AWF

Armed With Faith

Episode 1 with Fr. Gary Kyriacou

In case you missed it

I was invited to participate in a conversation with Fr. Gary on his Armed With Faith podcast about teens and mental health. The video lasts about an hour. The edited transcript is below the link. I hope you’ll listen or read. We all have mental health and we all need to be talking about it, normalizing the conversation.

Click here to watch the video. (Scroll down until you see Week #4 with me, Tracey Yokas)

Fr Gary:
Thank you Noelle. Nice to be back here again with you. I appreciate all that you do. We’ll start with a quick prayer and then I’ll introduce this week’s guest. Let us pray to the Lord. Lord have mercy, oh Christ our God who at all times in every hour and heaven on earth are worshiped and glorified, who are long suffering and merciful and compassionate who loves the just and shows mercy upon the sinner. And you call all to salvation through the promise of blessings to come oh Lord in this hour, receive our prayers and direct our lives. According to your commandments, sanctify our souls, hallow our bodies, correct our thoughts, cleanse our minds, deliver us from all tribulation evil and distress, encompass us with your holy angels that, guided and guarded by them, we may attain the unity of the faith into the knowledge of then unapproachable glory for your blessing into the ages of ages. Amen

I’m really excited today because our guest is somebody that I’ve been, can I say I’ve been working with for many years? And am bringing her back for something that we’re very excited about. I’ll read a little bit about Tracey Yokas. Tracey Yokas says on her website that she creates stuff. When she isn’t writing about mental health and wellness, she can be found playing with paint, glitter and glue art. Art fuels her passion for connection and community. A former entertainment industry professional Tracey has affinities for color-coded art supplies and Oscar shaped golden statues. I think that’s something that we’ve got to squeeze in later. She is the author of the book Bloodlines, A Memoir of Self-Harm and Healing Generational Trauma coming out May of 2022. Tracey shares her family’s journey with mental illness so others know that they’re not alone. And that hope is real. Tracey earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from California Lutheran University and lives right here in Newbury Park, California, with her family, cats and fish. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @traceyyokas. It’s really nice to see you again. Nice to have you here. How are you?

Tracey:
I am great. Thank you so much, Father Gary, I’m really excited to be able to have this conversation with you and the community today.

Fr Gary:
I appreciate that. I appreciate your time. I know how busy you are as an author and a mom and a wife and all the things that you do. So thank you very much for carving out this hour for us. I do think that a lot of people have been saying it’s kind of clich√©, that mental health is going to be the next pandemic. Rick Warren did a great big thing on it a couple of weeks ago that was shared with me and that’s what prompted my immediate phone call to you. And then just other things that are popping up. But I don’t think it’s the next big pandemic. I think it’s, it was around before COVID, it certainly is magnified during the height of COVID and is, is kind of found its little bitty roots of engulfing us all here during COVID.

And it’s not like a pandemic that will end unless we learn the tools in which to do something about it, right? And before we get into it, I found a great list that I want to share just a couple of the names real quick. These are celebrities that deal with mental health, depression, anxiety, and that sort of thing. First on the list is Dwayne The Rock Johnson. He says the struggle and the pain is real. He saved his mom from a suicide attempt when he was 15 and depression never discriminates. It took a long time to realize, but he’s not afraid to open up about it. Katie Perry, she says if people can see that I’m just like them, they can dream just as big. John Hamm from “Mad Men” suffers with depression and he found a way to find a friend and a friend gave him help.

He says, all you need to learn to say is I need help. Lady Gaga suffers from depression. Michael Phelps went through a depression stage after he had already won 28 Olympic medals. His lowest point came after the 2012 games. He says he was in his bedroom for three to five days not wanting to be alive. This is Michael Phelps! Kristin Bell, Bruce Springsteen–one of my heroes. Tracey, I know you’ve seen Bruce live as well. He says maybe not today or tomorrow, but it’s going to be all right. He also got help for the condition from therapy and medication. So these are some famous people that we just opened up their lives and let us in. And you know, JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, Sheryl Crow, Terry Bradshaw, Buzz Aldrin, who was on the moon became chairman of the national mental health association. So Tracey, there’s a lot of people that suffer from this. And you said something very poignant in a conversation once. You said, Father, if there’s somebody that doesn’t know somebody who suffers from anxiety or depression, then that’s, I forget what you said, something along the lines of that that’s kind of odd. That it’s really rare, right?

Tracey:
Well, it’s actually not true. I mean, that’s the thing, right? You just don’t think you know somebody. They haven’t shared because they’ve been too afraid. And so that’s what’s really important about getting the conversation going and normalizing conversation around mental health issues, because with the stats the way they are we all absolutely know somebody who’s struggling, whether we know it or not.

Fr Gary:
So with that, let’s get the conversation started. Tell me why Tracey Yokas has this topic as one of the heaviest things on her heart or the heaviest thing on your heart. Why is it so near and dear to you?

Tracey:
Sure. Well, I appreciate that. So in 2012 life was going on normally. My daughter was getting ready to start 8th grade and everything was normal, whatever that means. And she was a happy, healthy kid, doing well in school, participating in athletics, getting good grades, doing all the things that we expect our children to do. Not a perfect person of course, because who is, but just at the end of the summer of 2012, one day she woke up and she just decided she wasn’t really going to have any breakfast. And then soon it became, she wasn’t going to have any lunch either. And then it became, I really don’t want to eat it all in very rapid succession. And so for our family the issue first manifested with an eating disorder, which is not always the case, but was the case in our family.

