Anxiety

Europe Dunn Right Episode 1: When the Worst Thing Becomes the Best Thing

We started our great European adventure in the Atlanta airport. We’d bought tickets with Air Canada that flew from Atlanta to Toronto and then on into Istanbul. Our plan was to spent 12 hours in Istanbul, doing a mad dash through the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque before continuing on to Athens. Over the past few years Istanbul has become a source of fascination for me, so when I found out that the cheapest way into Europe was to fly through Istanbul, I was all about it.

We spent the night in Atlanta so we’d be able to arrive at the airport bright and early before our 11 AM flight. We were among the first people to check in. When we checked in we were told that we had no seat assignments, but not to worry because they would be assigned at the gate. We got coffee, went to our gate and read for a while, waiting for an agent to appear.

When the agent showed up, we politely asked for seat assignments. She said to sit down and wait and she would give them to us as soon as she had them. We politely and patiently sat down. 30 minutes later, we checked back in with her and were given the same answer. I tried to be calm, but I was starting to get nervous.

A few minutes later the gate agent announced that the boarding process was beginning. We stood at the desk and said, “We still don’t have seat assignments.” She asked us to wait just a minute until she was done boarding these people. At this point it became clear to me that we were not getting on this flight. As the final passengers boarded the plane, the gate agent finally told us, “You purchased tickets, but not seats, so we’ll have to put you on the next flight.”

I collapsed into a chair where I tried to do deep breathing exercises while popping anxiety pills. In spite of being fairly well-traveled and very flexible in many ways, I am not good with travel delays or changes in travel plans. Any type of travel where there is the potential to miss a connection–a flight, a train, etc.–makes me physically anxious. And when things go wrong, even though they are usually fixable, I freak out.

Once everyone had boarded our flight and the door was closed, we waited for the gate agent to give us a new itinerary. The best they could do was a flight that got us into Istanbul late in the afternoon–not leaving enough time for us to leave the airport and see anything before our evening flight to Athens. We asked if we could just fly directly to Athens since we wouldn’t have time to see anything in Istanbul anyway, but the gate agent said she could only book us tickets to our original destination. I angry-tweeted at Air Canada for a while while being very polite to the gate agent. We were both disappointed to realize we’d miss this whole day of our trip and end up spending two full days sitting in airports.

And then, the agent had us sign the paperwork for the airline to send us compensation for being involuntarily removed from our flight. Because we’d been bumped from that international flight, the airline sent us large checks (not travel vouchers). When we added everything up later we realized these checks covered almost exactly half of the cost of our entire 18 day trip to Europe. Which means we got a 1/2 priced trip to Europe.

I know. We’re still in shock.

The thing that seemed like the WORST THING EVER to the anxious traveler in me turned out to be an enormous blessing.

We flew to Toronto and then to Istanbul where we sat in the airport for about five hours before flying on to Athens. Since Jonathan’s luggage didn’t make it to Istanbul, we got to spend part of that time getting him Turkish boxers and t-shirts to tide him over until his bag arrived.

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Here’s Jonathan, killing time in the International Departures lounge in the Istanbul airport, waiting until we can check in for our flight to Athens.

I can’t finish this post without talking about how close to home it hit to hear about the Istanbul airport bombing, just 3 weeks after we’d been there. I think about the 36 people who died and the 147 more who were injured and know that it could so easily have been us. I am grateful for our safety, but I do not believe we are entitled to it any more than anyone else.  Today Turkey erupted into chaos as the military attempted a coup. I can’t help but thing of all the lives that have been and will be lost as the government and military struggle. I pray for peace and it feels inadequate. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

 

 

 

 

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To Write Truth on My Arms

On Saturday I got a new tattoo, lyrics from a song I love crawling down my forearm from elbow to wrist,inked in carefully crafted, one-of- a-kind lettering designed for me by a dear friend. It says, “I will hold on hope.”

When you tattoo words on your arms, people ask questions. They want to know “Why these words? What do they mean?” And there is no simple explanation, no easy way to describe everything these words mean to me, and everything the song they come from represents.

