How not to deal with your mental health…

Trigger Warning: Suicide and Self Harming mentioned here.

For the first few years of high school, I had two choices of how to get there. The first two years I took the main road, until one day a guy tried to pull me into a stairwell on the premise that he needed help reading the names on the entry phone system. I got the gut instinct that he wasn’t legit, and I ran like the wind. After that I began taking the shortcut along by a river and then a cycle path. It was usually deserted and I rarely encountered anyone walking along the river path as it was usually so muddy.

Why am I telling you this? Because it’s on that path that I had what I think was probably my first God encounter.

It was 1999. Devolution had happened, and I with many others took to the streets the night before the last day of the school year to celebrate the opening of Scottish Parliament. Garbage were playing (for the young’uns out there, they are a band, and I loved them). I was thirsty and I drank my older friend’s cheap lemonade. Turned out it tasted gross not because of it’s cheapness but due to the vodka she had added to it.

This was to be our first night of seeing why me and alcohol don’t mix well. I don’t remember much but I do remember getting hysterical at one point and feeling horrific the next day. Soon after I started having panic attacks and I had no idea why.

I don’t think I dared share with my friends about it, they saw me have panic attacks I think. I would also black out. I don’t really remember properly. I also began self harming. I would actually sometimes wake up and find myself with tools for self harming in my hand. I did not understand what was happening to me, and I was so ashamed that I didn’t have it ‘together’.

What I do remember is about 9 months later leaving school and walking not to my house (we had moved) but with my friend who lived close to the cycle path. I said goodbye and I remember thinking that’s the last time I’m going to see you.

I walked down to the river.

As usual it was completely deserted.

I climbed onto the railings.

I took a breath, and got ready to launch myself in…

…and something pulled me off the railings.

I thought it was a person, but when I turned around there was no one there.

That freaked me out even more.

And then I heard a voice, asking me what I was doing.

By this time I was sobbing “I just want to die, I can’t deal with all of this anymore”

And I heard so clearly, “No, you need to live, and one day you’re going to help people that have been through these horrible things you’ve experienced

I think I had a conversation with this voice for a few minutes longer, and I honestly don’t remember now what was said. I just remember hearing someone saying ‘No’ as I got pulled back off the railings and telling me that I needed to live so I could help others.

And no one being there. That really freaked me out.

Afterwards, I took a few deep breaths, wiped my eyes and went home. I did confess to one of my friends outside of school a little of what happened later that night. Not the hearing voices part. Just the trying to throw myself in a river and ‘deciding’ not to part.

That friend told one of my friends from school, who rightfully told a teacher. I was so angry with her, even though I knew deep down she had done the right thing.

At that time, I had two family members who were really struggling with their mental health (one was in hospital). I knew knowing I was unwell too would not help and their reaction would probably add to my problems rather than solve them. A school nurse or psychiatrist called a girl out of class to assess her because the girl had a similar name to mine and thought she was me. This girl also happened to be sharing a class with me the following period and I overheard her talking to her pals about how she’d been pulled out of her last class and asked all these questions about why she wanted to kill herself.

Next thing I was being pulled out of class and being made to do a questionnaire. I was smart enough (or dumb enough) to doctor it. It was fairly obvious how they needed you to answer, so I answered enough to not seem too fine, but enough to make it seem like I was perfectly ok, and convinced both this health professional and my Guidance teacher that I was just having a case of teenage melodrama and begged my Guidance teacher not to call my Mum.

They left it at that, and I was relieved.

I made a decision that I needed to survive, and really did work on it.

A month later I took part in an exchange, met my high school boyfriend and in some ways life got better.

My mental health illness did not go away.

Neither did my physical illnesses – I developed migraines, psoriasis, and continued to experience what we now know to be symptoms of endometriosis.

My Mum got concerned and went raiding my bedroom until she found my journals from the previous year, and went with my Aunt to the school. They then told her about my pondering suicide.

The reaction was pretty much everything I expected and worse.

My GP was pretty shocking when I went to them about multiple issues, and even told me I was to blame for my Mum being ill. She (the GP) had no interest in my health whatsoever.

I turned 16, and I took charge – staying at my boyfriend’s and various friends to avoid being at home. Because I was now an adult I was able to change to a different medical practice and saw a GP who began to treat my illnesses. However, I never confessed about my depression, self harming and panic attacks.

I got scared by the extent to which I would feel like I’d never escape my life. Although I never tried to attempt suicide again, I did fear I would at points where I felt hopeless. I even wrote letters and asked my friend to keep them for me just in case something happened to me.

I should have told the good GP. I should probably have told a friend’s parent (who I trusted) about what was really going on. My blinkered teenage mind who didn’t have enough knowledge and thought I knew enough didn’t know that there was help for me.

In the end, I left Edinburgh and went to Aberdeen. Only then did I feel safe enough to share with trusted friends and process the cause of my panic attacks. They encouraged me to go to a good GP (thanks to freshers flu and other first year uni dramas, between a group of us we had met several of the university GPs and so knew which ones were good and which ones were likely to seem a bit clueless or dismissive). I went to counselling for a bit, which wasn’t helpful because the counsellors weren’t a great fit, but I lacked the courage to try again. I also lacked the courage to go to the support group my GP gave me the contact details of. In the end, it was a friend coming to my flat after overdosing on painkillers and accompanying her in the ambulance that shocked me into doing something to change things once and for all.