That was the first symptom of her depression. And so things quickly spiraled out of control. And the child that I had always known and loved with all my heart was no longer the child that I had known. Her personality changed. Her behavior changed. She became very angry and started acting out behaviorally against her own self. So the self harm didn’t start right away. That came later as we tried different treatments and they weren’t working, but our journey together, what we went through as a family to try to help her heal, which in turn really means healing the whole family, because it affects everyone, not just the person who’s identified as having the issue, is what has led me today. Now, nine years later to pretty much make my main mission to form community in various ways to have permission and dialogue around mental health and mental health awareness.

TAKE AWAYS

  • One in 4 adults have a diagnosed mental health condition (pre-pandemic figure)
  • Everyone in the family is affected when one member is diagnosed with an illness
  • 50% of mental health diagnoses present by the age of 14

Fr Gary:
Wow. Now, does your daughter know that you talk about her situation?

Tracey:
Yes.

Fr Gary:
Okay, good. And then, with that, Tracey, tell me some of the things that you run into and that you deal with on a daily basis in the work that you do.

Tracey:
Oh, gosh. I mean, I would say overall that generally it really stems around the fact that there still so much misinformation out there and so much shame and stigma. I mean, we work so hard and all the volunteer work I do through NAMI, which we’ll talk again about later National Alliance on Mental Illness is about de-stigmatizing the journey because I don’t know how exactly it happened or when, but a long time ago we as a society got the impression that having mental health conditions was weakness. And that if we were just stronger or better or fill in the blank that we would get over it and that’s not how this works. And so fast forward to today, why it’s so important to talk about famous people who are very wildly successful is because mental illness doesn’t discriminate, and we need to normalize this conversation because we all have it, whether we have issues that are maybe as severe as that, no, but everybody has mental health. And so it just needs to be part of the conversation so that people no longer feel that they’re weird or bad or evil or any of those things. This is a very normal part of life and in the pandemic one stat I wanted to throw out is a few months ago, I watched a webinar that was hosted by Harvard and NAMI.

Fr. Gary:
Can you tell us what NAMI is?

Tracey:
Yes. National Alliance on Mental Illness. That’s an organization that we’ll talk about again, but, 31%. There was a 31% increase in mental health visits to the ER for 12 to 17 year olds. And that was a few months ago. So related to the pandemic, related to how hard it is to, for all of us to be in this world that we’re living in right now, but especially the kids. So that’s not 31% total, that’s a 31% increase. So, there’s some scary figures there and we have just got to get over feeling ashamed, feeling alone. I get it. I never felt more alone in my entire life than I did when my daughter was struggling and we couldn’t figure out how to help her. And she didn’t want help. And she was getting sicker and she started to hurt herself and mental illness can be very dramatic to live with.

It can be very scary and very confusing and that’s when we need the most help, but we’re so afraid and we’re so alone. We don’t think anyone can understand until we finally reach a place when we start talking about it, we realize, I’m not alone. There’s millions of people going through what I’m going through. And if we can bring these people together, imagine the energy and the support and the uplifting environment that we’ll be able to provide to people who are experiencing some of their darkest moments for themselves or for their loved one.

Fr Gary:
Wow. Now you, you said it earlier and you said it again about normalizing it, right? Like what is normal? And so can you explain, like you said, famous people that have it, that we know that we gotta be strong, you gotta pick yourself up by the bootstraps, you gotta suck it up. You know, you’re, you’ll get through it, tough it out. And we, we say that it’s more normal for us to admit our tendencies to fall into depression, into anxiety than it is to kind of struggle to put off a different light. And when we were talking earlier, I said to show we’re stronger and I love that you corrected me. And I said, strong, that doesn’t mean strong. I mean, so can you tell us the difference or what you think a new normal would look like?

Tracey:
That is a great question. I mean, a new normal is just not believing if you are the person that’s struggling or if it’s your child that’s struggling. Or if it’s a community member that’s struggling is the new normal is understanding that that’s not abnormal. That no matter where you are in your life, no matter who you are, no matter what age you are, we can have mental health conditions. It’s a little hard to get into all the details and probably beyond the scope, but some problems are genetic serious mental illnesses. Some things can be situationally based or trauma can be experienced and things like this. So not everything is the same, but normal is everyone feeling safe and secure enough in their environment, in their community, with the people that love them most to talk about these things and to reach out for help.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Destigmatize mental health
  • Mental illness doesn’t discriminate
  • Normalize the conversation

Fr Gary:
Right. Right. Now, you said at the height of it, you had no idea what was going on and you said it, was it like almost overnight with your daughter that she, that she fell into the depression, or did you see others looking back on it now, could you tell that there were other things that were poking their heads out?

Tracey:
Yeah, that’s also really good question. I think there were some signs that I didn’t recognize until much, much later: sleep issues when she was young, things that some research has proved can be seen as precursors to conditions later on. But for our experience at the time, it was certainly something that seemed like a switch got flipped, like one day everything was fine and literally the next day it wasn’t fine. And it was very confusing. I mean, I think that’s the first thing most people report is because like, What is going on? Is it normal teen stuff that my kid is just sort of being a jerk, or, they’re doing normal teen acting out? It’s hard to know where the line is.

