Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Explain to Your Children and Teenagers that Pain Can Lead to Compassion

I recently read an article by a woman who confessed that she had “hated” being a teenager, and was now unsure how to both warn her children of the stressors of adolescence while letting them make their own mistakes. She wondered how to get them through adolescence in a positive way when her own past was so difficult. This article sparked a conversation between me and my own mom about the past and regrets. I had an extremely tumultuous adolescence, but I shocked my mom when I told her I wouldn’t change a thing about it.

Over the years, I’ve learned to not just move past that difficult time in my life, but to embrace it. As a counselor, my past struggles with self-harm make me more sympathetic to the teenagers struggling with the same issue. My conflicted adolescent romantic relationships make me compassionate towards teens who are trying to find self-worth from the opposite gender. My past experiences with drugs make me gracious towards my clients who struggle with addiction.

Even as an adult, my past is riddled with painful situations that I’ve learned to embrace. My past miscarriage makes me empathetic to my clients who have had one, as well as the family members who don’t know what to say. My struggles with infertility make me sensitive enough that I never say things like, “You’ll get pregnant soon enough, just relax” to other women.

My daughter whose acid reflux meant she screamed endlessly for the first few months of her life makes me sympathetic to moms who are overwhelmed. Wrestling with my bipolar disorder makes my heart tender towards those who are also struggling with mental health issues.

Every difficult situation I’ve been through, whether it’s self-induced or not, has been a way for God to open my eyes towards someone who is hurting. As I’ve grown older, Romans 8:28 has become more poignant: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

God has literally taken my hurts, bad decisions, and painful dark moments, and used them for good. When I was in the depths of depression or the crisis of faith that my infertility threw me into, I sure didn’t feel like God was working for my good, but as I get older and the puzzle pieces of my life fall into place, I know that I’ve needed that pain to be a more compassionate counselor and human being.

So, I challenge you as parents, instead of “warning” our children about how awful adolescence can be or trying to erase their hurt feelings that come from broken hearts, bullying or unhealthy friendships, what if we helped our children identify the good that God can do in those situations?

What if instead of getting angry at those who are mean to our children, we encourage our children to use those hurt feelings to assist others? What if we taught them about Natalie Hampton, the 16-year-old teenager who created the Sit with Us app to combat bullying in schools after she was bullied for two years?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t work towards protecting our children and giving them the tools to navigate adolescence. However, in those moments when they run to you crying, validate their hurt and speak Romans 8:28 into their life. Let them know that God can take all of it - the awkwardness, the social stresses, the broken heart of a first love - and use it for good. They may not see it now, but they will someday. I am often blessed when I hear adolescents who have been abused say they want to grow up and help other children who have been abused. They know that this current pain will make them more effective to help others who are struggling, but how often as parents do we discuss that concept?

And for those of you parents who have regrets about your past and feel overwhelmed when you watch your own children struggling, remember 2 Corinthians 1:4 (NLT): “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.” Those cringe-worthy situations you dealt with in your own adolescence will allow you to effectively comfort your own teenagers as they navigate this complicated, tech-driven, chaotic world. It can be uncomfortable to remember those past experiences, but when they allow us to teach our children that compassion that can arise from suffering, I promise, it is worth the discomfort.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Finding Peace with my Bipolar Disorder

Recently, a friend of mine asked me a simple question, "How do you keep it all together?" As someone who struggles with Bipolar Disorder, there is no simple answer to this question. There are days where it is difficult to get out of bed, to shower, to clean my house, to do simple tasks like get dressed. There are other days where I come home, utterly and completely exhausted, and I beat myself up. How come I am so worn out? I didn't do that much today, I don't have a physically exhausting job, am I just that lazy?
Psalm 139:14
But then I remind myself. When you are struggling with depression, getting out of the house, getting to work, smiling and joking with my coworkers and listening and counseling people is a lot of work. No wonder I'm tired.

I have dealt with Bipolar disorder for the last 17 years, I have been medicated for my entire adult life, I have had up and downs, good moments and ugly moments. So how have I been able to accomplish things? How do I raise children, work as a counselor, support my husband, write, teach and serve at church?

At the risk of sounding cliche, it's one word: God.

