Faith

The 300th: An Ode to Failure

This is my 300th blog post.

Three hundred separate times, I’ve sat down and written a thing and posted it on the internet. Sometimes they were words I couldn’t keep in for a moment longer so that they spilled out in an almost violent rush. Sometimes they were words I spent weeks weighing and measuring, trying to say something true, but in the most careful way I could. And sometimes they were words without any great weight behind them – snapshots of the moments that make up my days.

Today is also my 31st birthday. I have so many things to be thankful for in my life. Without being too mushy, I will just say that I am deeply loved by some of the most wonderful people on this planet and they do an amazing job of showing me. That is all I could ever ask for. But this post isn’t about how lovely my life is.

It’s about failure.

In reflecting on the last year, I’ve had many wonderful and meaningful experiences, but I’ve also failed in a lot of ways. I don’t believe I’ve ever tried to project an image of perfection here. I’ve been honest about struggles and difficulties. But I also don’t know that I’ve talked much about real failure–as in the things that are entirely my fault and entirely within my control.

There are the small things:

  • I accidentally betrayed a confidence. I didn’t do it intentionally, but I should have been thoughtful enough to avoid the topic entirely instead of assuming what the other person already knew. Nothing catastrophic has come of it, but I still should have kept my mouth closed.
  • I completely forgot to check in on a friend who I knew was having an important appointment. I genuinely wanted to know the outcome, but I failed to follow up with her which communicated that I didn’t really care.
  • We have a four-cup coffee maker (which in my house is actually a two-cup coffee maker) and a few days ago I heard Jonathan waking up, so I ran to the kitchen and quickly poured the last cup of coffee into my mug before he came out so that I wouldn’t have to wait 5 minutes for a new pot to brew.

And there are the bigger things:

  • I recently shouted at a family member in moment of self-righteous fury that was both ungracious and unnecessary. Also, I am not a shouter. A very animated talker, yes. But not a shouter.
  • I kept a secret from my husband for the better part of a year because I was so ashamed of it. Me. Someone who would identify authenticity as one of my core life values. I kept a secret from the person I am closest to in the world. Like a lying lier who lies. This was just one factor that led to a serious and scary breakdown in my marriage, something I always thought was too rock solid to be shaken.
  • I quit on an important project that I care deeply about and want to support, but simply couldn’t get my shiz together enough to participate in fully.
  • A few weeks ago, I had a conversation where I speculated on someone else’s sexuality. Even though I sincerely believe this to be an unkind and above all unnecessary thing to do, I did it.
  • I am really struggling with resentment towards someone in my life. It has nothing to do with them. It is entirely my problem. But at least 50% of the time, I want to punch them in the face for daring to exist.
  • I set out to write a book a long time ago, but I do not have the discipline or the work ethic or the perseverance to see it through. Every time I try again, I end up quitting.

I promise, there is a point to all of this. The thing I’ve learned the most over the past year is that there is no such thing as a failure-free life. As a recovering perfectionist, this is hard for me to accept. I am programmed to believe I should always be making progress. I like to think I can outgrow failure, or at the very least, that I can learn not fail at the same thing twice. Experience says otherwise.

Failure is inevitable, but it’s not the end. It’s an opportunity to identify my priorities and to really ask myself if my actions reflect my goals, my values, and the kind of person I want to be. It is humbling to admit to being wrong and to ask for forgiveness. And it is beautiful to receive forgiveness from others and from myself.

The other great gift I’ve received from all of my failures is that, in my better moments, it has given me greater compassion towards others. Understanding my own inability to stop failing makes it easier to forgive other people’s failures too. It’s so much easier to live believing that those around me are doing the best they can, but, despite our best efforts, we all still fail sometimes.  We all need the grace of God, myself as much as anyone.

In the next year, I hope that I will grow as someone who is kind and genuine and generous and gracious. I want to invest more in my writing with the goal of one day being self-employed as a writer. I want to make peace with my body and manage my mental health better. I want to love the people in my life well. I want to explore more of the world and to have new adventures, but also do a better job of appreciating all there is to explore and appreciate in my everyday life.

I will probably (definitely) fail in both small and spectacular ways at all of these things, so along with all of these hopes, I am thankful to be in a place in my life where I feel secure enough to fail. My worth and my worthiness are not dependent on my successes or failures. I only need to be humble enough to admit my failures, to ask for forgiveness where necessary, and to have the courage to try again.

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Featured Image via Ted.com

 

 

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We Must Risk Delight: Or How To Combat the Devil One Tattoo At a Time

Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all bound by routine. Even the most spontaneous of humans cannot escape the cycles of time and nature. Repetition–of the sun each day, of the moon each month, of the seasons, of new years–creates a rhythm to our days. For me, these rhythms always include the ominous beats of depression and the frenzied syncopation of hypomania.

