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The Courage to Speak and the Courage to Listen

December 17th, 2012

About ten years ago, my husband, Mike, was diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis was a relief. It gave us all at least a partial answer to the frustrating question of why his thinking was always so labored. Why it was such a struggle to think clearly and concisely and without circular rationale. It gave him a context for the obsessive patterns of thinking he could remember even from his young childhood. The diagnosis provided a doable plan of treatment that allowed him to find relief from what he described as a rampant and never-ending train of thought (about whatever concern was taking over at a given moment) that took every ounce of his energy to control. And the treatment worked. With varying stages of success for those ten years. Until through a series of converging circumstances, it didn’t.

Mike’s depression often manifested itself in obsessive and compulsive thinking, especially at times when control of his thoughts was more of a struggle. In more recent years, I came to believe that he developed his own views of reality to cope with what his mind would not allow him to accept about his life. His thoughts were consumed with greater and greater levels of anxiety and often moments of panic as he began his last downward spiral.

Mike was a gentle man by nature. He was so much more than a man plagued with depression, although the illness impacted him daily in ways even I can only imagine. I had never felt any cause for concern with Mike, never any ounce of fear except for the hard presence of his occasional suicidal thoughts. But, in those last months, I noticed myself feeling afraid, then pushing it aside. Afraid of the desperation I saw in his eyes. The fear he, himself, had — not knowing how it might manifest itself. The sheer and unreasonable lack of control brought on by this illness called depression became overwhelming. I found myself afraid to leave our children with him simply because I knew his own drowning thoughts would prove far too great a distraction. In the last few months, I saw growing evidence of how manipulative the disease can be — how it warps reason in the mind of the one battling it. And how quickly and extensively I saw Mike become manipulative in an effort to maintain the fragile order of his mind and the reality within which he could cope with living. It frightened me. It frustrated me. It blew my own mind. It stretched me more than anything I’ve ever faced.

Why do I write these descriptions?

Because it’s time. Isn’t it time? In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy those in Connecticut (and indeed our nation) face, isn’t it time to speak? When we see and try to make sense of the horrific, unfathomable actions of a man mentally ill, isn’t it time? For, don’t we assume this gunman was mentally ill — to target those who are so glaringly innocent of crime, to overcome every instinct of humanity from protecting our young to self-preservation? When we’re faced with picking up these pieces, isn’t it time to finally speak?

My husband had a mental illness. He struggled with it for many years, and for most of those years, I considered this fact to be his story. I rarely spoke of it, mainly out of protectiveness for him. So he could stand in equal footing with those he met, with a clean slate, and none of the preconceptions that are so prevalent. I always felt it was his story to tell — in whatever way and to whomever he chose. Yes, there were those in our family or close circles who knew of his depression, but I felt the dialog of the illness should be authored by him. And rightly so. He was the one dealing with it. Some would say suffering from it.

It wasn’t until the level of frustration in my own head became more than I could handle that I began to crack the shell of what was really happening in our family. To acknowledge for myself and to those closest to me the poor decisions stemming from Mike’s thinking that were jeopardizing all of us. The disappointment. The fear. The anger. The hurt. The irrational nature of an illness not in proper treatment. The inability to discern what was Mike’s choice and what was prompted by depression and thinking patterns. The moments of crisis invading our lives.

When Mike died, I had to let go of the need to protect him. It was the only way to cope. His story of depression became my story. Living with mental illness. Surviving mental illness. And I finally realized that it had always been my story too. A story just as relevant as his, though the illness wasn’t mine.

In the wake of tragedy in my own life, I’m forced to ask, “Isn’t it time for courage?” The courage to speak and the courage to listen. As the whole nation mourns the loss of these little ones, isn’t it time for courage — to boldly speak and to just as boldy listen to the stories of mental illness impacting our lives, our families and our children? Would the outcome for Mike have been any different if I had chosen to open those stories sooner — when the specter of suicide wasn’t so blatantly and relentlessly present? Would that intervention have saved his life? I don’t know. Would the story of Sandy Hook Elementary have been just another pre-Christmas Friday if this man’s stories had been exposed sooner and more comprehensively? No one can know. But I have to believe if there was ever a time for the relentless courage to speak and to listen, this is it.

