Painting of a purple iris created by Tressa Mancini in collaboration with AI.

AI Art: Iris of Promise

AI Art, Thoughts and Essays

AI art generators are sending ripples through the art world. Some fear this technology, while others embrace it. I was terrified of it. I wrote a long post decrying it during a moment when I was caught up in fear and depression. I deleted that article. Instead, I want to tell a story of personal victory.

On Friday (06/03/22), God said to me during a time of prayer, “Do not fear! Your skills in writing and design are not in vain! Do not fear computer tools but embrace them.” I then promptly forget about this.

Saturday, June 4th, rolls around. I find myself on Night Cafe, an AI art generating service. With the Lord’s help, I worked up the courage to experiment with the technology I feared. The featured image in this post – the purple iris – is the result of my experimentation. I was pleasantly surprised!

Today (06/05/22) I opened my prayer journal to see the above quote. I had done what He said, and God walked through my fears with me! I was telling one of my pastors about this, and she asked me what color the iris was. When I said it was purple, she said that purple irises symbolically mean the promise of God. She had a bouquet of irises at her wedding for this reason (more on the symbolism of irises in Christianity here).

This led to a moment of awe for me – I was reverently astonished at how God worked in my life. I took a risk and stepped into my fear, and God helped me through it. In the end, He showed me a new form of beauty and gave me a memorial [the art piece] of His faithfulness and His promises.

Speaking of awe, this was the subject of my lead pastor’s sermon Sunday night. Fear narrows one’s focus to the object of one’s fear, which leads to a downward spiral of negative emotions (as exemplified by my fear of art generating AI). But, according to Phycological Science, awe combined with spirituality has the opposite effect. “By making us less focused on the self and more in tune with the present moment, awe may ultimately boost our own individual well-being…The link between awe and spirituality may, at least in part, be explained by an ‘upward spiral’ of positive emotion that ultimately boosts well-being.” Not only did I get to experience yet again God’s care and Him working out all things in my life, but He also showed me a new weapon to combat my fears with: awe of Him.

“For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.” -Psalm 100:5

May the Lord bless you, and deliver you from all your fears!

Healing: Isolating From the World’s Concerns

Anxiety & Depression

Isolating from the people we love and the passions and values that drive us during a depression episode is a not the best choice. Yet isolating from the world and its concerns can be healing.

For Christmas weekend I chose to isolate from the world. I focused exclusively on God, my family, and the pursuits that matter to me. Usually my anxiety compels me to stay aware of current affairs, so not satisfying the urge to look was quite difficult. Yet I didn’t give in. It was a battle to force myself to focus on what was the most valuable use of my time.

Not looking at the news – not devoting all my mental energy to what ails the world and my country – helped me in an unexpected way. I was struggling with an oncoming depressive episode – the gas was poured so to speak. All I had to do was light the fire by giving into my anxiety. However, for the first time in a long time, that did not happen.

Yes, it is important to stay aware of what is going on. However, there is a balance to be sought. I daresay what we value most and what drives us on should take up ninety-nine percent of our time. It gives less fuel to anxiety and depression, and it is far less time wasted on things we cannot change.

“Fix Your Eyes on Jesus,” Said the Well-meaning Christian

Thoughts and Essays

I have struggled with depression for years, and one piece of advice I often receive from well-meaning Christians is to “fix your eyes on Jesus.” Okay, thought I, how does that help me? Fixing my eyes on Jesus does not make the depression – the emotional agony – go away. In my mind, fixing my eyes on Jesus equated to looking at a stained-glass window at church. Yes, the window is a work of art, and maybe Jesus looks beautiful in it. But how does that help me on a practical level? It never made sense. It was so frustrating! 

Yet God showed me the missing half the story – the part where it helps me. Fixing my eyes on Jesus (instead of my depression and pain) is not a one-way act. It is a two-way exchange. For once I fix my thoughts and my heart on Jesus, He empowers me to deal with my depression. He strengthens me in my moment of need to get through the dark valley. “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” -Ephesians 3:16

“16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, 18 may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, 19 and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” -Ephesians 3:16-19

Through God-given faith, I am strengthened to face my present hardship: mental illness. He roots me in His love, and He becomes my Source of Strength to keep going – to heal. Then, together with the love and support of like-minded believers, I am enveloped in more of His love. The depth and reality of His love overwhelm the dark lies of depression. The cycle repeats, leading to greater healing and spiritual maturity. 

