“Live leaning in when the pain is fierce
Oh, the bow, it will break at his coming
Stand who can understand the design
The refining holy fire.
Oh, gracious light. Oh, gracious light
I have been walking, walking so long, in darkness.”
(Sandra McCracken, Oh, Gracious Light)
There is an episode of Call the Midwife, where an elderly woman with a gynecological malady (I can’t remember what) comes in to the clinic asking for help. The midwife calls a doctor to assist, and the doctor diagnoses an ongoing disorder.
“Did you know for a long time that there was something wrong with your uterus?” he asked the patient.
The woman told him she had had this problem for all of her adult life; this was the first time she had learned that her “normal” was not healthy.
“I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be this way. We just always called everything ‘down there.’ I didn’t know that it had a name.”
I was so moved when I saw this scene. I have since come to learn: that scene was about me, too.
When my counselor first told me that I had anxiety, I was taken aback, and felt slightly insulted. To me, anxiety and worry were the same thing; I am not the kind of person who lives in mortal fear of natural disasters, or pandemics or traffic accidents. How could I possibly be anxious?
I asked more questions. My therapist explained. And I realized I’d been living with Anxiety for as long as I could remember; it was like I had an appendage that had never been named. And this unnamed thing, Anxiety, had been taking advantage of the fact that it was unidentified. I’d unwittingly been living with something that was hurting me. Maybe it wasn’t right that talking to certain people destroyed my stomach functions for days. Maybe I shouldn’t feel so much tension that I thought my body would implode into a pile of dust. Maybe I should be able to talk to someone on the street without another voice inside my mind shouting at me. Maybe it was not okay for my blood pressure to skyrocket the moment I awoke, or that sleep—when I could fall asleep—was my only escape from tension and trembling.
Before I called it by its proper name, I was blind to anxiety. Anxiety came and went as it pleased, not always present, but never completely absent. It waltzed in my mind’s front door when I woke each morning, it hovered around whispering in my ear while I interacted with other humans, and it haunted me when I was alone. Anxiety talked quickly, and constantly, and it was never reassuring.
“You realize, though, anxiety can be a helper to you,” my counselor told me. “Anxiety can alert you to danger and unhealthy relationships; it can help you make some important decisions. But it will come to your door eagerly, and it will want to barge inside. You need to talk to your anxiety, instead of letting it do all of the talking.”
I think I may well have anxiety waiting in the wings for the rest of my life, always hoping for a chance on my mind’s center stage. The battle for my mind and well-being may always be just a few thoughts away. Had I realized it sooner, or from a different therapist, I might have felt that it was something I simply ought to fix and eliminate so I could just get on with my life. (And I do want to get on with my life; to check my email without my heart in my throat, to feel strong enough to face some people and not tremble, to feel confident that it is okay to speak my thoughts aloud.) But I’ve learned that to live with an anxiety is to be a work in process, it isn’t something that will be readily cured, or fixed.
My journey in discovering my anxiety thus far has also been a gift, and I want to acknowledge this. I have experienced sweetness by it. Anxiety itself is not a sweet thing—it is bitter—and yet, thanks to the good help and skill of a mental health practitioner, this struggle has born fruit in my life.
One of those fruits is that anxiety has helped me to recognize the power of beauty. Perhaps it’s possible that in the same way a person emerging from prison sees the outside world as brilliant and filled with color, those who fight for their minds to be well see beauty in sharper relief. This has been my experience. And so to keep Anxiety from coming in my mind’s front door and rearranging all the furniture, I’ve learned that something different must enter in its place, and that thing is beauty: Beauty is the antithesis of Anxiety.
I am slowly learning to go out and reach for beauty; to pull my daughter into my lap and feel all of her wiggling weight; to look up at the palm leaves above me and search for budding coconuts; to listen to music and do nothing else until my breathing slows down; to hold and smell that cup of tea and let its warmth reach into my tensed up diaphragm; to sit and open the book of Matthew and hear the words of the Man from Galilee. There have been times when I feel like I am about to physically implode, spent by the ravages of my struggle with anxiety, so weary that I wonder if I will live to see my children reach adulthood. I have found myself utterly flattened, and in those low points I’ve realized a clearer, more reassuring view of the most Beautiful thing of all: Jesus Christ.
A large component of my struggle with anxiety is that my mind is always in a courtroom, and I am muted, and am constantly being prosecuted by a host of angry witnesses. I have to be my own defense attorney, but I never get a chance to speak. One of the greatest helps to me was an EMDR (Eye Movement and Desensitization Reprocessing) exercise that helped me re-write the script for my mind. In it, Jesus has taken the role of being my defense attorney; somehow, I don’t even have to be in the courtroom to hear accusations from the opposing side. Jesus assures me that I will face no sentence because he has power over the outcome of my case. I will not be condemned, so I might as well go outside and start enjoying a cup of coffee; he’ll manage all of the proceedings from here.
