The Beast, the Tiger

Tiger

Gentle Reader,

Thunk.

Thunk.

Thunk.

Tears leak from my eyes. I’m not fully awake yet. Beads of sweat stand on my brow. Palms clutch the blanket. Ribs feel as though they will break. Not enough air in my lungs. Feet tingle. Goosebumps everywhere.

I can’t do this. I can’t do this. It’s too much. It’s too much.

Panic attacks are not logical. They can’t be rationalized away. The brain decides to flip the “fight or flight” switch and it’s off to the races. The neurons and chemicals and whatever else hangs out in the gray matter fly around, making faulty connections, ones that must sound like a car backfiring. The result: Me, on the couch, stiff, waiting for the terror to pass.

It does.

It always does.

The rest of the day, the anxiety is high. By “high,” I mean “would send a person who doesn’t live with an anxiety disorder to the emergency room, convinced she’s dying.” My hands shake. The bottoms of my feet tingle. My lips go numb. I talk to myself.

“Okay, you have to get up and shower now.”

“Okay, time to make some lunch.”

“How about you vacuum? You can do that.”

When completed, these simple tasks become victories. I celebrate them. I ask God if He notices that I braided my hair. Of course He does; He misses nothing. But I like to invite Him to the party. I take comfort in knowing that He paces around the house with me, laughing at sitcoms I’ve seen a thousand times, working to burn off the excess energy that leaves me both restless and drained. He knows that it’s not my fault. He knows that I didn’t wake up and think, “You know what would be fun today? An episode of the crazies.”

We’re not supposed to use the word “crazy” when discussing mental illness, but I feel crazy when the panic hits. I was 19 the first time the terror tiger sank its claws into my brain. I’d always been anxious, but this…it was new. Strange. Surreal. I’d been hanging out with friends. Nothing unusual. Went home, put on my blue plaid flannel pajamas and crawled into bed.

Sometime before sunrise, I don’t remember the hour, I sat in a room at the hospital, feet encased in purple Volkswagon Beetle slippers, adrenaline pumping. The doctor asked my parents if I was on drugs.

Anything I do, I do afraid. I do it with the thought that it won’t be good enough. That I’m not good enough. That failure is inevitable. The times I’ve seriously considered no longer writing, I can’t count. Any Bible study group I’ve led, I’ve been sure that someone else could do it better. Going to a party or get-together, even with people I’ve known for years, requires pumping myself up as if I am about to step into a boxing ring.

And most people are never able to tell, because I have a poker face to rival the best of card sharks.

God knows, though. As I said, He sees it all.

We misunderstand passages like:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; do not be afraid, nor be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.

– Joshua 1:9 (NKJV)

And forget:

Whenever I am afraid, I will trust in You.

– Psalm 56:3 (NKJV, emphasis mine)

Trusting God isn’t a one-and-done deal. Conquering fear isn’t an easy win.

The Hebrew yôm used in the psalm is a word that is used to denote any length of time. It can be a day. It can be yesterday. It can be tomorrow. It can be a lifetime.

Yesterday, I was afraid. I trusted God.

Today, I am afraid. I trust God.

Tomorrow, I will be afraid. I will trust God.

My lifetime is marked by an anxiety rooted in faulty biology, the result of the Fall and Curse of Genesis 3. I will keep on trusting God. And when I forget, when I fail to act in wisdom and cry out for His help, I believe that He holds me in the palm of His hand. I believe that He does not and will not cast me aside for being frail. He knows the dust from where I came and the dust to which I shall return.

I plant my feet on the Rock.

Whatever winds roar.

Be encouraged today, dear reader. The fact that you have not destroyed the beast that weighs upon your back doesn’t mean that you don’t belong to God. It doesn’t mean that you don’t believe. It doesn’t mean that He hates you. Keep fighting, one moment at a time. This is the working out of your salvation, the wrestling that is part and parcel of sanctification. The beast may always be there, pulling at you until you reach Eternity. This is no sign of failure. Instead, take its presence as a reminder of the great grace you need each moment, as a prompting to raise your hands to the Lord who knows.

