trust

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
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When Waiting Feels Like Free-Falling or How Trust is my Nemesis

I loathe dislike waiting with a fiery passion.

I know, I know. Does anyone really like waiting? But I REALLLLLLY don’t like it.

I’ve been living in a state of constant frustration lately. As we prepare for our international move, I am beyond ready to have things settled. I want to have a job set up and waiting for me when I arrive. I want to find an apartment or rental house for us to live in. I want to get rid of as much uncertainty as possible. Yet every time I try to take a step forward, people tell me I can’t. That I have to wait. I’ve applied for dozens of jobs and received the response, “Why don’t you get in touch with us once you’ve arrived.” Hubby and I have spent hours looking for a place to live only to be told, “It’s really too early for you to be looking at rentals.”

I can barely keep myself from shouting, “But we are leaving in 65 days! It does not feel too early! I need to know NOW!” 

This whole situation has brought out an embarrassingly juvenile side of myself.  I feel angry all the time. A few days ago I burnt dinner. Before my husband could even say anything, I glared at him and said, “If you want a new one you have to make it yourself. I’m not making another one.” And he did. (That guy is a saint, I tell you).

It’s like I’ve taken all of my frustrations about the things I can’t do and tried to balance them out by making certain that I let everyone know what I will and will not do in any situation where I have the choice.

See, I like to pretend that I’m an adventurous person. And from the outside, I can see how I might look like one. After all, I live in a foreign country, I love to travel and to try new things, I’m preparing for my fourth move in five years – and three of those moves have been to places I’d never been before. Oh, and let’s not forget my illegal tattoo!

It’s easy to look like a laid-back, carefree adventurer in pictures. Don’t be fooled. It’s an illusion. I am all about the adventure, but it’s highly controlled adventure. I love being spontaneous, but it’s planned spontaneity. (Yes, there is such a thing).

I am that rare personality that combines constant yearning for adventure and excitement with an equally strong sense of responsibility. Add in an unhealthy dose of chronic anxiety, and you’ll see why I live in a state of constant inner-conflict. Basically, I’m a rebel trapped in a good girl’s body. Or maybe it’s the other way around…

Usually the way that I balance these parts of my personality is by planning as much as possible and preparing for all contingencies. (“Always be prepared!” as my Eagle Scout father instilled in me). I try to think things all the way through and prepare myself for the worst possible scenario. Once I feel prepared for whatever I might encounter, I can take the plunge and do something crazy because I know there’s a safety net in place. I know what I’ll do if things don’t go as planned.

We moved to Korea having never set foot in Asia. But we did a TON of research first. We secured jobs through the government so that we were sure there would be accountability for things like getting paid the proper amount on time. We chose to go through a program that would provide an orientation rather than one that left us to our own devices. And we talked to lots of people who had worked in Korea before. We arrived with an entire suitcase full of things we’d been told were difficult to find (deodorant, taco mix, and tampons) and we had decided from the very beginning to play things by ear. We signed a year-long contract that we would try hard to fulfill, but we’d told ourselves that if it was absolutely horrible, we could decide to go home. Safety net!

I’ve shared that I’ve been struggling with anxiety at a new level over the past few months as I’ve been faced with all the unknowns of our future, so I’ve tried to deal with this anxiety the best way I know how – by being responsible and making myself feel as secure and on top of things as I can. So it’s been not only frustrating, but frightening for me to be told over and over again that there’s nothing more I can do. That I just have to wait.

I am realizing that this is a big fat TRUST issue. (Ah, Trust, my nemesis. We meet again!) I am unable to accept that things might still be OK even if I can’t check all the things off of my list in the time frame that I want to. I am unable to rest in the knowledge that I’ve done everything I can do. I am unable to accept the logic that things will work out the way they are meant to work out, regardless of how much I worry about them now. I am unable to accept that when God leads us somewhere, he doesn’t leave us to figure everything out by ourselves.

I have a big fat trust issue and I’m being forced to trust anyway. It’s like God has taken away the lifelines of planning and responsibility and asked me to believe the safety net is there, even though I didn’t install it myself. It would be funny if it wasn’t so horrible.