There are days where I am worn out emotionally, but the moment that first client steps in my office, I am animated, engaged and present for them. I can see eight clients back-to-back, and feel excited and involved as a counselor. The verse from Phillipians 4:13 goes through my head often as I drive home from work: "I can do all this through him who gives me strength" (ESV). I can literally start my day completely depleted, and leave feeling strengthened and energetic. I know that is God's strength, not my own.

However, I don't want to minimize the struggle. For me, it is not as simple as just being "a good Christian." Any one of us who struggles with Bipolar disorder knows that managing mental health is complicated. To be able to function and live a thriving life is a delicate balance of God's strength, a strong support network, good medication, counseling and tons of self-care. As I pondered the idea of "keeping it together," I was struck by three things that have helped me over the years:

1. Acknowledge your limitations. I almost cringe while writing this. I don't want anyone to feel like I'm implying that people with mental health issues are limited. There are many amazing people who have diagnoses that do incredible things. However, for me, I have learned that due to my mental health, I do have limitations. I have been blessed to be able to work, and I think that my own mental health issues make me a very empathetic counselor. Self-harm? I've done it. Terrible self-esteem? Been there. Poor choices that hurt others? Check. 


When I look at my clients, who are struggling with self-doubt and frustration about their mental health, I get it. However, I have also learned that I can really only work part-time. I am an extrovert, and I love my job, but if I overextend myself, I end up completely shattered. 

I have learned that overextension leaves me depressed to the point of not being able to function, and I end up stuck coping with mood swings and irritability towards my family. I used to beat myself up for not being to "do more," but the reality is I have to work within the parameters that my mental health gives me. There are periods of my life where I can do more, there are other periods where I have to turn down opportunities and practice lots of self-care.

Now, this is different for everybody. Don't run to a family member with Bipolar and say, "limit yourself." Some people can do more, some have limits. However, for myself, I do feel like accepting those limits and asking God to let me be the most effective woman I can be in a part-time manner has been helpful.

2. Accept yourself. I often tell clients that there is a grief process that occurs with a diagnosis. When a client is diagnosed with a chronic medical issue like diabetes or fibromyalgia, there is an acknowledgement that it takes time to accept that diagnosis. Many people with mental health issues have to go through that same acceptance. There is a grieving process, a sense of "I may never be 'normal' again." That is a painful process, one I spent most of my twenties dealing with. I grieved having to be on medications that often have funky side effects, I felt incredible guilt that I took Bipolar medications while pregnant, meaning I also couldn't breastfeed (off my medications, I get incredibly suicidal and depressed, so we decided that the risks were outweighed by the benefits). 

In my twenties, I went through all the stages of grief:
  • Denial. I thought "maybe I'm not really Bipolar" which led to going off my medication, which led to crazy mood swings and my spouse asking me to go back on them.
  • Anger. I wondered "why would God make me this way?" and struggled with a crisis of faith.
  • Bargaining. "Maybe if I just pray more, or am a better Christian, I'll be healed and be fine."
  • Depression. "This is it, I'm always going to be a mess."
  • Acceptance. It took a decade to get here, but I am at peace with my diagnosis. I believe that it allows me empathy for my clients, I love my creativity, and I know that Psalm 139:14 is 100% true: "I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Bipolar disorder is the thorn in my side, but it is who I am. I do believe that whether God created me this way, or it's simply a side effect of bad brain chemistry and a fallen world, I am wonderfully made and I know that God has a beautiful plan for my life.

3. Redefine healing. I spent most of my twenties wanting to be healed from Bipolar disorder. I resented medication, I resented grieving, I resented being terrified through two pregnancies that the medication I take would cause side effects in my unborn babies. I cried out to God to heal me, but still struggled.

This changed a few years ago. I was driving home on a beautiful night from my job where I had been able to help others who were struggling, and Chris Tomlin came on the radio singing, "My God is healer, awesome in power, my God, my God." And it hit me like a stack of bricks.

I was healed. No, I wasn't free from my disorder, but I was a functional, happy, blessed human being who God had allowed to do some pretty awesome things. If someone loses a limb, we don't expect healing to be that they grow a new leg. Instead, we view them with awe that they have been able to get through something incredibly difficult, then do awesome things!  I realized that instead of waiting for complete healing, I could view it as I was doing incredible things with Bipolar. 

