I started to write this post about a week ago. I write quite a few posts that I never publish, and I figured this would be one of them since it is uncomfortably personal.
But lately I’ve felt compelled to share the uncomfortable. My friend Jessica has started writing frankly about her struggles with a chronic illness called POTS, and although I knew she was sick in a theoretical sense, now I know so much more what it’s like to be her in her sickness. And because I care about her, that really matters to me. Her writing is a gift to me, though I know it’s hard for her to share.
Second, several months ago an old acquaintance connected me with a woman here in Seattle named Kimberlee Conway Ireton, who wrote a book called Cracking Up: A Postpartum Faith Crisis. Naturally, this topic is up my alley. Kimberlee and I have not had a chance yet to meet in person, but her book showed up in the mail a couple of weeks ago and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
Just as Jessica is honest, Kimberlee writes about how hard her life was after she had twins, and how crippling her anxiety became for her. She writes about how hard it was to hang onto God and how hanging onto God just didn’t seem to be working. She writes in detail what her anxiety felt like from both emotional and physical standpoints, her rational and irrational fears, the thoughts that gnawed at her. If I were her I would have edited out the most uncomfortable parts (and maybe she did), but I gotta hand it to the lady–she gets really real.
If Jessica is laying in bed feeling awful and sharing the details of the cross she’s bearing and Kimberlee decided to write an entire book about the hell she went through, then maybe it’s safe for me to put my pinky toe in the water.
Nah. Who am I kidding, I might as well just cannon ball-it.
I am struggling with anxiety right now. That right now is really important to state because I usually talk about these things after the fact. If you were my friend and you probed a bit, I would probably throw you a bone and say something like “You know, I’m okay. I’m having a rough go of it at the moment.” But I wouldn’t go much further than that. If I were to, I might start crying and that will make both of us uncomfortable. And oh my, what would I do if we were ALL uncomfortable? That would make me even more anxious!
On the other hand, when I’m in the middle of an intense bout of anxiety, I talk about it in great detail to Jason. And some of it goes to my mom, too. This is partly because I am self-obsessed and partly because when it consumes me I am constantly accessing how I’m doing, what I can handle, if I’ll be able to handle it, how my body is feeling, what the next moments or days might look like, etc. I feel the need to speak it. I suppose I want some coddling, some reassurance from others that I’m okay. But after a while even I get sick of myself. Jason definitely gets sick of it.
Thankfully, you are all a fresh audience . . .
My first distinct memory of anxiety was at the age of six. I remember being very worried I wouldn’t be able to learn how to read and I’d fall behind in school. I was the hardest working first-grader in my class. This is first grade, people. I should’ve been playing double-dutch or picking flowers or something.
In the third grade I remember being so afraid I wouldn’t learn the multiplication tables (because I had convinced myself I was terrible at math) that I would have my mom lay with me in bed at night and go over and over each table so I could have them completely memorized. To my credit, when we played those math speed games in class, I was fast.
Then there was the phase where I was terrified I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep at night, which I thought would make me so tired in the morning that I wouldn’t be able to make it through the school day. I think that was fourth or fifth grade. Ironically, in all my years of schooling (even into college) I have NEVER fallen asleep in class, no matter how tired I was.
I remember the weird phase in grade school where I had to take two showers a day and I counted everything in even numbers. I remember how superstitious I was because it kept the anxiety at bay.
I remember the stomach-aches I would get as a child that never amounted to any kind of diagnosis. I remember telling my mom that I was worrying, but I wasn’t sure about what. I felt like something bad could happen, or was about to happen, and somehow worrying about it would prepare me for it.
I remember waking up one Saturday morning my senior year of high school, so paralyzed by anxiety that I didn’t show up for one of my last cross-country races. I had trained all summer and fall to complete a season. I also didn’t run in regionals that year for similar reasons.
I remember sitting at my desk at my first real job after college, staring at my computer screen, completely overwhelmed and afraid.
And then, after Imogen was born there was all that stuff. It entailed paranoia, some OCD tendencies, lots of insomnia, anger, panic, depression. Ummm yeah, not gonna go into much more detail about that.