Because of not facing the problems head on, and being so ashamed, I drove a wedge between my friends and family in Edinburgh. It was always hard to come back. And on the day that I decided to come back 11 years ago, the thought of living in this city again filled me with a lot of anxiety and fear. Fear that only subsided because a good chunk of friends from Aberdeen moved to Edinburgh in the months before I did, and that made me feel better about it.

So in all honesty? This is a tale about how not to deal with mental health.

I didn’t seek medical help.

I didn’t understand that just like not all GPs are the right match for you, it matters even more when it comes to counselling. And counsellors are not going to be offended if you try them and want to try someone else.

I let shame and fear of stigma stop me from telling the truth to the people that loved me for way too long.

I let fear of seeing how others reacted to medication stop me for trying it – and I probably needed it at some points.

Things got better when the secrets were out. It meant that friends could be supportive, empathetic and understanding. I learned who my true friends were, and they were the people who didn’t call me crazy. They were the people who had my back and didn’t judge.

I’ll also say that the best decision I made was to stop drinking alcohol. I do occasionally have a drink, but I only got better when I stopped drinking. Alcohol makes me hysterical and then brings me crashing into a depression. I also got a bit scared when I used it to numb myself when my insomnia was insanely tough to handle. Because of the timing of this decision tying in with when I started going to church, a lot of people assumed that being pretty much teetotal was to do with me being religious. It’s not. Friends in church were used to people not drinking for religious reasons, so they were cool with it. Friends outside of church wondered where the Bacardi Queen had gone, and used to tease me and pressure me to drink. After a while, I stopped going out with those friends out of self-preservation.

If you are a school teacher or GP reading this…if you have a teenager dealing with mental health stuff, please be sensitive to the fact that teenagers are smart. They know when something is out of the ordinary like pulling someone out of class with no explanation (especially if the staff member pulling them out is not someone who is a known staff member). School gossip will stop kids talking when they need to. Equally if you are a GP, treat a young person with the dignity and respect you would an adult. They might not have the same knowledge as an adult with a bit more life experience, but they aren’t stupid. They just need to have information explained to them, and they are likely going to be terrified about asking ‘silly’ questions, or embarrassed to talk about their bodies.

If you are a parent, your child may need to talk to someone different from you who is outside of the family. Unless your child asks you to be present, let them have the space to talk freely without the pressure of fearing that you won’t like what they say or you getting upset. Your children might know how hard it will be to hear that their baby is in pain…and they want to protect you. Protecting you from hearing stuff may indirectly silence them. Equally they might need you to talk for them or be in the room. Also, know that you probably are going to need support so you can support your child better, and that’s ok. It takes a village (that cliche is incredibly true).

If you are someone who has had depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, I’m not going to say JUST TALK. Because you need to choose the right person to talk to. Talk to someone who has the tools to help you. That might be a Guidance teacher, school nurse, your occupational health person at work, your GP, Community Psychiatric Nurse, a counsellor or a charity like The Samaritans. Likely all that’s going to happen if you randomly choose someone you’re going to find they don’t respond the way you hope, because they don’t know any better. And that’s not necessarily their fault. You might end up feeling more hopeless as a result…but there are people that can help. There are tons of charities as well as the samaritans, like Mind, Scottish Association for Mental Health. It might be you need to find an organisation that will give you support about another facet of your life which needs dealing with and is causing your mental health to take a dip. Do not give up until you find the person with the tools you need. They are out there.

 

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The story I don’t talk about so often…

When I first started blogging 11 years ago, it started as a journal. I was in my early twenties and the world was my oyster. I had healed from so many things during my years in Aberdeen and then all of a sudden all of that came undone. It made so little sense, and writing was the way I was able to talk about it, process it and unexpectedly found community in doing that.

A lot of my blogging was very personal, and I’ve always been an oversharer. I think it’s rebellion against my grandfathers who were all masons. I don’t like secrets. Secrets have a way of eating away and letting things fester and rot.

I used to share a lot on my blog about my faith too. I stopped doing that over the years, because I became a little ashamed about the church and how it treated people. I didn’t want people to make the assumption that because I held a belief in God that I would also follow very prejudice views that have hurt so many and therefore feel I should be avoided for fear of me judging or rejecting them.

A lot of my lovely friends that I made through blogging don’t share my belief in God, and yet they’ve all been very open to hearing about my experiences. They haven’t been weirded out when I’ve wrestled and questioned my beliefs. Or talked about some of the wackier moments like the day I was lying on a floor of a warehouse and got a vision of a woman in South Africa. Or how I came to work in a pregnancy crisis centre. Or the time God told me to pull off a motorway to drive to my Dad’s house before I even got a call saying he was being rushed to hospital. Or when God woke me up at 7 a.m. and told me to get baptised the following week.

Yep they’ve heard them all.

I’ve been a Christian (whatever that means) for 16 years. It’s now so every day that people just assume I grew up with a family that took me to church. Nope. Over those 16 years people ask how I ‘became’ a Christian. I will talk about how I went to university, met my friend who had been praying for an opportunity to share about her beliefs with her fellow residents and I provided that opportunity on a platter. I’ll talk about meeting other Christians, my friend from high school who was a Christian and going to an Alpha course.

I never talk about what I think was probably my first encounter with God. Not that I would have dared acknowledged it as that at the time.

But this is mental health awareness week. And maybe the time has come to take a big gulp and be open about it.

Knowing that after reading it you might think I’m ‘crazy’ or ‘deluded’ or ‘mad’.

