“I think I have anxiety.”
The words came out in a rush, followed hard by tears and shame. Saying them out loud felt like failure. Like an admission that I wasn’t strong enough or resilient enough or faithful enough to beat this thing that was overwhelming me. But I needed help.
I had been back in my passport country for eight months and the shock of re-entry hadn’t gotten any better. In fact, it was getting worse. I’d come back on the edge of burnout, emotionally exhausted, and grieving the life I had left behind. Over the next few months, that grief had coloured everything until I no longer recognized myself. And then it had morphed into something else. Instead of sadness alone, it began to look more like a constant state of fear and overwhelm. I felt like an exposed nerve, even the slightest touch sent shockwaves through me. Everything was too bright and too loud and too much. It wasn’t long before the panic attacks began and soon I was having a few each day.
At the time, I described it as dwelling in a dark valley with shifting sands and haunting shadows. A place in which it was impossible to find solid ground or to grasp hold of anything that would anchor me. I knew the truth of my salvation, but it was in such opposition to what I was feeling and experiencing that, in the worst moments, it seemed meaningless. I struggled to pray or to open God’s Word and church each week became an ordeal to get through, if I could.
It was the state of my spiritual health that made me realize that this was more than a difficult season. And so, there I was in the doctor’s office, believing I had failed, asking for help.
My doctor got me tissues and listened carefully. She told me that she was proud of me and that I was brave. She said that this moment I thought was failure was actually a victory.
The medication was like the first beams of sunshine after a heavy fog. I could think clearly again, could begin reasoning and making sense of what was happening to me. The doctor had given me a six-month prescription but she made it clear that medication alone was not enough. With the support of my teammates and the member care team, I began learning. I learned to define anxiety as anticipatory fear combined with the belief that I didn’t have the resources I needed to meet it. I learned about the physiological manifestations of anxiety and how to manage it rather than be managed by it. I learned that my doctor was right. Admitting my need and asking for help took far more courage than I could have imagined. It was the beginning of a long journey towards health and healing.
And, I relearned a precious truth I had lost sight of in the wilderness – although I still couldn’t pray, although my faith was lacking, although I struggled to take hold of anything, God had a firm hold of me. Gently, persistently, Bible verses filled my mind and transformed my vision, shining pearls of light in the darkness. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses… (Hebrews 12:1). I leaned heavy on the faith of those who had come before me, finding solace and hope in the Puritan prayers collected in The Valley of Vision. “I lift my eyes unto the hills, from where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth…” (Psalm 121:1-2).
I let creation speak truth to me, spending hours outside with a camera, taking in the beauty and the details. “I will give you treasures of darkness, riches stored in secret places, so that you may know that I am the Lord…” (Isaiah 45:3). I looked with expectant eyes and began to see that even in this dark and treacherous valley, God was there and He was working. “…with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God…” (Philippians 4:6). I practised giving thanks, wielding it like a weapon to interrupt my anxious thoughts and redirect my focus to the One who holds me in His hands. “I will not leave you as orphans, I will come to you…” (John 14:18). The promises took hold of me and, slowly, I began to hold onto them too.
I was able to come off the medication after a year. I know this is not everyone’s story. Your story, or the story of those you love, might have a far longer valley, or maybe it’s shorter. Medication may not be an option or a need for you, or maybe it’s a necessity. For me, anxiety is still there sometimes, a dark shadow creeping on my peripherals. But I know I’ll be ok. Because always, He keeps hold of me.
How does knowing that God keeps hold of you change things?
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