But it didn’t take long for her descent to continue. And really that’s the thing when people ask me what to look for, it’s really about how serious in terms of, Are they able to function in their day? So it didn’t take long for her to no longer be able, like she would manage to get through school and then she would come home and have a complete meltdown crying, raging, screaming. But yet there’s also a lack of insight that a lot of people, not just kids, a lot of people that struggle with mental health can’t see the reality of what’s happening. So they don’t think that they have a problem. So that was a lot of the beginning work was her saying, I’m fine. You’re the ones with the problem. There’s nothing wrong with me where we could all see that there was something wrong with her. And that is a complication when you’re trying to get help and treatment, if the person isn’t invested in the process.

Fr Gary:
Okay. Very good. How long did it take you to find help, to get to ask for help? How, how long did you, did you and your husband and your daughter fight it or try to diagnose it yourself and, and treat the symptoms on your own before you finally said, we need to go do something.

Tracey:
Well, with my background, it wasn’t long because I already had my master’s degree in counseling psychology. I knew that this was not something that I wanted to fool around with, and she was getting significantly worse quickly, and she wasn’t eating. So, a human being can only last so long if they’re not going to eat. So that sort of upped the ante in terms of needing to get help more quickly. But yeah, we didn’t wait long. Getting help can be complicated, though. All of these parts of the conversation can be kind of complicated because it’s not always the first stop isn’t always the right person, or it isn’t always the right treatment. So we started with individual therapy because that’s where most people start and then she was continuing to get worse. So then we went to a clinic where she would go to the clinic during the day, but she would still come home at night and, each next step we tried, she was still getting progressively worse.

It was a very terrifying time for us and for her. And it can be very frustrating because there are no easy answers. We just don’t have enough research out there. Sadly we just don’t know enough about how individual brains work and why different people react in different ways to things. Why an experience that might be nothing to you and I, we might experience it and be like, oh, wow, that was a bummer. And for someone else, that would be like the end of the world, you know? And then we often will look at their reaction and judge it because to us, it was like, what the heck? That’s no big deal, but to them it’s devastating. And so there’s a lot that goes into finding a treatment that will then work and medication and things. But we did not spend a lot of time prevaricating because we knew that she was sick and we knew that we couldn’t handle it on our own.

Fr Gary:
It’s interesting because I thought you got your counseling degree in psychology because of what you went through, but you had it before you went through it, which is brilliant. So tell me what are three signs that you saw that you’re like, Hey, that’s one, that’s two, that’s three let’s go.

Tracey:
For us, like I said, initially, it was the lack of food intake. I mean, my daughter was never diagnosed with anorexia because there are some very specific criteria that have to be met and she didn’t meet them, but because it was like a snowball, right? So once the snowball started rolling down the hill with not eating so her body wasn’t getting nutrition. Her brain wasn’t working correctly with a lack of nutrition compounded with the depression and the anxiety. So, like I was saying, there were other signs. She no longer wanted to spend time with her friends. So you can see social changes. You can see changes in hygiene, like someone who’s just not interested in bathing or doing things to take care of themselves. You can see changes in sleeping patterns. There can be a lot of different signs and we had many of them. So it was a lot that had started happening all at one time.

Fr Gary:
Wow. Wow. Now, at the end of the hour, it’s always my hope that there’ll be one thing that I really would like for our listeners or viewers to take away, tools that they can use with any kind of kids that they encounter. If they’re youth directors, if they’re Sunday school teachers, parents, if they’re elementary school teachers, and even if they’re just young adults that supervise kids at a summer camp, things to know. What is a telltale sign that somebody is suffering from depression?

Tracey:
Well, I wish I could say there was one answer to that question. It’s just not that easy. At this point, for our daughter, like I said, it was really a fundamental change in her demeanor. If you’ve known the kid for a while and suddenly he or she just seems very different, like, but you can’t necessarily pinpoint why. There can obviously be a lot of things that could be going on besides mental illness, but certainly if you see someone who’s having trouble engaging the way they did before enjoying things they enjoyed before, they no longer want to hang out with friends or in organizations that they once wanted to participate in, you know, all of these things can be signs that something is going on and certainly worth having the conversation. But again, I think normalizing the conversation about mental health in general is going to really help people and also getting some education, educating, if it’s clergy working with kids, or like you’re saying anyone who works with kids on a daily basis get a couple of books. Read books that have some case studies because they put case studies in there so that you can really see specific details about how the kid was acting before and how they’re acting now.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Look for changes in demeanor, behavior, sleep patterns, hygiene, socialization. How serious are they?
  • Be aware that a lack of insight can make seeking help difficult
  • Start somewhere. We started with the pediatrician.

Fr Gary:
Very good, very good. You know, we were very cautious when we were talking about this, but I want to bring it up and I want to say it that we clergy sometimes, my classmate or schoolmates. Fr. TK is on here who’s a huge fan of mine. He’s awesome, and I think he’ll agree with me that there are some people in our vocation when somebody comes to us and says, they’re depressed that we would say, okay, come and let’s pray it out of you. Let’s pray it out of you. And I always scratch my head when a clergyman says that about any illness, right. Because if somebody came to me and said, I have cancer I would certainly take them to the altar in front of the icon of Christ and say, let’s pray. But on Monday you’re going to go to a doctor. On Tuesday, you’re going to go see an oncologist about what’s going on with your body.

