This post is one of those messy, real and raw ones. If you like nice and neat, you might want to stop here. If you keep reading, consider yourself warned. I am going to be candid. I mean really candid.
Church, in many streams I’ve served in, we have been abysmal in how we deal with mental health issues. Mental health issues are not black and white. Throwing Bible verses and platitudes at them does not make them better. Sunday school answers can and often do actually shame rather than serve. If we truly want to be safe communities of faith and compassionate healing, we have so very much to learn about how we can love one another well in these areas. And I hope and pray we will.
I’ll start with my story.
I thought I knew what anxiety was… until I had it.
It’s that flutter of nerves before a test, or the stress of a hard season at work or feeling edgy when difficult things were happening. Right? Not even close.
After 7 years serving in one of the most stressful situations humanly possible and having 18 rounds with cerebral malaria mess with my brain chemistry, I wound up back in the USA seriously ill and dealing with PTSD. We are talking jump-out-of-my-skin-at-everything anxiety that made me feel like the world was ending, someone sucked all the oxygen out of the room and I was caught under a monster wave spun around until I was no longer sure what direction was up. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, I didn’t want to be in crowds, I couldn’t think straight half the time. Basically, back then if you looked PTSD up in a dictionary, I’m pretty sure you would have seen my picture as an example.
The organizational situation that precipitated my departure from Africa (in addition to my health problems) was one of the most traumatic things I have ever walked through in 20+ ministry. There were violating betrayals on multiple layers and levels. And it honestly has taken much of these 5 years just to process what the heck happened.
When I came back to the USA, my nerves were fried, my adrenals shot and my immune system in tatters. I began dealing with debilitating panic attacks. Somewhere in the medical maze of trying to figure out my tangle of issues, I got put on a low dose of a non-addicting anti-anxiety drug that might also help with nerve pain. Things were still very, very hard, but they seemed to get marginally better.
I sought prayer and counsel. With a few beautiful exceptions, the responses I got often insinuated I must be the problem. I needed to just forgive and move on. Surely the people involved couldn’t have acted like that, or maybe they just had a hard day. I should give grace. Being a leader is tough stuff. And where was my faith? Maybe I had picked up a demon somewhere and needed deliverance. At best, many if not most of the responses I received were a litany of what NOT to say to someone struggling. At worst, they were circling-the-wagons, blame-shifting spiritual abuse. And that is in no way OK… ever.
It was incredible grace I made it through some days. I was also simultaneously dealing with extreme physical pain, family medical crises, the deepest grief and loss I had ever known and uncertainty about finances and the future. 95% of the major relationships in my world ended in the space of few weeks in 2013, along with 98% of the life I had dreamed.
I had just a few things going on in addition to skin-crawling anxiety. I assumed the irritable, edginess was just something I’d have to deal with from rewired brain chemistry or maybe PTSD. I found an amazing therapist who has been a gift from heaven in all of this. Slowly I began doing better, but still the edgy, the angry and the irritable were constantly nipping at my heels. I blamed it on hormones, adrenals, nerve damage, the weather (not really). I honestly thought I’d just have to fight through it. And that fight friends was exhausting.
Then one day about a week ago, I was so busy with project related work I forgot to take the anti-anxiety medication.
(Now before anyone freaks out, this particular medication only stays in your body 16 hours and you do not have to wean off of it like an SSRI. I am not advocating ANYONE stop taking anything without the approval of your care team and doctor.)
I simply forgot. Into the afternoon, I felt buoyant and hopeful in a way I resigned myself I might never feel again. I had energy. People cutting me off in traffic didn’t make me want to scream at them very choice four-letter words. (Of which, I can assure you L-O-V-E was not one.) I could think straight without herculean effort. I wasn’t edgy or overwhelmed. I felt like myself for the first time in 4+ years.
So I checked the medication out and made sure it was not a medication I needed to be titrated down from. It wasn’t. I searched the side effects and saw everything I had been dealing with in increasing measure… especially for the last 18 months. So I stopped taking it. And this Christmas, I feel like I got a huge piece of my life back.
I am keenly aware that for most of my friends struggling with anxiety, it isn’t a pharmaceutical issue. It isn’t an easy answer like stop taking the evil drug you are reacting to. Y’all are seriously some of the bravest people I have ever met. You who keep showing up even in the middle of a battle.
Do I still have a challenging road ahead health wise? Indeed. Am I still processing repercussions and lessons from what I’ve walked through? Very much so. But in an odd way, I am really grateful for the last 4 years. I am 1000-fold more aware and empathetic than I ever was before walking through them.
My hope in sharing all this is not to point fingers or assign blame or get into the who-did-what mud pit. It is simply to open up a conversation about how we can truly become nurturing communities that are safe to be right where we are as we walk the road to greater wholeness. Because in Him, we are safe. A bruised reed He does not break. The question is, will we learn to love ourselves and others like He does.
I want to encourage you who may struggle with anxiety in varying measures, you are not alone. Not ever alone. It can feel completely isolating. If your faith community doesn’t know how to be supportive of where you are at in healthy ways, please don’t give up the search to find one who does. You, dear one, are loved so much more than you know.