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Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd


Today’s Up Close guest post is by Sunny Smart. She is a stay at home mom with four wonderful, hilarious kiddos and one hard-working, good-natured husband. She has battled depression at various times in her life and to varying degrees. She wanted to share her story so that others who suffer silently and alone might feel a little more normal, a little more understood, and a lot less ashamed. The stigma associated with depression can be as debilitating as the disease itself, often leading toward isolation and away from needed help. Sunny’s hope in sharing her story is twofold: One, that a few more bricks might crumble from the walls that keep so many suffering in loneliness and, two, that those who might not be able to feel God’s love in the darkness might be able to recognize some of the ways He is ever feeling after them.

The blackness had been steadily closing in. I hadn’t been up to help the children get ready for school all year. I could barely muster the courage to emerge from the bedroom when my husband left for work and the little ones had to be tended to. I walked around in a daze, wishing the day would pass so I could return to the blankness of sleep. I was volatile. A spilled bowl of cereal might send me into a rage that terrified me as much as the children. Or I might drop to the floor and weep, feeling that this moment encompassed my entire life, that things would never get better. The walls were closing in. I couldn’t breathe. I wished I had never breathed.

And yet, to the outside world, even to my closest friends, I was the vision of happiness. I could always be counted on for a joke, a laugh, a good time. I was the life of the party. No one knew how carefully I had to plan and meter my energy so as not to break down in the middle of an outing or social event. My resources were limited. I had to be careful not to tax the fragile, paper-thin facade I worked so carefully to construct.

That my parlor trick of smoke and mirrors would ever be detected had never occurred to me. That’s why this particular day came as such a surprise. It was an especially dark day for me, though for no apparent reason . The demons in my head had been working furiously as of late and my thoughts had grown darker and more hopeless. Suicide had crossed my mind, but having lost a parent at a young age I knew I couldn’t do that to my children. I began to fantasize about a tragic accident that would take the entire family at once. It was during one of these moments when I had a distinct impression: The bishop will call you today and ask if you need emotional help. You can talk to him. He is safe.

I was stunned. I hadn’t heard the voice of the Spirit in any discernible way in months. And yet this was as clear as if someone were sitting right beside me speaking. I knew where it had come from. But how could the bishop know? I hadn’t discussed this with anyone–not even my husband. Yes, of course he was aware, but sometimes we don’t realize how far a seemingly imperceptible current has carried us until we’re so far from shore we can’t remember what safety looked like. My crazy had become the new normal. We were now in survival mode. There was no trying to figure it out; we were just getting through the day.

I waited all day. Once again the dark thoughts began to crowd my thinking. I was standing in the front room dusting. Maybe there’s a way to end it, said the voices. Immediately, as if pulling me from a black pool, the Sure Voice came back. The bishop would call. I knew it. And I knew I would be safe. I clung to that thought like a lifeline. It was all I had; I hoped I could last until the phone rang.

The bishop did call. He was hesitant. He was a new bishop. A young bishop. A careful bishop. He didn’t know how to begin. He stumbled. Finally, he got it out. Someone had come to him, concerned about me. They told him they thought I might be suffering from a deep depression and that I needed help. Who? Of course he wouldn’t say. I broke down. I thanked him for having the courage to ask me that uncomfortable question. I told him I had been waiting all day for his call. He was stunned. He admitted he almost hadn’t brought it up.

That phone call was the beginning of a journey. Now, I must tell you, as miraculous as that phone call was, and as wonderful, kind, and tender as my bishop was throughout our time together, he was not perfect. And he would be the first to say he had no idea what he was doing and he often did exactly the wrong things. But he was humble and open to my expressing what I needed from him. He offered counsel, yet allowed me to guide the process. He encouraged me to seek whatever help I felt I needed, listened to my plans, and supported me fully. This was no easy task, considering my husband and I decided I would seek in-patient treatment at an out-of-state facility for six weeks.