Fixing my gaze on Jesus is not just an empty platitude. To set my heart and thoughts on Jesus is to prime myself to receive His strengthening and to remind myself of His love that consumes all darkness. Amen.

A Dog With a Horrific Past Still LOVES People

Anxiety & Depression

Today, while I was at the post office, I met the most adorable terrier-type dog. She had white paws, curly, chocolate fur, and large, liquid eyes. She came right over, wagging her little tail. I couldn’t resist her!

While I was giving her a good head scratch, her owner told me her story. This dog has a rough past – she originally came from the animal shelter. She was seriously injured when she first came there – someone had shot her. I can’t fathom it – just, why? Yet here she is, two years in her forever home, and she adores people. From what I saw at the post office, and from what her owner said, she has a friendly heart. She assumes the best about everyone she meets.

When people hurt me, my tendency is to shut down and isolate. I can easily slide back into my old ways of distrusting all and assuming the worst about the world and its people. This then triggers my depression. Yet here is this little dog, who has been through more than I have, and she puts herself out there. She healed from her trauma, and she learned to love again. Her story is remarkable!

I know it is hard to exist in this broken world, and not get swept away by depression and negativity. Yet our stories are not yet concluded. You do not know yet how your story will end. There is always hope, and time and space to heal, and to learn to love again. A happy ending is within reach.

Remember God in Your Depression

Anxiety & Depression

As my battle with depression continues, sometimes I feel bitterness setting in. I am tired of the struggle – tired of fighting to be, at a minimum, a functioning human being. I question the state of my mental health a lot. Why is this happening? Why does it sometimes seem to be getting worse, not better? Where is God in all of this? Does He care?

Today I listened to a meditation that reminded me that it’s okay to not be okay, but it is not okay to ignore God. Lately, this is something I have been guilty of. I get frustrated because I do not know the reasons for why I am going through depression. I turn away from the One I sometimes blame for my complicated mental health. Yet, in doing so, I push away from the one source of reliable strength I have.

God makes it clear that the way through this dark valley is by His strength, and not my own:

“We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. 9 In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead.” – 2 Corinthians 1:8-9

And in the Psalmist’s grief and desperation, he reached out to God rather than turning away:

“Turn to me and be gracious to me,
    for I am lonely and afflicted.
17 Relieve the troubles of my heart
    and free me from my anguish.
18 Look on my affliction and my distress
    and take away all my sins.”

Psalm 25:16-18

So, I too will reach out, and learn to depend on my True Strength. I do not know all the reasons why, and I will not pretend to have unwavering faith, but I will stretch out my hand for God, and trust that He will guide me through as His Word says.

Depression Triggers: Insecurity

Anxiety & Depression

Insecurity: A Subtlety Dangerous Trigger

I am learning that insecurity triggers my depression. I often get distracted by what is outside of my sphere – by what has nothing to do with my life or what is important to me. I see what others have, or what they have accomplished, and the joy I have in my achievements diminishes. Insecurity rises, and I start to question the quality and worth of what I have accomplished. I question if my projects and passions are worth anything, and ultimately, if I do not make a conscious effort to stop myself, I spiral into questioning my self-worth.

Insecurity is not the most dramatic trigger I have, but the danger lies in how subtle of a trigger insecurity is, and how little it takes to activate it. My worst triggers – like certain kinds of headlines – I can easily spot and avoid. Insecurity is another matter entirely – it has a variety of causes, and it is not a trigger I can sidestep easily.

The Road to Getting Better

Insecurity is something I cannot avoid – I must face it and work through it for the overall improvement of my mental health. Some tactics I am using:

Conscious Distracting

I make a conscious effort to stop and take a moment to breathe. If needed, I switch to a different activity that will require my serious focus.

Detach and Refocus.

I remind myself of what is most important to me – being a daughter of God and helping/loving people – and how whatever has caused my feelings of insecurity actually has no bearing on my life and priorities. I do not have to let a moment of insecurity derail me. My meaning comes from what I value, and what I do to express those values. I am moving forward with what is important to me, and that is what matters most long-term and in this moment.

