As a child I felt a strong pull to spirituality but was raised atheist and therefore thought these longings to be silly, potentially even simple-minded. But now, as an adult woman and mother navigating the turbulence of life, I see the immeasurable value of these explorations. Over the past year I have immersed myself in learning more about the monotheistic religions that rule our world today, the goddess and earth centered religions that have been in existence far longer (and continue to be practiced by many) and the impacts of these belief systems on our culture. With a feminist lens I am learning to see value in every religion and in the teachings of each prophet, and that’s what I hope to share with you here. I believe ultimately we are all seeking the same thing: an experience of the divine and the love it offers humanity. Here is one of the essays I wrote for a recent course on Love as explored through the texts of Plato, Sophocles, St. Augustine, and the Hebrew and Christian testament.
Note: I use the word “God” in this piece because it is the term used for the deity related to the scripture I’ve shared. But it need not be thought of as male. In fact, the “God” of Judaism, Christianity and Muslim was originally ungendered. It is only patriarchy and the limitations of language that turned this God into the male figure common in our culture today.
The teachings of Jesus appear to be clear and one may even say, simple. But easy to uphold, they are not. Jesus tells us that both loving God and loving thy neighbour are the most important of the Commandments. This is not easy love to give. This is not the eros of the Symposium, powered by lust and passion, (and which continues to dominate so much of our culture). Nor is it the familiar love philia of Antigone, which we can understand in our own natural love for those closest to us. This love of which Jesus speaks, agape, is the love that requires us to be more than our individual selves. It is the love that requires us to put our own needs aside for another’s, to see their struggle as worthy of our attention. It is love of humanity in its wholeness, the movement from me to we, which yes, ultimately includes our enemies too. It is a love for all, for God and all of her creatures as a whole.
We see the Love Commandment repeatedly in the Bible, from the Hebrew Scripture (Leviticus 19:18) to the Christian Testament (Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:27). For the purposes of this essay, we will look specifically at Mark 12:28-12:31:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
There are a number of important teachings in this piece of scripture. Jesus is impressing upon us that the most important thing we can do in our life is to love God, with all our heart, strength and mind. He is also here telling us that we must love our neighbour as we do ourselves, that this is integral to the experience of love. But more importantly, Jesus is linking these two Commandments, presenting the idea that it is through loving all that we may find ourselves able to truly love God so deeply, and perhaps for those who struggle to love all, it is through loving God that they are able to do so. This is repeated in The First Letter of John when John says, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” (John 4:12). This agape love is the love of humanity, the love of all of us and through that, we find God. This is reminiscent of the Ladder of Love proposed in the Symposium by Plato, and one may argue that to love all others is a descension on that ladder, but the steps, as we take them, still culminate in God/Good/Beauty.
Let us dissect this a bit further… what is meant by “neighbour”? Neighbour is the English translation of the Saxon word neaghebur, which literally means “near dweller” (Ward & Srigley, 2008). It may be easy for us modern folk to find this term limiting as our lives and human interactions reach much further than those who dwell near us but, to understand the meaning, one must take the perspective of the day. During the years of Jesus (and for most all of human existence for that matter), those who lived near were the entirety of one’s world. Few people traveled beyond their communities and even when they did, it was not that far that they were able to go. Thus, the term neighbour encompassed most, if not all, of the people with whom one would interact over a lifetime.
With that understanding, we can see how the meaning of Jesus’ words was to extend love to all humans, whether we like them or not. We are being called to love not just our friendly next door family but also the homeless person who sits on the street downtown, the person with whom you quarreled once upon a time who lives on the other side of town and the person whose political views are contrary to your own who keeps a tight hold on your local riding. In the First Corinthians, Paul furthers this idea of love, describing it as divine action and ultimately giving it greater value than hope or faith. Agape love, as described by Paul IS faith, as we act with love toward all in our community, the true essence of the Church and the community created among its members. In agape love, God is present and active.
Paul also speaks of the change that is possible through this form of love, that we may evolve from divided to whole. We saw this idea of love presented in the Symposium when Aristophanes shared the myth of a rounded whole being divided into two, and the pursuit of love was the pursuit of renewed wholeness. This idea permeates our culture today and modern thoughts on love. It is common to think of one’s partner as one’s better half, and of course, no one can forget the iconic Jerry Maguire quote: “You complete me”. But this simplistic completion of the whole is not what Paul, nor Jesus, is arguing for. Aristophanes’ concept of two halves meeting and becoming one is not agape, it is eros. Agape is a broader love and thus the wholeness that it brings is greater also.
