December 26, 2014

My Struggle With Anxiety (Episode 2)

My anxiety was debilitating.

And from all appearances, it looked like it was here to stay.

I had trouble sleeping. I was so tense even while I slept that I woke up every morning to cramped and hurting leg muscles. The smallest decisions suddenly felt monumental--like picking out a pair of earrings to wear. Driving anywhere became almost unbearably stressful. I lost interest in things I used to enjoy, like baking and reading. I couldn't escape into novels or even relax and enjoy a movie. Anxiety followed me everywhere--to work, out with friends, and at home.

Without consciously thinking about it, I regularly hyper-focused on my heartbeat and breathing. I was petrified that I would have another panic attack … which ironically probably only facilitated me having more of them. (You can read about my first panic attack here.)

I knew that I wasn't thinking rationally, but I felt trapped. I tried to battle my anxious thoughts with what I knew to be true: God's tremendous love for me, His care, etc. I felt like I was desperately clinging to a life raft in the middle of a raging sea during a storm, but my wet grip on the raft kept slipping ... and over and over again, I was carried away by the waves of anxiety, losing sight of the raft. My efforts to rest in God's love felt constantly capsized by my strong anxious feelings.

Fear is a terribly powerful emotion, and I felt its vice grip around my throat day after day.

I was in a vicious cycle that I couldn’t break out of. Everything looked hopeless, and--worst of all--I blamed myself. When I opened up to friends and family about my initial anxiety attack, most reminded me that the Bible tells us not to be anxious. “Trust God,” they urged. “He has everything under control." They meant well--I know they did--but hearing those comments only increased the guilt I was feeling. Maybe this was all my fault. I felt terrible about myself, and I saw no way out.

I tried to pinpoint the cause of my anxiety. Was my relationship with God so distant that I felt such terror instead of trust? Was it my genetics? Was I somehow to blame? I desperately wanted anxiety to go away. I wanted to return to the girl I was before all of these anxious thoughts and panic attacks began invading my life.

I cried out to God, but he seemed silent. I begged him to take away my anxious thoughts and feelings, but they remained. I read Scripture daily and prayed just to get through each day. I wondered what I was doing wrong. Deep in my heart, I wondered if God was even listening to me. 

I continued living in the darkness of depression and anxiety for weeks upon weeks.

I am so thankful that I had a few friends and family who were supportive and understanding during this time. Most of all, my husband, Dave. He let me wake him up in the middle of the night when I felt panic attacks coming on and held me. He pulled over to the side of the road and prayed for me when a panic attack showed up as we were driving to a play. He met my tears with compassion and love. My anxiety was inconvenient for both of us, and I hated putting him through what I was experiencing, but he always reminded me that he loved me no matter what and that God had not abandoned me. Dave's love and acceptance helped keep me sane when I felt like my world was falling apart.

Dave encouraged me to seek help by consulting with my doctor, pursuing therapy, and even looking at medication. With his steady encouragement, I swallowed what little pride I had left ... and sought help.

The doctor asked me a lot of questions, which I answered through many, many tears. She assured me that I wasn’t crazy. It’s funny now to think about it, but I was so relieved by her words. In many ways, I had felt like I was going crazy … I felt as if my life had spiraled out of control.

I was VERY against taking medicine at first. I think it was a matter of pride--I somehow thought I should be able to handle this on my own. I felt ashamed at the thought that I might need a drug to help me cope with everyday life. But at the doctor's recommendation and with Dave’s gentle support, I finally started taking pills. It was a rocky start, but finally I settled on a medication that helps me manage my anxiety. Some people mistakenly believe that medication takes anxiety away. It doesn’t. But, for me, it does make my anxiety more manageable. I find that I can take a step back and look at my fears and anxious thoughts more rationally.

I spent some time with a therapist, too, and I learned how to take steps to protect myself from anxiety and minimize it. I learned breathing techniques. I increased my exercise, paid more attention to what I ate, and did my best to stick to a nightly routine to help me sleep.

The medication, in combination with therapy, helped me feel like I could get my feet under me again. There were minutes and then hours that I didn’t have anxious thoughts. I wasn’t crying almost every night. I started doing activities that I used to enjoy again--like baking and watching TV--without being bombarded by huge anxieties. I still had anxiety attacks, but they were becoming far less frequent. When I felt a panic attack coming on, I did my best to slow my breathing and calmly ride it out. I kept reminding myself that the attack wouldn't last.

As I shared my story about my struggle with anxiety with others, I was surprised to find that many of my friends have either suffered from anxiety themselves (to varying degrees) or know someone who has. I was so encouraged to know that not only was I not alone ... I was in good company! One of my friends, Lisa, bravely shared her personal journey through depression and anxiety recently on her blog.

You might wonder how my faith factors into all of this. Well, God didn't abandon me in the darkness of my anxiety. Sometimes, I felt as if he was very far away, but he came near to me in some of my blackest moments, too.

