Mental Illness Self Care

Last time I offered my thoughts for people who don't struggle with mental illness, but who want to know how to better treat those who do. This time I thought I'd speak to my people. Anyone who is dealing with depression and anxiety - this is for you.

Managing depression and anxiety is like an intense workout at the gym - and not just because they are both exhausting. They both require self-awareness and all the strength you've got.

At the gym some people can lift 200 pounds, some only 50, some only 25. Whether you're the one who can lift 200 or 25 doesn't matter. What does matter is that you know which one you are. A person will never get stronger at the gym by insisting they can only lift 25 pounds, when in reality she can pretty easily lift 200. She isn't doing her best, and that's not productive or admirable. On the other hand, a person who can only lift 25 pounds SHOULD NOT try to lift 200 - not even with help. It will almost certainly cause an injury, perhaps one that means not lifting anything for a long time. Overexertion isn't productive or admirable either, no matter what society says.

I say this for two reasons:

First, because the advice below will not work for everyone. Some people are so deep in a depression pit that the simplest thing is challenging. I understand that - I've been there before too. I've been given "easy" things to try by friends and therapists that I simply couldn't manage. For a long time I was drowning. I had to get to solid ground and breathe fresh air before I could try and take steps forward - even little ones. If you look at this list and think I can't even do that - that's ok. Please try first, but if the advice someone gives you is too heavy for you at the moment, put it down until you're stronger. Survive. Then try again.

Second, if these things DO work for you, you have a responsibility to do them. Just like in the gym - if you can lift 200, you better not quit at 25. I try to be really honest with myself about what I can and cannot handle. Sometimes I want to just wallow on the floor, but most of the time these days I know that I can manage more than that. If I know that I can do more, I must do more. 

Here are some things that help me:

1. TAKE CARE OF YOUR PHYSICAL BODY

Having depression and anxiety often means that you have trouble sleeping, don't want to eat (or only want to eat garbage), don't feel like taking a shower, and wouldn't get up to exercise unless someone got after you with a cattle prod. While it may seem like it couldn't possibly make that big of a difference, taking care of your physical body really can help. If you have clinical depression, going for a walk or drinking water will not "fix" you. However, regularly keeping up with self-care can make the difference between a catatonic day and a manageable one.

When my depression was really bad last year, I always noticed a huge difference when I didn't get enough sleep the night before. Not only was I too tired to function, but sleep deprivation makes me feel sick to my stomach, so I couldn't eat or drink. Every day was tough, but those days were TOUGH. I actually had a day where I was too catatonic to drive myself home. I stared blankly into space while someone helped me into the car like a toddler. I really do believe that if I'd gotten enough sleep, I would have fared better. You can't always control this - but try.

Drink water. Go outside and get some vitamin D. If you live where I do and it's cold and rainy for 8 months out of the year, take a vitamin D pill. Exercise in whatever form is manageable for you. Set an alarm so you don't forget your medication. Stay away from sugar, which causes a brain crash and can be addicting. On that note - DON'T DRINK ALCOHOL. It's an addicting depressant made of sugar. BAD IDEA.

Like I said, none of these things will "fix" it - especially not on their own - but making several tiny healthy choices can really add up to feeling a bit more like yourself. 

2. TAKE CARE OF YOUR MIND

Mental illness means that some percentage of your mind is acting beyond your control. Practice honest self-awareness to find out what your percentage is. It may be 80%, it may be 5%. Whatever percentage of your mind is within your control, you have a responsibility to manage properly. A panic attack set off by something you can't even identify falls into the percentage of things you cannot control. Your only choice is to try to recover as best you can. A recurring thought that you know you really should not dwell on because it deeply upsets you falls into the percentage of things you can control. Tell yourself This thought does not serve me in any helpful way. I should not let it linger here. I will think about something else now. A person with anxiety may have to do this on repeat every 30 seconds all day long. It's difficult and exhausting, but if it falls within your control, control it.

