Sometimes, Anxiety Wins

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Anxiety by Giuseppe Cristiano

You try to keep it at bay by exercising 30 minutes a day or cutting sugar out of your diet.

You try to keep it under control with deep breathing, yoga, prayer, and spending time with loved ones.

You try to reason with it by finding the cycles, patterns, words and wording, and reminding yourself they are “just thoughts,” even when they feel like the most true statements in the world.

You try to fight it by telling it you’re more than those dark thoughts say you are, by saying you’re beloved despite all of the flaws it hurls at you like jagged stones, and by asking it kindly to shut the fuck up.

Sometimes, you win.

The thoughts quiet to a dull roar and gradually subside. Calm returns, and you continue your routine, maybe a bit more weary than you were before but otherwise unscathed.

Other times, you are pummeled.

The stones cut deep, and the blood flows freely. You curl into a fetal position, out of defense and because everything seems to cave in on you. But still, the stones continue to hit, and they hurt something terrible, and when they finally cease, you lay there weary and languid, wondering if you will ever find the strength to rise again.

And as you nurse yourself slowly back to health with tears and fitful sleep, you wonder why nothing worked. You wonder why the medication or the lifestyle changes or the therapy sessions or any combination thereof didn’t fortify the floodgates.

Maybe you’ll even wonder the most paralyzing, frightening thought of all: was it all my fault?

 

You’ve had these experiences countless times before, but even though you’re used to them, each time can feel more unsettling than the last. Even if your recovery time is better than it has been in the past, it still shakes you to your core and leaves you trembling after the dust has settled.

Because, damn it, what did you do wrong? What could you have done better? What could you have done to have a fighting chance, to not be crushed, to stand strong and not lose the battle?

It’s a terrible question, crushing in its despair and isolating in its seeming loneliness.

And yet, most of us with a mental health condition have asked it.

I wish this wasn’t the case, but I have to admit it:

Sometimes, anxiety wins.

This shit happens. It still does and probably, to some extent, always will.

And it’s not because we didn’t try hard enough, or because we didn’t love ourselves enough, or because we didn’t do enough yoga, or because we consumed a teaspoon more of sugar than usual.

It’s because the exercise, medications, diet, and techniques don’t stop the attacks. After all, they are our tools, not our cure. They are our assistants but not our salvation. We carry them to support us in our lifelong diagnosis.

Sometimes, they keep the anxiety at bay. Other times, they fail us.

And that’s OK. And you’re OK.

You’re OK.

I know it can be hard to believe. The sense of hopelessness following an anxiety attack, combined with the cultural expectation that we hold ourselves together at all times, can be crushing.

But the hard days are as inevitable as the good, no matter how high your dosage or how many times you went to the gym or your therapist this month.

And when they happen, whether you stand victorious or lay defeated, you are OK. And you have permission to let go of the expectation that you’re only OK if you “won” the battle.

Because it’s not all about winning. It’s about surviving long enough to feel like we’re thriving again.

You are OK, beloved. You had a hard day, and you are OK.

And I’m glad you’re here.

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Mental Health Tips for Activists vs. What I Actually Do

Binge

1. Fast from social media, for minutes, hours, or even days at a time.

What I actually do: Refresh my Facebook and Twitter feeds all day every day, when I get anything resembling a breather or a break at work, or when I’m not stimulated enough by the world around me. You don’t want to miss anything after all, right? What kind of an activist would you be if you missed something BIG?

2. Designate time every day to practice deep breathing and meditation.

What I actually do: Hit snooze an extra ten times in the morning, because focused breathing is too much to ask me to do before 8 AM.

3. Meet with a therapist to process the highs and lows of your activism.

What I actually do: Drag my feet on finding a new therapist, because the new one “won’t be the same” (read, “as good as”) as my former one.

4. Make time to connect with friends and family. Whatever you do, don’t isolate yourself.

What I actually do: Hide in my room and binge-watch Netflix and binge-read Buzzfeed. 

5. Remember, self-care is an act of resistance. If you want to sustain yourself in the fight for justice, you must take care of yourself, and these steps (along with others) can help.

