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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A Ministry or a Friend?

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Gentle Reader,

This post is going to touch a nerve, but I feel that the topic needs exploring. Before you read any further, please know that it is not directed at any specific person.

I recently heard the phrase, “Most people are a ministry. Some people are friends.” The words were utterly profound to me. Most people are going to require you to pour into them, and that’s okay. You just can’t expect them to pour into you – and so you need to find some who understand the give and the take of a relationship. Being able to discern the difference actually frees you up to love everyone you come into contact with, because you’ll have realistic expectations of who they are.

This is especially significant to me right now as I finally begin to face and admit to the changes that have taken place in my life over the last year I have lived under the cloud of Chronic Fatigue and Immune Dysfunction Syndrome. (There is now some suspicion that Fibromyalgia is also involved. I have either been misdiagnosed or there’s a whole lot of messiness going on up in this here body). You would think I would have adjusted to this by now, but I haven’t.

Would you like to know why?

I have spent the last year trying to managing other people’s reactions. There have been shifts in relationships that I haven’t been able to understand. I’ve tried to keep the talk about the sickness to a minimum; many people are uncomfortable being around the chronically ill. I’ve tried to keep on going with life as it always has been, the best that I can.

I realize now that this is just a sneaky form of lying.

I need to be able to talk about being sick and the emotional, spiritual and mental issues that come with that. Most of the time when someone asks how I’m doing, I’ll say, “Sleepy.” While that’s a true statement, it’s not the full truth. Other words roll around in there, like “confused,” “distraught,” “in pain,” “isolated,” and “hurting.” Yet I keep my mouth shut.

I think it’s because I don’t know the difference between someone who is a ministry and someone who is a friend. While I don’t want to be the sort who natters on endlessly about every little bump in the road (I do have interests other than this illness), I do need to be able to be honest. That starts with trusting people, which is rooted in discernment, which is found in God alone.

We all need to belong. We all need friends. We all need that place where it’s okay to take off the mask, where we don’t have to be “on” all the time. Unfortunately, that place isn’t always there. Or it’s not in the location we assume it to be. I do thank God that I always belong with Him. I always fit. I never have to be “on.”

I don’t know if this is making sense to anyone other than myself, but chronic illness leaves scars that people just don’t talk about. The bald truth of it is that people often abandon the sick when the sick need them most. Why is that? Can we not get past our own petty problems (let’s face it: a good deal of our problems really are petty)? Are we utterly incapable of reaching out in compassion? Can we not see past the ends of our own noses? Or is it worse than that – are our relationships really all about us? When we stop getting what we want/need from that other person, are we happily willing to walk away?

I’ve been very convicted about this myself. As someone who knows the pain that chronic illness brings, I should be very willing to reach out to those who are suffering – and yet I’m often not.

Who is a ministry? Who is a friend?

I know I need to learn to tell the difference.

My journey to faith. (15)

When You Feel Abandoned

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (4)

Gentle Reader,

Things like natural disasters and unexplained illnesses often cause us to question God’s goodness. Surely He, if He loved us, would not allow us to deal with such difficult and heart-wrenching things? I myself have asked this question from time to time, though I have never come up with a satisfactory answer. The truth is, nobody has, whatever their philosophical outlook or religious belief. There are always “whys” that remain.

My personal opinion is that many of the things we suffer through are the natural consequences of living in a world that doesn’t work properly. Sin effects everything. Paul writes of the world around us:

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.  For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:19-22 (NKJV)

Praise be to God, for His eternal plan involves the redemption and restoration of the whole of creation. There is not one blade of grass, one flower, one mountain, one stream, one deer, one fish, one dog, one anything that will not be healed under His hand. Those of us who live under the Lordship of Christ will get to live in the “ideal world” that is always talked about. We will get to be whole and healthy, entirely at peace, our lives devoted to the worship and service of the King.

What do we do until then?

Jesus said:

“In this world you will have trouble. . .I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth.” – John 16:33, 14:16 (NKJV)

In our humanness, we’d rather escape trouble. We feel terribly alone and afraid when tornadoes rip through our homes or we are diagnosed with a disease that the doctors just can’t fix. We don’t understand. We’re angry. Hurt.

In those moments, there is amazing hope. Jesus guaranteed that we would go through hard times, for He does not snatch us immediately out of this life when we come to faith in Him. We have to exist in the same sin-sick world as everyone else does. But He is with us. Did you catch that? God is with us.

There is not a tear you cry, not a hurt you feel, not a question you ask but God does not see, hear and respond. He does not always work in the ways we would like Him to, or even in ways that we can understand, but He never leaves. Never.