Last Wednesday night I woke up to the sound of gunshots. Three sharp staccato cracks and then the squeal of tires and the roar of an engine. I lay in my bed, heart pounding, afraid to move, mind racing through possibilities. A domestic dispute? A drug deal gone wrong? Or maybe it wasn’t really gunshots at all. How did I even know what gunshots sounded like? But minutes later, when the police lights pulsed through my bedroom window like a beacon, I understood that what I’d heard really was a gun and it really was just yards away from my bedroom. Panic wrapped its fingers around me like a vice as we took our pillows and crept upstairs into the loft in the dark, trying to escape the flashing blue lights without attracting attention. I folded my body onto the short end of the sectional, knees pressed into my chest, trying to make myself as small as possible, thinking about how much I miss living in a place where I never felt threatened, where I was never suspicious of my neighbors or worried for my safety.

For several anxious days afterwards I flinched at every loud noise or flash of motion caught in my periphery. My body trembled and my teeth chattered with chills produced by the excess adrenaline coursing through me. The days blurred together until, with a little medication and a lot of prayer and some serious support from my husband, I started to relax back into my life.

There are many things I cannot control about my circumstances. There are many things I cannot control about my own body. But I believe that I have the power to choose what defines me. Each of my tattoos represents a truth about who I am and who I hope to be. “I will hold on hope,” is both a truth and a resolution. I will not be defined by anxiety and I will not settle into a unfulfilling life because I’ve given up on dreaming for a greater one. I will choose hope.

Later on in this song come the lyrics, “But I need freedom now/And I need to know how/To live my life as it’s meant to be.” Like with any form of art, I’m sure there are different interpretations of this song, but to me, these words are powerful. They express the restless energy I have felt for most of my life–the tension I feel between the life that’s expected of me and the life I dream of. I believe that I can live my life “as it’s meant to be.” I believe that even as I struggle with anxiety and depression, I can choose hope. So I hold on.

I hold onto the hope that the broken parts of me can be made whole, that I can grow strong through struggle, and that I can find the freedom to live my life honestly and authentically, as it’s meant to be, even if it looks different from the lives of those around me.

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My mom went with me to get my tattoo…which was an experience I could never have imagined in a million years. If you know my family, you’ll know what I mean.

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The lyrics are taken from the Mumford & Sons song, “The Cave.”
The font was hand lettered for me by my dear friend Asharae Kroll.

Disappearing Tricks: Life With Anxiety

When I was still a child, I learned the secret of how to disappear.

This was something of a miracle because I had always been too loud and too rough, with dirty fingernails and chronically bruised shins and a long golden ponytail that whipped around my waist when I ran. The only time that I was quiet was when I was reading. And I read the way some people breathe – necessarily and without effort. When I read, I traveled through time and space and in and out of reality. I returned to my own world fuzzy-headed, unsure of the line between what was real and what I’d imagined.

This ability to escape through books was a treasure, but one day, I discovered that there were other ways to leave reality behind. I could do it anytime I needed to.

I was born craving approval. From my earliest memories, I wanted to achieve perfection with every fiber of my being. I believed that I deserved love and acceptance because I made the best grades and won all of the awards and obeyed my parents and made everyone in my class laugh. But I was a child, and like all children, there were times when I got in trouble.

When a teacher or my parents corrected me, I was devastated. I lived to please and when I didn’t I felt physically sick with the knowledge that I’d disappointed them. My heart would race until my chest hurt and my stomach would clench and I would imagine myself breaking into a thousand pieces. My body would shake and I would chant to myself, “I’m not here. I’m not here. I’m not here.” And then one day, I wasn’t.

Or at least, part of me wasn’t. It was as if I was no longer quite connected to my body. I could hear my father’s words of anger and disappointment, but they seemed to be coming from a long way off. I was sitting across from him at the kitchen table, but I was also floating somewhere up in the corner of the room watching myself with cool detachment, protected from the intensity of his disappointment and no longer on the verge of breaking.