What I actually do: Allow “white guilt” (I’m sustaining an oppressive system and don’t deserve rest) to paralyze both my activism and my efforts and self-care while attempting to tell other people to do for themselves what I won’t do for myself.

“Fuck It All” As A Sacred Prayer

Inland Church

One Thursday a few months ago, I sat curled up in the corner of my office bathroom, quietly weeping. And in that tiny, dark, holy space, with the bathroom fan turned on to mask my quiet screams and sobs, I prayed the most honest prayer I had in a long time: "Fuck it all. I can't handle this shit anymore."

At a Pentecostal revival I attended at age 17, surrounded on all sides by thousands of teens and a number of Jumbotrons, doubled over in surrender and tears, I prayed with all my might: "Take it all. I don't want anymore."

In the bathroom, I wept as thoughts of overdue bills, dead-end jobs, crappy diets, chaotic politics, and legislated hatred consumed my mind, and all I could say was, "Fuck it all."

At the revival, I wept as I thought of the strained friendship hanging by a thread, the boy I liked causing the strain, the endless anxious thoughts and lack of self-confidence, my "backsliding" faith, my absent father, my unhappy mother, and the fact that I wasn't having a "real" Pentecostal experience even as the Spirit slayed my friend beside me. I threw myself over a row of seats, surrounded by youth leaders and peers, and wailed over and over, "Take it all."

"Fuck it all" has become my new "Take it all." They're both prayers of surrender, honest acknowledgments that things aren't OK but there's only so much I can do about it. They are prayers of hopelessness, brutally truthful exclamations about the pain and bullshit so prominent in this world that I don't know how to begin to deal with it.

They are psalms, filled with pain, hopelessness, and crushing despair that drive us to finally throw the burden of trying to deal with everything off our aching shoulders. One prayer may have harsher language than the other, but both hold the pain and humanity of the psalters, prophets, judges, disciples, and Christ himself.

Surrender can be relieving, but it's not a white flag waving idly in a gentle breeze or raised hands lifted up in serenity.

It feels like slamming fists on the ground to feel a scrap of the pain you feel inside, constricting your body in tension so you can feel all of that discomfort within yourself, and finally falling flat in exhaustion, hopefully malleable again.

It feels like losing.

It's acknowledging that the war between yourself and God-like control, between you and absolute understanding, in short the greatest battles we ever wage with God, are over, and you have lost.

It sucks to lose and surrender. We are taught our whole lives, especially us Americans, that loss and surrender represent failure. We are taught to win or die trying.

But these prayers of surrender save us from being consumed by our own mad desires to be like and become God. They serve as our own internalized, self-destructing towers of Babel, so to speak.

These aren't prayers of prosperity. They're not prayers to make things better, nor prayers of trust in God's goodness and provision.

But they're honest, soul-refining prayers, and as such, they are holy.

Questions My Anxious Self Asks Non-Anxious People

anxious

Agoramedia

What is it like to just relax and not worry that you’re forgetting some huge responsibility and therefore can’t allow yourself to fully enjoy your self-care time?

What is it like be like to hear someone’s story and not immediately use it as a yardstick against which to measure your own quality of life and well-being?

What is it like to understand right away that when someone asks you a question, they do so out of curiosity, not because they’re trying to trip you up or make you feel insecure in your lack of knowledge?

What is it like to hear someone critique you without feeling your complete sense of worth drain away from you?

What is it like to wake up from a weird dream and simply accept it as a dream and not as if it is said deep, terrible things about who you are and how your life is?

What is it like to make a mistake at work and not immediately assume you’re going to get fired because you’re useless and replaceable?

What is it like to look at your partner and just understand that they love you unconditionally instead of assuming they are so annoyed by you that they only reluctantly deal with your garbage?

What is it like to accept that you love this person more than life itself without second-guessing yourself anytime you notice someone attractive or see other people more “lovey-dovey” than the two of you are?

What is it like for your friends to do things without you and not assume they are leaving you out on purpose because they can’t stand you?

What is it like to have questions about life without becoming so fixated on them that you can’t see the world around you?

