, this was incredibly relaxing. And I found myself picturing the scene during the next week if I needed a mini vacation to calm my anxieties. This was a great way to practice relaxation, I discovered. It was not the same as mindfulness – being in the moment. Quite the opposite – this was enjoying a daydream.

Other weeks we talked about forgiveness, wrote a letter to our future-selves, drew a spiderweb diagram of Step 4 – “made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.” Sometimes, there was just more time for sharing with and encouraging each other, and that was good, too!

From the Friday group, I learned more about sharing in a smaller setting. I learned how a concentrated daydream can bring a real peaceful relaxation – a great tool for fighting anxiety. I learned creative ways to work through the 12 Steps. I made friends with other women for whom I came to care very deeply, particularly the Leader Lady. I recognized that we all have been wounded by situations in our lives, sometimes caused by the actions of others, sometimes by changes in circumstances. Yet I do not have to be alone in my pain when I’m willing to share it with others. We who walk through depression have had very personal, private, and unique journeys. But the effects of depression are something we have in common, and by sharing our stories and our coping skills, we help each other along the way.

The Support of a Support Group

I attended Depressed Anonymous (DA) for almost a year, and I went every Monday with few absences. The group was incredibly supportive. After the first week, everyone knew my name and it was wonderful to be greeted with welcoming smiles. There was such a feeling of relief to walk into the conference room and know that everyone “got it,” had been on a similar journey through depression. I didn’t have to pretend everything was fine. I was in sympathetic company.

I wrote notes earlier in the day of things I might share when it came to me in the Round Robin – helped keep me focused and succinct. I never wanted to be a person who droned on and on or talked in circles, so I kept to my notes. Since everyone at DA understood depression, I didn’t have to work hard to explain myself – I would just share about my week, and my feelings, and the whole room empathized. There was always lots of head nodding and affirming words. It was so nice to be accepted and understood.

We used Codependents’ Guide to the 12 Steps by Melody Beattie, and it was a good format to discuss the 12 Steps as they applied to Depression. Still, I kept wondering if I was co-dependent. Turns out, probably not, at least not in an unhealthy way.

The group was on Step 4 when I joined (“4. Made a searching and fearless inventory of ourselves.”) so I tried to go back and work Steps 1-3 on my own. I put notes in my DA notebook, but wasn’t sure who to share them with. Unlike other 12 Step programs, this one did not have an emphasis on having a sponsor, so I felt a little like I was on my own other than on Mondays. However, I became friends with Leader Lady, and she provided me with answers and lots of DA information to help me as I worked the Steps.  Contrary to the recommendations of the 12 Step system, I didn’t share much of my work on the Steps with anyone else. I wonder if I should go back and do that part over, if the Steps would keep me more grounded in accountability.

In the DA group, I was able to watch others move in and out of depressive episodes. I hate to say that it was encouraging, but since my diagnosis was Major Depressive Disorder – recurrent, moderate to severe, it was helpful to see how folks managed the ins and outs – the ups and downs – of recurrent depression.

While I attended, I actually got better twice. It was amazing to look back to my mood state when I started attending, and my improved mood by the time I stopped, with a little sidetrack in the middle. The other members of the group are a huge reason that my depression went into remission. And they were there to encourage me when I had a bad week, and when I felt myself slipping back into depression. They helped me to tell the difference. They walked with me through that second depressive episode, and I had some tools of experience to take with me when I finally left the group.

I didn’t want to leave. But my experiences with depression, and those from the DA Support Group, lent themselves to the next chapter of my walk in the depression journey. I was invited to help start a Depression Support Group at my church.


My first support group meeting

Depressed Anonymous meets Mondays at 5:30pm at the Franciscan Spirituality Center.

At 5:30pm, one of the members closed the door to the room, and the meeting came to order.

Everything I needed to start was on one of the pages that the leader lady had given me. We began by reciting the Serenity Prayer, then reading the Statement of Concern, the 12 Steps of Depressed Anonymous, and the Guidelines, taking turns around the table – read aloud if you want to, or “Pass” if you don’t.

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

12 Steps of DA:
1. We admitted that we were powerless over depression – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Et cetera.

That was all easy enough, though I kept thinking that if someone with dyslexia came, or an illiterate person, how humiliating it could be to say “Pass.” Even in this room, what kind of assumptions would be made? I judge myself; wouldn’t others judge?

The leader lady greeted us again, and since we had just read in the Guidelines about the process of the Round Robin, she began. “Hi, my name is _____, and I struggle with (battle against, am defenseless against, am powerless to fight – however you want to introduce yourself),” followed by “It’s been a _____ (good, bad, hard, sad…) week,” and she shared her most recent story. Sharing wraps up, “and with that I’ll pass.”

The whole group responds with, “Thanks, _____.”

One person at a time, the Round Robin came closer to me. I tried to focus on what the others were sharing, but kept wondering what to do when my turn came. My palms were sweating, my breathing shallowed a little, and huge butterflies danced all over my stomach. Do I say anything? What do I say? Wait, I should be listening, not distracted by my own words. The butterflies danced faster. I had jotted down some notes – do I share those? Or maybe I should just listen this first time and “Pass.”

Finally, to my left, “and with that I’ll pass.” “Thanks, _____.”

“Hi, my name is Peggy, and I have depression. I learned about this group from the newspaper, and decided to check it out. I moved here five years ago, and was originally diagnosed with Adjustment Disorder. But I didn’t get better, so it became depression. Last month (February) was a really hard month, especially last week. I’m having a hard time focusing at work and being at Bible Study. I have some anxiety again – it comes out of nowhere and I can’t always just breathe through it.  I don’t cry when I’m depressed , which is really tough since I want to. I feel like if I could just have a good cry, I would feel so much better.  At the end of last week, I went on a three day personal retreat – slept, napped, journaled, prayed, read, knitted. It was so quiet and peaceful. I even took an onion with me to see if I could manipulate tears. I’m glad I’m here. And with that I’ll pass.” Whew!

“Thanks, Peggy.” A couple of people made intentional eye contact and smiled – I felt welcomed, not judged.

We finished our way around the table, then picked up a book the group was using for discussion and read a few paragraphs, with folks commenting their thoughts on the author’s views. This part was a little more “free” – less structure in what was said – conversation bounced around the table a bit instead of going around the room. A bag was passed for donations – not for the first timers, though.

At 6:25, the lady leader said we would stop, we closed our books, stood to hold hands, said the Lord’s Prayer and the meeting was over. Someone opened the conference room door.