Right now I feel like I’m in a slow-motion free fall. And I have two options – I can fall kicking and screaming and lashing out at everyone around me for all the things I can’t change, or I can relax and enjoy the view while it lasts.

HEADER IMAGE CREDIT: JUN GIL PARK ON FLICKR CREATIVE COMMONS

Geronimo: On Falling With Style

There’s an old Michael W. Smith/Rich Mullins song called “Step by Step” that I remember singing often as a child. If you were a child (or parent) of the 80’s and 90’s chances are you are familiar with it. The lyrics, borrowing from the Psalms, go like this:

“I will seek you in the morning. And I will learn to walk in your ways. And step by step you’ll lead me. And I will follow you all of my days.”

The song makes it all sound so gentle. I picture those early morning rays on a peaceful beach, Jesus walking just a step or two ahead with me taking small steps into the footprints he’s left behind. The camera pulls back and we see an endless stream of footprints behind me and the horizon ahead, stretching on into eternity. It’s like a motivational poster in an elementary school classroom.

But let’s get real here. For about the last ten years I don’t think God has been leading me step by step. It’s been more like cliff dive after cliff dive. I feel like old-school Mario, you know, before he could fly or turn into a penguin and skim across the ice on his belly. Old-school Mario had to jump to get anywhere and most of the time he was jumping from one inexplicably floating block of brick to another with lots of empty space in between.

mario

My friend Karissa recently wrote a post about some “Geronimo” decisions she’s been making. She explains these as the kinds of decisions that would normally require lots of planning, pro and con lists, internal debates, and lots and lots of detailed information. But lately, she’s found herself making some big decisions quickly and choosing not to regret or second-guess them.

Decisions are hard for me too. I am often plagued with the fear of making the wrong decision. I’m afraid of making the wrong decision and regretting it later, but I’m also afraid of not choosing something and always wondering, “What if?” It’s hard for me to pick the restaurant for dinner or the movie we should watch or which jeans look better, so it’s surprising that most of my biggest life decisions have been Geronimo moments. They were moments where I took a flying leap and never looked back.

At eighteen, I chose to go to college near Chicago, even though I’d never lived outside of Louisiana and had much better scholarship offers elsewhere.

Jonathan and I got married at twenty-two with nothing but a crazy amount of love and two degrees that the ink hadn’t even dried on yet.

The next year we decided to leave Illinois and picked a place on the map where we thought we might like to live. We showed up in Raleigh, NC, a city we’d never even seen before, with two cats, no jobs, and lots of dreams and it quickly became “home” to us.

A few years later, we put all of our things into storage, found a long-term cat-sitter for our fur babies, said good-bye to our friends and family and got on a plane to Korea. We moved to a new country and a new culture that we knew next to nothing about and where we didn’t speak the language.

Each of these were big decisions that we thought about and prayed about beforehand, but when it came down to it, we knew we just had to leap and trust that we’d make it to that next floating rock.

Now we are preparing for another giant leap and somehow this feels like the greatest leap of trust I’ve ever taken. I’ve written a little about the anxiety I’ve been dealing with lately, but I am more afraid of returning home to America than I ever was of moving to Korea.

More than all of the practical elements of our move to yet another new city, making friends, finding a new job and a new place to live, my biggest fear is that I’ll discover that I no longer belong. Already I have been struggling with feeling distant and disconnected from my friends. I have been coming to terms with the fact that going back to America will not just be like coming home. It will be the start of an entirely new adventure. And as much as I love a good adventure, this is the 4th time we’ve moved in 5 years and I’m tired of starting over.

And yet, this is so clearly the path we are meant to take. It’s the next cliff we’re meant to dive off of.

If there’s one thing I know about trust, it’s this. Trust doesn’t necessarily mean that you aren’t afraid. Trust simply acknowledges that there is something bigger than your fear. It recognizes that your fear is not the only thing and also that it’s not the strongest thing.

