My Battle With Anxiety

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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.

Why Covering Should Be Left to Umbrellas

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Umbrellas do a great job as coverings, people not so much.

If I had $5 for every time someone asked me, “Who (or what) is your covering?” {i.e. who do you report to and what gives you authority to minister, especially as a woman}, I could afford to attend as much grad school as I like for the rest of my life.  We are talking become a full-time serious life-long grad student.  For at least the next 20 years.  From a private villa in the Caribbean.

I know some folks have simply picked up poor terminology and what they really mean to ask is, “Are you in mutual, open-hearted, transparent, authentic community in Christ?”  But many, perhaps even most, are asking because there is a pervasive teaching that uses the term covering in any number of ways, most of which are oppressive to women and all of them are hierarchical in nature and contrary to the mutuality of the Gospel.   And they are just plain flat unbiblical.

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus…” 1 Tim 2:5  And the word men there is anthropos, as in human being.  So actually it reads, “…one Mediator between God and people”.

The conversation usually gets awkward and uncomfortable when I respond and assert my “covering” is Jesus. {You want me covered by man… no problem. Jesus fits the description.} The question then usually gets rephrased to ask, “Well, ur, I mean who are you accountable to?”  My response: “Hopefully the same person you are. God. And yes I have great relationships thank you for asking.”  Even though deep inside I’d like to fire back, “and you think it is appropriate to ask me this as the first question of introduction from a complete stranger, because?”

IGrace-bloggraphic-spirabuseseries.jpgI could go into a very long detailed biblical exegesis and explanation of all the history behind and biblical responses to the covering phenomena, but instead let me refer you to a fabulous article Frank Viola wrote on the subject that says everything I would explain and then some: Who Is Your Covering?

Other resources I have found helpful and/or encouraging:

The next time someone asks me what my covering is, I am going to be hard pressed not to reply, “Well, when it rains… my umbrella.”

Have a beautiful weekend friends!

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Shattering the Stained Glass Ceiling

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The only thing lower than the glass ceiling for women is the stained glass ceiling.  And it’s about time both are shattered.

If you are on Twitter at all, you may have run across the hashtag #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear started by Sarah Bessey (who is a fabulous writer) a few days ago. What follows is an online conversation that yanks back the veil of silence to expose misogyny and oppression in the institutional church.  It is heart-rending and infuriating.  But it is also filled with hope.

As a woman who has been in ministry leadership for over 20 years, I want to add my story to the swell. Or at least part of my story.

I am about to get gut-level honest about many things I have never spoken about publicly, so if you don’t like raw… I’ll give you a moment to click over to something else.

Some of what I am about to talk about is hard and all of it is true.  It is not a blanket indictment on the institutional church everywhere.  I’ve had some wonderful, affirming, pure-hearted experiences.  But unfortunately, I can count them on less than two hands.  I’ve had many more experiences that were mixed, like most things fallen and imperfect are.  I hold on to the good and learn from what was not.  And I’ve had downright assaults to who I am as a woman; mind, body and soul.

I did not meet Jesus or come to faith in an institutional church setting and when I did start attending, the denomination I was in was one of the most open to women leaders at the time.  I never had anyone tell me “women don’t preach”.  It never even crossed my mind.  Until one day I was sitting in my university’s intro to ministry course.  And I innocently dropped a bomb in my introduction when I enthusiastically proclaimed:

“I’m called to preach.” The silence was only broken by the professor’s sputtering objection, “You mean you’re called to teach…”

“No, sir, I can do that but I’m really called to preach.”

And I refused to back down.  So I got assigned to intern under a woman who could straighten out my heretical streak and show me the finer nuances of children’s ministry.  I wouldn’t back down for her either.  It remains the only class in my entire academic career I have ever gotten a C in.  I became known as a “lovable heretic”. I think I might put that on my tomb stone one day… “here lies Michele, a lovable heretic”.

In the last 20 years since then, I’ve: (Disclaimer: This list is in no particular order, has no names named and is in no way comprehensive.)