It’s not just, okay, let’s pray now let’s just wait. So why I know that there’s a huge stigma behind mental health but tell me then if you gave me some good signs or you gave us some good signs about what we can use to identify somebody being depressed, but what should we not do? Like tell me what not to do. I think the prayer is an anecdote to help you feel better and I believe that prayer could heal you. But I wouldn’t say just only pray, I would say use all the talents that God has given us to find an effective cure for your illness. Right. So tell me something that like, we should not be doing, like do not do that.

Tracey:
Okay. That’s good. I think the key is in the positive to acknowledge and appreciate all of God’s tools on earth. Just like you said, there’s doctors for a reason, there’s medication for a reason, there’s treatment for a reason. And yes, prayer, community in church and in other ways is a huge way to cope. That’s really important. But what not to do, I guess I would say is make things conditional, another words it’s not God’s love if you’re okay. It’s not, we love you in this community, if you are better. I’m a writer, right? So it’s about the punctuation. Okay. So it’s love period. It’s not love comma. It’s not love based on the fact that you’re perfect because that’s impossible. There’s no such thing as a perfect person.

So it’s really about not perpetuating the judgment that has always existed however it got started, not perpetuating the judgment around these things as character flaws, because that is the furthest thing from the truth. You gave a good example. Another one is you see the cartoons all the time with a guy in bed with their whole leg in a cast and the doctor saying, okay, get up and go run a marathon. I mean, it’s the same idea, right? This is an illness and treatment exists. And so we want to use the tools that are available and pray. And in community can be very powerful for healing in many ways, it is a part of the actual medication. And I mean, medication, all those things treatment, going to therapy, etc. Different diagnoses require different types of treatment.

You know, it’s not a one-stop shop. And also remembering, especially for someone who’s going to be working with youth, is that it’s a family affair. What do I mean by that? I mean, yes. Maybe the youth is the person who’s the identified patient, but the entire family is affected. So helping the entire family. For the parents, there’s a lot of fear and grief and pain. We have expectations for our kids. We think they’re going to be healthy and they’re going to go to school and they’re going to get jobs and they’re going to have marriages or whatever. And sometimes that’s not always going to be true because there are some number of cases where things don’t get better, but with family support, the numbers of people who end up in recovery is astronomically higher. So we want to engage the entire family in getting the support that they need, parents, other siblings, the child themselves, because everybody is affected by mental illness, not just the person who happens to be the one who is suffering the depression.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Mental health issues cannot be prayed away
  • Prayer is a powerful coping mechanism
  • Utilize God’s tools on earth
  • Don’t perpetuate judgment or the fallacy that mental illness is weakness or evil

Fr Gary:
Awesome. I love that. Now you mentioned it a couple of times, NAMI. I was going to ask you if there’s a national number that we could call, but obviously there is. So I’m going to ask Noelle to Google NAMI National Alliance for Mental Illness and create a link for that.

Tracey:
The main site is nami.org and then just so people watching know, there is a NAMI in every state. So California, of course, as large as we are, we have many affiliates within our state also. But if you’re in different states, there’s at least one, at least my understanding is there is at least one NAMI in every single state in the country.

Fr Gary:
So what, what can NAMI do? I know that when you were with NAMI, you came to the parish that I was serving and you did a presentation and a lot of parents walked away with some great hands-on things and put a wonderful curriculum together. What are the things that NAMI can do for us and can assist with, if a family has an issue and they don’t know who else to call?

Tracey:
Well. NAMI is a great first start. So NAMI was created specifically to help family members who have loved ones struggling with mental illness. There are a couple of programs that they call for the peer. So for the person struggling, but it’s actually an organization that was designed to help family members. So there’s classes that are free education. Their premier class is called Family to Family. And I highly recommend it for family members because it goes into a lot of detail, probably more than anyone can handle at one time. And they sort of do that on purpose. You know, lots of education about what’s happening and why, and, and concrete skills like better communication and problem solving and all this kind of stuff, help for what to do in a crisis. So they have a lot of programs, but they also do like what we did before, which is speaking engagements.

So if you work in an organization or you work at a church, you work anywhere where people speak, they have speakers who will come in, adults who live with mental illness, who will share about their experiences. They have a whole host and they’re all a little bit different, even though they fall under the same umbrella. So each NAMI’s website should talk about what they do, what they provide, and where. There’s programs that are specifically geared for vets. I mean, they have all kinds of stuff to help people who want to help someone that they love that’s struggling.

Fr Gary:
Okay, great. We have a question from Kirk Rise, who’s in Cleveland, Ohio. He writes, what are some ideas on how we, as a church, can promote an atmosphere where you feel safe at church? We know it’s difficult to keep teens, young adults engaged in the church, add in mental health issues and it becomes even more challenging. How do we ensure we’re helping them and not becoming a deterrent to their recovery? So how do we ensure that we’re helping our youth and not becoming a deterrent to their recovery?