Karissa writes, “But some days, you need to live a Geronimo life. You need to make a Bombs Away decision. You need to believe that your gut feeling is enough, that you are enough, that you will dive through that waterfall, be baptized by its drops, and come out on the other side knowing that you survived free-fall. So here’s to you, to both of us, to our fear, to our bravery, to our confidence.”

Sometimes I wonder if we’re even moving forward. It feels like we just keep falling off things. And then I remember the immortal wisdom of Toy Story and think that maybe what we’re really doing is flying. Because we know that flying is just falling with style.

falling with style

This post is part of a link-up over at Karissa’s blog about Geronimo moments. If you have your own Geronimo story, write about it and join the link-up!

Image credit: Ryan C Wright, Flickr

Why I’m Loving Being Broke

I’m back! After a month of being a truly terrible blogger I am back. Here’s a quick picture of the last month for us: packing, cleaning, babysitting as much as possible, saying goodbye to friends, our first anniversary trip to NYC, trip to Raleigh to sign on an apartment, packing, Jonathan’s birthday (24 somehow seems so much older than 23!), applying to jobs, and did I mention packing? It’s been fun and busy and exciting and exhausting and nerve-wracking all at once.

We are incredible excited about the new area we are moving to, the new experiences we’ll have, new friends we will make, and the opportunity to be somewhere scenically beautiful and with warmer winters. We also love that the Raleigh area has so many universities around it, giving us the freedom to go back to school if we need to, potentially without having to move again. And my roommate for all four years at college (Christina) will be living in the same apartment complex as we are so I will get to see her practically every day.

This has been a difficult season for us in some ways though. Mainly, financially. We have always been good with our money, apart from my student loans we are not in debt, and we don’t buy things we do not have the cash to pay for. With my nanny job and Jonathan’s Starbucks salary we made enough to live on and, some months, even saved enough for our anniversary trip to New York. But when my job ended at the end of May our total income went down by nearly 2/3. We knew this was coming and had tried to plan accordingly (hence all of my extra babysitting over the past few weeks.) We have had to use up most of our savings to pay for our rent, the moving truck, and an unfortunate $1,000 medical bill from an unexpected procedure. And, added to these expenses is the concern that this period of low income could last a while. Jonathan is transferring to a Starbucks in Raleigh, but despite applying for more than 50 jobs so far, I am still unemployed. At one point we had figured it out and realized that by the time we got to Raleigh we would have $52 left to our name.

Between Jonathan and I, I am easily the one who worries more about money. I don’t need a lot and am happy to cut back and to say no to things, but (probably because of my attorney father who taught me to plan for all contingencies) I do not like not having a cushion. In other words, I want to be in control and know that if anything happens, I can take care of it. In these past few weeks, God has been teaching me about letting go of that control and trusting that he really will provide for us.

Both sets of our parents blessed us with generous gifts for our anniversary/Jonathan’s birthday. People that I’ve been babysitting for have asked me to babysit many times and then over-paid me (sometimes by a lot) for the hours I’ve worked for them. Friends have treated me when we’ve gone out for a meal or given us gift cards. And just last night some newer friends of ours gave us a going-away card full of cash, just to pass along blessings they had received at times that they really needed it.

In reflecting on all of this, three things have really struck me. Firstly, I am humbled by God’s provision. Secondly, I am so grateful for the way that these people in our lives have been listening and obeying God’s voice, and being generous with their time and their resources. And thirdly, I am hopeful that we will remember this time and that when God brings people into our lives that we have the ability to give our time and gifts and resources to that we will be as willing to listen to God and to give generously, as these people in our lives have over these past few weeks.

It is a good reminder to me that God always takes care of his children, but he often uses his other children to do so. So whichever side of that you are on today, be encouraged that you have an opportunity to embrace God’s provision for you and to be God’s provision for others. Deep, deep thanks to the many who have been God’s provision to us lately.

“And my God will meet all of your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19

PS-I’m in the process of updating my about page, so if you have the burning desire to know even more things about me than the things I had already posted, click here. 🙂