One of the most memorable times was when I was reading the Psalms (as I had been doing nearly every day since the anxiety attacks started). I closed my eyes and once again begged God to take my anxiety away. All at once, I felt a strong impulse (I'm not sure how else to explain it) to turn to the book of John in the New Testament. After a few moments, I did. And then, I felt strongly pulled to turn to chapter 17. Inside, I felt just a tad silly as I flipped to chapter 17 ... I wondered if perhaps the pull I was feeling was just my imagination. I had no idea what John 17 was until I turned there. Then, my gaze landed on verse 6, where Jesus prays for his disciples. As I read through the end of the chapter, tears filled my eyes.

"I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word. Now they know that everything you have given me comes from you. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them. I am not praying for the world, but for those you have given me, for they are yours. All I have is yours, and all you have is mine. And glory has come to me through them. I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.

I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them. I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.

“Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”

(John 17:6-26)

I bolded the phrases that especially stuck out to me as I read. I knew that Jesus was reminding me of these truths. Imagine that--the Savior of the world praying for ME. God has allowed the anxiety to continue, but he has walked alongside me every day through this difficult journey. And I have felt his presence in amazing ways.

My battle isn't over. Anxiety is still present in my life to varying degrees, but … most days … it’s a small voice in my head that I can ignore.

I praise God for holding me and carrying me through the storm.

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.  :)

December 17, 2014

A Scrabble craft, singing, and Christmas!

I have to say, I’m pretty excited about the next couple of weeks.

Obviously, Christmas is next week—so I’m looking forward to lots of time with family (including a bunch of extended family!). White elephant gifts. Laughter. Memories. Oh, and cookies. Lots of Christmas cookies.  :)

I have some extra choir rehearsals this week gearing up for our Christmas program this Sunday. Our choir is leading the church service with a whole bunch of wonderful Christmas music! It’s going to be such a great time!

If you know me in real life, you know that I like to teach myself new things. I mastered the basics of knitting not too long ago, but I ran into a snag. My eyes are so tired after a full day of work writing while staring at a computer screen, it hurts them to gaze intently at the yarn threads in the evenings. So, knitting is out. But I still love to work on crafts. Want to know what my new project is? Scrabble coasters! (Yep, they’re a thing! You can Google them.) I’m so excited to pick up the rest of the supplies I need and get started on those sometime this week or next. I’ll try to get some pictures up here afterwards so you can see how I did!

I also have plans to watch one of my all-time favorite movies, The Young Victoria, with friends this weekend.

Do you have any fun plans over the next couple of weeks? I’d love to hear from you!

December 8, 2014

When God Seems Far Away

If you don't have the presence of God in your life--or if he just seems impossibly far away from you right now, let me first say this: God loves you. And he has a plan for your life.

Sin separates us from God--and everyone sins. (See Romans 3:23)

But broken, messed-up sinners are something of a specialty with God. (A fact I am VERY thankful for.)

Mark 2:17 says, "On hearing this, Jesus said to them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'" 

His grace covers prostitutes, liars, blasphemers, murderers, etc. Just read the Bible and you'll see TONS of case histories of these types of folks ... and how God calls them to do extraordinary things with their lives.

Anything admirable or praiseworthy in me comes from the foundational security I have as a child of God. He's transformed my life and continues to help me grow. He walks with me. He never abandons me--even when my path seems dark. He alone brings meaning and purpose into my life. And he LOVES you. He longs to give you the peace and meaning you are searching for.

If you'd like to hear more about my faith, I'd love to chat with you. You can leave a comment below if you like!

December 3, 2014

The Trap of Apathy

I want to have a fulfilled, meaningful life. (Don't we all?)

Sometimes that can show up as (for lack of a better word) "restlessness" with the way things are. I think God can use that restlessness to push us to do great things with our lives--things that glorify him.

Now, don't get me wrong, contentment is a great thing. What terrifies me is falling into the trap of being too content with the way things are ... to settle for less for my life when God has better plans for me.

I know Satan would love nothing more than for me to just talk about serving God with my life, but do absolutely nothing about it. He hopes I’ll “entertain myself to death” and focus on no one but myself to the end of my days. But that's a recipe for an empty life--always chasing after the next high--because on my own, I can't reach a place where I'm completely fulfilled.

No matter how many new haircuts I get, Pinterest projects I make, or new movies I watch, it's never enough. There's always that "one more thing."

What's the problem? I get too focused on me sometimes and lose sight of God.

The fact is, the entire point of reality is not about me … it’s about God. Giving up my selfish ways is hard (I’m naturally inclined to “take” instead of “give”). I'm not always perfect at giving things over to God, but I keep striving to do that because I'd rather have God in the driver’s seat of my life. He's much better at directing my life than I am.  :)

That’s how a fulfilling life is lived … by giving it up.