Sometimes my chest caves in on itself. My lungs collapse. My ribs crush together with the force of two vehicles colliding, metal on metal screeching as it bends and breaks. My heart quivers and explodes. Instead of debris, I am left with a hole.
I have anxiety. I am still not exactly sure what that means. Is my anxiety situational? Am I simply responding to the stress of “adulting”, loss of a job, a marriage that requires work? Or is my anxiety more or less a part of who I am, how I was created? Either way, anxiety is the name my psychiatrist gave it, and the name I am learning to use.
Three years ago, I moved across the country, started a new job, and got married. Not surprisingly, my husband and I ended up in marriage counseling before our one year anniversary. We were blessed to find the kindest therapist, a Christian pastor, who held to our belief in Jesus’ teachings and who also was trained in industry-standard psychology practices. Off and on, I found myself going to see him on my own. Just for the moments when I couldn’t quite sort out my crazy. He never brought up anxiety or depression, but I began to wonder, never quite sure of what is “normal”.
Then, I met…well, for the sake of anonymity, we’ll call her Sally. You know those overly-kind people who always have a bright smile and a nice word of encouragement? Sally was not one of those people. Sally liked order, structure, policies, and follow-through. When business was out of line, Sally made sure it lined right back up and that the person responsible would never make that mistake again. I guess everyone knows a Sally, maybe even everyone needs a Sally. For your sake, I hope your Sally smiles.
It started out small. My heart rate would increase or my face would feel warm while talking with her. Then it grew. My whole body shuddered after receiving her email; my fingers shook when I tried to respond. I developed a stomach ache that wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I dreamt of the thoughts that plagued me by day. Eventually I couldn’t deny it any more. Every conversation. Every email. Every meeting. Every time someone even mentioned her name. I suffered physical signs of a very real anxiety.
One night I emotionally exploded, harming everyone in my path. The next morning, from the safety of my car, I called my healthcare provider and asked to set up an appointment with a female psychiatrist. I was finally ready to admit that my physical and emotional reactions were far from healthy. Maybe there was a name for my crazy, a medication, a cure, a something?
I arrived to my appointment the next week. After sitting in the waiting room of the psych department (ironically an anxiety-causing experience of its own), I met my new psychiatrist, a young blonde gal with a smile. Over the next 4 months I saw her weekly, sometimes more. She taught me to identify my triggers, to ask clarifying questions, to self-advocate, to consider the function of an action/a reaction/a thought process before even engaging in it.
I learned that it wasn’t Sally; it was actually me.
I still don’t have my anxiety all figured out. Just last week, I told my family that I couldn’t join them for dinner because I was too afraid that I was going to erupt.
Most days I don’t feel good enough. Good people can’t possibly worry about erupting, right? Ironically when lost in self-judgement, I remember my non-Christian psychiatrist saying “I don’t think that’s what your religion actually teaches”. She was right of course. Jesus taught freedom from bondage and grace that I could never be good enough to obtain.
Yet still, it is a battle. Most Christians advise me to just “trust God”. But how do I trust an unseen God when I don’t even trust the girl physically staring back at me in the mirror? I have to put in real, tangible effort—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually—effort to remind myself that yes, I do believe I am capable. And I know I’m capable because I’ve walked through the trenches before. And eventually, when I have enough trust in myself to fill a pea-sized part of the hole in my chest, then I can remind myself that I know I’m capable because God is capable. That actually I didn’t walk through the trenches; He carried me. And some of the time, that reminder fills the rest.
Maybe you can relate to my experience. Maybe you know someone who can. Maybe you just want to learn more…
Check out this article that further dives into the emotions and thoughts that frequently hide behind a smile of someone with high-functioning anxiety.
Or this one that explores how God equips His people with the means to combat the spiritual symptoms of anxiety. (Pro tip: This article specifically examines the sacraments. Sacraments are acts that Jesus instituted with the first Christians and that Christians today continue to practice. These acts provide a tangible means for God’s grace.)