Target Audience: Evangelical Christians
About two weeks ago I experienced an anxiety attack followed by a period of deep, dark depression. I have written two or three drafts of this post, only to abandon each draft after picking it apart and trying to come up with what I really wanted to say. For Christians, particularly those who attend more conservative or fundamentalist churches, things like anxiety attacks or depression can be viewed as weakness or flawed faith. My faith is no more or less flawed than anyone else with whom I worship on a Sunday morning. It is to the people who might still attach some kind of stigma to Christians who battle mental illness that I dedicate this personal perspective.
This anxiety attack happened around noon almost two weeks ago. I was in heavy traffic and began to experience tension when I thought I would not be able to grab lunch and make it to a mid-week, afternoon Bible study that I had been attending at my church. It wasn’t just the heavy traffic, but the fact I felt trapped on a bridge, with a cement median strip to my left and no way to turn around or escape the congestion. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the anxiety attack actually began earlier in the morning when I decided to buy gas from Costco and got stuck in a rather long lineup at the gas pumps. This is a common thing at Costco and normally it doesn’t bother me. Once I had my gas, the tension seemed to subside.
I was alone in my truck and kept looking at the clock on the stereo, tracking the minutes, as if it would make any difference, that I was on the bridge, stuck in traffic. As traffic inched along I began to mutter to myself things like, “I am never going to get there on time”, or “I will be here for hours”, or “I will be here at supper time”, and finally escalating to, “I am going to die here”. Of course I didn’t really believe that I was going to die in the traffic jam. By the time I uttered that comment, I was in full “rage”. There is nothing rational about my anxiety attacks. I used to think this was road rage, or that I had lost control and was merely angry, but as I have unpacked what happened two weeks ago, I have changed my perspective. My heart was pounding. My breathing was rapid and my hands were shaking as I screamed with no one to hear. In reality, it didn’t matter if I was late to the Bible study, but it mattered to me. I hate being late.
It took about 20 minutes to see that the reason for the congestion was road work. Within seconds of clearing the road work my phone rang. It was the man who led the Bible study. He had to cancel the study that day. Within seconds I began to tumble into the pit of depression. As I was driving, there was no place for me to pull over and calm down, at least not for a few minutes. Once I calmed down, I texted this man and declared that two weeks of being in a spiritual desert had begun. (Like many churches at this time of the year, my church had taken a two-week hiatus to prepare for fall) I felt alone and quite lonely. I also made an ill-fated assumption that everyone who I would normally reach out to was either too busy to deal with my problems or unavailable. I later found out that a number of people were available.
The anxiety attack itself lasted about 15 minutes, but the physical and emotional trauma from the attack lasted much longer. I felt physically fatigued and emotionally drained. The joy and happiness that I had been experiencing in my relationship with God for the previous two weeks vanished like the morning mist. I had undertaken a personal project, which I had shared with no one, to pray and intercede for various individuals in my life on a daily basis. I had this wonderful two week fellowship with God that vanished in minutes after experiencing this anxiety attack. I am still battling periods of anxiety, paranoia, depression, isolation, and apathy. Right now, I am in a valley, but I know that soon I will leave the valley and enjoy the peace and joy of my faith once again. I am so thankful for a number of people at my church and at a Christian 12 step program I attend for their compassion and support.
The anxiety attack that I experienced two weeks ago was not my first. I cannot recall my first anxiety attack, but I know that the feeling of being crowded in social places can trigger an attack. Yesterday, I helped serve coffee and drinks at our Fuel Cafe before going into the service. I entered during the music and grabbed a seat in my usual section. Unfortunately, there was a lady sitting next to me. As soon as it was appropriate to do so, I moved to a row where no one was sitting next to me. When I was in university, some 25 years ago, I remember sitting on the steps of the center doors of the bus rather than standing in the crowd in the main part of the bus. When taking a subway, I would wait three or four trains, or even take a train in the opposite direction so I could get a seat where I would not feel the crush of people and feel trapped. When going out to eat in restaurants with friends, I would either schedule the time so the restaurant would not be busy, or I would get there early so I could have my choice of seating. I have had friends go into crowded stores at Christmas time rather than risk an anxiety attack in the store. At a church potluck a few years ago I had an anxiety attack while standing in line waiting to be served when I noticed that I was surrounded by people, with no path of escape. A friend eventually led me from the potluck by the hand when he noticed what was happening.
One might suggest that I confront my fears and overcome them. That is easier said than done. I don’t always experience anxiety attacks. I could be in a lineup at a gas station and be perfectly calm. I know enough about my anxiety attacks that it would be foolish for me to try to take a major highway during rush hour to a commitment. I don’t know the answer, except to ask God for His healing in my life. I may never feel entirely comfortable sitting in the middle of a row in church, or eating in a crowded restaurant, or driving in heavy, congested traffic.