Category Archives:Mental Health

When life hands you a hand grenade…

I’ve never added a content or trigger warning to a post before, but please be aware that this post contains discussion of mental health issues, and suicide.

I want to refer you to another psychologist.” I’d only been seeing her for a couple of months.

Three months earlier:

We were getting ready for church; my wife told me “I didn’t get any sleep last night. You were snoring so badly”.

Something broke in me. The stress of the previous few months brought by the changes in the company I work for; I’d spiraled into a deep depression over the previous few weeks.

Now I was hurting people, even in my sleep. The thoughts had dogged me for days but when she told me that, I knew for certain:

My family would be better off without me.

I told her to go on ahead to church, that I’d be a little late. She left with the kids.

I left a few minutes later, then stopped and fueled up the car. I didn’t know what I was going to do, only that I was going to drive for as long as it took, and make sure that no-one would stumble across my remains.

A coward, I texted her. I sent her the master password to my password manager, and where she could find all the details she’d need to access all my accounts. I apologised for my cowardice, and ruining her life. She was angry; my willingness to break the promise I’d made to several people, including her. What it would do to our children. I knew they’d be better off without me.

I drove; I refused to answer her calls. The text messages kept coming.

She asked me to turn around, to come back. I kept driving. The further I drove, the harder it was to keep going. Slowing… 80… 60… 40km/h.

I pulled off the road, unable to drive any further; my face and shirt drenched in tears and snot, body wracked with uncontrollable sobs. She kept texting me, gently talking me down from my irrational tree.

I drove back to the church and sat down with our pastor. I told him the truth, what I’d intended to do, the pain I’d just inflicted on my wife. He bound my wounds with his words, and wisely told me that I needed to see my doctor – immediately.

I did. I let others guide my steps over the next few weeks. I told the GP that I thought my anti-depressant might be wrong for me, as I’d become suicidal. He told me he believed my dosage was too low (he was correct). He wanted me to see a psychologist, not just the counsellor I’d been seeing.

I went and saw my counsellor; I’d promised him that I wouldn’t consider suicide without talking to him first, and I’d broken that promise. I told him the whole story. He encouraged me to follow the doctor’s advice, that someone else may be able to provide a different perspective. I found a psychologist who specialised in autistic patients, and got a referral.

I’d been seeing the counsellor since 2011. He had been both a missionary and a minister. Over the previous few years he’d helped me unpack a lot of the religious abuse I’d lived through, to deconstruct many of the destructive beliefs that I’d grown up with. He’d helped me see my abuse of food, alcohol and porn as coping mechanisms within the wider context of the damage that had been done to me.

Beyond the depression and anxiety, beyond wrestling with the abuse, though, there had been an undercurrent running through my life since my preteens. Occasionally, it would break the surface, and I would reflexively recoil. It had been my hidden shame for a long time. In 2012, it ceased to be an undercurrent, and broke through my defenses like a storm. When the first waves hit, I didn’t want to tell him. The shame was too great. I knew that to tell him this would rupture our relationship, that he wouldn’t want to counsel me any more.

I couldn’t hold it in.

“God loves you for who you are, and this is part of who you are. This is no surprise to him. Accept this part of yourself, and just ride the waves. Don’t embrace it, don’t fight it, don’t be ashamed, just be.” In fear and trembling, I trusted his words and followed his advice; after a month I realised the waves had receded. The feelings, so powerful, were just… gone. Well, not quite. The undercurrent remained.

Ten months had passed when the waves returned. The emotions, more intense. They lasted longer; again I waited. Six weeks later, they had receded.

The last few months of 2016 was one of the most intense periods of my life. Autistic, I don’t handle change well, particularly when it’s thrust upon me against my will. The upheaval in my job was extreme. In early 2017, almost ten months after my previous encounter, the swell broke again. This time, however, it wasn’t a wave.

It was a tsunami.

I tried to ride the waves, but the shore was gone. I attempted to withdraw into myself; I did not recognise myself – yet somehow, I did. A self I had seen in the mirror in an intense dream, a few months earlier. I awoke from that dream with an overwhelming homesickness for a place I’d never been.

As everything I thought I knew about myself was washed away, I chose to go it alone. This time, I couldn’t tell anyone, not even my counsellor.

With the storm pounding my emotions, and the dinghy of my job seemed to be sinking beneath me, I spiralled into depression.

During my first session with the psychologist, we talked about how & why I’d become suicidal; the way that the amount of change in my job would be difficult for a neurotypical person to navigate, let alone someone autistic. I was in way over my head; I felt that I lacked the qualifications and experience for the position I’d been put into. We worked on strategies to reduce my stress, and deal with the change in healthier ways.

However, I couldn’t -I wouldn’t- tell her my secret.

Then, in the next session, it just poured out. I told her my secret, my shame, how something that had been previously manageable was now overwhelming. Over next few sessions, we went through the events from my preteens, through my teenage years and beyond. The emotions and experiences I’d never told anyone, that I’d wrapped in chains and dropped into the deep. The sense of my body not fitting, that seemed to be more than just my terrible body image, more than just sensory issues stemming from being autistic.

We sat there in that little room; she in her office chair, facing me. I sat on the left hand side of the soft & comfortable couch, as always, twisting and untwisting my fingers.

“I want to refer you to another psychologist…” she began. “I want you to see a someone who specialises in autism and gender issues. I’ve seen this before. You’re not alone, and it’s not uncommon. There’s a statistically higher incidence of gender variance among autistic people.”

She continued: “I believe you have gender dysphoria”.

“Gender dysphoria (formerly gender identity disorder) is defined by strong, persistent feelings of identification with the opposite gender and discomfort with one’s own assigned sex that results in significant distress or impairment.” (Link)

A couple of weeks later, I started seeing the new psychologist. Once again, I was sharing things with a stranger; speaking of recurrent emotions and feelings enveloped by a deep sense of shame – and failure. I’d prayed & been prayed for. I’d tried repenting, rejecting, rebuking, burying the emotions & desires. I’d tried to seek my identity in Christ, and only Christ. I’d tried to “take all thoughts captive”, but these were constant escapees. Alcohol helped to bury the emotions, until I was drinking more nights than I was sober in any given month. As of the date of writing, I’ve been 470 days sober.