Maintaining control over your percentage, sometimes requires diligent self care. It is rare for me to go through a day with complete control over my percentage without establishing boundaries and taking precautions. Taking this route to work upsets me. In order to maintain control it is best that I choose a different route. This topic of conversation makes me anxious. In order to maintain control it is best that I leave the room and go find something pleasant to do. Seeing this person is harmful to me. In order to maintain control it is best that I skip this upcoming event. Practice self-awareness and make the choices that set you up for success in controlling your percentage. Take inventory of your relationships. Are any of them consistently setting you up for failure in this? If the relationship poisons your mind or reduces your percentage, it's not worth it. Say goodbye. 

3. TAKE TIME TO BE PRESENT

I, like most people, tend to do several things at one time. I've often found myself eating dinner while watching a tv show, holding a conversation with two people via text message, and panicking about my future. I wasn't enjoying my food. I was just mindlessly eating it, not paying close attention to flavors or appreciating the process. I would then find myself dissatisfied and seek more food, not properly feeling like I'd already eaten. I wasn't enjoying the tv show. I missed anything nonverbal, which is often the best part of the experience. I didn't even realize at the time that I wasn't actually enjoying any of it. 

I now try to make a habit of spending most of my day doing one thing at a time. I know, some of you are freaking out because that would be such a "waste" to not be doing as much as possible as often as possible. It doesn't feel like a waste, because the things I'm doing actually amount to something rather than leaving me feeling empty. I read a lot now. Part of this is because I found a book that I love that happens to be 1400 pages, but mostly it's because reading requires you to put all thoughts and other activities aside. It's been years since I've watched tv without also doing something meaningless on my phone, or allowing my mind to drift to something concerning me. No more. I put my phone down, and I put my thoughts to the side and experience what's in front of me.

It seems like a little thing, but being present for your life makes a big difference in how much you enjoy it. 

4. TAKE TIME TO CREATE

Something that has really helped me boost my happiness is creating. I think it is innate in us to want to make things, whether it be food, crafts, or even new relationships. Depression can make you feel like a destroyer. I've spent so much of the last year feeling like a hurricane that tore through the lives of everyone I love. Now I get to pick up broken pieces, patch up holes, and hope that the foundations were sturdy enough to allow for rebuilding. After so much time spent breaking, it has been so refreshing to create.

I recently started sewing, which is another one of my one-thing-at-a-time activities. It uses both of my hands, it requires my full attention, and it's too loud to do while "watching" tv. I'm satisfied and happy when the task is complete, having dedicated myself fully to a project. Sewing, crafting, writing, and baking have all been "creation activities" for me lately.

Projects give us purpose. If you are struggling with depression and anxiety, try to find a project. It could give you a reason to get out of bed, and something to look forward to at the end of a long day. It's something to do with your hands and mind that isn't destructive, and something to prove that this day being alive wasn't a waste. Share your project with others by creating something to give to someone else or inviting someone over to enjoy the fruits of your labor.


All of these suggestions are only relevant if you are in a place where you can manage them. The first and most important step is getting help if you need it. If you are in danger of hurting yourself, please seek help immediately. Friends and family are often a great source of support and comfort, but do not be afraid to seek out a professional. Therapy and medicine can make all the difference. Don't be ashamed of using them if you need to.

Awareness Month

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. I know - it seems like there is a month or a day dedicated to almost everything now, but I really am glad that there's a month dedicated to this. As woke as many of us are in 2018, there's still a huge stigma surrounding mental illness. I believe this is mostly due to a lack of understanding. I am lucky that I am predominately surrounded by people who are supportive, loving, and helpful to me in dealing with my depression and anxiety. However, in the last year and a half of having severe mental health problems, I have faced some people and situations that make it very clear that there is still so much ignorance about this topic. I certainly don't claim to know everything about how to deal with mental illness. I can, however, use my experiences to try and educate people. 

As with anything that we don't personally experience, mental illness can be difficult to fathom if it isn't happening to you. It's not always easy to know what to say or how to treat someone. I guess I can't speak for everyone with a mental illness, but here are some things that really bother me. 