  • Been invited to “share” or “testify” even though it was the sermon slot.
  • Been picked up for speaking engagements overseas and then not allowed to speak because they thought I was a “Michael” not a “Michele”
  • Had a male team member who on more than one attempt tried to nuzzle or bear hug me and whom I physically had to push away. (Which is at the very least, sexual harassment and according to some definitions, a form of sexual assault)
  • Had my character maligned and been personally and professionally attacked for standing up for survivors and the abuse being perpetrated against them
  • Been invited to speak and then given 2 minutes when initially it was an invitation to preach
  • Been hosted inappropriately when traveling on the road
  • Been violently physically assaulted by the male leader of a church I was leading an outreach team to overseas and then later given 24 hours to get out of the country because of ongoing threats from him to the broader organization.
  • Experienced organizational corruption by male leaders who did not protect survivors who reported repeated sexual assault
  • Been labeled as unstable because of defending those I served against abuse and systemic injustice
  • Had original ideas and content stolen or co-opted by male leaders who then publicly exploited them for their own benefit (for the record, I’ve had that from female leaders too- they just were a bit more subtle about it.)
  • And this list could go on another 10 pages.  You get the picture.

IGrace-bloggraphic-spirabuseseries1.jpgThe stained glass ceiling for women is very real, often abusive and suffocatingly low.

Before you dismiss this as the ramblings of a rebellious, bitter woman (and I do know most of you would never do that), I want you to know those who have wronged me and those I love have been and by grace, are being, continually forgiven.

But forgiving is not forgetting.  It is not an excuse for a systemic, pervasive injustice so far from the heart of God, it betrays His very Kingdom on deep and fundamental levels.

There is no biblical mandate for being sweet and nice, although that is culturally what we are taught, especially as women.  In most places I have been, strong women with a strong prophetic voice are not viewed as Deborahs, but Jezebels.  So we are trained to embrace a psuedo-form of meekness.

And some of the loudest advocates of the stained glass ceiling for women in the church are other womenChristianity Today is running a series about women writers who don’t have “biblical” authority and their unhealthy influence from the blogosphere.  The flagship article of the series, written by a woman leader, states that: “In this new cyber age, authority comes not from the church or the academic guild but from popularity…. it is a crisis of authority, especially for women.”

Really?

How does this stained glass ceiling start to get shattered?  One woman at a time refusing to live under it, be silenced by it, or settle for being defined by it.

Women do not have separate but “equally important” roles.  If history teaches us nothing else, it screams separate can never be truly equal.

Genesis 2:18 says, “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”  This verse is often interpreted that women exist to be helpmates of men, which is almost always an inferior connotation.

The word for helper is the Hebrew word ezer.  Two-thirds of the usage of this noun biblically has God as the designated helper.  In three of the uses, ezer can be translated as warrior.  Mounce states, “With so many references to God as our helper, it is obvious that an ʻēzer is in no way inferior to the one who receives help. This is important because this is the word that God uses in Gen. 2:18… According to God’s design, therefore, the man and the woman, the husband and the wife, have been designed by God to stand together and help each other fight the battles of life. And God is there as the divine ʻēzer to fight with them.”

So, yes I am 100% egalitarian in my beliefs about women in any role in leadership in the institutional church, or outside of it.  I do not believe in the concept of covering except by Jesus Himself.  I do believe in community with real, honest, messy accountability that is born in the place of mutually honoring relationship.

The view of women in many places within fundamental Christianity has greater similarities to the views concerning women in fundamental Islam or Judaism, than it does to the heart of Jesus. (Yes, I know that is a loaded statement. But in my experience it is also an accurate one.)  Jesus came to set women free.  In fact, He might even be considered one of the world’s first feminists. Just ask Mary as she sat at His feet or the woman at the well as He encountered her in perfect love and truth shattering cultural and religious norms.

Much of what the institutional church views as “biblical” womanhood is a man-made systematization of the curse in Genesis. Sarah Bessey explains it so well: “The curse that was laid upon Eve–her desire would be for her husband, and her pain in childbirth would be greatly multiplied–even shows us how patriarchy, subordination, and pain are part of the Fall. They were never God’s original intent; they are a consequence of sin.”

Shattering the stained glass ceiling is a profound and prophetic call back to the life of Jesus and the freedom of the Gospel.  It is a mandate born not in the structures of man, but in the original intent of the heart of God.

Selah.

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