Knowing that sharing this on a public forum could risk people I work with reading it.

Knowing that my family may read this, and most of them likely had no idea this event had even happened.

But I believe that the only way we can reduce stigma is by sticking our neck out and saying: “Hi. I’m BrunetteKoala, and this has happened to me…and I’m still here.”

And honestly? I don’t know if it’s scarier talking and no one reading or knowing that anyone could read it…

The one where the things don’t entirely go to plan…

This last fortnight has not entirely gone to plan. When I realised that I’d have two weeks with a car and an empty house before I started the first of my new jobs, I was so excited and immediately got started on what became a 3 page long to-do list. I’d hoped to get a lot of things done in my last week at work, but as you know I got taken down by a cold. It’s been a long time since I got affected so badly by one, and it seems that this hideous cold has been making the rounds. I couldn’t afford to be off (and my work couldn’t afford for me to be off either) so when I wasn’t at work I was pretty much contained in my bedroom which was sporting a scent of eau de olbas oil and taking down the rainforest one box of tissues at a time. And trying to force myself to eat.

This week was going to be about doing things further afield and shopping for a car, and it hasn’t happened. For a number of reasons I’ve ended up staying close to home. Firstly I’m still coughing a ton and sporting a very sexy cold sore inside/outside my nose. But also because I’ve suddenly found myself having to save money because I finished work so I’d have a week off before I started a new job. But despite the usual super quick police check update (I’ve had to do be updated by Disclosure Scotland so many times, there must be people in that office who feel like they know me), 3 weeks later and it’s still not arrived. And understandably, I can’t start until it’s come through. However it now means that I’m 2 weeks without pay and there have been no word from the other employer about when I would first start getting paid…so I’m now holding off on the car shopping until I know that I’ve got a more definite start date (and next pay date). I’m trying not to get anxious about it, but after the last decade…that’s easier said than done.

I have however, had the chance to meet a few friends for cake dates, and tried to do as many errands on either side of those to limit what I’m spending on bus fares (as I no longer have my bus pass). And the time at home has enabled me to do a lot of faffy admin things, pick up on multiple unfinished projects and work through the massive ‘to read’ pile.

What I have enjoyed though is peace. The light mornings mean I wake up early (by early I mean by 8 a.m at the latest) and I’ve loved starting the day eating breakfast at a table rather than on my bed. At the start of this month, I got a call from a local bookshop attached to a church in the city centre telling me a book I’d asked about almost 2 years ago had finally come back into print and they had a copy if I wanted it. I was so excited as I’d hunted every book buying website once I’d exhausted my in person buying options (I like to support bookshops, as they are wonderful, wonderful places usually staffed by passionate readers). It’s a book of liturgy written that was partly written by Shane Claiborne, who is someone I deeply respect for his values and his passion for community organising and following teaching of Jesus. The year I moved to Edinburgh I read his book The Irresistible Revolution, and my friend and I phoned each other more than once while reading it. And I think we both bought copies for friends. I’ve had three copies so far, and none of them remain on my bookshelf. I’ve totally lost track of who has them! This book Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals is really intended for daily community prayer, but as there’s just me I’m skipping the songs and just enjoying the meditation of prayer and daily readings.

I also managed on Sunday to go to an actual church service.

A combination of work, singleness and social anxiety combined with being treated not particularly well by a church I used to be part of has stopped me being a really active part of a church. Of course, with so many friends who are church leaders and having godchildren I’ve never stopped being part of the church. I’ve been to ordinations, dedications, baptisms and more over the last 3 years. I’ve shared meals, gone on walks and had long conversations about life, God, the universe, politics and more. I was lucky to have built in deep rooted friendships to keep me going, but it’s not as healthy as being deeply connected into your local community in an authentic, honest, warts and all way.

I hope to change that.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the last few hours of having a house all to myself, sun shine and drinking ice cream floats without fear of having to call in sick the next day if my body doesn’t agree with ice cream being put into it (I’m not being totally reckless, I’m using ice cream that is usually the safest and free of evil beta-carotene colourings!).

And waiting for the postman to bring that all important PVG update certificate…

The one where I wonder if there are miracles…

The other weekend I had a Sunday off. I thought about going to church, and then I realised it was Mother’s Day. I’ve spoken before about why I don’t celebrate it, and it broke my heart to see people on social media dealing with the pressure of declaring their Mum ‘the best in the world’ when they’ve been treated poorly by their mother. I also saw again friends who are in churches giving out things to all the Mums, and making a big deal about this fake hallmark holiday. Before you think I’m a totally horrible person, I did take my Mum to see Beauty and the Beast the night before. I decided instead to go out into the sunshine with my camera. I ended up wandering down the Water of Leith to the National Gallery of Modern Art. And was struck by this sculpture (for want of a better term?) and the fact that you can see churches behind it in the background.IMG_1698

The church you can see on the right, is (I think) the cathedral where every Autumn they hold a service for people who have faced pregnancy, stillbirth and infant loss. It really sucks to be part of that community on Mother’s Day in a church. I’ve spoken before about the insensitive comments I faced when I first started going to the hospital for tests and scans from my fellow Christians. I was told that the only reason I was so ill was due to my lack of faith. I was also told that despite doctors telling me I would struggle to have my own children, God would give them if I prayed enough.

Eh, what?

