15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them…
I read a story once about a train wreck in Norfolk Va which occurred in 1905. The train was approaching a draw bridge which had been washed out by rains and although a red flag was set out to signal the engineer to stop, the flag itself had faded, through continuous use in the sun, to the point where its color had become indistinguishable from white. In fact, my understanding is that at this time the traditional flags used to communicate with train engineers were red for stop, green for caution and white for go. The problem is that in time both red flags and green flags fade to white.
I heard a joke once about a guy from the city speeding down a country road who finds himself approaching a farm woman trying to drive a steak with a red flag on it on the side of the road approaching a turn. When she sees him she begins waiving her arms excitedly and yells “Pig! Pig”! Thinking that there is no way he’s going to let this small town nobody insult him like that, the man purposely speeds up as he passes her into the turn. His fancy sports car corners the turn at the high speed as it was designed to but then runs into the farmer’s pigs crossing the road.
In the 1988 movie “RainMan” Dustin Hoffman portrays an autistic individual named Ray. In one particular scene Ray becomes confused while crossing at an intersection when midway through the sign that had instructed him to walk begins blinking red and displaying “don’t walk”. He stops in the middle of the crosswalk, blocking angry motorists from proceeding, until his brother is able to help him to the side of the road. Although meant in humor, the overtone of the scene demonstrates the consequence and potential danger of interpreting warning signs in too literal of a manner.
The stories surfaces all kinds of imagery for me. Imagery about red flags and what they actually mean. When they should actually be used. What happens when we don’t recognize them. What happens when we think we know better and what happens when they’re left out too long. After the first bout I had with my wife’s mental illness when we were dating, I can remember reading anything that I could get my hands on regarding supporting loved ones who were struggling with depression, bipolar affect disorder, borderline personality disorder or otherwise mentally ill. Invariably, the advice offered in each centered around learning to together identify the “red flags” for that individual. I sat down and listed one out. I’ve memorized it over the years – refined it.
Medication: I’m sure most have heard this before, but often, when a person with mental illness is on their medication, they feel so good that they begin to believe that they don’t need their medication and when they’re off it, they feel so bad that they don’t believe that the medication can help. I’ve seen this cycle dozens of times in the past few years with respect to my wife and not only from her perspective. This trick works on me too. When my wife is on medication for a while and doing well, I begin to think; “well, maybe she’s better now. Maybe she doesn’t need it anymore”. I stop advocating for her to take her meds and then see, time and time again, why she needed too.
Sleep: My wife can sleep now! Of course, it doesn’t help that I’m the exact opposite. I’ll sleep on average maybe five –six hours a night in good times and in bad times just a few hours here and there each night. My wife, even in good times, likes her rest. “How do you think I stay this beautiful”? she’ll joke, but honestly, the woman will sleep 10-11 hours at night and then think nothing about taking a 2-3 hour nap during the day – and that’s when things are normal. During times of bad depression, I’ve seen her spend three consecutive days in the bed. I once had to literally pick her up out of the bed after three day to get her to go to work.
Creativity: My wife is a very creative person. She studied art in school, generally loves things like quilting, decorates the most beautiful cakes, will just take a stick and a pocket knife and whittle a walking stick that folks would probably pay good money for. When things are good, her appetite for these things is ferocious, when things are bad they fall by the wayside. I’ve seen her chuck dozens of her walking sticks into the campfire. She’ll put up all her quilting stuff leaving several projects unfinished. The joy of baking and decorating cakes becomes drudgery to her. Not being very creative myself, I’m not really sure that I understand this transition, but I think it has to do with her not wanting to feel pride in anything that comes out of her. One thing I am certain of is that when my wife leaves herself no creative outlet, it’s time to start wondering what’s not being let out.
Church: When things are good, you’d think my wife was married to a preacher. She’s involved, supportive to other members of the church, want’s the boys to be involved in youth functions etc. When things are bad it’s like pulling teeth to get her to go. Excuse after excuse as to why she doesn’t want to go. People who the week before she loved, now are medaling and phony, everything that’s said during the sermon is nonsense… I’m certain that this is indicative of something going on at the higher level of her faith, but in terms of what is tangibly observable, this is one of the first things I see.
Language: My real wife uses expressions like “you’re a stupid head” when she’s angry. I’ve seen her speak kindly in the face of abject disdain. She’s a master of the “kill-em with kindness” technique. In general her speech is thoughtful, gentle and positive. When things are bad though, I can tell by her words sometimes before her action that they are. More and more profanity begins to creep into her vocabulary, the things she talks about are less and less positive, her words become more and more hopeless.
