Theatre gal now working in full-time ministry. Here to encourage you as you figure out a life lived pursuing Jesus.
Today is my anniversary. I’m not entirely sure what to call this anniversary.
The anniversary of my new normal?
Of the hardest year of my life?
Of God cracking open my shell to break open a journey of mental health?
How about, D: all of the above.
I thought I would wait longer before I wrote about this past year in detail. I’ve heard it’s good to give time and healing from your roughest seasons so that you can share your “scars” as opposed to your fresh wounds. But I think it’s important to open this dialogue, especially within the church, and I’m trying to be more vulnerable about my mess.
I don’t remember every detail of July 2nd, 2019, but I do remember it was a good day. We had a short work week due to the holiday, and I had the house to myself for most of the evening. I spent it eating food while catching up on The Bachelor. I chatted with my mom and dad when they came home, slipped into some comfy sweats, and went to bed feeling content.
Early the next morning, I hurried to take the dogs for a walk before I got ready for work. It was there, as I was strolling down the cracked sidewalk with our two leashed puppies, still in my sweats, that I noticed a strange sensation in my chest. For some reason, it felt like I just couldn’t take in a deep enough breath.
I bagged some dog poop, changed my clothes, packed my lunch, and went off to work. I was still working as a church secretary then. Our office was small, and usually quiet when the three of us on staff weren’t busy scaring each other or watching SNL skits from the 90’s. I went about my work, trying to shake this unnerving sensation in my lungs, but I couldn’t do it.
I sat in my large black swivel chair at my front desk, trying to sweep aside the fear as the breathing upgraded to nausea and dizziness. I then did what any rational person does when they experience a medical abnormality. I Googled my symptoms.
The consensus was clear: Either I was going to die from cancer very quickly, or I was having a panic attack.
Let me pause here really quick to interject something I don’t talk about a lot. Fear has played a huge role in the story of my life. I thought I knew Fear like a friend, the kind you never want to see at your doorstep, but always expect every couple months or so. I had spent years battling Fear and attempting to overcome it. But it wasn’t until this day that I met Anxiety. I know there are differences between fear, anxiety, and panic, but for the purposes of this post, I will be using these words relatively synonymously.
I walked into the conference room where the two pastors I worked with were sitting.
“Something is off with my breathing,” I told them. “I think it might just be anxiety, but I wanted to let you know.”
They offered me prayer and even a breathing exercise to try and help calm me down. But my body was shaking and I couldn’t make it stop. There have been few moments in my life where I’ve felt so utterly terrified and helpless as I did then, lying on a conference room floor, trying to take deep breaths and eat peanut butter crackers we stole from the youth room. I texted my mom and she agreed it sound like I was having a panic attack.
It was the question I asked myself over and over that afternoon and in the days and months to come. I knew people could get panic attacks often. I had comforted friends while they were in the middle of them. But I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that there was no reason for me to be so filled with anxiety.
The attack eventually passed. I felt drained but glad it was over like I had just run a marathon I hadn’t trained for. I thought that maybe that would be the end of it all. The next day I woke up to drive to Anna Maria Island to spend the 4th of July watching fireworks from the beach with a friend of mine. I felt fine as I packed my overnight bag and got in my car for the drive.
It was a voice that said, “But what if it happens again?” that set it off. I started to experience a flood of the same unnerving symptoms as I drove. I pulled off to a gas station to buy myself a bottle of water and debated on whether I should just turn back. But I knew even then that if anxiety was going to stay around, I would not let it run my life.
And stay around it has.
Let me clarify that in no way do I feel like I’ve experienced the depths of anxiousness. I know that many people have walked through struggles in mental health that are far more difficult and longer than mine. But I want to be honest about how hard this season of life has been for me and share a few things I’ve learned (and continue to learn).
I think we sometimes like to picture faith as a polished entity; it’s beautiful, firm, and clean-cut like it was just punched through with a Magnolia biscuit cutter. I’m realizing it’s a much messier picture.
When anxiety started to regularly appear in aggressive and distracting ways, I didn’t know how to show up before God. Not in the way I used to, at least. It’s hard to focus on the three application points of your scripture reading when you have to remind yourself that your chest pain isn’t a heart attack.
