“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again—my savior and my God.” Psalm 42:5-6
“Where are you?” Terry anxiously asked with a tone I had never heard before in my new fiancé. Confused, I thought I was at the train station stop Terry promised to meet me at in Elgin, Illinois. Instead, it was the very station he had admonished me to avoid, being in a sketchy area of town. In the mid-90s, without cell phones, we both had been looking for one another for an hour. Fifteen minutes later after his question, we were reunited but Terry needed time to calm down from his adrenaline rush, worried that something had happened to me. It was a situation that we would revisit often in our relationship: Terry’s attention to directions, my brain buzzing when receiving said directions, and him later asking the question, “Where are you?” I take all the responsibility. When I am given directions, I hear buzzing like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons. We stay married due to the advent of technology, cell phones, and map apps.
I had my first panic attack five years ago. I was in a meeting and suddenly I felt the room spin with words bouncing off the walls. My heart was beating rapidly, while a sheen of sweat arose on my body. I began to tremble, scrunching up my shoulders, wrapping my arms around myself, making myself smaller. My husband saw the look of terror cross my face, squeezed my hand, until the meeting finished. We left the room, got into the car, where I exhaled all my anxiety, feeling both drained and confused.
I continued having panic attacks for the next two years, although at the time I didn’t recognize them as such. Instead, once a week in a particular place, I felt a cold flush run across my body, and I began to get butterflies followed by trembling. I quickly excused myself and escaped outdoors. Lifting my head up to the hot sun, I soaked in its warmth. After my breathing became more regulated, I would quietly go back into the place, desperately trying to avoid attention. This occurred for months, until the pandemic offered me some relief from my routine. But the second my routine went back to normal, the panic attacks returned.
May is Mental Health Awareness month. It is the month in which we hope to bring more awareness to mental health issues and remove some of the stigma. Public service ads, social media posts, and hashtags attempt to make a dent in this vast issue covering depression, anxiety, suicide ideations, disordered eating behaviors, post traumatic and complex stress disorder, and so much more. Yet, we still see major media figures like Stephen “tWitch” Boss take their own lives without any outward hint of depression, leaving family and community stunned. We hear about people’s mental health struggles years later, while their recent cancer diagnosis makes the round of news. We still label people as crazy or deranged when they struggle with mental health issues.
My own record in dealing with my own mental health and those of whom I love has not always been great. I, too, have treated myself with shame and have shamed others dealing with their own struggles. I, too, have missed important signs in those I love when they have struggled with suicide and depression. I, too, have adopted the strategy of pulling yourself up by your boots straps to deal with depression or anxiety. And this has hurt me and those I love in ways I never intended.
I am learning to validate other people’s feelings, and not judge them based on their feelings. I am also educating myself about some of the common mental health disorders. Depression doesn’t always look like someone is on the verge of tears, and anxiety can manifest as cold flushes. When describing someone with mental health concerns, I use language that is sensitive and inclusive. How we talk about mental health shapes how we view it.
As for my own mental health, I am learning some healthy coping strategies to deal with anxiety and my emotions. I value rest, making it a priority in my life. I recognize the foods I put into my body will either nourish or deplete my mental capacity. I am working on breathing techniques and the importance of pausing between activities. I also realize the importance of being out in nature and how it grounds me, opening my senses to creativity and beauty.
The biggest lesson I have learned is the importance of vulnerability. For many years, I thought being a Christian meant I couldn’t share my hard stuff. I believed that if my feelings or emotions were out of control, it indicated that something was wrong in my relationship with God. But when looking at some of the major characters in the Bible, we see their vulnerability etched in scriptures. They were not afraid to call out to God and invite Him into their raw emotions. And these examples validate my emotions and my witness with God. And in turn, you readers, by reading and affirming my writing, have confirmed that vulnerability leads to healing and wholeness.
Reader, I don’t know if you have, or are currently struggling with, any mental health issues. I do know that at some point in your life, you or someone you love will likely struggle in this area. I encourage you to educate yourself, change your language, and be open to vulnerability. Maybe you won’t write a blog post about your struggles with suicide ideation. But you can share with a friend how God has moved you towards healing. Maybe you are an artist and create a piece reflecting your history with trauma. Or maybe you are honest with your siblings about how trauma has shaped you.
Finally, we need to be intentional in doing an internal mental health checkup along with one with our friends and family. Terry and I have adopted the first question God asked Adam and Eve: “Where are you.” God wasn’t asking for their location with GPS coordinates. Unlike Terry in relation to me, God knew that Adam and Eve were hiding behind the bushes. He was creating an opportunity for them to confess and be honest about the condition of their hearts. Terry and I ask each other this question, not because either of us are lost. Instead, it’s an opportunity to share with each other the conditions of our heart and soul. Sometimes, my response can be a flippant “I’m good.” But Terry asks again, “Where are you really at?” I pause and self-examine my heart and share what’s really going on. These check-ups keep the doors of communication open with true vulnerability.
My panic attacks ended after I did some hard work and made some healthy changes in my life. David addresses mental health concerns in Psalm 42:5. He asks, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” My questions were different; I was asking God, “Why am I so anxious? Why do I feel stress in this place?” After a lot of internal work, I can echo David’s response, “I will put my hope in God. I will praise him again, my Savior and my God!” This wasn’t a mantra that I repeated to calm myself down. Instead, it took time, effort, and work to get from a place of anxiety to hope.
Reader, if you are experiencing any mental health struggles, reach out to someone today! Despite what you may be feeling, you are not alone! And you are important to your family, community and, most importantly, to God.
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