Tracey:
Well, that is such a great question. And I appreciate it. And I think I would say two things. One is, again, education. Education for the people who actually work in the church, developing a relationship and not only books, books are kind of dry, but develop a relationship with clinicians in the community. Maybe get people to come in on some kind of regular basis who work in different parts of mental health. Demystify it. It can be very scary for anyone who’s never, just like going to a normal doctor can be scary. So if you think you have a health issue, you’re scared. You think you have a mental health issue. You’re scared. So bringing people in who can really talk specifically to different things would be a great way on a regular ongoing basis. Not once. I mean, once it’s better than none, but we want to make this conversation part of daily life for the kids in church and at home.

So that’s the first thing I would say. And then the second thing I would say is just about being very careful and clear with your, our language and the intention behind what we’re doing because I think the stigma and shame is really hard to overcome. And whether the church has actually, your specific parish, has actually said anything that has come across judgmental or not, you know, it might not matter. I mean, in terms of the person might already be assuming that because that’s sort of how society has treated it and judged it for so long. So it’s kind of an uphill battle. So anything that you can do. Teens want to fit in, right. They want to stand out. They want to be unique, but they also want to fit in. So it’s sort of a tough time already, but anything you can do to help the entire community understand that this is not something that’s weird. It’s not something that hardly anyone struggles with. It’s something that is so common and becoming more common every day. So let’s all jump on the bandwagon of talking about this. Like we’re all a part of it because we are.

Fr Gary:
Awesome. Great, great response. Are there any other questions that are on social media or on our chat?

Noelle:
Yeah. This one is, is pretty related to some things we just discussed, but maybe it’s a slightly different angle, which is for reaching out to youth in the church and providing a safe atmosphere for them within the church, which is of course very important. What do we do when parents are not supportive? Your daughter was very lucky to have supportive parents. I know many people who’ve had the experience where parents, for whatever reason, don’t believe in mental health issues, don’t believe in the treatments for them, don’t understand how their child can have mental health problems without obvious trauma. So what do we do in that case?

Tracey:
Yeah. Well, that is an excellent question. One of my passions besides speaking to adults is speaking to kids in schools and health classes and all kinds of different arenas. And I cannot tell you how often I have heard that same thing from them. We go in. I was doing those programs in conjunction with NAMI. So we have a program that we present and that was a lot of the response. Like, I have already talked to my parents and they don’t believe me, or I’ve gone here to the school counselor and they’re not doing anything. Systemically, it is an enormous problem and there’s no simple answer to that, for sure. But I guess I would recommend considering providing programs at church that are just for the parents about these issues.

I know I’m like, oh, do this and do this and do this. And everybody’s just suddenly going to do all these programs. They may not be feasible, but I don’t know, perhaps it’s bringing it into sermons. I mean, that’s the rub, right? I think kids today, the younger kids are way more willing to talk about it than our generation. So that’s exactly where the rub comes in because the kids are like, I need help. I’m feeling anxious. I can’t get through my day. I don’t even feel like I want to get out of bed. I don’t want to eat. I don’t want to see anybody. I don’t want to do anything. And parents, parents can be like, whoa, what are you talking about? No, you’re going to get your butt out of bed.

And that’s just the way it’s going to be. And I know, you know, many of us were probably parented that way, right? When we were kids, that’s what we were told. And so overcoming that mindset has no easy answer. I wish there was, but I think finding whatever way we can constantly share that message that it isn’t like it used to be. And we really all have to work together if we want our kids fundamentally, and I think most of us do want our children to be healthy and happy. We need to let go of some of that old stuff because that’s ours. And I know, Father Gary, I mentioned to you when we were talking the first time that one of the hardest parts of this journey, besides seeing the pain that my daughter was in, no one wants to hear their child say they wish that they had never been born or that they don’t understand why they’re alive, because there’s nothing worth living for.

These are very profoundly painful things to hear the person you love most in the whole wide world say so most, most parents don’t want their children to be in that much pain, but it is very terrifying and it is very scary and it can be very easy to be like, okay, you know, No! You’re going to school because it’s just too much to bear. So we have to work on that as a community. We have to work on saying these things. Look at what happened with my child. And I can’t do anything to help her. Well, I mean, I needed my own therapy, right? So I was in therapy. My husband was in therapy and my daughter was in therapy, we were in therapy as a family. There’s a lot that goes into it. And that can feel overwhelming to talk about because we’re busy. We have other kids, we have lives, we have jobs, we have stuff we have to do. And so thinking about the totality of it can be overwhelming, but I think we need to remember to take it one day at a time and just really drill down to our common humanity.

Fr Gary:
I love that term, common humanity. It’s something along the lines of what Eve Tibbs, Dr. Tibbs said last week when we were talking about her new book and understanding theology, but humanity and what we were made for was relationship, right? Like it’s that we’re totally made for community and relationship. And I think that when, and tell me if I’m wrong, but I think that the breakdown comes when the person suffering doesn’t feel supported. It doesn’t feel like there’s a way out, that they’re stuck, right. Being stuck is scary. I mean, I don’t mean to make any light of it, but I remember being at the La Brea Tar Pits as a kid on a field trip here in LA and thinking, how could a big animal, like that get stuck in the tar like that. And somebody explained that’s what depression is.