Anxiety was intended for evil in my life, but here I see God working it out for good, bringing the words of Christ and the promises of the Psalms to my ears in fuller sound than I’ve ever heard them before. Anxiety still tries to grab the microphone, but now there is another voice—a beautiful one—saying, “I do not condemn you,” and the longer I listen, the more I realize anxiety does not have the power to drown out the voice of God.
I live in a tension. There are days when my physical body refuses to accept the truth my mind knows; that God is greater than anxiety. There are days when beauty seems far out of reach. There is war taking place within me. But anxiety ultimately cannot withstand the beauty of God, and I know one day it will lose the fight completely. I didn’t know it before, but I am learning it now, how a person like me can feel so pierced by my own brokenness, and yet be upheld by a God who fights for me in my weakness.
We need to move beyond the place where weakness is a breathless revelation, to a place where weakness is an invitation to shared humanity, an opportunity to rest together at the feet of Jesus till the day we are fully restored. I have found a resting place; it is not an easy place, and yet I’ve never before seen such beauty or known such love. Join me here, in gracious light.
I may not sorrow for I saw the light,
Tho’ I shall walk in valley ways for long,
I still shall hear the echo of the song,—
My life is measured by its one great height.
Joy holds more grace than pain can ever give,
And by my glimpse of joy my soul shall live.
(Excerpt from To Joy, by Sara Teasdale)
We can stand affliction better than we can prosperity, for in prosperity, we forget God.
 Actually, they are not. You can read more on that here if you are curious: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201603/10-crucial-differences-between-worry-and-anxiety
 This is not to make a statement about the aid of medication, which I wholeheartedly believe is valid and necessary depending on the individual and their situation. I am not attempting to speak as an expert, but as someone who has had a specific experience of anxiety and therapeutic treatment.
“Welcome to the Human Race” had so many good thoughts, I wanted to copy and paste them all into here. If you want to learn more about depression, click below to read this fantastic piece.
Another helpful piece featuring Parker Palmer:
On Being Project: The Soul in Depression (this is a podcast but the transcript is also available at this link)
Below are two titles I have enjoyed as I’ve sought to learn more about the mind and how it heals. As I have realized how much of the world lives with trauma and trauma memories, it has become increasingly important to me not only to understand my own struggles, but to try and understand how trauma affects those around me.
I am so grateful for the help of a mental health specialist, and for the fact that we were able to have our weekly meetings over Skype. If you are interested in hearing more about my experience, or talking with a therapist who is able to do long distance and has experience working with folks who are in cross cultural settings, feel free to email me; I’d be happy to connect you with him.
Some thoughts regarding why I’ve chosen to write this publicly
When Christians say, “Love the Lord with all of your …mind”, I think we need to realize that loving God with our minds means doing our best to keep our minds healthy, as we would our bodies. It is worth spending time with a professional, even if you feel like you don’t need it. (If your gut reaction is, “I don’t need counseling”, then I will wager a guess that you absolutely do. If anything has driven me to get counseling, it is the behavior of people who think they are above getting professional help from a psychologist.) We take care of our bodies when we see medical professionals; we ought to take care of our minds, too; I believe this is a message that should be normalized, so that mental healthcare is seen as something that is important for everyone, not just for the “really unstable” people.
I think there is too much silence in the church about important struggles, such as mental health, abuse, etc. I see that this silence benefits no one; it certainly has not benefitted me. I take comfort in these words from Jesus, “There is nothing in the darkness that will not be brought to light,” and I absolutely believe him. While not all of us are in a position to express our struggles, or to expose someone who has abused us, I believe that those of us who are able can, by speaking up, minister and give strength, solidarity and light to those who are unable to raise their voice.
It wasn’t long after entering a lifestyle of what might be termed “Christian service work”, that I realized that people put folks in my role on a pedestal. I realized that to some folks, my life was a product, and I was only supposed to say certain things, and expressing struggle, weakness, or failure was not acceptable. I learned this the hard way, and it was a painful realization. If the next generation of people watches my life and never hear about the hard parts, they are missing out on the most important parts of the story, because much of life is hard and I need God’s help all the time.
I choose to write publicly here about my struggle with anxiety because I believe that putting Christian leaders/workers on a pedestal is wrong—it hurts the church, it hurts the next generation of Christians, it hurts people who need a place to speak, and ultimately it is a false representation of Christ, who loves and saves broken, imperfect people. We are all broken, and if we do not engage with others from a place of conscious, active engagement with our personal brokenness, we will simply perpetuate hurt. I can’t think of a better way to buck this trend than being open about some of my own weakness, hence this piece.