If only it were that simple. I had a friend who went to every prayer ministry you can imagine and they still died of cancer. I have a friend who had her sixth miscarriage this last year. I have friends that got told they wouldn’t be able to have children and later in life had a ‘surprise’ pregnancy. I know a girl who died of cancer. I know a girl who got given 6 months to live with her cancer and is still here 3 years later. 12 years ago my Dad almost died and surgeons thought they’d have to remove a huge section of his bowel – only for a few days later to find it all better with no knowledge of how that happened. 12 years ago my grandmother woke up suddenly paralysed, and died 3 weeks later and doctors had no idea how or why until they had done endless tests and an autopsy to discover she had a rare form of lymphoma.

There is no rhyme or reason to why one person lives and another dies. There is no rhyme or reason to why one pregnancy ends in with a healthy baby, one ends with a sick baby and another ends in miscarriage.

Do miracles happen? I think sometimes they do. I don’t know that we have any control over when, where or why.

Yes, it makes me sad to think I’ll likely never be part of the parenting club. I never dreamed about getting married, but I did dream about being pregnant and giving birth to babies. But I also remember the day the doctor talked to me about it, and being astounded by the peace I felt. And now that I’ve spent more time with friends who are parents I think maybe God knows exactly what He’s doing…quite frankly kids seem to throw up waaaay more than they did in the 80s and 90s and I quite like my independence. I also like sleep and to eat my tea while it’s still hot.

So let’s stop putting the pressure and the judgement on people who haven’t got the miracle they hoped for. Let’s be real and recognise when life sucks, and when we’ve had the chance to rage and cry about it…find out the good that can be brought out of that crappy situation.

And if we do get a miracle…let’s be humble and remember it likely had nothing to do with us. Be grateful, and sensitive to others who didn’t get theirs.

x

The one where I’m remembering…

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Boxing Day has been a tough day for many years. In 2005, it was the day that my Grandad went into hospital. He never made it out. Several friends have lost parents and spouses during this week. But by far the worst was 5 years ago when we got a call to say that my childhood friend had been found dead on Christmas Eve night. It took until Boxing Day for the police to track us down because our family friends (who were his last known recorded address) were away on Christmas Day. I spent the next 24 hours in total shock, and I still remember about 2 days later stumbling out the house with my Mum to the supermarket and bumping into some friends from high school. I just wasn’t with it and I don’t think they knew what to say. I spent Hogmanay with my high school friends that year for the last time. On New Year’s Day I drove to the beach and saw a rainbow across the sky – that was the day I decided to get my Themba tattoo. Just over two weeks later I was attending the funeral.

Over the last week, I’ve been asked a few times about the yellow band I’ve been wearing on my wrist since September. The Myers family sent it over to me to wear for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. I always remember the families who have lost their siblings/children at this time of year. I loved that in the place where I work, the chosen charity is a children’s cancer one at the moment – they’ve been using the empty shops to use as memory spaces. One evening after work I added to their memory tree all the people that have been our Airmail Christmas honourees. And Oliver too.

Christmas can be really tough when you are grieving. There can still be joy, but also mixed with sadness at the people missing from the table.

Often my church friends comment on how ‘normal’ I am despite everything. And I often wonder – Why me? What was it that stopped me going down the route so many of my childhood friends? It’s not that I’ve made great choices my whole life. I’ve had my moments. I could say it’s because God was looking out for me, but that seems very trite and narcissistic. Because was he not looking out for my brother or my friends? Doesn’t He love us all equally?

Anyway, that is where my head is at today. It pretty much goes there every Christmas Eve-Boxing Day now. And it also goes to all my friends – in real life and in the land of social media who are facing their first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth…. Christmas without their loved one. Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel things so acutely, but I do and I don’t think that will ever change. I just hate seeing people hurting and always wish I could step into their place so they weren’t hurting anymore.

 

Blogmas Day 21 – the one where I’m a godmother again…

Hi folks,

So I haven’t checked my e-mail in days, and a few comments on my last post were awaiting approval from me. Sorry blog friends!

Since I last wrote, my body had one of its hissy fits where it likes to reject all food – nothing like that in the lead up to Christmas and before a long train journey.

Why the long train journey? Well, I got to finally meet my friend’s baby boy. He’s 3 months old now, and I had the privilege of becoming one of his godparents this weekend. My friends kindly hosted me in their home for a long weekend – this was partly so I could get cheaper train tickets, and also because I wanted to be around to lend a hand the day before the baptism/Christening. And it enabled me to get to know my lovely new godson too. I learned that he reserves smiles for few people, loves to watch The Big Bang Theory, is already showing signs that he likes his independence and enjoys being read to. The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Hippos Go Beserk were hits. He was not happy about a story from The Lady and The Tramp. He also didn’t complain too much on my renditions of Soft Kitty, Smelly Cat and The Cow in the Meadow Goes Moo. He also likes to eat his hand and my pyjama top. (Note to self: next time you visit L-A, don’t wear a black pyjama top as it is the worst colour for showing up milk stains!)