I wanted healing, but I didn’t know how to ask. I was disappointed, but I didn’t know how to lament. I was afraid, and I felt guilty for it.
I’ve learned a lot of practical steps on how to utilize biblical principles to overcome anxiety, and I’ll link to those resources at the end of the article, but there’s a deeper truth that I believe we as the church need to learn to embrace: that we can come before the Father, fully messy and fully devoted. These words were used to describe King David on a podcast I’ve been listening to (linked in resources).
David was a broken man. He was a sinner. He was anxious and often depressed. And yet, he is still called a man after God’s heart. If you look at the Psalms, many of them are laments. David cried out to God again and again. Sometimes we believe that we don’t have the permission to come before God anxious or depressed or confused or traumatized. But God can handle our burdens.
I think it’s important that we are honest about the fact that mental illness, or even just circumstantial hardships, cause us to doubt God’s goodness. They can bring uncertainty, and it feels wrong to bring uncertainty into the room with the Holy Spirit. So, we hide away from God the deep and real parts of our hearts that desperately crave the light of Jesus until we can patch ourselves together enough to be “presentable.”
This is a lie of the enemy. He wants us to believe that we cannot be loved as we are, that we a broken beyond repair, and that Jesus doesn’t have the ability to carry us through.
The gospel says otherwise.
I’ve learned a lot about the human brain. I am not at all a science person, so I’ve retained very few of the logistical facts, but what I do know is that in the path to greater mental health, I’m having to retrain the way I think. The phrase I prefer to use is building new pathways.
I like this phrase because I picture an untouched forest, like the kind you’d dream of discovering as a kid. A green oasis with man-made pathways, created from people following the same route over and over again. The wildlife gets trodden on enough that it compacts to a smooth dirt road; however, just because the route is well-worn, that doesn’t mean it leads you to a healthy or safe destination.
I’m in the process of venturing off the worn path of panic and fear and moving towards healthier destinations. I won’t break down all the ways you can do this (I encourage you to engage in the resources to learn more), but there are two simple things I’m learning to implement in my life that help in this journey: speaking truth and resting.
When you speak things aloud, your brain hears and listens to you. That may sound simple or confusing, but, as I said, this is not my area of expertise, so I can’t elaborate at this time. The point is: God built us to be people who pray. We are designed to talk things through with Him and the community we trust. This is how we can turn the tide of our struggles.
We were also designed for stillness. I don’t have any links to offer, but research shows that people who practice a form of stillness or meditation regularly are happier and live longer. God rested on the seventh day of creation because we need to rest.
I will be very honest: I’m not great at practicing either of these as much as I should. Actually, this week I have been very convicted by the fact I have no rhythm of rest in my life. I push myself too hard and then binge-watch 12 skincare videos on YouTube and call it a day. I don’t feed my soul the way I’m called to. I’m not saying this is what caused my anxiety in the first place, but I know it’s definitely not serving my mental health when I disregard these practices.
This one is mostly a reminder for myself but also an encouragement for anyone else in a dark season.
You are not weak for seeking out professional help. We often don’t know where to begin in our own healing and mental health journey, and there are people out there who are literally trained in how to help counsel and guide you through it. God offers healing in many ways. Don’t discredit modern medicine as one of those possibilities.
If you’re wondering how I’m doing now, the answer is better. There are still days when I feel very anxious, but I’m building new pathways, and I can breathe easier.
I want you to know that if you’re in the throes of anxiety, depression, trauma, or just difficult circumstances, you’re not alone. Let me repeat that. You are not alone. I encourage you to engage in the community God has placed you in. I realize I’m saying that in the days of a global pandemic, where real connection is more difficult, but there are ways. Reach out to your friends, your local church, your family. This is where the journey begins.
Below are some books and podcasts that greatly helped me find healing and instill practices to better my mental health. I hope they help you heal and grow as well.
Get Out of Your Head: Stopping the Spiral of Toxic Thoughts by Jennie Allen
Come Matter Here by Hannah Brencher