Fourteen years ago I was on break from work, eating lunch at the park, devouring a mystery novel. I was closing in on solving the case when my husband called, interrupting my investigation.
“She’s gone. Emily is gone.”
That morning, on her way to work, our sister-in-law had been hit by a car and killed. Six months earlier, I’d stood with the wedding party at the front of the church and watched her and my brother-in-law exchange vows.
I’d hugged her goodbye only four months ago, after she’d driven down with us to our new home in Arizona. The four of us had gone on double dates, smack-talked through rounds of Skip-Bo, smiled as we charted out futures that would be so closely intertwined. Twin brothers and their wives pursuing their dreams, championing each other through thick and thin, laughing at and with one another along the way.
Not anymore. I’d lost the sister I’d just gained.
I dropped the book I was reading. The sandwich I ate nearly resurfaced. I couldn’t chew, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think past that awful moment.
“Jenn, are you there?”
Hearing about my sister-in-law’s death opened a Pandora’s box of fears I’d tried to suppress. Darkness sidled up, unchallenged, whispering a bleak and self-assured prophecy: You’ll be the next family member to go.
I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want my sister-in-law to be dead.
None of this was right. Part of it was real.
Anxiety carved out a foothold in the ache of mourning. As a perfectionist, I’d always battled worry, but this dread had warped into something far more sinister and all-consuming. I thought I was dying—that I should die.
Because I thought I was dying, I felt like I was dying. Physical problems began cropping up like weeds, and along with them burst a suffocating barrage of fatal assumptions:
Three days of headaches? Must be a brain tumor. Twitching muscles? Could be ALS. Is that a lump I feel next to my breast? Hands trembling, I pounded away at the keyboard, Googling symptom after symptom. I yearned for knowledge and reassurance, the conviction of things imagined.
I turned to the medical field for salvation, scheduling appointments every week. First, with a neurologist. Then a gynecologist. Then a gastroenterologist. I ran the gamut of health care expertise, searching for what I craved: attention and validation. The tests they ordered came back negative or non-significant—a relief offering meager comfort. Elimination of one disease merely bred fear of another.
“You’re a test junkie,” my mentor told me. I knew she was right and hated it. Hated being weak-willed and unstrung. Even though I could recognize the foolishness of seeing so many doctors and loathed the medical bills I was racking up, that didn’t stop me from concocting new illnesses and feeling compelled to do something about them.
I couldn’t quit worry because I was addicted to it.
“God, please just take this away,” I begged him, over and over. I wanted an escape, swift deliverance, ejection from affliction. It didn’t come when I asked. God didn’t rescue me like I thought he would. I wondered where he’d gone.
At my husband’s request, I began seeing a counselor and psychiatrist. I met with them regularly and, over time, noticed improvement. The combination of taking meds and talking about my fears helped minimize my panic impulse and boosted my confidence. All I had to do was solve the problem. If I followed the steps, I’d earn my prize: peace. But it eluded me. Darkness still lurked within anxiety-grooved neural pathways.
In marched the why’s. Why isn’t the medication working? Why is the counselor not getting to the issues? Why, when I read the Bible, does its truth fail to penetrate my brain? If I’m doing all the right things, why isn’t God healing me?
I desperately wanted out of my suffering. What I couldn’t see, because of sin and sickness, was how he was leading me through it.
Then God used my husband to jackhammer me out of my pit.
“Jennifer, stop. You don’t have cancer,” my husband grabbed my arm, stopping me mid-stream as I was unloading a new spate of symptoms. His voice shook. “You can’t keep doing this. I can’t keep doing this.” And he cried.
My husband’s plea jolted me. Fear of death wasn’t just sucking the life out of me; it was killing him. He was trying to absorb my troubles and sustain me through this storm. All the thrashing emotions and lack of reciprocal support was taking a toll.
It hurt me seeing the person I love the most suffer so terribly because of me. Realizing that he was in such distress made me want to change and gave me confidence that I could change. For him.
That moment of crumbling facades cracked the door open to hope. I finally saw a way to navigate fear. Not by myself, for myself, but through the suffering of another.
Cover photo by Issam Hammoudi.