Leaning into the Word of God

I am a person of faith, and the Bible has been a major source of hope and comfort for me. I can focus on what I have yet not achieved, on the ways in which I believe I fall short, etc. or I can focus on God’s eternal words of reassurance.

Conclusion

It has taken me a long time to recognize insecurity as a trigger for my depression. However, being aware of the problem is the first giant step in solving the problem. I feel empowered to continue on my recovery journey, and using simple tactics like stopping and refocusing, I can overcome this.

Daily Devotions, Daily Healing

Anxiety & Depression
John 10:4 "After he has gathered his own flock, he walks ahead of them, and they follow him because they know his voice."

When coping with depression, the journey to healing is a daily trek. For believers, this means drawing close to God, daily, and leaning into His strength. Devotions, when pursued with a lover's fervency, become times of power and reassurance in the Father's presence. 

This time together leads to a sharpening of one's spiritual ears to God's Word, which produces greater confidence in and closeness to the One who rules the universe. The world is in a dark time, and the sources of hope in this life are, at best, fragile. I keep coming back to relying on God to ground me. When I hit rock-bottom, the Rock is my Foundation.

Yet, with depression, it is hard to summon the desire to engage in Bible reading or prayer. Sometimes devotions become merely a religious exercise, and the mundanity of routine dulls the impact. When I choose not to engage with God - when I choose to stay on the sidelines of my relationship with Him and use my depression as an excuse not to try - I work against my own mental wellbeing. It’s like taking antidepressants, but much more vital – devotions with God are just something I need to do each day.

But what do these daily devotions look like? For me, it is a conversation with God. For example, I was recently reading Psalm 139: 9-10: “If I ride on the wings of the morning, if I dwell by the furthest oceans, even there Your hand will guide me, and Your strength will support me.” Through these verses I believe God said to me, “My Strength is supporting you, and I will never leave you! I am guiding you through this to healing, even if you don’t feel it.”

That is the kind of supportive relationship that gives me hope for today, and the strength to continue on my journey of healing. I cannot stress enough the importance of daily devotions with God for believers. 

Hope in the Small Things

Anxiety & Depression
"I look up to the mountains—
    does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
   who made heaven and earth"

Psalm 121:1-2

On the weekends I go for long drives into the backcountry. It’s a time of peace and refreshing for my soul. I love to capture the beauty I find there. Is also is one of the few pursuits that still gives me a spark of joy in the season of depression I am in.

I started going down gravel roads in the mountains and in farming country. These are destinations off the beaten path that enable me to get more exclusive shots. I can also take time to be by myself and just breathe.

When walking through dark valleys that seem to have no end, these glimpses of light become all the more valuable. Small pleasures remind me of the existence of that light. These little reminders are why I’m still here despite the pain weighing on me. Even though I don’t see it or feel it, a brighter tomorrow is possible.

The Hope in Surrendering

Thoughts and Essays

As I write this, hurricane Ida is ravaging the Louisiana coast, and fires rage in California. Abroad, violence and tragedy continue to unfold in Afghanistan. My heart aches for Afghanistan’s people, and for the troops and their families. Coronavirus – with all the turmoil it brings – is resurging around the world. I am grateful that everything is currently fine in my Montana bubble, but I cannot ignore the pain and chaos I see everywhere else.

Dwelling on the declining state of the world will not help anyone who suffers from depression. It only reinforces the twin symptoms of feeling hopeless and lacking a desire to live. I also find myself questioning  God – where is He in the midst of world chaos?

I am, by nature, an over-thinker. I am in a profession that requires me to engage and problem solve every day. I cannot check out, if I want to do my job well and serve my coworkers with excellence. I carry this mode of thinking into every area of my life, including to places where it is not helpful. I worry about world events I have no control over, and that I, as one small individual, cannot fix. Sometimes it drives me mad.

In Genesis 32, Jacob is in the process of returning to his homeland when he hears that his brother, Esau, is coming to meet him with 400 armed men. (The brothers take the concept of a family feud to a new level.) One does not have to read between the lines to feel Jacob’s fear as he does everything he can to protect his family – he sends ahead multiple tribute gifts, and he divides his people into two groups and sends them across the river. Jacob reasons that if Esau attacks, maybe one group will survive.

