I don’t recall struggling with anxiety immediately after the loss of my father. Maybe I did and I just didn’t know it. Things were a whirlwind of grief after I returned home from the funeral. The truth is that after all is said and done everyone but you go back to their normal life. That’s when it gets really hard.
I attempted to go back to school. I was only a few weeks shy of finishing my spring semester, but after a day of dragging myself to classes and explaining to professors and classmates what had happened, I just couldn’t do it anymore. Someone looking on the outside that had not experienced the death of a parent may not get why I couldn’t just pull myself up by my bootstraps, hunker down and finish the few weeks left, but I couldn’t. I felt numb as I withdrew from my 17 credits. All that work I was forfeiting. Why? Because I had just experienced the greatest loss of my life. For me it was okay. What were they? Credits? I was getting almost a full refund because of my circumstances. After staring death in the face my perspective had radically changed. If I wanted to do school at a later date I could. It wasn’t the end of the world. Losing my dad was. Right then and there what I could do was go back to work and try to find my new normal. Anything more than that was just too much.
The days and weeks passed and three months later I got engaged. It was such a happy time for me in the midst of my grief. We had a 10 week engagement that kept my mind busy. Even though grief was very prevalent, our wedding was sweet and happy and full of joy. I married my best friend. My brother walked me down the aisle and my mom bravely rejoiced with us in her dark cloud of loss.
My first inkling of anxiety began months after we had been married. At the time I didn’t know what it was but looking back I can solidly pinpoint it and label it. When it came time to travel I’d suddenly get a bad feeling, like something was going to happen. A very bad thing. Death. I felt responsible to stop that bad thing from happening so we wouldn’t go. If we went and I had felt like we shouldn’t and something bad happened it would be all my fault. I couldn’t endanger my husband like that. We had friends getting married in Seattle which was over four hours away and it was wintertime and I had a bad feeling. I was sure we would die on icy roads or in a car wreck or from falling boulders. We didn’t go.
This happened a few more times and my husband was always very supportive of me. But this wasn’t like me. I was the one who loved a grand adventure. Since when did traveling mean death? I had the where-with-all to recognize that I had changed and that wasn’t my normal. I chose to push through the bad feelings and I began to live my life again. It took a lot of prayer and trusting God to push through the stifling fear I had. I made little anchored memories to help me. I had a routine I would repeat in my head so that I could get in the car and drive across the state or climb on a plane and fly across the country. I would remember all the times I had “bad feelings” and then I would remember how everything ended up okay. The bad feelings were lies. I needed to trust God with my life. If it was my time to go, it was my time to go. I refused to not live. It was hard. It was painful. It was tearful. But I got in the car. I got on the plane. I lived.
As the years went by my fear began to evolve into a deeper and more strangling hold. I began to fear the death of my husband. I would think about it constantly and imagine every which way he could die. It was a terrible fantasy I could not turn off and it tormented me. It was a silent spirit killer that I kept hidden. Somehow I had it in my mind that I was doing something wrong by struggling with my fear. I didn’t want my husband to die, so why was I thinking about it all the time? If I told anyone they might think what a weak and terrible person I was so I struggled in silence. Hiding. My brain was focused on good and healthy things but it was also equally focused on fear and death. This went on for years. I lived in shame. I couldn’t turn off the fear. What was wrong with me? Wasn’t I a strong Christian? I felt like such a failure.
About five years into the struggle (after we had adopted our first two children…that’s another story) my best friend moved to Montana and I planned a trip over President’s Day weekend to go visit her. My husband was out of town for work and it was the perfect time to go. It was only a few hour drive but it was through the mountains and it was still pretty wintery out. I planned the trip, loaded up my two kids and felt the fear rip through my body. At that moment I made a decision. I turned around and looked at my two precious children I had received and I thought about life and the fullness of life. I thought about friends, family and living. It wasn’t living for me to cower in fear. It wasn’t living for me to bow to my emotions. I may have to live afraid. But I was going to live. I pulled out my little anchored memories that reminded me I would be okay and I started my car, put it in drive and I went. The bad feeling was only a bad feeling just like all the other times. I got there just fine with my two kids and had a wonderful time.
On the way home I was tested again in my fear but again I refused to cower. It had started snowing in the mountains and it was time for me to leave. I buckled my kids in the car, hugged my best friend goodbye and headed toward I-90 to go home. The tears began streaming down my face as I headed into the snow. I specifically remember quietly sobbing through the pass but pressing on. I drove all the way white knuckled but I made it. Sometimes you just have to do life through the tears.
That trip was a huge victory for me to continue to travel even though anxiety was now a part of my life. I just didn’t know what it was called. I began to learn what was real instinct and what was anxiety. As I explored this I could feel the difference. Anxiety was rooted in fear. Usually irrational fear. A real instinct was rooted in calm and peace. It was that gut feeling you get. The knowing. The God-given sense and warning to listen. It was strong and solid not empty and futile like anxiety. At first it was a small difference but it was there and I began to differentiate what was true and what was not. I ruefully acknowledged that my emotions and feelings were so good at lying to me and I was so good at listening.
Someone who does not struggle with anxiety may not know the mental exhaustion that one experiences. The energy it takes to get the mind ready to do something grappled in fear. The mental checklist I had to go through before a trip. I would take every fear and look it face on. I would hang it out in my mind like laundry and look at it. I would recognize the irrational and I would remember all the times I had been fine when I had the bad feeling. After I had done all of my mental gymnastics I was ready to go on the trip or do whatever it was that I was afraid of. But not until I had gotten my mind ready and the only way I could was through prayer and discipline. I had to take every thought captive, ask God for help and then do what I knew I should do. Even though I learned coping mechanisms on my own I still hadn’t dealt with the root. The root of my anxiety festered for years until I finally crashed. However, it was in the quiet time with God that I was able to stand during this time. It may have been shaky…but I could stand. In the quiet is where I stood. In the quiet is where I still stand.