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:

To Tell You the Truth: In Which I Introduce the Real Me

I often have readers comment on my blog with something along the lines of, “Thank you so much for your honesty.” Or “Thanks for being willing to be so open and honest.” I am very moved when people take the time to comment on my blog and to tell me that something I wrote was meaningful to them. I often feel like I’ve left my heart here on this webpage, never really knowing if it’s going to reach anyone much less if it will mean anything. And sometimes it feels especially risky since what I write is often deeply personal. It can be incredibly discouraging to pour your heart into something and get no response—or worse, a very negative response. I am so thankful to the people who encourage me that my story matters.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole idea of honesty. I write openly about fears and struggles and doubts and opinions, even the ones that don’t show me to be the intelligent, thoughtful, grace-filled person I wish I was. I write this way because in many ways, this blog is for me. It is my space to wrestle. I write this way because I deeply value authenticity and because I don’t know any other way to be.

Lately though, I’ve begun to wonder if I have misrepresented myself here. See, it’s relatively easy to tell the truth about what you think and it’s easy to tell truths about other people. It’s easy to have an opinion about what other people should or should not be doing. It’s easy to be honest about things that annoy you or things you find very meaningful. It’s especially easy to do this from behind a computer monitor. You can write exactly what you think, hold nothing back, and send it out onto the interwebs. People you know and people you don’t know can read your truths and respond. Some will agree with you, affirming you in your righteousness. Some will disagree, and you will feel indignant or misunderstood. There is certainly risk involved in sharing your thoughts and your feelings. Especially if they don’t line up with the standard opinions of your particular culture. But these things are still relatively easy (for me) to be honest about.

What isn’t easy for me is being honest about who I am. Because when I am honest about who I am, it scares people. Sometimes they actually run away, but sometimes they just ignore me. Like if they pretend they didn’t hear me it will go away.  So I’ve learned to be honest about what I think and what I feel, but to be guarded about who I am. Because who I am is just too much for most people.

But the more I write and the more readers I get, the more compelled I feel to present myself as I really am. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I do this. Probably some people will be uncomfortable and some people will laugh it off and not care about what I’m offering. Maybe some people will decide I’m not worth listening to anymore or will call me needy or self-indulgent. But maybe one or two people will see me and love me anyway. Because to be fully loved we have to be fully known.

Who I am is messy. Who I am is broken. And who I am is also glorious. Who I am is sometimes-hopeful, sometimes-depressed, sometimes-angry, sometimes-thankful, sometimes-ugly, sometimes-gracious, sometimes-wrong, sometimes-smart, sometimes-selfish, sometimes-patient, sometimes-loving, sometimes-beautiful, sometimes-cruel.

Here are the things you probably know about me:

I love my husband, I love to write and read. I love to travel. I love both making and eating food (also smelling food and thinking about food and writing about food). I love Disney. I love my family. I have a lot of questions about God and my faith and about the church and I’m asking them. I believe in Grace – for myself and for others. I love beautiful things. I am conflicted about having kids. I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I hate cable cars. I sing all the time.

Here are some things you probably don’t know about me:

I crave approval. I care A LOT about what people think of me and there are very specific qualities I want them to see in me. For example, I would rather people think I’m smart and authentic and a good writer or a good cook/hostess than think I am kind or gentle (though obviously, that would be good too.) I am so concerned with people not seeing me as judgmental that sometimes I am not honest with them.

I also crave appreciation and if I don’t feel appreciated enough, I stop working hard, even though it’s the right thing to do.

I complain. A lot.

I insist on believing (although he has many times told me this is not true) that my husband can and should read my mind and meet all of my needs without me having to verbally express them. And I get angry when he doesn’t.

Yesterday I waited until my coteacher left the classroom and then wolfed down the entire strawberry cream cheese muffin I brought from home while she was in the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to share it.

Before I left for Korea I met my birth dad who I hadn’t seen in 17 years. He said, “I love you.” I didn’t say it back.

When something doesn’t work out the way I planned it to (the movie is sold out, we missed the bus, the plane tickets are too expensive) I blame someone else. Usually my husband.

I get incredibly annoyed anytime someone states their opinion as though it is the incontrovertible truth. EVEN IF I AGREE WITH THEM. If I think they are arrogant and judgmental I won’t listen to a word they have to say. Which I guess makes me arrogant and judgmental

Sometimes I lie. (That wasn’t a lie just now, btw).

There’s a part of me that still thinks, contrary to all evidence, that I’d be sublimely happy if I were skinny. Not like, “A healthy size for my body type,” or “lean and well-toned.” Just straight-up skinny.