Work: I’ve seen my wife go from loving her job to hating it, and everyone associated with it in the course of only a few days. When things are good she has an excellent work ethic, she’s dedicated to being good at whatever she does, is honest and dedicated to helping others. When things are bad she becomes more and more dissatisfied with her job, begins to talk more and more about what she should be entitled to and becomes more and more critical of her superiors and coworkers. She’ll use the slightest excuse to leave a job or make sudden drastic career choices without any notification.
Social: We’ll go through periods of months where it seems like several times a week we’re having people over the house for BBQ or just to hang out by the fire and/or visit other couples/families and then suddenly there will be long periods where she just doesn’t want to go anywhere, do anything or see anyone.
Money: Even when times are bad, my wife is really not a spender. She doesn’t go on big depression inspired shopping sprees (what that people call it “retail therapy”) What I do notice is a few things, she suddenly becomes extremely interested or disinterested in the family finances – how much money we have, how much this costs or that costs etc. She also will tend to hoard cash. Now I am particularly sensitive to this since most of that cash used to go to the purchase of drugs, but I think it extends even beyond that. The last time she said that she was leaving and then changed her mind and decided to stay, she confessed that she had collected over $400 cash which she had been carrying around. She had told me that she just wanted to put it aside to make sure that we could pay some bills, but she otherwise has no interest in our family’s finances. I think she does it so that she will have funds to access should she decide to start using again, or run away or what have you. I believe that, subconsciously, she’ll bank rolling her next break down. Not know how or when the money is to be used, but still assuring that she will have access to it when needed.
Time: When trips to the dump (only 4 miles away) begin to take five hours, something’s not good. It doesn’t always mean she’s off having an affair, but something is off.
Facial expression: It infuriates my wife that I can tell from her face what’s going on inside her head, despite what she is telling me. I’m extremely good at this and know when she is not telling me the truth about what’s going on inside her. She insists that it’s my imagination, but I have been able to do this successfully and with a fairly good accuracy for a very long time. I don’t always know what’s going on inside her, but I always know when what she is saying is not matching her expressions. When I see that they are often different, I can usually be pretty sure there’s something not right.
Anger: When things are not right with her, Ill see my wife fly off the handle and show a disproportionate amount of anger at the simplest, most seemingly benign things. It’s as if the anger is already there and welling up to the point where she can hide it any longer, she’s hard pressed to find an excuse for it and will pounce on the first thing that comes along on which she feels as if she might justify unleashing it.
Contempt: not just for me (although there is plenty of that too) but for about anything that she might perceive would dictate to her what she should do or how she would behave. Contempt for the police man who just pulled her over because she ran a stop sign. Contempt for the preacher because he would say that something she wanted to do was sinful. Contempt for folks in our church for living their lives a certain way. When my wife is not doing well she is literally dripping with contempt and distain for anything and anybody that may reminder her that she’s going astray.
Those are the major players, save one which I going to talk about next. The truth is that it was difficult for me to even write that list because the signs tend to blur together to me now. I’m not so sure anymore what is the actual observance of a red flag or what is my intuition anymore. I’ve been doing this for such a long time that it’s become something of an instinctive reaction. Like Pavlov’s dog no longer needing to identify the actual presence of food. This process has become so automated to me that sometimes I just know something is wrong, but don’t even know why. For me, it has always been something proactive that I felt that I could do. I look for these warning signs and they will give me some indication of what to expect next. The allow me to feel, at least a little, that I have some sort of control over this entirely uncontrollable and unpredictable cycles, which associate themselves with my wife’s condition. They exist, I think, as much if not more for me than they do for her, because frankly by the time we get to seeing the warning signs that process has already begun and I’m still not sure how to stop in. There is a flaw, therefor, inherent to me using them – they have value to me. I’m vested in what they are telling me and the’re interpretation will always be made through my very unbiased eyes. Like these photos (below), my reaction to them is a function of not only what they try to tell me but how I receive them, my mood and view of the world at the time that I see them. On our dirt road on the way home from work one day, I stopped and took this picture:
it was a cold grey winter day and I was on my way home from a particularly difficult day of work. I looked at the now bare cotton field and felt my soul just sink. “How drab” I though, “How dead and depressing”. Two day’s later, on my way home from my men’s bible study group, my spirits were higher. I stopped to look at the same field and took the following picture:
Same cotton field, same camera (phone) same photographer (me) only now my frame of mind was more positive. I found the bible study uplifting, the weather, though still winter, still cool, still dormant, was beginning to reveal hints to encourage the hope of spring to come. The air was cool, but the sun felt warm on my elbow perched out my truck window. The field seemed not so much dead now as sleeping, resting, preparing itself for the crop to come. I felt my soul rise, in response to the exact same baron cotton field and once again fill with hope. Same field. Same sign. Different meaning. The difference was me.
