Saturday, September 19, 2009

Adventures in Nerviousness

The trail at the right is not in Nepal, but China. However, it is how the trails look in my anxious mind's eyes :>)

I would not even be talking about this, outside of the privacy of my own head, except for the fact that I have already posted a series about my struggles with anxiety. Four weeks from today I leave for the bowels of the Himalayas. Recently, as always in these situations, the fog of fear started sifting in. I’ve found myself sequestering more and more of my energy and thoughts to fight this great and enduring battle.

The fist tidal wave appeared in the middle of the night last week as I was sleeping, ironically, in my childhood bed (on a visit to my mother’s house). I always feel unease at mom’s. I can’t put a finger on it (maybe Freud could), but I think it is the sense of decay of the old place and the markers of the passing of time. The house has aged more with each visit, as has my mom (and myself of course). After all of these years, the house still looks small to me, noting that somewhere in the shadows of my mind are stored the memories from the childhood perspective.

I get the same type of shock when I look into my mom’s bathroom mirror. I’ve heard of Alzheimer’s patients who don’t recognize the old person in their reflection. But I see myself every morning in my own mirror and don’t think anything of it. But in mom’s I look old and I could easily confuse myself for my father . . . who had shaved in front of that same medicine cabinet for fifty years . . . until his death.

I think the real catalyst for my night terror was reading a Lonely Planet book about trekking in Nepal just before going to sleep. One chapter listed many of the natural dangers, not to mention the unnatural ones such as Maoist rebels. The worse danger (in my perspective) was the fact that some trails were so precarious (a foot wide hanging along a long 1,000 foot cliff) that the author said, he had seen experienced mountaineers trembling in their boots.

As part of my general anxiety disorder, I do have a few specific phobias, such as acrophobia. But I think this fear is more of a social one. What I mean is that my fear is not that I will fall to my death, but that I would fall apart (emotionally) on one of those trails and freeze in front of the rest of the team. Then I would look like a nut-case. Yeah, that’s my worst nightmare. I’ve never gone wacko yet . . . but the fear is that there will be a first time.

I spent the rest of that sleepless night praying and imagining myself wrapped in Jesus’ safe arms. I quoted verses like, Phil 4:6 “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” inside my head. So I followed the verses’ instructions word by word. Then I thought of an old hymn.

This hymn, by Francis Havergal, is Like a River Glorious and the lyrics are (as if you don’t know them):

Like a river glorious, is God's perfect peace,
Over all victorious, in its bright increase;
Perfect, yet it floweth, fuller every day,
Perfect, yet it groweth, deeper all the way.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Hidden in the hollow of His blessed hand,
Never foe can follow, never traitor stand;
Not a surge of worry, not a shade of care,
Not a blast of hurry touch the spirit there.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.

Every joy or trial falleth from above,
Traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love;
We may trust Him fully all for us to do.
They who trust Him wholly find Him wholly true.

Stayed upon Jehovah, hearts are fully blest
Finding, as He promised, perfect peace and rest.
This song has a special place in my armament of anti-anxiety defenses. It was 28 years ago and I was a young man traveling in Pakistan alone. While I was up in the mountains, a military coup had taken place . . . of which I was totally unaware. I caught a ride in a van (with a group that did not speak a word of English) into Rawalpindi. As we approached the city limits, there were tanks and solders everywhere. The van dropped me off and turned away. I stood in the streets with my backpack and there was total confusion. I could not find an English speaker anywhere. I was able to walk to the airport, which was heavily guarded. I was searched several times at gun point by non-English speakers (or if they were . . . they didn’t speak English to me).

To make a long story short, my flight had been canceled and it was four days before I could find a flight out of Pakistan and that flight only took me as far as Frankfort, Germany. But during that time of waiting and not knowing, I started to sing this old hymn over and over and immersing myself, psychologically within the song’s word pictures.

Since that night of terror a week ago, things have been better. Today was the first day I picked up my Nepali books again.

But it got me thinking again about us Christians who are engaged in this perpetual fight . . . with those dragons who lurk within. I falter as I try to put this into words.

I think the point I’m trying to make is that the battle is intense. Over the years I’ve spent many of nights laying in these literal cold sweats of fear . . . but none the less I’ve made many of these overseas trips, which were pregnant with dangerous of all sorts.

I have a very strong fear of heights, yet I own rock climbing equipment and I use it . . . with terror each time. I am terrified of speaking to large groups, but I have forced myself to do it over and over. The battle is intense each time.

I’ve spent hours and hours in prayer, fasting . . . pleading with God to deliver me. Yet, despite the effort why is there still shame attached to this battle? The part of me that does not struggle with anything, the calm confident Mike is just the tip of the iceberg . . . but the vast body of the iceberg can not be known to others without feeling threatened.

But the frustration is the feeling (and that feeling itself may be part of the social anxiety and not based on reality) that if I ever share this huge part of my life within the Christian context that it would not go over well. It would be a red-flag to someone that I have failed somewhere in my Christian life. I haven’t prayed right, or believed right yada yada yada. Usually that view comes from someone who has never struggled with these things . . . or if they have, they have struggled in the deep private places. I bet though, that the same people who might be critical have never traveled alone in the unstable Third World, or leaned backwards and jumped off a 150 foot cliff.