Like, you get stuck there and you just can’t move. And the more you try to, you know, get yourself out of it, the more you’re getting tangled up in it. So, I think there’s such a huge, huge issue. One that we’re, it’s going to take more than just our hour here together to, to discuss.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Be a leader by educating yourself and your community
  • Use appropriate language around mental health to create a safe environment
  • The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” philosophy is dangerous related to mental health

Fr. Gary:
But your memoir coming out in May of 2022, you shared a lot. Why is it that you want to put it something that would last essentially forever nowadays with, you know, digital media. So why is it that you thought you would sit down and just start writing about what you went through.

For those joining late, sorry, Tracey has a book coming out in may of 2022 called Bloodlines. Right? And go ahead. And, she wrote it because?

Tracey:
Well, I wrote it because I learned in this process, so firstly, you know, I started writing when we were still just in journals for myself and to understand, like, to get my thoughts and my feelings and emotions down and to keep track of everything. Cause there’s a lot of stuff you have to keep track of when you’re going through all this. So when I started writing, it was a completely different intention for then years later, what it turned out to be. And I think I had always sort of had a pull to write about it, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. And it wasn’t until I started doing more volunteer work for NAMI talking about it, that it became more clear. And it’s basically everything that we’ve said here. I mean, I want my book to be a catalyst for conversation. I want people to know that they’re absolutely 100%, no matter what is going on, they’re not alone.

They’re not the only person going through it. They’re not the only person finding their child’s blood all over the house because you know, their child is self-harming, they’re not the only ones whose child bashed their head into the wall. I mean all kinds of stuff. So it can be very dramatic when you’re in the thick of things. And of course that changes over time and the issues change over time. It’s a memoir. It’s not a how to, and the reason I wrote it as a memoir was because I had to discover, which I wish I could have forced myself to discover it sooner, but that’s not how awareness generally works, but I had to discover my own personal work, like I had things I had not really processed, things that I had not dealt with, patterns that I had repeated that I had learned early in my life, like, pre-verbal right.

Like when we’re babies, we start learning patterns and those are really hard to change, really hard to identify before we can even change them. So I wanted to get all of this down in writing as a tribute to my daughter first and foremost, because she’s by far the most inspirational person I know, even though she would completely disagree with that assessment. And I just really feel strongly that we need more of these types of stories out there. And honestly, the other thing is, I think there’s a big taboo around mothers, particularly, talking about mothering stories that are less than ideal. And I think that’s another thing that’s what is ideal, right? We’re mothering and we’re doing the best that we can. So I fully expect some amount of blowback for when the book actually comes out from, from whoever about how dare I have the audacity to talk about my daughter and my family in this way. But our family story is repeating a million, literally millions of times over and the time for being quiet is over.

TAKE AWAYS: my intentions

  • Be a catalyst for conversations just like this one
  • Let people know they aren’t alone
  • Increase awareness of self, others, and various aspects of mental health
  • Demonstrate taking personal responsibility for what I could control
  • Advocate for mental health awareness and also for mothers having the right to share our stories in appropriate ways
  • To inspire hope, empathy, and compassion

Fr Gary:
So Tracey, I, I, as a young priest I was introduced to self-harm in a, in a really kind of dramatic way that blew me out of the water and humbled me to the infinite degree of, of, of humbleness. And I thought that I knew what youth ministry was and I thought that having pizza with the kids and bowling with the kids and doing those things was youth ministry, right. And there was one girl and I’m going to do my best to not say she, she was strong, but she looked like she had it all together, right? Like she looked like she had class president. If she was at an event, the other kids were going to come to an event. She was always part of it. Right. And she came up to me one day at the end of one summer, just as school starting about this time of year.

And she rolled up her sleeve and she said, Father Gary, I need help. And I said, what’s all that. And she said, I’ve been cutting myself, little, little scars all the way down. Right. And so, it broke my heart. And so what I did was I started going out and reading about what that meant and why somebody would do that and how that manifests itself. And I’ll see, every now and then a grown woman who’s in her twenties, 25 with a couple of scars on her arm and I’ll just kind of know that she had that battle. Right. Or, or, or a young man that just had that battle. Why do they do that? I could answer that question, but I’d like to hear your answer. Why

would somebody do that? Cut themselves like that?

Tracey:
As hard as it is to believe it is a coping mechanism, right? So we talk about just like, we talk about prayer as a coping mechanisms or coping mechanisms that are more positive. Coping mechanisms can also be negative. And so, in our case, and in most cases, I think we can’t over-generalize, but in most cases, the internal pain is so strong and overwhelming that they just don’t know what else to do to get the pain to stop. So they manifest that psychic pain as physical pain on their body, although they don’t experience physical pain the same way that like you or I would and it, it is it quells, it calms the internal pain that they’re experiencing. And so, you know what I want to say as an outcropping of that, as I think, you know, myself included, like for a long time, we were like, you know, how big can the problem is be like teens, like you’re saying, let’s just have some pizza and everything’s going to be okay.

But I think today, and I love pizza, in today’s day and age society is just so different and I’m not blaming society, you know, but it’s true. Right. And I think that as parents we can think, you have everything you need, you have a roof over your head, you have enough to eat, you have friends, you have a cell phone, you know, whatever, what could you possibly have to be upset about? And adults say the same thing. Right? We hear that also from adults who struggle with their mental health, I have a job, I have a roof over my head. I have enough money to pay the bills. Like what do I have to be depressed about? Or, you know, whatever. And we understand that line of thinking, right.