Throughout it all, this deep sense of incongruence remained – and had gotten worse. The psychologist took the pieces of the puzzle and put them together; the emotions and patterns of behaviour that I’d been hiding throughout my life confirmed her predecessor’s diagnosis of gender dysphoria; as such I am, by definition, “transgender”.

Not because of “cultural Marxism” or because it’s supposedly “trendy” or “cool”; because it fits the diagnosis.

Transgender. I find I’m holding a hand grenade without a pin.

I didn’t choose this. I didn’t want it. I could do without the emotional pain, and the turmoil it’s brought into my life. I’ve been struggling with and hiding “it” for most of my life, before I could even understand what “it” was. Society told me that for a boy to want to do “girly” things was shameful and so, at eight years old, I became ashamed.

Many of the things that we have to deal with in life, we have no choice. Circumstances thrust upon us. Being autistic, growing up in a cult-like environment, depression and anxiety. These are all things I had no choice in. Accepting and dealing with these things, in a sense, had little tangible impact on my sense of self. I became a healthier version of the person everyone knew.

But this? It explodes my concept of self. Not only who I thought I was, but who other people thought I was.

Maybe I could reject the “label”, but the underlying factors that lead to me sitting in that room? They don’t just go away.

Oh, I could go back to denial; force everything back into a box, wrap the box in chains, drop the whole thing into cement and dump it into the ocean, but that’s unlikely to work. Many people with far more life experience than me have told me as much.

“It’s just mental illness!” It’s not, but what are the options for dealing with it?

  1. Repression/denial. I’ve tried that for most of my life, but it results in the emotions leaking out in other ways (and can often lead to #3).
  2. Reparative Therapy (aka “conversion therapy”). The success rates for transgender reparative therapy are about the same as they are for being gay: virtually zero (OK, 0.5% – link). Reparative therapy, however, is more likely to lead to…
  3. Suicide. The suicide attempt rate among trans people in a US study was found to be 2-4x higher (41%) than for gay, lesbian & bisexual respondents (10-20%); the overall rate for the US population is 4.6%. (link)
  4. Transition. This is the gold standard medical & psychological treatment when nothing else works. It’s complex, painful and not something someone chooses on a whim or for fun.
  5. Acceptance & counselling. This is what I’m doing now.

If you believe sex and gender are different words for the same thing, this won’t make much sense. For the better part of 35 years I’ve tried really hard to make that equation work… and here we are. Have I not prayed enough? Read my bible enough? Confessed my sins enough? I’ve done all of those things, over and over. Have I not had enough “deliverance ministry”? (I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime and beyond, thank you very much).

Is it autism & sensory issues? I hoped it was just this; after trying to force it to fit into that box, while it undeniably overlaps, it just doesn’t fit. The sensory issues, too, are usually part of being autistic. There are fabrics I hate, some that I love. Frustratingly, a lot of men’s clothing is made out of material and fabrics that are uncomfortable at best, and at worst are like wearing a mixture of hessian sacks and sandpaper. Clothing rarely fits me properly. My job requires me to regularly wear clothing that makes me want to rip my skin off by the end of the day.

Is it my body image? It’s terrible and with a bad dose of body dysmorphia. I’ve written about it before, but in spite of my assertions in that piece, I’ve not managed to overcome the shame. I have a lifetime of societal messaging telling me that to be fat is to be repulsive… unattractive… ugly. This is where the dysphoria overlaps with my body image and dysmorphia issues.

Autism & body dysmorphia & gender dysphoria; I feel like I’m stuck in the middle of the world’s worst Venn diagram. Worse still, these things are interconnected. They can’t easily be teased out and processed separately.

It’s difficult to describe what gender dysphoria feels like; like trying to describe the smell of blue, the taste of purple.

The best metaphor I have: it feels like an overwhelming homesickness for a place I’ve been told I don’t belong, and I’m not allowed to go.

I am, after all, both a husband and a father. I have all the primary and secondary markers of being male. The genitals; the body & facial hair, male-pattern baldness. I have high testosterone levels; after I told my GP, he ordered blood tests for oestrogen (normal) & testosterone levels (apparently, one point off further investigation because they were so close to the upper limit). I’ve read so many books about how to be a good man, a good husband, a good father.

For all of that, I have little sense of “maleness” or “masculinity”. I was raised as a male. However, autism -in males- is primarily defined as a social disorder; I also grew up & worked in a socially restrictive environment, thus my socialisation as a male was atypical. In turn, my father’s socialisation had also been restricted; the masculinity he modeled to me was, in many ways, atypical of his generation. When I first encountered a more “typical” masculinity in my late teens, I was utterly shocked by the way the men I was with talked about women as they walked past.

Most of my life has been spent trying to feel what I “should” feel; to be “a man”. I had few friends throughout my school years; the friends I did have were a mix of male & female. The majority of my social group during the last two years of high school were female; I usually felt (and feel) more comfortable around women.

In my late teens, I hung out with a group of guys who regularly worked on cars together. The experience was alien. I’ve since tried joining men’s bible studies and cell groups at church. Individually, men are OK, but I invariably feel awkward and out of place in a group. The more “macho” or “blokey” someone is, the harder it is for me to feel comfortable around them.

So much of my expression of “masculinity” has been performative. I’ve either been trying to act the part of what I’ve interpreted a “man” or masculinity to be, or trying to fit the “programming” society has deigned to be “normal” for my sex. It doesn’t come naturally, instinctively. I won’t say “never”, because there have been times where it feels like everything lines up. The inside and the outside – momentarily – matches up.

Does this mean I “feel” like a woman? I don’t know. It’s complex; could I ever really know what feeling like “a woman” is anyway?

What I do know is that my body doesn’t, -never has- felt like it “fits”. I despise my body, hair on my arms, legs, back & face where I don’t want it; in a bitter irony, hair missing from my scalp & constantly reflecting a “maleness” that feels alien. My size, my shape… the way I move. The sense of incongruence goes to my bones.

