One night last week I woke up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat, feeling like I couldn’t breathe or swallow. I sat straight up in bed and took some deep breaths, kind of assessing the situation. Was I safe? Had I been dreaming? Why am I so hot? What time is it? The only sound in the room was the slow hum of my ceiling fan and it was 1:30 in the morning. I laid back down on my stomach, but that made it worse – I couldn’t breathe again. So I sat up. I needed a distraction. I checked my phone. I had a few snaps from Aaron, so I opened them and responded via chat. He saw that I was awake and typed back,
Why are you awake?
I don’t know. I feel weird.
Like I’m going to disappear.
Disappear? What does that even mean? I don’t know, but it felt so strange – like I couldn’t feel my body. Like I might pass out and fall to the floor. My heart rate picked up as I started to wonder if I was dying. Was something happening in my body and I was about to black out? You know, people die of aneurysms with no warning. But I didn’t have a headache. Maybe it was something in my guts. I felt like my whole body was empty and I was just a shell.
Babe, you’re okay. Take some deep breaths. You’re not going to disappear. Stick your head outside and get some fresh air.
I walked to the door of my patio and my body started to shake. My teeth were chattering, but I wasn’t cold.
Oh, I thought. I know this feeling. I’m having a panic attack.
It took a few more minutes to get over. Aaron talked calmly to me, prayed with me, and then I laid back down and fell asleep. But I woke up the next day feeling frustrated and annoyed.
I battled panic attacks for the better part of fifteen years. The first one I remember was the first day of second grade and I was a literal wreck. There was nothing you could do to get me to go into Mrs. Clark’s homeroom. To anyone else it maybe it looked like some kind of spoiled brat tantrum, but for me it was fear of feeling trapped and abandoned at school all day. I eventually did go, of course, on the third day of school, but over the next fifteen years this feeling would become all too familiar - the heart pounding, teeth chattering, sweating, super tired and yet simultaneously hyperaware, feelings of entrapment. And then after one or two of these panic attacks, it’s not the attack that becomes the problem but it’s the fear of having a panic attack that drives you to try and control everything. My heart and mind so feared having a panic attack that I mentally organized my life around being in control of my surroundings and my ability to leave a place whenever I want to leave. At the height of it all, it meant I didn’t spend the night at friend’s houses and I didn’t go to church camp or retreats, I quit my first real job after two shifts, and going away for college was completely out of the question. A panic attack while babysitting one time caused me to avoid that job for years. In fact, I dropped out of cheerleading tryouts my sophomore year because I was scared that I actually would make the squad and have to go to camp for a week. I felt so fearful that I would have a panic attack and embarrass myself so I just quit and then berated myself for even trying out in the first place even though it was something I really wanted to do.
Fear took a lot of experiences from me in those years because I refused to place myself in any situation where I might feel a wave of panic come over me. I didn’t have the tools to deal with this mental health issue – I didn’t even know it was a mental health issue. I just did everything I could to self-protect and project “normal” to the world around me. But I hated myself. I have journal pages about how I was a failure and a loser. I was an expert in all the ways I sucked as a person and filled lines and lines of paper with musings about why I couldn't just get a grip.
I also felt like a bad Christian. I was praying constantly that I wouldn’t be scared, that I wouldn’t let fear run my life, that I could just get over it, but it was like I was in an echo chamber and my words were only bouncing back and mocking me at the same time. I grew up in church. I knew all the verses about how we didn’t have to fear. The Bible calls him Yahweh-Shalom, or the Lord is peace, so where is my peace, God? I’m a disaster! So I tried Jesus and since he wasn’t working for me, my obvious conclusion was that he hated me. But why would he hate me? I was doing so much for him. I was trying to be good and do good things and serve and help other people and love well. But he obviously did, I mean I battled these panic attacks that made me feel crazy no matter how much I prayed or believed, and he never gave me anything I really wanted, like that role in the church play, or the spot on the gymnastics team, or the boyfriend, so clearly I was forgotten. These are the thoughts I had constantly until my twenties.
The last time I had a panic attack I was 21 and about to leave on a three week trip to Europe. It took a lot of self-talk and half of an anti-anxiety pill to get me on the plane, but I went. And it was one of the last panic attacks I can remember. I can’t tell you specifically what helped me – I think it was a lot of things. Constant prayer and self-talk. A few books. Memorizing Scripture. A little medication. Later, counseling. And still, there have been moments in the last ten years where I thought I would panic, but I was able to talk myself down. It was like dragging my mind back from the edge of a cliff, but I did it. I have power over this intense feeling more so now than I used to. When I moved out of my parent’s house at 23 it was like a sweet victory over fear and anxiety because there were times in my late teens and early twenties where I thought I would have to live in their basement forever. I was too scared to do anything else. But then I went to Europe. And then I served as Assistant Program Director at that same summer camp I vowed to never attend. For years I was in charge of planning and attending retreats for students. Talk about redemption. I felt like I was over that intense chapter. I felt like I was finally “normal.”
But lately, in the last year, they’ve come back - on my flights to and from Hawaii the last few times, and now, apparently, in the middle of the night. I think I know why. I mean, I’m fairly certain. My life has been under my own false sense of control for the last ten or eleven years. I’ve planned it out neatly and felt no pressure to change. I’m a creature of habit and routine. I like to know what’s next. I like to have a plan and I want to be able to see the way forward. I don’t take risks. I’m not spontaneous. I’m safe. And I like it. But in the next six months, my whole life is going to change – my living situation, my job, my routine, my city. I don’t have control over everything anymore because I have another person to consider. This is a good thing. Don’t hear me say that I am not grateful and thankful to have Aaron and move into this next chapter. But it is not without its challenges.
