This is the second post in a two-part series about my journey with anxiety and depression (here’s Part One). I’ve wanted to write about my experience in more detail for years. But until now I just wasn’t ready. In fact, I’d get close to a panic attack even imagining exposing myself like this in public.
It’s quite a victory that I’m sitting here, writing this for you today, and that I feel peace. It’s a sign that God is freeing me (still slowly, friends) from my fierce desire to protect my image and reputation and be strong. As I hide myself in Him rather than hide my brokenness from people, His love frees me to be real with you and with the other people in my life.
Here are five things that help me right now:
1. I expect to struggle. Remember I told you about how emotional I get when I panic in crowds? Well in the last few weeks, I’ve moved past some of that because I now go into social situations expecting them to be hard. Truly, it makes all the difference. Instead of being caught off guard, I’m prepared. I take a Xanax when I’m headed to a crowded place or leading Life Group or writing a difficult blog post. I sit close to the door. I get a glass of water. I walk outside or to the restroom and work on my abdominal breathing.
David has been the truest and best of friends in this journey. He told me, “Babe, I don’t care if you sit out in the lobby every single Sunday during the church service, or go sit in the kitchen when I’m teaching our New Members class. Of course I don’t want you to suffer, but your identity is not in sitting with me. You’re free to do whatever you need to do to.” I can’t tell you the relief I feel hearing this, when my mind is telling me the opposite: “You’re failing; you’re letting him down.”
2. Instead of fighting to escape the anxiety in the moment, I picture God sitting with me in it. I remember that it will pass. This I learned from years with my counselor and good friend, Ulla, and also in a tangible form from the love of my husband and close friends. You can get in a troublesome battle of fighting anxiety and panic attacks, and that only makes the cycle worse.
And so I’m learning not to fight. I’m learning that this is something that’s happening to me, but it’s not who I am, at my core. At my core I’m unshaken. I’m forgiven. There’s no condemnation for me. I am whole in Christ. And He sits with me when I feel worthless. He clothes me with worth like the whitest of garments.
I’m learning to say to myself, “What’s the worst thing that can happen in this moment? It’s that I will have a panic attack. And that has already happened, and I’ve survived it. I will survive it again.”
3. I talk about it. I mentioned this to you before, but now at age 34, I’m telling people more openly in person and on this blog that I struggle. That’s so hard, and makes me feel humiliated. But I cannot tell you how God is using it to help me. It’s strange how all these years my worst fear was that people would somehow find out I’m broken (or, as I shared in my Life Group, that they’ll figure out I’m the crazy person in the room); and yet now I’m telling them — they are finding out — and this exposure has become the very thing that’s helping me most. My worst fear is evaporating.
God has made me, the pastor’s wife — the one who ministers to others — experience seasons of deep struggle and darkness. And I am in need of being ministered to. I need help from people. It has deepened every one of my relationships. My friends and family love me and comfort me. Some of them they tell me that they too struggle — something I would never have known if I hadn’t opened up. Sometimes they say, “I’m the crazy person in the room too.”
When we’re at a crowded wedding, they ask if I want to go sit at the end of the aisle so I can breathe easier. When we’re sitting, visiting in a tiny city hospital room with no windows, they ask, “Is this hard for you? No wonder — it’s suffocating in here!” and I can say, “Yes, it is actually.”
You know what? Sometimes we even laugh about it. We can joke about how “Julie needs an escape plan” at all times. I can’t tell you the relief I’ve found in beginning to not take myself quite so seriously, and having friends who know the not-so-pretty parts of me and love me anyway.
And when my children are a little bit older, I’m going to talk to them too. In simple, age-appropriate ways, I will tell them that Mommy struggles with these things. It is not on their shoulders to fix me or make me not sad or stressed any more. I want to remove the stigma of mental illness for them. I’m not a victim.
As much as I pray against it, with four children, the chances are fairly high that it will touch at least one of them at some point in their lives, and when it does, I’ll be here. I don’t want to project my experiences onto them; I just want to walk alongside them, as someone who understands. I’m not scared of mental illness anymore.
4. I try to take care of myself physically. For awhile I obsessed about my diet, convinced that what I ate or didn’t eat could solve my anxiety problems. I researched the thing to death and listened to way too many voices and tried elimination diets and generally made myself and my family miserable. Last year I needed to take a break from my various diets for awhile to break free from that obsession.