What is it like to have political conversations without either blowing up on those who disagree with you or shrinking into yourself because you don’t trust that your answers are good enough?

What is it like to be secure in who you are and confident that you are enough?

What is it like to not panic about the state of your bank account every time you hand over your debit card or hit “Complete Purchase” on a screen or pay a bill?

What is it like to not have to worry about when the anxiety is going to come back in ways that will crush you after months of peace?

What is it like to not have almost every single memory touched by anxiety’s constant presence?

What is life without anxiety like?

I still don’t know. I don’t know if I ever will.

So tell me: what’s it like?

Why I Didn’t Participate in Good Friday This Year

Larry Pattern

I find myself irritated at people who skip through Holy Week in their rush to Easter, and those who participate in Holy Week while talking about how Sunday is coming. I don’t like seeing “He Is Risen!” proclaimed on church signs or Easter hymns on Palm Sunday or pictures of the stone rolled away from the tomb on Holy Saturday. Even though I know how the story will end, these little gestures still irk me the same way someone revealing spoilers to an episode I have yet to see does.

But it’s Holy Saturday, and I have a picture of the open tomb a day early.

And when I woke up on Good Friday morning, I emotionally skipped ahead to Sunday.

I felt well-rested after a week working a Girl Scout day camp, and the day was sunny and gorgeous. I spent the day with Bryce, grabbing lunch together at Sheetz (because we like “good” fast food”), dropping the car off to get a tire alignment, and going for a long walk in the Northern Virginia area before heading home to relax and play video games/read comics for the rest of the evening.

I did this instead of attending a Good Friday service, a first in 4 years, because I my soul wasn’t in a mourning, uncertain period. Instead, it was full of joy and more relaxed and content than it has felt in a long time, and I needed to honor that.

When you struggle with anxiety on a daily basis, you’re no stranger to fear, despair, uncertainty, and even devastation. For many of us, Good Fridays happen weekly or, for stretches of time, even daily.

So when Good Friday came, but my mind was content and resting in Easter, I knew better than to disrupt it. Instead, I let it be.

I didn’t mourn. I didn’t think about the fear and death I, or even we as a nation and as humanity, experience on a daily basis.

Instead, I let Easter arrive a little early for me. I let my soul rejoice in this resurrection taking place within me, from a new job and a steady income, as well as renewed vigor in productivity and relationships. I let myself lay my burdens down, walk lighter and taller, and simply rest in the peace surrounding me.

Some may ask how I can celebrate Easter if I haven’t stopped by the death and uncertainty of Good Friday.

But I can say that after enduring days, weeks, and even months of Good Fridays, the joy of resurrection is still very much real to me, even if it arrived a few days earlier this Holy Week.

I remember where I was last Good Friday. I was kneeling at the foot of a black-shrouded cross at Community Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg, tears streaming down my face, internally pleading to God to stop the onslaught of intrusive thoughts in my mind. I was on a medication that wasn’t working, but I was too afraid to stop it lest the thoughts grow worse. I was barely in control of my mind most days, since paranoia and restless thoughts streamed through it day and night with few interludes.

I remember spring bursting with new life all around me that year, but I hardly noticed. I could only focus on the pain and turmoil wrestling within me. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were so real in their pain, despair, and uncertainty that year, and I needed them more than I ever have in my life. They met me where I was.

This year, though, I have seen the newness of spring from the beginning. I notice trees blooming, flowers bursting forth from the ground, the grass growing greener, and the chirping of birds. I notice them this year, because my mind is in a good place to allow new life in instead of being bombarded by anxious thoughts.

This year, I’ve learned to cling to the days of Easter when the Good Fridays ebb out. I’ve learned to hold onto the rejuvenation of the Easter days in order to have the strength to carry on for the next wave of Good Fridays.

So this year, I did not participate in Good Friday. My mind and soul woke up to Easter, and I let them stay there.

And that was OK. In fact, it was necessary.

It didn’t mean I copped out of the story, nor did it mean I said death and despair are too big, scary, and difficult for me to handle.

It meant I know the journey as a person with anxiety is already full of overwhelming Good Fridays, and when the breaks come, it is in the best interest of myself, my loved ones, my work, and my faith to take advantage of them.