1. PLEASE DON'T ASSUME WE ARE DANGEROUS

Especially with hyper-stigmatized mental illnesses like Schozophrenia, people have a tendency to become afraid upon finding out that someone they know has a mental illness. While it is entirely true that people who bomb buildings and shoot up post offices are sometimes mentally ill, most mentally ill people DO NOT spend their time planning mass murder. I, and many others, have faced hurtful assumptions at school, work, and church. I have never threatened to hurt anyone, and while I have often thought of hurting myself, I have never brought a weapon of any kind to a public place or threatened to hurt myself or others. The insinuation that someone feared that kind of behavior from me was very painful, and it made me feel even crazier than I actually am. If someone you know appears to be a danger to others, please do something about that - but don't ostracize your totally normal coworker who sometimes cries in the bathroom. She will not bite. 

2. PLEASE DON'T APPROPRIATE OUR LANGUAGE TO BE FUNNY OR DRAMATIC

Raise your hand if you've ever heard something like this:

If the ice cream machine at McDonald's is broken again I will just slit my wrists.

That exam was so hard I literally wanted to kill myself.

I just can't have clutter on my desk. I'm, like, super OCD

STOP SAYING THESE THINGS. Self-harm and suicidal thoughts are very legitimate problems, and people throwing that language around like confetti desensitizes everyone to hearing those words. Hearing, "I want to kill myself" should have an impact on the listener and result in immediate assistance. If the listener thinks it is a joke or an over-dramatization, that is less likely to happen. Every time you use language about shooting yourself in the face because you spilled your coffee, you minimize the legitimacy of the issue by making it commonplace and funny. Often during my darkest times I felt like people thought I was kidding or exaggerating when I said I felt like harming myself, like it was some sort of morbid figure of speech. 

Also, apparently saying "trigger" or "trigger warning" is a thing now? Stop this. It is not cute. Triggers are entirely real for people with depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and other illnesses. There are places, people, smells, sounds, and phrases that can quickly result in a panic attack if I'm not careful. For people with PTSD, triggers can actually be life threatening. When I hear people talk like this, it sounds like they are making fun of not only the concept of being triggered, but also the people who react to triggers. Trust me, if we could stop being triggered we would. I don't enjoy feeling like I'm going to throw up when I see a certain type of car.

I don't even have OCD, but this one really bothers me. OCD is so deeply misunderstood that some people legitimately believe that if they like to-do lists, vacuum every day, and hate having sticky hands that they have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. YOU DO NOT. True OCD can render people completely unable to hold jobs or leave their homes. People with OCD don't just wash their hands a lot - that's a stereotype. It can manifest itself in so many other ways, and sometimes it has nothing to do with cleanliness. I have a friend whose OCD manifests itself as the compulsive and intrusive thought that she has run over a person with her car and killed them, which makes it really difficult to drive places. Please stop using OCD as a description of yourself or others who don't like clutter. 

3. PLEASE STOP PILL SHAMING

Pill shaming comes in many forms. Some people believe that taking medicine for mental health issues is for snowflakes who just don't want to have to work on their problems or don't realize that life is hard and everyone else has to deal with it too. Some people think it's fine that you take medicine, but say things like "I would just never do that. I try to handle my depression on my own." Uh, yeah, so did the people who ended up on medicine. They tried - it just didn't work. Some people make what they think are encouraging statements about how someday I won't need medicine or therapy. This is entirely possible; however, I don't like the implication that if I never reach that stage, it means I didn't try hard enough or that where I am now is only going to be tolerated by them for a certain period of time. All of this is pill shaming.

What should you do instead? Just encourage people to get healthy - whatever that means for them. Some people manage to get healthy without medicine - encourage them to keep doing what they're doing. Some people try for months or years to feel better without medicine and simply can't - encourage them to get the help they need and stop being stubborn or scared. Some people can just tell that they need back up to help with what's happening to them - encourage them to do what's right for them. What's right for you might look completely different, and that's ok too.

4. PLEASE STOP MAKING IT A FAITH ISSUE

Several months ago I was sitting in a coffee shop where a group of men were gathered for a men's leadership Bible study associated with a local church. Before they got started, one of them said that they needed to discuss "the depression problem". He went on to explain that what he viewed as "the depression problem" was women consistently claiming to be afflicted with depression because it garnered attention. His exact words at the end of his statement were, "I'm surprised every woman we know hasn't come forward claiming to have depression, seeing how much attention it gets them."

Incorrect and misogynistic.

