Mental Wellness in Ministry #3: How I Totally Failed At Communicating

It’s 6:35 am. Marnell has just left for work, driving away through an inch or two of fresh snow. I have my favorite cup filled with fresh coffee, set on my favorite saucer. The cup and saucer belong to the aqua green set Marnell’s parents received as a wedding present. These pretty stoneware-like cups have made their way from being modern in the mid 1900’s to now, in 2020, looking remarkably modern again. I’m not sure how we got to be the lucky ones to get them, but I’m not complaining at all. In fact, on the rare occasion that the three aqua mugs are all in the dishwasher, I am much disturbed in spirit to have to drink my coffee out of an inferior substitute from the early 21st century.

This morning, however, there was an aqua cup and saucer available, so life is complete and beautiful. I’ve just returned to my upholstered rocking chair and fuzzy blanket by the fireplace, under the watchful eye of the green lions that are miniatures of the ones at the Chicago Art Institute. I’ve walked half an hour on the treadmill and read Scripture. I’ve showered, and I’m in a large loose bath robe and my hair is going everywhere. I want to start working officially around 7 o’clock, so I have almost half an hour to splurge on the loveliest of tasks: reading a book.

Life is perfect.

Then, I hear exaggerated gasping sounds coming up my porch steps.

Jen’s noises aren’t hard to recognize after dozens of her visits. At least, she’s probably just coming for coffee, but sometimes she’s asking to use my phone, or in rare cases, she needs to go to the emergency room right now. Before she rings the doorbell, I’m putting down my book.

“What’s up Jen?” I ask, opening the door. “This is way too early.”

“Oh, I know,” she says. “But Harvey is wondering if you could take me to 7-11 to get us some coffee.”

She’s been down the last few days repeatedly asking for food. We don’t have any food and we’re hungry and Harvey is sick and doesn’t get paid until Wednesday, and then we can buy food. We’ve given them a frozen pizza, some apples, random things from our refrigerator, ice cream bars, etc. Harvey always wants ice cream, and they always want creamer with their coffee. Sometimes they bring their own cup to put the creamer in. I did make a rule this week though – no more than one Mountain Dew per day. Harvey wanted one Monday morning and Monday evening. That’s when I made the rule.

So, now I’m standing at the door and it’s Wednesday and it’s 6:35 in the morning. I’m being asked, not to give her coffee, but to take her to 7-11 for coffee.

“I certainly cannot,” I say.

I get her a filter and some coffee in a plastic sandwich bag. I return with these.

“We need creamer too,” she says.

“Right.” I go back and pour creamer into a plastic cup and make a mental note that I should order more creamer from Aldi. Marnell and I don’t use it much, but I have to keep a supply for company, and apparently, the neighborhood.

She takes the items, and moves back into the snow, and I move back to my chair, my aqua cup and my book.

Communication

I have -now- learned the importance of boundaries and communication in ministry. There are times to say no. There are times to say, “I’ll help, but let me very clear about how I can help and how I cannot help.”

What on earth did I think? That a writer with a history of bouts of depression was going to take two traumatized teen boys into her home and just sail away gloriously saving the world? Not really; I knew it would be hard. But I was still over-confident and self-reliant when we began. As the waters began to rise, I think my biggest weakness was a failure to communicate to the right people.

So who are the right people to communicate to? Probably not Facebook, or people who will go around gossiping. I even feel that I overshare on my blog at times. I know people appreciate honesty in a blog, but I still need to be careful. Here are some examples, in my opinion, of the “right” people, and how I failed when I was starting to go under.

1. Church community

I succeeded in that I shared occasionally at our church prayer meeting, sometimes bawling my eyes out.

I failed in that I did not clearly communicate what I needed to maintain my sanity. They did help. But what were they supposed to do if I wasn’t clear what I needed? And finally, I quit talking. It was too painful to deal with the reality that I had taken on something that I couldn’t handle, I think maybe? I was too proud to say that I wasn’t prepared and can’t handle this well? I still don’t know exactly. I just showed up at prayer meeting or church, hoping that no one would look at me.

2. Spouse or best friend

I succeeded in that I did talk to Marnell quite a bit. Maybe I did okay on this one. Certainly, he was a rock for me.

Yet I failed because I did lock up with him too. After the boys left, he remarked that he “got his wife back.” I think my rationale for locking up was that it seemed “going on” was the best thing to do, and “not going on” was a bad thing to do, and that maybe if I could just endure for a little longer, everything would work out. I started losing my ability to think clearly. I felt sorry for myself. Not even Marnell knew what I was going through, since he was gone much of the day. I knew that he cared, but I still felt alone.