Because we do, we have so many things to be grateful for, but, but that doesn’t change the fact that we struggle with mental health or that we have bouts of depression or have severe depressive disorder, you know, or have bipolar disorder or have schizophrenia. The one thing doesn’t have anything to do with the other, we’re talking about an illness. And so to say to ourselves, I need to just get over my, you know, C R A P because, you know, I don’t need anything. I mean, there’s a lot of comparing too, right. That goes on, like look at, and especially today, I mean, everywhere, we see the, the pain and the suffering is overwhelming, but I think, especially for kids, like they take all of that in, so we don’t want to, you know, belittle their pain or, and I’m not saying anyone’s doing that. I’m just, it can be easy to be like, whatever, you don’t have anything to complain about. Well, but that’s, that’s not how that works. You know? I mean, if you’re suffering inside, you’re suffering and it doesn’t matter that you have enough dinner on the table.

Fr Gary:
Or, you got a great house on the beach. Right. It’s just the pain is the pain. Right.

Tracey:
Right. And yes, as we grow up and we begin to mature and we understand that we can put context to our life and that we can be very profoundly grateful for the things that we have and all of that stuff. But that doesn’t change the fact that we have pain or that we have unresolved issues from our childhood, or we have patterns that are suboptimal that we learned that we haven’t figured out. Like, why are we still doing that? Or, you know, why do I feel that way? It doesn’t do any good to just say, I’d need to get over my crap. I mean, that’s just, it doesn’t work.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Thinking or asking, “What do I/you have to be depressed about?” doesn’t help.
  • Gratitude and having life’s comforts of money, food, and shelter don’t mitigate mental health diagnoses

Fr Gary:
I appreciate that so much. We only have a few minutes left. I can’t believe again how quickly this hour goes by, but, Noelle, are there any other questions? I want to be able to get to them as much as we can. I’ve got thousands of questions for you, Tracey. And I know that others do, it’s such a huge issue.

Tracey:
Can I throw in one more thought? There was one thing I wanted to say when we were talking about community and especially spiritual community and how important community is. And I think from my perspective, I’m only gonna speak for myself, but I think that part of where the breakdown can occur there is that the power of community is not only in like mindedness in terms of orthodoxy or whatever it is, but fundamentally it’s also about authenticity, right? And I think that’s the part that gets lost. Like we touched on it before, and then I got distracted, but the community, the power of community and acceptance is if we can be our true self. So if a young person or an adult is in a community, whether they, they love it.

And then all this stuff, the real catharsis isn’t going to be available to them if they don’t feel like they can present themselves as their true self within that community. And that’s where I think all of us, but especially communities of faith can really bring, you know, this idea of like whatever the appropriate language is, striving to be the best Christian we can be, you know? Yes. But we want to be our authentic selves and that is not neat. Right? Real people are messy. And so how can we embrace that in the Orthodox setting and in any setting where people can really be their most authentic self, because that is where the connection begins. And that is where the community healing can really be so profound.

Fr Gary:
Yeah. You know, I like that because a lot of the times we find that the kids feel safest at summer camps. It’s weird because you get to the end of the summer camp and all of a sudden, they’ve named the depression as PCD post-camp depression, right, or, PCB post-camp blues. And they just want to be there all the time, but it’s because we’ve created a safe space for them, right? Like we’ve created a space where day and night they can go, they can be there. And today I’m finding that those spaces are being created online and in digital arenas, right. And the kids want to get in there as much as they can. And they feel safe in there. Right? They feel, they feel safe in that because they’ll get online and they’ll play a video game.

And the person that they’re playing with could be halfway across the world. And doesn’t know that they’re a 14 year old kid whose father just passed away and he just, he just can’t deal with it. And this is the way he deals with it. Right? He can be whatever he wants in that digital world. Do you think that that’s why our numbers have spiked in the last generation? That is that why generation Z is there? I know you probably don’t have the answer to that, but I just want to know, like, I feel like our kids are suffering so much more today than they were 25, 30 years ago. And then even, even 25, 30 years before that. Right. And I think that the, the pull yourself up by the bootstraps generation had to do that to survive and then pass that on to us. Like you said, we were raised that way. So I, I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. Really. I just think it kind of happens. Right. Like it’s just, it just is. And the best thing that we can do is create a safe place for our kids to be authentic, to just exhale and just be themselves.

Tracey:
Right. I’m glad you said that on. I’m really glad you use the word fault because, you know, first of all, figuring out why somebody has a mental health crisis, usually you never find out why. So that’s one of the things. When it first happens, what did I do? What did my husband do, what happened? Who did it? You want to know why, but you generally don’t get to find that out. That’s just one of the things that doesn’t come true, but yes, trying to find fault with someone or something to what end? I mean, I, I get it, it’s human nature, but it certainly doesn’t serve in the healing process to be finding fault. To your point, I don’t have a good answer for that.

I haven’t done research on that, but I do remember I’m pretty sure it was a Ted talk that I heard or read where the scientists had specifically researched the difference between online community and in contact in person community. And it’s not the same. And so I think that’s the trap, especially youth fall into thinking that connecting to other kids and who knows, right. That we don’t even know if it’s another kid, to your point. It could be a 60 year old creepy guy halfway across the world, it could be anybody. But they’re not actually communing and communicating or participating in person. And so it’s not the same, you know, it’s not the same community to be. And yes, I mean, especially in a pandemic, sometimes we have the choice taken away from us, but certainly the thought that, you know, you can replace those sorts of connections online is not, um, you know, proving to bear, to bear out, to be true.