Being drawn to more “feminine” things in terms of physical expression; colours & styles, make-up, jewellery, clothes. I’ve pushed those impulses & desires down repeatedly, burying them because they’re unacceptable for me to explore for myself. I will note that men’s clothing usually has one advantage over women’s clothing: pockets. (Yes, really)

Emotionally? Upon telling my GP, who I’ve seen regularly for almost a decade, he responded “This makes so more sense of the way you’ve reacted over the years; you just don’t react the way men usually do”.

There are days where I feel a powerful desire to express myself in a “feminine” way. If I’d been born female, “Rochelle” instead of “Warwick”, no-one would bat an eyelid if one day I wore a dress and heels and makeup, the next day, jeans and a t-shirt. I was born male; the name my mother chose for me went unused. To feel those desires is “shameful”. I’m 183cm tall, overweight and balding, so I don’t express myself that way. To do so in public would open me up to alienation, rejection, ridicule from strangers, who suddenly feel empowered to commentate one’s life.

However, to suppress those emotions that I’ve been told I shouldn’t even have – that takes a heavy ongoing emotional & psychological toll.

Being a woman is more than dresses and makeup. How dare I even desire to appropriate that which was not given me by birth? Who am I, to question the “choice” of a sovereign God to give me what is (most likely) a set of XY chromosomes? Why do I long to be seen as a woman? Not a “supermodel”, not to turn men’s heads, but just a woman (as if any woman is “just” a woman!)

Why would I seek to flee my “God-given” ‘manhood’? To argue with the lived experience of 43 years of being treated as male? To abandon the privilege that comes with the primary & secondary sex characteristics typical of XY chromosomes?

Does biology define identity? My biology is the cause of my autism. Should I identify as autistic because of my biology, or is it just part of what makes me… “me”. Some biological studies seem to indicate that the brains of trans women and men bear more structural similarity to the brains of their identified gender than their biological gender. If my sense of gender is biological as well, and conflicts with my body’s expression of sex characteristics, which should get priority? The ones that make other people comfortable, or the ones that make me more comfortable & happier?

“It’s just feelings. You control your feelings, not vice versa. You just need to reject the lies.”

For how long? How long does one fight to keep ‘feelings’ at bay? There is a cost to that, one that comes with compounding interest.

One that you don’t have to pay, while insisting I should.

“You’re a man, just be one”, someone told me. What does that mean? Do all men put on a performance to try and make their inside looks like it matches the outside? Is there something that “comes naturally” that I’m missing?

There are days where it does feel like the inside and the outside match. Those days are uncommon.

Sometimes I’m fine and something will trigger the dysphoria and everything comes crashing down around me. I don’t like to go out much any more because of this.

This is a lot to take in, I know. I wish I could just “be“. For me, however, to just “be” breaks social, cultural and relational expectations. It will, demonstrably, invite abuse from strangers. Potential alienation from friends and loved ones. Rejection & judgement from faith communities that now accept me.

This is not a final statement of “identity”. None of us is in stasis, remaining at a fixed point. I don’t want my life to be about, and to be defined, by this one aspect of who I am, who I appear to be right now. Nor is it a template to, or of, the identity or beliefs of other transgender people. There is a lot more that I could write about, but this is heading towards a small book at this point.

I’ll probably write another post, more of a Q & A type thing, but for now, let’s get the big questions out of the way:

“Do you identify as ‘transgender’?”
– Kind of a loaded question, but not in any “identity politics” sense. I identify as me. I’m a Christian, a husband, a father, autistic – and, it seems, transgender. It’s another part of who I am.

“Have you told your wife, kids and family?”
– I’ve told my wife, my kids, and many of my family members. If you’re a family member finding out through this blog post, I’m sorry. I’ve tried to tell all of my family members individually, and face to face; I didn’t want to tell anyone over the phone. It’s a complicated thing to explain – it’s taken the better part of a week to write this post.

“Are you going to transition?”
– I don’t plan to; transition is one of the treatments for gender dysphoria, but it is by no means the only treatment. Transition is also an extremely complex subject loaded with a lot of baggage and a lot of assumptions that need to be unpacked. I’m seeking wholeness, and peace. There are several other things that I’d like to address towards that goal that aren’t about gender. It’s also important to me to honour the promise I made to my wife, when we wed. This doesn’t just affect me, I won’t make a unilateral decision that impacts on her.

“Are you gay?”
– No.

“What about pronouns? Do I have to call you she/they/zir/something else?”
– Whatever pronoun you’re already using for me is fine. If there’s a change, I’ll say so. There’s a whole other blog post just in this.

“What are you going to do?”
– I’ve started by telling the truth. Lying to myself and trying to pretend this isn’t part of me hasn’t worked, and created more pain.
– I’m working on losing weight and also dealing with my body image / dysmorphia issues. I’m hoping that maybe dealing with that will reduce some of the emotional pressure.
– Accepting that this is part of what makes me, “me”, and continuing to see the psychologist. I can’t deal with this alone.

“How can you say you’re transgender and a Christian?!? It’s SIN!”
– Dealing with this and trying to work through and move beyond the damage of my upbringing to a healthier, authentic faith is a hard row to hoe. That too is a whole other blog post (or more). In short: if you want to proof-text, there’s one verse that you could try and apply by taking it out of context. If you really want to pick a fight over it, I’ll meet you behind the sports shed after school. If I’m not there, start without me.

Someone once said (usually –incorrectly– attributed to Einstein): “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”. I’ve spent years doing the same thing; it hasn’t worked. Now I’m trying something different: honesty and radical transparency.

I fear that to be open about this will lose me friends, maybe even family & loved ones. However, I’ve lived in constant fear -particularly of the opinions of others- for much of my life. I’m choosing to no longer make my decisions based on fear and shame. I’m not seeking a path to popularity and acclaim, I’m seeking wholeness; in God, in self, in relationships. Wholeness doesn’t come through denial of the things that are within.

In Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus said: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’“.

How can you love your neighbour as yourself, if you hate yourself? For most of the last 35 years, rejecting and hating this part of myself has done nothing to temper it or remove it from my life; it’s only led to further hatred of myself as a whole. Time to try something new.