It’s time to find the courage to speak. To acknowledge our pain, our confusion. To reveal the realities and reject the stigma of mental illness. To recognize that secrecy and shame are our greatest enemies in this battle. And to speak. When we know in our hearts something just isn’t quite right — to speak. When we notice the shift in predictable actions — to speak. When we wonder, “is this normal?” — to speak. When we know we need help — to speak. When it’s getting harder than we think we can handle — to speak.

It’s time to find the courage to listen. To close our mouths to gossip and disdain and whispering. And to open our ears and eyes to understanding. And compassion for these silent struggles. To dare to open our lives and thus our hearts to others, finding it so much harder to reject what we’re determined to love. To put aside the notion of tiptoeing through the backyards of the lives around us, sneaking criticism and comparison. And to step up. To step to the front door, in plain view, and knock. To knock insistently with love and compassion in hand.

I’ve been blessed by those people knocking. Even when my instinct was to run away, to shush, to deny. The insistent blessing found me. And now it’s my turn. Isn’t it time?

© Haley Montgomery

The Hardest Day

November 20th, 2012

12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY TEN

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Mike.

I’m thankful for Mike.

I never imagined how painful it would be to write that. How much it seems to tear my mind apart. He hurt me so deeply on the day he died. In taking his own life. Abandoning life.
The lives of the children God gave us. He hurt me so deeply for years before that when I began losing him little by little each day. In many ways I felt like I lost myself in trying to be what was needed to help us all survive this situation. In the end, Mike didn’t survive.

It’s hard to push my thinking past that fact. You would think being thankful for my husband would be an easy one. I am and I have been. I AM thankful for Mike. His life. His character. His presence. But, I’m robbed of the joy of appreciating that blessing. At least for now. I’m robbed in the way depression and emotional struggles seemed to rob us of so many things. It blinds me sometimes with disappointment. Still, Mike was a blessing. To me. To our children. To so many people.

I’ve wanted to show the world some picture of the man I knew. The man I loved for so many years. Beyond his choice on this day two months ago. The day in September that makes THIS day the hardest in my 12-day journey toward Thanksgiving. I’ve wanted to see the man I knew as more of what he was. Beyond that defining moment. Before all this. Before the deep emotional issues plaguing him robbed me. Before I lost so much of him. A picture of the man I think he wanted to be. It’s a view of him that has been so obscured at times through our darkest days of dealing with mental illness and it’s warping of personalities.

Today, this is so hard to write, but necessary. One of my greatest prayers is that, in time, I will be able to think of Mike and speak of him with greater joy. That the flood of sorrow and disappointment brought by his death will be eclipsed by the joy that he lived.

Mike WAS a survivor.
The path of his childhood was a difficult one. He faced more struggles than I can imagine. Through the early evidences of depression — even as a young child, I believe — he developed his own personal ways of coping that amazed me. The resolve of his character allowed him to persevere and to emerge a gentle man.

Mike was kind.
It’s the attribute I think most describes him. He rarely raised his voice. He often had the ability to put himself in another’s shoes, showing empathy and sharing a compassionate word. I recognized through the years the great struggle it was for him to reign in his own thoughts and lay them aside to consider someone else. And yet, he set his mind to do it.

Mike was a seeker.
He challenged the popular phrases of religion. Simply because he had never heard them. But, he wanted to know. He wasn’t ashamed to say “what does this mean?” He committed himself over the years to be willing to ask questions.

Mike was disciplined.
I don’t know that there was ever anything for Mike that really came free and easy. Rather, he was so deliberate. About everything. This brought about a tremendous consistency. When he set his mind to form habits, he did.