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One thing that really struck me was the church community my friends are part of, and how much they already love my godson. I have attended many dedications, baptisms and dedications in my time, but this one felt like such an authentic,joyful and meaningful celebration to welcome this child into the family of God. I also loved hearing about how this church really and truly welcomes everyone. That’s important to me when only a couple of weeks ago someone I know turned to me and said they couldn’t go to church because “Jesus hates me”. There were lots of rituals that were unfamiliar to me but it really wasn’t important. No one frowned at me for not knowing, they prompted me when I needed to say things. They let me take pictures and video so we could remember this important occasion. The robed people carrying candles so clearly doted on my friends’ son, smiling as he looked around trying to take in what was going on. No one grumped when the baby Jesus (yes, we had a nativity during the same service – my friends were Mary and Joseph!) cried and had to go behind the scenes for some milky sustenance. They showered him with meaningful gifts from everyone in the church. They allowed us to decorate a room for a small after baptism party for my friends’ family and other friends. It was such a refreshing change!

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It was also strange to go through London and be literally passing through in the space of an hour. I had a little time in Kings Cross on the way home, and was very excited that despite my fruitless searches on websites last month they DO have Newt Scamander’s hufflepuff scarf in the Platform 9 3/4 shop. Said scarf was purchased and it has now been sent up to Santa for delivery on Christmas Day.

My daily mini-vlogs continue on instagram. We’ve had dancing Christmas puddings, bible readings, live party preparation coverage and tonight’s was a special one in remembrance of our previous Airmail Christmas honourees. It’s hard to believe it will be Christmas in a few days. Work is getting busier, everyone is getting more exhausted and customers seem to be getting more grouchy no matter how much we try to be kind and helpful. Ahh….Christmas!

I won’t lie, I’m looking forward to January and having a couple days off just to ‘be’.

Until then….I’m sleeping under fairy lights and enjoying a daily dose of chocolate. 🙂

Blogmas – Day 1: The one where I’m thinking about Mary…

So today is the first day of advent.

My stockings with mini chocolate bars are hanging down the wall.

But somehow this year, I find myself thinking about the nativity story. It might have been the rants that I edited out of my video on Christmas books that did it.

For those of you who aren’t aware, between me being a Youth Worker and a Retail worker, I studied women’s health. I spent a lot of time researching, following midwifes and OB/GYNs around. And then I spent 7 years working in a pregnancy crisis centre. I ended up running it with my friend, Sarah, until she left in 2013.

The first few years I worked there we did mostly counselling work, and practical help for some women who wanted to continue their pregnancies. Most of the time this help came from other organisations, like HomeStart. But occasionally we went in to do befriending support for families who didn’t have family close by. You see when someone has a baby the traditional cultural thing to do here is that family come in for those first few weeks to do laundry, cook meals while the mother recovers from the birth (and indeed shock) of giving birth to a small human that doesn’t come with an instruction manual.

You know what would happen every December? One of our clients who we hadn’t heard from in months would reappear, heavily pregnant needing a team to be that family. Without fail that baby would be born between Dec 25th and January 1st. It was like a little reminder of the reality of the nativity story.

Pregnancy and birth are hard. It’s hard in a hospital with all the doctors and midwives ready to step in with their expertise and medical resources. It’s hard at home with your closest loved ones to be there to support you, with all the comforts your own home can bring.

I cannot imagine doing it miles from home, without any or either of the above.

I wonder if the bible leaves parts out that the writer deemed unimportant. Did local midwives get called round to help Mary through the birth? How long was the labour? How long after the birth did the shepherds arrive?  How did Mary feel about all the visitors showing up to see her baby son?

However it happened, I don’t think Mary gets nearly enough credit for all she must have gone through. The stigma of being pregnant out of wedlock. Being a stranger in the town her son was born in. Having to traipse across the country while pregnant. Giving birth. And having a bunch of men she didn’t know appearing up soon after.

And if there was a donkey, I’m not sure I would have ridden it after giving birth to be honest. I think I’d have stuck to walking.

Though it’s unlikely the real event took place in December, we still use this time to remember. And tonight, I’m remembering Mary and thinking she was one kick ass strong woman.

Flashback Friday: Look! Don’t you see it?

Originally posted on October 15th 2007

*Update*: Part of the reason for posting this post this week, is that last weekend I felt strongly that I needed to dig the pendant out of the trinket box I’d kept it in for the last few years and pass it on to someone who is about to move to Aberdeen to study at university. This was also the story I shared with campers during ‘testimony time’ at Surf Camp this summer, though I think I missed out the part about the pendant.

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Look at the new thing I’m going to do. It is already happening. Don’t you see it? I will make a road in the desert and rivers in the dry land”

Isaiah 43:19 (NCV)

This is one very special pendant. It’s purple and turquoise coloured, and is a cross inside the icthus sign. But that’s not why it is special. It was a prophetic purchase made by one of my friends…and given to me.

In August 2001, this friend bought two pendant necklaces. One for her sister. And another. God told her that the second necklace was to be given to a person she would meet who was going to become a Christian that year.

This girl went to university in Aberdeen, and she really wanted to be all out for Jesus when she got there…but how to bring up the conversation with her new mates at uni? She prayed to God for the opportunity to share her testimony in Freshers Week.

And here is what happened…

I arrived in Aberdeen, a year younger than everyone else, confused, and not sure of where I stood or what I believed in. I was looking for a way out of the mess that was my life in Edinburgh, and felt strongly that moving to Aberdeen was going to help me to find it. I’d been given advice by some graduates to try and get involved in all the Fresher’s Week activities except any to do with the Chaplaincy Centre, because only the ‘sad’ people went there. Having left school a year early, and under 18, a lot of people expected that I wouldn’t stick out first year. A lot of people thought I was just going through ‘a phase’ when I decided to apply and my family wanted me to stay at home. I was ready and up for anything (except any weird Christian church things) because I was determined to prove to them that I could do it.

