I promised that I would get to the personal details of my own battle with anxiety, and today starts that story. If this is your first time here, please note that this is Part 3 in a series on anxiety. Click through to read part 1 and part 2.
It started with the headaches. I’d go to bed with one and wake in the morning with its effects still lingering. It wasn’t a sharp, debilitating pain, but rather a chronic dull ache. A constant pressure in my head that wore me out and made me aware of the fact that something just wasn’t right. Baby number 2 (Little Lady) still frequently slept in our bed, which often caused me to sleep in contorted positions, so I knew that my sleeping patterns could certainly have something to do with the aches. But I feared there was more. Truth be told, I feared A WHOLE lot more.
Several months prior to the onset of the chronic headaches, my husband and I sat in the back row of the college class at our church (no, we’re not that young; we were volunteers). As the college pastor stood up to begin to promote the summer mission trip, I felt a quickening in my spirit. This was the same mission trip my husband had been yearning to go on during the previous summer. He had approached me then about the possibility of us attending, but we both agreed it would be too difficult to leave the country while the kids remained behind at such a young age. Our oldest would have just turned three years, and our little girl would have only been eight months old.
But this year, the kids were a bit older. And I knew my husband still had the heart to go. I on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to stay within arms reach of my children at all times. The thought of leaving them to travel abroad on a mission trip absolutely terrified me. And the reality that my husband might actually encourage us to go again nearly sickened me.
For weeks the college pastor promoted the trip, and for weeks my husband remained silent. Each time the Belize video splashed on the screen, I felt a sinking sensation that this would be the week my husband would broach the topic. There was a gnawing in my spirit that I couldn’t ignore … a still small voice I tried to drown out but found impossible to turn a deaf ear. I knew my husband and I were called to go to those villages; only I was paralyzed with fear at the thought.
So I figured that unless my husband broached the topic, I would remain silent. Only remaining silent when the Lord has convicted you is never a pleasant thing. In Psalm 32, verse 3, David writes: “When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night, Your hand was heavy upon me.”
God’s hand was indeed heavy upon me, so I finally consented to raise the topic. I feebly and quite quickly told my husband that if he still wanted to go on the mission trip, I would consider it. And yet, in speaking those words, I knew I was signing up. My husband’s heart was already there.
So we said yes. He and his selfless servant’s heart was wholly enthusiastic, while the mother in me was ridden with fear. I should insert here that prior to having children, I had traveled abroad (London, Costa Rica, South Korea) with nary a concern. But once I had children and my heart took on skin and began walking around outside my body, I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving them.
Shortly after agreeing to work in the remote villages of Belize for one week while our children stayed at home, I began to literally be consumed with anxiety. To say that dark thoughts took up residence in my mind is an understatement. The worst of scenarios played out in my head, one after another, with such increasing frequency that I could hardly maintain a rational thought. And while my mental health spun into a deep abyss, the chronic headaches simultaneously began to plague my physical well-being.
To be wrought with anxiety is an immobilizing fear. And as that anxiety deepened, so did my physical symptoms. In turn, as my physical health worsened, my anxiety grew exponentially as a result. I began to worry not only about the trip to the jungle villages and all manner of things that could go horribly wrong, but also about my own health.
Then just a few weeks after the headaches became chronic, I began to have eye issues. I’m blind as a bat on a good day, so I was no stranger to blurry vision. But something about this was different. The vision in my left eye was exceptionally blurry even with my contacts, and colors seemed a bit off. I tried a replacement contact, but the blurriness remained. So I went to the eye doctor for an exam. He fitted me with a new contact and sent me home. But the next day, that new contact was useless. As my anxiety-ridden mind tried to cope with this ailment I found myself fearing the worst regarding my health. I returned to his office, and this time the doctor performed more tests. He also mentioned two little letters that literally ripped the breath right from my lungs. “Do you happen to have MS in the family?” he asked? Struggling to hold back the tears that threatened to spill over, I said no. He said that he would like me to see a specialist. I was already so mentally fragile, this nearly sent me over the edge.
I began to research MS and other potential causes voraciously. Some of my symptoms matched MS, but many didn’t. Still I started to fear that I did indeed have the disease, or worse yet, a brain tumor. I could hardly peel myself away from the internet during that time. I just wanted an answer.
One Saturday, shortly after hearing those two ominous letters, I began to experience a tingling in my cheeks. It was similar to the experience of novocain wearing off after receiving a dental filling. The tingling spread to both arms and then to my hands. I was distraught with fear. If you know anything about MS, you know that it affects the nervous system. Tingling in the arms and hands is a classic symptom of the disease, only it typically occurs on one side. The tingling I experienced was across both sides of my body.
Looking back, this was one of the lowest points in my journey. Darkness engulfed me and fear consumed me. What if a devastating disease had in fact taken up residence in my body? What if there was no cure for it? What if something terrible happened to us in Belize? What if something happened to our children? The onslaught of anxious thoughts was relentless.
During this time, I cried out to God, clinging to Him and His promises with all my might. Begging for him to give me just a bit of strength to put one foot in front of the other despite my fear. He responded, carrying me through it. And in His gracious kindness He also very gently revealed to me that there were others who would shoulder this burden with me, if I’d just allow them.
You see, I struggle with perfectionism. And with that struggle comes the temptation to present myself as if I have it all together (I obviously don’t, by the way!). As a result, rather than sharing my struggle with others, I had internalized it all. Even my husband was surprised when I finally admitted the depth of my mental anxiety. But the experience of this battle was revealing to me the pride I harbored in my heart … pride that caused me to want to hide weakness and mask imperfection. I had so often appeared strong and capable to others, but this was just too much. God was whittling away at my pride.
So I revealed the full magnitude of my struggle to my family, a few close friends, my small group Bible study and our women’s ministry director. I also humbled myself one Sunday and took that long walk down the aisle toward the altar to ask for prayer from dear friends of ours (who also happened to be going on the mission trip with us). And in doing so, I sensed that still small voice telling me that these people would not only shoulder the burden with me, but that they would also celebrate with me at journey’s end … whenever and whatever that might be.
I’m going to conclude the account of my journey through anxiety in the next few posts, so please do continue to tune in! And if you’ve ever struggled (or are struggling) from a similar battle with anxiety yourself, please leave a comment. I fear that this issue is quite common among women, and it’s only in transparency with our own struggles that we can encourage others who may find themselves entrenched in this battle.