Monday, August 31, 2009

The Fall Within - More About My Anxiety Story

My problem stayed at a mild level (after my neighbor Les and my bother Gary were out of the picture). But it was some events of middle school that brought them to the surface and helped to define them as social anxiety (rather than just general anxiety). In my middle school was when you were called to do your first public speaking and where sports took a paramount importance.

My first public speaking gig was a seventh grader when I was told to do a talk to a roomful of parents at a National Honor Society banquet. The speech had to be written and then memorized. Five of us were on the podium. I had been very nervous about it for days ahead, which may have been typical for a thirteen year-old. But when it was my time to speak, and I was second, I had a full-fledged panic attack. My voice was trembling so bad that I could only get out my first sentence (out of about ten) and then I froze up. It was one of the biggest nightmares of my life up until that point.

Social anxiety is self-perpetuating. You screw up because you are so scared. Then your fear becomes much worse because you have screwed up. It becomes a vicious downward spiral. The only feedback I got after the talk was having the teacher, who led the National Honor’s Society, comment that the other four did a great job and maybe I was the wrong choice for the job and, she told the group, that she would be much more careful next time when she picked speakers.

I knew nothing about anxiety disorders but had to assume that I had messed up because I was very stupid and a very bad person. The teacher didn’t advise me any differently.

My social anxiety became much worse after that event and during the subsequent years. The major reason was my experience with basketball. I think my motive for playing was trying to prove that I was “somebody” and thus over come these personal negative feelings. I became obsessed with the sport, practicing far longer than the team. However, I continued to be plagued with performance anxiety (a facet of social anxiety) to the point that—while I was doing very well in practices—I failed miserably during a game in front of a few hundred people. Just like with the Honor Society speech, each failure led to worsening social anxiety.

The Christian Era

I became a Christian at age 18 through a high school teacher who taught psychology. I took psychology to try and figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Then the teacher introduced a friend, Bill, and I to the Gospel, at least an evangelical version of the Gospel.

The part that was most attractive to me about Tom’s Gospel, was that once you accept Christ, all your problems go away and you enter a Nirvana of bliss right away. I was taught that Jesus came to not only take away the guilt of our sin, but the actual sin itself.

Bill and I entered (for the next four years) a program of discipleship training under Tom. The cornerstone of this series was the belief that the only thing that separated ourselves from perfection, bearing all the fruits of the spirit (and we considered “peace” or the complete lack of anxiety as one of those fruits) was our obedience. So, I wanted so much to know this peace . . . and more than that, I wanted everyone to see me as a mature Christian . . . that I had to do my best to push my anxiety underground.

I took up repelling and rock climbing during college and graduate school to prove to others I had no fear of heights (but was scared shitless each time I did it). I did travel back and climb the ole Hatteras light house. There is something positive to be said for “exposure” to the target of fear. It is therapeutic and does help, so those exposures (although it was part of my pretending) did help the underlying problem a bit.

I can only remember two public speaking events during my undergraduate years. One was a well advertised debate between a group of us Christians and a strongly atheistic philosophy professor. I honestly think I had much more to say (having at least studied philosophy) than the rest of the group. However, I was terrified for the week leading up to the meeting. My Christian friends told me a bunch of clich├ęs, such as, “If you had your eyes on Jesus rather than yourself, then it wouldn’t be a problem.” One gal suggested that I did not have the Holy Spirit because if I really did, I would be bold and courageous rather than acting like a coward. I felt like a coward and knew how much God must be ashamed of me for being anxious, especially when other people were not. I fasted and prayed for hours and hours over that meeting and slept very little.

The second one came while I was attending a Navigator summer training program at the University of Tennessee. It was a three month intensive training in the Christian life (with about 100 other students). I was asked to lead music (and I know nothing about music) at a large gathering for about 500 people. I was terrified. I heard over an over from my team leader and others that my fear was a mark of spiritual immaturity. I hated myself. All I did was pray, fast and beg God to help me to be mature. I led the music but it was extremely hard.