Sometimes depression is triggered by a specific event that I can point to, but most often it creeps over me slowly, the way the sun sinks slowly to the horizon at the end of the day until, seemingly all at once, it’s gone. For me, depression is caused by carrying an excessive amount of pain just as much as it is by synapses misfiring in my brain. When this happens, I am also consumed by guilt. I feel that it is wrong for me to be weighed down by pain and sadness when by most measures I live a safe and wonderful life. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to understand that the pain and the sadness I carry is often not my own.

I am a highly empathetic person and I am deeply affected by the feelings of those around me both in my daily life and in the world at large. I am particularly sensitive to their pain and suffering. This is not something I have the power to turn on and off; it is part of my nature. I cannot help absorbing the feelings of those around me the same way a sponge cannot help soaking up whatever moisture it touches. Often, I do not even consciously recognize that I am doing it until one morning I wake up feeling crushed by the weight of it all.

Last year I experienced relatively long periods of depression. In spite of many beautiful moments, the undercurrent of my days was heaviness and sadness. There was so much sorrow and injustice in the world in 2017, and I wrestled with the question, How do I dare experience joy when there is so much pain and so much grief in the world? One day as I listened to Elizabeth Gilbert’s fantastic podcast Big Magic, I heard her quote the poet, Jack Gilbert in his poem “A Brief for the Defense.” It spoke beautifully to this exact question. I immediately found the whole poem and read it in tears at least a dozen times in a row.

A Brief for the Defense
Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies
are not starving someplace, they are starving
somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils.
But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants.
Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not
be made so fine. The Bengal tiger would not
be fashioned so miraculously well. The poor women
at the fountain are laughing together between
the suffering they have known and the awfulness
in their future, smiling and laughing while somebody
in the village is very sick. There is laughter
every day in the terrible streets of Calcutta,
and the women laugh in the cages of Bombay.
If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,
we lessen the importance of their deprivation.
We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure,
but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have
the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.
If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down,
we should give thanks that the end had magnitude.
We must admit there will be music despite everything.
We stand at the prow again of a small ship
anchored late at night in the tiny port
looking over to the sleeping island: the waterfront
is three shuttered cafés and one naked light burning.
To hear the faint sound of oars in the silence as a rowboat
comes slowly out and then goes back is truly worth
all the years of sorrow that are to come.
                         -Jack Gilbert

I still cannot express how much this moved me except to say that I knew immediately I wanted these words with me always. Without a way to burn them into my heart, I settled for inking them into my skin.

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Umm…so it is really hard to take a picture of something on your upper ribs without things going downhill really fast. It is actually straight in real life. Many thanks to my husband/photographer for making this look as appropriate as possible.

This poem gave me the answer I desperately needed, and the fog of depression slowly began to lift. We all have a responsibility to acknowledge the real pain and suffering of others and to do what we can to alleviate it. One way that we fight despair is with delight. “We must have the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless furnace of this world. To make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.” The question then becomes not, How dare I experience joy in this terrible world? but How dare I not?

More joy in the world is always a good thing. More hope in the world is always welcome. Experiencing peace does not dismiss the reality of suffering. Instead it points out that pain is not the only way, and it calls out injustice as evil. Perhaps the way to fight the devil is the way of the Who’s down in Whoville whose Christmas was stolen by the Grinch, but who sang in spite of it. Perhaps fighting the devil is having the courage to embrace joy instead of letting despair win.

When we see goodness for what it is and we dare to enjoy it, we give glory to the giver of every good and perfect gift. We bear the banner that says Hope still exists. Peace is not a fairytale. Joy is alive. This is a sacred calling. I do not know if this knowledge can ever save me from depression, but I believe that this is true: We must be brave. We must risk delight. We must admit there will be music despite everything. We must cling to Joy on behalf of those who cannot.

I’m Kind of a Superhero and Other Things I’ve Learned From Bipolar Depression

Last week one of my students called me out. “Mrs. Dunn. Why you in such good mood today? Last week, you seem tired. Today you are hyper. Why you so happy?” (I teach students who speak English as a second or third language).

“I’m in a good mood because it’s Friday,” I told him. “I’m excited for the weekend. Believe it or not, teachers love the weekend.” I was surprised by how perceptive my student was. The truth was that I was in a good mood because finally (finally!) the heavy fog of depression had lifted for longer than a few hours or even one good day, and I felt hope and energy and excitement that I had not felt in nearly three months.

In truth, I was in a short burst of hypomania that often comes just after a depression for me. I am Type II Bipolar which means I never experience full-blown mania with psychosis or delusional beliefs and reckless behavior, but sometimes experience a milder form of elevated mood called hypomania. My bipolar disorder is marked by very regular periods of moderate to severe depression and occasional bursts of high energy/activity accompanied by high adrenaline and impulsivity. For me, hypomania is subtle enough that it can easily be taken for just a very good mood, though it’s often accompanied by spending sprees, new tattoos, sleeping less, trying to do ALL tHE THINGS, and being increasingly social or chatty. Hypomania isn’t necessarily a bad thing for me (it ‘s sort of like what I imagine being on speed would be like) as long as I can be aware that I am experiencing an elevated mood and can keep my impulsivity in check.