In fact, the wholeness that Paul tells us is possible, is a divine wholeness of humanity. It is the love for community, and for humanity in its entirety. The scripture of Mary Magdalene tells us “Every nature, every modeled form, every creature, exists in and with each other” (2:2). She is telling us that we are not separate from each other. The world, humans and all other species are God’s creation, we are one, not many. When we find this love, agape, we can then understand what it means to know God. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says “I am the one who comes from what is undivided.” Jesus understands this unity and takes deliberate and consistent action to offer compassion to those in need as he tends to the sick, gives to the poor and acts with disregard for the societal divisions based on power and oppression.
Although the Christian church is known for agape love, it doesn’t seem to have followed the teachings of Jesus very well. With the genocide of Indigenous people around the world and the erasure of the pagan culture, the Church sought power rather than love. It most definitely did not practice the commandment to love thy neighbour. Today, in a society deeply influenced by Christianity, we have great oppression and social division, with the “me-first” perspective being the attitude of most. Leaders who claim to be Christian argue for less social support and care within our countries, criticizing, belittling and demonizing those who fight for social equity.
Will we ever learn to love our neighbour as Jesus intended?
It is the spring of 2020, two thousand years since Jesus spoke of agape love and the importance of showing compassionate action toward all humans, and Covid-19 is rapidly spreading around the world. Today, and for the weeks and months to come, we are being asked to base our actions on the risk to the most vulnerable. To both those we do and do not know. As well as those we like and do not like. As a global community, we are being forced to take collective action or face devastating human loss. We are in a crash course on agape love. We must move beyond our “me first” attitude and put aside our own needs. We must deny ourselves both eros and philia love, the loves that are easy for humans, instinctual even, and instead practice agape, taking deliberate action to care for God’s creation in its entirety. Only if we place value on all lives, regardless of their supposed societal worth or our own personal preference, do we have the mindset needed to overcome this challenge faced by humanity. Perhaps God is giving us another chance to learn the most important love of all, to appreciate its complexity and have reverence for its beauty. Maybe through the global experience of Covid-19 we will learn to love our neighbour, friend or foe.
Plato. (1986). Symposium. In Dialogues of Plato (pp.257-320). New York: Bantam Dell.
Sophocles. (1982). Antigone. In The Three Theban Plays (pp.58-128). New York: Penguin.
Srigley, R. (2020). Course Pack: RLST 1116 EL 12: Ideas of Love 1. XanEdu Publishing.
Ward, B. & Srigley, S. (2008). Course Manual – RLST 1116 EL 12 – Ideas of Love I. [PDF document]. Thorneloe University
Watterson, M. (2019). Mary Magdalene Revealed: The First Apostle, Her Feminist Gospel & the Christianity We Haven’t Tried Yet. United States: Hay House.
The day after the PMDD I wake, and once the fog of my meds lifts, I have a bit of a spring in my step. I get out of bed with some energy, a hint of excitement even.
It’s funny, because the feeling doesn’t feel familiar. It feels foreign. Two weeks have passed since this lightness has lived inside of me. For two weeks, the darkness has been leading the way.
So at first, I still fall to the coping practices of PMDD. I might snuggle up on the couch for some Grey’s Anatomy binge-time if I have nowhere else to be. I default to the slow moving, tentative mood, as if un-trusting of the change.
As the day goes on, I feel energy build inside me, piece by piece. I start to feel motivated to get outside and move my body, or clean the house or sit down in front of my laptop and write. I feel the passion return to my blood flow, inspired once again to do the work I’m here to do.
But with that comes sadness too.
I wish every day, not just two weeks out of four, I could have the energy, motivation and drive to do my best work. But the two weeks of PMMD, my luteal phase, just don’t work that way. Yes, I’m strong enough these days to keep life from falling apart but still, the to-do list has grown exponentially while the darkness was here.
I’m too tired during the PMDD. Getting through each day without running for cover beneath the duvet is hard work. Dilige nce. I monitor thoughts, substituting those of self-harm for gratitude or at least truth. Taking special care to make sure I eat well – no refined sugars, only whole foods, minimal gluten and dairy.
Basically, I pull out all the stops every day for two weeks just to keep myself alive – to manage the anxiety and still be able to parent, show up for work, and not project all of my pain onto those who love me. It’s a battle, one that calls for more surrender than it does fight.
So ya, when I have finally won the battle, yet again, there is a sense of relief that I’m sure only those with mental illness can understand. The relief that comes when the obsessive thoughts stop and peace returns to the complicated mind.