This brings me to another point – while we can’t blame people for not understanding, it is immensely useful to find someone who can relate in some way.

3. People who are experiencing something similar

I thank God for the people I found in my life that could relate to my situation.

  • My aunt, also a caretaker. Although the age, gender, and background of our problem child could not have been more different, the similarities of our situation were astounding. She shared about how she became a shell of her normal self during the worst times. When I talked to her, I felt less alone.
  • The lady on the bus when I went to work. She had been a foster mom for many years. It was refreshing to hear her perspective and know that she understood. “I always took my respite days,” she said. “You have to take respite if you need it.”
  • A kind woman, herself in ministry, who emailed me. She said that after being with people too long she sometimes feels like she is living underwater, holding her breath. Her words resonated with me and became a metaphor for my experience. That’s what I was doing. Holding my breath under water. I felt that she understood.
  • A woman from church said, “It’s not just the things that happen that are stressful. It’s waking up every day, and being afraid of what might happen. Even the days when nothing happens are stressful.” And I felt much better.

Perhaps the devil’s most effective tool to keep people depressed is to convince them that they are alone. This leads me to the most important person to communicate to, which is of course –

4. God

“Whatever, you say, say it to God,” my neighbor Mary told me on one of my worst days.

I failed many days on this one, too. Was I afraid I had let God down? Was I afraid He was letting me down? Why didn’t I just say, “God, I’m losing my mind. Let me tell you all of the factors, all my fears and anxieties, all the disappointment I feel?”

When I did unlock myself and communicate, He was faithful. I remember a specific time standing in the kitchen with the high maintenance boy asking for something, and knowing that I was going to say “no,” and that we might have a huge explosion. These are the times when communicating with God becomes less “prayer” and more “emergency distress signal.” God please help, is about the most intelligent and longest string of words possible. But I remember, like rain on cracked soil, the Holy Spirit soaking my heart and giving my voice calmness and control. I think this peace reflected back in the eyes of the young man facing me, even though he was not happy with my answer.

Jesus really is okay with hearing all of it, and He really is the only one who truly understands what it happening. And, oddly enough, He doesn’t gossip or get confused or discouraged.

In summary, Make yourself communicate to the right people, especially if you are in ministry!

Even if you have an annoying husband like me…

“I think I’m losing my voice,” I said the other night, rasping the words through a sore throat.

“Whew,” Marnell said, with the kind of relief you might express if you’d been standing in a hailstorm and just been told the storm was about to let up. He says this every time I say anything about losing my voice, and then sympathizes with me about my hard life, while still laughing in a completely unrepentant manner.

At least, I whacked him repeatedly with enough force to make me forget my sore throat!

15 thoughts on “Mental Wellness in Ministry #3: How I Totally Failed At Communicating”

  1. Empathy, amen.
    Grins about the husband.
    I don’t have ur gift of words so I am enjoying yours.
    Stress does SO much to the mind and body!

  2. Thank you for this list, Katrina! And thank you for writing about mental health and wellness. A much needed topic of discussion among Mennonites.

  3. This is interesting! Thank you for posting. I identify with your thought process. Sounds like you have a good man 😁. Mine is a rock for me and has been with me thro the good, the bad, and the unbelievable, and he still loves me!

  4. Glad you shared! #4 spoke to my heart. Especially “Jesus really is okay with hearing all of it.” Do I hesitate to share with Him, because I think He is like people I know, and I just might be disappointing Him? Am I close enough to Him to be the listening person someone needs?

  5. I appreciated your thoughts here. I’ve been reading a book that I’d recommend. “Slaying the Giant” by Dr. French O’Shields. Available from CLP.

  6. I could type a blog length response here about my almost identical situation. But I will spare you. Let’s just say learning to communicate about how you can and cannot help is hard and sometimes it comes out all wrong. God give you patience and wisdom.

  7. Maybe you will have a blog post about helping others with depression..if so I’d appreciate that 😃

    1. Katrina Hoover Lee

      Okay great idea! Although I may not be the best at writing that. But the book I mentioned has a section devoted to that toward the end.

    2. Katrina Hoover Lee

      Janien, I’ve been thinking a little about your request and I will try to address it in one of my next blogs. It won’t be an expert speaking but I will make the observations that I can make. And I do recommend Slaying the Giant by French O’Shields as a great resource on that topic.

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