This, I discovered, was an incredible skill. I now had the power to remove myself from whatever situations proved too stressful or upsetting to handle, and no one else would even know. I had learned to disappear in plain sight.

I became so good at disappearing that I forgot how to stay put. I now know that this is called disassociating, but at the time I heard it called “zoning out.” I got into such a habit of disassociating that I found myself doing it not only when my stress level skyrocketed, but also when I was bored, upset, or feeling anything else I didn’t want to be feeling.

All of this disappearing started to affect my memory. Although I graduated from high school only ten years ago, I have almost no memories of that entire chunk of my life, most of which I spent observing myself from a long way off. High school was possibly the most stressful time of my life as I tried to maintain perfect grades and perfect behavior while constantly trying to earn the approval of my parents, my teachers, my church leaders, and my friends. I lived in a state of constant and severe anxiety, which I didn’t even recognize as abnormal.

I’d suffered from chronic tension headaches from the time I was in elementary school, but during my freshman year of college I developed a heart arrhythmia. It came and went, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days. It felt like my heart would skip a beat, followed by an extra hard double-beat at the end of the overlong pause. Some nights I couldn’t sleep because each heartbeat was so strong it felt like it was echoing through my body, rattling my teeth, and making my limbs throb. “Premature Ventricular Contractions” the doctor said. Triggered by stress and anxiety. I told the doctor I wasn’t stressed or anxious about anything and that it must be something else. He said to drink a lot of water, replenish my electrolytes, and lay off of caffeine.

Around the same time I started having stomach problems that I still struggle with. For weeks or even months at a time I would have chronic stomachaches that weren’t affected by what I ate or didn’t eat, by how much I exercised or how much caffeine I drank. My belly bloated and swelled until I looked like I was a solid 5 months pregnant, and most of the time I was in constant pain. This would last for long stretches of time until one day, just as unexpectedly as it came, it would stop, and I would live normally for weeks or months with no issues. I had learned to live with extreme amounts of stress so well that I honestly could not see a pattern of my anxiety correlating with my stomach problems.

There were other physical signs that something was going on, but I simply didn’t recognize them as abnormal. I remember dozens of times when I would meet with a professor, spend time with a friend I found difficult to please, have some sort of confrontation, or be forced to participate in some activity that I didn’t want to do, and my whole body would tremble so hard that my teeth chattered. I would sweat through my clothes, the kind of sweat that stains, and afterwards, when I relaxed, my whole body would ache from the tension I’d been carrying. Now I realize that this was from an extreme amount of adrenaline my anxious body was releasing to help me get through an overwhelming situation, but at the time it never occurred to me that this was abnormal.

It wasn’t until last spring, as we began preparing to move back to the States after two years in Korea, that I was finally able to recognize all of this for what it was – anxiety. As I started looking for a job and a place to live in the US, I was blindsided by a series of panic attacks that would strike without warning – at home, on the bus, at work. My heart would pound and I would feel like I was being stabbed through the chest as fears I didn’t know I had raced through my head. I thought we’d die in Korea and never make it back, or that we’d get back and not be able to find a place to live, or that I wouldn’t be able to find a job and we’d spend all of our savings and not be able to pay our bills and be miserable. Often these panic episodes would start completely unprovoked as I went about my normal routine. I never knew when they might hit and I couldn’t escape them by disassociating, and that was part of what made them so utterly terrifying.

The panic attacks were new territory for me. I’d never thought of myself as an anxious person. I knew people who were anxious – people who could twist themselves up in worry over things that had never even entered my head. I always wanted to take those friends by the shoulders, maybe shake them a little, and remind them to RELAX. And suddenly, I found myself unable to relax. I wasn’t intentionally stirring up an anxiety and worry in myself; it was rising up out of the place it had been hiding for years.