During the night, Jacob alone remains on the other side of the river, where he wrestles with an angel (the text does not reveal the exact nature of the divine being Jacob encounters). Jacob does not retreat to blind faith, vaguely hoping that everything will be okay. Rather, his fight with the angel is a struggle with his faith and with his own fears – a bold confrontation of what troubles his soul.

In verse 28, Jacob has a breakthrough moment when the wrestling match concludes and the divine man renames him: “’Your name will no longer be Jacob,’ the man told him. ‘From now on you will be called Israel, because you have fought with God and with men and have won.'” Jacob resolved his doubts and stepped into faith, though he still had no control of the situation or its outcome. He knew God was in the midst of his situation – that the Lord of Heaven’s Armies ruled over his circumstances.

In Mark 12:41-44 is the story of the widow with her two coins:

“Jesus sat down near the collection box in the Temple and watched as the crowds dropped in their money. Many rich people put in large amounts. Then a poor widow came and dropped in two small coins. Jesus called his disciples to him and said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the others who are making contributions. For they gave a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she had to live on.'”

No details are given about what happened to the widow after she gave away the last of her money. She entrusted her future to God, and that is all Mark reveals. How many people today are in desperate circumstances, wondering what the future holds? Yet the choice of the widow stands: the complete surrender of everything – from personal circumstances to the uncertainties of current world circumstances – to God.

I lack the big picture view that omnipotent, omnipresent God has. I cannot fathom what divine purposes are being worked out through the present struggles across the globe, but I choose to surrender what I cannot control to the sovereignty, love, and wisdom of God.

Grief and Depression

Anxiety & Depression

A dear member of my church family passed away recently. He was a cornerstone in my community; he poured his life and love into my church, and into people and ministries far beyond the church walls. He was what one expects of a true Christian: someone who loved unconditionally the unloved, and who invested in the overlooked. He served with joy our community for decades before an aggressive cancer took him. He leaves behind a gaping hole in many hearts, especially in the hearts of those he mentored.

In this time of grief, I find myself wanting to withdraw and isolate. I already have depression, and I do not feel like I have the emotional energy to comfort others. I fear getting triggered and sinking into a dark depression pit. I have my own sadness to deal with, and I am plagued by the questions many have when someone dear dies. Why did a good man – a righteous man – die in such a horrible way?

Why would someone suffering from severe depression want to make themselves open to more sadness by sharing in others’ grief? Supporting others with their grief is no small ask, especially if one is vulnerable due to depression.

Yet Romans 12:15 says to “…mourn with those who mourn.” I didn’t feel like it, but I went to church last Sunday. There, they announced the passing of our church member to the congregation. This, of course, elicited tears all around. I found myself unable to restrain my tears, or to ignore those hurting around me. We hugged and comforted each other, as we choose to praise God anyway, and leaned into the hope of seeing this departed church remember again someday.

Instead of sinking into a season of deep depression, I let my sadness wash over me, and I embraced the shared grief of my church community. I started working through my tangled feelings instead of suppressing those feelings as is my habit. I drew strength from the comfort I received, and the fact that I was not grieving alone. Reaching out to share that grief with others is helping me to heal and move forward. What God says in 2 Corinthians 1: 4 is true: “He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us.”

The lesson is not to hide from or suppress grief because I am afraid of the impact it will have on my mental health. Avoiding grief will, ironically, bring about the damage to my mental health that I fear. Avoidance may be the easier option in the short-term, but I know the difficult feelings will spring up later, ready to poison my soul, if I don’t work through this. I also find that working through my grief with others I love and trust, and who were experiencing the same grief, expediates the healing process. I have a pool of strength and comfort to draw upon instead of trying to heal myself (when I already have emotional scars from depression).

If you have suffered loss in your life recently, or long ago, may God comfort you and surround you with a loving community to help you through.

Enduring Tough Days

Anxiety & Depression

For the Lord your God is living among you. He is a mighty savior. He will take delight in you with gladness. With his love, he will calm all your fears. He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” Zephaniah 3:17

Depression’s Daily Grind

Depression makes daily life feel like an endurance race that never ends – it only gets more draining over time. In my experience, this is because depression saps one’s energy and hope for the future. Thoughts of death intrude my mind and become dominate. Things that gave me pleasure in life loose their luster.

