2013 was the year my anxiety began to really rear it’s ugly head, but 2016 had to be the pinnacle of the shit storm. That was the year I imploded, suddenly left a job I liked, and injured a lot of relationships with people I love. It was never intentional. I suppose it never is.
Looking back, I was holding on for dear life. By day, the ideal husband and father, mega-church worship leader, productive songwriter and podcaster, beloved preschool music teacher; by night, the wine-drunk escape artist, hat lowered to the eyes in a poorly lit bar, wondering what it all means.
It’s funny how you can be so many things at once. Light and darkness coexisting within the same person, always battling for the upper hand. When I was in my wandering/wondering, a friend asked me ‘Doesn’t it feel inauthentic to be in such a dark place and still have to lead worship at a church on Sunday mornings?’. The truth is, it did not. If anything, it felt more authentic. When I sang about feeling lost and needing God’s help, I really meant it. I felt it in my bones.
Authentic or not, though, what I can say with all certainty is that I wanted out. I just didn’t know exactly how to get out. I wanted to know what was on the other side of my struggling, if anything, and I really wanted to believe that it was possible for me to be free and healthy and a whole person. I envied the people who seemed not to struggle every single day like I did. I wondered how they did it. I began to feel intrinsically flawed and other than…
One Sunday after church, I confided in a minister about my constant battling, although sparing him some of the grittier details. I couldn’t figure out how to paint a picture of where I was at mentally/emotionally/spiritually without setting off any alarms. But I finally mustered up enough strength to eek out ‘I’m just not sure that I’m okay right now’. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but in a vague way, I was concerned for my well-being.
Well-meaning and kind, this church leader sincerely put his hand on my shoulder and said that I should ‘really dig into the scriptures’. He said I should pray more. Read more? Pray more? That’s it? I thought, Oh, how I wish that it could be so simple! Believe me, I wanted a quick fix - desperately! If reading the Bible and praying more could take away what I was feeling, I would’ve become the most devout person you’d ever met.
But the truth was, I had been reading scripture and praying. A LOT. Like, balled-up-on-the-living-room-floor-and-crying type of praying. And I was still having panic attacks. Constantly. I was having them while driving, working, reading, sleeping, and even while leading worship for hundreds of people. My heart would palpitate, I felt as though I couldn’t breathe, and I would begin shaking for no apparent reason. My brain was constantly on fire, to the point where I would often pace around my cul-de-sac at midnight and try to count stars to distract my nervous system.
I was completely miserable. And it was in that moment in my car that I realized I was going to need something more than ‘read more’ and ‘pray more’. I had been hearing ‘read more’ and ‘pray more’ my entire life. The words felt rehearsed and tone deaf, like a bumper sticker or a song on Christian radio. I didn’t know what moving forward looked like, but I knew it was going to be extremely hard work to carve a path into the side of the enormous mountain I was facing.
I can honestly say I was doing the best that I could at the time, but somewhere along the way the road began to disappear. Despite my best efforts, the journey became too tiresome, and I ended up in some dark alleys. In short, I began to escape in some pretty reckless ways. Eventually, all of the escaping and coming back, the binging and purging, caught up with me. It wasn’t long before the sand castle completely collapsed. I couldn’t build a barrier big enough or pack the sand down hard enough to keep the foundation from eroding. Things got bad internally. Really bad. And then they got bad externally. I was desperately praying, yet more anxious and erratic than ever.
I have discovered that there is no immediate justice in mental illness. There is no fairness. There is only the opportunity to struggle. So one must decide first, if he is willing to struggle. And then, he must decide how he will struggle. It’s an imperfect implementing of grit and wisdom. It is trial and error, a guessing game. Often, its just riding a wave.
I have, over the course of a few years, learned to ride the wave; at least, I have become better at riding it. Which is the most I could ask, I think. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t still climbing uphill, but I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t a long way from where I was at my lowest point. Every so slowly, the bottom has begun to seem further than it did each day before. Can I speak practically for a moment? I love speaking in ideas and theology/philosophy, but there was some very real experimenting, implementation, and agony in my own process towards healing. Okay, practically, here are some things:
First, there was therapy. Which, for the first few sessions, looked like me trying to convince my counselor that there was absolutely nothing wrong with me. To which he would ask ‘Well then, why are you here’. To which, I would say something vague about wanting to better myself, yada, yada, yada… We danced like this for awhile. Eventually we did get somewhere, and it might be the most helpful tool I’ve found.
There are the staples: diet, exercise, & sleep. Don’t underestimate these. Also, parenthetically: nature, biking, reading, listening to music, making music, playing with the dog - these are good too.
