Over the past 8 years people have regularly asked me about my struggles with anxiety and particularly whether I am still suffering with it. After speaking at a women’s conference recently, a woman got quite angry with me at the end, suggesting that I could'nt possibly have an anxiety problem as I was ‘clearly confident and relaxed!'
This is Mental Health Awareness Week 2014, and for me, the perfect opportunity to share both where I am up to with my GAD, and the tips that I have found most useful along the road.
The reaction of this woman was not unusual for me, although she was particularly direct. Mental health issues carry all sorts of additional burdens. Feeling scrutinised in this way highlights the stereotypes and stigmas of suffering from an anxiety disorder. The stereotype you often feel is that since you look good, you must feel good too. Far from causing me to melt into a quivering wreck on the floor, my anxiety disorder has no apparent physical manifestations. The stigma you feel forces you to validate your problem or to explain it. Mental health stigma nearly always boils down to one of two things: 1) You’re mad as a box of frogs. 2) There is nothing wrong with you.
I have had a Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) diagnosis for about 8 years now, but I can see evidence of this problem stretching as far back as when I was just 6 or 7. Over the years this has expressed itself in different ways; health anxiety, panic attacks and obsessive thinking to name but a few. You could say that I have 30 years of experience in dealing with anxiety disorders, primarily my own! In all of this I have been blessed with a lovely family, some ‘successes' in work and ministry and a strong sense of the peace of God. Am I the stereotype of a GAD sufferer? Yes I probably am. I am normal to me.
If I am honest I sometimes feel uncomfortable about telling my story. Not because I fear the stigma, but because I am not the bravest GAD sufferer I have met. I don’t want to be the poster boy of anxiety recovery because that would make me a fraud. Just so you know, every day I still pray that God would heal my brain. In a normal day, I experience the following symptoms:
1) a sudden feeling of dread, like I have just dropped my house keys down a drain
2) an intrusive thought or thoughts that I have done something wrong/will do something wrong that will cause some sort of disaster
3) rambling worries about all sorts of irrelevant stuff
4) some physical stuff, like ice cold hands or odd feelings in my body.
But, and this is a big one: I am recovered. That is, I am recovered to me. Sound like a contradiction? Here is the deal....
If you struggle with anxiety the most important thing you can ever hear for your healing is that anxiety is normal and will always be part of your life experience. Some people have more anxiety, some people have less. But if you spend your time trying to get anxiety- free you will waste your life on an impossible quest. I make it my daily quest to spend my life making Jesus known, and however bad I may feel, that is the quest of my life. I flatly refuse to let the anxiety steal my life as I sense it longs to do.
Anxiety really hurts. The feeling that everything you love might suddenly disappear is a pretty arresting one! Refusing to address anxiety is completely contrary to its neurological function and therefore maddeningly hard. Yet, giving in to the anesthesis of responding by finding reassurance only protracts the suffering. I have made the feeling of pain a sign that I am holding the line of recovery. Anxiety is never neutral, it always wants more ground. Refusing it is a pain that is well worth enduring.
'Hotel Anxiety' is a place that I have created in my consciousness. It is not a very nice hotel; in fact I imagine it as a dusty, inhospitable hotel in the Wild West. Rather than trying to constantly resist the worries and anxieties that my mind creates (which inevitable makes them bigger and more important) I welcome them into Hotel Anxiety. ‘Come in’ I say with neutrality, ‘Join all manner of other ridiculous, exaggerated fears. Stay for as long as you like. There is no room service, no reception, no meals, no duty manager to talk to and no customer service questionnaire. Have a pleasant stay.’ Then I just get on with my life.
God is the foundation of my ongoing recovery. I cannot express to you how much I love him and need his comfort every day. My life without his love is a terror that would trump all that my anxious mind could create, and his consolation and peace is the greatest fortress against their attacks. I hold onto the promise of Psalm 69:29 'I am afflicted and in pain but your salvation, O God, sets me securely on high.' This verse is particularly important to me since it joins together both my temporal experience and my eternal reality. Anxiety may hurt, but my salvation is held securely in God.
I share these things not as a blueprint for your recovery, but just as a reflection on my own. Wherever you are on your journey with anxiety, know that there are others who can say, ‘me too’ and who pray for you to live full and free.
In His Service,