Walking with Anxiety and Jesus
It's been a great day. My classes have been interesting, I ate lunch with a table full of friends and the weather is absolutely beautiful. Now I'm sitting in my dorm room and I feel like I can't breathe.
This isn't a medical-emergency or a strange situation; this is my life.
It's not that my room makes me feel like I can't breathe, or that classes I had today stressed me out. I've felt this way all day, and I felt this way yesterday. Nothing in my life has necessarily changed or gone wrong within the last week, nothing should have triggered this. It's not that I'm at a new school, living in a new place. It's that I live with anxiety.
When I say that I can't breathe, I mean that it feels like I have a huge weight on my chest, insistent on going away only when it chooses to, giving me no say and leaving me helpless. It makes me feel tired, disconnected, and drained. It's a physical manifestation of the way I mentally feel.
Those words might surprise you if you know me, because I wouldn't usually describe myself as tired, disconnected or drained. I often go through my days laughing, focused, and energized. Only when my breathing gets bad do I realize that there's a problem under the surface. Then I have to slow down and analyze what's causing the issue at this particular point in time. It's frustrating because I don't start out feeling bad mentally, but my body points me to issues that I may not even realize. Instead of violently showing up on the scene, the anxiety is always there. When it decides to really show up, it does so quietly. It waltzes into my life, pulls up a chair and gets comfortable; ready to camp out for days, weeks, or even months.
Anxiety hasn't always been like this for me. It is usually a constant and steady presence, but it's been violent in the past. It's messed with my mind in ways I don't know how to describe. I've walked through months upon months of severe and excruciating mental pain, trying to combat the intense lies and spiritual warfare that were planted in my mind so stubbornly. This is the kind of anxiety that leads to depression and panic attacks. The kind that makes you wake up in the morning and only have one normal breath before that heaviness hits your chest and your mind is clouded with unbearable thoughts yet again. It makes you look forward to the mornings in a pitiful way, because you know there might be moment of relief before reality hits you. But it also makes you dread the mornings, because the reality you wake up to is more crushing and defeating than you can imagine.
So yeah, I've walked with severe anxiety.
But I've also walked with Jesus.
And today, as I was walking back from class, feeling panic ensue when I couldn't get rid of the heaviness in my chest, I began to pray. Nothing dramatic, nothing fancy. Just repeating God's promises to myself. The anxiety didn't relent when I did this, but something beautiful happened; I was able to look up and rejoice in the stunning blue sky for the first time today.
This is a practice I got used to doing when my anxiety was at its worst. There were days when all I did was pray. In class, while driving, during meals, taking showers, going to bed, and doing homework were always accompanied with prayer, scripture, or music that told me truth about God. I had to chose to constantly allow Jesus to pour His words into me.
When I would wake up on those hard mornings and feel nothing but despair, I got in to the steady routine of opening my bible every day and gradually making my way through the book of Psalms. I would usually take one Psalm at a time and simply write out the characteristics of God that the particular passage taught me. I would write out the deep lies that were in my head, lies that questioned my sanity and faith, among other things. I would sit there and read a Psalm and struggle to believe a single word on that holy page. But Jesus was with me. I would then pray hard and desperately for a change, that even if I had to deal with anxiety for my entire life, I would at least be able to see Jesus clearly again. And occasionally, those prayers were answered with relief and glimmers of hope. But more often than not, they were answered with utter silence.
The feeling of not hearing from God is strange and angering. There were months of no relief, of desperate cries and prayers screamed at God to fix what he was letting happen to me. My life consisted of emotional breakdowns in the arms of friends and family, desperate requests for prayer, long drives to see a good counselor, and a lot of questions that refused to be answered.
Throughout all of that, I somehow resolved to keep waiting on Jesus. This looked like spending time in the Word and prayer day in and day out, with no results for a long time. It was painful and felt crazy. But eventually, Jesus slowly permeated my soul with His truths. I've never known the presence of God better than I do right now, because living without being able to see it clearly was the worst thing in the world. Jesus never really left me, but he made himself less clear for a time so that I would learn to love Him even more than I knew I could.
You may read this and think that my life is incredibly hard or sad, and that couldn't be further from the truth. Jesus walked with me through the hardest time of my life and met me at the end with blessings and joy indescribable. When God is silent, He is always working. He is always faithful, even when we are faithless. He sees and hears our cries, and I have no doubt in my mind that He is active to heal us and bring us into a flourishing life. Jesus never really left me, but he made himself less clear for a time so that I would learn to love Him and to give me a story to share.
I'm sharing about anxiety because an overwhelming number of people struggle with mental health issues every day. That truth is heartbreaking, but Jesus never leaves us in those struggles. He is sure to be faithful, as sure as the tide. I praise God for my anxiety because He used it to make me need Him like I never thought I would.