Noelle:
No, I don’t see any more in the chat, but, but we did get a comment which is related to social media, that social media tends to show everyone having a good time. It doesn’t show reality a lot of the time. So that can be, I think definitely, if somebody perceives that those around them are doing better than them in whatever way, you know, especially when shame comes in. I think I wanted to say this earlier. I think shame is a big, is a big factor, especially for, for kids who are fine until they’re not, you know, they do well in school, they’re playing sports, whatever. And then suddenly they can’t do those things anymore. And people are saying you did them before you can just do them again. And so I think if they’re seeing other people seem to go, go past them and succeed and they don’t know why they’re not, I think that can be very difficult.

Tracey:
And that’s an excellent point. And I agree, and there’s a lot of grief work involved in this. There’s grief work for the families, there’s grief work for the kids. I mean, the emotions can be its own hour. Right. They could be their own lifetime really, but there’s a lot around all of these things that requires a lot of effort to sort of understand how the tentacles interact together.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Accept people as real and “messy”
  • Eschew perfectionism and fault-finding
  • Find or create a safe community for support
  • Do necessary grief work

Fr Gary:
Yeah. Tracey, this conversation, we’re not giving it it’s due. Like you say that you want to go to different places and give it its due so that it can be brought in the spotlight. And I don’t think an hour does that, so I want to acknowledge that right off the bat that we do our best to kind of do it, but I think it’s like emptying the ocean with a bucket. And, it’s a good effort and would definitely bring awareness to the issue. I have a question that I know everybody says there’s no stupid questions, but I just want to ask you when bringing up this subject, do we say, let’s talk about mental health or let’s talk about mental illness, right? Health versus illness, which way would you go, like when, when you’re bringing it up?

Tracey:
Well, I think in your congregation or in your setting as a whole, I would definitely just say mental health because that encompasses the whole caboodle, but I would suggest in a parent groups, if you want to talk about it, in kid groups, you want to talk separately. I mean, I could certainly get some more input on that. And, there are clinicians who are faith based, faith based clinicians who only practice that way. And they might have better suggestions in regard to that. But I think only referring to it in about mental illness is a misnomer because we all have mental health and we all have to be taking care of our mental health.

Even if there’s no one in the family who has a mental health struggle, everyone should be taking care of their mental health. And I think our society, we haven’t done ourselves any favors by acting like taking care of ourselves is self-indulgent. I mean, if we can’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anyone else. And you know, one of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I realized that I really had very little, like none. I had no control over whether my daughter was going to get better or not. This is a very painful moment when a parent has to come to grips with what they actually have control over for their child or not, and facilitating, facilitating treatment, encouraging treatment, doing all the things that we can do, but we actually have no control over the biology of what’s going to happen.

I needed to learn how to take care of myself because I’d actually never shown my daughter how to do that. So, it’s kind of that old adage, like my mom was a smoker and she used to always say, oh, I hated her smoking. She used to tell me not to smoke. Do as I say, not as I do. Okay. I get it, but that’s not how it actually works. So if we could take better care of ourselves that helps the whole family. And it’s about showing our kids how to do that. Not just talk about it.

TAKE AWAYS

  • Every single person has mental health
  • Prioritize self-care
  • Show our children our commitment to health and well-being

Fr Gary:
I love that answer because early on a spiritual father once told me, you need to sit in quiet for a good 15 minutes every day. I was like, are you kidding? I don’t have 15 minutes to sit quietly. And he said, good, then sit for an hour. Right? So like, we need it. We need to take care of ourselves. And like, every now and then we can have a piece of candy or you can have a big piece of pizza and stuff like that, but you still take care of your body, take care of yourself, and why not take care of the mind as well. So I like it because you wouldn’t say physical taking care of yourself as physical illness, wellness, you say I’m taking care of my physical health.

So same thing with mental health is where I was going. And I appreciate your answer. Thank you so much for this. I know that you’ve touched some lives, I’m getting text messages and, um, the chat, my chat is lining up with people, thanking us for this topic and thanking you for being here, when we get closer to your book coming out. But I would love to have you back on, hopefully that I’ll still be around in May, so going keep listening. But, I just really appreciate this topic. It’s one that really hits home for a lot of people and especially me personally and in my vocation as well. So thank you Tracey. Very, very much.

Tracey:
Well, my pleasure. Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. My website address is on the page. I have a contact sheet there. If anyone has more specific questions or wants to talk any further about anything, they can send me emails through my website. I’m 100% receptive to that, and I’m happy to share any information I have that I think would be.


Fr Gary:
I appreciate that. Thank you.

Tracey can be reached at traceyokas@gmail.com
You can find my list of mental health resources HERE.
Find the Orthodox Christian Network HERE.
Find a list of online Christian counseling services HERE. (By verywellmind.com. Not vetted by me.)

STAY TUNED

I was asked back by Fr Gary for a second hour to continue the conversation. The link and edited transcript is coming soon.

One Comment

  1. It’s wonderful that you were given this platform to talk about mental health. Normalizing discussions around this is so important. You are doing great work, Tracey!

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