But, without digressing any more into my own problem (of anxiety) I raise this to a more general question. I honestly wonder how many of us (both Christians or just people in general) deal with these issues in their private world. Things like anxiety, depression, addictions and etc.) Some days I think it must be very common, if not universal. But then other times I’m not so sure. It certainly seems like everyone else has their lives together.

My wife Denise is the one other human being I’ve known the best. Honestly . . . she has no vices. She would be the first to admit that there are no dragons in her cellar and it seems the same with her entire family. The calm person on the tip of her iceberg is the same all the way down. On the other hand, my (growing up) family put the “fun” in dysfunctional. I will continue this thought later but this is getting too long.


Jaimie said...

But you've done so much awesome stuff! You might have anxieties, but you've been in crazy, crazy, crazy places and come out of them. So like, all the "calm" people you see around you... don't even know.

Maybe they don't have fears because they've never asked themselves if they have fears.

Becky said...

"I honestly wonder how many of us (both Christians or just people in general) deal with these issues in their private world. Things like anxiety, depression, addictions and etc.)"

Once upon a time, I was working with a counselor after collapsing with severe clinical depression. My depression was classified as agitated major depression, which is depression along with considerable anxiety. I truly did have many anxiety symptoms, but I've always wondered if part of the "agitated" part of that diagnosis was because I was absolutely terrified to be in a secular psychiatrist's office (Christian training about the evil secular mental health professionals and such flowing through my mind). As it turned out, the secular mental health professionals were extremely helpful. After stories I've heard about Christian counselors, I've very thankful I ended up in a secular psychiatrist's office first. (It was my secular employer who (figuratively) grabbed me by the scruff of my neck, told me I was a good employee and they would do anything to help me, but I was very sick with an illness they frequently saw, and I *was* going to go see a particular type of doctor right now.)

But, I digress. I was seeing a counselor after this diagnosis, and one of the books he had me read had to do with panic attacks. I had always been really involved in music (and prayer) in Christian settings. At some point during the book, as it was bringing up pointers about recognizing a budding panic attack and heading it off, it must have mentioned something along the lines of not forgetting to breath and trying to focus on something pleasant and outside of you, rather than on the fact that you are getting more and more panicky about the possibility that you might get panicky. The realization suddenly dawned on me: I don't think this whole singing/Christian music thing has been entirely devotion to/connection with God. I think I may have been self medicating this depression/anxiety all along with music (and prayer). After all, what does singing force me to do -- go into deep, slow, controlled breathing and (with a quality song/hymn) think about a much bigger picture beyond myself. (Same thing with achieving really quiet, peaceful states in prayer. I'm definitely not saying that there is nothing going on in prayer, but in my particular case, a lot of what was going on was me self-medicating myself.)

At the time, that realization really, really, really threw me for a loop. I've resolved much of that now (years later), and I still love to sing, especially hymns. I don't buy the majority of what evangelicalism claims about religious experiences related to music, though. (And I do think music has a very valid place in worship. I haven't completely thrown out the baby with the bathwater.) But I also deliberately use hymns to help break out of depressive or anxious downward spirals.

But. I look at the intense devotion evangelicals have to music, and I have to ponder. How much unacknowledged self medication with music is really going on? In some ways, some of the intense worship wars that can break out over small musical changes look (to my non-professional eye) a lot like people getting panicky about being deprived of a drug. How much unacknowledged depressive or anxious tendencies really are lying under the surface out there?

Just my ponderings. No condemnations or blanket diagnosis or anything. Just some thoughts that bubbled to the surface when you mentioned the hymn story, plus wondering how much of this is out there.

MJ said...

Becky, I hear what you are saying and I have some agreeing thoughts, only if I can put them into words.

For one, I think the Evangelicals have relegated our emotions as something inferior part of the "worldly" so, to give them any attention, we have to "spiritualize them" as something supernatural. So, I do think that there are physiological things that take place when you sing and meditate that are all within the realms of nature (verses being supernatural) and there is nothing wrong with that. God also created nature and the way our bodies function.

I don't think it is by chance that many of the most conservative christian movements have some of the wildest worship services (going back to the Quakers and Shakers). When you live a life that denies the emotions, there must be a place to vent those emotions . . .and by disguising the emotions as the working of the Spirit (eyes rolled back, complete loss of inhibition)during a worship service, it allows some of those pent up feelings out.

I just wish we had a more healthy and honest way about it. I mean, in the Arab culture (while there are lots of negatives) they treat emotions honestly. That's why you see so much expression of emotions in the streets, people pounding their chests in anger, pulling their hair out in distress etc.

mitzi said...

A lot of people, if not most in our culture, struggle with these things if they are honest. I grew up being sent to my grandparents' house every week-end because my grandfather was "nervous" (their word for suicidally depressed), and his eldest grandchild (the only girl) was the only thing that could make him smile. I handled social anxiety by teaching middle school for almost 10 years. I took swimming lessons because I was afraid to put my head underwater, and martial arts lessons because I was afraid to walk in my neighborhood. It is wonderful to see you handling your dragons the same way. The same old confrontations get tiresome (my social anxieties wax and wane with the seasons), but the only way the dragons win is if you let them.