He is with you.

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There is Freedom

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Gentle Reader,

With Independence Day tomorrow, it seems appropriate to write something on the topic of freedom. At the same time, the political expression of my theology often leads to awkward or heated exchanges. (I’m a hardcore pacifist and honestly can’t see how the ethics of Christianity can lead to any other conclusion. A feminist of the old-school sort, meaning that men definitely aren’t evil but women should be treated with real fairness and respect. Against capital punishment. In favor of European-style socialized medicine. Against abortion).

So I’m not going to write about any of that.

I’m also not going to write about how the Revolution wasn’t this glorious, holy, just war that some think it is. I’m not going to write about how the phrase “Christian nation” has several layers of meaning may of which those Founding Fathers of ours may well have scratched their heads at. I’m not going to write about the lack of prayer in schools, how God’s purposes are somehow tied to our national interests or how legalizing homosexual marriage rips at the heart of all that is sacred (which I don’t believe, but that’s a big topic for another post).

And of course this is all completely tongue-in-cheek.

Looking back over the last year, even the last six months, I am…breathless. The Lord has brought me into confrontation with my fears and vices time after time. Occasionally He’s been quite blatant, such as when my mother spoke the words, “You can’t spend the rest of your life avoiding things that scare you” (or something close to that). Most of the time, He’s been more subtle. But I see, day after day, the way in which He’s been peeling back the layers. Taking down the wall of wrong-thinking and false-believing. Forcing me to confront things like:

Gossip

I’m not sue that we ladies realize just how many of our relationships are built on talking about other people. It seems that nothing bonds two women together faster than being snippy about a third. I’ve become more and more conscious of this over the last few weeks, and have resolved to avoid speaking about anyone in a non-honoring way. And to make it right when I forget that resolution.

Drama

While I don’t consider myself a drama queen, I have consistently chosen to forge relationships with those who are. Maybe it’s because I battle an overbearing sense of guilt and want to “fix” things. Maybe it’s because I’ve never believed myself to be worthy of healthy people. But over and over, I find myself getting sucked into places where I have no business being. No more. I’m done with that.

Confrontation

Yes, I have had to confront my fear of confrontation. Part of the problem is that I simply don’t have the first clue how to respond in many situations. I need time to assess what the other person has said or done, to decide if there was any sense or value in the words or actions and to formulate a response accordingly. Some call this being “level headed,” and I am grateful that I’m not emotionally explosive. But there are times when I need to say something, regardless of whether or not it comes out eloquently or whether or not the other person takes it well.

Friendship

My social circle has shifted. We’re not the same people we used to be. That’s a good thing; who wants to stay exactly the same, never growing or changing? There was a string of years where Chris and I were always busy on the weekends. Our tiny apartment and then our little house were usually bursting at the seams with people. I genuinely cherish those memories, but I’m ready to let it go. I no longer expect having relationships with people to look as it did in high school or college. And I’ve never had the desire for friends a mile wide and an inch deep. Give me a few people who know who they are and where they are going.

Work

I believe in libraries. I believe in having access to all sorts of information from all sorts of viewpoints. I don’t agree with all of those viewpoints, but I like being able to look at them and figure out exactly why I don’t agree. I threw off the last vestiges of shame about my job this year. If you don’t like that I work at a library, if you think that’s lame, then…well, you’re probably lame and that’s not my problem.

Work 2.0 

People who want to slack off can smell a good work ethic a mile away. This has been a problem for me for as long as I can remember. I was always the kid who ended up doing all the work in a group project. (Loathe group projects). Now I’m the coworker who will pick up the pieces and make sure it all gets done. I think it’s time to start letting things go. Letting others feel the pinch. It sounds mean, but it’s not. We’re all adults and we should all be able to take responsibility.

Writing

I’ve gotten really excited about the blog. I’m writing in my journal frequently. I honestly don’t think I have a book in me right now. Short bursts on wide-ranging topics are where I roam. And that’s okay.