The last red flag I wanted to talk about is music.
Music Soothes the Savage Beast?…
Music: This is a big one. When my wife is in a bad place, she’ll listen to the same few songs over and over. Johnny Cash hurt, Papa Roach Last Resort, Lincoln Park, Numb are on the short list:
Johnny Cash, Hurt
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
Papa Roach, Last Resort
Cut my life into pieces
I’ve reached my last resort
Don’t give a fuck if I cut my arm bleeding
Do you even care if I die bleeding
Would it be wrong
Would it be right
If I took my life tonight
Chances are that I might
Mutilation out of sight
And I’m contemplating suicide
Linkin Park, Numb
I’m tired of being what you want me to be Feeling so faithless,
lost under the surfaceI don’t know what you’re expecting of me
Put under the pressure of walking in your shoes
[Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow]
Every step that I take is another mistake to you
[Caught in the undertow, just caught in the undertow]
I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there Become so tired, so much more aware I’m becoming this,
all I want to do Is be more like me, and be less like you
Can’t you see that you’re smothering me Holding too tightly, afraid to lose control
but there are probably others which she has learned to not reveal to me. There is a certain anger and hopelessness to the type of music my wife listens to when she’s not doing well. It’s not just the lyrics, there is a message conveyed by the heavy angry tone of the music itself. Frankly, it scares me! Beyond the actual songs she listens to there is the sense of angry defiant entitlement with which she does it that I actually find more concerning. I’ve written about this elsewhere; what does the type of music we listen to say about how we see ourselves? Do we use music to justify our feelings or allow music to dictate our feelings? Do I like country music because I identify with the guy who loves beer and his truck and his dog and wife is cheating on him or am I the guy who loves beer and his truck and his dog and wife had an affair because I like country music?
The issue presented itself again this weekend, which is why I’ve decided to write about it now. When my wife first came home from the hospital we discussed, at the therapist’s recommendation, the things we saw as red flags. At that time my wife begrudgingly agreed that her music was clearly one of them. We together went through her iPad and delegated the songs which she identified as being negative in that way and we also had a discussion about what type of music we say as being appropriate to listen to when the boys were present. Although she agreed to all of this, there have been several times in the past few months where she would make comments about how I made her take all her music away and how she was only allowed to listen to my music now etc.
Each time she said something like this, I stopped and we had the conversation again. “You told me that that music was a red flag”, I would say and she would agree, probably just to end the conversation. She continuously just said that she was no longer interested in music. Well a week or two ago I told her that I didn’t want for her to resent me for not liking the same music as she did and I asked her if she wanted to put some music that she liked back on her iPod. My only conditions were that she remained mindful of the music which she played in front of the boys and to understand that if she listened to the same song about cutting yourself over and over again that I was probably going to suspect that something was up. She agreed and went through the computer choosing songs she wanted on her phone.
We were at the neighbors how Sunday afternoon/evening for their daughter’s birthday party. Probably our best friends and with children about the same age as ours, we will often go over there or they will come to our house to eat supper, hang out by the fire and have a couple beers together. The party had ended and most of the guests had gone home but we stayed later, our kids playing together inside and then falling asleep there, having a few drinks by the fire. They have this radio that you can plug your phone into in order to listen to the music stored on it and we were using that as we talked. My wife decided she wanted to play some of her music.
Now this was fine with me. I made a joke to my neighbor about being sorry for what she was about to make him listen to, but I really did want to not be a jerk about her music. I wanted to show that we had come to the point where I trusted her enough to not automatically assume that the music she was playing necessarily meant that she was using drugs again or having another affair. I really didn’t think it was a big deal.
