I was in third or fourth grade when my mom asked me to stand with the grocery cart outside the Hallmark store, while she ran inside to buy a card. Even though I could see her through the window the whole time, I panicked, cried, and pounded on the glass. She scurried out, yelling that I had caused a scene. Helpless and ashamed, I knew I’d overreacted, but my body just couldn’t help itself.
A host of things scared me: fireworks, marine mammals, men with long hair and beards. I dreaded anyone getting mad at me, especially my parents, and fell into despair when my teacher stamped my rain-spattered homework with a cute dog who quipped, “Messy!” When I became a Christian, then, at the age of 14, I expected some kind of transformation. It didn’t happen.
The Holy Spirit lived inside me, but so did the brain that had spent more than a decade dropping connections. In fact, as I developed an extreme phobia of earthquakes at around the age of 15, I began to wonder what was wrong with my faith. I’d been reading the Bible, attending youth group, even listening to Maranatha! Praise cassettes. But the fear never stopped.
Be anxious for nothing, Paul told me, clear as day (Phil. 4:6). It never occurred to me that there was a difference between active, cognitive worry—a state of mind in which you refuse to acknowledge that God will provide—and a medical diagnosis called Generalized Anxiety Disorder.
Because of stored traumatic responses from younger days and an overall chemical propensity toward anxiety, I often experience physical reactions to stressors that can only be described as “above and beyond” the norm. After the Whittier earthquake in 1987, for example, I convinced myself that I’d be crushed under a building in an imminent quake at any moment. Never mind that I had a greater chance of getting hit by a car on the way to school. All day my lanky body wanted to curl up in a fetal position, and my stomach felt as if it had sunk to the bottom of a roller coaster. Even in my newfound faith, prayers seemed to get caught in the protective netting I’d woven around myself—the anxiety that, strangely, made me feel more in control.
When I became a Christian at the age of 14, I expected some kind of transformation. It didn’t happen.
As an adult, I’ve learned that there is no contradiction between faith and mental health diagnoses. Clinical depression, anxiety, and PTSD have nothing to do with morals, unless you want to point out the strength of character it can take to lay down one’s pride to get help.
With the right balance of therapy, medication, and support, I’ve been able to stay fairly healthy these past few years. Then, this winter, we hit some significantly stressful challenges with my teenaged daughter. I found myself in a state of paralysis.
As I watched my daughter struggle, I began to shut down. I woke up with a sense of dread so strong that I could barely eat, losing 12 pounds in a couple of weeks. Working, writing, or meeting with friends felt impossible. Finally, in a moment of desperation, I shared with a closed Facebook group of friends that I was overcome with anxiety, glued to my bed. I could no longer help my daughter, who by this point needed me more than ever. They told me to call my doctor. Now.
The Bible verses I’d temporarily tattooed on my wrists that week became a matter of sheer survival instead of the anticipated tools for discipline or teaching. I couldn’t remember a word but read them over and over until they faded away:
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen but what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18 NIV).
Faith, of course, is not about feeling that everything will be okay, but knowing it.
“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast because they trust in you” (Isa. 26:3 NIV).
As one whose feelings often don’t reflect reality, I find that fixing my eyes on the unseen can feel unnatural—and like a whole lot of work. Faith, of course, is not about feeling that everything will be okay, but knowing it. My limbic system tells me I’m in danger, but I have to press on anyway. Figuring out how to press on has been at the crux of my mental health journey.
Before I learned more about mental illness, I thought anxiety was a sin, a flat-out choice not to keep one’s mind steadfast. When I was struggling with an upcoming flight, a spiritual mentor of mine told me there was no such thing as phobias, just lack of faith. My fear of flying became yet another source of condemnation and guilt as I boarded the plane with that clenched, panicked body.
I have learned that when dealing with mental illness, keeping the mind steadfast is not just a simple prayer or daily devotional practice. It’s an intense, all-hands-on-deck exercise in doing whatever it takes to heal the mind so you can have the wherewithal to cling to God. For me, it takes everything—prayer, medication, therapy, exercise, community, and study—in order to love God with my whole mind. These resources aren’t crutches or failures but perfect gifts from above that give me peace as I watch through the window and patiently wait on God.
Art by Jeff Gregory