On May 27, 1978, my husband Brad and I said our wedding vows, promising to stay together through sickness and health, for better or worse. As a young college couple we never seriously considered that the "worse" or "sickness" would really happen. But it did.
It was a quiet Labor Day weekend in our small Indiana town. Between interruptions from our four children, we had been painting walls in a new addition to our house and trying to watch a Notre Dame football game. I was sitting in the living room when I suddenly felt light-headed and my heart began to race. My arms tingled and I felt short of breath. A panicked call to my doctor revealed that I was probably reacting to paint fumes and needed to get fresh air.
The Monday after that, while waiting in line at the grocery store, the symptoms returned out of the blue. I managed to complete the transaction and get to my car, but I drove home crying and praying I would be okay while gripping the steering wheel so tightly my knuckles turned white. This time my doctor said to come in. By Wednesday I was in the emergency room with a racing heart, chest pain, and a choking feeling in my throat. Tests determined that it wasn't a heart attack, as I imagined, but a classic panic attack.
I was given tranquilizers to calm the symptoms, and I assumed that it would end, now that I knew it was nothing serious. Instead, it was the beginning of a frightening year of dealing with panic disorder, an anxiety disorder that affects 23 million Americans.
We aren't sure what triggered the panic disorder. Perhaps it was the paint fumes. Or perhaps it was due to a build-up of stress. Over the previous six years, we lost my husband's father and sister and both of my grandparents; we had an unexpected pregnancy and discovered one of our daughters had dyslexia. Just weeks before the symptoms appeared, our youngest child entered school, leaving me home alone for the first time in eighteen years. And, at the same time, our eldest daughter entered her senior year of high school, and plans for college kicked into high gear. The adjustments were probably more than I had anticipated.
In a matter of days, our lives had changed dramatically with no assurance that it would return to what we knew before. My husband and I were both bewildered by the disorder that changed me from an outgoing, happy person to a fearful and depressed one. As days turned into weeks, months, and even a year, the symptoms continued, appearing suddenly while at the movie theater or at dinner with friends. Often when I was at home doing normal, routine things, my heart would start to pound and my chest would feel tight, making it difficult to breathe. And just as I had to make adjustments, so did Brad.
At first, I was too afraid to drive or go to school functions or church, so he became "taxi dad" for the kids and attended their events alone. The kids didn't understand why I wasn't able to go, but Brad never blamed or demeaned me, even when he didn't understand why I was afraid. He felt helplessness more than anger or inconvenience.
Even routine things I previously did, such as buying groceries, had to be done by him until I was able to get my courage back. In addition to taking a more active role with household and childcare duties, he also had to contend with my shifting emotions, as I experienced both progress and relapse. Day after day, he came home from work, not knowing if the Cindy he used to know would greet him or if it would be the one who was depressed and weary from struggling with panic symptoms.
The stress went beyond the change in my demeanor to include financial stress. Medical bills piled up in our search for answers and relief from the symptoms. We found ourselves struggling to keep up with the added demands on our budget, and yet Brad didn't complain about the tests that were continuously ordered to rule out physical causes, such as heart problems or hormone or chemical imbalances. He was frustrated by the changes, but he knew that I wasn't to blame and often told me so, which helped me feel secure in our relationship.
In fact, looking back on the experience, I realized something amazing: I never once wondered if my husband, Brad, would leave me. I never sensed blame from him or doubted his willingness to stand by me, even if I got worse and even though he knew there was no guarantee I would get better. He didn't understand it or like it any more than I did, but he was willing to learn along with me and listen as I shared information with him. He often told me that he was praying for me, which I believe was an important part of my recovery. When our vows were put to the test, he rose higher than I could've imagined.
Having spent the past two years talking with others who suffer from anxiety disorders or physical illnesses, it became clear that when the "worse" comes into a marriage, it isn't always for the better. I heard stories from men and women alike whose Christian spouse bailed out on them. They were left with the double stressors of illness and the loss of emotional and financial support. But there were others who, like me, found that the experience became a relational "glue," making the marital bond stronger than ever.
I asked Mike Aemmer, a licensed Christian social worker and marriage and family counselor, what it was that brought us closer during our hardship, while others were torn apart by similar circumstances. He said the difference was in the foundation.
"Often the break-up of a marriage in this case isn't really about illness, but about what the person believes. A person who has the mentality that he or she is entitled to personal happiness and 'having it all' is going to see himself or herself as the victim, more than the one who is ill," he says. "Likewise, the couple whose relationship is centered upon the Lord and their commitment to each other will find their relationship deepening in times of hardship. There is no real formula to help prepare for the worse in a marriage, but far better than prevention is to learn who God is and who you are in him before a crisis."
Aemmer counsels couples to seek God's wisdom, develop a spirit that is attuned to God's will, and gain a thorough understanding of how God works, just as Paul encouraged believers in the first chapter of Colossians. "With these things come trustworthiness and the willingness to come alongside God and learn from the situation," he says. Facing the reality of the situation, while depending upon Christ, gives a true perspective and leads to understanding what the other person thinks and is going through.
Gary Smalley, in his book, Love Is a Decision, writes that marital foundations based on honoring and nurturing create security in the relationship. "What many husbands and wives don't realize is that an absence of security in a relationship is like sentencing a person to live on an ice-covered sidewalk … you're always fighting to keep your footing," he writes.
When one spouse becomes ill, he or she must feel secure in the unconditional love of the other for both to keep their footing through the storm of uncertainty. However, there has to be a track record of honoring one another before adversity hits. Say to each other, "Now, during the good times, I choose to honor and nurture you in a way that will continue in the bad times." That builds trust in the phrase "for better or for worse." In Smalley's words, "Real love means a sacrificial, courageous commitment—especially when the other person may not be able to give back to you."
Spiritually, a couple can choose to view their hardship as a time of drawing closer to the Lord through prayer and his word. I found believing that nothing happens that doesn't first pass through the hands of God can carry a couple for miles down the rough road of illness. It creates a partnership of three, in which one sees the whole picture and promises to be the strength for the other two.
I don't want to leave the impression that Brad and I breezed through my illness just because it wasn't life-threatening, like cancer. There were some dark and uncertain days when we both wondered when, or if, it would end or even get better.
For me, it has been a turning point in our marriage. We had a good relationship before I experienced panic disorder, but having gone through this trial has confirmed to me Brad's commitment to both me and our marriage. It gives me peace to know that if other storms come, we will be able to weather them along side each other, secure in the knowledge that the other will see it as a "our" struggle and pain rather than "yours" or "mine."
The "better" has returned, although I still have days when I experience panic attacks. I may continue having such days the rest of my life, but thanks to an understanding of the causes and how to work through them, it is no longer debilitating. We have regained most of the lifestyle we knew before.
It is because of Brad's support and my faith in God that I have recovered as much as I have and continue to do so. God says, in Jeremiah 29:11, that his plans for me are for my best, to give me a future and hope. I also have the assurance from my husband and, more importantly, the Lord that neither will abandon me. That's all I need to keep going.
Cindy Baum is a homemaker and freelance writer.
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