The panic attacks had one positive effect – they made me recognize anxiety for the first time and to realize that what I had been experiencing for so long wasn’t healthy or normal. As I started to look back over my life, I could see that anxiety had been my constant companion since childhood. I could see it in the way I chewed my fingernails bloody and how I laid in my bed at night as a second grader, praying for Jesus to return before I woke up. I could see it in the host of unidentifiable ailments, each one a physical manifestation of a level of stress that my mind and my heart simply couldn’t handle.

Even though I was starting to see a pattern of anxiety in my life, I still thought the panic attacks were associated with the move and that once we’d settled down back in America they would subside. It’s been six months since we returned to the US and while the attacks have lessened, they haven’t disappeared. Sometimes we have to cancel plans last minute because I’m suddenly seized with the conviction that my husband will die if he leaves the house, and for the present I no longer stand in line at the bank or visit movie theaters because these places are triggers for me.

I know that this all sounds very dramatic and maybe a bit depressing, but ironically, I’m feeling more and more hopeful. See, there is freedom in calling something by its name. Sometimes naming the thing takes away some of its power. When the panic attacks started, I couldn’t understand where they were coming from or why, and I felt powerless against them. Now I understand that anxiety has been part of my DNA all along. I understand that my habit of dissociating and my health issues have been a subconscious way of dealing with an unusually high level of anxiety from a very young age.

Anxiety for me is mental and physical—it is not a conscious decision and it is not something I can make go away through force of will—but it is also profoundly spiritual. Learning to manage anxiety requires my letting go of the need to manipulate my circumstances and control every outcome. The anxiety itself may never go away (though I pray that it does), but I am coming to understand that I have a weapon that can keep me from being overwhelmed. Along with therapy for my mind and medication for my body, there is a remedy for my spirit and it’s called Truth.

Anxiety shouts with a loud voice, but Truth always speaks louder.

Truth says that the peace of God which transcends understanding will guard my heart and my mind.

Truth says those who trust in the Lord will be kept in perfect peace.

Truth says, “Fear not, for I am with you!” time and time again.

Truth is giving me the courage to stay put instead of disappearing. It’s teaching me to accept my weaknesses and my limitations and to rely on a strength greater than my own. And it’s teaching me how to live well in a world where I’m not always in control.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

The Things I Carry from 2015 and my One Word for 2016

I lived a hundred different lives in 2015. The adventurous expat, the patient teacher, the homesick little girl, the intrepid world traveler, the anxiety-ridden dependent, the supportive wife, the optimistic partner, the heartbroken friend. I have felt a hundred incongruous emotions — hopeful and discouraged, excited and apathetic, inspired and utterly disengaged, generous and self-protective, joyful and bitterly sad. I’ve traveled through 7 countries and made a 6,000 mile move. Each separate life and identity is self-contained like a square on a quilt, inextricably connected to the whole and meaningless without it.

I move forward into 2016 marked by the experiences of this past year and of all the years that came before it. I carry them with me like the very cells of my body. Who I am today is shaped by what I did yesterday and last year and in the years before that. But who I will be tomorrow depends on what I choose to do with today.

There are dozens of ways I’d like to change, but when I think of all the things I need to do better I don’t feel inspired to step into a new year – I feel too overwhelmed to even know where to start. I need to eat better, to exercise more, to drink more water, to be less selfish, to love better, to make more time for writing, to travel, to explore, to learn a new language or skill, to be a better friend, to volunteer, to blog more consistently, to stop whining so much, to pray more, to be more organized.

Last year I abandoned my list of resolutions in favor of just One Word. The idea of One Word is to get rid of your list and to choose a single word to focus on for a whole year. “One word that sums up who you want to be and how you want to live.”

In 2015, I chose the word “Wholehearted.” It was a big word that encompassed an entire way of looking at the world. I’m not finished with wholeheartedness – becoming wholehearted is a lifelong journey – but I have chosen a new word to represent 2016. My word is Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is “a state of active, open attention on the present. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” Mindfulness is something I profess to believe in deeply, but fail to put into practice.

From the time I was a young child I learned to disassociate. This began as a coping mechanism for me, a way of dealing with my anxiety, but it grew into a habit. There is a restlessness in me that causes me to grow bored and discontented easily, and when I’m no longer entertained, challenged, or excited, I tend to disengage.