The question is true: “When you feel far from God, who moved?”

Jesus went on to say:

 “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33 (NKJV)

He is bigger, stronger and mightier than the fiercest of storms. It is beyond me as to why He allows them to come, but I stand in the truth that He guides us through them all, His arms wrapped protectively around us. Whatever is allowed has first passed through Him, and is meant for our good.

That is a hard truth to swallow. It takes a lot of faith and teeth-gritting guts to hold on. It takes effort, determination and a conscious decision to accept that some things are beyond us. To believe that God is other than we are and cannot be controlled. To know that we are fiercely loved, despite outside evidence to the contrary.

I do look forward to the day when I can see God face-to-face and ask Him why my husband had to battle depression daily and why I had to live with a mysterious illness. Why I was born partially blind. Was it an integral part of the plan? Was it something that He allowed as part of living in a fallen world? I would like to know, though I suspect it has something to do with the lessons He has to teach to His children over and over again; lessons about humility and dependence. Until that day, however, I am content to live in this broken body, secure in the knowledge that the Lord is with me, and this is not all there is.

What do you do when you suffer?

You cry. You get angry. You ask questions.

God hears. He sees. He loves. He guides.

What do you do when you see someone else suffering?

You don’t mouth platitudes. You accept that person for who they are and where they are. You pitch in where you can. You hug them and listen.

God hears. He sees. He loves. He guides.

We are never alone.

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Shelter Me

Gentle Reader,

Tonight is the evening of Fat Tuesday, better known as Mardi Gras, the day before the Lenten season begins. Traditionally a time to binge and gorge, Fat Tuesday is seen as being the release before the austerity of the days leading up to Easter.

I thought about having that last can of soda, but then I wondered what that said about my heart.

The self-denial of Lent isn’t mean to be a drudgery. It is, instead, to be a worshipful experience. It is a time of setting aside what normally distracts us from God. While this should be the hallmark of Christian life in the daily arena, it is good to have a specific time devoted to “cleansing the temple,” so to speak. To getting rid of things and reassessing. To renewal.

If I had that can of soda, I would, essentially, be saying, “All right, God. I am giving this up for the next 40+ days because I think You want me to be miserable.”

For Pete’s sake, it’s just a soda.

If missing a can of Pepsi is that big a deal to me, then I can quite clearly see that I am distracted, distraught and discouraged. I have not been living a life attuned to the Spirit’s voice. The danger here is that it would be easy to think I’m doing all right. I’m not cheating on my husband, I’m not gambling, I’m not stepping on people to get ahead at work. But deep down inside, where, according to Christ, it still counts?

It’s dark. Overwhelming. Not a pretty sight.

I have been tempest-tossed and ruled by anger for weeks now. It got to me so sneakily. My defenses were down. In the stillness of the night, as my husband slept, I cried out the Spirit of the Living God in anguish, begging Him to bring a fresh outpouring of His presence into my life.

You see, I have been living as a worm when Scripture tells me that I am a butterfly (see 2 Corinthians 5:17). I have not realized that I have the ability to fly and to be free of the things which bind me (Hebrews 12:1). So, I have continued to burrow in the dirt, wondering why it no longer feels comfortable but trying so desperately to make it work.

My wings are tattered, my eyes downcast.

And yet…He holds me.

This Lenten season is going to have a theme for me, beyond that of introspection and renewal. I need a Rock, a Safe Haven, a Shelter. I need Someone Bigger than me, and I need permission to be small and not all that smart. I need to know and believe that He is the God upon whom I can cast all my anxieties (1 Peter 5:7).

I need to be human, and I need God to be God.

Rather than go wild tonight, I sit quietly and sing these words over and over again:

When I cannot close my eyes

And the night goes on

Trouble taunts on every side

And my doubt is strong

Shelter me, shelter me

Let the thought of Your compassion be my strength

Prince of Peace, shelter me

From the tempest of my unbelief

Mighty God, who calmed the sea

Come and shelter me

Do Your promises still stand?

Does Your mercy cease?

By the power of Your hand

Grant me my release

Shelter me, shelter me

Let the thought of Your compassion be my strength

Prince of Peace, shelter me

From the tempest of my unbelief

Mighty God, who calmed the sea

Come and shelter me

Oh, come and shelter me

– Billy Sprague, Bruce Carroll and Joe Beck

Don’t be like me. Don’t wait until things are a muddle and you feel as though you’re a miss of knots. Fall into His gracious arms right now. Snuggle down into His chest and hear the beating of His holy heart. That is the safest place to be.