The Torments of Anxiety and the Hope of Grace
Dedication: This article is dedicated to my lovely wife who has walked through a dark valley with me; to Dave Stelling who has counseled me through much despair; to pastor Chris Lent who has been a faithful shepherd of my soul in turbulent waters; to my family and church family (both in Colorado and Florida) who have prayed for me relentlessly and finally, to all those who have faced debilitating anxiety and panic. May you find comfort in the sovereign God and his Word who are more secure than any panic attack.
The man’s life was pleasant. So too was his worship. The two always go together.
God was not pleased. So He allowed the man’s life to become unpleasant.
The man responded at once with shock. “How can this be? How could this happen in my life?”
Beneath the shock, the man was smug. But he could not see it. He thought it was trust. “This will soon pass. God is faithful. Life will again be pleasant.” His worship remained shallow.
God was not pleased so He allowed more unpleasant things to happen in the man’s life…
[The man] could not imagine a higher dream than going backward to what once was. But he knew life never moved backward. Adults never become children again…
So he lost hope. God had withdrawn His blessing, and there was no indication He would change his mind.
The man fell into depression. His worship stopped.
-Excerpted from a parable written by Larry Crabb in Shattered Dreams
I am not really sure what is happening to me. I am browsing various sports articles on espn.com and suddenly my body takes a hesitant breath, almost like my brain forgot to tell my body to breathe. It is startling. I stand up to walk around the apartment, then I try laying down. It happens again and then, again. Probably just an overreaction, I’m sure some fresh air will help. Now I am on all fours on the pavement outside my apartment gasping for air. Nothing is coming. Five seconds pass; finally, a breath. Now I’m scared. This is it, the end. I’m going to die: 100% convinced. I text my fiancée to come over and help me. I don’t know what is going on. “Please call an ambulance,” I say, “Something is really wrong.” I’m having my first full-blown panic attack.
God, have mercy on me.
One week later: I am meeting with pastor Chris for breakfast before work. All of a sudden my eyes start to blur, tunnel vision sets in. I can’t eat what they put in front of me. Breakfast ends and I try to drive myself back to work. I don’t make it. Two miles down the road I feel panicked. Stuck in the left lane, I have no idea what to do. I can’t swallow, my mouth feels dry as sand. I find the closest exit and get to the nearby service station. Now I am having heart palpitations. I get some water and lay in the back of my car. Another full-blown panic attack.
God, have mercy on me.
It is a month and a half until I marry the love of my life and everything is falling apart. Even when I don’t have the full-blown panic attacks, the symptoms of anxiety are severe. I can’t sleep at night, often going off of two hours of sleep. I dread even attempting to sleep because I am often awakened by violent “electric” jolts, shortly after falling asleep. I can hardly drive five miles without begging God to get me to where I am going. I am constantly checking my pulse because the heart palpitations have become so frequent. Once a rising star in a Fortune 500 company, I’m not sure if my badge will work when I go in tomorrow due to my continued unexcused absences.
God, have mercy on me.
Once a strong confident man, now a broken one. A shell of who I once was.
God, have mercy on me.
I began having panic attacks six months ago (hence my absence from regular blog posting). From December 2011 to February 2012, I went to the ER three times with hospital admittance once. These trips all took place before I had my first full-blown panic attack in mid-March. I have had an MRI on my brain, nuclear medicine scan on my lungs, nuclear medicine scan of my gallbladder, EKG on my heart, heart echo, chest x-ray, CT scan on my lower abdomen and over 10 different blood tests. Everything came back negative. I was told that I was experiencing severe anxiety. From mid-March until the middle of my honeymoon, I experienced recurring panic attacks.
Things with God were/are confusing in this time. Everything was confusing in this time. The path has been painful and one filled with tears. I can still remember that one of my few prayers leading up to the wedding was that God would keep me from having a panic attack at the altar. I just wanted my dear wife to enjoy her wedding day. I thought starting marriage would be a mountain top experience but it has been a valley. Not because of relational rockiness but because of the circumstances surrounding my health.
Like I said, everything was confusing. Why was God causing this to happen now? And why does it seem to please the one who erected the foundations of the earth to sit by and simply watch me suffer?
What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment? How long will you not look away from me, nor leave me alone till I swallow my spit? If I sin, what do I do to you watcher of mankind? Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? -Job 7:17-20
My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of the Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me. -Psalm 42:7
In the midst of the relentless anxiety, God has provided hope. About a week and a half before my wedding, I went to see Dave Stelling at Emmaus Counseling (I swore I would never go to counseling). There was one thing he said that day that has stuck with me through this entire ordeal. He told me that in the midst of a panic attack, often all you can say is, “God, have mercy on me.” That was it, those five little words. They gave me hope when so much of what I had heard about anxiety from others had offered so little. I used to think I needed more prayer or more faith. Or why couldn’t I just summon some verses from the Sermon on the Mount in the midst of panic attacks to quell the feelings? In the midst of a panic attack, all the medical literature attests to the fact that people are completely overwhelmed with one of three thoughts, or some combination therein: 1) I am having a heart attack, 2) I am going to die or 3) I am going crazy. I can personally attest to the truth of these often sterilized medical facts. But in the midst of an attack, here was a way to call on God for help when my mind could not pull itself together to eke out any type of prayer or remember any of those “special” verses to fight anxiety.
Just, “God, have mercy on me.”
Lately there has been some encouragement from other corners as well. My wife brought home a C.S. Lewis quote the other day that brought some perspective. Lewis writes in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer:
Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don’t agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.
This affliction has been torturous since its onset. Things I used to be able to do, I no longer feel comfortable doing. Certain situations now make me uncomfortable that once did not. I am fighting through but I am not without a renewed sense of hope. Especially when I look to my Savior. Because amidst the questioning and wrestling with him in this time, my belief in the sovereignty of God remains unshaken. All is ordained by him and all of it for my good.
Recall Jesus sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46). Here is our King in real agony. “And being in agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (v. 44). A mental anguish so severe that Jesus, in his humanity, sweats great drops of blood. Here is my merciful and faithful high priest, made like me in every way, in a mental anguish unsurpassed by most any anxiety attack, on his way to secure a more sure Word than the shifting foundations of panic.
Life is still hard. The tears are still many. This past weekend, my wife Leah and I visited family in Miami. I still don’t do well driving (we live in Orlando). For some reason, it brings out the worst of my anxiety even if I don’t have a single anxious thought in my head. On the drive home, we stopped off to get some food. Leah could tell I was struggling. I had driven the first 165 miles and we had 75 to go. She offered to drive the rest, even though she is no fan of driving herself. Tears filled my eyes as I accepted her gracious offer.
God, have mercy on me.
*After more suffering by the man in Crabb’s parable it ends in the following manner*
A new thought occurred to him. “I will join with whatever forces are opposed to the root of this unpleasantness. I will ally with goodness against evil. I will not wait to see more clearly; what my hand finds to do, I will do. But I will stay close to the spring. My soul is thirsty. A pleasant life is not water for my soul; whatever comes from God—whoever God is—this is the only true water. And it is enough.”…
Some things in [the man’s life] got better. Some things stayed the same. Some things got worse.
But the man was dreaming new dreams, greater dreams than a pleasant life. And he found the courage to pursue them. He was now a man with hope, and his hope brought joy.
God was very pleased. So was the man.