Then, there are a plethora of experimental remedies you can and must explore and tailor to yourself. For example, meditation became a big piece of my peace. I currently use an app called Meditation Studio. At the beginning, I couldn’t seem to make it through a meditation without crying. I think it’s because I had never allowed myself that level of attention and self-care. Meditation isn’t weird or magical, and it’s not something only designated for Bhuddists and monks. It’s simply a chance to slow down and reset. It’s focusing on the right here and right now, using the breath as an anchor. This is helpful because anxiety always has us focusing on the future, on what could go wrong. Meditation interrupts that faulty programming.
Another ‘experimental’ remedy I’ve found to be helpful is CBD oil. Again, this may not be for everyone, but I’m reflecting on what has been helpful in my own tailor-made recipe towards mental health. Learn more HERE.
Most importantly, you simply cannot survive a struggle with anxiety, depression, addiction, the aftermath of failure, etc. without relationships. There must be vulnerability. Not airing your dirty laundry to anyone who wants a whiff, but intentionally sharing your struggles with people you trust. People must earn your trust. Some people will want your trust from a place of power, but don’t give it up so easily. The world runs on oppression, but we are allowed to resist, sharing only what we want with only whom we want.
Personally, I have a handful of inner circles; there are different people that I trust with different aspects of my life. The inner inner circle is where my wife resides. I trust her with much more than just information. The trust I have for her is a trust that goes beyond trust. Sure, I trust her to do what she says and keep secrets, etc., but I also trust who she is; I trust her soul. Right outside of that circle, there is space reserved for a couple of close friends, and so on and so on… all the way down to my mechanic, who I trust with my car.
I have found that I need all of these things to survive.
So where is God in my anxiety, depression, addiction, and shame?
This is the question that I have been contemplating for quite some time. The truth is, I have often felt intense guilt that prayer didn’t seem to be the main thing that was healing me. Often times, I have felt guilty for taking anxiety medication and I have been ashamed of reading secular literature about mindfulness and mental health. Do I not have enough faith? I wondered. Even though I could feel myself moving upward, some deep seated limiting beliefs from waaaaaaaay back had ahold of my ankles and were trying to pull me back down into the familiar and comfortable.
In my mind, I couldn’t stop hearing the voices of parents, pastors, and best-selling Christian authors saying Don’t worry. God’s got this! You just have to believe he’s big enough to handle all of your problems! I kept recalling stories of people being miraculously healed, like the public speaker who once told all of us at high school church camp that he had been completely cured of HIV. The story goes, he slept around a lot in his early years, contracted HIV, and then, when he became a Christian, God divinely healed him. Was that not possible for me? His illness seemed physically more daunting than mine.
It took me awhile (maybe even a couple of years) to begin to shed some old skins and realize there was beautiful new skin growing underneath. Whether it be out of fear, the discomfort of change, or social pressure, isn’t it true that sometimes we hold on to things that limit our growth for far too long? I wanted youth camp Jesus to miraculously take away my anxiety like he took away that speaker’s HIV. But he wasn’t doing it; at least, not in the way I thought he would. Truthfully, I wished I had Magic Genie Jesus and three wishes. He doesn’t exist.
So where is God in my anxiety, depression, addiction, and shame?
There it is again, that question that has always seemed to naggingly demand an answer. Finding clarity in struggle has always felt so daunting. There has always been so much outside pressure to have the right answers. There’s been so much pressure to have any kind of answer at all. It doesn’t feel that way now. At least, not as much. I am still intrigued by the thought of a divine answer, but I am not haunted by the sound of silence. Because, perhaps, the silence is merely perceived on my end. Perhaps my understanding of when and how God speaks is limited.
Father Richard Rohr recently said on a podcast I listened to that we should look for God in everything. EVERYTHING. If God made it all, and his fingerprints are all over creation, can’t we thank him for meditation and exercise and CBD oil and intimate friendship? If he is the giver of wisdom, isn’t his Holy Spirit the one who fills the space between the counselor and the one who is in need of a good word? Is he present even in our wandering? Can he even work through those who are completely unaware of him, as he did through the men who physically nailed Jesus to a cross?
What if we looked for God’s fingerprints everywhere (I’m writing this to myself)? In nature (isn’t it majestic?). In your spouse (because there’s no better glimpse). In your SSRI (whatever helps you rest, my child). In dinner and a movie (you were originally made to play). In make up sex (forgiveness is holy). In every glimmer of hope that gives us just enough light to make it through another day. And of course, let’s continue to look for God in Jesus, who is the incarnation. Would you even dare to look again for God in the scriptures, in hopes of discovering that it might actually be living and breathing and somehow progressively relevant to your own life?
What if you dared to honestly ask the question: So where is God in my anxiety, depression, addiction, and shame?
Could he be right here?