Monday, August 29, 2016

The Reality of Panic Attacks

I lived with depression and anxiety for 25 years before I sought diagnosis and treatment. In that time I learned to be a highly-functioning, normal appearing person in all of the aspects of my life that were in view of others. In my private life I had become increasingly unstable.

Now, 6 years later, I still appear to be a highly-functioning, normal appearing person to the outside world, not because I go out of my way to convey that image but because it was a coping mechanism for so long that it simply comes most naturally. And in my private life I still struggle. A lot.

Experiencing profound internal anxiety while appearing "normal" or calm on the outside has created a weird and uncomfortable dichotomy in my life. I remember one Sunday morning last year on the way to church, I confided in my husband that my apparent calm was a total sham, and that when I said I was feeling very anxious about attending, I wasn't merely saying I was a little nervous. I was experiencing real symptoms of inward panic. Feelings that had come to replace the excitement and elation I'd felt when we'd first begun going to church. He wanted to know why I was so nervous. Hadn't I always enjoyed church and wanted to attend every Bible study and event? What had happened that made me so nervous?

Nothing had happened. Except that my social anxiety was beginning to overwhelm my ability to keep it tucked away, out of sight of others.


I'm writing about this now because this morning I had a panic attack at church so significant that a friend whisked me out of the worship hall and into a room where we could talk away from the crowd. The morning had been hectic, my husband had been cranky and I'd spent the previous night worrying about how I was going to cope my way through another Sunday full of people and loud sound systems and lots of "where have you been?" questions that I am too embarrassed to answer. "I've been afraid to leave my house," is what I would have said.

Despite having an argument in the car where I actually yelled at my husband for something minor, he didn't understand that I was not merely cranky but deeply anxious until a few hours later when I was sobbing and inconsolable. And it's not because he is at fault - it's because I am almost always subconsciously concealing and repressing my anxiety.

During the sermon I sat next to my husband in the pew, hugging my bible and rocking myself, which is embarrassing but at least I could convince myself that people were paying attention to the pastor and not to me. My husband asked, "Are you okay?" I wanted to shout, "NO! I'm not okay!" but in truth, despite my short temper, and despite verbally stating that I was feeling more anxious than usual, to everyone else, even my husband, I was pretty normal-appearing until I couldn't keep it up anymore. I cried until I had heart palpitations and those didn't go away for hours after the tears had stopped. I explained to my friend that I felt like I was dying, even though I knew I was perfectly safe and among friends. People that I had no reason to be embarrassed in front of and yet I was. Intensely so.

Now, this is some real talk, friends. And I'm sharing this because I want you to know that anxiety is a real thing, and  there are probably people in your life struggling with it who may even appear to be coping with it pretty well. Or maybe you're experiencing anxiety and you feel like all the embarassing parts of this illness only happen to you. So this is some pretty personal share-age right here:

I'd put on clean underwear that morning when I got dressed (like usual) and by the time I got home they were absolutely soaked in sweat. I feared the sweat might even have soaked through my dress.  I hadn't even noticed until I went to change into regular farm clothes.


It's exhausting to keep trying to make space in my public life for this illness. "Yes, I have anxiety. I know I'm smiling and laughing at jokes, but inwardly, right now, I'd give anything to just get in the car and go back home. It's not that I don't want to spend time with my friends, it's that this disease steals as much of my joy as it can." That's what I'd like to say. I'd also like to say, "I'm sorry, I'd rather not hug you today," without upsetting anyone, or bring drawn into an unwanted hug. Instead of lying when people ask me if I'm okay, I'd like to say, "No, I'm not okay, but I'm proud of myself for being here, please don't think less of me." "No, I can't go to the fellowship meeting tonight because I'm doing my best impression of a human caterpillar inside a blanket cocoon and the thought of leaving my house is too much for me right now. But please, keep inviting me. Maybe next time I'll be better."

I also want those of you who are my fellow Christians, that I love Jesus, I read the bible regularly, I want to serve my savior and do his good will. I pray for myself and others and ask others to pray for me, and I believe that in God's time I will be healed of this mental disease. I say this because I want others to know that my anxiety is not a lack of spirituality, or faith, or belief. It's a disease that I experience even alongside the miraculously peaceful moments that God makes possible. So, when you comfort others, keep in mind that they're not at fault, nor are they faithless. They're just sick. And that's okay, because Jesus is the greatest healer.

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