Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Another Reflection on Anxiety

(I will warn you about typos. I literally have to catch a plane and am typing as fast as I can without the chance to proof-read. Please read with grace and I will come back and try to fix it later.)

I hesitated again to talk about old topics. I've had exhaustive conversations here about my long history with an anxiety disorder.  The only reason I decided to once again, is that I can tell which pages are read here and the ones about dealing with anxiety are at the top of the list. This tells me that there plenty of others out there with the same issue.

To recap what I've said before.  I have suffered from an anxiety disorder since preschool. I don't know why, but starting at such an early age, and the fact that my mother has an anxiety disorder, tells me that genetics must play a part. I mean, I had no early childhood trauma that would explain it.

My anxiety disorder is mostly social but is generalized into other areas such as acrophobia. It has fluctuated over the years between mild and severe. Presently it is towards the milder end of the spectrum.

I believe that people with anxiety disorders wrestle with guilt more than they do with the actual anxiety and this is especially true in Christian circles.  Within Evangelicalism, at least, anxiety is seen as the opposite of faith and faith as the paramount Christian virtue. The verses that stick in the back of our minds are those such as Phil 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present you request to God." But I think that verse is talking more about worry, something you do consciously and willing.  People who have never suffered with anxiety disorders love to quote this verse at us who do.

I dare you to walk into any church and share that you have an anxiety disorder . . . say in a Bible study or Sunday school setting (Christian respond very differently in church than when you ask them the same question in a bar or a public event).  I would say, despite them saying they understand, that 100% of the time they will pass judgement that you have a "spiritual problem."  If they don't, then you have one great church and you better never leave it. So, we face this guilt in the same way people use to have shame about congenital birth defects (and may still do in some places) because society blames them for the fault.

I can remember a time when my anxiety level was up towards the extreme end. It was my old basic nature plus three years of incredible stress . . . and guilt . . . that led to my fall.  My persona began to unravel during a church service (one of the most common places to have a panic attack).  I was asked, on the spur of the moment, to go up to the podium and read scripture to 500 people. Prior to that, I had only had one panic attack in my life and that was when I was holding someone's beating heart in my hand at age 22. But that's another story.

So I felt intense anxiety building. Then I got in front of the entire congregation and had a full panic attack.  It caught me by surprise and if I had not been in medicine and knowing how panic attacks operate, I would have though for sure I was having a heart attack or going insane.  I was so embarrassed as I could not finish reading the scripture and my voice was shaking uncontrollably. I can't prove this, but I saw my "spirituality" in the eyes of my fellow church people plummet after that. I was never asked to do anything at church again. 

So why am I bringing this up now?  About two weeks ago I signed up to climb a pretty big mountain. I'm talking ice axes, crampons and the like.  I've been 1/2 way up this mountain before and it is scary in places. We will have to cross 200 foot deep glacier crevasses and etc. Now why did I sign up to do this? Two reasons. I do like mountains. But most of, because it scares the hell out of me.  But I'm not an adrenalin junkie. I don't like to have the hell scared out of me. I hate it! But I know, as a discipline, that facing my fears is the best way to overcome them.

I'm taking my wife with me up the mountain. She doesn't suffer from any kind of anxiety disorder including acrophobia.  But she is voicing that she has fear about this trip. She has the rational fear that anyone would have. I explained to her, that I really don't see  a lot of difference, for me, in climbing this mountain and getting out of bed and going to work every day. I'm scared shit-less every day I go to work, and that is the social anxiety part. So, I explained to her, this is the world I live in.

So, I decided to start reading about anxiety again to prepare myself for this trip. One of the things I read, written by a psychologist, really rang true. The biggest fear with most people with anxiety is having anxiety. So in my case, I don't lay awake at night fearing about falling to my death in a crevasse.  No, my biggest fear is having a panic attack when I see the crevasse. Actually falling in could be a relief compared to the actual panic attack.