I told you at the end of 2015 that I like to pick a word for the year to focus on and really dial into and see what God has to teach me in that area. So I decided that my word for the year was trust and honestly I feel like it went something like this,
Me: I think my word for the year should be trust.
*meanwhile, in the heavens*
God: Hey, you guys. Watch this.
Like when you finally declare something or tell God you’re going to do something, he immediately comes back at you with, “Oh, really? Let’s try it.” Ha, I’m (mostly) kidding. But I think I’m telling you all this in the spirit of honesty and a desire to let you know that if you’re battling fear and anxiety, you are not alone. I hope that preaches to someone this morning because I am wondering a little bit why I’m being so vulnerable. Eeesh. I am in a really exciting period of my life. You’re only a fiancé once, you know! I am happy. Aaron is more than I could ever have hoped for in a partner. But I don’t do change well. I was talking to a friend about this recently and she said that we could probably be in a contest of who worries the most and about what things. It was good to hear her heart on this because in a world that makes it seem like we have it all together, we don’t often talk about our fears. If we talk about our fears, the façade of control would be lost and then who would we be? For someone who has dealt with fear and anxiety for the majority of life, let this be my battle cry to the world that we just stop pretending! I’m scared! Life is scary! Can we talk about it? Talking about it seems to make everything so much less scary, so let’s drag those dark thoughts into the light of conversation with people who care. Let’s speak truth without the fear of being seen as irrational or ridiculous. Let’s be the people who do care about those things and who are willing to listen without judgment.
No one wants to look dumb. No one wants to look like a failure or a loser or someone who doesn’t have it together. No one wants to feel scared or broken. But WE ALL DO. At one time or another, we all do. I want to look you right in your beautiful eyes and tell you that I get it. I always felt alone in my battle with anxiety – like I was the only one who wasn’t normal. But there is nothing worse than telling yourself on repeat that you are the only one dealing with whatever it is you’re going through. You are not. Don’t tell yourself that for one second more. Find someone to talk to – yank out the words that are lodged in your throat and shout them from the rooftops. You are not the only one. Whatever seems to be looming over your head, you are not the only one. To the feelings that just won’t go away, you are not the only one. You aren’t the only one thinking that or feeling that or dealing with that thing that seems to entangle you. You are not the only one. I was listening to a sermon this morning about intuition and the voice in our own heads and how nobody talks to you like you talk to you. No one is harder on you than you are and no one lies to you like you do. The feeling that you are the only one is a lie. Don’t believe it.
I want to clarify that I know God doesn’t hate me and he didn’t hate me then, even when I felt like he did. I don’t know why fear and anxiety is my burden, I don’t know why he didn’t lift it when I cried out to him, but I know that in dealing with it, it has caused me to seek him more fervently and with more tenacity than if I didn’t have this battle. If I felt in control and had it all together, I would have a greater tendency to believe that I have no need for him. So it has grown me and pushed me in my love for him, my desire to know more of him, and my capacity for empathy and care for others going through similar trials.
Maybe fear isn’t your struggle, maybe it’s something else like self-worth issues, body image struggle, addiction of some form, money issues, a constant striving for power, letting the thief of comparison steal your joy. Maybe you just feel like Jesus doesn’t work for you or he’s not listening or he’s not there, maybe you’re struggling to understand your current circumstances or how to get out of a situation your own lies have you trapped in. Whatever you’re struggling with this morning as you read this, please hear me say that it’s time to get honest and get help. It’s time to get real with those closest to you and let them help you through it. You are not the only one.
I chose trust for the year because I know that above all, in all the chaos and the noise, in all the change and creating a new normal, I’ll need him more than anything. And with each timid step I take, even if I have a couple of panic attacks, even if I feel scared, he seems to be clearing the way. Fear doesn't have to define me and your struggle doesn't have to define you.
Aaron created this background image for my phone for the year, and I want to offer it to you as well as a simple reminder to just let go and trust. They're lyrics to one of my favorite songs right now, which I also shared with you in my last post. They contain such a powerful reminder that I want to hold on to when my fears start to flare, or when I start to feel like I'm the only one. I'd rather feed my soul this gracious truth, than that tired lie. I don't know what comes next, but I want to trust it all to the one who holds it all in the palm of his hand.
For a lot of my life I let fear drive my decisions and I can tell you that it is no way to live. Here are a few resources that have really helped me in dealing with my own struggle over the years. I will always advocate for people seeking help and ending their fight to do it alone.
Straight Talk: Overcoming Emotional Battles with the Power of God's Word - if you can get past the cheesy cover, the truths in it are gold.
Recovering Redemption: Examining Fear and Anxiety - the whole Recovering Redemption series is powerful, but this one in particular really gave me some freedom.
Counseling - I spent about two years seeing a counselor about once per month. I cannot recommend this enough. Even if you think you're "fine" it can be really freeing to speak with someone.
Breathing - Controlled breathing can do so much for your mental state and I've found this exercise to be particularly helpful. (I mean I did it on repeat for about all six hours of a flight from Honolulu to Seattle, so, trust me here. ) It's called the 4-7-8 breathing method.
Close your eyes.
Take a long, deep breath in through your nose for four seconds.
Hold your breath for seven seconds.
Let it out through your mouth for eight seconds.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Medication - I mentioned that I took an anti-anxiety pill before I went to Europe. I did have one prescription for medication at that time, but I was never on medication consistently for this issue. However, I know several who are and fully advocate for this if you and your doctor decide it is best for your situation.
Grace and love,