It was almost two months from that first phone call until the time I entered treatment. In the interim I spiraled quickly. It was as if finally admitting I was drowning sucked away any strength I had previously been able to muster. I hardly left my room. However, I still went to presidency meetings and other engagements so as not to let on that my world was crumbling. I still told no one. The blackness was so thick I felt completely cut off from God. Yet the Spirit was moving in my life, mobilizing people around me to rally to my aid though they knew nothing of my condition.

One evening, as I had just gotten out of bed for the day, a sister I had served with in a stake calling showed up at my door unannounced. She came in, sat down by my unshowered, disconnected self and began to speak. She asked no questions, just told her story of battling depression so severe she had left her family and developed a drinking problem. She told me everything as I sat weeping silently. Could she have known that I had been out driving in the middle of the night many nights that week thinking about loading my car with alcohol and getting a hotel room just so I could make it all stop for a while? I told her everything. Again, the Sure Voice told me this was God’s way of letting me know that He was working in my life when I couldn’t hear or feel Him otherwise. I felt I could hold on a little longer.

As the date for treatment neared I began to tell those around me what was really going on and where I was headed. Stunned doesn’t begin to cover it. Some people laughed, thinking this was yet another joke. Most were speechless except for offering apologies for not knowing and not helping. It was a lot to take in and I didn’t expect it to make sense to anyone. At some point I decided the best way to deal with the stigma was head on. I told the bishop, Relief Society president, and friends that it was no longer a secret and that when people asked where I was it was not to be “hush hush.” If anything, I wanted to remove some of the shame so that someone else suffering in a private hell might have the courage to seek help. My ward was astoundingly supportive. While in treatment I received letter after letter from sisters telling their own stories of depression, some for the first time.

My journey through treatment and out the other side is a story for another time. Did I find help? Yes. I came home feeling as if the previous year had been a bad dream, and one whose memory was fading quickly upon waking. I could hardly fathom feeling the things I knew I had once felt. It seemed like I’d been another person in another lifetime. A miracle? Yes. Nothing short of it. It was my salvation, my family’s salvation, and it came because of the thoughtful heeding of a few to the still, small, whisperings of the Sure Voice. Without them I would be lost. This is no small thing, to mourn with those who mourn and to lift up the hands that hang down. My journey into depression was lonely and isolating. My journey into healing was made possible through the love of Christ manifested through His disciples. Truly He seeks after the one, and charges us to do likewise.

41 thoughts on “Dear to the Heart of the Shepherd”

  1. Thank you.

    The treatment of my depression came when I was still young enough to believe that I could battle stigmas. So I told everyone I had depression. It was a relief to have a name and a path to healing, so I shared my hope with everyone. Who knows what people thought. I feel that speaking out, like you've bravely done, is the best thing for everyone. The bright light and air can do wonders for conquering this affliction. As an individual and as a community.

    I also appreciated that you shared that while your bishop was helpful in your healing process, he was not perfect and did not have all the answers. Sometimes people think that if we admit to a priesthood leader not being perfect it means we're tearing down the church or not sustaining. It's just a fact of life that no one person can provide all we need (this includes husbands). I hope those who don't find all the answers in the bishop's office go on to seek more help, spiritual and professional.

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  2. Sunny, thank you so much for sharing that with us. I do not suffer from depression, but I have two very dear friends that do. One of them is aware of her depression and has a support system to help her. The other has been searching for years for help–One counselor to another, one bishop to another, treatment centers, caring family, friend after friend after friend. I thought for the first year of our friendship that she had moved here and we'd met for a reason. Our life challenges with childhoods, marriage, etc. are similar, and I was a few years ahead of her in the "working on it" arena, and thought I had some advice to offer as she blamed her depression on choices she'd made in her life. Eventually I saw that her struggles appeared to be chemical as well as situational. But not even medication has made a tremendous improvement. I've known her five years and little is different. It's almost as is all the life-savers in the world are not going to help. I had to pull out a little bit because I was becoming emotionally involved in her sadness, and it was beginning to affect me. We are still friends, but I have had the sense that we needed to untangle a bit so that she could do some work on her own. I just feel so helpless. I don't know what the best thing for a friend of a friend suffering with often debilitating depression can do?