Mike loved to play.
It’s one reason I think children loved him. He just enjoyed playing, and his playground was usually outdoors. He was a fisherman. And he rarely required tall tales to adequately describe his fishing trips. But, for Mike, he really didn’t need activity to enjoy Creation. He could sit and see and derive the peace he needed from it.

Mike could make you laugh.
He wasn’t gregarious by any means, and most people considered him to be quite shy. That’s probably what made him funny. His humor would sneak up on you. Dead-pan sincerity. Most people were shocked to learn he had great Elvis and John Wayne impersonations. They were funnier because they came from someone so quiet.

Mike was a helper.
He had a desire to serve. To lend a helping hand. We developed great memories in the early years of our marriage as he helped renovate our farm house. His help was always humble and filled with a willingness to do whatever was necessary.

Mike believed in Jesus.
His desire was to be the man God wanted him to be. It eclipsed every other pursuit in his life. And although he didn’t always succeed (none of us do), Mike worked hard to apply whatever admonishment came across his thinking. Mike’s faith was a simple one. A sincere one. He devoted himself to trusting God. I’ve said that he put all the faith he could muster into all he could understand about God. His was a true childlike faith, as God’s word describes.

Mike was a Daddy.
This in itself is remarkable because Mike never really had a father. His heart belonged to our three children, and he showed it through games and hugs and instruction and prayers and giving his time and attention. For as long as he could.

There are some things that must be said about Mike’s choice on September 20, 2012. Important, but hard truths that I won’t allow to become glossy in this tragedy of a life ended so young leaving a wife with three small children. But, those things are better left for another post. For this one, it is enough to say that Mike lived. And this is some of who he was. In these things, I have been blessed to share some of that life. And to have loved him at his best.

© Haley Montgomery

Pretty Things

November 19th, 2012

12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY NINE

We’ve taken walks on the gravel roads around our farm house each of the days we’ve been here so far. It’s one of the things we look forward to. Yesterday’s adventure was a trip to the hay yard where all the round bales of hay are stored. It has the added bonus of a pretty cool obstacle course on top of the bales. Today’s trip was a walk to the gate that closes off our road to public traffic.

It’s been my habit through the years we’ve made these treks to take my camera along — my iPhone with the Hipstamatic app and often my Canon too. The kids recognize it as my habit, and they sometimes comment on it. “You like to take pictures of pretty things.” Yes, that about covers it. After many trips, our walks now include them scouting out pretty things and helping me take photos. Or, suggesting photos, I should say. It’s neat to hear their mixture of wonder at the beauty of nature around them and their attempts to guess at what I might think is pretty.

Of course, the most exquisite sights for me on these walks are my companions. Their mixture of comments and delight and curiosity. Their questions. And answers. Their movement. THEIR view of God’s creation, particularly during the changing seasons. Many “pretty things” here on these walks are wonders they are seeing for the first time. Or, recognizing for the first time. Together, we are learning to notice the joy and beauty around us in simple things. I’m so thankful for these times with them. It is balm for all our souls.

For Day Nine, I decided to share a few of the Hipstamatic shots taken at the request of my kiddos. And some shots of them that crossed my lens as well. Enjoy.

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© Haley Montgomery

The List

November 18th, 2012

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12 Days of Thanksgiving: Day Eight

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“One lesson I’ve been reminded of each year in this now 4-year tradition is that the List is best kept daily. Not yearly. In fact, it’s best kept moment by moment, recognizing all the small things that add up to a big, wide, deep life filled with blessing. For life is invariably filled with blessing.”

I wrote that statement last year during my 12 Days of Thanksgiving and I still believe it. In spite of the frustrations and difficulties and now sorrows of this year, I still believe it. Because it’s true. Life is invariably filled with blessing. Little ones and big ones every single day. This year, I’m literally overwhelmed by what we have to be thankful for. By the overwhelming love and support of so many people. By the abundance of so many ordinary things. Facing death and loss in these early months has made ordinary things difficult and overwhelming at times. But, it has also heightened my awareness of just how precious those ordinary experiences are, how indicative they are of real life. The playwrite, Thornton Wilder, described it poignantly, “We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”

Today, I’ve made an effort to be conscious of my treasures and of the ordinary experiences of this particular day that are actually pretty extraordinary.