In summary, the next couple of decades my social anxiety was in the back ground. It was only mild to moderate, but even then, it did influence my life a lot. We had a failed missionary experience in part due to it. We had a boss who treated my family like donkey crap (he had his own disturbing issues). I should have stood up to him the very first time that he asked us to do something outrageous. However, due to the facts that I had been taught that going against a spiritual leader was the same as going against God Himself, and the fact that I had a fear of confrontation (typical of social anxiety) let us stay on the field in extreme hardship for two years before I had the balls to explode and confront this man (after his decisions had almost cause my son to die).

To avoid belaboring this too long, I will jump ahead another decade. My anxiety disorder continued to haunt me (making me feel like crap as a man and a Christian) but it was relatively mild. This all changed about 15 years ago. It was a chain of horrible events that occurred over three years. It is too complicated to go into here. In summary, the first events were completely out of my control . . . just a lot of bad luck. In the end, in my anger and frustration, I made bad choices. After this, it was like I was standing at the foot of the Hoover Damn and the entire thing collapsed releasing a vast torrent of guilt and shame on the top of my head. My anxiety had been building for a couple of years, but then, it became acute and serious. I began having panic attacks one after another. At the zenith I had to stay home from work because I was having constant panic attacks if I left my house.

This is getting long so I will pick up on this story in my next posting. I will talk more about what it is like to experience a more serious form of anxiety disorder. Mistakes I made in seeking treatment, and things I’ve learned. I will warn that this is not like a Mother Goose or typical Christian fiction story where everything becomes hunky dory in the end. My problem is still not resolved and may never be this side of eternity. I will end with a post discussing the whole nature of these problems and how, I think, Christians should approach them, and errors that I know that I've made in my thinking.

9 comments:

Justin said...

MJ,
In your opinion, professional or otherwise, would you say that stories like yours are more the rule than the exception? Would you agree that problems like this are more widespread than we may think?

adventuresinmercy said...

This is really good stuff...thanks for being so open.

MJ said...

Justin, I do think that the part of this problem, which we see, is only the tip of the iceberg. Most of us hide it beneath many layers. I think men tend to hide it, or self-medicate with alcohol, drugs or (in the example of depression)putting a barrel of a gun in their mouths. Often women will convert these mental illnesses into physical (fake, but even they don't realize they are fake) diseases. But I've seen the opposite (women putting the guns in their mouth or men developing fake illnesses.

I don't know if my story is the rule. I guess we would have to hear from others, let them decided if they relate or have had very different experiences.

I do think that Christians have more pressure to bury their mental health problems . . . due to the stigma of mental health issues=not trusting God, etc.

MJ said...

Advent-in-mercy

My openness gets me into a lot of trouble, and often embarrasses many people in my family.

Brittany said...

MJ, Thanks for sharing. Your story hits very close to home, as I am a fellow sufferer of anxiety and depression; including social anxiety as a teenager. It pains me to hear the kind of comments you received from well-meaning but clueless Christians. I am very excited to have found this blog.

Justin said...

MJ,
If this is the tip of that iceberg, then what concerns me is not the fact that so many people struggle this way (that's comforting to a strange extent) but that so many dangerously dysfunctional families perpetuating these types of problems in their children, all hidden and under our noses. I consider myself extremely lucky--yes, lucky is the word--to have grown up with a family who did not abuse me. I'm finding out that my experience is the rarity, not the rule.

What's disconcerting is the likelihood that nothing is what it seems, that below the surface darkness lurks deep and wide. Church, friends, extended family it's all just an effort to hide the embarrassing and shameful realities. Dear God...

MJ said...

Justin, I know I run this into the ground, but I think that is what the Fall is really like. It's not hopeless, there is still lots and lots of good, but there is far more darkness than we would like to admit, especially us Christians (who like to divide the world into those bad-guys and us good-guys.)

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