    I am so happy that you were able to find relief. I'm also a firm believer in sharing our struggles. Those of us who are brave enough to do so often help so many who are suffering in sadness. <3

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  3. Thank you so much for sharing this. I felt the Spirit unmistakably as I started reading this, and even now as I am posting, that feeling still resonates. I read this whole post with tears streaming down my face. I obviously needed to read this today. I hope you share the rest of your story, too.

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  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Jendoop- I'm glad you picked out that part about the bishop. your point is right on about no one having all the answers. Also, I wanted to add that part in order to point out that just being on the Lord's errand doesn't make the messenger perfect, but the imperfection doesn't make the message any less real. The Lord calls on us to do his work not because we are like Him, but that we may become like Him. Along the way to perfection we will end up being very clumsy with one another. What matters is that we heed the call and allow the Lord and those we are serving to tutor us. My bishop was a wonderful example of this and it made it easy to see the Lord's hand in his loving, yet imperfect care.

    Thank you for your wonderful thoughts. I especially liked this:

    "The bright light and air can do wonders for conquering this affliction."

    That is exactly what it felt like to throw open the shudders of secrecy and open myself up to help.

    Melissa,
    I'm sorry for your friend's struggle and for how hard it must be for those of you who love her and want to help her. Love is the best help, but what form that love takes is dependent on each particular situation. Love may mean listening, or establishing boundaries, taking a step back, or encouraging treatment, etc. It sounds as though you are trying to be wise and follow your heart. That is the best any of us can do. I think it is important to remember that your desire to help her and your willingness to support her do not guarantee healing on her end. To remain a friend is to ebb and flow as you allow the Spirit to guide you in what love would require at a particular time. It sounds like that is what you are trying to do. I wish you and your friend all the best as she struggles on this journey.

    Corktree,
    I am so thankful you found some relief in my story. At some point in my journey this thought came to me: Peace is always a possibility. I still cling to that whether I am depressed, angry, hurt, etc. I hold that thought in my mind and, as I do, I am able to start slowly clearly the thorns and brambles that hedge up the way to peace. Eventually a path begins to materialize and I recover a sense of hope.

    I don't know why I felt to share that here, but I truly believe it and I have felt it change everything in situations where it would seem all was lost. Peace is ALWAYS a possibility, even in the midst of a raging storm.

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  5. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. I have felt the same way at times — when everything else is dark and black, that Sure Voice comes through clearly.

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  6. Funny. I just off the phone with a dear friend who suffers from depression and I actually told her about Segullah and the series that was recently done regarding depression–I hope she sees this post as well. We talked about how liberating it is to know that other people struggle with similar feelings and problems, no matter what they are. It seems that the worst part about depression and other problems, is the isolation one can feel. Thanks for sharing your remarkable story.

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  7. Beautifully expressed, Sunny. Thank you.

    One of the parts of your post that most resonated with me was your prompting that the bishop would call. When I have gone through my own periods of depression, I have experienced similar situations. I struggle to feel any connection to the Spirit for months, and yet when my need is truly great, I receive undeniable promptings or clearly see the Lord's hand guiding my life through the actions of others. During the depression, it can be hard to recognize, but the Lord's love and guidance is always there, and I can see it so plainly once the clouds have begun to lift. Even when I feel so alone, I know that I am not and never will be.

    Thank you for helping others to know that they are not alone.

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  8. Sunny,
    I'm sure this is a godsend to someone today. Thank you so much for sharing your story.I only wish I had been more perseptive at the time. Shame on me.

