Seeing God’s grace through the struggle of mental illness.
I struggle mightily with my mental health. To most people I look healthy; I am a vegetarian who runs about 40 miles a week. What most can’t see are the panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the anxiety with which I struggle daily. Only my most immediate family members and God know the intensity of my struggles.
Like the apostle Paul, this seems to be the “thorn in my flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:7) that I’ve been asked to bear.
As a child, I remember crying because I felt like I couldn’t stop thinking about certain phrases or parts of songs. Then I worried that I wouldn’t be able to turn my mind off and get to sleep. Those instances, while disturbing, were not debilitating.
It wasn’t until I was 15 that the battle really started. It was during my second week as a foreign exchange student in Germany. When I was staying on the sixth floor of a hotel during a field trip, I was gripped by the horror of my brain telling me, “You are going to jump out of this window and never see your family again.” Repulsed, I ran to the restroom as dry heaves coursed through my body. “But I don’t want to do that,” I vehemently disagreed, my breathing frantic, chills and sweat taking turns alternating throughout my body. Why am I thinking this?
I carefully moved myself toward my bunk, letting my shoes slap down to the bare wooden floor. Curling myself into a sheet cocoon, I sobbed until I fell into an exhausted sleep. “Please let this be gone in the morning” was my whispered prayer.
His grace is sufficient even in my weakness.
When I woke up, the thoughts had not gone away; in fact, they expanded and intensified. I was terrified of what my mind told me. Those thoughts took over everything. I could barely eat or sleep; I cried gallons of tears, racked up an enormous phone bill, and prayed thousands of prayers. I managed to do all the rest of the sightseeing, and I made it through in survival mode.
By God’s grace, I arrived safely back home. But I had been so traumatized that I spent the next week sleeping on the floor of my parents’ bedroom at night (at age 15!). I was constantly crying because of the thoughts. I hardly ate and then worried that somehow I was going to kill my dad, even as I argued with myself that I didn’t want to do that!
I also didn’t know how I was going to return to school that fall. Some of the seats in the science room were near the Bunsen burners—what if I turned on the gas and made the room explode?
Eventually, I went to counseling and started medication toward the end of summer. Things were a little more under control.
Life goes on
I did graduate from high school and college. My worries were still there but didn’t seem to be as powerful. When I met the man who would become my husband, my worries shifted toward him. I was terrified that I would purposely do something and would never see him again.
Eventually we got married, and about eight months later I was pregnant. I glowed during that time. My fantastic baby girl arrived, and I exuded happiness for about an hour. Then my happiness dropped with my hormonal changes.
Now my worries shifted again. My head told me that I would hurt my baby on purpose, even though that thought disgusted me. With changes to my medication, God once again helped me climb out of that pit. Even after my dad’s unexpected death, I was okay.
I was able to go off medication for about six years. I leaned on God’s promise that all things work for the good of those who love him.
With God’s help, the anxieties no longer seemed to have as much of a grip. That is until a few years ago when everything started to fall apart again. One day, I felt like I was going to pass out and die at work. The feelings continued, and just like before, they increased and intensified each day. For almost nine months, I was sure that I would pass out and die at any moment. I have had panic attacks like these almost daily, and yet God has sustained me. His grace is sufficient even in my weakness.
Time and time again before work, I was face down in prayer on my bed or floor in the early morning or over my steering wheel as I pulled into the parking lot at work. “Please keep these thoughts from me today if it is your will. Please grant me strength to deal with them if I must.” I repeated the passages “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” and “Be still and know that I am God” on my walk to the building. As I climbed the stairs to my office, a high school choir song passed through my mind: “My Father, let this cup pass from me. But not my will, but yours be done.”
Multiple times, multiple days, I reminded myself, “You won’t die before you get to the gas station on the corner. God is with you. The flowers of the field and the birds of the air do not worry. You are worth more.”
These thoughts countered the scary thoughts that, unwanted and without warning, raged through my consciousness. These thoughts sometimes took my breath away, bringing me to tears. Even after reminding myself that I have felt this way before, there was a whisper that this time it was really going to happen. It was hard to ignore “symptoms” that my brain presented to me as reality.
I have analyzed and rationalized the causes. I rooted though my mind, feeling that if I can just figure out the true source I can pluck it out and be released. Time and time again, I have come across something that seems promising. For a moment I felt something akin to relief, but then other thoughts have taken their place. With each episode, I thought that nothing could be worse than what I was thinking right now . . . until something else somehow worse replaced that.
This is not just a mental battle; it is also a spiritual one.
I have picked, pulled, yanked, pried, wrestled, tried knocking these feelings out. I have tried body slamming my racing, anxious thoughts. I have tried stomping on them in my mind. I have tried to peel them away like a stubborn piece of chewed gum on an intricate shoe sole. I have tried to gently put them down and tiptoe away before they notice.
I have agreed with them, disagreed with them, pretended they were birds overhead that I wasn’t going to allow to nest in my hair . . . and so much more. So far, they remain. Why? Why? Why?
I have asked God why so many times, and while I won’t know this side of heaven for sure, maybe the “why” is to help other people who are struggling. Maybe it is to encourage them to reach out if they feel this way and help them realize that they are not alone either. Perhaps it is to help them understand that this is an issue with brain chemicals and not because of weak faith. Or maybe it is to help them see that it is not solved by being told, “Just stop thinking that,” or, “Be glad you don’t have something worse.” Maybe it is that it is okay for them to decide that they want to try medication or even come to the realization that they need it, just like someone with high blood pressure. It also could be to raise awareness for others who do not have these ailments so they can better understand the suffering that those around them might be enduring.
Dealing with anxiety
After being off of medication for so long, I first tried every non-pharmacological remedy I could think of to combat my anxiety. I continued to run, I gave up caffeine and alcohol—I just take a tiny sip at Communion—I learned new breathing techniques, and I have tried essential oils. I went back to therapy. Yet the destructive thoughts remained. Some days I cried out, “Why are you doing this to me?” lapsing for a moment in trusting God’s promise that all things will work together for my good.
After a few months of suffering, I realized that God gave us skilled practitioners and medications as blessings and concluded that I might need medication again.
Throughout these struggles I have not been alone. God has been by my side, and I have been blessed with an understanding support system here on earth.
But this is not just a mental battle; it is also a spiritual one. The enemy wants to take away my joy and would cheer if I blamed God and turned my back on him. It is frustrating, especially when my anxiety flares up at church, which “should” be a safe place. Instead of fighting it, I try to give it to God. As I soldier on, I read an encouraging Bible verse right after I wake up (see sidebar on p. 19). I pray for myself and others who are struggling. I also think of the wisdom one of my sisters shared, “You are trying to fight the battle against your flesh that Jesus has already won for you.”
I am thankful that God has given me medical professionals and medications to ease these ailments. These tools are blessings from God. But despite the amount of relief that I sometimes feel right after taking my medication, I am careful to remind myself that it is not my savior—Jesus is.
Author: Christa J. H. Holland
Volume 107, Number 05
Issue: May 2020