The second part, and the part I haven't told you about, is that I'm joining a group of Christians on this climb. They are planning some Bible study time.  As someone with anxiety, including social anxiety . . . and as someone who doesn't fit at all within the Christian society anymore, that gives me the greatest fear.

Here is my anxious vision (okay, maybe this is worry).  I see us sitting in a circle on the glacier with our Bibles open and the leader says, close your eyes.  Feel Jesus walking behind you and touching your heart. Tell me when you feel him.  Then, one by one the people will say "I feel him!"  Then, after my wife beside me (honestly) says that she can feel Jesus' presence  as I sit silent.  The reason is, I am a very honest person. I'm not even sure what they mean by "feeling Jesus presence."  Sure, I would feel a lot of emotions sitting on a glacier high on the mountain side. But for me to actually say that I feel Jesus, would bey lying.  I believe that lying is sin and I really try not to.

But my anxiety, and this has actually happened to me in these circumstances, is that the leader will then start to conclude that I'm not in tune with Jesus because I didn't fall for his manipulations of emotions. I don't know if that makes sense. But I have come out of these situations . . . simply because I want to be brutally honest, smelling like crap.  That's what I fear. However, I had the same type of fear before I attended a men's retreat and it turned out fine. It wasn't nearly as evangodysfunctional as I had feared. Maybe that reflects more of the character of my new church.

I also fear being told that if we really love Jesus, and we really trust God like the leader does, then we would have no fear of falling and dying.  I know that even if I suggest that I have an anxiety disorder, it will be seen as a sorry excuse for a pathetic little man.

I'm so glad that I do have a couple of Ativan tablets to take with me.


Philip said...

Fantastic post!

I can really relate as I've had an anxiety disorder since childhood that's been labelled all sorts of things.

Reactions from Christian friends has been mixed. Some have come at me with the "do not be anxious" stuff. But many have sought understanding and have been open with their struggles. And then there are many that I can sense find me very, very confusing. I've learned to be OK with that.

As I work with Crusade as well, there are mixed reactions to my struggle. But what hurts the most, is what you described, being seen as less of a man, or unspiritual. My guess is King David had a anxiety disorder of some kind, judging from the Psalms, so we're in good company.

Also, since I work and write for youth, so many young people are wrestling with depression and anxiety. We need more people like you who are calling the kettle black. So thanks and keep it up.

Also, one of the things you said a while back that's really stuck with me is that the proto-type Evangelical may be a certain personality type. This has been a great help for me.

And if your scenario of the circle with Jesus comes up, feel free to tell them to "Go to hell!" straight from a Campus Crusade for Christ Missionary's mouth :). Or maybe a crevasse will rise up and swallow the group.


Jessica Marie said...

"Actually falling in could be a relief compared to the actual panic attack."

This. It's so hard to explain to people who don't have panic attacks; they don't understand that walking out the door can be akin to being hit by a train.

That said, I have yet to experience the judgment about my struggle; maybe people are being too nice to me, or maybe they just know they can't understand.

jmj said...

I think that anxiety disorders are very common. It is that dark secret that we must hold. Not only in evangelical circles but in society in general, which puts value on confidence and self-assurance (not exactly opposites to anxiety).

I remember when I was working at Mayo Clinic and had a somewhat famous TV person come to see me. She appears extremely confident on TV. She radiates the complete lack of fear. Yet, I was dumbfounded as she was on enough anti-anxiety medications to kill a horse, and she too more when she was on the air.

So this made me think, even those who don't suffer like us, those who are so confident on the surface, must still have their hidden terrors.

Yes, anxiety is worse than pain (in my opinion). It is almost worse than death. I remember as a little boy a neighborhood bully put me on the roof of our house and took away the ladder. I was terrified. I was so terrified that I would fall, that I intentionally fell off hurting myself because strangely, the actual falling and getting hurt was better than not falling and being fearful of falling. It is the God-given fear response, go amuck a bit.