And just as someone who is an amputee runs a race inspires us, I hope that even when I have days where I can't get out of bed, where my irritability makes me prickly, or I can't sleep because I'm hypomanic, my peace, acceptance, encouragement and empathy for those who are hurting inspires others.

I've learned to shift my focus from feeling resentful and angry to incredible joy. God has given me great medication, an awesome psychiatrist, the most understanding husband ever, a support network beyond my wildest dreams, a beautiful home, wonderful children and incredible life. One that is rich  and in spite of my mental health, or maybe because of my mental health, I don't take it for granted. 

It is only because of my limitations and weaknesses that I can appreciate God's work in my life. Paul (who struggled with a "thorn" in his side as well that kept him humble), wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV), 

"But he [the Lord] said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong."

It is when I am "weakest" that God allows me to be strong. Some day, God might heal me completely, and I would not complain. However, for now, I am just incredibly grateful and can proudly say, "I am wonderfully and fearfully made." Bipolar and all.


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Finding Stability: What Are You Building Your Life On?

Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a recurring theme in the worship songs I’ve listened to, the Bible verses I’ve read, and the sermons I’ve listened to: what is the foundation you are building your life on? 


Recently, I’ve been pondering the section from Luke 6:46-49, when Jesus is preaching to the crowds, sharing the beatitudes and guidance for our lives. At the end of Luke 6, Jesus shares about the man who built his house upon the rock:

46 “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? 47 Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: 48 he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. 49 But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.” (Luke 6:46-49 ESV)
If you grew up in the church like I did, you have heard this set of verses numerous times. You’ve probably sang the song, “The wise man built his house upon the rock, the house upon the rock, and the rains came tumbling down.” But over the last few months, as I’ve begun to evaluate how I spend my time and energy, these verses have taken on more depth for me.

At any given point in my day, if you ask me what foundation I have built my life on, I would easily say, “Jesus.” In my heart, I believe that everything – my ministry, blessings, gifts, and faith – are all from God.

However, when I am really honest with myself, I realize that I'm so quick to forget this in the face of adversity. Yes, my faith and belief in Jesus are an ongoing part of my life, but what is the foundation I am building my sense of security and hope on? Is it in Jesus’ promises? The hope of eternal life with Him? Am I half-heartedly building a foundation on the identity of being a Christian, but not actually doing what He calls me to do?  

When I have (yet another) unexpected car repair, is my foundation rooted in a strong sense that God will provide for my family?

When I am passed over for some opportunity through the church, is my foundation built on the knowledge that my identity is in God, not the success of my ministry?

I do often find a sense of peace in God's provision and sovereignty eventually, but it takes a while. My initial reaction is often one of panic. Of stress. Of worrying about our finances and the future. Of hurt or frustration. Of feeling like I’m not good enough. Of feeling that God is absent or uninvolved.

When Jesus was sharing the parable of the men who built their houses on the rock and sand, he shared that both houses were covered with flood waters.  It wasn't that one man's life was easier than the other man's life. Both men knew that the floods would come and they had to make a choice about where they would build their homes. The man on the rock had to “dig deep," but it was worth it. When the flood waters came, they “could not shake [his house], because it had been well built.”

There will be flood waters in this life. Jesus said that, “…for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45 ESV).  The question can’t be “what if something bad happens?” It has to be, “when adversity comes and I'm rocked to the core by life, what is my foundation built on?”

Do you find that when the flood waters come, is your foundation built on prayer? A deep sense of peace in God's plan?

Or is your foundation built on your own success, your own financial security? Is it built on what others can do for you or what they think of you? Is it built on fear? Worry?

Are you living a life built on the all-encompassing, gracious love that Jesus calls us to? Or is it built on bitterness? A sense of injustice or resentment?

Intellectually, I can tell you that I want my life to be built on Jesus, but when I'm too distracted or lazy, and digging deep into the Word and prayer seems like too much work, it is easy to shift to more "worldly" foundations. And as I am getting older, I realize how dangerous and unstable those foundations are.  I’ve seen too many people around me build their lives on weak and shaky foundations, and ultimately fall “to ruin” as Jesus warns us will happen.

