December 20, 2014

My Struggle With Anxiety (Episode 1)

I am a Christian, and I struggle with anxiety. 

This isn't the path I would have chosen for myself, but it's the one I've been walking in a very intense way over the past year. It's taken me a while to get up the nerve to share my story publicly.

A big part of my hesitation to share it openly is that there's a stigma attached to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression. For some reason, we encourage people to take Tylenol when they have a headache ... or receive chemotherapy when they've been diagnosed with cancer ... but when it comes to anxiety, people say, "If you just pray harder or trusted God more or had enough faith, you'd be cured." This kind of advice is well-meaning, but it can be very damaging and hurtful. The truth is, many different factors can contribute to anxiety. It's a mistake to assume that anxiety is always 100% related to a spiritual deficiency. 

But I understand the wholly spiritual perspective because in all honesty, it used to be mine. Someone I know confessed to struggling with anxiety several years ago. Alongside my genuine concern that anxiety was such a consuming problem in that person's life, I scoffed just a tiny bit inside. I couldn't understand how someone could be a Christian AND struggle with anxiety. I had no idea that just a few years later, God would shatter my prideful thoughts by pretty much knocking me over the head with a spiritual 2x4. I would experience firsthand exactly what anxiety can do to a person. 

Before you dive into my personal story, I ask that you watch this quick video, which explains anxiety really well:



I don't like to dwell on my first anxiety attack much. It was a TERRIFYING experience, but to give you a full picture of my journey through anxiety, I really need to start there. So, *deep breath*, here goes ...

It happened near the beginning of autumn in 2013. I was feeling sick to my stomach at work, so I left a couple of hours early. I wondered if I might be coming down with the flu. As I drove home, I began to feel lightheaded, so I pulled off the main road and into a parking lot. My plan was to wait until the dizzy feeling passed before driving the rest of the way home. And that's when the scary symptoms began appearing. The dizziness got much worse. My heart was beating very erratically and was painful on and off. I had also experienced a longer stretch of heart pain earlier in the day. I prayed to God for help. I didn't realize I was doing it, but my breathing had grown very shallow and fast. I opened my car window to let in some fresh air. When my hands and feet started to go numb, I knew something was seriously wrong. I wondered if I was having a heart attack.

I decided to call 911. The only problem was, my hands were so numb that I couldn't feel them anymore. They were cramped into a curled position, and I couldn't move them to dial 911. I couldn't even pick up my cell phone. Knowing I needed help, I looked around--and after 30 seconds or so, I spotted an older couple walking towards their car. I called out, "Help me, please!" My speech was muddled, and my breath came out in short gasps. The couple stopped and asked me what was wrong. After hearing me briefly explain my symptoms, they dialed 911.

A police car and then an ambulance arrived. The medic explained that I was experiencing a panic attack. He asked me to try to slow my breathing. The rate at which he was breathing (and trying to get me to breathe) seemed impossibly slow. Eventually, my breathing slowed a little in the ambulance. After hearing about my heart pains, they hooked me up to a heart monitoring device. Several minutes later, the medic calmly told me that he'd run a test a couple of times now to be sure, and it looked like there was a blockage in my heart. He asked if I'd be okay with them taking me to the hospital, and I said, "Yes." On the way to the hospital, I again cried out to God for help. I asked him for healing for my heart. 

At the hospital, they hooked me up to more monitors and took several blood samples. Eventually, I heard that the heart test results came back clear. Praise God! Dave came then and held my hand as I was diagnosed with a severe panic attack. I felt kind of silly that I had gone to the hospital because the medical professionals there had discovered nothing wrong with my heart, but I was overwhelmingly relieved. Maybe the medics in the ambulance had faulty equipment ... but perhaps there was a blockage in my heart then, but God healed my heart before the tests at the hospital were run. Whatever the truth of the matter, I know that God was present, and he answered my prayers.

As Dave drove me home, I remember telling him that I was sure that this was a one-time event. I'd never been prone to panic attacks before, so I was sure that this experience would be the end of it. But I was wrong. The very next night, I struggled to get my breathing regulated again. It seemed like my body was pre-programmed to go into panic mode, and there wasn't much I could do to stop it. 

This was the beginning of my journey through anxiety. (Read part 2 here.) Meanwhile, I'd love to hear if you or anyone you know has struggled with anxiety. It's a wonderful comfort to know we're not alone.  :)

7 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing your story Laurel, it is so difficult to be so transparent, I think especially more so as Christians. I will be praying for you in this journey.

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    1. Thanks for your prayers, Amy, and for being so transparent in your infertility journey. *hugs*

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  2. Laurel,

    I had an anxiety attack in late winter/early spring in 2003. I had never had a panic attack before, but had struggled with depression since 1994 (although I did not know that I had been until a diagnosis 2003).

    I was at work as a principal in GRPS. I was scheduled to attend a meeting with my boss and other principals. I was unable to force myself to go to the meeting. It was like a mountain that I just could not climb. My emotions said not to go to the meeting at all costs, whereas my brain could not come up with a reason why. I left work early and went home. Since I had not experienced a panic attack before, I thought I was going nuts. There was no rational reason that I should have had that reaction to attending a meeting with peers and my boss.

    I think it was the next day, or possibly that same afternoon, I went to see my doctor. When he understood my symptoms, he prescribed a medication to help me not feel so anxious/depressed. I also went to a counselor to seek guidance. I was so wrapped up in myself that I had been unable to simply talk with people and share what I was thinking. I was afraid of what their reaction might be.

    I prayed and asked God to take this feeling away from me throughout the ensuing days, weeks, months, and years. He has not, but instead He has walked with me each step of the way - encouraging me to trust Him. I'm convinced that his ongoing presence is a more valuable reminder on a daily basis than an immediate healing would have been.

    You are in my prayers daily, beloved daughter.

    Dad

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    1. Our stories our very similar, Dad! Panic attacks are so scary. I wondered at first if I was going crazy, too! I was relieved to find out that anxiety is actually a common problem for many people. My doctor told me that anxiety and depression are often linked ... and that's the case for me, too.

      And a BIG AMEN to what you said here, Dad: "I prayed and asked God to take this feeling away from me throughout the ensuing days, weeks, months, and years. He has not, but instead He has walked with me each step of the way - encouraging me to trust Him. I'm convinced that his ongoing presence is a more valuable reminder on a daily basis than an immediate healing would have been."

      Thanks for sharing your story here on my blog! *hugs* Love you.

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  3. Bravo for writing about your experience and sharing it! Openness doesn't necessarily improve the anxiety, but it does wonders for the shame that often accompanies it. I've never had a panic attack myself, but have talked with many who have, and it usually has a profound impact on the person. May you sense God's presence as you walk this path.

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    1. Thanks, Uncle Bob, for the encouragement! It's been wonderful to hear from others about how anxiety has impacted them or people they know. It helps "normalize" the experience a bit because so many battle against anxiety and, like you said, sharing--and being met with love and acceptance--helps diminish the shameful feelings that so many anxiety sufferers experience.

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