Jesus, my Prince of Peace • part 1
Advent is well upon us and as I consider and anticipate the celebration of the coming of our precious Savior, I am overwhelmed when I think about the names He was called when he was promised to us by the prophet Isaiah…
…Prince of Peace…
Perhaps to you, peace means the absence of noise in your house. Perhaps it means no violence in your space, your community, your land. Perhaps it means unity between you and your spouse, your significant other, your child, your parents, or your dearest friend.
For me, peace means the presence of the One who rescued and healed me of the oppression of anxiety.
I’ve meant to share my story of the struggle with anxiety for a while now, in this space, and though it isn’t a Christmas story, it’s the most tangible evidence I have to the presence of Jesus in my life: His living, breathing, moment-by-moment rescue, relief, strength and power to relieve me of the fear that plagued me for more than a decade. Thanks for reading.
I lay there on the table with the tissue-paper covering, trying not to rip it as I shifted my weight around in an attempt to relax a little bit. I’m safe now. I’m with doctors who can help me when something goes wrong again, I tried to console myself.
With a soft knock at the door, the doctor returned to the room I occupied with papers in his hand, reports from several tests they had run upon my arrival to the urgent care clinic.
With an emotionless-expression, he said, “Your electrolyte levels are a little low, but other than that, you’re fine. There’s nothing wrong with your heart. My diagnosis is anxiety.”
Sigh. In that moment, I almost wanted there to be something else, something physically wrong with me, something to explain the heart palpitations I had felt for more than a week now, something to explain all the weight I had lost – when I didn’t have an eating disorder, and had always eaten as healthily as the next person – something that wasn’t as “ridiculous” as irrational fear.
An instant later, I felt the Spirit of God speak to my heart with these words, so soft and quiet, I almost missed them: “This is a spiritual battle. If you are up for the challenge, we will conquer this together.”
The doctor had continued to speak, suggesting I return next week for a follow-up so that he could prescribe medication and connect me with a therapist.
And with strength that could only have come straight from heaven, I said, “No, thanks, that’s alright. I don’t want to go on medication for this.”
It was my sophomore year of college. I had arrived on campus two weeks before school started to be trained as a freshman-immersion leader on campus. I would be in charge of 15 athletes, meeting with them consistently to aid in their process of adjusting to college life. But by the second day of training, I felt that something was wrong in my body. I was exhausted all the time, my ribs felt like they were sticking to my backbone, and most things I ate made me sick.
The little college town where I attended school is built right next to the sun (practically) and temperatures exceed 90 degrees almost every day between April and October. For a while my friends and I thought I could be suffering from heat stroke, so I made sure to keep hydrated and stay in air conditioning. After several days of this, nothing had changed, and pretty soon I was missing training sessions in order to stay in bed and try to rest my body.
The morning that my roommate and two close friends had driven me to urgent care, I had been tracking my heart rate and noticed what felt like irregular and rapid heartbeat. Lying in bed, trying to draw deep breaths and finding it difficult made my head spin.
Oh man, I’m tired.
I didn’t sleep enough last night. I should have slept more. I’m so stupid for not sleeping more.
My whole body is tired.
My muscles ache.
I’m so skinny.
I can see my ribs.
I’m so disgusting – why can’t I eat more? This is unhealthy; I look like I have anorexia.
Maybe I do have anorexia.
My heart is pounding. It’s irregular. Didn’t I read that an irregular heartbeat means something is wrong with you?
I feel nauseas.
I’m so sick – I should eat to feel stronger and so my muscles work but eating makes me feel sick.
I don’t even have energy to get to the cafeteria.
I can’t eat because I have no energy, and will feel sick if I do, so I’m not going to eat.
If I don’t eat, I’m going to die.
Why can I still feel my heartbeat? Why is it so loud? Why am I feeling my heart beating all over my body? Something is wrong.
I can’t breathe. It’s really hard to breathe. If I can’t breathe, I’ll suffocate and then I’ll die. And it’ll be so painful to die by suffocating.
It’s difficult to write all of that out. First, because I recognize it as the thought process for so many days, months, and years of my life – days, months, and years where I lived in constant fear, turmoil, even agony. Second, because I can see how irrational it is through these letters staring at me on this computer screen.