Early morning wake up sounds from Baby Girl >> Getting to sleep in the same room with Baby Girl for the week >> Unexpected morning correspondence >> The smell of bacon cooking >> iPad apps >> Random occurrences of the “I love you” signs >> Giggles as I remind them you can turn it over and make Spidey’s webbing motion >> Hearing everyone break out in laughter during a movie >> Snoopy >> The opportunity to fetch juice >> A clear blue sky >> Waking up slowly as the sun makes the bedroom lighter >> Gas heaters >> Long walks >> That Little Drummer Boy wants to defend our honor >> The constant love and support of my parents >> Mild November days >> Afternoon naps >> Having a couch in the kitchen >> That Bug is fearless >> Giving permission to break the rules and jump on the bed >> A work structure that allows me to bring my babies to the farm for a week >> The best jigsaw and the technology that enables me to be a working mom from anywhere >> Having someone cook for me >> That Baby Girl tells a great story >> Fresh air >> The sun filtering through colored leaves >> Movies >> Being asked to sit by one of my kiddos >> Just how close they get when I do >> Good memories >> The longevity of a single place in my life >> Whispers in the hallway >> Books >> Extra time to read them >> Quiet moments >> Overheard conversations >> The sound of imaginations at work >> Picnics in the living room >> Sitting in a deck swing >> Being with them all day long >> Playing together >> Making traditions >> A starry night >> The privilege of a day spent at rest

© Haley Montgomery

The Wrong Color

November 15th, 2012

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12 Days of Thanksgiving: DAY FIVE

I have a picture hanging in my office. Let’s face it; I’m the mommy of three young children. I have a LOT of pictures hanging in my office. This particular one is a pencil drawing of a fish bowl. The bowl is nicely outfitted with three houses. One petite fish swims above them. There is a sun shining in a partly cloudy sky above the bowl, and a tiny carton of fish food stands beside it.

The picture makes me smile. It’s one of many the kids have made in school that are peppered throughout the house. They’ve grown to have a preference for hanging them in my office. I think it’s because they know that’s where I am during the day while they’re gone to school. And I tell them I miss them so much during those times.

So, it makes me smile. Little Drummer Boy made the picture last year in first grade art class. It’s punctuated with spots of watercolor. Purple and green and yellow and orange houses. An orange goldfish. A yellow sun and fish food jar. I smile because he made it. And it’s a great drawing. And a reminder of him as a first-grader. And I smile because of how he presented it.

LDB went searching for it in his backpack after school. He wanted to show me. He was fairly bursting to talk about everything depicted there. The crux of which seemed to be…

“Mrs. Pugh said we could color things the wrong color if we wanted to.”

The wrong color. It took me a minute to notice it. And my Drummer Boy was quick to fill in the gaps. It was the bubbles. He chose to make the bubbles red. And, I guess it’s true; bubbles in a fish bowl aren’t supposed to be red.

Little Drummer Boy was quite proud of himself for taking Mrs. Pugh up on her generous offer to use the wrong color. And I was too. It was just a small bucking of the expected coloration, but I could see the freedom it gave him to express himself. To color his own picture. His own storyline.

Sometimes to experience a small freedom from our circumstances, we just need permission to color it differently. And if we are unable to find someone to offer that permission, we give it to ourselves. The permission to color our own day, our own lives, independent of the things that may have bound us or been expected of us yesterday.

In times of transition, stroke by stroke, we re-color our lives. As I look at the fish bowl, I’m thankful for the small reminders that each day is new. Each moment is new. And ready to be colored anew. And it’s ok to use the “wrong” color.

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© Haley Montgomery

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    Thank you for seven years of encouragement and sharing this story. You can find Haley's current essays and design work at smallpondgraphics.com

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