And now, Beatrice is going to turn one next week. We have made it to the other side, so to speak. I slept and I took care of her, and lots of people took care of me, and we made it. More than that, many days I was more than okay. My anxiety didn’t come even close to overcoming me.
Now I feel like I’m crawling back into that abyss, that hole that I was in over two years ago that I never, EVER wanted to venture back into. I vowed to myself I wouldn’t, as if I have some sort of supernatural control over that sort of thing.
No, I’m not at the bottom. I just feel like every few days I step down another rung on the ladder. Or I slip down, that would be more accurate. And that is just NOT okay with me.
It started like this: a little storm was off shore, enough out at sea for there to be a little concern. But that storm built and it turned wild and then it was a hurricane, which eventually reached shore. It crashed into me. And then, to further ensue chaos, the hurricane decided to step back out off shore to give me a reprieve only to come slamming back in. It continues to do this with little order.
How am I responding? To milk the metaphor, I’m spinning around trying to figure out if it’s safe to open my shutters, or if I should be boarding them up and hunkering down. Or maybe I should be out there picking up the debris from the last blast? Should I run to the store for supplies? Is it safe? Can anyone tell me? Will it ever be safe?
Okay, I’ll just say it plainly. Some days I wake up with a jolt, my heart racing. I am not sure if I could ever get out of bed. I’m scared to. I can’t handle what’s outside my door, my life, my duties, my children. I can hear it all out there. But I’m really not sure I can do it. I lay there, frozen.
Some nights I start feeling anxious about the idea of going to sleep an hour or two before bedtime. I feel consoled by the thought that I’ll take my medications and when they kick in I’ll feel relaxed enough to go to sleep. Last night that reasoning didn’t work, I don’t know why, and it scared me.
Even with an increase in my medications, I get a few good hours of sleep and the rest of the night I feel like am sleeping with one eye open. I wake up feeling unrested. In the morning I count on my fingers the hours I may have slept, hoping the total makes me feel better. But really, I don’t even know what happened each night. It’s one big anxiety-inducing blur.
On three separate occasions, in the evenings before bed, I became overwhelmed to the point of panic. This makes me sad to think about because 1) this hasn’t happened for over two years and 2) now that it’s happened here in this house, I will live with memories of it happening here. That was at the other house, I tell myself. That’s done, I tell myself. But no, it’s not. It’s in my bathroom, on the floor. Sometimes I have been alone, but the last time Jason was there with me. That made it so much better.
A few days ago I was texting with a friend and it came out that I was, as I say, having “a rough go of it.” She knows me well enough to get the gist of what this means. She offered to bring us a meal and I accepted.
Last night she came over to drop off the meal. It had been an awful, awful day. And because of that, I really needed the particular brand of grace of a hot meal delivered to my door. I thanked God for the timing. But I didn’t really want my friend to see how much I needed it, because that’s hard and my life is already hard right now.
Well, she came and was her gracious, kind self. Jason, her and I chatted a bit. I think I seemed relatively normal, though I probably looked like a hot mess.
When we got to the end of our small talk, there was a pause. And I said, “Thank you for bringing this, it couldn’t have come at a better time.” And I started crying. And I hugged her because I didn’t know what else to do.
She was sweet and she told us that her and husband loved us and that it would be okay. I looked at Jason and I think he was tearing up, but I don’t know for sure. I like to think that he was.
After she left I asked Jason, “Was that awkward? You know, me being real about how things are right now?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it couldn’t have been any more perfect.”
I love that man. He’s got this God-given intuition, this knowing about people and relationships, and love, and what it could all look like, what it should look like–if we all weren’t so fucked up.
But, I digress.
I know that other people live with anxiety. It seems to be everywhere. Our culture feeds on it and we are scared and nervous, even if scared and nervous aren’t our natural default.
But for those of you who struggle with anxiety, or depression, or OCD or bipolar, or whatever particular brand of crazy you or others have slapped on your medical file, this is for you. It is an abridged version of my mental tape deck. It’s one step farther than my “thank you for this meal” incident.
These are the questions that go round and round in my head when anxiety grips me. They are the questions that quiet down when I feel like myself again, like I’ve got my feet solidly back on the ground. But then they come back, when the next round hits me.
- Why do I feel anxious? What am I doing wrong? How do I make it stop?