There is nothing more terrifying to me than the thought of living an ordinary life, but most of life is made of ordinary moments. How much of mine do I miss by checking out and simply going through the motions while I dream of being somewhere else? This year, I want to learn to be present for my own life.

The poet Mary Oliver writes often about what it means to pay attention to the world. In her famous poem “The Summer Day” she writes:

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I believe that nothing is without meaning if we only pay attention to it. And I believe that I can waste my one wild and precious life not through big mistakes, but through day after day of failing to pay attention and just going through the motions.

I am setting my intention this year on just one thing – growing in Mindfulness. I will choose to be present for my every day life. I want to learn to see the extraordinary wrapped up in my ordinary days and to collect evidences of grace that shine true even when the days are dark.

If you’ve chosen One Word for 2016, leave a comment below and share what you chose and what it means to you. 

Header image via: The Huffington Post

What’s Saving My Life Right Now: Update

Back in February I wrote a post called “What’s Saving My Life Right Now.” This question comes from Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church. Taylor tells the story of a time when she was asked to speak on this topic. At first it seemed like an unusual thing for a priest-turned-professor to speak about, but as she composed her speech, she realized it was powerful to reflect on the graces of a particular season. She made a note to ask herself this question from time to time.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the things in my life that are hard: missing Korea, experiencing constant rejection on the job front, continuing to struggle with a chronic ear infection I’ve had since July, having to pack up and move (again!) in a few weeks, the return of my panic attacks, and now this huge natural disaster in my new city.

I would be quick to extend compassion and grace to anyone else in this situation, but I find that It’s difficult for me to give myself that same measure of grace. I feel that it is not OK that I haven’t figured out a stable job situation, that I can’t get over this ear infection (which is costing a small fortune in doctor’s bills), that some days I am utterly overwhelmed by daily life when I am so very fortunate compared to many. Life is short and precious and I don’t want to spend mine feeling overwhelmed and hopeless when there is so much beauty I could be enjoying. There is a disconnect between the life I want to lead and the life I find myself living.

I wrote recently about my experience with the Lord’s Prayer — about asking for daily bread and receiving manna just for one day. Two days ago, manna came in the form of a letter from a reader named Steph who just moved to the middle-of-nowhere Texas after several years in South Africa. In so many ways, we are leading parallel lives. Like me, she moved to the US for her husband to go to graduate school. Like me, she is having trouble acclimating. Like me, she is unsuccessfully looking for a job that won’t kill her soul. Basically, we’re the same person. But in her letter she reminded me of the value of focusing on the things she loves about where she is and what she’s doing. She reminded me of some of the things that I love about being back in America. Her letter inspired me to do an update on what’s saving my life right now.

Here’s my list. Leave me a comment about what’s saving your life right now. I’m a collector of ordinary grace.

  • The library. The public library system in Columbia rocks my socks. It’s similar to Raleigh’s library system in which there are many smaller branches scattered around the county, but the full collection is extensive. You can easily request any book you are interested in and have it delivered to your closest branch so you don’t have to drive all over town to get a particular book. There is also an extensive collection of audiobooks (which I love listening to when I’m spending time in the car running errands) and dvds (including full seasons of TV shows). And it is all free!!!!

  • My bathtub. After two years of showering in a wet room where my shower head was connected to my sink, I am grateful for both a separate shower with a curtain and especially for a tub where I can sit with a book and relax.
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  • Fall candles. In the last year or so I’ve really gotten into scents, both in terms of perfumes and house scents. In my opinion, fall candles are the best of all the candles. My favorites right now are Leaves, Pumpkin Pie, and Marshmallow Fireside from Bath and Body Works and my Tobacco Vanilla one from Paddywax.
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  • My cats. I’d forgotten how much joy those little jerks bring to my life. Even when their demands for attention disrupt my day, I can’t help loving those warm little bodies curled up against me and t their ability to make a game out of anything, like systematically pushing things off the counter or stealing twist ties from the kitchen and later drowning them in their water bowl so they are good and dead.

