This is a hard post for me to write, because I’m still very much in the thick of my anxiety issues.
I wish I could tell you I’m doing better — actually, I take that back. I am doing better, I think.
I have more good days than bad days. It’s just a slower journey than I’d like. If you’ve traveled the path of trying different or more medication, you yourself know that it’s a slow and laborious process. I wish I could write these reflections from closer to the mountain-top. But I’m picking my way over roots and rocks, sweating up the incline.
I love the blog Design Mom, and recently Gabrielle Blair mentioned that, in the midst of her family’s lovely summer in France, she’s been battling depression. It’s an ever-present cloud darkening the otherwise clear horizon. It helped me to read that because I know exactly how she feels. I know how a person can be having a good summer in many ways, yet under-girding it all is this darkness that makes it also a hard summer in many ways.
And so that’s the first way to survive a summer with depression or anxiety:
1. Find the good things.
This is very hard to do. Because mental illness is so distressing, it’s easy to make it the Giant, to think, My whole life is falling apart.
I have to discipline myself to say, “That’s not true. This one part of my life is falling apart, maybe, but not the whole thing.” And then I make myself list the things that are going fine — great, even. Call it a thankful list, call it what you want.
So today I say:
I got out of bed this morning.
I am not having panicky, racing, self-destructive thoughts about having to walk out of a group of people yesterday.
I have energy to make Sunday morning oatmeal for my family.
I can go to church, even if I sit outside in the lobby during the service.
I can meet a new person.
I hate talking about my anxiety, but because I do, there are lots of people who love me, who are praying for me and who are on my team. I can read their texts on my phone when I start to doubt it.
Perhaps my biggest Good Thing, though, is that I do not have panic attacks around David and my kids. I don’t. Am I stressed sometimes? Yes. Could the stress of my current life with four children be perhaps adding to the overall anxiety problem? Maybe, yes. But the fact that I got out of bed today, the fact that I’m functional with my family, that I can talk to them and read them books and make meals and even have dance parties, is a gift that I do not take for granted.
2. Face the pain.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, friends, that it is worth it to face your pain.
I’ve had years of counseling to help me work through my issues. At the beginning it was just awful. It made me feel way worse to expose myself like that, give voice to fears and hurts that had such a big hold on my heart. It was raw and humiliating, especially since the mantra I constantly told myself is, I shouldn’t be here. So many people have been through much worse than I have. Why can’t I just get over this?
I couldn’t find one good thing it was accomplishing and I just wanted to quit.
But gradually, it got easier, just as most things do with practice. And as it got easier, it became very helpful, even healing. Counseling not only allowed me to work through my struggles with a wise, trusted person, but it schooled me in a way of life: that we face the hard feelings and we talk about the hard things.
I don’t currently have a therapist, although I’m working on connecting with one who was recently recommended to me. But the counseling I’ve had in the past has put me in the habit of relating to the people around me in an open, honest way. I find people I trust and I keep talking about the hard things. I ask for prayer. I ask for their wisdom. And in it, I find that I am not alone.
If you need any further encouragement to bring your hard places into the light, I will tell you that because of all this work, living with my anxiety and depression today is easier than it was, say, five years ago — even two years ago. I’m able to disconnect it a little more from my core identity. I do not need to numb and distract myself from the pain. I can sit with myself in the silent moments and talk to God about those scary feelings. I wouldn’t have been able to write this blog post from the thick of the struggle five years ago.
3. Grow things.
I made a goal of putting a house plant (or two) in every room of our home this summer. That’s because the little snatch of green symbolizes “thriving” to me. Even if I’m not thriving in some areas, I can thrive in others. I can take care of myself. I can be thankful. I can find things that I enjoy to do. I can create a little beauty around me. I can keep a plant alive (I hope).
My sweet family has been sharing with me and giving me plant cuttings, and I’ve visited the clearance rack at Lowe’s (succulents for $1!). My little army is growing, and David said he’s fine with all this greenery but will draw the line if our house begins to look like a jungle.
Yesterday I had to walk outside in the middle of my beloved Book and Tea Club meeting, shaking and gulping for air. I sat and cried because I felt so lonely and because I feel like a stranger to myself. My friends comforted me. And then as we said our goodbyes, one of them, who was hosting us, put a lovely African violet in my hands. She doesn’t even know about my plant thing; she just did it because that’s the kind of person she is.
And it was like a little gift from the God who says, “I see you.”