I’m sure you have lots of questions; so do I. I only have some of the answers.

Let’s talk. [FacebookEmail]

Be careful what you wish for…

…because you just might get it.

When I wrote about autism for the first time in 2010, I felt a bit like I had to justify myself through my son’s diagnosis. I explained what we went through to get him formally diagnosed, and how through that process, I’d come to suspect that I have Asperger’s Syndrome. However, some sections of the autistic community don’t accept self-diagnosed Aspies as “legitimate”. It seems that there are many people who do a couple of online “autism tests”, then declare themselves to have Asperger’s syndrome.

Because of this, I’ve been hesitant to write about it further. I wanted that formal diagnosis. Everything that I read, and the reflections that I saw in my son said to me “this is you, too”, but I wanted a clinical psychologist to sit across from me, and tell me that it wasn’t my imagination.

A few thoughts on #RUOK Day 2016

I’ve been pretty snarky on Twitter this morning about #RUOK Day, and I felt like I need to expand a little on my thoughts.

In principle, I’m not opposed to the idea of R U OK Day. In practice, sometimes it feels a little less like the creator of the day intended, and a lot more like hashtag activism.

Fundamentally, my issue is this: Asking someone “Are you OK?” is an inherently intimate question. You’re opening a dialogue. This is not “How was your weekend?” or “Have you seen Stranger Things?”.

You’re asking someone to open up to you about one of the most private areas of their lives – what’s going on inside their mind. Asking “R U OK?” may reveal things that have the potential to affect their career, if that information is abused by an employer or co-workers lacking in ethics.

Asking #R U OK is not a way for you to hit your virtue target for the day. If you want to do that, go and donate to Beyond Blue or Sane or headspace, or some other mental health organisation.

Don’t ask someone “R U OK?”, unless you’re prepared for that person to say “No, I’m not”. I don’t think you can just respond to that with “Here’s a URL to check out. Feel better. See ya later.”

One of the most paralysing parts of dealing with mental health issues is the sense of isolation it causes. Please don’t make that isolation worse by making it look like you’re willing to bridge that moat, if asking “R U OK?” is just another task on your to-do list.

Also, as someone who’s lived with both anxiety & depression for my entire adult life, if you ask me “R U OK?” today, my answer is “yes”. Several weeks ago, the answer was “no”. In a few weeks time, the answer might be “no” again. This time last year, based on the draft post I found when I logged in to write this, the answer was “Oh, hell no!”

That’s what it’s like to live with a chronic mental illness.

Today, before you ask someone “R U OK?”, please consider this: If that person is willing to open up to you, and you’re not prepared to walk at least part of the journey with them, don’t ask the question.

If you are, thank you.

Lest We Forget

I never knew my grandfather.

The family photo album contains a photo of him holding me as a toddler, but I don’t remember him. Other photos show he was a barrel-chested man with a receding hairline. I have two younger brothers; I was the only one who inherited his hairline. Lucky me.

During World War 2, he survived a near-miss explosion. The details were horrific. He died that day – it just took thirty-odd years for his body to catch up.

Today, he’d be diagnosed as suffering from PTSD, but those were different times. When he returned from the war, he took to self-medicating with alcohol. I remember my mother telling me how sweet and kind he could be when he was sober, but how dark moods would descend, and he’d deal with it the only way he knew how… and he’d become a different – and violent – man. Soon, that was the only man he was. Several years after he returned home, his co-workers tried to get him help.

He refused.

It was a long, slow suicide. According to the medical reports, cirrhosis of the liver killed him early in May 1978, when I was four years old. He died alone, his alcoholism & violence having driven away everyone who’d once loved him.

Were there already dark threads running through his life that the PTSD brought to the surface, or were the seeds sown on that day in a war zone? How different could his life, and the lives of those around him have been, had there been ongoing support for him and all those men like him after they returned from the war?

Did he feel it wasn’t socially acceptable to take advantage of that support? Did he feel that it made him weak or “less of a man” to admit he needed help? Maybe he refused to admit it. I’ll never know. Even now, in 2016, there’s still stigma attached to being a man who admits to having mental health issues; that stigma is one of the reasons I refuse to be silent about my own mental health experiences.

As we remember the fallen this ANZAC day, think also of those who returned and still return from war zones. Some have have physical scars, but for many their hearts and minds are scarred by unimaginable experiences; experiences that they maybe can’t – or won’t – talk about.

Whatever you believe about war, both those who return from war, and their families, need and deserve our support. They also need immediate and ongoing support from the government that sent them there. It’s rare that these experiences can be processed without help; our returned military personnel require the tools and support to help them deal with the outcome of their experiences.

Far too often “going solo” results in these brave men & women becoming dependent on alcohol and/or drugs to cope. The results may be homelessness, exploding in violence towards their loved ones or others, or death at their own hands, their violence turned inward.

The effects of my grandfather’s experiences in the war, and the consequences of his choice to deal with those experiences through abusing alcohol and his subsequent violence still echo today in my own life, and the lives of those who knew and loved him.

Even while writing this post and discussing it with my cousin, I learnt new & painful things about him, and what he did to my grandmother, my mother, and her siblings.

It’s been said that “War is hell”. It’s not just hell for those who survive it, but too often for those who love them.

Lest we forget.

Faith, family, abuse and disconnection

Please forgive me. This is an incredibly long post, and I’m not sure how to edit it down further. It also paints a rather unflattering portrait of my dad (in particular). This is an unfortunate necessity. I want to stress that it’s not an accurate representation of who my parents are now. Dad has mellowed a lot, we’ve talked most of this stuff out, and I’ve forgiven him for his role in it.

However, it’s the foundation of who I am now, and I want to bring these skeletons out of the closet.

I have a few friends who grew up in cults. Whenever I read their stories, I feel so much in common with them. The controlling environments. The leader who is always right. Subsuming your own thoughts and feelings, and trusting the leader blindly – even when everything in you is screaming “This is WRONG!”

But I was never part of an organised cult. This is my story.