Two of my friends from home went to church and SU camps every summer. They wore bracelets with the letters ‘WWJD’, but they wouldn’t tell me what it stood for. I figured out it must be a Christian thing, because they’d usually talk to me about anything – but they were well aware of my thoughts on Christianity (I made them pretty clear – church is boring, pointless and full of judgemental busybodies; bible is a bunch of fairy tales).

When I arrived in halls, a girl (the one who had bought 2 pendants) came bounding up to me in the corridor. I introduced myself, and she just screamed ‘Ooooh! you’re Scottish‘ revealing a southern English accent. Anyway, just about all our corridor (21 girls) went to dinner together, and I noticed she was wearing one of those WWJD bracelets. I pointed to it, and asked her ‘What does that stand for? Is it a Christian thing, because 2 of my friends have bracelets like that and they wouldn’t tell me what it means‘…

God had answered her prayer. Here was the opportunity for her to give her testimony to well…pretty much everyone!

She told everyone how she had become a Christian, how her family was against it so she had to sneak out her house to go to Church. How she’d come to understand and believe in the bible being God’s Word.

I wished at the time that I’d never asked. I would usually have slagged off her beliefs, but I wanted to make sure I made a good impression to everyone in Fresher’s week.

Over the next couple of months, we’d have many deep and meaningful conversations late into the night. And I kept meeting more and more Christians. In my tutorial group. In my lectures. In halls. In pubs.

It got really annoying.

11th November was Remembrance Sunday, and I decided to go to church with one of the Northern Irish medics who lived on my floor. I was shocked at how welcome everyone made me. How unjudgmental, caring and friendly everyone seemed. I had never experienced that in church before. Everyone in that church seemed to genuinely love and care for one another. They all seemed to have something I didn’t have, and I really wanted whatever it was. I asked her if she’d drag me out of my bed every Sunday to go to church come rain, hail or hangovers – and she did.

I called my old school friend, who doing a gap year with SU to tell her I’d started going to church. She was totally shocked and said…

‘Of all the people I thought would become a Christian, you were the last on my list

When I came home for Christmas, my family laughed at the thought of me being a Christian.

How could someone as un-Christian as me become a Christian?’

I went to church on Christmas Eve with my school friend’s family. They were willing to answer so many of questions no matter how simple they seemed. For the first time I began to talk about my true feelings on what life had been like before I’d left Edinburgh, and share with my friend what had been going on to make me the angry and depressed young woman that had left school at 16, only to return months later for 5 highers and a UCAS form. They encouraged me to go on an Alpha Course and to start going along to the CU.

In January, I went to my first CU meeting. I can’t remember who the speaker was that night, but the talk was on God’s gifts. They handed out little notebooks we could use as prayer diaries. Something began to click, and I was challenged.

‘What were my gifts? How was I going to be able to use them to honour God?’

That night (unknown to anyone) I went back to my room and prayed to God…I told him that I wanted to know how to get to know him, and asked him to guide me to do the things He wanted me to do.

2 girls in halls started talking about starting a prayer group for revival. I asked them what that was. They told me. I asked if I could join them. They couldn’t hide their shock but agreed that I could come along. We started praying for one of our friends to become a Christian, and I invited her along to Alpha. I thought it would be great if she became a Christian.

I still hadn’t.

I got asked to join the worship band. I said yes. I didn’t know any of the songs, and got really upset about it. On the Friday night, I broke down in my friend’s room, and confessed to him why I thought I couldn’t be a Christian…he began to point out bible verses to me talking about God’s forgiveness. He took me through the basics of Christianity, and prayed with me. I became a Christian that night. I was bouncing around full of the Holy Spirit for about a week. Timely, since it was the AUCU Mission Week!

Just over a month later, my friend who I’d invited along to Alpha became a Christian too.

At the end of my first year, I was asked if I could write my testimony to go on the CU website and I wrote this…

I know that if someone who was as ‘un-Christian’ as me can become a Christian, then anything is possible – because this is the way God has made it. I had scarcely become a Christian myself when someone I thought would never believe became a Christian too. It’s great to be proven wrong sometimes.

If you see me around Aberdeen, you’ll notice that I’m probably wearing a pendant round my neck. It’s the icthus sign with the cross inside it. My friend bought it before she came to uni not knowing what she was going to do with it and gave it as a gift to me soon after I became a Christian…it reminds me of the work that God is doing around us and through us…even when we don’t realise it’s happening – as He constantly has to say to me “Look at the new thing I’m going to do. It is already happening. Don’t you see it?”…

Flashback Friday: Let’s Not Be Cookie Cutter Christians…

Originally posted on June 20th 2007

Cailin is a Gaelic word for ‘girl’. And it’s what I really struggle to be. Yes, weird I know that I say that when I am one!! When I was a teenager, I desperately wished that I was a boy – I was a bit of a tomboy at Primary School, and to this day I’m most comfortable when wearing a pair of jeans. I often find it easier to talk to guys than I do to girls, because I find that I relate better to them. My friends from Edinburgh apparently consider me as ‘an honourary guy’ (apparently this is a compliment?!). I can’t sew, my ironing skills are appalling. I hate romantic movies. I do wear make up and used to be addicted to straightening my hair. I love shoe shopping, but don’t often shop with girls because it just takes too long. I like to watch football (and for the actual football not to watch guys in shorts). I love camping. My favourite shows include Grey’s Anatomy, Without A Trace and Top Gear. I’m pretty blunt and up front too.