So if you struggle with mental illness, enjoy your Easters when the Good Fridays are finally over. If you remain in Good Friday and Holy Saturday when Easter arrives, don’t rush into a resurrection you’re not ready to experience. Wherever you are, this Holy Week and those to come, let yourself be there. This story proves God has been through death, despair, and resurrection, and just as God did not rush through those, God will not rush you through to the end.

Be where you are, and know God is there with you.

I Had Another Panic Attack

panic

SquareSpace

I was on my way home from church on Sunday. My body and mind carried the exhaustion of one less hour of sleep. Bills were piling up and paychecks loomed in the too-distant future. I felt the anxiety creeping a bit, but a good Sunday School class and a solid service kept it pacified.

Besides, despite some money concerns, Bryce had just deposited a work paycheck last night. I figured I at least had enough money to get a bit of gas and maybe a cheap lunch on the way home.

I left church and drove to the nearest gas station. To figure out how much I could put in my tank, I did a final check of our bank account.

And I found $1.47 remaining.

The levees in my mind began to crack under pressure, causing fissures which allowed the first streams of panic to enter.

I felt anger at Bryce for telling me the check provided us enough money to tide us over. I felt anger at the phone bill that had zapped that paycheck away. Fury threatened to bubble over as I pondered the little money we had despite the work we did, and embarrassment gurgled within me as I compared my life to those of my friends who’ve graduated and have jobs they love and actually went to school to get.

The fear simmered beneath it all. Fear and shame. Fear of the car insurance bill getting paid before they cancelled my insurance, of not having enough gas to make it home, of not being able to keep a literal roof over our heads. Shame over my lack of resources and dependency on our parents, over having a Master’s degree with nothing to show for it, over what my family and friends must think of our destitute situation.

I kept it beneath the surface, though. I had a few teary, sobbing outbursts on the ride home, but I stayed well enough to not need to pull over lest I wreck the car (and further increase my insurance premium).

When I got out of my car after pulling into the driveway, though, everything unleashed. The levees broke, and the panic flooded in.

Bryce stepped out of the house. I didn’t want to face him. I felt too much fear for our living situation and misdirected anger towards him. I knew he’d see it. I knew he’d ask what was wrong.

And I knew he’d worry.

He’d worry about the money situation, yes, but above all, he’d worry about me.

I didn’t want him to. I wanted to hold myself together on my own for once, to not need a hug or a shoulder to cry on.

But I needed his hugs and his shoulder. I needed to collapse into my bed and let my body shake with the panic threatening to overwhelm me.

I tried to walk right past him without saying anything, but he knew right away I was having an awful time, and not because he knows me so well. I’m crap at hiding my emotions, especially when they are this overpowering, so my red, swollen eyes, trembling lips, and overall air of misery I carried tipped him off immediately. I croaked out a reason for my current state, something about not having any money and freaking out about gas and the car insurance bill, as I forced my feet to move forward.

Not yet, I told myself. Don’t let go yet. Let’s get to the bed first. Then we can break.

And break I did.

I crashed onto the bed, curled into a fetal position, and wailed.

Panic attacks really are paralyzing. They are mind-numbing and body-freezing. The feeling of drowning is such an accurate metaphor, because the mind drowns itself, suffocated and engorged by its own thoughts.

My lungs could inhale and exhale, but my mind struggled to push itself out of the depths and into the clarity of calmness and perspective. Those were on a distant shore. Sometimes during an attack, they are beyond sight. At moments like this one, I wonder if I will ever again feel ground beneath my feet.

I don’t know how long I lay in bed, crying until all that was left within me was pure exhaustion. I can’t remember everything I cried about, although finances and appearing “adult enough” were among the topics over which I was so anxious.

I remember getting over my initial anger the moment I saw Bryce’s lip quiver when he realized the state I was in. I do know he came in and held me as I cried to the point of hyperventilating. He’s never seen me do that before, and we’ve known each other almost 9 years.

I remember he stayed with me as the panic racked through me, then flowed out of me. I remember him telling me he deposited another small check from work to tide us over a few days. When I calmed down further, we worked out what bills needed paying soonest and what money was coming in.