Peace and possibility walk hand in hand. I feel capable of so much when I’m well, the only limitation being the knowledge that in another couple weeks, the peace will fall away again, the PMDD taking my hand once as we walk together back, deep into the darkness.
How I wish I could feel the lightness always.
How I wish the peace was my constant companion.
The passion and purpose.
How I wish I could feel each day like I do this one, with confidence and determination.
But I live my life in two week chunks. A fortnight of light. A fortnight of dark. Consistently repeated, again and again. The only truth being their promised return, one after the other, cycle after cycle.
But today, on this first day of the light, I feel great hope.
I feel great excitement.
And so I write.
It’s quiet. They’re gone. It’s just me, a glass of pinot grigio and my laptop.
I do love my kids, so very much. And yes, I often miss them when they aren’t here.
But also, I so very much love my time alone.
I love the quiet. No interruptions. Following my own rhythm through the moments, the days. No one to cook for, no argument to resolve. Yes, I very much like my time alone.
But it is more than that. More than a craving for the previous, pre-kid life when my life revolved around, well, me. It’s more than that.
It’s more than being tired after years of sleepless nights with littles.
It’s more than being bored of preparing multiple meals a day.
It’s more than a need for a reprieve.
Yes, this pull to be alone is much more than all that.
I think I’m different than many, but not all. It is our society that tells us that being alone is wrong, unfulfilling, something only one would want should they be damaged goods.
50 year anniversaries are what we’re taught to aspire to. Forever. Happily ever after. Always.
But I never wanted those things. Forever didn’t sound good to me. I was pretty sure I would change my mind about this, that and the other thing sometime between now and forever. How could I commit to happily ever after? How could I know today, or 10 years ago for that matter, what I would want every day after?
All I knew that I could depend on, all I knew to be true, was that I would be forever with my own damn self. That I would be spending every day, every moment, with me.
And that kind of forever, well it gets me all a-flutter. That kind of always feels juuuuuuust right.
I want my life to be my own. I want my days to be filled with my priorities, my dreams. I want to read when I want to and do the dishes later. I want to feed the kids cereal again and eat yet another bowl of kitchari. I want to be first in line. I want to be my own number one.
I know when I do this, I am filled with more joy.
I know when I do this, I have more energy.
I know when I do this, I mother a thousand times better than before.
It’s not easy, in a world of couple-privilege, to choose to be alone. To tell the world, no, I do not want a husband. And yes, I do own this house.
No, they don’t need a step-dad. And yes, I’m rocking this on my own. Thank you very much.
Because I got this, this alone thing.
It’s everything I always wanted.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love, that my time is so preciously mine that there’s no space for friendship and romance and community.
In fact, my life is FULL. Really full.
I’ve got good people. Ones to laugh with. Ones to call in need. Ones to help and ones to care for. I’ve got people, same as I’ve always had people.
And now I can love them the way I’m meant to. Now I can give them my best.
Because my best only shows up when I follow my own rhythm, when I make my own moves.
My best comes from the quiet, the solitude, the rest.
My best comes from the afternoon reading, the lonely kayak down the river, the hour on the deck with wine and my laptop.
I’m meant to be alone. It is not something I wish could be different. It is something I chose.
Yesterday was a hard day. I muddled through the morning well enough, no yelling to get the boys out of the house early for my oldest son’s piano lesson before school. I had hoped to then be able to walk my other boy the 5 blocks to kindergarten but I got pulled back to my bed, needing a few minutes rest and then we weren’t ready in time. So like every day, we drove.
My next hope was to walk downtown to my appointment with my counselor, but for that too, I went too slow, ended up sitting on my bedroom floor wasting ten minutes scrolling Facebook and again, wasn’t ready with enough time to walk.
But I didn’t get angry which is progress. I didn’t beat myself up for not being able to stay focused and get out the door on time. I was, however, disappointed. Disappointed that it feels like it’s too hard to be me these days, so hard I can’t even walk my kid 5 blocks to school the one day it’s an option this week.
Counseling was excellent though. Big, huge, insightful connections made. Yes, I do feel the need to adjust myself to make others happy. And I mean everyone, at all times, always. I can see how hard I tried as a young girl to make my parents happy, to never cause a fuss, to be perfect. Maybe even perfect enough that they would be happy.
I thought I had that much power.
As children do.
But my parents’ happiness doesn’t belong to me.
Nor does yours.