Sometimes (God-forgive me) I DO think I’m better than other people.

Sometimes when my husband or a friend is talking, I nod and smile at the right times, but I’m really just thinking about what I want to say next.

I still get jealous when my parents seem more interested in one of my siblings than they are in me. Because I genuinely believe (though it’s a deeply hidden and seldom acknowledged) that I deserve to be their favorite. That’s not a knock against my siblings at all (because they are awesome). It’s a sort of embarrassing admission that I still think that following all the rules, having a college degree and a job, marrying an approved spouse, and never going to jail should have earned me the most love points.

I resent being told what to do. Especially by men.

I am so self-centered that I just made a list of my positive and negative attributes, convinced that I am interesting enough for all of you to want to read about me.

Also last night I left dirty dishes in the sink because I was hoping if I just left them there dear husband would do them for me.

Hi, I’m Lily. It’s nice to meet you.


P.S. I tried to figure out how to format this into a cool dance/song like  this one from Bring it On so you would think I was funny and awesome and had a lot of skills and ignore the rest of what I said, but I couldn’t think of any good rhymes for “selfish.” And also I am the Very Worst Dancer and my husband says there are some things even a very honest person should keep to themselves.


What To Do When Someone Mistakes You for Their Drug Dealer

I’ve heard a lot of people rant about AT&T for various reasons (particularly U-verse customers.) It’s not at all uncommon for me to hear a friend or coworker ranting about something incompetent AT&T has done or a simple problem they seem unable to fix or just the lack of reception anywhere you really need it (like anywhere in my apartment, for example.)  But I have a hard time even understanding how it’s possible for them to have messed up whatever they messed up to cause this.

At one in the morning on Tuesday (or I guess Wednesday) I received this long string of texts from a number I don’t know that has an area code for Joliet, IL. For a while I slept through them, but after about 8 texts, this guy started calling. Four times in a row.

Obviously, it seems like they had the wrong number, but what’s weird about it is that if you read the texts (I apologize for language and the indecipherable nature of most of them) it seems like this guy is getting responses. So not like he’s just sending it to the wrong number, but like I’m getting CC’d on every message he sends this dealer guy. Sketchy.

Yesterday, this guy told me that he wanted to see any narcs for sale which was funny because as far as I knew a “narc” was a cop who specialized in drug busts. (Incidentally, I didn’t have any.)

And today I found out that his name is Paul and that he has cash. He also left me a nice voicemail about how he “Just wanted to see what was going on and sh*t.”

When I get off of work tonight I’m going to go to or call AT&T, explain that they’ve messed something up and also get Paul’s number blocked, I am thinking I’ll go into the AT&T store…I can’t imagine the automated phone system has an option for “If an unauthorized drug deal is being conducted through your phone, please press 5.” But for today I’ve been amusing myself thinking of possible ways I could respond to him.

“I’m not who you think I am.” Just that. And leave him wondering.

“Paul, this is God. I know everything.”

“Paul, this is the police. We know where you are. You are so busted.”

I actually did consider trying to report Old Paul to the police. But I don’t really know that they can do anything about it what with all of our laws about invasion of privacy. It would probably just end with AT&T getting sued for allowing someone else to receive personal messages and Paul getting away with it.

Mostly this whole bizarre interaction has made me really sad (and a little teensy bit freaked out that this druggie has my number. But at least he’s in Illinois, I think.) Especially when I listened to this guy’s voicemail. I can’t imagine living a life so empty that you’re this desperate to get high. That you spend three days at all hours of the day getting cash so you can make a deal. This guy lives in some incredible bondage. His life is ruled by this addiction.

Today I’ve been thinking about Paul and about how sad it is that his life is so empty. But I’ve also been thinking of how many Paul’s there are around me. Men and women and children who are throwing themselves into prestigious careers, financial success, popularity, substance abuse, education, materialism, etc. to find some sort of meaning, to make themselves feel better, or just to pass the time. And I’ve been thinking about how many ways I am like Paul. How often I let my need to be in control, to know what’s coming next, to have everything figured out rule my life.

Oh Paul…I really hope you get some help. I really hope you overcome this addiction. I hope you realize life is about more than getting high all the time. I hope you find something you love to spend your days doing. But mostly, I hope you realize you are loved. I hope you come to understand the depths of the grace that’s been poured out for you. I hope you come to rest in your beloved-ness and your wanted-ness. I hope you learn that you are never alone – that in your most desperate moments, the King of Glory is there.  I hope you learn these truths, Paul. And I hope I do too.