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  9. Marintha,

    The surprising part isn't that no one knew, it's that someone actually figured it out… and I think that was only with some prodding from the spirit. Those who were around me on a daily basis had no idea.

    When I went to my stake president to tell him what was going on and to ask to be released from my stake calling, he said, "If someone had come to me and asked for the name of the one person in the stake who I thought would never go through this it would have been your name. I just had no idea".

    There is no shame on you or anyone else when someone works as hard as I did to hide to truth. And had you asked me at the time I would have lied. That's the truth of it.

    Love you.

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  10. i've struggled hard to overcome the stigma of words like "depression" or "mental illness", and i have to actively fight the idea that it means i'm somehow defective or "less than" those who don't deal with it. finding others like those on this blog who i admire helps restore hope, as does learning more about it by reading posts like this and the series that's going on currently.

    when i was in that darkest, deepest pit of Tartarus last year, and things were shutting down little by little in my life, i opened up to a primary counselor who casually asked how scouting was going.

    i don't think she expected my honest reply, and though it resulted in my release (which i was grateful for), since then there's been an awkwardness around those who i know must be aware of the situation. i don't think they know how to be with me…which makes things uncomfortable.

    i think it would have been better to be upfront like you were. i'm getting to the point where i COULD be, but there's not really an appropriate time to announce "by the way, i struggle with depression". can't really bear my testimony about it! 😉

    i'm glad you are doing better at present. hope it stays that way for a long long long time! ♥

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  11. Blue,

    Thanks so much. I feel for you, girl. Even "coming clean" the way I did has presented me with some awkward situations. There are those who don't believe depression is real, those who thought I made a wrong decision by leaving my family to seek treatment, etc. Those sentiments, though rarely expressed to me directly, trickled into conversations and exchanges. It really hasn't bothered me much. I guess the best way to explain it is that I understand that those people just don't understand. Not everyone has been favored with life experiences that would help them understand. I just remind myself that it's not malicious, it's generally ignorance that begets a little prejudice.

    I'd say the weirdest part was coming home and feeling great and realizing that people were treating me like I had terminal cancer. I had to adjust my thinking then too and realize they weren't with me all those weeks and had no idea what space I was in, nor had they had time to adjust to the idea before I left. They just weren't sure what to do with me. And that was ok too.

    I did get a chuckle out of imagining you standing up and announcing your depression during testimony meeting. Not because I think there's a problem with that, but because I'm imagining people staring uncomfortably at the floor because, again, we just don't talk about these things. On the flip side, I also imagine the sister who will pull you aside later in tears and thank you and express relief that she's not alone.

    In the end, I don't think there's any one right way to address "outing" oneself. It's such a personal thing. And sometimes it may be a little unfair to thrust it on those who don't have the empathy skills to handle that kind of reality dose.

    I really enjoyed your comment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experience. I hope things are looking up for you.

    Hugs. (Because I don't know how to get symbols on here)

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  12. Roxanne,

    I think I was typing while you commented earlier, but I just wanted to stop back in and say I so appreciated your comment. I'm touched that you felt the spirit that way and I'm so thankful you shared that experience with me.

    If I can find the words, I will consider sharing the rest of my story. It will be tricky to do that journey justice in blog length, but it's worth a shot. Thanks for expressing interest.

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  13. This was stunning. Thank you.

    I can testify of the slow but sure reality of healing and the wonder of being able to KNOW that God is aware of your life.

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  14. Blue and Sunny, Bearing my testimony of having depression was exactly what I did. God was with me through treatment, through the atonement I reconciled myself to God. It is a part of my testimony, especially back then. (I enjoy testimonies that aren't just regurgitations of trite phrases but real expressions of devotion.) God's lifesaving power delivered me from the beast of depression – definitely worth testifying of!