Hair

I flat-iron less and less often. I only washed my hair once last week. Letting the curls go and do their thing is a BIG DEAL. I’ve always fought them. Always wished them away. Always wished I had thick, straight, red hair. I’ve got fine, curly, brown hair, and it’s developing a white streak on the right side. I can honestly say that I now love the curls just as they are.

Money

It comes. It goes. Bills get forgotten. Mysterious overage checks arrive in the mail. Stewardship is a fine thing, but, at the end of the day, I have to trust that God will meet all my needs. Most days I do.

Salvation isn’t just about Heaven, although I’m very much looking forward to being there. Salvation is for right here, right now. It does no good to know a lot about what God has to say based on the Scriptures and then never go that step further and try and live it out. Head knowledge doesn’t give you anything but answers to trivia questions. Asking the question, “Now what?” brings freedom. Allowing the Spirit access to all the secret, difficult places brings freedom. Submitting to His authority brings freedom. Obeying His guidance brings freedom.

Are you freer than you were a year ago? Six months ago? A week ago?

My friends, Jesus didn’t come to earth in the mystery of the Incarnation so we could keep on living in those same musty prison cells. No! He came to set us free.To make us into the people we were meant to be. He transcends race, class, gender and country. He extends that beautiful, nail-scarred hand to each of us and waits for us to let Him pull us out of the mire.

Whatever it is you think is keeping you safe probably isn’t. The thought that you have about God’s boundaries ruining your freedom isn’t true, either. The safest, freest place for you to be is not within your carefully constructed, sterile little world where you plan for every contingency. (As the possessor of four mental illnesses, I know what I’m talking about). If you want freedom, go where God leads. No matter how painful it is in the moment. No matter how scary. No matter how little you understand.

Take that hand.

Step out into the light of liberty.

My journey to faith. (15)

This Post I Don’t Want to Write

Agony

Gentle Reader,

As with all stories, it’s best to begin at the beginning.

I’ve struggled against anxiety for as long as I can remember, and most of the time anxiety has won. I can remember being six years old and flying into panic at the news of a standardized test all the first graders at my school were required to take. Convinced of failure, I couldn’t sleep the night before and broke out in head-to-toe hives. As I grew older, any conflict with a playmate or a teacher sent me spinning.  In my later teen years, I began to have panic attacks and what one ER doctor referred to as a “seizure-like episode.”

You would never know any of this about me if you weren’t directly exposed to it. Anxiety is an intense feeling, arising out of deep sensitivity – a sensitivity that I’ve achieved a Ph.d in masking. This suppression of emotions feeds into the anxiety, perpetuating the cycle and making it all the more difficult to break. I could be about to hyperventilate in terror, and, unless you knew me very, very well, you’d never even see it on my face.

This is, of course, a very simple summary of my life thus far. I’d rather not present you with the nitty-gritty, for that would take a book. What I’d really like to tell you about today is the state of my present existence.

On Good Friday of this year, I sat in the back of my church and had a panic attack, the first I’d had in at least three or four years. How on earth could a Good Friday service make me skip into flight-or-fight mode? How could the candles, the music, the Scripture reading make me feel like I was going to have a heart attack? That’s the thing with anxiety. It knows no rhyme or reason.

I was very frightened by the intensity of the attack. That evening, I unloaded on my husband for hours, not in anger, but in desperation. Something in that Good Friday service triggered a flood within me. All of the anger, the fear, the sorrow and the pain that I had tried to push down for so long came bubbling up to the surface without warning. Chris and I decided that it was important for me to see a counselor and work through some of these issues. I knew that I especially needed to learn better coping skills.

It didn’t take long for my counselor to refer me to a psychiatrist for medication. Her theory after a couple of sessions is that I was, in a sense, “born this way.” She believed that there were physical, chemical imbalances in my brain that had worsened with age and conditioning. Like the dutiful person I am, I made the appointment.

And came out with four diagnoses.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Panic Disorder. Major Depressive Disorder. Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.