My logical brain understands that. My traumatized brain does not.
When I got back from counseling I decided I would let myself rest. This is always my debate: Do I need to rest to care for myself or am I being lazy?
Usually the answer is the former but for most of my life I’ve beat myself up believing the latter. Almost every time I’ve “rested”, I’ve had a tape on repeat in my head telling me I should be doing more, trying harder. I tell myself I should be active or catch up on cleaning or do some damn work. But the PMDD holds me down. Keeps me cuddled and cocooned on the couch.
But what came together at counseling today, the realization that I’ve spent a lifetime adjusting myself to fit the needs of others, has shown me that I am exhausted and rest is exactly what I need. Along with the PMDD, all signs point to Adrenal fatigue too. So yes, I need to rest. I do not need to use my time to be what I think others want me to be, think I should be.
I need only use my time to rest and heal.
sometimes often means an afternoon on the couch, a little stoned, watching reruns of Grey’s Anatomy.
I think I’ve discovered why I love Meredith enough to rewatch the series too many times. She is wonderfully imperfect. She drinks too much, rarely communicate well, makes an endless number of “mistakes”. Yet she is brilliant, talented, respected. She is a horribly imperfect woman who is powerful, smart and strong.
The imperfect woman. Not often allowed. Rarely celebrated.
Yes, the imperfect but strong woman may often be described as intimidating.
But my favourite internet meme of 2018 says it all:
“You are not intimidating, they are intimidated. There’s a difference.”
We are shifting, this world of ours, from seeing women as intimidating to realizing rather, that we, the societal “we”, are intimidated. We’ve lived a hundred lifetimes in a world that fears women, that fears them so deeply that they have been pushed out of every leadership position. Out of religion. Out of politics. Out of medicine. Into the home. Into motherhood.
But then still, the power of women as mothers is too scary so we medicalize birth, pull it away from the midwives, promote formula and send women back to work. We push them away from the feminine that is connected and powerful, intimidating.
I believe I am someone who intimidates others and I’ve spent my life thinking it’s my responsibility, my duty as a woman, to not do so. To always acquiesce, to always bend myself for another’s comfort. No wonder I’m tired. No wonder I’m sick of it.
No wonder I like watching an imperfect woman learn to own her fierceness and become someone who most definitely leaves many intimidated, and better for it.
So when I get off my couch, when my rest is done and my hormones are finally balanced again, I plan to love my own imperfect fierceness and leave in my wake a wave of intimidated men.
I’d feel really good for awhile… go to yoga, cook healthy meals, enjoy my family. I’d think “Ya, I got this. As long as I take really good care of myself, I won’t get depressed. I’m doing what the world tells me to do: exercise, eat well, be with those you love, be grateful.”
I’d do all that, again and again and again.
But no matter how hard I tried, the good times always came to an abrupt halt. I’d inevitably find myself miserable, exhausted and curled up in bed. The voice in my head now berating me for not exercising ENOUGH, for not eating well ENOUGH, for not being grateful ENOUGH. I would burrow deep under the blankets, attacked by the thoughts in my head with nowhere to escape them.
And then that cloud would lift and I would once again feel hopeful that maybe this time, I could get it all under control. A longer gratitude list, perhaps.
So I would get back to it: exercise, good food, rest… and I would feel great. Until I didn’t.
Again, it would all crash down around me. No matter how “perfect” I was in the good times, the bad times would always return.
When I was 21, my psychiatrist diagnosed me with rapid cycling bipolar but when I read about it, it never felt right. Although the inevitable mood shifts were familiar, the descriptions of mania weren’t something I had ever experienced.
The years passed… finishing university was incredibly difficult. Attending regularly and keeping up on my homework was always a challenge.
I would excel when I was feeling good. I would crumble when I didn’t. I thought I was weak. I thought I was broken. I thought it was all my fault for not taking good enough care of myself. And the world around me, the not-so-helpful self-help movement, would feed me the same line, telling me that my willpower was weak, my mindset wasn’t right, my routines not optimized.
In the last few years, the cycling became much more pronounced. I could feel wonderful one day, capable of changing the world. And the next day I couldn’t get out of bed. I hated myself. Why didn’t I have the willpower to overcome my moods? Why wasn’t that damn gratitude list changing my life the way all the life coaches said it would? I dug myself into a deeper and deeper hole, blaming myself for my pain, convinced I just needed to be more diligent to overcome it.
Then one day, after yet another absence from work due to anxiety, I typed these words into Google: “depression during PMS”. It seemed like the hardest days were always before my period and I wondered, for the first time, if there was a connection.
