My first panic attack happened as I was heading to the church I worked at. My pregnant wife and eighteen-month-old had just left the house for the day and I was about to as well, when a wave of pure terror slammed into me, battered me around, and threw me back to my bed. I pulled the covers over my head. I was barely able to breathe.
This happened every morning for a week. I would get out of bed, have a panic attack, crawl back into bed, and at some point try to get on with my day.
In the face of work that was crumbling around me and a newly-surfaced memory of sexual abuse from my childhood, I was mentally, emotionally, and physically breaking down. I would forget what I was saying while giving announcements during the weekend service. I got into a car wreck on the way home from a retreat. I lost fifteen pounds off my already skinny frame. My wife was frightened of me because it felt like she was watching her husband disappear.
This was three years ago. I’m better now, mostly.
It can be annoying how God wants us to know him and be known by him, and yet expects that to happen with bodies and minds in varying degrees of disrepair. The pursuit of God through our lives—call it discipleship, or sanctification, or whatever–feels like making a cross-country, Oregon-to-Florida road trip in a twenty-year-old car that leaks oil and only has a spinning compass as navigation.
Maybe this is why some Christian cultures work to cut out the mystery of faith. Our internal compasses feel so unreliable, so prone to wander, and so these cultures tell us to just study the Bible as hard as we can, and ignore the spinning compass. “The Bible is a map that will point you where you need to go,” they say—no spinning compass is needed.
“Should I take antidepressants?” I ask my Bible, but it doesn’t seem to know.
I recently started exercising again. I used to exercise all the time, but then I had kids. For a few years they preferred not to sleep, and I preferred to sleep, so we compromised and no one slept. They’re getting older now though, and more manageable, and so I started exercising again because the anxiety is out of control. I’ve gone through several different antidepressants—off-brand Zoloft, off-brand Lexapro, and now Feux-zac™ which I think is helping. Honestly I can’t remember what “normal” is so I’m not entirely sure.
God and I are doing well, I think. A few years of therapy and some pretty intense balled-up-on-the-floor-weeping moments have made me better at loving others, which comes from being loved more, which really just means I’m letting myself be loved, because unlike what I’ve believed most of my life there’s not something shameful and wrong with me. Other people, and God, accepting me as I am isn’t some character defect on their part. Who knew?
For most of my life, rather than imagining God joining me in my anxiety, I’ve seen the anxiety as an obstacle to getting to him. It’s like the disciples that one time, where they’re all on a boat in a giant storm, and Jesus is sleeping down below, and they are losing their damn minds, but no one stops and says, “Let’s wake up Jesus.” Maybe they didn’t want to bother him? Or maybe they wanted to seem competent and put together, like they knew how to do something. They were at sea and since a lot of them were fishermen, this was their turf. Maybe they just wanted to do this for themselves, because in some small way that would validate their self-worth. Maybe they were imagining Jesus waking up later, and they’d say, “Jesus, that was a bad storm you slept through, but don’t worry, we used our wits and experience and large muscles to get us through it, all by ourselves.” And then they’d be proud, because they accomplished a task, which meant Jesus would be proud of them too.
Maybe that’s why when they finally give in and wake Jesus they say, “Don’t you care about us and what’s going on?” Because of course Jesus cares, and they know that, they’re just really, really angry that they couldn’t do this one thing—this one thing—on their own.
My guess is when Jesus says, “Why were you afraid? Do you still have so little faith?” he’s not saying, “Why were you afraid of this storm?” because if the storm was big enough that experienced sailors were scared, being scared was probably an unavoidable human reaction. I think he’s saying, “Do you still not get that I care? Do you still not get that I’m for you? Don’t you understand that my affection for you flows not because of what you do, but because love is what I do?”
And no, Jesus, honestly I don’t get that much at all. I’m trying though, and I can vaguely imagine, sort of, how you might love me without me earning it.
For years I’ve hated my body for how it betrays me. The Bible talks about creation groaning for its redemption and I’m groaning every time I stand up because of back is pretty messed up right now so I guess that tracks. But in my life I’ve absorbed the very unchristian idea that my body, my mind, my emotions, my me are a roadblock to get past. That God, the fuzzy spirit in the sky, is waiting for me to transcend my physical issues and meet him.
But that doesn’t mesh with Jesus in the garden, under so much stress his capillaries are rupturing and he’s sweating blood. His body is betraying him, but he fights to find God in the panic. He didn’t transcend his human body, he suffered, and wrestled with God in his body.
Which means maybe it’s okay for me to do that too.
Cover photo by Jordan Madrid.