When she put the music on it was such a blatant contrast to mine that the neighbor said something like “what in the world kinda music is this” and we got to talking about our musical tastes. He, like me and like most of the folks around here has simple tastes in music. Songs about beer and dogs and fishing and girlfriends is what we like and don’t really have any bother for other kinds of music. His wife grew up in the city and had a taste for that club, boom, boom, boom, kind of music and my wife likes her skinny little millionaire musician, screaming at me about all the angst in his life music.
It began as lighthearted, but got a little ugly fast. I said something like “I just don’t understand how anyone can enjoy listening to this stuff”. To which my wife said something like “I’m just so sick of country music. Why is it that the only thing that people listen to around here is country music”? I said “uhm, because we live in the country”. I saw rage wash across her face! “I haven’t always lived in the Fucking Country”! she snapped and sternly chopped the air in front of her with the back of her hand facing me. “You haven’t always been a fucking hick”!
Well actually I have, but I wasn’t fixin to argue that point with her just then. I grew up poor in the country. I was good in school and that took me places. When I met my wife, I had just gotten a job with one of my degrees on a military base and had to wear a tie and Sunday shoes to work each day. Maybe she though I was someone else, but I felt about as out of place there as anyone could be. I never fit in with my John Deer ball cap and suit jacket and never knew how to remedy that. To my friends back home I’d become this fancy engineer at the DoD and to folks at the DoD I would always be this simple hick from the woods. I didn’t fit anywhere.
What concerned me is how quickly and how angry she’d become over a simple disagreement. Now we had been drinking, so I wasn’t going to snap back. I knew it could get out of control fast, but I felt that like a stab in my gut. Why would she get so angry just because I didn’t like her music? There must be something else behind this. This must be a red flag. I just sort of looked away for a couple of minutes and pretended not to notice her momentary loss of control. She, I could sense, was initially disappointed that I didn’t react back with anger, but realized that her anger really wasn’t warranted and tried to proceed as if it didn’t happen.
So the question I face, and still haven’t answered as I write this, is what does all this mean? Where did that all come from? Have I been somehow doing my wife a disservice by remaining vigilant about these “red flags” or is this an attempt of her’s to bully me into thinking that they are meaningless so that I can no longer see what is going on with her? Is this white flag really a white flag or is it one that has faded to white from red or green? Does this need to be a red flag or has the time come to put this one away? Is it just keeping us standing in the middle of the intersection holding up traffic?
It occurs to me that someone in my situation has to be particularly careful regarding the difference between using these things to judge and using them to exercise good judgment. I could easily fall into the justification of disguising punishment and unwillingness to forgive as being indicated by “red flags” – well it meant this before so now you better listen to my kind of music. This doesn’t mean however that I can simply ignore possible warning signs. Not when it comes to the safety of my wife and the boys. I simply don’t have the luxury of saying “well I’m not going to judge you for smelling like pot when you come in from driving our boys in town”. This is not to mention my own risk of being played to be a fool again, but even Sigmund Freud said that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It’s a thin line to walk and I believe that I need a divine guidance to do so. Still I’m not sure how.
I don’t see where the term “red flag” is used anywhere in the bible. There’s plenty about warnings. In fact if you take the term “red flag” to mean a warning, you might think of the entire bible as one giant red flag. Still though, I had a hard time applying biblical truths to my particular situation. When warnings should be headed and when they become obstacles to our faith and growth. In Luke there is the story of Lazarus and the rich man:
Luke 16 (NIV)
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.
22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’
25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’
27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’
29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’
30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Here clearly we are being told to look for and heed warnings which are given to us. The consequence of not doing so seems pretty severe! But then in Matthew there’s this:
Matthew 14 (NIV)
Jesus Walks on the Water
22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.
25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. “It’s a ghost,” they said, and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus immediately said to them: “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.”
28 “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.”
29 “Come,” he said.
Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came toward Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. “You of little faith,” he said, “why did you doubt?”
Now Peter was a fisherman. He probably knew all about red flags. He knew exactly what the wind and the high waves meant. We put flags on the beach today to indicate the same. It was clear to him that his situation was precarious. Only by ignoring those signs though, by putting his faith in Jesus and not what he thought he knew about the dangers of this world was he able to actually walk on water. For a short time anyway and then as soon as he remembered them again he sank into the very dangers they red flags were to warn him about.
