My first, full blown panic attack happened when I was 16.
This memory is planted in my mind, like a seed buried deeply into the earth with layers of dirt and grime attempting to cover it entirely.
The memory starts like this: It is an otherwise normal Sunday morning. As I roll out of bed with intentions of getting dressed for church, I am met with trembling legs and a queasy stomach. Things escalate quickly. In the span of ten minutes, I throw up the liquid contents of my empty stomach and find myself laid out on the cold, bathroom tiles, desperately holding on to my racing heart. I call out to my mother, who immediately shows up at the bathroom door to assist me. Her face goes pale; her state of distress almost matching mine. With makeup brushes strewn across the bathroom counter and my frail body strewn across the floor, she decides to call 911.
One of the perks of growing up in a small town is the speed of emergency responders. Out of fear that I might be going into cardiac arrest, the police are the first to arrive, equipped with defibrillators to help me catch my breath. Minutes later, the ambulance pull frantically into our front yard and carry me onto their truck to assess the situation. After taking my vitals and running a few simple tests, it is determined that I don’t need to be taken to the hospital.
There is no diagnosis made; no explanation attached to what is going on inside of me. This is only the beginning of my personal pandemic. This new, unnamed ailment spreads rapidly throughout my body. I feel it starting in my brain, extending through my limbs, and infecting every fiber of my being. I want it to stop.
For months, I have appointments with multiple medical professionals- pediatricians, cardiologists, neurologists. And one trip to the ER, where I end up having a mini seizure on the tiny bed of one of the triage rooms. During these months, my body is hooked up to countless EKGs and my brain is scanned by countless imaging machines. The body and mind that I’ve known for 16 years has become foreign- an enigma both to me and my loved ones.
One doctor’s visit results in the discovery of what appears to be another unknown issue. The neurologist sits me down with an expression of regret, showing me the abnormal MRA results, and the tiny spot they are concerned about.
“It looks like a pseudoaneurysm,” he says. Then proceeds to inform my teenage self of the potential health implications, including losing all motor capabilities on the right side of my body.
The doctors conduct an emergency procedure while my family offers up emergency prayers to God. The procedure reveals a miracle- no pseudoaneurysm in sight, after a closer look. I say a prayer of thanksgiving- grateful that this exam shows I am healthy, but frustrated that I still don’t feel like myself.
“What is wrong with me? And if all of these different doctors say that everything looks normal now, why do I feel so abnormal?” The lack of an explanation plagues me and perplexes me.
Suddenly, I’m confined to my bed. This body that all the doctors confirm to be “healthy and okay” is failing me. It can’t sleep more than a few hours at night, but unwillingly sleeps throughout the day. My diet consists of Special K cereal bars and Cran-grape juice, but rejects my mom’s home cooked meals. I’m unable to get up for school. This stranger I’ve become is not interested in cheerleading practice, theater, or my other long list of extracurricular activities. The few times that I try to get myself to my high school and make it through a full day, I end up desperately calling my mom to sign me out, before lunch. After each escape from school, I return home to my bed-my safe space.
The next few months find me homebound; accepting visits from friends and family who aren’t exactly sure what is wrong with me or how they can be helpful when I’m like this. This sickness is contagious. As it brings me low, it brings everyone else low. I see it in their faces when they come near me- hopeless looks of sympathy and confusion.
Leaving the house for anything just feels too daunting and dangerous. On most Sundays, at least I make it to church. But I sit on the pew, clinging like a toddler to my mother-barely able to breathe between the lines of the hymns that we sing.
God I know you’re in control, so please take this feeling away from me. I want a new mind and body-a normal, teenage mind and body-fixated on lighter, silly concerns. I don’t want to feel like I’m suffocating everyday. Make me new. Help me breathe.
After being misdiagnosed and referred to all the wrong doctors, I finally find myself where I needed to be all along. Therapy. This debilitating, personal pandemic that is spreading wildly through my veins and obliterating every aspect of my life is finally given a name- Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
How did they miss it? Why did it take so long to diagnose? Better late than never.
Each session that lands me on the blue couch of the therapist’s office, feels lighter. From the seat of that couch, I unload the stories of my past, the struggles of my present and the paralyzing fears of my future. The therapist listens carefully and explains her understanding of how all of my life experiences lead me to her office to seek help and fight for my sanity.
I show up weekly. I do the therapeutic homework assignments. And in the time between my appointments, I pray fervently for strength. I am prescribed tiny pills that I swallow daily, in hopes of feeling brand new. Slowly, I feel myself healing.
I can feel it in my bones- the reparation of the parts of me that anxiety disintegrated. The remainder of high school regains some normalcy and a shot at rediscovering myself. Things are getting better, so by my freshman year of college, I feel confident about weaning myself off of the tiny, white pills. With no more meds in the picture, less honorable seasons sometimes force me to self medicate with unhealthy coping mechanisms. And when the partying and fun leave me empty, I resort to prayer.
Four years pass before I feel the deep pangs of anxiety again. It doesn’t evolve quietly. This time, the personal pandemic attacks like an ambush- knocking me down before I can see what is coming.
The memory is vivid: It’s another Sunday morning and it’s ten days before Christmas. I drop my college boyfriend off at his apartment, not knowing we are parting ways for eternity.