- What if it gets worse? What will tomorrow look like? Will I be able to handle it? I HAVE to be able to handle it because these little people are here and they want things from me and they need things from me.
- Maybe my medications aren’t working. What if my doctor is wrong about my diagnosis and treatment? Can I trust him? Does he really understand me or my symptoms? Maybe I didn’t explain myself well enough the last time I saw him . . .
- What if these drugs are what’s making me sick? Maybe I would be fine if I just wasn’t taking them. Or maybe I should be taking different ones. How would I even know?
- What if I would’ve been diagnosed sooner after Imogen was born? How would that have changed things? How much simpler could this all have been?
- Why didn’t God reveal it to us before it got so bad?
- Why was I so afraid to ask for help back then? Why did I think I had to do postpartum life on my own?
- Will I ever sleep unassisted again? I am so afraid I won’t. And what if, even on medications, I’m not able to sleep?
- Preface: I had an eating disorder. What if these pills cause me to gain weight (a common side effect of some SSRIs)? Do I have to be fat to be happy? And honestly, in my vain little world, is it possible to be both at the same time? Is God displeased with me for thinking these things?
- What would I be like if I wasn’t on medication? Would I be like I was before all this happened? What was I really even like before all this happened? What even is “all this?”
- Is this God disciplining me? Or is this just part of my broken world? Or is it both? How does it all intersect?
- Why am I so resistant to go to God when I feel anxious? Why do I feel like there’s nothing He can or will do? Why do I feel like I have more power than He does in these situations, even if my power feels so miniscule?
- Will I ever be “normal” again, for any considerable length of time? Or will my anxiety taunt me by coming back just when I think it’s gone for good?
- When can I be regularly counted on to help others in their time of need?
- Will I ever feel strong enough to ride my bike and run again? I felt alive when I did those things and I miss them.
- What is my mental illness doing to my marriage? What am I doing to my marriage? What if one day Jason just can’t take it any more?
- What memories will my children have of me? What is this doing to them?
- What if the anxiety I’m feeling now so colors my world that I can’t remember what my kids are like in this season?
- What if this kills me? What if the wear and tear of anxiety causes my body to give into something much bigger, like cancer or heart disease?
- Or, what if taking all these medications is what eventually kills me?
- What lesson am I not learning that God feels the need to keep bringing anxiety into my life so that I’ll learn it?
I have my own thoughts as to what the answers are to some of these questions. I entertain them a lot when my anxiety consumes me, but it’s just more crazy-making. And, I may never know. God may sit me down in eternity and get real with me about all this, or some of it, or He may choose not to.
But bringing my questions out into the light has a purpose now. Maybe someone, somewhere, understands a little bit more about what anxiety is like. Someone who knows someone who struggles with it. It is hard to understand when you don’t have it.
And even more than that, maybe someone, somewhere says, “Yes, I know.” Anxiety is a sickness of loneliness, I think, and if someone feels a little less alone, then I’ve provided some tiny, tiny break in the storm.
I am a Christian. I believe a lot of things about God, the things that He has revealed to me through His Word and through my own experience of Him. And I have to honestly admit, I’ve experienced a lot of Him in the short ten plus years I’ve been a believer.
But as you can see from some of my unanswered questions, this is a faith struggle. My anxiety is at odds with my head-faith and even more, deep down, it is at odds with my heart-faith. And the heart, well, that’s where the crux of everything is.
When my head is sick, when my brain is sick, my heart has a hard time crying out to God, or even wanting to. I want to want to. At least I think I do . . .?
But, there are a couple good things.
A few days ago, as I lay in bed, not wanting to get out, I read this:
“Christ is the Great Burden-Bearer. You cannot bear His load and He only expects you to carry a little day-share” (God Calling, Jan 4)
I prayed an honest prayer in that moment: Lord, I really don’t want to even carry my little share today. I don’t even know if I can carry it.
And yet the day went on and it had it’s hard parts, but I am okay.
Second, is the image of this: me, as a little girl, standing with my short, pudgy arms wrapped around my Jesus’ legs, my face buried in his robes. I’m not sure if I’m hiding my face for shame or comfort or both. But the image feels good. It feels real. And I can use all the reality I can get.
This is my anxiety story, right now.
And heck, at least I’m writing again.