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  15. Jendoop,

    Thanks for your response. A month or two after returning home I shared my testimony of healing as well. It took me that long to distill my thoughts and feelings into testimony length. 🙂

    I wasn't trusting enough to share my struggles before I went through that healing process, as Blue is suggesting, and I think that's a whole different thing. I have seen women do that since with various struggles and I have thought to myself: Isnt this what it's about? Shouldn't we be able to stand up and essentially say, "These are the areas where I don't have strength or answers, but if any if you do I could really use it right now. And here are the areas where I am strong and I would love to be a support to anyone who needs those things."?

    Again, I don't see an inherent problem with sharing. I do see the potential awkwardness, as with my own situation, but that stuff just has to be swallowed and metabolized or we're never going to get to a place where people feel safe sharing their struggles.

    Thanks again for your thoughtful response.

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  16. I needed this today. I recently am back on medication after thinking I didn't need it any more. It has been some horrible months in our house that I hope my children won't remember. Though I have great support, I often feel that people don't actually understand the despair–the wishing I didn't believe in God so that I could just end it all.
    As someone else commented, the spirit is very strong in your words. My heart is touched. I don't know how else to say it. Thank you for being able to put into words all of this.

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  17. Eliana,

    Thank you for commenting. I'm so glad for you that you've decided to go back on medication if that is something that offers you relief. I don't know how it is for you, but I know how often I want to just be rid of this beast forever. Because of that, sometimes accepting the very help I know I need can feel like I am somehow failing, like maybe if I was just a little stronger I wouldn't need other resources. Of course, none of that is true, but I feed myself those lies nonetheless.

    I think accepting help in whatever form is needed is courageous. I'm proud of you for taking those steps. I'm sorry for the despair you have felt. I know that place all too well. I pray you find peace in your journey.

    Much love,

    Sunny

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  18. Sunny,

    Your comment #30 brings to mind a quote that I think is worth sharing here. (From the 2003 RS meeting)

    "Recently our presidency was meeting with a Church leader. He commented that he wished Relief Society and priesthood meetings would be places where we would be able to say to one another, "Sisters, or brothers, I'm struggling right now. Will you help me?" I have been in Relief Society meetings like that. I will always remember the Sunday morning when testimonies were being borne and a single sister shared with us the loneliness of her life. She had experienced betrayal, a divorce, and subsequent financial hardships as she tried to work and raise her children on a small income. Now she knew the pain of loneliness as her grown children were gone from her home. The moment was sweet, the Spirit strong, and I saw sisters rallying around her, doing what we do best: love. The Relief Society room was a holy place that day. It was what every Relief Society room should be for each sister."

    One of my first RS sisters I met where I live was SO open about her depression – I loved her from the start because of that.

    I've been in many meetings like this. I know that power is possible. The challenge is that it's those who struggle (often those who are in need) who, imo, hold the key of making it more acceptable to talk about hard things like mental illness. The more comfy we are talking about these things, the more comfy others will be. We need to give others who don't have that experience permission to learn along the way w/ us, to help them become more comfortable. I think people are not just ignorant, they are SCARED of saying the wrong thing.

    There is real power in hearts being knit together in trials like these, imo. POWER.

    This series has been powerful like that. (Thank you!) But I hope we all don't stop here. I think we have to believe this kind of communication can happen in real life, too. Our wards and stakes need this! I LIVE for church each week because of what kind of open- and knit-heart experiences have been shared.

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  19. thank you sunny. thank you all who have shared here. I have thought a lot about this post, about the comments, about the series. My DH is the bishop. I know he hears way too many private hurts for his poor heart to bear. I was warmed by your trust in your bishop, despite knowing his human frailties. It is a daunting stewardship they hold and I think it is appropriate for us to respect their office while at the same time acknowledging that one bishop may or may not be a good "fit" for us. We all have things to learn in service and being served. Sometimes we learn with, from or in spite of our leaders.

