Two weeks ago, I bought a last-minute ticket and drove down to Nashville for the Killer Tribes conference. It was amazing.
But I nearly missed out. My health has been skittish the past few months, so I was a little anxious about driving the three hours to Nashville by myself.
That seems like common sense, right? Better to stay home and stay safe.
Well, no. Clinically, that’s called agoraphobia, and mine started way back in 2001.
Like so many people, 9/11 triggered my first intense bout of anxiety. I was on a plane over the Atlantic–bound for New York City–when the planes hit that morning. The pilot announced that U.S. air space was closed and turned our plane around.
When we stepped off the plane into the chaos of the Prague airport, a flight attendant–who couldn’t bring herself to look into the Americans’ eyes–handed each of us a CNN.com printout detailing the day’s horrors, all in a few paragraphs. Even in that sparse summary, outdated misinformation had already been blacked out with a sharpie. The information was still unreliable, but it was horrific enough. The New Yorkers around me crumpled, or were pulled to the tv screen nearby, riveted by the breaking news.
A few wandering days later, still stranded, I landed in a Nurnberg emergency room with what I thought was an allergic reaction to a bee sting. It wasn’t. It was a panic attack. My first.
Once I got back to the states, my doctor diagnosed PTSD and prescribed a slew of pharmaceuticals to keep my burgeoning panic attacks at bay. They kept coming; the meds made me woozy and nauseous but didn’t seem to do anything else for me.
I was suddenly afraid I’d pass out behind the wheel, or when I was alone. I was afraid I’d get sick while trapped in the middle of the church pew, and wouldn’t be able to get out. I was a runner, but was suddenly scared to venture more than a few blocks from home.
My doctor told me I’d entered the classic cycle of anxiety–panic, anxiety, avoidance–and told me to keep taking my meds. I never saw a therapist; my doctor said I didn’t need to. I was 22 and healthy, except for my resting heart rate of 190 beats a minute and my fear to get behind the wheel, or be by myself.
And while my first impulse was to make the bad stuff go away, it was undeniable that this struggle–and the subsequent struggles of my 20s–were bringing real good into my life. My cocky 22-year-old self was humbled. For the first time, I felt like this world might be too much for me to handle on my own. I felt like I might actually need God, instead of the other way around.
I dropped the meds, and eventually my panic attacks stopped.
But for the past decade, any kind of health weirdness has revved up my nasty cycle of anxiety all over again. I’ve only had a handful of panic attacks in the intervening ten years, but–just like the first one–they’ve all been triggered by health issues.
This past January, I had my first panic attack in 5 years. I remember passing that 5-year milestone last year: like a cancer patient, I’d declared my panic attacks officially “in remission,” and it felt good.
But when my hand started going numb this winter, my doctor wanted to investigate some pretty scary potential causes, so I went to the hospital for a bunch of expensive tests. He told me to pay close attention to my body, to journal every symptom. For someone with my history, this is a recipe for disaster. Soon I was back on that stupid cycle–panic attack fueling anxiety fueling agoraphobia.
This time, I went to see my therapist. (Because now I’m mature like that: I have a therapist.) She thought my freaking out about breaking my 5-year perfect record was unwarranted, and calmly said, “honey, anxiety is just a tool. Let’s see what your anxiety is trying to tell you.”
Her wise words gave me the confidence to leave my safe spaces, and with a leap of faith and a whole lot of positive self-talk, I convinced myself I’d be okay to get down to Nashville.
Ironically, when I got back from Killer Tribes, the first book I picked up–the one waiting at the top of the stack–was Rhett Smith’s new book The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good? In it, he tells the story of his own struggle with anxiety, kickstarted when his mom died of breast cancer when Rhett was 11.
Rhett shared his story as a Christian struggling with anxiety, and I had to laugh when I saw what he was advocating: ten years of wisdom I’d gleaned from the school of hard knocks were staring up at me from the page:
1. That Christians struggling with anxiety recognize that it’s a tool, and that it can have enormous potential for good, if we let it.
2. That Christians struggling with anxiety should seek professional help.
As a Christian who’s struggled with anxiety, I appreciate Rhett’s practical–and redemptive–approach to anxiety. I’m thankful for the lessons I’ve learned since 9/11, but I nevertheless hope his book spares some Christians the hardships and heartache I went through.
And I’m hopeful that Rhett’s book indicates that the church’s attitude towards Christians’ anxiety is finally shifting. I’ve been reluctant to discuss my own struggles in Christian circles, because to too many believers, anxiety is a symptom of only one thing: a flawed faith.
But I have to agree with Rhett, and with my therapist: anxiety isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s a tool. And as a tool, it can spur me on to a deeper life, and not just interfere with my real life.
But only if I use it well.
I’m sharing this post at Joy’s Life: Unmasked link-up.