Before leaving me to fall asleep, we managed to exchange a few jokes and even some laughs. He gave me an extra grilled ham and cheese sandwich our roommate had made. And some gentle hugs and kisses.

I read a bit from The Autobiography of Malcolm X and fell asleep, peaceful once more.

We Good? Reflections from an Anxious Person on Lent

Hard_Work_by_soneryaman

Nate Pyle

Having anxiety can make participating in Lent difficult.

My character perfection tendencies go into hyper-drive, and I am in a constant state of wondering just how well I’m doing with this whole “faith” thing.

Have I repented? If I have, how will I know?

Is giving up Netflix to read books from a few #BlackLivesMatter movement guides going to wake me up for real?

Am I good? Am I forgiven? Am I made new?

Will Easter be enough for me, my sins, and I?

Will this journey be enough for me?

I met with my spiritual director Linda this last week. She asked me how my “faith life” is going, which is such a difficult question for me. I’m never quite sure how to answer it, because I’m so anxious and such a perfectionist, I always think it’s not going as well as it could be.

So I told her I started meditating in the mornings. I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now, so it’s not really a Lenten practice, but I’ll go out on a limb and assume it’s a part of my “faith life” as much as giving up Netflix and reading books by black writers.

But meditation is so hard for me, because my mind is so busy, and honestly, going deeper into myself, the sacred spaces God calls me to examine and dwell in, scares me.

What will I find within me?

Will there be love and acceptance? Anger and hatred? Firm kindness, or judgment?

After I shared these concerns, Linda talked to me about the concepts of “original sin” versus “original blessing.”

Original sin begins with the assumption that all humans are made sinful (which is confusing because if God is good and we are made in God’s image, so what does being inherently sinful say about God’s nature?). According to this doctrine, we tell ourselves over and over “I’m not good. I cannot to be who I am. I must strive every day to reach an unattainable perfection that is unlike me.”

I was not made in blessing. There is nothing good to which I can return. There is nothing towards which I can keep striving, because I will always have that sinful nature in me, even as I aspire to be holy. The journey becomes tedious, exhausting, and even pointless.

If we messed up in Eden, how could we possibly make anything better outside of it?

This theology asks: What good are we? What good is God if God made us this way?

When we remember we are made in God’s image, when we remind ourselves our original creation was one of blessing and joy, when we remember the unbound, unconditional love God has for us, we remember who we are meant to be.

We remember we are made to love God and our brothers, sisters, and non-binary siblings. We are made for more than our worst sins, our cruelest words and deeds, and our most embarrassing moments. We are made in a holy image, and even when this image is smudged, attacked, or hidden beneath our deepest wounds, it remains within us.

This original blessing, this uttermost essence of ours, is who we are, and we live life and seek God’s help to not only remember this, but to be this holy image in a painful, beautiful world.

This theology asks: How can we return to the good God made inherent in us? How do we continue to live out the Love within us with God’s help?

I took this theology to my meditation time the day after our meeting.

I sat on a yoga mat in the basement, facing my fiance’s guitars. His area is the tidier spot in the basement.

I breathed in and thought of my congressional representative, over whose comments about issues I became so furious. I breathed out and honored the blessing of his creation and the image of God inherent in him.

I repeated this process for the President, his cabinet members, and people who drive me crazy on a regular basis.

I repeated this process for my fiance, my parents, and my youth group.

For good measure, I repeated this process for myself.

Meditating on our God-given image changed the way I look at and even engage with people. It also reminds me while I am called to show the perfect love which casts out fear to the people who deny justice and mercy, this same, perfect love doesn’t cast out frustration, sadness, and the need for accountability.

Because I honor the image of God in myself, I honor it in others.

And because I honor this image of beauty, love, and holiness, which is inherent to every single one of us, I will continue to keep calling out the times I and others act in ways contrary to our holy nature.

So I keep praying. I keep remembering the image of God, first in myself, and in others, the ones I adore and the ones I abhor.

And my prayer for myself and for us is this:

You are made to love. How are you showing it?