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    If you try to take this twist tie, I will murder you in your sleep.

  • Friends. Being in Columbia has allowed us to see many of our friends more often than we did in Korea, but even more often than we did before in America. We’ve seen our good friends in Charlotte three times in the two months we’ve been here. I’ve seen all of my college roommates twice, my best friend from childhood once, and I’ll see another of my best friends from home this coming weekend. I’ve also started to make new friends in Columbia through my friend Lorien’s Bible study, through the church we’ve been attending, and through Jonathan’s program. These friendships are gifts and they make life brighter.
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Everyone should have friends to go to IKEA with.

Daily Bread: Faith When Things Fall Apart

I didn’t grow up saying the Lord’s Prayer, either in church on Sundays or on my own. I knew it, of course –-I could recite it if called upon to do so—but it was not a part of my spiritual life until about a year ago when I started reading morning prayers from Shane Claiborne’s Common Prayer on a regular basis. Each morning’s liturgy includes a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

For the past few weeks we’ve been attending an Anglican church here in Columbia and the Lord’s Prayer has a place in the Anglican liturgy as well.

“Our Father, who art in heaven. Hallowed be thy name,” we pray. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on Earth as it is in heaven.”

And then, “Give us this day our daily bread,” And this is where I get stuck.

About two months ago I wrote this post about provision. I wrote about how I wanted to whine and complain about all of the unknowns in my life, but when I took a break from whining, I really could see God’s hand and his provision in the way the pieces were coming together for us as we prepared to move.

I clung to those signs of provision. I strapped them on like a life preserver, protecting me from all that was still unknown. We arrived in Columbia buoyed by the things we did know – we had a great condo lined up, Jonathan was starting classes right away, and I had 4 or 5 freelance jobs in the pipeline ready for me to pursue. There were still a lot of questions, but these things gave us confidence that everything would fall together in the end. Instead, things fell apart.

A week after moving into our condo (and painting and decorating and getting it set up the way I’d imagined in our months of kooky Korean wallpaper and windowless rooms) we got a call from our landlord. The condo had been listed for sale for several months before they leased it to us and someone who had viewed it previously had put an offer on it. Just one week into our one-year lease they were asking if we could please move out. We did some negotiating and came to an agreement that feels fair to us, but this still means we will have to find a new place and move out of our beautiful condo within the next three months.

Before arriving in Columbia, we decided that I would take the month of September to try to make freelance writing work as my primary source of income. If things weren’t coming together by the end of September then I’d have to take whatever random job I could get. I had worked diligently for the past five months in Korea to make connections and pursue opportunities. I even took a contract job back in April for a company who paid me abysmally and juggled working for them with teaching full-time in an attempt to gain the experience I needed to work for a better company I’d been in contact with. I worked every connection I could think of and came to Columbia with 4 or 5 solid leads. I figured even if they didn’t all pan out, a few of them would, and this would be a great foundation to build on. We arrived and I started making phone calls, “I’m here now and available! What do you have for me?” And one by one the doors closed.

Now we are more than halfway through September and I’ve managed to scrounge up a grand total of 4 hours of consistent work/week. (Which would be spectacular if only I made $100/hr). I spend most of my days looking for and applying to jobs (freelance, part-time, and a few full-time) and while I’ve had several prospects, so far nothing has panned out. The more desperate I become the less picky I am about what I apply for and the more I feel like I am just whoring myself out for jobs I don’t even want. Each day that passes I struggle more and more with feelings of worthlessness and I end most days heavy with discouragement and with fear. I reach the end of another unsuccessful day and I am bombarded with the fear that I will not be able to provide. That we will run out of money. That my husband will have to drop out of his program –the one thing he’s ever been really passionate about– because I have failed him.

It’s hard not to feel like I was wrong about provision. Like I wanted to see God’s hand in this so badly that I squinted until I could convince myself it was there. It’s hard to feel like I can trust him when he seems to be all about taking things away.