I think I’ve struggled more with this since I went to university and the more I’ve hung around church. In Halls, I lived with 20 other girls. Utter madness. Most girls spent their entire week planning their Saturday night outfit, and I really just didn’t care. The girls who didn’t, they were generally really good cooks, could do all those things like card making, embroidery or whatever. I just never felt like I fitted in with either ‘girl type’, and as a consequence, I would often find myself over with the guys on a different floor so I could watch football, gossip less and not have to be questioned a million times about make up, hair and tops!

When I became a Christian, I quickly realised that I REALLY didn’t fit in. There seemed to be this unwritten rule that as a girl, you were at university to find a husband. You would of course get engaged in your last year of university and marry this man (destined to be a doctor, youth pastor, engineer or minister) shortly after graduation. You would spend your first year or so working and getting to know other women in the church – doing lots of babysitting, sunday school, cooking at Alpha etc. And have people over for dinner (which you cook from scratch) and when you have kids you would then end your chosen career to become a full-time Mum. Now there is nothing wrong with any of that – but it totally isn’t me! First of all, it seemed shocking that a girl learn guitar, or be a worship leader. Second of all, it seemed to be expected that when the CU is having a bake sale to raise funds for a mission or whatever that it would be the girls that baked for it. I really don’t bake. I like football but Christian guys do not include you in this social activity – instead it seems I should be reading Jane Austen books and their seemed to be a thing with Christian girls and watching Pride and Prejudice?? Oh, and tea drinking.

For years, Christianity seemed like some secret society that I didn’t know the proper etiquette for. I didn’t mind that the girls had different gifts, likes, interests etc from me, it was more that all of them seemed to have the same interests, likes etc as each other – but none of them were characteristics that I could find common ground to build a friendship on with them. In fact, I felt a bit like a pariah whenever I found myself in a Christian activity and anything which was a ‘women only’ event filled me with great dread.

Luckily, over time, I discovered that there were other sisters who shared my frustrations. I was lucky enough in my later years of student life to be surrounded by girls and guys who were each unique in our likes, dislikes, hobbies, what we wore, hair colour, hair style, career choice and how important being married and starting a family was to us. We shared one common love – Jesus – and found friendship over that a different things for each one of us.

Speaking to younger girls in church who are coming up through university I think there is enormous pressure to find that ‘perfect Christian man’. How many Christian girls have given themselves that ‘you’ve got until you’re 25 rule?’. How many times have girls gone around church or CU or been on mission or a festival/conference and eyed up what potential husband material there is in the room? How many mothers are putting pressure on their daughters by commenting on any guy they’re friends with. How many couples have the word ‘wedding’ mentioned to them when they’ve barely started dating? I’ve experienced dating in a ‘goldfish bowl’ myself where as a Christian couple you seem to be hot topic of conversation in all Christian gatherings…’do you think they’ll get married?’ ‘when do you think he’ll ask her?’

Singleness is a gift from God. And we all need to use it and cherish it like we should have done our childhood. Most likely, if we are to be married, that guy will turn up when we’re least expecting it. And to be honest, I truly believe that if we can’t handle life on our own, the less likely a relationship will be successful. Because relationships are hard without being self-reliant on a human being who is imperfect as opposed to being reliant on God.

It’s also ok to be yourself. God made each one of us different. You can have a different hair colour, it can be long or short, if you pierce your ears more than once you’re still a Christian. You can be sporty, or into reading, a worship leader, or be tone deaf. You might be amazing with kids and a fantastic children’s church leader. Kids might terrify you or just not be your thing. Some guys love chick flicks, some girls hate them – and vice versa. Every marriage and family is different and that’s ok too. And being a Mum is definitely one of the most difficult jobs in the world. If you can do it without another job on top – amazing. If you can do it while working full-time or part-time – also amazing! Let’s also remember that some people may get married, but not have children, and that’s ok too.

Diversity is good. It speaks of God’s creativity in this world. Don’t be tempted to change your colours (so to speak) just to blend in with those around you.

Comments from original posting:

Paul: wow this is a great post, thank you! We are all so diverse that it really isn’t good to compare ourselves to each other, infact I think St Paul goes as far as commanding that we don’t…

“Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.” Gal 5:25-26

So in this you and St Paul hold a common and vey inspiring view:)

When we can’t see the water for the sea…

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And so another year…another surf camp over. I took this photo on Tuesday morning, as I joined some of our campers and leaders in a tradition that began last year to do the ‘Early Morning Dook’ – where two leaders (or more) and any campers who want to can go down to the beach next to our campsite and have a quick dip in the baltic North Sea before breakfast.

It was a stunningly beautiful day – the first I can remember of this year – and even at 7.30 a.m. the sun was warm. I’d forgotten to pull on my hoodie and soon realised I wasn’t actually going to turn blue without it. What makes me giggle though, is that as I  walked behind the huge pile of campers and leaders that had decided to go down that morning, marvelling at the deserted beach (except for us), the clear blue sky, the large sun beating down on all of us feeling so peaceful (a rare thing at camp) I had no idea this would be the start of the most challenging 36 hours of camp.