I prayed for wisdom, and then I went over and interrupted their Bible study. I explained that I'd overheard them and wanted to talk to them. I admitted that I didn't know the women they were referring to, and that it's entirely possible that these women are making false claims for attention, but that they should be very careful making that assumption. For people of faith, often the first resource they utilize when dealing with mental health problems is the leaders of their respective faith communities. In this way preachers, elders, and youth ministers have a lot of power to influence the people they shepherd who have these problems, and must be wise and discerning in the way they handle such situations. If handled incorrectly, horrible things can happen. I know that personally. I simply asked that they use caution when making such pronouncements and tried to walk away.

The man I'd overheard speaking began to hound me. When did you discover you were depressed? When I was 17. Were you saved when that happened to you? Yes. How do you know you were saved when that happened to you? I had been baptized. How long ago had you been baptized? About ten years. How were you saved and yet thought your life was meaningless? I don't know. It happened in spite of my faith. Why did you think you had the right to harm what God had created, if you were a person of faith? I didn't think I had the right. Why did you think medicine was the only answer? I would never claim it's the only answer. In the end it was the right answer for me at the time. What do you think people did about depression before society propagated the idea that it should be healed with medicine? They... probably died... When did you stop believing in God? What? No, I never have! Then how did this happen to you?

Then how did this happen to me?

I think the people who know me well know that I have a deep and active faith. Throughout even my most major depressive episodes, I've never lost my faith. I've sometimes wondered what God was up to, but never thought him absent or non-existent. In fact, my faith has been strengthened and deeply rooted because of those major depressive episodes, not in spite of them. I think my faith is what it is now because it has been refined by fire and thoroughly tested. 

Anxiety and depression didn't happen to me because I didn't have enough faith in God. In fact, perhaps God allowed these things to plague me because my faith could withstand it where another person's could not. I honestly don't know - it's tough to understand how God works sometimes. 

It is true that scripture encourages us not to worry and to be full of joy, even in times of trial. To a point, there is something to be said for managing mental illness with faith, prayer, and a community of believers - I don't mean to discredit that possibility at all. However, as people of faith - and especially leaders of faith - we must be responsible with what we tell people who are struggling with mental illness. We should absolutely encourage people to seek God, to trust God, and to find joy in God. We also should acknowledge that for some people they have biology, or trauma, or deep rooted cognitive patterns working against them that must be dealt with further. These people should not be shamed. They are not shamed by their God, and therefore should never be shamed by his people.


I would be very interested to hear feedback about this post. If you struggle with mental illness, do you have something else that you wish the people around you knew? If you know someone with mental illness, is there something you've learned along the way that you wish you'd known sooner? 

Anna Catherine + Justin

I'm so excited to share this engagement shoot! I decided to go to some places I'd never shot before, and I was really happy with the results. First, the three of us hit up a local nursery and took some photos among the plants. It was the best smelling engagement session I've ever shot.

Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer

Turns out these cool looking dome things are for watering the plants. I found that out when the sprinklers suddenly came on while we were shooting and the three of us screamed and ran out as fast as we could. Unfortunately, I have no photos of that moment. I was truly so confused. 

Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer

These two laugh a lot, which I like. :)

Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer
Stephanie Benge Photography | Jackson, TN Wedding Photographer

So Will I

The church I attend has started doing a new series on Sunday nights about songs. We've been discussing the history, theology, culture, and meaning behind some of the songs we use in worship. I've written several times already about song lyrics that are meaningful to me, so I think I have well established myself as a person who strongly identifies with music. Naturally, I was totally on board with this series. Yes, please.

I love the thought of asking ourselves about the songs we sing. What are we professing in this song? Do we actually believe that, or are we just singing it because those are the words? Does singing it help make the words truer in our lives? Who is this song meant to be for? What does singing it say about us?

In the midst of this series I've found a new favorite song. 

The song is So Will I by Hillsong UNITED. I encourage you to go check it out. You can do so here. <<<

The song is pretty, but it's certainly not the most beautiful song I've ever heard. It's instrumental, and I have a preference for acappella music. Annoyingly, not all of it is perfectly within my vocal range, so I have to change octaves while singing it at the top of my lungs in my car. So why do I love this song so much? Why has it grabbed me and not let go?