Over the last nine months I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make sense of the last 12-15 years of my life. There is still so much I do not know, but here are a few things I’ve learned.

• I might never be “healed” and that is OK. Along with the “You don’t seem bipolar” comments, another common response I receive from well-meaning friends and family members is something along the lines of hoping that I will get better or believing that God can heal me. These are beautiful thoughts, and I don’t want to make light of them. I also believe in a powerful God. But it is not helpful for me to think of my illness as a condition I might suddenly be healed from. The nature of bipolar depression is that I go through seasons of depression and seasons of stability, with occasional bouts of hypomania in between. Learning that I am bipolar and that I am likely to experience bouts of depression chronically for the rest of my life has actually given me an incredible sense of hope. The best way I can describe this is that it is like having seasonal allergies. People who suffer with allergies can treat them, but there is rarely a permanent cure, so they are also not surprised when they flare up. Before I knew I was bipolar, I still experienced depression. Every time depression lifted I believed it was gone forever, and every time it came back, I believed I had failed in some cosmic way. Knowing that depression is likely to recur makes me feel intense gratitude for the stable times. It keeps me from believing that the depression is somehow my fault, and it also gives me hope when I am in those seasons because I know that they will end. In the past calendar year I had two long bouts of depression lasting a total of about 5 months. During the first depression, before I knew about being bipolar, I truly thought it might never end, and but during this most recent season, which lasted nearly three months, I knew that one day I would feel better.

• Having bipolar depression has taught me to show greater compassion, to others and to myself. I try to live believing that everyone around me is doing the best that they can. Because 98% of the time I am doing the best I can. Often it is not the right thing and it is not good enough, but I really am giving everything I’ve got. It’s not up to me to judge how hard someone else is trying based on their performance. I have no idea what’s going on inside their minds or in their personal lives, so I choose to believe that they are doing their best, just as I am doing my best. As part of self-compassion, I am learning to celebrate small victories in times when small things are taking all of my energy. I have a few encouraging pep talks for this.

o For example, “You are so awesome! You got out of bed and then you put on a shirt AND PANTS! PANTS! You could have just given up and stayed in bed all day, but instead, you are doing the thing. You even brushed your teeth. You should write that on your To-Do List and then cross it off. Cause you did that. Cause you can do things. You overachiever, you.”

• Some of the things I like most about myself are directly related to bipolar disorder. I am deeply empathetic. While I don’t get my own feelings hurt easily, I cry easily and often when I sense someone else hurting, even if that person is an actor in a commercial. It is this intense empathy that makes me good at my job and (I think?) is one of the things that my friends appreciate about me. It is also one of the things that is likely to spark depression. Often, depression begins when I have reached a level of empathy saturation I can no longer sustain. I am constantly absorbing the feelings of people around me, especially of those suffering all over the world. While that isn’t necessarily a good thing, I firmly believe that the empathy is a gift. Basically, I like to think of it as a superpower—like Dr. Charles Xavier’s except less useful.

• “I have a condition!”is a magical phrase for explaining to your husband why you have gone completely limp and are requiring him to physically drag you into the bedroom and put you to bed because you are “too tired to go to sleep.”

• I am not alone. This, mostly thanks to many of you who have told me so.

There is so much that I am still learning about myself and about how to live the fullest, richest life I can. I am not defined by my illness, and yet, it is as much a part of me as my terrible dancing and my freakishly small hands. Today I find that with all of the things that are hard about living with bipolar disorder and (perhaps even more so) wearing that label, I am profoundly grateful. I am grateful that there is an explanation for the things I feel and that it’s no longer a mystery. I am grateful for treatments and for coping strategies. I am grateful that I pushed through the fear and the shame and started talking about this, and I am grateful for all the love and understanding waiting for me here. Most of all, I am grateful for a family that is immensely supportive and for a faith that, though feeble, is still somehow enough.

Calling All Researchers!

Calling For Volunteer Researchers
On Child Labour

Hi friends, I am part of an international group working on an exciting project to educate children about the reality of child labor around the world. We are looking for seven volunteers to research all they can about child labour in following specific scenarios:

 

  • Brick Kilns in India
  • Coltan in DR Congo
  • Carpet Making anywhere
  • Technology Assembly (phones/tablets) in China
  • Chocolate in West Africa
  • Garment Industry in Bangladesh
  • Bidi (cigarette) Industry in India

 

The research will provide materials to aid authors writing a book that educates 10-12years old children about child labour around the world.

Not only do we need factual information about child slavery in each of these areas, we also want to capture, if possible, some real life stories of children to aid the authors in creating authentic characters in their stories. All research will be treated confidentially and researchers will be acknowledged in the book when it is published.

Note: We are looking for people who can research quickly and accurately, and they must have a passion for fighting slavery and human trafficking.

Research deadline: 15 November 2016.
Please contact Peter Mihaere on peter@standagainstslavery.com to register your interest, research experience, and commitment to complete research by the deadline.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

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