Now I think I’ve found a more healthy balance. I still eat mostly gluten-free, simply because it helps me feel better. Consuming less sugar lessens my anxiety. But I do make exceptions sometimes, and I don’t beat myself up for it.
I quit drinking coffee a couple months ago when my panic attacks were at their worst. That was heart-breaking! I adore coffee. But I’m now enjoying my hot tea habit, and feeling so much better, and I still treat myself to the occasional cup of coffee. It’s not that coffee caused my anxiety, but it did make my symptoms worse.
I’m exercising several times a week. I’m running a 10K race in May with a friend, and I can’t tell you how good it is for my struggles with low self-esteem to simply set a fitness goal and work to meet it. When I complete a run (I’m using a 5K to 10K app on my phone for guidance), I feel good about myself, like I was able to make one small, good, tangible choice toward being physically and mentally healthy.
5. I take medication. I don’t love being on medication, but I decided years ago that I was going to do whatever it took to be a good, stable wife to David and mom to my children. I feel discouraged knowing I may need to be on medication all my life, even as I’m tremendously grateful for modern medicine and my doctor who helps me be able to function and be emotionally present for my family. Of course I’m still a sinner who sins against my family, but medication makes me so much more stable, so that I don’t take out my struggles on the people I love the most.
Now, the downside of medication is that there are always side effects. For me, the hardest one is a lack of energy. I need medication in order to sleep through the night, but it’s strong, so I have to take it and know that I’ll be able get 7-8 hours of sleep or I’ll feel drugged the next day. This makes evenings pretty inflexible, and if I have to wake up in the night with my kids, I really struggle the following day. I miss being able to stay up late chatting with girl friends or spring out of bed at 5:30 or 6 in the morning with lots of energy.
It’s always a struggle to wake up, like trying to find my way out from under a thick blanket, and I’m still sleepy when I do wake up. I don’t feel as inspired to write or be creative on my medication. I actually wrote my Purposeful Simplicity series a year ago during a break from taking medication, and I’m not sure I could’ve done it otherwise. I suffered afterwards with terrible insomnia and anxiety, but it was so nice to have the energy to just write and write. I loved it. I miss it.
I learn to live with these limitations, but sometimes I ask the Lord, “Why do I have to do this? I’m so thankful for medicine that helps me function, but I miss the energy of the old me. How long, O Lord?” I know that if He doesn’t choose to heal me here on earth, one day I’ll be with Him in heaven and my body and mind will be whole and free. I can’t wait for that day.
In the meantime I am so very grateful He’s given me the resources I need to be stable.
Thank you for letting me share all of this with you.
Yes, I’ve had the occasional cursory and unhelpful comments from people, “You should pray more,” “Confess your anxiety to God,” “Cut ____ out of your diet,” “Try _____ natural method,” (which, believe me, I’ve most likely already tried).
But these people are by far the minority. Most everyone I tell says, “Thank you for being willing to share this. I’m sorry.” They ask questions. They listen. They talk to me in a deeper way about some form of suffering or addiction in their lives. They say that they’re relieved to hear I’m just like them because they always thought I had it all together.
If anyone who struggles with depression and anxiety comes to me looking for advice, I tell them what I’ve learned; that the best approach is holistic. We are whole people: body and mind and spirit, and so any healing path has to involve tending to all of these things.
So, yes to counseling and working through your issues (I say that with a caveat because there can be bad counselors/therapists or simply a bad fit for you, and when that happens, please stop seeing them and try someone else).
Yes, to medication.
Yes, to eating well and regular exercise and getting good sleep.
Yes, to trying natural, alternative healing methods, if you’d like.
Yes, to being part of a church community that teaches the gospel and encourages you in truth, a place where you can take off your mask and be real and be known.
Yes, to pouring out your heart to Jesus and confessing your sin and asking Him to use suffering for good in your life.
Yes, to telling your friends that you struggle and finding safe people who will walk with you in a boldly compassionate way.
And, as a wise person once told me, you may try all of those things, and find help, but never find total deliverance, and that is because our world is fallen and we are all stained by sin.
But hear this, friends: We have a Savior who died and was raised again and sits at the right hand of God. He is King over all, and so if we’ve put our trust in Him, we have nothing to fear from any kind of illness — mental or otherwise. Our King will come back for us and He’ll wipe away our tears and give us new bodies and minds, and we’ll live worshiping Him forever.
One day we won’t even remember what depression and anxiety feel like.
There will just be joy.