That’s a lot to take in, and the only way I could process it was through dark humor. I told my husband, who was diagnosed with Clinical Depression four years ago and takes medication everyday, that I “won” because he’s only got one mental illness and I have four. So I started on the medication and began working through worksheets to help me think about my thoughts (do you ever do that?) and examine them to see if they were truthful or not.

As of this writing, I’ve been in counseling for two months, been on the first round of medication for almost four weeks and will probably be switched to another, have spent hours staring at the wall in a daze and haven’t wanted to do much but sleep. Then, yesterday, came another blow: My psychiatrist suggested I do some blood tests to see if my hormones were in proper balance, as they play a crucial role in anxiety and depression for women. At 4:50 p.m. on August 1, I spoke with my gynecologist by phone and was told that I needed testosterone cream (which I refer to as “man cream” and wonder if it will give me a beard so I can go make some money on the side by joining the circus – again, the dark humor) and that there is a very good chance I will need fertility drugs if I ever want to get pregnant.

I hate to be cliche, but when it rains, it pours.

Here is what I really want you to know in all of this:

1. I do not want your pity.

That is probably the worst and most insulting thing you can possibly give to someone who is walking through a valley, and I regret ever doing it to others. What someone like me needs is genuine friendship and understanding.

2. I do not need you to fix me.

I have Jesus for that. I have professionals who know and love Him. I covet your prayers and your love, but not your designs or plans.

3. Mental illness is not a lack of faith.

Go ahead and write to me about this. Tell me I need to pray more. Tell me I need to exercise more faith. Go ahead. I will then send you my journal, which contains more gut-wrenching and heartfelt prayers over the course of the last two months than in the last ten years. I can say without hesitation that my faith has never been stronger, that I have never been closer to God.

That being said, I do recognize that anxiety and depression can fuel sin or make certain temptations easier to fall to. So while I don’t need your criticism, I do need your loving questions and a community of accountability.

4. Taking medication is not a sin.

If you had diabetes, you’d probably watch your diet and take insulin shots, right? Would that be wrong, or would you justify that decision by saying that God heals in all sorts of ways? I’m so sick of the hypocrisy in the church when it comes to antidepressants. * Insert Sarcastic Tone Here * Oh, yes, not admitting to problems and not taking medication to help with the physical deficiencies in the brain will just make it all go away.

5. Get help. 

If you know that you have a problem with anxiety or depression, get help. You’re not helping yourself or anyone else by refusing to do so. You’re not a special martyr for Christ by “putting the needs of others above your own.” That’s a twisted understanding of Scripture. God never says that you shouldn’t take care of yourself. If you persist in complaining about problems and refusing to do anything about them, I will very lovingly but very firmly tell you to stop talking if you won’t move forward. I stayed stuck for a long, long time. It’s pointless and, frankly, many of us do it for attention.

6. Childlessness is not a sign of rebellion. 

This last one is probably where I get most hot under the collar. I have never had a desire to be pregnant, and I wonder now if that lack has been a blessing from God. I am not devastated by the news that it may be especially difficult for me to get pregnant. I’ve long had a desire to adopt, and hopefully will be able to do so in the future. Barrenness or chosen childlessness is not a sign of a curse or a sin in every case.

I’d like to conclude this post by having you read Ezra 3:8-13, with special emphasis on 12-13:

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak,  and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:

‘For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’

Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off. (NKJV)

The generation coming out of captivity was glad to have a place of worship once again, regardless of its lack of grandeur. The older generation, fewer in number and also coming out of captivity, mourned the lack – but the joy of the larger group drowned out their cries. This is where I stand today. It is plainly and painfully obvious that my life isn’t going to look like any of the lives of the women around me. There might be some who cry out in mourning because I don’t fit the mold – but my joyful embrace of these days that God has so graciously given me will drown them out.

I have surveyed the Valley of the Shadow. I know deep and searing pain. I wear tortuous fear on my back. But I walk, step by slow and deliberate step, with my Savior who lights just enough of the path for this day. I understand what it means to rejoice in suffering, for this intimacy with the King is infinitely precious to me, and I would not have it without this sorrow. He is loosening my chains and teaching me to hold tightly to truth.

And I am unapologetic.

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