My father did grow up in a cult. Until he was 15, my dad was raised in the “Exclusive” Brethren. Maybe you can take the boy out of the cult, that doesn’t necessarily take the cult out of the boy.

In the late 1970’s, my parents became Pentecostals, and embraced everything that entailed. As it turns out, a fundamentalist hyper-controlled upbringing in a cult combined with a conservative Pentecostal theology is a recipe for disaster. Rejected by their conservative home church, they left and commenced a nomadic journey from church to church, looking for somewhere to call home.

We never found it. Within two or three years of joining a church, we were off again, tearing out what little roots I’d managed to put down, which made life for an undiagnosed autistic kid even more difficult. On top of that, I really didn’t enjoy being in church. I sat through Sunday services just wanting them to be over. I was fascinated by theology, but didn’t enjoy the practice. Most of the time I felt utterly disconnected from what was going on around me.

But at home… oh, how I felt connected to God. See, my dad heard from God directly. Whenever a major decision needed to be made, and even lots of minor ones, we would “seek God’s counsel”. We’d pray together in tongues, and dad would receive a “word from God”. I implicitly trusted that dad was hearing from God, and I never questioned. These “words” of “prophecy” guided both our family, and my own decisions for years – up to and including several years after I’d gotten married (something my wife was none too impressed with).

Growing up, this was my normal. I couldn’t grasp that other people didn’t live this way.

It seems that many of the times we left a church, it was because “God” told us to. We even accidentally started our own church. A couple of years later we were asked to leave when dad refused to renounce a prophecy he’d given publicly and distributed in writing.

We left.

Most of the theology I encountered over those years was either fundamentalism or Pentecostalism, or a solid, often contradictory, blend of both (with a heavy diet of Chick tracts).

Let me introduce you to high-school Warwick…

This is what I knew, in my heart of hearts: Catholics worshiped Mary and were deceived by the devil. People who listened to “Secular” rock music were going to hell. I knew Satan was at work in the school system, pulling the wool over the eyes of people with the blasphemy of evolution. I prayed for the souls of my friends caught up in witchcraft through the demonic influence of Dungeons and Dragons. Atheists were the most evil of all, and deserved to burn in hell forever.

Yes, really.

While my schoolmates were reading fantasy novels and listening to AC/DC, I was reading my bible & Christian books (at least when I wasn’t reading Star Trek novels), and listening to bad Christian pop. I hoped that someone would ask me to talk to them about God.

Surprisingly, they didn’t.

Other than theology (and computers), I was obsessed with Star Trek. I borrowed every Star Trek novel the local library had, sometimes more than once. I had few real life friends, so Kirk, Spock and Bones were my constant company. One day, my parents sat me down and told me that God had given them a prophecy: if I didn’t stop reading Star Trek, God would curse me, and I would lose my eyesight.

I didn’t stop reading the Star Trek novels. I couldn’t.

In my first year of High School, I was struggling to read the blackboards, even when I sat at the front of the classroom. The optometrist diagnosed me as short-sighted, with an astigmatism.

It was then that I knew that the prophecy had indeed come to pass, and God had cursed me for my Star Trek idolatry. I was angry at God, but I knew I deserved it. I took that anger and buried it. This sealed my belief in prophecy, and that my parents were hearing from God.

I stopped reading Star Trek novels, and mainly read Christian books. My parents ran a Christian library and I consumed increasing amounts of conservative & Pentecostal theology. I was particularly affected by two books written by Salem Kirban; his paranoid end-time conspiracy novels (‘666‘ and ‘1000‘) contained (real) “news” clippings blended with hardcore fundamentalist end-time eschatology – this was a generation before “Left Behind“.

Many nights I found myself lying in bed paralysed with anxiety and fear-induced insomnia, knowing that at any moment the rapture would come and I’d be left behind to be beheaded on the guillotine for being a Christian.

Seriously, my greatest fear in my early teens was being beheaded.

I started working in the family business when I was 12 – until I got fired by Dad for being “unreliable”. An unreliable twelve year old? Who’da thunk it? When I was 13 I begged to be allowed to work for him again, promising I’d be reliable. He relented and when I wasn’t at school, I was at work. Throughout my teens, I had almost no friends, and no social life. The one close friend I had, I was rarely able to spend time with because I had “a responsibility” to be at work. When I left school at the end of Year 10, I started working for him full time, until I was 26.

It was, after all, God’s will for me.

But… for two weeks, when I was 17, I nearly broke free. Through work I’d become friends with an Anglican Church Army officer. He saw what the environment I lived & breathed was doing to me, and eventually managed to convince me to quit the family business.

One morning, I went and sat on my parents’ bed, and told them that I was quitting.

They prayed about it, and Dad told me that “the Lord” had declared that if I did leave, I’d be under a curse for the rest of my life for moving out of His (God’s) will, and nothing I ever did would prosper.

I knew what that meant, but I left anyway.

My first full-time job outside the family business was knocking down a corrugated iron shed with a pinch bar. I was an undiagnosed autistic teen who’d lived a sheltered life, hadn’t finished my senior years of high school, and had no idea how to relate to other people… or get a job.

I made it two weeks before the fear consumed me, and I begged my parents to take me back and let me work for them.

They did, and I once again acceded my emotional and intellectual decisions to them. Their beliefs were my beliefs. Their decisions were my decisions. They were the source of my spiritual judgement. When they went to a church, I went to that church. When they left a church, I left the church. If I needed to make anything more than the most minor decision, I would go to them, “seek the Lord’s counsel”, and do as I was advised by “the Lord”.

When I was 18, I moved out of home. The tension of living with my parents and working with them was too much.

In 1993, a self-appointed “prophet” told me that God had told her that I’d meet my future wife before Easter. Upon hearing this, my parents told me that they too had received a prophecy that they’d withheld from me, and that God had told them I’d be married by that Christmas.

I was an isolated, lonely, overweight 19 year old, who’d never had a relationship. The only thing I’d ever really wanted for myself was to be loved by someone else. I’d been obsessed with being married for years. I bought it – hook, line and sinker. I left the conservative Reformed church I’d been attending, and went to the Pentecostal church that the “prophet” attended.

