The first time my heart palpitated sharply, like it was trying to force its way out of my chest, I was 24. I wondered, at first, if something was physically wrong with my heart. But then, I recognized the correlation between difficult situations at work and the uncharacteristic leaps in my chest.
Stress, I realized.
I switched jobs soon after. But within two years, my heart palpitations were the least of my concerns. I overworked myself to the point of exhaustion, then depression. I couldn’t get out of bed for days at a time.
Burnout, my therapist called it.
I changed jobs again, careful to monitor my workload and my hours. I started exercising more. I picked up a few hobbies that relaxed the nervous energy I seemed to carry around all the time. Eventually, I moved abroad with my husband, eager for an entirely fresh start.
But, I couldn’t escape the symptoms that I had come to know all too well: racing heart, tingling skin, shortness of breath, and insomnia. Worst of all, the voice in my head that kept telling me I was weak. Why couldn’t I handle what plenty of other people handled every day? Why did my body betray me whenever life got a little challenging? What was wrong with me?
Trauma, a psychologist friend told me, from losing my dad at a young age. From painful experiences in my childhood church. From being subject to verbal abuse on a daily basis while living abroad.
She was only trying to be helpful by giving me a name for why my body was responding the way it was. But, I saw it as confirmation that I was weak. It seemed like all I had endured, all the therapy I had been through should have made me more resilient. I should have been able to bounce back more easily from hardship. My maturing faith in a good and all-powerful God should have been able to will away my fears.
Instead, my body’s tolerance for stress only decreased over time.
I had a baby and forgot how to sleep through the night. I forgot how to live without the daily fear that I might make a horrible mistake that would cause irreparable harm to this little life that I was now responsible for.
I began to suspect that what I was dealing with wasn’t just stress or burnout or even a response to trauma. I began asking others to pray for me. One woman interrogated me until I confessed I still struggled with anger toward some who had mistreated my father shortly before he died. That, she told me, was the source of my malaise, and I needed to confess. Another woman prayed for immediate healing, and then looked me in the eye and asked if I had been healed. “Do you feel better?” she demanded.
“A little,” I lied, afraid to disappoint her and expose the doubt I felt about having this burden removed from me. I had been praying for my own healing for years, and yet I had noticed little change.
It wasn’t until last year, as we prepared to move overseas again—this time with a 3-year-old in tow—that my symptoms reached such a crescendo pitch that I could finally name it: anxiety. Chronic anxiety. Anxiety that swelled and diminished depending on what was going on, but anxiety that never quite went away. Anxiety that was always waiting on the doorstep, ready to barge in as soon as the slightest threat appeared. Anxiety that often wasn’t conscious and certainly wasn’t controllable. Anxiety that wasn’t necessarily going to be prayed away or conquered through faith alone. Anxiety that was steeped deep into the wiring of my brain.
I needed help. For the first time, I began taking anti-anxiety medication. I slept more deeply and peacefully than I had in years. I felt like I had more energy, as all that energy that had previously gone to being anxious was reserved for more productive matters. My thinking was clearer and more focused, my emotions more grounded and moderate.
I wasn’t quite sure what to say, if anything, to friends and family. I tested the waters with a few trusted people. “I have anxiety, too,” one said, the truth almost gushing out of her. “I’ve been taking medication for years, and it has really helped me,” another assured me. “I think I might need some help, too,” yet another told me.
My vulnerability became a point of meaningful connection to others. We could be honest with one another, our shortcomings laid bare, and yet we still felt safe. This was part of the human condition. We were not particularly weak or lacking in faith.
But, all the same, we did need God. My anxiety has pointed me to God with more fervor and consistency than any other struggle in my life. Even with medication, even with a great therapist, that racing heart and shortness of breath I get occasionally remind me that I cannot go through life alone. I cannot try to do everything for myself, control everything for myself. I am, I can freely admit, not a particularly emotionally robust person.
But, that’s okay, because in my darkest, most frightening moments, God has shown himself to be strong and faithful and loving. He has rallied friends to my side who have spoken words of compassion, encouragement, and affirmation over me. I am more deeply knitted with those who struggle with similar battles in their minds.
I don’t know if I will ever be healed from my anxiety. I haven’t yet figured out if I will need anti-anxiety medication for the rest of my life. But, one thing I am sure of: What once felt like condemnation and suffering has, in unexpected ways, freed me from the bonds of my own unrealistic expectations. I am learning how to ask for help without shame. I am learning acceptance and gratitude. I am learning that God’s hand will never let me go.