In the Water with God
An excerpt from "Fight, Flight and Faith" by Nikki Florence Thompson
I was twenty years old when I discovered that I couldn’t get out of the bath.
Technically, my legs still functioned, and my arms had the capacity to hold my body weight, which was at that time not very much. Kilograms, like many other things then, seemed just to be falling off me, disappearing into some unknown place. No more.
Theoretically, there was nothing preventing me from jumping out of that five foot rectangle and running around the house with suds still on my head if I wanted to. But experientially, in that moment, moving felt like the hardest thing in the world.
I was frozen in fear, stuck solid to the white porcelain bottom like someone had superglued me there. I was a child’s hapless toy, lying helpless and stranded, waiting for someone—anyone—big enough and strong enough to rescue me. The warm, sudsy water around me was no higher than my waist, but I may as well have been lost at sea in a tempest, the waves rising to my neck. My hands as they clung to the sides of the bath shook uncontrollably. My heart beat loud and fast, an out-of-control snare drum, my breath caught and snagged on invisible lines high up in my chest. A familiar wave of heat, far hotter than the bath water, surged from my stomach down to my legs and back again.
I was in trouble. And the trouble was both strange and terrifying.
Ironically, I’d taken the bath in the first place as I’d read somewhere that it was relaxing, and I was willing at that time to try just about anything to relax. My muscles were perennially tight, coiled and defensive like a predatory animal waiting to pounce. I hoped that the bath would detangle them. After all, it wasn’t even a normal bath, but a fancier one with jets and bubbles. We lived with my grandmother then, and the new build we had moved into together included this particularly shiny, magazine-worthy bathroom. A friend used to come over with the explicit purpose of just “borrowing the spa.” It was 1999, and something of a novelty. But for me, the bathroom was not the sanctuary it promised to be.
Its position didn’t help. The bathroom entrance sat directly across from another room. If I looked out from the bath through the doorway, I couldn’t help but see it; the door that was always closed then. The entrance to my brother’s bedroom.
In the face of the fury, and my helplessness, I did what I knew best to do. I prayed. For some reason, I don’t know why, words from Psalm 61 came to mind. I found myself speaking them out loud to the bathroom. “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” I repeated that one line over and over again to the blank white tiles, above the drone of the jets and the bubbles. Perhaps I hoped, in the act of saying them so many times, I would somehow become lighter, metamorphose and float, bubble-like, above it all. I wanted that peace that passes understanding promised in the Bible so badly it hurt, because the last few years had been beyond understanding.
So I waited and I prayed.
And the words bounced back at me from the tiles.
The feeling didn’t pass. At least not entirely. Not how I wanted it to. But somehow or other, I did make it out of the bath. I did place my slippery, sudsy, uncertain feet on the surface of the floor once more. I did move forward, step by painful step.
Thankfully, that particular incident was isolated. I have never since had an experience of such intensity in a bath again (perhaps also due to the fact that I have been mildly suspicious and averse to baths—to any bodies of hot water promising inflated results—ever since). But those same feelings, the sensation of being trapped in my own body at the whim of my own adrenal system—I have experienced this more times than I can count over the last twenty years.
While I didn’t know it yet at the time, my experience in the bath that day had a name. And it turns out, despite what I may have thought then, I wasn’t the only one in the world to feel it. There were, I discovered, whole books devoted to it, and diagrams and methodologies. That day in the bath, I experienced a classic panic attack.
Further down in Psalm 61, I see now, years later, what I didn’t—or couldn’t, perhaps—see at the time: “For you are my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. Let me . . . find refuge under the shelter of your wings.”
Perhaps that’s what actually happened. The pain didn’t disappear. I didn’t float above it. I didn’t become some calmer, shinier form of myself. But in praying those words I took shelter under his wings. He still flew, even when I couldn’t. And eventually, I made it out of both the bath and the panic.
God was with me in the bath that day, I’m sure of it.
But in the beginning, all I felt was the rising of the waters.
All I wanted was relief.
Adapted from Fight, Flight and Faith: A life with anxiety and Jesus by Nikki Florence Thompson. Copyright (C) 2021 By Nikki Florence Thompson. Published by Ark House Press.
Cover image by Fer Nando.