Learning To Deal

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Image via Wiki Commons

One of the blessings prayed over the couple at a Catholic wedding says, “May the cares of life never cause you undue anxiety.” I had to chuckle at a presider who recently flubbed it up, saying, “May the cares of life never cease to cause you undue anxiety.”

I have had at least three bouts of anxiety in the past nine months. I’m still too busy to be paralyzed by it, but I am beginning to realize that this is a cross I will bear my entire life. It surges from the deep in times of stress, of course, and in particular when I’m stepping out in new and unfamiliar directions.

I am a type-A German, more than overly fond of being in control. And I hate the idea that anyone might ever think badly of me–or worse, have reason to think badly of me. If I stayed in my tiny, safe circle, where everything and everyone is a known quantity, I would spare myself the risk of screwing up or getting on people’s bad side. But then a lot of the gifts I’ve been given to share would atrophy. You know that parable about burying the talents.

So when I contemplate a new experience, I do a ton of research, and then I take a deep breath, remind myself that I am a strong, competent woman, and I step out in faith. And still, because I’m human, I screw up. Say something stupid. Forget something I should have remembered.

So I undertake a tug of war. On one side is the desire to chase down unreasonable amounts of reassurance. On the other is living with crippling fear because I don’t want to be a pest to others by asking for that reassurance.

Even writing about it makes the anxiety stir.

And therein lies the lesson for the day. Anxiety, at least the crippling kind I’m talking about, is characterized by lack of reason. It is irrational, and thus sometimes the cure is to talk yourself through it in rational terms.

But–and this is a big but–everyone’s tried to reason with an irrational person, and you know how well that works: not at all. Most of the time, trying to reason with anxiety just teaches it that it’s getting to you. It gives it power. Like I said when anxiety cropped up nine months ago, it’s like a dandelion: it roots hard and fast and sprouts babies by the legion. In other words, it morphs into a monster.

That’s what happened to me last week. The initial trigger birthed a dozen additional ones completely unrelated to it. And there was fallout: in my marriage, in my productivity, in my ability to be a good human being. At last, I had to give up attempts to reason and instead meet every onslaught of WHAT IF’s with a refusal to engage in battle. JUST SHUT UP. THIS IS NOT A REASONABLE FEAR. After about two days of that, the anxiety began to recede.

It’s been a week since then. Anxiety is still hanging around, a low rumble at the edge of my consciousness. But I can ignore it now, at least when I’m not writing a blog post about it.

I’m learning to deal with this nemesis, this cross. Like Paul, I want God to remove the thorn in my flesh, but I keep hearing, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” And so I will struggle on.

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A History of Anxiety, Part 2: The Onset of “Freaking Out”

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Scared child

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For part one, click here.

When I introduced the topic of anxiety last week, several people commented that they had struggled with it as well. Before I go on, I need to clarify that I have never been diagnosed with any form of clinical anxiety; I never saw a doctor or counselor. I went through it “by myself.” Actually, I got through it solely by the grace of God and a very patient boyfriend/husband. So what you will not find in this post is expert information—only my own, very personal, experience.

After breaking up with my fiancé, I spent a lonely summer in transition. In the fall, I started playing and singing with the choir at the Newman Center, a commitment that was to change my life in many ways, giving me both a vocation and the man I was going to spend my life with. We went out on our first date early in November, and by the end of the night my body was buzzing. I knew. He left the next day for a business trip, so I didn’t talk to him for a week. By then, I’d spent so much time reliving and analyzing the experience that doubt had wormed its way in.

And not just doubt, but full-blown panic. I’d promised God that I would never ignore His promptings again—but with the screaming voices in my head, how could I tell what was God and what was the enemy?

This was how I discovered that my seemingly clean recovery from the breakup was anything but.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last decade or so trying not to overthink this period of my life. It’s too dangerous. At this point, I can’t even tell you what most of the fear was. And I’m not so sanguine about my recovery that I am willing to go crack the Journals open to find out, either. Some things are better left in the past. I can tell you that it was more than mental; it was a full-body physical reaction. Hot flashes, fingers trembling so badly that I couldn’t function properly, brain paralyzed to the point where in the middle of a practice session I’d have to put my flute down and sit for ten minutes, trying to stop my heart pounding. I can tell you that my fears seemed utterly rational. Most of all, I can tell you that I was just afraid of making the wrong choice.

I wanted to follow God’s plan for my life, but freaking out made it impossible to know what that was. What if I wasn’t supposed to be with him, and I tried to force it? I’d already followed that road once. What if I was supposed to be with him, and my inability to silence the voices of self-doubt was destined to derail God’s plan for me altogether?

Meanwhile, Christian was dealing with fears and anxieties of his own. For at least a year, we went back and forth: one of us was freaking out, the other acting as support. We traded roles constantly. When I think about it now, it’s truly miraculous that we got through it at all.

But Christian is not nearly as prone to self-analysis as I am. Slowly, his anxieties eased, and although he wasn’t ready to leap into the unknown of lifelong commitment, he spent more and more time being the supporter, a burden I know he grew very tired of carrying. Meanwhile, instead of finding my fears resolving, I found new ones. No one is superhuman; no one can take the emotional beating forever. Every time I freaked out (which was almost daily) I was also afraid that this might be the line in the sand, the point at which he said, “Enough. I’m done.”

In such times do we discover the power of real love. Love that never ends, that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, as in I Corinthians 13.

It took more than two years for “freaking out” to fade to a dull background of anxiety. I prayed a lot. I exercised “letting go”—a search for stillness of mind and heart, to allow God to speak. I still had the niggling doubt in the back of my mind: Is this what I’m supposed to do? But it no longer ruled my life. We started talking about marriage, about how to structure life together and how we felt about kids and child rearing. And by the summer after my first year of grad school, when we’d been together for 2 ½ years, I thought freaking out was, at last, in the past. Two weeks before I went back to school, he proposed in front of the whole church. I was on cloud nine. No doubts in this girl’s mind. I knew now that I was where I was supposed to be.

Don’t breathe your sighs of relief yet; the story’s not done. But this is a long, dense blog entry already, so I’m going to leave it there for today.

For part 3, click here.