The Inciting Incident
Seven years ago, I was in what could have been a fatal car accident. By the grace of God, it didn’t end my life, but it did change it. Significantly. The van I was riding in hit a semi, got hit by the car behind it, and caught on fire. I walked away with a few minor physical injuries that healed within a few months.
But the trauma of the accident and the stress of the aftermath triggered anxiety and panic attacks that I’ve been dealing with ever since. I come by it honestly—I’m certainly not the first person in my family to deal with anxiety, and it’s not unusual for trauma to trigger things like this.
I tried what felt like everything to cope—willpower, prayer counseling, exercise, emotional eating, supplements, distraction, cutting out caffeine, curling up in a ball on the couch and praying for it to go away . . . Nothing worked. I wasn’t able to live a normal life. I was afraid to be alone. My days were plagued with panic attacks that I couldn’t prevent or predict.
What Anxiety Looks Like
Health conditions—mine or someone else’s—triggered my anxiety. Every time I heard a story about someone with cancer, I convinced myself I had it, too—stomach cancer, ovarian cancer, brain cancer. At other times, I was sure I had an appendicitis, an ectopic pregnancy (even though there was no chance I was pregnant), spider eggs in my sinuses. One time I overheard a conversation about someone with a bone spur on their finger. When I woke up the next day, I had a bump on my right pointer finger that didn’t go away for two weeks. I swore off WebMD and made Jonathan read through the side effects of ANY medication I was taking, because if I read them, I would panic, but if he didn’t, I might die. I stopped eating mushrooms because, what if I had developed a severe allergy to them and died of asphyxia? Any time a health segment came on the radio or TV, I shut it off. Jonathan learned to do the same.
I went to the doctor with “invisible” concerns – I couldn’t breathe, my stomach hurt, did I have a tumor? Every test came back negative. No, you don’t have asthma. Your lungs are testing much younger than your actual age. No, you don’t have an appendicitis. You just have a small cyst that ruptured (at least this one is legitimate! I thought). No, you don’t have a tumor. It’s scar tissue from that car accident you were in.
Every muscle spasm, breath, and heartbeat turned into a panic attack. And every panic attack turned into muscle pain, difficulty breathing, and a racing heart. Which turned into a panic attack. For a while, I tried breathing techniques to calm myself. But paying attention to my breathing only made me more aware of the “weird” things my body was doing, triggering another attack. It was a vicious cycle that I couldn’t stop.
Every year for four years, my doctor recommended I try a daily anxiety medication. And every year I refused. I didn’t want to be that person who had to depend on medication to be “normal.” I didn’t want the side effects. I didn’t want the association with mental illness or the judgment from other Christians who thought I didn’t have enough faith. I wanted to fix it myself, and if I took medication, it meant I was giving up.
After a particularly helpful prayer counseling session, I had a period of respite—I believe it was God’s healing—but just a few months later, the anxiety came back with a vengeance and I felt hopeless. It’s time, I thought. I made an appointment with my doctor and told her I was ready to try medication if it meant I could have a normal life again.
Because I had been so adamant about not taking medication in the past, she wanted to be sure it’s what I wanted. We decided I’d ease into it. She prescribed half of the lowest effective dose that had been studied—just 5 mg—of Lexapro, a newer drug that was supposed to have fewer side effects. “I want you to know the difference between symptoms caused by anxiety and symptoms that you need to come in for,” she said. “It will give you peace of mind.”
I took the bottle of tiny white pills home and let it sit on the table for a week. I asked God if He could make it really clear if I was supposed to take the medication. I was so torn up about the decision I did something that scared me—when we got together with a group of friends from church, I told them about it and their response surprised me. “Take it!” they said, “God uses medication to heal people, too.”
So I started taking it. Three weeks later, it started kicking in. And the side effects were hell that resulted in an antibiotic that resulted in more side effects that were more hell. But after about six weeks, all those things subsided.
I was calm. After years of anxious, racing thoughts and physical pains, my mind and my body were at peace. I could get through the hour without thinking about cancer. I went days without panic attacks. They stretched into weeks that stretched into months. That first year, I went from having multiple panic attacks a day to having just four for the entire year. The second year was the same. My dose is still a tiny 5 mg, and I feel free.
It’s weird to think about now. I still have vivid memories of some anxiety episodes. One especially difficult one took place on our honeymoon. Jonathan was driving back roads through the mountains of West Virginia and I was beside myself thinking he would miss a turn and we’d roll down the mountain.
But that’s not my life anymore.
Making it Count
I’ve been thinking a lot about my struggle with anxiety and wondering if there’s a way I can make it count for something. If I had to go through all of that, I want it to mean something. And I think God does, too. Otherwise, why would He let me go through it?
So here’s what I’ve landed on: I want to make the Church a safe place for people with mental illness. I’m going to start with my church. It’s not that it’s an unsafe place, we just don’t talk about it. I don’t want people to forgo treatment like I did just because they’re afraid of how other Christians will view them. I don’t know what this is going to look like, but I do know this:
Just because you struggle with mental illness does not mean you don’t have enough faith. It doesn’t mean you’re not “spiritual” enough. It doesn’t mean you have unresolved sin in your life. (For some people, it can be a symptom of those things, but not always. I’m not going to get into that here.)
If you struggle with mental illness, I’m not going to judge you for it. Instead, I’m going to put myself out there and speak up for the both of us. I want to help people to understand, to know how to talk about it in the Church. Though I’ve never personally felt judgment from the Church for my mental illness, I have family members who have. And I have been affected by ignorance in the Church—people who don’t mean to do or say the wrong thing, they just don’t know any better.
So let’s be brave. And honest. Let’s be open about mental illness. And let’s not be afraid to talk about it in the Church. Let’s make the Church a safe place where people who struggle with it can find friends and find hope. Because that’s what the Church is for—sharing the hope of Jesus Christ with people who feel hopeless.