On Anxiety and Depression vs. Faith

It’s just a tiny thing, oval and white and smaller than the vitamins I swallow every single day, but I leave it on my desk and stare at it.

It’s not the enemy. The panic-lump in my throat is the enemy, and this pill could help. I know this. But still I can’t bring myself to touch it.

More than a week ago, my doctor called in a prescription for some of the symptoms I rattled off with an apologetic laugh—lump in my throat, difficulty breathing through some of my thoughts, constant worry—and assured me I was not alone, not even close, because so many people have to take these medications at one time or another.

Yes, but this is me, I thought.

This is me, and I don’t take medication to make myself feel better, because I have faith and prayer and meditation and mindfulness and hope and joy and gratitude and love and family and Jesus.

So I let it sit on the pharmacy pick-up shelf long enough for them to restock it, like it didn’t belong to anybody in particular, and then I finally drove to the pharmacy to pick it up and a man said he could have it ready in another twenty-four hours because he’d need to fill the prescription all over again. I waited another three days and then sent my husband to pick it up, because I could not face the eyes that would see, notice, judge this woman who needed a pill to feel normal.

Two days it sat on the dresser in my bedroom, waiting, and then, today, when that lump made it hard to breathe, I took one pill out and turned it over in my hands and then let it clink back down to the bottom of an orange bottle.

I can’t do it. I can’t swallow this pill, because I can find my way out of this. I can. There is nothing wrong with me.

And if there were, what would they all think?

///

When I was eight years old, my teacher noticed I was squinting to read the words on the overhead projector, and then I was squinting at my neighbor’s page to copy her notes instead of bothering with the screen at all, and then I was holding multiplication flashcards and books and worksheets too close to my face for comfort. So she told my mom, who talked to the school nurse, who talked to my teacher and arranged an appointment to check my eyes.

It was a tumultuous time in my life then, because I hadn’t seen my father for a year, and those absences explained by an out-of-state job that paid more money than he could possibly make in our little town stretched longer and longer every time he came home and left again. And somehow, in my little-girl mind, my father’s absences had become tangled around my perfection or imperfection. Somehow it all depended on me.

Somehow I had to be perfect, and that would bring him home and keep him there for good.

But now something was wrong with my eyes. I knew it before they told me, and I didn’t want anyone else to know. I especially didn’t want my father to know.

I cried all the way to the nurse’s office, because I knew what this appointment would show. I cried standing in front of an illuminated screen, with a little plastic spatula over my left eye, not even able to read the one big lone letter at the top. I cried all the way back out, because my eyes had failed me.

I would never be perfect, and, to an 8-year-old, that meant my father would never come home.

///

I looked for all the reasons not to take that pill. I called my doctor to ask if it was really safe, because I’m a person drawn almost obsessively to natural remedies, avoidant of all toxins, and I’ve never had this problem before and I don’t like medication and there has to be another way, and why isn’t this anxiety going away on its own when I’m praying and meditating and working out my salvation and doing everything I’m supposed to do?

What is the source of your anxiety? she said.

So much sits like five-ton weights on my neck and chest and head and feet that drag slow steps through the halls of my home and hands that hold too tightly to control whatever I can control.

I name all the things that flash at random. Work. Kids. Home. Chores. Life.

That’s as far as I get, even though I could name money and bills and single-car family and my appearance and my sons, particularly the one struggling with his own depression, and sleep and marriage, too. She interrupts my list and says, Sometimes we just need help.

Right before we hang up, she says, Take care of yourself.

OK, I say, even though what I really mean is, I’ll try, because I don’t know if taking care of myself is popping a pill or letting it sit with the other 59 of them in a bottle that tells me to swallow one twice a day.

It’s another mark of imperfection, this failure of my mind and emotions.

And I don’t want anyone to know.

///

My junior high school was eleven miles from the house I grew up in, so I had to ride a bus for an hour every day to get there and back.

In seventh grade I played volleyball and basketball and ran track and sat first-chair clarinet, and every afternoon one or all of these activities had practices I attended, and at the end of those practices, all of us who lived too far away to walk a highway home packed up into a bus and rode it to a drop-off spot where parents waited for pick-up.

There was an evening when I stepped off the bus at 6:30 p.m., just like I did every other weeknight, and I did not see my mom’s gray Ford Escort.

The drop-off point was an old post office, where, years before, when we’d lived in another house just down the way, we’d been walking our dog to check the mail and a car going too fast hit our dog, named Chance for his good luck thus far, so hard he spun circles in the middle of the road running between our house and the post office that closed every day at 4.

This particular evening, I sat staring at that same highway, thinking of all the things that could have happened to my mom. Seeing my spinning dog in the middle of the highway, replaced by her tail-spinning car.

I tried to shake off the fears, but what if she’d had an accident coming here to pick me up? What if she was dead? What if it was my fault? Who would the three of us, my brother and sister and me, live with, since we hadn’t heard from or seen our dad in three years?

I finally decided I’d walk the eight miles home when my mom pulled into the drive, fifteen-minutes-that-felt-like-fifteen-hours late. The gravel spun under the tires as she came to a stop, and I coughed on the dust, or maybe the emotion, and got in.

I stared out the car window, all the way home, trying not to cry as my leftover fears tripped down the highway behind us.

///

I stare out another car window now, trying not to cry, because I don’t want my husband or my sons to see just how fragile I feel.