I have hope of remission for my depression symptoms, but sometimes that hope is not enough to comfort me in the daily struggle.

Hope From God’s Presence

The daily verse in my Bible app was Zephaniah 3:17 (displayed above). Certain phrases struck out to me and sunk into my heart. God is living with me, in my heart. His healing power is a reality in my life, especially when I choose to focus on His presence and the Hope He promises me.

If I shut God out and I focus on my depression and its negative effects on my life, I will be overwhelmed. If I choose instead to focus on my Mighty Savior, I have the strength to keep going, and I can see the path forward.

Hope From Promised Joy

He will take delight in you with gladness…He will rejoice over you with joyful songs.” This part of the verse brings me great hope! Even when I feel despair about my own existence (and I am overwhelmed by negative thoughts and feelings), my Jesus is rejoicing over me!

He takes delight and joy in me, all the time. He has not rejected me because of depression, and I am not worth less in His eyes if I am not feeling the way Christians are “supposed” to feel. I can also take strength from the joyous love Christ has for me.

Loving Deliverance From Fears

With his love, he will calm all your fears.” Well-meaning people who do not understand or who have not experienced depression often wonder why one cannot just “get over it.” The same is true for the disorder that often accompanies depression: anxiety.

Thank God that He heals with love and gentleness. I have experienced this at some of the lowest points in my life. God is consistently loving and gentle. I can lean into His love and let His reassurance calm all my fears and anxieties. When I choose to engage with His beautiful word, and I believe in and lean into the comfort He gives me, my mental health improves. It can be the difference between a bad or good day for me. His Love is real and potent.

I hope this gives someone out there a bit of a comfort, and a reason to make his/her next step forward!

My Depression Storm Has Meaning

Anxiety & Depression

Background

I often fall into the trap of thinking that my depression is my final destination. I believe the lies that depression is something I will have to suffer through for the rest of my life, and that my mental health situation will never improve. All I focus on is the pain I feel now, and I can’t see beyond that pain. All I want is for this storm to subside. However, there is a big picture perspective that is helping me move forward.

The central passage for the sermon at my church this morning was Acts 27. In this passage, the Apostle Paul is sailing for Rome when a hurricane-type storm overtakes his ship. After days of seemingly hopeless drifting, the story ends with a shipwreck, yet all passengers survive (verse 24), and Paul goes on to have one of the most fruitful ministry periods of his life on Malta (Acts 28). So, what does this have to do with depression?

The Hopeless Storm

Verse 11: “The sailors couldn’t turn the ship into the wind, so they gave up and let it run before the gale.” This is what severe depression feels like. It is overwhelming, and none of my own attempts to evade or escape it seem to work. Eventually, I find I must move with the storm.

Verse 20: “The terrible storm raged for many days, blotting out the sun and the stars, until at last all hope was gone.” In the middle of a depressive episode, I lose my bearings. I can’t see the way out. My hope wavers.

The Good Beyond

Verses 30-32: “Then the sailors tried to abandon the ship; they lowered the lifeboat as though they were going to put out anchors from the front of the ship. But Paul said to the commanding officer and the soldiers, ‘You will all die unless the sailors stay aboard.’ So the soldiers cut the ropes to the lifeboat and let it drift away.”

God has allowed this mental disorder into my life. Would I choose to go through it? No. Of course I would rather make the storm stop now on my terms. I would rather take the lifeboat and find a way out of this storm for my own sake. However, I cannot deny how God has and is using this storm to mature me, and how He is using my “stormy experiences” to help others undergoing hardships. I choose then to move with the storm, and to trust God and His agenda – He can see far beyond my limited view. He sees the good and the fruit that will result from my season of depression.

The Storm Will End

Verses 33-34: “Just as day was dawning, Paul urged everyone to eat. ‘You have been so worried that you haven’t touched food for two weeks,’ he said. ‘Please eat something now for your own good. For not a hair of your heads will perish.'” This is a reminder to take care of myself, and to not give up hope. I am not able to pull myself out of this storm, but God can and is rescuing me. The daylight is coming and the storm will end.

Stay in hope, and trust in the higher purposes of God. He sees you, He knows your suffering, and He will take care of you through whatever storm you are facing.