The attack began with shortness of breath. After several unsuccessful attempts to fill my lungs, I sat at the kitchen table and forced myself to relax. A half-eaten sandwich stared up from my plate as my now-cold coffee sat off to the side.
My body refused to cooperate. My heart picked up speed as my palms grew damp with sweat.
“Stop it!” I said, my voice echoing through my empty kitchen. “Enough of this.”
When scolding myself didn’t work, I picked up a bottle of an essential oil called peace and calming, unscrewed the cap and inhaled it. The aroma of delicate flowers did nothing to calm my nerves.
As panic set in, I dialed the first person who came to mind.
“Mom,” I squeaked, “can you come over?”
She made the half hour drive in twenty minutes and pulled me into the mom-hug that had comforted me so many times as a child. “It’s okay,” she whispered. “I’m right here.”
I had weaned myself off my medicine. Ramping down by one pill every two weeks, I had popped open the capsules to take the little beads out and split the dose—first in half, then a fourth, and then an eighth. Finally, after six weeks, the Cymbalta left my system. But I soon realized that was wrong.
Three years earlier in 2009 with my two- and three-year-olds napping upstairs, I sat in that same empty kitchen clutching a full bottle of Hydrocodone.
I could just go upstairs, lock the door, and go to sleep. I didn’t care about my children. I didn’t care about my husband. I didn’t care about my job on the biggest country music morning show in Dallas/Fort Worth. Nor did I care about the Bible study I led or the worship team I sang on at church. I just wanted the anxiety to stop.
I put the bottle down, cried in my husband’s arms, and scheduled an appointment with my psychiatrist. Two weeks later, with Cymbalta in my bloodstream, the waves of anxiety subsided, and I could breathe again.
“You did not bring this on yourself.”
By 2012, I was fully entrenched in ministry—working at Christian radio station 90.9 KCBI, teaching Bible study regularly, and singing every Sunday with the praise band. I spent hours each day studying the scriptures.
Yet, somewhere along the way, I had bought into the “if you had more faith” narrative that assumed depression and anxiety were always a spiritual condition born out of doubt. Medicine was God’s goodness and grace to the physically ill, but mental struggles showed faithlessness, spinelessness, and doubt.
A few weeks after my mother raced to my rescue, I went on a run hoping my body would catch up to my racing mind. I needed to make sense of my thoughts. I ran and ran—further than I had in years—nine miles in all. I walked into the house, stretched in front of the TV and chatted with my husband. I felt great.
But less than two hours later, the nervousness coiled itself around my chest and squeezed.
Revelation hit and I called for my husband.
“Mike, I really think my anxiety is chemical,” I said. “I felt great after my run, but exercise and sunshine stimulate serotonin and dopamine. Now I feel on edge, like something terrible is about to happen but I can’t figure out what.”
Later that week I sorted through things with my doctor.
She asked me a question:
“What would you do if one of your children didn’t make enough insulin?”
“I would make them take insulin shots.”
“Why?” she asked.
“Because when the body doesn’t make enough of something, you need external help.”
Staring me down, she said, “Insulin is a hormone. So is adrenaline. So is cortisol. Your brain makes too much.” She picked up a plastic brain model and opened it, showing an intricate network of neuro-pathways. Pointing to a region, she said, “This is where the brain makes serotonin and dopamine. These are neurochemicals that counteract your stress hormones. Your brain does not make enough serotonin or dopamine.”
Setting the model down, she leaned toward me and slowly shook her head. “You did not bring this on yourself.” My eyes filled with unexpected tears. “Rebecca,” she said, “you cannot help yourself. Unless you fix your serotonin levels, you will continue to struggle.”
I have come to accept that the sovereign Lord who “knit me together in my mother’s womb” could have given me fully functioning neurotransmitters and receptors, but he didn’t. And that’s okay. My brain is every bit as “fearfully and wonderfully made” as anyone else’s. I’m in good company. Timothy needed to take wine for his stomach; I take meds for my serotonin levels. For the past ten years, I have successfully managed my anxiety through psychiatric care and medicine—275 milligrams of Effexor in the morning and 150 milligrams of Trazodone at night.
Changing the Narrative
Sadly, the only shame I have ever felt over my affliction has come at the hands of Christians. The problem is one of both misinterpretation of scripture and of semantics. Misinterpretation of scripture because when Paul tells the Philippians to “be anxious for nothing,” people hear the word “anxious” and assume all forms of anxiety are sinful. But the apostle is speaking of worry, ruminating on troublesome thoughts, fearing the future. He is not saying a chemical imbalance is a sin requiring repentance.
Semantics because we tend to divide illness neatly into two categories: physical and mental. We look at the physically sick and ask, “What ails you?” But when confronted with mental illness we ask, “What is wrong with you?” The lines between emotions and ailments are blurred. Cancer affects people emotionally, as do diabetes or a common cold. So why do we differentiate when the malfunction is a neurochemical response as far from our control as bronchitis?
Serotonin has a molecular structure. Its formula is C10H12N2O; its molar mass weighs 176.215 g/molecule. It has a melting point (333.9°F) and a boiling point (780.8°F). It travels through the physical brain and attaches to physical receptors. My point is this:
Mental illness is a physical illness, and Jesus drew no distinction between a demon-possessed boy and a leprosy-covered man. He offered compassion and love to both of them. We can do the same by embracing all of our ailing with the same healing mom-hug my mother gave me.
Cover photo by Thư Anh.