But a mind under the influence of anxiety cannot think or process rationally.
Back home, my parents were a constant source of emotional and spiritual support for me in the earliest weeks after the diagnosis. Once classes started, I would call them before class, sometimes during class if I ran out into a hallway mid-panic attack, and usually once or twice every night. They would try and talk me down, pray over me countless times, and answer the phone again if I called back five minutes after hanging up.
One Wednesday morning, I remember accidentally gagging myself with my toothbrush as I got ready for Chapel. The seemingly insignificant act spun me into another panic attack and I called my parents from the lobby of the dorm I lived in, sobbing and begging for them to come and take me home.
While I was on the phone with them, my RA came to me, having been alerted that I wasn’t well. She took me to her room, made me a cup of tea and talked with me. We both skipped Chapel that day, but I feel that the conversation between us was significant and necessary; you might even say it was a divine appointment. As a result, I chose to seek professional counseling for help.
I can remember waiting in the small room outside the school counselor’s office before that first appointment. I was extremely nervous, having never been to counseling before. I was mostly concerned that the doctor wouldn’t respect my belief and understanding of what God had said to me – that this anxiety was a spiritual issue. Would he recommend that I go on medication too?
Dr. Schill was a tiny man with white hair and a gray-white, neatly trimmed mustache which perches over a kind smile. His office was lined with bookcases that were stuffed to the brim – everything from medical books to psychology books to spiritual discipleship books. He was gentle, quiet, and carried an enormous amount of peace in his demeanor. I wanted very much to trust him.
I wasted no time in telling him what I felt God had spoken to me. He listened, nodded, and then said that he trusted me, but that he had a series of questions to ask just to make sure we could rule out any other outside factors which might be contributing to the stress and fear I was reacting to.
Did I exercise often?
Mostly often; not much since I had been sick and feeling so weak.
Did I drink coffee or soda daily?
No, almost never.
Did I eat sugar frequently?
Lots of processed foods and carbohydrates?
No, I avoided them.
Did I pull frequent all-nighters or get less than 7 hours of sleep every night?
No, I was religious about an early bedtime and slept as many hours as I could.
Had a traumatic event ever occurred to me in my past?
Had someone in my family passed away recently?
Was I mourning the loss of a significant relationship?
Did I ever entertain thoughts of suicide?
Did I have body image issues?
Only now that I seemed and felt so thin and not by any behavior I had chosen.
On and on we went, and finally, he sat back with a small smile and said, “I agree with you. I think this is a spiritual issue.”
Communicating the level of relief that I felt in that moment is hard because I wasn’t even aware myself of the hope I had apparently placed in whatever assistance a counselor could offer me.
In that first session, he taught me a simple breathing exercise which he said was proven to slow the heart rate down. He also provided me with a recording of soothing meditations and guiding breathing to help keep my focus. I was to practice this method of breathing at least once a day. I was also assigned to journal about my panic attacks and try to identify the trigger each time it happened. As a final assignment, he encouraged me to walk outside at least every other day as a way to relieve stress.
The season that ensued was one of the loneliest of my life. I had many loving, supportive, and kind friends, many of them who lived in the rooms surrounding mine. But when the people in your daily life can’t understand why their rationale isn’t helping you cope with the irrational thoughts plaguing your brain, or when they can’t feel themselves how oppressive and suffocating fear can be, there isn’t much help they can provide that feels lasting or deeply impactful. Prayer became a source of comfort for me in the days that followed; prayer from my family, my community back home, my mentor, and a few sisters in Christ on campus. I would desperately need it for the season ahead.
The longer I live, the more people I meet who also struggle with anxiety. A few of my closest friends take medication for their pain and struggle and rely on it to cope with everyday life. I am not against medication to treat anxiety; I probably would have chosen it myself had the Lord not been so clear and specific in His word to me that day at the clinic. My story is my own and the grace that I have found is available to anyone – regardless of whether they are medicated or not. My heart and prayers go out to you if you read this and are holding onto hope for complete healing and restoration someday. I truly believe you will find what you are searching for.
More of this story will follow in the coming weeks. Thanks for reading!
Photograph by the talented Madison Kay Photography © 2016