Over the past few months, I’ve become more aware that I want to have a secure foundation in Him. Not in myself, not in my successes, not in how good my marriage/children/house looks. Those are the things that the world tells us will make us happy and secure, but they aren’t long-lasting. They are unstable and weak. You will be secure until you lose your job or your marriage, or you gain fifty pounds, or your church falls apart.

Life is too unpredictable and difficult to have a weak foundation.

Instead, I want a foundation where I am unshakable in the face of persecution, instability and fear.

One of my favorite worship songs (“Build My Life”) has a bridge that says, “I will build my life upon your love, it is a firm foundation. And I will put my trust in you alone and I will not be shaken.”

Do you feel that way? Or does your life feel wobbly these days? Do you find yourself defining yourself by the size of your savings account or the number of social media followers you have?  Do you find your emotions constantly shifting when the foundations you’ve built your house on start to shift and shake?

I hope that you find comfort and direction in Galatians 2:19-21 (ESV):

“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
I want that - to have my life be built on the firm foundation of Jesus, where I am joined together with the body of Christ.

So let’s dig deep, my friends, and build our lives on the only foundation that can withstand the crazy, torrential rains of this life - Jesus Christ. 


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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Living a Life of Graciousness

This morning, as I was driving my daughter to school, I was reflecting on the idea of grace. I've recently started a Bible Study by Beth Moore called, Entrusted - Bible Study Book: A Study of 2 Timothy It is a powerful look at ministry and discipleship, and she is focusing on Paul and Timothy.

Last night, as I was going through 1 Timothy 1 as part of the homework, I was moved by verses 12-14:

"I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." (~1 Timothy 1:12-14, ESV)

I think many of us have people in the Bible that we can relate to, and I've always related to Paul. Not because I am some great orator, but because he had a shady past, just like I do. Before his conversion, Paul was not a good dude. In Acts 9, right before the Bible talks about Paul's conversion, it says that,

"Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem" (Acts 9:1-2). 

God didn't forgive Paul over say a few nasty things Paul had said here and there. He literally persecuted Christian, threw them in jail, all while breathing "murderous threats."

Paul knew about God's incredible grace. He had devoted his life to persecuting and imprisoning Christians, and yet, once he had an encounter with God, his life was transformed. It wasn't an easy life (he ended up imprisoned numerous times), but Paul knew that God's grace had transformed him and he devoted the rest of his life to witnessing and sharing the gospel.

Paul knew how powerful God's grace was. He watched it in his own life, and made sure that he continually praised God for it. In Ephesians 2, he reminds us that: "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ - by grace you have been saved" (Ephesians 2:4-5, ESV)

It is so funny how God's grace and love means we are saved and forgiven of all of our nastiness - our less-than-pretty pasts, our unkind words, our road rage - and yet, in the day-to-day, we are often so ungracious to others.

Sure, we might feel loving and kind at church on Sunday, and prayerfully tell God we want to be kind and loving this week. But by Thursday, we are short-tempered, burned out, or ungrateful. We are critical to our spouses, frustrated with our children, resentful of our job or finances.

How easy it is to take God's gracious forgiveness of our sins (and I have many) for granted. To praise him for forgiving us, yet do the exact opposite to others during the rest of the week.

When I teach my marriage class through my church, I often share that if God can forgive our sins (addiction, anger, jealousy, gossip), the least we can do is be gracious to our spouses. If God can forgive all of our sins, we can forgive our spouses when they are occasionally short-tempered or snippy after a long day. We can forgive them after a tense "discussion" about money or parenting or finances or any of the things that we bicker about in marriage.

As I was reflecting on grace, something awful happened. I dropped off my daughter at school, with the words "grace wins every time" (I love that song by Matthew West) going through my head, and I witnessed a car accident.

Not a little one either. One where the bumper was ripped off, the woman wasn't moving, and police cars, a fire engine and an ambulance all showed up.

It was literally breathtaking.

Life is incredibly short, y'all.

One moment, you are driving your child to school, the next, you are in a potentially life-changing (or ending) accident.

