My heart raced out of control inside my chest, while the air around me suddenly disappeared. On wobbly legs, I made my way out of bed when the nausea hit from behind. Terror engulfed me, and I crumpled to the floor. It was happening again.
I heard my husband, John, rousing from sleep across the room in the darkness and soon felt a strong hand on my back. His voice was strained as he asked me a question he already knew the answer to. "Are you having another panic attack?"
My breath came in uneven spurts as I buried my head in my hands and wept.
Although I was raised in a strong Christian home, my family had its share of ups and downs, especially while my siblings and I were teens. But as "good" Christians, we could smile and act joyous through any occasion—despite any inner turmoil or discouragement. Yet some nights I'd hear my mother cry from behind closed doors while my father gently tried to console her. Any chaos in our family frightened me, but I didn't want to burden my parents with my own fears and worries, so slowly I began to take on the role of a comforter and nurturer, the "sunshine" of our family who cheered everyone up. The few times I became angry or upset, I felt I'd betrayed myself as well as those around me. It didn't feel "good" or "right."
I began dating John in high school. We married after we graduated and went to Bible college together to prepare for full-time ministry. We loved each other but had to work hard to keep afloat financially. John became discouraged with the load he was carrying academically and financially, but when he shared his frustration with me, I felt I had to be strong and focus on "making life better." I didn't want to add to his stress and cause more pain by admitting my own fears.
Soon our two children were born, one during graduate school. John worked feverishly, studied, and sent out resumes, while I was home alone with our children. I heard many sermons during this time on being a "joyful Christian." It seemed in the Christian subculture that sadness, fear, anxiety, and confusion were not topics of conversation.
Eventually we took a position in a church and relocated. Not long after we moved, the panic attacks began. Out of the blue, feelings of utter terror would invade my body. I'd feel a crushing weight on my chest and become weak, nauseous, and faint. Dizziness and disorientation gripped me so severely I felt at any moment I would die. Eventually, I became so bad that I couldn't drive a car or go into a grocery store without having a panic attack. I became convinced I had some sort of physical problem and as soon as it was treated, it would go away.
One afternoon, after scanning my chart and looking through medical test results, my physician told me I had a benign heart condition called "mitral valve prolapse," a slight variation in the shape of the mitral valve that could cause symptoms of shortness of breath, palpitations, racing heart, weakness, fatigue. He informed me that many people diagnosed with MVP also report panic attacks. Finally! I thought. I knew they would find something! But he wasn't finished.
"You have another problem," he said gently. "I believe this problem manifested itself because of some psychological problems. I want you to see a psychiatrist." He wrote me a prescription for an anti-anxiety medication.
I left the office that day feeling disgusted beyond words with my emotional "weakness." I don't have any stress, I told myself, and what stress I do have I handle better than many others! I cried out to God, but he seemed distant.
I sank into depression. Well-meaning friends told me, "Pray harder, get yourself together, and stop this!" I went months without sleep, proper food intake, or an ounce of strength to fake a smile. I sat in a chair all day with curtains drawn. I didn't have the energy to talk, eat, or take a shower. With a degree in counseling, John tried to help me, but I could sense his frustration, along with the frustration of friends, family, and other pastors' wives.
One afternoon, John called a therapist he trusted and made an appointment for me. During my first session, I cried for the entire hour, unable to answer one question. The next few weeks weren't much better, but I continued taking medication to curb the anxiety and help me sleep. Slowly in our sessions together, we began to unravel the tightly woven ball of my emotions. All those years of acting "together" had taken their toll. I had tried to be the "fixer" in every situation because then I would feel loved and accepted. If I maintained my "never-ending" smile, I could be viewed as "together, strong, and competent."
After one particularly tearful session, I started facing the longings and pain in my life. I began to read God's Word with a new interest and curiosity, and learned things about him that changed the way I thought and felt. I read about the relationships God had with sinful men and women just like me, and how he cared for them and desired them despite their weakness. God also gave me a wonderful friend in my aunt, who had experienced many of the same things I had at my age. I began to see God never expected or intended that I had to be "strong" and "together" all the time.
I remember the turning point out of my depression and anxiety like it was yesterday. I was driving home one afternoon following a session with my counselor, feeling overwhelmed and utterly hopeless. I cried out to God, "I can't do this alone, it's too hard. If you're really there, then show me, and I will trust you!" In the stillness, God's answer was clear: "Trust me first—then I will show you." And he did.
I've made many changes since that day, and feel I've climbed a mountain. It began with little steps of faith, like counting on God to be there for me when I felt out of control. As a pastor's wife, I've learned to deal with the demands and desires of our congregation. For the first time, I started to think more about pleasing God with my actions than others. Accepting this fact helped me to begin to say "no" if I felt I did not want to do something (a genuine relief eventually) and speak up when I felt upset, angry, hurt, or scared. When I did have a panic attack, I began to face it head-on, allowing the feelings to come, reassuring myself that even though my body was telling me to "panic," I didn't have to cooperate. Eventually the gripping fear of having an attack diminished.
The biggest change for me has been in my relationship with my husband. While it was difficult for me at first, I began to share my desires, thoughts, and fears with him. It's become a great tool in promoting more open, honest communication between us. And I began to back away from situations I wanted to "fix," admitting that I didn't need to take this role to be accepted and loved.
I still must choose daily not to be a "people pleaser" and have to be reminded sometimes not to "mend moods." I'm learning what it means to encourage and help without having to feel responsible for the way everything goes or be dependent on others' views of me.
I do occasionally struggle with panic attacks during or after periods of stress (though to a much lesser degree), just as others suffer from migraines, high blood pressure, ulcers, and many other physical manifestations of stress. But I thank God for wise Christian therapists who helped me. And I've found great joy in sharing my struggles—and my hope in Christ—with others. I now know I'm not sufficient to handle my world, but I'm glad to know God is.
Lori Mangrum is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Indiana.
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