    I have also been in meetings like m&m described where we do share and can knit our hearts. It requires such hope to share our hurts sometimes though, doesn't it? And it similarly requires such hope to reach out when the fear of saying the wrong thing is so real (and I have been snake bit–chastised for saying the wrong thing–on many an occasion) but the gospel of Jesus Christ is about exactly that hope. I see some of the power in the safe place that Segullah tries to be in germinating that hope. Thank you.

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  20. M&M,

    Thank you. I totally agree that the kind of power you speak of is possible and I have seen it myself as well. I do believe we can be a safe harbor for each other and I agree that it lies with each of us to share our burdens that others may understand how to help lighten them. That can be such a hard thing, but, as we've discussed here, it is through the uncomfortable sharing that it can in time become comfortable- or at least not as blaringly awkward. 🙂

    At times each of us must learn how to ask for and accept help, and at other times we must each stumble along learning how to help. Whichever side we are on at present we need to be patient and understanding with one another's efforts.

    I also wanted to clarify, in case I came across harshly, that by "ignorant" I wasn't trying to be insulting at all. I meant it only in the sense of someone truly not possessing knowledge of a certain thing. I do agree with you that fear of saying the wrong thing often prevents us from reaching out. I guess we each have to follow the sense we have and, if rebuffed, return gentleness to an aching heart and not let that sway us from reaching out when we feel to do so again.

    Angie f,

    Thank you for sharing your perspective as a bishop's wife. I have such a deep love and gratitude for my bishop. I don't always agree with him, but I do trust him because I trust his intent. He has demonstrated again and again his love for the Lord and his love for our ward. It makes it easy to give thoughtful consideration to his ideas and counsel even when we disagree.

    I liked your use of the word "hope" in reaching out to help or be helped. It certainly requires hope on both sides that we will be understood. The trick is to retain that hope when the desired outcome isn't immediately reached. I think that's where the Lord can heal the hurt of being rebuffed and give us the courage to try again.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

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  21. I also wanted to clarify, in case I came across harshly, that by “ignorant” I wasn’t trying to be insulting at all.

    Oh, no, I personally didn't get that at all. It really is often more about an innocent ignorance, just a stunned, "I just don't even know what to do with this" kind of thing.

    *I* hope that *I* didn't come across too harshly in my comments…I know know know how hard it is to be vulnerable.

    I just hear SO many people talk about struggling with depression and yet so many are feeling that it's just not safe to talk about it. I just think that it's far to common NOT to talk about — both for those who struggle to not feel alone, and also for those who are inexperienced to have opportunities to learn more and to learn better how to respond.

    Thank you again, Sunny, for your heartfelt post.

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  22. M&M,

    I didn't think you came across as harsh. I totally agree with you that being honest about our struggles, hard as that may be at times, is way we combat isolation and shame. At least, that has been true for me, but I understand all experiences are different and the degree to which people share their struggles is a very personal matter.

    I think you're right that there are so many who suffer alone, feeling that they are the only one in their circle going through this. That is what I discovered through the sisters in my ward when I went to treatment. And in the almost two years since returning home I have had so many sisters approach me with their own struggles simply because they knew they could talk to me. So, while my own story hasn't been without awkwardness or uncomfortable moments, it has been worth it simply because there is a more open dialogue with those around me now.

    Thanks for your comments. I didn't find anything off-putting in them. I appreciate your input. Truly.

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  23. Thanks, Sunny, for a well-written and enlightening post. Lifting up the hands that hang down is so much easier when we know which hands they are, and speaking openly about depression and whatever else we might be struggling with is the best way to "comfort ourselves together."

    I love the story about your bishop and his well-meaning awkwardness. I imagine that's how my husband probably is with his singles ward, but I'll bet they (like you) can tell that his heart is in the right place. In fact, I know they can.

    Thanks for sharing so openly and with such insight. As my kids would say, you rock.

    =)

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  24. This was such an incredible post. Well-written, honest, and comforting and inspiring to others who struggle and need to know they aren't the only ones. Thank you so much for sharing this.

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