A routine mammogram shows breast cancer.

A spouse decides to take their life.

As a therapist, my office is full of people whose lives were changed in an instant.

And it got me thinking, if I died tomorrow, would people at my funeral say, "Hilary was such a gracious person. She knew how to let things go, she was giving and kind"?

Or would they say, "Well, Hilary was pretty intense, she was definitely not a kind mom to her kids, and we had some intense run-ins over the years."

Whew. It literally made me teary.

This year, my husband and I have chosen words to represent our goals. I've waffled from "prioritize" to "focus," but after seeing that car accident, I think it needs to be "gracious."

After all of the sins I've done over the years, the people I've hurt, the ungracious, unkind, unholy things I've said, I am forgiven because of grace.

So I need to forgive others and be gracious to those who bug me, anger me or cut me off in traffic. It is literally the least I can do.

2 Peter 1 describes several powerful qualities we need to have as Christians, "...make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love" (2 Peter 1:5-7, ESV)

Ouch. I struggle with all of these sometimes. My words and actions are not always virtuous, full of self-control, steadfast, or loving.

It goes on to warn us, "For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins." (1 Peter 1:9, ESV)

I don't want to ever forget that I am cleansed from my former sins.

I don't want to forget that God's grace has covered all of me.

I don't want people to one day remember me as awesome and successful in public, but testy and ungracious behind closed doors.

I want my year to reflect a constant striving towards graciousness.

With God's help and unending mercy, and the loving accountability of those around me, I know that I can.

In His name,

Monday, December 19, 2016

Reaching the Millennials in our Church


I've been super blessed to be part of a church that has a wide variety of ages in it. It's been so lovely to be in a church family that has so much intergenerational interaction support. Our teens serve at events for our older folks, our older folks babysit for the young couples events, our college group helps with our teens. It's a really wonderful thing to see in a church!

However, many churches I've been in struggle with integrating different generations. The teens hang out with the teens, the older folks only spend time with each other, the college students only do events with...other college students. 

When cliques in the church revolve around age groups, you lose so much. You lose rich opportunities for mentorship and support. Sure, we can talk about healthy marriages from a book-learning perspective with our young married couples, but isn't it more gratifying to have older couples who are willing to invite a young struggling couple over to dinner and support and love on them?

A few months ago, I was picked as a judge for a blog competition, and the entries were amazing. I'll share several over the next few weeks, but one that stood out - as I was reflecting on millennials in the church - was this article from The Light Breaks Through titled:

(scroll down below the picture to see the article on his page!)

The Barna group did a large research study about millennials and religion and discovered some super interesting statistics. Keith Haney identified five tips based on that research to help keep the millennials engaged in church. We have so incredible, creative, inspiring young minds in our churches that will impact generations if we nurture and support them, and I think he has some great suggestions. 

Check it out and let me know what you think. Are the millennials in your church engaged? Do you agree with this? Are we on the right path as a church?



Friday, December 16, 2016

Accepting God's Grace

This morning, as I was driving to work, I saw a sign that said: “Your life is based on the choices you make, always has been, always will.”

Now, as a counselor, I do believe this at some level. Often, there are consequences of the choices we make. Even in difficult situations that weren’t the result of your choices (for example, childhood abuse), how you perceive that situation will often have a significant impact on your life.

However, our pastor has also been speaking about God’s grace as we come up to Christmas. How God takes us in our shattered, sinful state and creates a beautiful new creation. I’m always inspired by 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” It is a powerful reminder that I am a new creation, not because I’m super awesome or I pray a ton, but because of God’s goodness and grace.

I started to think, what should my life be if it wasn’t for God’s grace?

Woman Wearing Black Jacket While Facing the City Nearby Metal RailingsIf it wasn’t for God’s grace, I would have had way more legal issues than I do based on bad decisions I made as a teenager.

If it wasn’t for God’s grace, I would be crippled by my mental health.

If it wasn’t for God’s grace, I wouldn’t have a spouse who loves me in spite of my negativity and criticism.

If it wasn’t for God’s grace, I wouldn’t have a group of people who love me in spite of my moodiness and selfishness.

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