And yet. Within a week of arriving here I was invited to join a women’s Bible study led by the friend who helped us so much with finding our place here. I went to meet people, even though the phrase “Women’s Bible Study” usually makes me want to throw up a little. And what I found was a group of women who are willing to be real.

Over the past few weeks I’ve had five separate women from that group text me, call me, take me out for coffee, or invite me to their homes. They have sent me leads on jobs and a new place to live. And last week when I arrived at the church they had brought bags of groceries from their own homes to help fill my pantry. If that’s not grace, I don’t know what is.

It struck me this week that this phrase I pray so often, “daily bread,” is, well, daily. It is not “Give us this day everything we need for the next five years,” or even, “Give us this day enough bread to last for the next month.” It is asking God for enough for today. And it is coming back to Him, needy, each new day.

So while I can’t always seem to muster up the faith to believe that God will provide an income and a new place to live, or even a final resolution to this ear infection I’ve had off and on since July, maybe all that is required of me is enough faith for just one day.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Thankful Thursdays Guest Post: For Antidepressants, and for Quitting Them

Are you as excited as I am for another Thankful Thursday? These posts always touch and inspire me and I love being able to share them with you. Today’s post is especially close to my heart because today’s writer is close to my heart. Laura and her husband Josh have been our closest friends during our two years in Korea. We had the great privilege of walking with them through Laura’s entire pregnancy, the birth of their first child, and the next year of transition into parenthood. This story touched me  because I was around to witness a lot of it, but also because I too have struggled with anxiety and depression and while I’ve never experienced the hormonal havoc of childbirth, I know what it is to have your mind and body betray you in frightening ways. I’m so thankful for Laura and her family and also for God’s work in her life through a very difficult and scary time.

For Antidepressants, and for Quitting Them

It was just shy of a year ago, as the clock struck one on a humid August night in Korea, that I birthed our beautiful daughter. My mom stood at one shoulder and my husband at the other and the doctor and nurses at my feet, all urging me to push as hard as I could after 24 hours of back labor had left me exhausted and whimpering.

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Laura with one month old Genevieve

Then she was here, and she was perfect. I spent the next two weeks in a tired-but-wired state of attentiveness, Mom still on one side and Josh on the other, tirelessly supporting me in those early days of nursing and changing and cuddling and kissing this miracle, as I struggled to sleep when she slept and only managed about three hours out of every 24. Other than this, I felt like everything was going really well.

Until one morning a cloud descended. The adrenaline had run out, it seemed, and the rest of my hormones were going haywire in its absence. A few extra hours of blessed sleep did finally come, but it wasn’t enough. Something was wrong and it wasn’t just exhaustion. I had postpartum depression.

Except for how suddenly I crashed, it really wasn’t much of a shock. Throughout my teens and early 20s, I lived with low-grade anxiety, a constant tension in my tummy that I didn’t realize wasn’t normal till my chill-as-one-can-be husband came along and showed me how to relax. Then we moved to Korea to teach English, and the stress of doing a new job in a new country—and trying to do it perfectly—brought that anxiety back with a vengeance. This time depression came with it.

I limped through that year with copious amounts of pizza and beer and ice cream and TV (I know, I know), as well as a lot of prayer and care from Josh and friends and family. I did learn how to be a more effective EFL teacher and how to stop trying to be a perfect one, so things got better. But the lingering fatigue left me aching to go back home to Kansas, and we did, and it was good.

Fast forward three years to the August of our daughter’s birth, and we’d been back in Korea for almost a year. This time only Josh was teaching, and I was finishing up a low-stress pregnancy as a stay-at-home-mom-to-be, in a culture and with friends I was able to fully enjoy this time around. Some nausea and heartburn notwithstanding, I felt really good and right on track for an all-natural, “ideal” delivery and postpartum experience.

