*Disclaimer: The other day I heard someone say, “I’m not qualified to write anything about anything,” and that is exactly how I feel. I’m not a professional anything, so the following post is based solely on my experience, and my hope in writing it is that it may help someone. What worked for me may not work for you, but sometimes it helps to know we are not alone in our struggles.*
Recently David, Grace, and I were watching an episode of “Madame Secretary.” (Do you know this show? We’re just now getting around to watching it, and I’m not sure why I’m enjoying it so much – maybe it’s the depiction of the family dynamic, or maybe because it imagines a Washington D.C. environment very different from the current reality). In this particular episode, the main character Elizabeth was dealing with some heavy issues, and started having chest pain. Her staff, fearing a heart attack, rushed her to the hospital.
“Panic attack,” I murmured to myself, watching as the doctor came in to tell Elizabeth and her husband that her heart was just fine and what she experienced was the result of anxiety. And then I knew what would happen next; a look of confusion then embarrassment came over Elizabeth’s face.
I knew, because I have experienced it myself.
I never considered myself a fearful or anxious person, not until we moved overseas. And I never really knew what it meant to have a panic attack. I always imagined someone going completely berserk – flailing arms, babbling incoherently, wild hair, etc. I didn’t know that actually it can feel like you might be dying.
Just over two years ago, I was over-committed and working way too hard to keep too many plates spinning. The littlest things made me jumpy, and the combination of the big things just about sent me over the edge: windy season, drunks in our neighborhood, driving, and teaching.
It all came to a head on my younger son’s birthday. As we were preparing to take him and a few of his friends to a local swimming hole, I was in the kitchen packing up a picnic lunch when a feeling of dread came over me. The room spun, my heart raced, and I got the sense that something awful was about to happen. My left arm went numb, and I felt like I was watching myself from outside my body. I tried to ignore it, and we loaded up in the car. But as we were about to pull out of the driveway, I stopped the car and told David, “I can’t do this. Something doesn’t feel right.”
Not wanting to alarm the kids that were packed and waiting in the car, I urged David to carry on with them, and a friend went with me to the clinic at our kids’ school. I was convinced I was having some kind of crazy heart issue.
After the nurse checked me out and did an EKG, she put her hand on my shoulder and told me gently, “I think you had a panic attack.”
I was shocked. There had been no thrashing or hyperventilating. Could I really have been experiencing a panic attack? And why did I feel embarrassed and ashamed? And guilty? What kind of lame missionary was I, having a panic attack after almost fourteen years living overseas? I felt like a failure.
|Our family, circa 2014|
Over the next few weeks I consulted with our local expat doctor and educated myself about anxiety. I limped along as best I could through the next few months of the school year. I knew things had to change but I wasn’t sure what, or how to move forward.
That summer we went home to the U.S. for a short furlough. I met with two different counselors, both of whom advised me – right off the bat – to take antidepressants or anti-anxiety medicine, without really offering other tangible suggestions for dealing with the source of the anxiety. I know that these medicines can be very helpful for some people, but for whatever reason, I did not have a peace about pursuing that type of treatment in this particular situation.
Towards the end of our furlough, I met with a friend who is a psychologist. After I explained to her what life had been like for me over the past few years, she said, “Well, it’s no wonder you have anxiety. Stop beating yourself up. Your stressors are reasonable.”
Her words brought tears to my eyes. I HAD been beating myself up, and didn’t even realize it.
She then told me that one of the keys to overcoming anxiety is to try to exert control over your situation, even if it is minute control. She had me list out my stressors and one by one we went through them to see what could be done about each one.
“Windy season – that stresses you because of the trees around your house? So cut the trees down.” she said.
“Cut the trees down? That’s it?” It seemed too simple.
We talked through other ways I could combat anxiety, including exercise. Studies have shown that exercise is a powerful combatant against depression and anxiety, so I recommitted to making exercise a priority.
She also told me my brain would have to “un-learn” anxiety, which wears down well-worn paths which the brain automatically goes to when stressed. Having a phrase, prayer, or song to repeat when anxiety rears its ugly head helps with this. Mine is a simple prayer, combined with a slow breath in, slow breath out: “Father, I belong to You.” It reminds me of who is ultimately in control.
The last thing she told me was probably the hardest to hear: “You cannot leave Indonesia until you have been aggressive to the 9th degree in every situation.” Her words surprised me. I guess I was half-hoping she’d say, “Your life is too hard; better stay in America till you’re better.” She has been tracking us for several years, and knows our life overseas is not always easy. I know she wouldn’t want me to “gut it out” if the situation were dire. Her challenge to make it work, where I was in Papua, helped me realize it was doable, even though it might take hard work.
An integral part of working through anxiety has been a group of friends who pray with me and I know I can go to or text when I’m feeling anxious. Having support from them, and my husband, has been so helpful.
This whole journey through anxiety has taught me much about myself, and it’s made me face some preconceived ideas I had about anxiety. In the past, I was probably less than compassionate toward those who struggled with it. I may not have said it out loud, but probably somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought, “Why can’t he/she just GET OVER IT!” and now I understand there is no just getting over anxiety.
While I haven’t shouted it from the rooftop, I have tried to be open in sharing my struggles with others. And I can’t believe how often someone comes up to me and says, “Me, too.” My struggle with anxiety has driven me to the Lord, and I pray this experience will be redeemed and used by Him. A friend shared the following poem by Jill Briscoe, which expresses this better than I can:
Don’t waste the pain, let it prove thee;
Don’t stop the tears, let them cleanse thee.
Rest, stop the striving, soon you’ll be arriving in His arms.
Don’t waste the pain, let it drive thee deeper into God.
He’s waiting and you should have come sooner!