Easter came and went, and nothing. I went to the “prophet” and pointed out that I hadn’t even met a viable candidate in those four months.

She looked me in the eye and said “You didn’t want it enough”, turned her back on me and walked off.

A few days later I had my first major depressive episode. I cried for days. I sat in my living room and wanted to die. I know now that it wasn’t just the loss of the dream that broke me, but the cognitive dissonance of the implicit trust I had that my parents were “hearing God”, against the obvious fact that they weren’t.

There were more churches, more fundamentalists, a complete nervous breakdown, but I slowly began thinking for myself. I worked in the family business with my parents full time; my cognitive dissonance kept growing, but like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe.

I started reading more widely. I attended an annual Christian creative arts conference each year for several years, connecting with people who helped to expand my thinking and my theology beyond my deeply ingrained fundamentalism (and connected with some wonderful folks who I’m still friends with!)

Of course, there was also the internet, where I found myself exposed to theology and ideas I’d never considered. I stopped going to my parents to “seek God’s counsel” and asking for “words from God” to make my decisions.

With that choice, however, I also lost the sense of “direct connection” I had with God. I still believed in God, I believed that Jesus is who the Bible says He is, but I felt completely disconnected from God. Something in me felt broken.

I still disliked being in church. Worship did nothing for me. I went to church because it was what you do, but I was just waiting for the service to end. Somewhere along the line, I’d picked up the idea that that I had to “fake it ’til I make it” so I kept going, waiting for things to “click”. It just didn’t happen. I didn’t feel connected to God, or other people.

Over the years I talked with pastors and leaders and other Christians and they all gave me advice on what I had to do. I had to get “secular” influences out of my life. I had to read my Bible and pray regularly. I had to listen to God.

I tried. I followed the advice. I followed the rules. Nothing worked.

Worse still, I was a band member and worship leader in the church. I was playing music and leading worship for songs that I believed, but felt almost no sense of connection to. I knew how to organise songs in an order that would “lead” people to a state where they connected with God, but it didn’t work for me.

Eventually, my parents had a falling out with the leadership of that church, and they left.

I refused to leave with them. I finally started to stand up for myself.

I did however, continue to work with them. The family business was “God’s will” for all of us kids. Even though I’d taken over as Operations Manager in August 1996, I was never really in charge. Dad was a very difficult person to work with. He is an incredibly strong-willed person, and in any given disagreement, he was invariably right – if I had the temerity to disagree, I was verbally beaten into submission. In 1998, after months of dealing with the consequences of financial & contractual agreements that had been signed without my input, I had my first major nervous breakdown.

After they left the church, I found myself in a position where I was working with them on a daily basis, while they were continually telling me that I was being “deceived”… that I would be out of “God’s perfect will”. I wouldn’t know who to trust (ironically, they were right on that last point).

In 2000, I quit the family business. It had become an untenable situation; Dad and I were arguing constantly, and I almost always came off second best, and regularly an emotional wreck. I had no self-confidence, no education, and debts up to my ears.

I went into a business partnership with my best friend. That (and the friendship) collapsed. I kept going, solo. A year later, I closed my shopfront, near bankruptcy. I struggled to make ends meet. I ended up often having to rely on my parents just to eat. Occasionally, I even went back to them to “seek the Lord’s counsel”.

I struggled constantly with anxiety & depression. It felt like everything I touched was… cursed.

The one person I really couldn’t trust: myself. After all, I’d trusted in myself by trusting my parents. So I replaced them with other authority figures. They too turned out to have their own agendas. More often than not, they didn’t like the questions I was asking. As long as my theology lined up with theirs, everything was cool. Start drawing outside the lines, though? I’d get my hand smacked. I’d be told that I was wrong, often with so much proof-texting it would make my head spin. I couldn’t trust that my judgment was correct, so I tried to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I kept going through the motions.

In 2003, while attending a Christian creative arts college part-time, I had another major depressive episode and attempted suicide. I was referred to a “ministry” who dealt with spiritual abuse. Unfortunately, they dealt with spiritual abuse by spiritually abusing me.

After a couple of counselling sessions, they told me that because of my grandfather’s high-level involvement with Freemasonry, I’d become possessed by a shard of his soul, and had to be exorcised. I was explicitly instructed not to tell anyone about it, because “the church wasn’t ready for the kind of ministry they were doing.”

I trusted them, even though it felt really, REALLY, wrong. I did exactly what I was told.

It didn’t help with my depression, for some strange reason.

In 2005 my wife and I made one of our first major decisions together, nine years after we married, with no input from my parents, and without “seeking the Lord’s counsel.” I took a job in Melbourne, and we moved our family 600kms from where we were living.

It’s one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.

Unfortunately, I brought all my skeletons with me. I kept trying to keep my head down and my mouth shut. I continued trying to replace my parents with other authority figures, and looked to them for guidance.

I did, however, start opening up and trying to explain to people that there was something wrong with me, but I couldn’t find a way to explain what it was. I could only catch glimpses of it out of the corner of my eye. I got more advice (usually along the lines of more bible reading, more prayer times, more church, more spiritual ministry, more counselling), but it never seemed to work, and usually made me feel even worse.

Unfortunately, many of those people embraced the same theology as my parents. By this stage, I’d been manipulated and abused at the hands of so many people who genuinely believed they heard from God, I was showing symptoms of PTSD (not an exaggeration – I was eventually diagnosed).

But to many of these people, all they saw was someone “resistant to the Holy Spirit”, someone who “overthought everything”, someone who wasn’t willing to trust, and who was just looking to find error – and they happily told me so.

When I confessed to one pastor that I’d Googled the claims of a “vision” of Melbourne’s history given by a visiting “prophet” and found that they didn’t line up with the recorded facts, I was dressed down for not “trusting God”, having my own agenda, and not being interested in “what God is doing”. I still have the email.

The reality was that I’m autistic, was showing symptoms of PTSD and was hyper-vigilant for people saying and doing the kind of things that I’d been abused with in the past. When people used the phrases and methods that I’d been abused with, it was triggering me.