What the heck! Do we heed to the warnings of these red flags or don’t we? Are we supposed to trust our own internal warning mechanisms or aren’t we? To what extent should I rely on my own God given sense to say “Hey! I’ve been to this rodeo before”? God please! Tell me what to think. Tell me how to use this judgment which you have given me! Tell me how to protect my family and myself and still forgive this woman who would have destroyed all of it! Thing is; I believe he already has:
True and False Prophets
15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. 16 By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 Likewise, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
That it isn’t it – you will know them by their fruit? When you think about it; fruit doesn’t grow overnight. It doesn’t all of a sudden appear because the tree gets angry or has a few drinks or is having a bad day. Fruit is the product of a season’s worth of growth for any tree and even if it is damaged beyond being eatable from weather or injury, in any particular season, if the tree is capable of producing good fruit, it will do so again the following year. In fact, I don’t have any control at all about the type or quality of the fruit of any tree in my orchard produces. I can’t say to an apple tree “listen, if you don’t give me an orange this year…”. I can’t tell a sapling “listen, bushel of apples this year or else”. I can’t say to a crab tree “listen, the apples you gave me last year were bitter. This year how about some yellow delicious”? The fruit is a function of what that tree is, not of what I want it to be. I have nothing to do with it, but I am a fool if year after year I keep going to a crab apple tree expecting something sweet! Neither can a tree hide it’s fruit, not for any significant about of time anyway. Likewise, if my wife is still cheating, still using, still playing me for a fool; sooner or later those fruits will become apparent to me. I don’t have to worry about what every little sign might mean, because at some point I will know her by her fruit.
Pirates Oh My!…
I’ve read some about the origins of the expression “red flag”. It would seem that the color red being used to indicate danger dates back to the times of the ancient Greeks. The term has roots in locomotion history and avionics and American military history, but the first use of the term that I can see is from the days of the British armada; travel and commerce on the high seas and pirates! Now we all have a certain image in our minds when it comes to pirate flags – black, skull and cross bones etc., but did you know that it is likely that the original pirate flags were red?
While most pirate flags are usually associated with the color black (a color associated with death) it is thought that the earliest were red (indicating that the ship would fight to the death, with no quarter given or expected.). In fact, it is likely that the common nickname “Jolly Roger” used for pirate flags is a English perversion of the French term ”joli rouge”, meaning “pretty red”. Now this was all very interesting to me, because, although I never really read it in the history, it means that there was at least a period during that transition where you didn’t if a pirate ship was expected to designate itself with a red flag or not. There are a number of other countries with red flags, but I can’t think of many with black. Therefore, for some time, before pirate flags were all black, one might see a red flag in the distance and before approaching close enough to actually see the insignia on the flag, but only to the point where you could note the flag’s color, there was no way to tell for certain if you were looking at a pirate ship or a ship from Switzerland. You could only see the red.
Now I put myself in that lookout’s place; alone, high up in the crow’s nest, been up all night and the sun now just rising. Maybe the captain was a little extra liberal with the crew’s rum ration last night. Now, half way between dark and light I look out along the horizon and see something. Is it a bird or a flag? It’s a flag. What color is it? It’s so hard to tell in this ever-changing sunlight of dawn. “Oh Crap! It’s red”! Now what? It’s probably you’re but either way right. You can let it go and if it’s actually a pirate ship that gets close enough to attack – that’s on you, but if you sound the alarm and your shipmates end up firing on Switzerland – that’s probably not gonna look good on a resume either! Your eyesight is not what it used to be and contact lenses are still a couple centuries from being invented…
Point is that it’s not a simple decision. A red flag doesn’t necessarily mean that something is wrong. It means that something may be wrong. It means that in this situation, things fit that there may be something wrong again, but it doesn’t mean fire you cannons. I believe that is what, in its origins, the sight of a red flag meant; wake up! Pay attention! Do your job! You cannot simply ignore every red flag you see, nor can you fire upon each! It’s simply a sign that means now pay attention. Likewise I cannot go through my life oblivious to what has happened in the past and the dangers that certain signs I learned then might mean now, but I also can’t tie my guts up in knots every time my wife wants to listen to a song I don’t like.
My judgment will always be flawed. It would always have been flawed before the affair so I’m not blaming it on that. It’s flawed because I’m human, because I don’t know nearly as much as I think I do, because my own pride and anger and weaknesses will always represent a cloud around it. A cloud which will always prevent me from actually seeing the insignia on the flags I see until long after I can see their color. That’s why I need a buddy in the crow’s nest with me. It’s why I need good friends now, why I need to write here. It’s why I need to pray; because any other person’s eyesight might be just as faulted, just as limited as my own, but God’s eyesight is infinite.