The months leading up to his death were filled with his own battles with mental and emotional turmoil. From being attacked by a mob of guys to the despair of unemployment, I stood beside him, watching him go through an out of body experience. Suddenly, I knew how my family and friends felt as they watched me suffer through mental illness; hopeful that things would go back to normal and helpless in the waiting.
After we part ways on what will be the final Sunday of his life, I call and text him multiple times. No answer. Growing increasingly anxious, I call his mom, who thinks that maybe he just needs some space. She might be right. But something still feels ominous. When the early winter sun begins to set and my phone still has no response, I drive over to his apartment. Back and forth up the stairs I go. Knocking,repeatedly, without an answer.
Eventually, I call the police and his mother, while I wait outside. I feel the anxiety welling in my throat, as the police show up and break into the apartment. From the parking lot, my heart races faster than my thoughts. My stomach churns.
Like many traumatic experiences, the events seemed to occur in the blink of an eye and simultaneously, last forever. But I remember the morbid details. The blank looks on the police’s faces as they slowly made their way down the apartment steps. The lights of the emergency vehicles. The yellow tape wrapped around the scene. The confirmation of his suicide. And worst of all, the blood curdling scream from his mother as I delivered the news via phone, barely able to form my words.
The days that follow are dark. I find myself back at my mother’s house, back in my bed, spending my days in a fetal position. I cry uncontrollably in the same sheets that absorbed my tears four years ago. The personal pandemic strikes again. My body is unable to sleep or eat or be interested in the things that once brought me joy. Despair penetrates my bones, leaking into the marrow. Not even the thought of Christmas arriving sparks joy in my spirit. It is a daily routine- soaking my pillow and my bible with tears, as I cry out to God for help.
Paralyzed by a personal pandemic, again.
About a month into grieving, I start a blog. Writing is therapeutic in ways that I can’t explain. All of the pain stored up in my body releases itself in the form of words. Other people begin responding to my words, sharing that they feel healed when reading my thoughts. As they experience freedom, so do I.
New hope and mercies somehow find me again. I move to a new city. I begin my graduate studies in counseling at a prestigious university. I meet beautiful new souls along the way.
It’s been six years since my new start in North Carolina. Life has unfolded rapidly, as I’ve gained the roles of counselor, wife and mother. But a new location and a new start, doesn’t necessarily obliterate old patterns of thinking.
Anxiety is the rain cloud that moves in to block the sunshine of my bright days. It finds the light and slowly covers it, always preparing for a storm. For me, this dark cloud appears in the happiest of times, leading me to believe that the sunshine is always temporary. And it shows up in the darkest of times to convince me that the storm will last forever. My psyche defaults to the idea that the rain, lightning and thunder are always imminent. The trauma from my past sticks to my story like hot glue that has hardened on a surface. It leads to anxious thoughts, convincing me that the next tragedy awaits me. Together, they whisper a morbid warning: Be on guard. Look for the danger to come.
I felt the imminent danger, when I found out we were expecting. The threat of postpartum anxiety and depression hung over my head. The dark thoughts whispered: You’re definitely going to be a part of this statistic, because you’ve struggled before.
I feel the imminent danger in this new season of COVID-19 sweeping across our world. My past battles with health anxiety magnify the threat of it all. The dark thought whispers: This virus is bound to touch you or the people you love. The danger is at your front door.
My old patterns of thinking still present as a stumbling block at times. But when they creep in, I fight for renewal, because I know I’ve been redeemed.
Seasons of personal pandemic have forced me to seek a consistent hope. My faith has been the vaccine- not historically my first resort, but consistently my best one.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
A relationship with the God who makes all things new means that anxiety does not have to carry shame, even when it creeps back up in the times of pressure and uncertainty.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” 2 Corinthians 4:16
It’s a constant refining process, this internal renewal. This truth that I am being renewed, daily, alleviates the despair that comes when anxiety returns to steal my joy. It gently encourages the door of my soul to remain open, so that God can usher in the new mercies that he offers us each morning.
Jesus is not surprised by my anxiety and my struggles make me no less honorable in his sight. He is the patient father who reminds me that when I am weak, he is strong. He is the grace giver who nudges me to be still and know that he is Lord of my life and I am not. He has seen every ugly, broken part of my past and he holds my future- the broken and the beautiful. Like my mom’s house, his presence is the safe place I return to for refuge when I hit rock bottom.
In an actual pandemic or what feels like a personal one, I will do what I’ve always done.
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Phillipians 4:8
“do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Philippians 4:6
“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:6-7
I focus on the things in my control: praying, praising, humbling myself to ask for God’s help, and laying the weight of my worries at his feet.
Complete freedom and renewal will come one day. Perhaps, not on this side of heaven. So I’ll cling to Christ and grasp his daily renewal, in the waiting.
When winter frost forces trees to bid their leaves farewell, they don’t hide away in mourning. They stand confident that with the first sign of spring, God will revive and bring forth new life, just as he always does. I want to stand firm with such confidence- braving cold seasons with hope and the assurance of revival.
Whether I find myself desperately panicking on a bathroom floor again (I hope I don’t) or basking in a moment of perfect peace, I will raise a hallelujah. In the pit and at the peak, he is the same, faithful God. The one who makes all things new.
“I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.” Psalm 40: 1-3
Remain hopeful. Stay anchored. Refuse to sink.
This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “All Things New.”