I’m a planner and I like to be prepared. I like to know what the plan is ahead of time, and so I can organise my resources and time accordingly and mentally prepare myself. The lead up to surf camp did not allow me to do that.  I had volunteered to help as a kitchen assistant instead of being a group leader because we hadn’t been able to find a person who could help with catering for the whole week and we knew we needed 2 cooks to help our awesome chief cook. To top it all, the day before camp I became ill after eating some food and wasn’t even able to start packing until about 11.30 p.m. that night. Starting camp drained, sleep deprived and nauseated is less than ideal. And I arrived to discover that they still had me down for a role as one of the First Aiders as well as my roles in the kitchen and helping to lead worship.

So to that Tuesday. I already knew that things would be a little more manic than usual because the day before a camper’s medication had effectively been drowned in the sea despite being in a waterproof medical bag while they were coasteering the day before. There had been calls between parents, GPs and pharmacies and we had a small window to drive to the nearest town to pick up the prescription. All good. All sorted…until…45 minutes after this photo one of the campers came speeding into me during our leaders team meeting saying “Come quick – xxxxx has been hurt!” Outside the sight a First Aider dreads – a camper sprawled beside a skateboard in tears. The tears were not just from pain but of the fear that they would not be able to surf that day – their first time getting to waves.

And so a trip to town didn’t just include a trip to the pharmacy…it was now going to be a trip to the town’s small hospital. Calls to parents. Calls to the duty manager at SU. A trip to there resulted in being sent up to the minor injuries unit in the nearest city. More calls to parents. A lot of giggles at my (in)ability to drive hospital wheelchairs. A very snotty and slightly rude nurse freaking out my camper and making for some frustrated parents (and to be honest made for a disgruntled first aider – who doesn’t like to complain about NHS staff, but my campers come first!). Meanwhile I was aware that I had totally abandoned my kitchen duties.

It was 8 p.m. by the time we got back to camp. Deflated and exhausted.

Cue some of the campers deciding Midnight was the time to start duck taping up their fellow camper and ‘waxing’ his head with said duck tape in the corridor outside the dorms.

The next day was what I think I’ll now nickname ‘Wacked out Wednesday’. Every Wednesday marks the midweek point where campers and leaders are all exhausted and just go a bit loopy, quite often when you get the most little injuries and campers feeling a bit out of kilter because they haven’t been going to sleep at bedtime. Last year ‘Wacked Out Wednesday’ involved me having a First Aid queue and having to get a leader to take our Assistant Team Leader to A&E for an x-ray, while we moved his family to another set of rooms on site as they’d discovered an issue with the boiler that put them in danger of carbon monoxide poisoning if they remained in the room they were staying in. I woke up feeling like I’d already done ‘Wacked out Wednesday’ on Tuesday, and just didn’t have the energy to do another!

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I prayed for another sunny day (hey, I hadn’t been able to enjoy the one on Tuesday because we spent it in cars/hospitals). And instead God sent a thunderstorm. In hindsight, it was great for our injured camper – it meant none of the campers could get out surfing so they weren’t alone in missing out. However, chaos for the leaders who had to constantly keep reassessing and switching around the plan for the day according to the ever changing weather. It was also the afternoon that our chief cook had off, and I was cooking something I had no idea how to cook – while our female campers were having the hen party we’d planned for the evening in the afternoon instead. Which involved using the kitchen to make mocktails.

I may have burst into tears and had to go into the pantry like Nora Walker does in Brothers and Sisters.

On the Thursday evening I took my turn sharing a bit of my story of how I became a Christian to the camp and I began by confessing to the camp how close I’d come to calling up my friends a couple of days before to apologetically say I just couldn’t do it after all this year with everything going on  with my flat, and my fruitless job hunting. I shared with them about a verse I had discovered on my early bible exploring tactic of randomly opening up the bible and sticking my finger on a verse just to see what would happen. The reason for sharing is that a conversation on the very first night of camp when I was confessing to my fellow female leader roomies how guilty I was feeling about being so underprepared and useless for camp, not to mention jealous of friends and perhaps even resentful of those able to share how God was doing amazing things in their lives. And then one wise roomie said something that reminded me of the first verse I discovered on my own from the prophet Isaiah.

And so I told the campers how even though it was feeling like in the lead up all of the previous surf camps life was crummy and I didn’t understand why and perhaps lacked hope that things would get better – it is perhaps because when we are in the middle of the story, we don’t fully see the bigger picture and what may end up coming out of it that is good. As I groan and moan about how hopeless everything in the world seems right now, God says “Laura Anne – do you not see what I am doing? Look, it’s already begun!

So although I do not know why one of the campers got injured this year, or why I still can’t find salaried work, or why I couldn’t finish my Masters degree this summer so I could graduate with my class, or why I’m spending a summer making day trips to Aberdeen and paying for expensive repairs and fighting with company who is trying to force me to pay my runaway tenants’ unpaid bills…I have to have hope that somewhere in all the crappiness something good will come out. And I have to say that this year’s camp was the best so far. It just seemed like nothing was forced, the leaders and campers felt comfortable to be themselves. It was incredible to chat with returning campers who have become trainee leaders and see how they’ve grown into wise young adults (and know that they don’t hate me from last year when I apparently told them off for playing loud music and dancing in their dorm at 1 a.m.). I also love that some of our campers joined in with the worship band this year – and we gave each of them a toy camper van which they immediately decided to decorate with paint pens calling our band ‘Spiritual Wipeout’.

It made me smile.

Over the next year, I will continue to wonder about them all and hope good things are happening to them. And of course my fellow yellow ukulele player that our team leader popped on my music stand last year at camp always reminds me to pray for them.

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