About 11 years ago I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). At the beginning, when it was most out of hand, I clicked around for articles and essays and blogs that might look me in my tired soul and say, “Hey, I get it. Me too. This is a thing. You’re not alone.”
But I was alone.
Because despite the onslaught of mental health content I found, I couldn’t find the one perspective I longed for most–that of other Christians who share my diagnosis.
I needed to know I wasn’t the only one with an anxiety disorder entangled in her faith. My anxiety has always been peculiarly Christian (probably because I’m peculiarly Christian), which is a paradox I aim to unpack here over time. The intersection of GAD and Christianity gives way to nuanced complexities of which the church is generally unaware. That’s why I’m putting words to my journey: maybe someone clicking for hope will read this and feel less alone. Maybe a dialogue will start, maybe a taboo will melt away somewhere out there. Whatever purpose this piece ends up serving or not serving, I’m sharing a story God’s writing. We all have one of those, and they’re meant to be shared (eventually). Here’s part of mine.
To many Christians, anxiety is a sin. I get it. Growing up, I heard it proclaimed from the pulpit:
Scripture is the only weapon needed by the faithful believer to win the fight against depression and anxiety! Believers need not look to worldly sources like secular therapy and medication!
Anxiety and depression are spiritual ailments that need spiritual remedy!
Scripture alone is enough, and if it isn’t, then you need more faith!
Twenty years ago, those sermons rubbed me the wrong way. And yet it seeped through my skin because five years later, at the onset of my disorder, I mistook my anxiety for sin, which only exacerbated my pain and confusion…
…It was July 2002 and I was 19. I had just returned from a two-week mission trip in Croatia where, with a handful of other believers, I was teaching English, chugging espresso, and sharing hope. We lived a life of unquestionable purpose. Other than the fact that I was secretly dying of heart disease (thank you, palpitations and thank you, hypochondria), I basked in the satisfaction of knowing that my time and energy were well-spent. It felt like God was smiling down on me–like I was on track to one day hear Him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
But then I got home.
Per my heart, I got doctor’s orders to lay off caffeine, relax, and get more sleep, which seemed like good timing because I had a month of free time in my hometown before I had to head back to college.
Unfortunately, despite my open schedule and the pool in my parents’ backyard, I couldn’t relax, and rejuvenation was out of the question. It wasn’t culture-shock. It was my physiology.
Something was distinctively off–something vague and elusive and anonymous. It was an achy, constricted throat and sharp, shallow breaths. It felt like some spout in my esophagus would sporadically leak cold chemicals of adrenaline that triggered my body to fight or flight response. I was on edge, jumpier than usual. Restless. My thoughts were disjointed–leaving me unable to concentrate, let alone meditate on Truth or engage deeply in prayer. I was lost in a fog–and it clouded my relationship with God.
I felt distant.
I was perplexed: Why did I feel so far from God? Why so hard to connect? I had been taught time and time again that sin distances people from God, and I was feeling farther than ever. So knowing nothing of anxiety disorders, I arrived at the only logical conclusion I was afforded: my inexplicable physical and psychological symptoms must be what“feeling convicted of sin” feels like in actuality. The good news, I figured, was that repentance would return everything back to normal.
I immediately embarked on my mission to dig up that deeply-rooted sin– whatever it was. Fervently I prayed, I read, I journaled–I submitted to Him. But at the end of my month of freedom, I still felt the same. I still wasn’t me.
Failing to pinpoint a specific sin, I deemed myself a generalized failure. I felt constantly guilty. I second-guessed my every move. I catastrophized. I transformed everyday decisions like which toothpaste to buy into moral crises with eternal repercussions that sounded something like this:
Ohmygosh which brand am I supposed to buy? I suppose God wants me to I get the top-shelf toothpaste because He wants me to take care of myself.
But am I more important than His children living in extreme poverty? Who am I to treat myself to the pricey best when they have nothing? God must be frowning down on me for considering indulging my selfish self. I’m such a failure.
Ok, so I’ll buy the cheap generic. Then I’ll have more money to support others in need, and He will see my heart and his face will shine down upon me.