Maybe it was the intense back labor that kicked my body into high gear and kept it that way for those first two weeks postpartum until I crashed. Maybe I just didn’t prioritize sleep enough in those early days. Maybe I didn’t procure exactly the right nutrients to replenish my body and help my hormones rebalance themselves. Maybe I wasn’t getting enough sunshine and fresh air in our cave-like studio apartment at the end of a hot and rainy Korean summer. Maybe I was under spiritual attack in which evil voices whispered to me to toss my baby out our third-floor window so it would all just be over. Maybe it was some of all of these, or maybe I’m just wired for anxiety and depression, and there was nothing I could have done to prevent my curling into a ball day and night, my only real activities to nurse lying on my side and to choke down as much food as I could stand while my mom, husband and dad (who had since joined us) did all the diaper-changing, shopping, cooking, cleaning and loving on me and our sweet Genevieve.

Whatever the reason, it became obvious after two more weeks that fighting the PPD with food and sunshine and prayer just wasn’t cutting it (and the Lord knows we really tried). So on a rainy Wednesday morning my support group packed up me and our 4-week-old, and we all got on the bus to a mental hospital to ask for some antidepressants.

From here on out it is clear that I’m one of the lucky ones. Within days of starting a low dose of an SSRI that (please God, let it be true) seems to have done no harm to my nursling or me, my depression had eased and I was beginning to see the light. When Josh had to go back to work and my mom had extended her stay as long as she possibly could, my mother-in-law flew the thousands of miles to help us through the next few weeks, by the end of which even the anxiety had lifted and I was feeling downright happy. Our family of three started finding a “new normal” that involved leaving the house regularly, nursing in public on occasion and handling with relative serenity the caring, if nosy, advice of all the Korean grandmothers who treated us as their own.

The little white pills had pretty single-handedly brought me back to our world. So it was with intense gratitude (though certainly not always a perfect attitude) that I soaked up the next six months of motherhood while faithfully taking my meds each morning. And then spring came, and it was with cautious hope that I wondered if I might be able to wean myself off of them.

See, in addition to being a secretly anxious person most of my life, I have also been a not-so-secretly sensitive gal emotionally. I cry pretty dang easily, and while this is not always fun for those closest to me, my sensitivity and its related empathy feel like an important part of who I am.

But once on the antidepressant, I got to where I wasn’t crying ever, at all. And while no one else was complaining for sure, I missed being able to tear up during a touching movie scene or even break down a bit when something felt wrong in my world. So with the continued support of Josh and our loved ones both near and far, I decided to start cutting my dosage and see what happened.

Three months and just a few headaches and anxiety spells later, I am “drug free” and again one of the fortunate ones. It seems that my body just needed more time for the nutrition, sleep, sunshine, exercise, laughter, love and who-knows-what-else to help my hormones get back as they were meant to be, at least for now.

As an idealist, I wanted so badly to use only these “all-natural” gifts from God to bring about my healing (or even prevent illness in the first place), and it is possible I just didn’t figure out or follow through early enough with what could have allowed me to avoid the side effects and risks of manmade meds full of synthetic chemicals. But depression wasn’t waiting for me to fix things naturally, and I see the drugs as a stopgap measure, a less-than-sterile piece of cloth used as a tourniquet because you’d bleed to death waiting for a clean one to get on the scene.

I also see the hand of God behind this less-than-ideal means of grace. Even as I celebrate the fact that I don’t seem to need antidepressants anymore, I firmly believe that our Lord, who works in all the things of this broken world for good, can use even imperfect little white pills to fight the darkness and bring light.

And for that I am so very thankful.

Sweet Rhoades FamilyLaura Rhoades is wife to Josh, mom to Genevieve and photographer to women. Before moving back home in August to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, she’ll be spending her final weeks in Korea singing karaoke, soaking and scrubbing at the sauna and scarfing down as much mul naengmyeon and bingsu as possible. You can find her online at www.laurarhoades.com.

Laura Rhoades is wife to Josh, mom to Genevieve and photographer to women. Before moving back home in August to her hometown of Wichita, Kansas, she’ll be spending her final weeks in Korea singing karaoke, soaking and scrubbing at the sauna and scarfing down as much mul naengmyeon and bingsu as possible.