I did find one group where I felt safe to ask some difficult questions that would get me smacked down elsewhere; things that troubled me about the Bible and theology. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it fit together with the rest of my life, and eventually stopped going. I’m still grateful for their input into my life.

For the most part though, I still didn’t want to be in church. I’d spend most of the service with a voice in the back of my head screaming “GET OUT! THIS ISN’T SAFE” and wanting it to be over. Eventually, we left that church. It was an incredibly difficult decision, because I knew I was deeply unhappy, even though I couldn’t explain why – and I desperately didn’t want to become my parents, jumping from church to church.

It was through our current church that I’ve made the most progress. Six weeks after we started attending, I realised that for the first time in a decade, I wasn’t sitting through the service constantly defensive and hyper-vigilant. I was referred to a trained counsellor who diagnosed my PTSD symptoms, and helped me start working through my past.

Still, I’m not OK.

Some parts of my theology fit together properly now. There’s theology that I read or hear, that I’m able to tell isn’t right; it’s usually a cognitive effort to dispose of particular concepts because they’ve become a part of who I am. A particularly convincing speaker or argument that contradicts what I believe can leave me flailing, sometimes to the point of a depressive episode. A few years ago, struggling with the logical conclusions of one particular aspect of Reformed theology left me in a near-suicidal depressive state for almost two months.

I believe that being part of a local body of believers is a fundamental part of living out the Christian faith. It’s not that you can’t be a follower of Jesus on your own, but I believe the fullest expression of our faith comes through being part of the body of Christ.

Yet I find being in church a deeply frustrating and sometimes painful experience. I struggle to sit through a sermon without fidgeting. I’m constantly distracted, even when I don’t have my iPhone or iPad with me. A speaker who drifts near the kinds of theology I suffered through usually leaves me wanting to slam my hands over my ears or leave the room; worse if they hit that peculiarly “Pentecostal” preaching cadence. A speaker in a DVD series that we worked through a few months ago triggered such strong reactions it resulted in a depressive episode that lasted several weeks.

I started the process of joining the worship band in the church, but I couldn’t do it – I knew I wasn’t ready to be part of it. It doesn’t help that my mental health makes me somewhat… unreliable.

I’m struggling to stay in church. Most of the time, I don’t want to go. I love the people, but I find it so hard to be in church. My ASD makes it difficult to have conversations with people I don’t know, or to be in a large group of people. Social situations exhaust me; sometimes, I can’t remember someone’s name or face – which is particularly embarrassing when I’ve had a lengthy conversation with them in the past, and I can’t connect that with them.

Making new connections with people who’ve got long established friendships is hard enough at the best of times, but when you don’t understand how to make friends or maintain those relationships, with the added bonus of social awkwardness… sometimes it just seems like it’s all too hard.

At my core, I don’t now how to trust whether most of what I believe to be true… is true. I used to have that certainty, but it was so utterly destroyed that now I often struggle to maintain a stability of belief in anything but the most basic theology. You can convince me your theology is biblically correct, but I can invariably find someone to contradict you, and still remain completely biblical. So I don’t know how to decide who to trust.

I’d probably become an atheist, if it weren’t for my inability to stop believing in God.

I would love for this post to have a happy ending, where I tell you I’ve found the answer. But it doesn’t. It’s messy & complicated and unfinished.

I still feel disconnected, and I desperately want to feel connected… to others, to God. But I’m wondering whether I’ll ever find that. I know now that I’m autistic, which raises the question: Is my sense of disconnection a product of my upbringing, or a fundamental part of my wiring? Will I ever find a way to belong?

I honestly don’t know where to go from here.

The exhaustion of depression

This is why depression is so exhausting. You either:

a. Give in to the emotions and find yourself feeling like you’re trapped bring thrashed around underwater in rough seas, unable to breathe and hanging on to the hope that you wash up on a beach before you drown…


b. Expend all your energy trying to separate what is real, and what is true; because, in spite of the crushing emotional weight on your chest and the sense that absolutely everything is falling apart… your brain is lying to you.

The emotions are absolutely real…

…they’re just not true.

Standing on the outside…

“I’m standing on the outside looking in
I’m standing on the outside looking in…”
– Cold Chisel, Standing on the Outside

Over on her blog Grit & Glory, Alece wrote a post today about friendship. I wanted to comment, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to keep it short – she challenged me to write it up, so here it is. The first line in her post was this “I moved to Nashville to chase down community.”

Although not a driving factor for us, I was hoping that I’d be able to chase down the same thing when we moved to Melbourne in 2005. The church we left when we moved here was a medium sized church in a relatively small town. It was a pentecostal church that felt like it was leaning towards fundamentalism. I was increasingly struggling with questions that challenged that theology and with the depression that I was suffering on and off, I wasn’t a very happy part of that church community. By the time we moved, I was attending church sporadically, at best.

Growing up, my family was pretty insular. Part of our “spiritual journey” as a family was attending churches for two or three years at most, then moving on. So between staying away from non-Christians and moving from church to church. It makes it hard to really connect with people when they’re gone from your life after a couple of years.

On top of that, there was my near-complete inability to understand how friendships actually work. I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I’m standing outside the window, peering in at people who seem to intuitively understand how to relate, like some shared unspoken language.

To me, the move to Melbourne presented a fresh start. I thought it was a chance to make new friends, in a large enough place where I could meet lots of new people and connect with some of them, and maybe become part of a community.


It hasn’t really worked out like I’d hoped. We started attending a church; it was fairly small, and… maybe a little bit too similar to our previous church. There were a few young families, and a many lovely older folks, and quite a few youth. Not long after, most of the youth left. Then several of the people we’d connected to and started building relationships with left the church or moved away; excepting a couple of people, I struggled to really connect to those who remained. The church itself was changing too; not in a “bad” way – but I was reacting badly. I now understand why I was reacting, but the upshot is this: I think it’s difficult, or maybe even impossible to be part of a community when you’re reacting to the very things that drive that community, and/or when you’re questioning beliefs that the community considers to be their core beliefs.

As I drifted away from that community, I started spending time with the CafeChurch community. They’re a fantastic group of people, and for the first time in a very long time I felt like I was in a place where I could safely ask questions and not feel threatened or like I’d be driven away with torches and pitchforks (or “prophecies” and “biblical” smackdowns).