We’re on our way to lead worship to a group of teenagers, and I feel like a fraud. We will sing about not being afraid and walking on deep waters with faith ready to be stretched, and here I am sinking in the rip tide of anxiety and fear.

I try to work out some of my feelings with my husband on the way. He tells me I should attempt to put our problems in perspective by considering others’ problems. At least we’re not homeless, he says. At least we have healthy food in our refrigerator. At least none of our children are terminally ill.

The rock of anxiety shifts and grows and hardens. No, I say. That’s not how anxiety works. I feel more anxious now, because what if? What if those things happened? “What if” is the tripwire of an anxious mind. The future is the playground of an anxious mind. Imagining the endless possibilities of what can and might happen are the hazardous snares of an anxious mind. Stop making it worse, I want to say, but of course I don’t.

He tries another tactic. Try spinning things in a positive light, he says, try nipping my negative thoughts in the bud, try practicing positivity, but, no, this is also futile for an anxious mind. Every try and subsequent fail simply makes me feel like more of a failure, because I can’t do it on my own, and God why can’t I? Why can’t I just be happy? Why can’t I let it go? Why do these worries and fears circle round and round in an unstoppable dance of fury and fate?

I have a good life. I have a husband who loves me, kids who mean the world to me, a career I would never, ever trade for another.

Why can’t I just be happy?

What is it, then? my husband says. What specifically is it?

This is the question I can’t answer, so I start crying instead. I can’t talk about this right now, I say, because we’ve pulled into the parking lot and it’s time to unload the kids and go plug in our instruments and do a sound check and then sing like the words and melodies wipe away all our troubles.

And because it’s everything.

It’s everything, all piled and tangled and curled into those weights with barbs and spikes that puncture me every time something else goes wrong or could go wrong or might possibly go wrong in the next twenty or fifty years.

And sure, I can tick off those gratitude lists and I can try to take every thought captive and I can post those one hundred happy days pictures, but what happens when none of it works, when seemingly simple practices can’t and don’t save a mind or a heart?

Sometimes we have walked so far down the dark and winding road of not-fine, not-okay, not in a good place, that we need help crawling back to equilibrium.

///

I grew up in two Southern Baptist churches. They were full of grace and hope and people who knew how to love a fatherless kid, or three of them. Southern Baptist, though, is a religion full of rules.

I’d set rules all my life for myself, a personality quirk that served me mostly well, and here, in the middle of religion, were more rules that held a greater purpose, and, yes, of course, please sign me up, because keeping all these rules would finally, finally, finally make me perfect in one domain, even though my eyes were bad and I’d busted up my knee in high school volleyball and I’d broken a pinkie finger in softball that never healed straight.

I could be spiritually perfect. That would have to do.

I constructed my perfect little life, keeping all those potential friends in my youth group at arms’ length, because if they came too close they would see all the hidden holes in my perfection, and I could not let them see. And then I graduated at the top of my class and rode a full scholarship to university, where, even though all those religion rules had begun weighing me down years ago, I signed up to continue in the Southern Baptist tradition on my own, away from the influence of my mom.

I led worship at the Baptist Student Ministry and attended the Baptist church they told me to attend so I could be a leader, and I sat under all those male preachers who said God was always enough and we had a Healer for all our sickness and that when we know Love we will not know fear.

And I tried to make it true for me.

No one ever told me in those churches that there might be a chance my Healer wouldn’t heal the kind of sickness that stuck in the back of a throat and the corner of a mind and froze around the edges of a heart. They only told me to have faith enough to move mountains.

The problem was: this mountain wouldn’t move.

///

We are back home and the kids are in bed, and once again I’m sitting here staring at a pill they said I shouldn’t need if I believed enough; staring at a piece of science they said proves my faith needs drastic, fundamental improvement; staring at a tiny little thing they said tells a definitive story of my spirituality.

I have learned much in the years that roll between then and now. I have learned that there is a fear that can be known in Love, and it is called anxiety. I have learned that there is a place where joy doesn’t come in the morning, and it is called depression. I have learned that taking every thought captive or praying unceasingly or believing that a mountain can move sometimes isn’t enough.

I have learned that we don’t get to choose our disorders, and no amount of faith or joy lists or gratitude tries can change the hold our disorders keep on us. I have learned that seeking help of any kind for the disorders that rob our lives of joy and hope and peace does not mean our faith or our God or our own hearts and minds have failed us. I have learned that we will not overcome by hiding in a dark room and pretending depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicide, do not exist for the religiously pious.

I have learned that courage doesn’t always look like jumping out of a war-plane into enemy territory or rushing into a burning house or opening a heart to fix a vessel block. Sometimes it looks like staring at the precipice of ending things and then facing one more day and then another and then another after that, because this is jumping from a war-plane into enemy territory. Sometimes it looks like braving the truth of our disorder and all the opinions and condemnation and misunderstandings that come with it, because this is rushing into a burning house and living to tell about it. Sometimes it looks like popping a pill and letting it work its magic in our mind, because this is our open-heart surgery.

I have learned that there is no shame in inviting medication into our journey toward healing. The world can make us feel like there is, but the world is not telling the truth. There is no shame here. There is only courage. The Healer sends healing, and sometimes it looks like a miraculous mind makeover, but sometimes it looks like a no-less-miraculous tiny white oval.

So I swallow the pill, and I close my eyes, and I thank God for the help finding my way back to an even road, maybe for the first time in my life.

This is an excerpt from We Count it All Joy, a book of essays. For more of Rachel’s writings, visit her website.

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