I went to school the next day. Obviously. From the outside looking in I was a perfectly happy and healthy little girl. I was a good student, a great musician, had a few friends, a loving family and all of the outward signs of success. But on the inside things were not right. I stopped talking about it when I was six out of fear. But recently it has broken open again and I feel pestered - maybe even called by God to come out of the closet and name this beast for what it is.
Those who have anxiety know that there is no magical formula to make it go away. There are medications, meditations, counselors, diets and exercises to hold it at bay. But at the end of the day anxiety is a disease to be managed and a precarious balance to maintain. And it can be exhausting. It's a constant companion that you don't want by your side. It is creepy crawlies under your skin day and night and sometimes the only thing that makes it go away is going to sleep. Sweet, blissful sleep.
Sadly, research is showing that anxiety is passed down from generation to generation, which clarifies why my Mom always told me that I reminded her of her 'crazy grandmother'.
There are lots of things I would have liked to pass on to my children. This is not one of them. But what I'm hoping and praying is that we have come far enough along in our understanding of mental illness in our society that my daughters will have the opportunity at a much younger age to name those creepy crawlies for what they are. No, my beautiful daughters, you are not worry-warts or hypochondriacs. You are not crazy or manipulative. Oh, and while we are at it, you having anxiety does not mean that you don't have enough faith or that you aren't praying hard enough. PUH-LEASE.
If I could take that hole-in-your-stomach-mouth-watering-pretty-sure-I'm-going-to-throw-up feeling away from you I would take all of it on myself. But I can't. What I can do, though, is start talking about it. What I can do is be a part of de-stygmatizing mental illness in our society and pointing out that people who have anxiety, depression, bipolar, you name it - can have a full, successful and beautiful life.
People come into my office all of the time and share things about their lives with me. They tell me that relationships are crumbling, that they are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse, that their kids are struggling with grades or that they are looking for their life's calling. But there is no conversation that seems to involve more shame and negative self-talk than conversations around mental illness.
Every time I hear one of these phrases it breaks my heart in two:
"I don't want to go on medication because I feel like that's a crutch."
"I feel so weak, why can't I be stronger?"
"I keep praying and praying and it just won't go away. I don't have enough faith."
I spent many years hiding my anxiety out of shame and fear that I would be seen as weak. I worried that if people knew I had this 'weakness' they wouldn't trust me as their Pastor because if I couldn't overcome this, how could I help anyone else? And how was this anxiety being faithful to God? Did I not trust God enough with my life? I mean, think about this Bible verse from Philippians:
I love that Bible verse, I really do. But I also kind of resent it. Because if I could - like the quippy saying goes, "Turn my worry into prayer" - believe me - after all of the hours spent on my knees - I would be comatose.
While prayer helps me remember that God loves and holds me; while prayer reminds me that I am broken and in need of God's mercy; I can honestly say that begging God to take away my worry only made my anxiety worse. And it is NOT because I don't have enough faith.
Over the past two years, through a journey of grief and with the help of an amazing counselor, I have decided that authentic living is a lot more joyful than pretending to be someone I am not. I have learned that in naming my anxiety it has lost its power over me. It hasn't magically disappeared - but when I feel it coming on, I no longer panic. Instead, I notice it - have compassion for myself and make the needed adjustments to my life in order to nurture myself back to a calm and joyful place.
And I've come to believe strongly in the concept of a wounded healer. When someone has walked a mile in your shoes and is still walking they can walk with you. I've come to believe that hiding this part of my life is not only dishonest but it is unfaithful to the work God has called me to do.
These days, whenever someone tells me they are struggling with anxiety, I just look them straight in the eye and say, "Me too." In return, I always receive a look of shock. "You? But you seem so confident and strong! You are always so calm and reassuring to other people. You stand up and speak in front of large crowds and you seem to have it all together." Ummmm...nope. For many years I learned to shove it down, put a face on it and "push through." Let me tell you - that behavior only perpetuated the vicious cycle of anxiety.
It has taken a LONG time, but I have learned to have compassion for myself. I have come to realize that there was nothing the six-year-old me could have done to make the anxiety any better because the adults who surrounded me had no ability, no education, no possible way of giving it a name or giving me the tools I needed to face this giant every day of my life.
You see, here's the thing. I HAVE anxiety but anxiety does not HAVE me. I am at a point in my life where I can look at this disease and know that while I don't believe God GAVE this to me - I know for certain that God has used it to shape me into the person I am today - and I would not trade that for the world.
- Because of my anxiety I am more compassionate.
- Because of my anxiety I am more aware of my surroundings. I believe this helps me appreciate the beauty in life to its fullest.
- Because of my anxiety I am more in tune to and better equipped to parent children who have anxiety.
- Because of my anxiety I am able to feel both deep pain and deep joy.
- Because of my anxiety I have been forced to trust that despite how I feel today, there is hope for tomorrow....and THAT is where my faith in God has been strengthened and renewed time and again.
As I write this, I am well aware that some people might think this is "TMI". There was a point in my life where that would have immobilized me. Today I can honestly say I'm good with that. For some it might be "TMI". But if the knowledge that someone else has walked this road and is willing to talk openly about it gives even one person a spark of hope - then God has moved mountains.
I guess all of this is to say - If you have the creepy crawlies - I'm right there with you. You are not alone. You are never alone.