I have a family, and we live in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. CafeChurch is in the inner suburbs on Tuesday nights. I’m grateful for the friendships I made there, but the way our life works as a family just didn’t mesh well, and I didn’t feel like on my own I could be an active part of their core community.

We’ve been at our current church for a bit over a year, but I still feel like I’m disconnected, and I don’t understand why. I find myself wondering “Is there something I’m not doing or saying? Is it because these people have established relationships over many years, and we’re newcomers? What is the piece of the puzzle that I’m missing here?” – and what effect will my struggle with faith have?

The ‘how’ of friendships still mystifies me; I’m not sure what to do to make deep, long-lasting friendships with the people around me. Over the years, I’ve developed a few good, long term friendships, but I have no idea how they came to be, and most of those friends are geographically distant. For the friends who are geographically closer, I don’t know what the practical things are to do with the friendship to keep building it. Maybe everyone feels just like this. I just don’t know.

The truth is, I really don’t understand how I came to be friends with these wonderful people – I’m just grateful for their friendship.

A few weeks ago, @LosWhit posted this photo to Twitter, and I recognised a few of the people I follow on Twitter. I had a visceral reaction to that photo; I long for friendships that feel like that photo looks – but how do I get from here to there?


A question of loss.

What can you say after a year like this?

If everything had gone to plan, at this point of the year, I’d be cuddling up with my six month old daughter, watching her roll noises around in her mouth and attempt to make words with them; battling with my wife and kids over who changes the next nappy, and wondering how long it would be before we’d need to start putting baby gates up around the house. Excitedly awaiting her first Christmas.

Instead, I live with the loss; I’ve lost more than I expected.

There’s been other things happen, mostly good, a few not so good. Nothing in the order of what happened with our little Jessica. Although we laid her tiny body in the ground on that hot summer’s morning in January, I didn’t realise until much later that I’d taken something away with me too. A seed of doubt, planted by questions thrust upon me by circumstances outside my control.

Oh, I’ve tried to ignore them, to push them away, to drown them. But they refuse to leave me alone, to go away quietly. They nag at me, nipping at my heels.

The clouds are lifting.

I’m writing this post hesitantly, because I’m about to assert something I don’t yet know to be sure.

Seems like the clouds are lifting. Right now, I feel a lot like you do after a bout of hiccups, where they’ve stopped but you’re still anticipating the next one.

The thing is, even at this point, I’m not sure what anyone could have done to help me get out of the darkness.

I kept going, putting one foot in front of the other, but very little could lift my mood more than temporarily. Life felt dark.

I awoke each day feeling like there was literally a weight on my chest, and everything seemed completely and utterly pointless. I couldn’t trust anyone. The brighter spots appear to have been dinner with a friend, and a movie with another friend, but I can’t expect my friends to be constantly there every waking moment to hold my head up.

This bout seems to have been about six weeks long.

I don’t know what triggered it, and I don’t know what caused it to stop.

The only other analogy I have for it, is that it’s almost like a bout of the flu. You might start to see a few symptoms of the flu developing, and you think you have a cold, then suddenly you’re flat on your back, and it feels like you’re dying, and it will never end. Then after a couple of weeks you start to feel a little better, then it’s just a sniffle, and then you’re OK again.

You can’t tell someone with the flu, “Just stop having the flu. Get up, and get back to the gym, or go for a run.” The flu doesn’t work like that, but depression doesn’t give you the option of lying in bed and getting better. There doesn’t feel like there’s anything to take that crushing weight off your chest, except time.

The long dark night of the soul

My family deserve better than this. They deserve better than this dessicated husk of a person I’ve become.

There’s a deep bitterness to being diagnosed with something that can’t be tested for with a blood test or a brain scan; something that sucks all of the colour and joy out of life, but is quite literally “all in my head”. There’s a deep burning anger at myself knowing that I live in one of the most privileged societies on the planet, and have a life that people long for, and yet have to fight myself to just keep going.

Maybe it is “just” depression again. They doctor tried to convince me to go on different anti-depressants. They have worse side-effects than the last ones I was on. People report that they’re harder to get off as well. Another doctor once described anti-depressants as a crutch to use to get well. But after the prescription is filled and the tablets are taken, there’s no process of getting well beyond that. Not that I can afford, anyway.

Besides, call it cynical, but it’s not in the best interests of the pharmaceutical companies for someone on anti-depressants TO get well; then they’ll stop buying the product.

So I’m resistant to the ideas of the meds. Even moreso than the last time I was convinced to take them.

What’s my alternative? I refuse to give in to the darkest impulses. I won’t do that to the people who love me.

I’m not living right now, I’m just existing. Anxieties piled on top of anxieties. A literal headache that I’ve been unable to shake for five weeks.

I’m not supposed to think like this; to write like this. I, who call myself a follower of Jesus? I’m supposed to speak of joy and peace… of hope. But… this is also the truth of who I am right now. Should I only speak the truth when it’s nice and friendly and happy?

I’ve lost hope that things will get better. The good people are taken away too soon. The wicked prosper, destroying people’s lives for the sake of profit or power. The voices of the idealogues grow increasingly strident demanding that they get their way, and damn the rest of you.

Perhaps I should abandon my faith and try to find meaning in dogmatically tearing apart and ridiculing those who disagree with me. Somehow, I don’t think that will work for me any better than my teenage fundamentalism.

My current reality is that I can’t trust my own brain. Maybe I’m seeing the world as it truly is, or maybe the chemical soup in my head is missing some vital ingedients. I don’t want to be like this. Who would choose this over the alternative of actually living? It drives away the people who care for me, and earns the kind of attention people pay to chewing gum stuck to their shoe.

Whatever the answer is, it’s beyond me to find out right now, and beyond my ability to hope for an answer to come.

Tomorrow I’ll do the same as I do every day. I’ll drag myself out of bed and take weary step after weary step across the parched desert of my current existence until darkness falls once again, and another night of dreamless sleep returns me to the start of the cycle.

Maybe, for me, this is as good as it gets.