4. Read the Psalms.
A month or so ago I remembered how much good the Psalms were to my soul during our adoption wait. And so I started back at the beginning. I decided to memorize Psalm 16, one of my all-time favorites, because it felt like a small constructive thing I can do.
I’ve also learned that sometimes less is better. This summer I have learned a few one-phrase prayers from the Psalms that I pull out and repeat during the days when I simply have no words of my own:
– Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge.
– The Lord is king forever and ever
– I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God
– I love you, O Lord my strength
– the Lord my God lightens my darkness
– This God — his way is perfect
In the Psalms, I sit with God and learn that he sits with me. He is near to the brokenhearted. Whether I feel it or not, goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.
The Psalms are a dear companion in this wearying journey of anxiety and depression.
5. Accept help.
This looks like different things for different people. Like I said I’m for the most part blessedly functional in my everyday life, so for me it’s looked like relying on others to serve in areas that I’ve been serving.
This is tremendously difficult for me to do; both because I like to be the one in the serving position — I take a measure of pride in it, to be quite honest — and because I don’t want to burden people.
One example: I haven’t even been to my Life Group — the group that I started and that I lead — all summer, much less led it.
And so this baby group of women, most of whom didn’t know each other 8 months ago, has had to grow up fast to compensate for my weakness. They completely astound me. They are kind, compassionate, fun, and have never once made me feel like I’m letting them down. They’re becoming genuine friends with each other, pursuing one another and me too outside of our meeting time. Last week a woman who is both new-ish to our church and a new mom offered to lead the group discussion. She could’ve found a dozen reasons that “now isn’t a good time.” She was nervous to do it, and that meant even more to me. She said, “Julie, never worry about having to be here or to lead. We’re all happy to help you.”
My weakness has made our group strong, because I need them. I’m letting them lead too and so we’re doing it together, sharing both the load and the joy.
God has seen fit to make me a pastor’s wife who needs other people. I feel myself longing to rise up and be strong, and He makes me weak. I don’t understand exactly why. But I love the gifts He’s given me through accepting help from and being ministered to by other people.
6. Find what you can do, and give thanks.
I bookend this little list with something like what I said in the beginning, because truly, you have to fight for joy. You have to get yourself in the habit of naming things to be joyful about, and you pray to God for the feelings to one day follow.
Honestly, it’s taken me all summer to get to the place of simply accepting my anxiety (and some moments I still don’t). I’ve spent most of it either blaming myself or wrestling with God. It feels incredibly inefficient of Him. There’s so much more I could do for Him if I wasn’t panicked by being around people.
It’s taking a long, long time for me to learn that my value is not measured by what I do. It’s taking a long time to learn not to live to please people and work to earn God’s approval. It’s taking a long time for me to learn to open my hands and let go of control a little.
Living with anxiety is forcing me to learn some of those things.
A sad truth about me is that I most naturally define “ministry” as what I do outside of my home (or what I do in my home for people outside of my family). In this season of being confined to mostly just my family, God is asking me, “Do you see them as your ministry, Julie? If you aren’t growing in patience and kindness with David and your kids first, then you’ll never be truly patient and kind with other people. If you aren’t practicing the art of sitting and turning your attention on your kids or husband and being a good listener to them, then you aren’t really a good listener. The rest is just a show.”
This is one of the lessons my anxiety is teaching me.
And it’s something to give thanks for.
While my value is not in what I do, it is still important to find ways that I can serve other people, right here and now, both in my family and out. Because serving is what gets me outside of my own head, it helps me see the people around me and learn that they have struggles too. It helps me move toward them in compassion. It keeps me from feeling paralyzed by giving me small goals and small victories.
So maybe I can’t have people over for dinner, but I can make a meal for a family who just had a baby.
I can’t go out for coffee with someone, but I can send a card in the mail.
I can’t sit in the church service, but I can meet people beforehand and make them feel welcome (oddly, this is one thing that doesn’t cause me anxiety right now, and I’m very grateful for it).
I can’t speak in front of a group, but I can write a blog post.
I can help in the nursery once a month and run around after two-year-olds.
I can listen to David and help him process his job and brainstorm for sermons and meetings. I can make his breakfast smoothies and iron his shirts and watch the CrossFit Games with him, and try to make his life at home just a little more joyful.
I can pray.
I cling to these few things, and I try to do them well and let the others go right now. I trust God to use other people to help do what I can’t. I cling to hope that one day I’ll be myself again and find joy in the things that used to bring me joy.
If you are someone who struggles with anxiety and depression, then I pray the same for you.