It's because of what the song professes. Here are some of the lyrics:

If it all reveals Your nature, so will I
If creation still obeys You, so will I
If the stars were made to worship, so will I
If the mountains bow in reverence, so will I
If the oceans roar Your greatness, so will I
For if everything exists to lift You high, so will I
If the wind goes where You send it, so will I
If the rocks cry out in silence, so will I

The song is about creation and how every part of that creation is a reflection of the God who made it. The song takes a bold and unwavering stance about the worthiness of God. It calls me to something higher and challenges me to say things that aren't yet true. I want to exist inside this song.

It also touches on a passage of scripture I've always loved. During what's known as "The Triumphal Entry" Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem. As he approaches a town he is met with shouts of loud praise. People spread their cloaks on the road, creating a sort of red carpet for Jesus. The multitude starts shouting, "Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!" and, "Glory in the highest!" This was a group of people completely caught up in worship. As is the Pharisaical way, a Pharisee shows up and tries to take control of the situation. He tells Jesus to ask his admirers to chill out. Jesus' answer is so wonderful.

"If these people were silent, the very rocks would cry out."

That gives me chills.

It's as if Jesus is saying, "You're not about all-consuming, overwhelming worship? Get used to it." Bye, Pharisee.

God is so worthy of worship that it is impossible that he not be worshipped. If for some reason I don't want to, that's fine, there's a rock somewhere that won't be able to contain itself because of the greatness of God. If I don't bow before God, the mountains, the proudest looking structure of all creation, will do it for me. A mountain is somehow so aware of the glory of God that it knows it must bow. And the stars. The stars! Humans are in awe of the stars. We gaze at them. We are baffled by their majesty and their awesome power. The stars are in awe of God. They gaze at His majesty.

If these people were silent, the very rocks would cry out.

I think it's curious that Jesus says that line only days before the crucifixion. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. Less than a week from this moment Jesus will be in the midst of a different crowd. That new crowd will be crying "CRUCIFY" instead of "GLORY TO GOD". Part of his creation, the most beloved part, is about to turn on him. Here's where it gets interesting.

When "it is finished" there is an earthquake and the sun is blocked out. The rocks that form the foundation of the whole earth shake and rumble when Jesus dies. Our life-supporting star blackens in mourning and reverence at the death of The Creator. The people of earth decided to be silent in the midst of God's glory, but the earth itself could not.

Rocks cried out in silence. Stars bowed in worship.

That takes me back to the song I love so much. As much as the song mentions all of the different elements of creation, the subject of the song is actually me. So will I. That's the line used most often.

This is where I ask myself all of the other questions listed in the beginning. Do I mean that, or am I just singing it? Does singing it convict me to make the words true? Am I really a rock crying out in silence, or am I the oblivious onlooker standing at the foot of the cross?

Will I really go where God sends me - wherever God sends me - like I'm a wind? If that's true, I might have to make some major life changes. Do I want to make major life changes? Am I secretly hoping God leaves his directions to the wind and doesn't ask me for anything or send me anywhere?

Will I really reveal His nature? What would have to change about me for that statement to be true? Whose nature am I revealing now? Where am I making God take a backseat to my own desires? Are rocks and oceans doing a better job of revealing God's nature than I am, even though I'm the one who was created in His image?

For me this song is both an invitation and an RSVP. It professes that all around me creation is involved in this never ending worship-fest that I've thus far neglected to show up to. Hey, you. Everyone else - everyTHING else - is already at this party. Care to join us? This is what I meant when I said I want to exist inside this song. I want to live at that party. I want to be part of what all creation is already doing. This song says yes to the invite. There's worship going on somewhere and I'm joining it. 

Today is Good Friday. Today is the day two thousand years ago that humanity chose silence and the rest of creation chose worship. Two days from now many of us will meet with our friends and family for Easter Sunday. Resurrection Day: the day a rock stepped aside so the embodiment of God's goodness could be revealed. Unburied. It's time we step aside too, and reveal the God in us. I challenge myself, and any who wish to join me, to emulate creation this Resurrection Day. Reveal. Obey. Worship. Bow. Roar. Go. Cry out in silence. 

If you left the grave behind you, so will I.