But then again, Paul “became all things to all men,” and God determined where and when we all should live (Acts 17:26). He put me in this affluent suburb, and so it’s ok for me to “become” an affluent suburbanite who buys good toothpaste.
But then again, I should be “in the world, but not of the world,” and who am I to treat myself when others need clean water?
It endured horribly. I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t help it.
I felt like crying. Instead, I inhaled deeply, grabbed a toothpaste, and proceeded to the next item on my list.
It freeking sucks.
That August, I had NO responsibilities, NO to-do list. And I had JUST returned from a profound mission trip. It was “clear” to me that I should continue that same mission–I knew of no reason not to…
I mean, look at Paul’s life, he was always “on mission”! So I can be too. If I don’t–if I choose redecorating my room over evangelizing to strangers (ala Paul)–then I’m a disappointment to God who derails His good eternal plan.
The divine voice I once felt say, “Well done, good and faithful servant” somehow morphed into “You’re a failure who is ruining eternity.”
To win back God’s approval and affection (salvation was never in question), I looked to the “college and career” group at church. I thought, Surely there must be ample opportunity to minister to the community alongside like-minded believers!
I was wrong.
I found a lot of “fellowship events” (read: socials) that were wrapped in awkward gender-normed constraints. All questions of theology and psychology had black-and-white answers–never shades of grey. Coloring in the lines was all the rage, and it was hard being me because I’m all scribbles. Deep conversations felt impossible, life was mundane, and it was all my fault. I tried to initiate service and outreach projects, but didn’t find any encouragement or support from the group’s leadership–a couple kind men who would have been far more likely to take a male version of myself under their wings.
So again, empty-handed, I stepped away still obsessing over what I *should* be doing, and what I could do to please my Father.
All this time, on an intellectual level, I knew that God accepted me because… Jesus. We are saved by grace alone. Grace, not works. Salvation cannot be earned. That’s what sets Christianity apart from the other religions.
But this is how it felt in my bones:
It felt like God was a quintessential 1950’s dad–stern, stoic, and hunkered down behind his his impenetrable Sunday newspaper, the TV abuzz in the background. All I really wanted was his approval. I wanted him to peer over his sports page and smile at my attempt to make him proud.
But my exhausting efforts only got me narrow-eyed, tight-lipped frowns of disapproval. He’d disappear behind his newspaper again. Distant. Impossible to please. But not his fault–mine. I was quite a disappointment to my Father. His little failure.
Somewhere in the whack abyss of my mind, God’s approval of me became contingent on… well… me. And my “purpose-driven life.”
Deep in my bones, though, I never believed that. I just felt it.. in my chest, in my lungs, in the hyperventilation that made my fingers tingle. My cramped muscles. And mostly in the fact that I had no clue why.
A month later when school resumed, my anxiety left and I was back to normal. I didn’t have to obsess over what I should do because my time and energy was already purposeful to me. God smiled at me because I produced concrete fruits. I wasn’t re-decorating my bedroom; I was studying, preparing for the career God had awaiting me. I was a Young Life leader, following Jesus hand-in-hand, bringing light into dark places of teens’ lives. I did life with close friends. I worked out, rollerbladed in sunsets, jumped fences to jump in pools… life was awesome.
Of course life can’t always be so obviously rich, and college is (sadly) for a season. During my first year as a teacher my prelude to anxiety escalated into a full-blown disorder. That’s for another post. Or twelve. Please chime in if you can relate. ❤
While this is only the start of my story, I don’t want to end it on a note of hopelessness. So I’m leaving you with a beautiful poem–song, actually–that captures the hope Christ offers in the darkness of anxiety.
“These Frail Hands” by Brave Saint Saturn
When the concrete of the world
becomes too cumbersome to lift
and the cataracts of fear and doubt
cloak truth beyond what we can sift,
And darkness, darkness bleeds its way,
When crippling anguish clouds our sight
The ghosts of dusk have bared their teeth,
Set their claws to bring the night
Hold on, hold tight
I need Your love
And most of all I want to feel your Peace
Your light unending
My heart is mending.
(Brave Saint Saturn)