And there it was: Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder.
I read over the symptoms. I looked back over my calendar.
For so many years I had felt like I was going crazy. I had hated myself for not being able to control my moods. I had pretty much given up on ever being successful, never able to show up consistently the way the professional world demands.
But suddenly, with my menstrual calendar and my absences from work neatly aligned, I had hope.
Tears lined my cheeks.
The Mood Disorders Association of Ontario describes Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder as:
…a condition associated with predominantly severe psychological symptoms which cause disruption of the daily lives of affected women. Dysphoria is derived from the Greek word dusphoros, which means hard to bear. The symptoms of PMDD are recurrent. They usually start seven to 10 days before menstruation and decrease within a few days of the onset of menstrual flow. Then, they disappear completely until the next premenstrual phase.
Unlike PMS, PMDD symptoms are very severe, completely disrupting the lives of women affected by it. Women diagnosed with PMDD usually present 5 or more of the following symptoms:
- Very depressed mood, feelings of hopelessness
- Marked anxiety, tension, feelings of being “on edge”
- Marked mood shifts (e.g., suddenly feeling tearful or extremely sensitive)
- Persistent or marked anger or irritability or increased interpersonal conflicts
- Decreased interest in usual activities (e.g., work, school, friends, hobbies)
- Difficulty concentrating
- Fatigue, tiredness, loss of energy
- Marked change in appetite, overeating, food cravings
- Insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or sleeping too much
- Feeling out of control or overwhelmed
- Physical symptoms such as breast tenderness or swelling, headaches, joint or muscle pain, “bloating”, weight gain
I thought back over the years… my ex had once complained that every month, before my period I would “tear our life apart”… suddenly everything made sense: why I cycled but never experienced mania, why no matter how hard I tried, I would always dip, always end up exhausted, anxious and depressed.
Part of me was angry. I was a mental health worker and advocate, how did I not know about this? How had no doctor ever suggested it? How did something so big and so obvious stay hidden right there in plain sight?
The answer to all these questions is simple, though not necessarily easy to stomach. Like most, (if not all), women’s health issues, we are under-educated. More and more studies are coming out illustrating the drastically different experiences women and men have when seeking medical treatment. Women are considered to be imagining their symptoms, often treated with anxiety meds and told to rest. And moving beyond the patient-doctor interaction, our medical knowledge is based almost entirely on the study of the male body. Caroline Criado Perez presents numerous cases and data points of the bias in her new book “Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men.”
The reality is, if our healthcare system didn’t suffer from such extreme gender bias, the (male) psychiatrist who diagnosed me with rapid cycling bipolar would have asked me to track my moods against my cycle. My (female) doctor would have suggested the same at some point. This diagnosis could have been made almost twenty years ago, maybe saving me from dropping out of university, losing a full scholarship, missing a full semester of college, intense postpartum depression, maybe even divorce.
The simple truth is, if even one of my many medical practitioners had thought to consider PMDD, my life today might be very, very different.
Of course, getting hung up on “what ifs” for too long doesn’t help, so instead I look forward.
For the first time in years, I have real hope. I’m no longer scared of the ever-recurring funk that descends upon me, throwing my whole world into question. Instead I can plan my life in a way that respects and honours my body, my moods.
Few women ever find complete relief. Most, like me, take antidepressants to keep their moods manageable but still need to make significant life adjustments to manage. For me that means keeping my expectations low during my PMDD weeks. I don’t make a lot of plans. I give my loved ones a heads up on my mood. I rest as much as possible. I don’t judge myself for having an extra movie night with the kids or feeding them cereal for dinner (not that any busy modern mother should judge themselves, more to say about that another time).
I finally feel like I’m no longer stuck on a mood roller-coaster, smashing haphazardly through my life. Now, I’m the driver. I know there are high times and low points. I have the map. I can see the dips coming and give myself more compassion until I rise again. And in the good times, I can soak them up without worry that staying up too late or an extra piece of cake will mean an emotional crash the next day. I can’t control it, which for some might feel scary but for me, it’s incredibly freeing. Not being able to control it means it’s not my fault.
Statistics say that 1 in 20 women have PMDD but also that 90% of PMDD cases go undiagnosed so the numbers could easily be higher than suggested. If you experience mental health issues that seem to come and go, please take the time to track them along with your menstrual cycle for a few months. Knowledge is power. Sometimes we just need to understand our crazy in order to stop feeling so damn crazy.