I used to have night terrors growing up, and I'd thrash around in bed, screaming. This paired nicely with my chronic insomnia, which caused me to lie awake for hours, too scared to close my eyes. I often had to sleep on the floor of my parents' room and was usually too scared to attend sleepovers for fear of lying awake longer than any of my friends (which happened anytime I did sleep over).
Not to mention that growing up in Papua New Guinea (PNG) was fairly dangerous. We had a few centre lockdowns while my family was there, where we had to stay in the nearest building as tribal fighting went on outside our town of Ukarumpa. People’s homes were broken into semi-regularly (although ours never was). I was held up at gunpoint off-centre when I was in tenth grade.
We didn’t have any mental health services in Ukarumpa (to my knowledge, at least), so my anxiety went relatively untreated, and I didn't realize that what I was going through wasn't normal. During my night terrors phase, my dad had some people come into our house and anoint it with oil. PNG had a lot of spiritual warfare, and he thought maybe it was something demonic.
Fast forward to my sophomore year of college back in the States, where I broke up with my boyfriend of one year, Luke, because we were becoming too emotionally dependent on each other and felt the LORD telling us to do so. But we separated with the idea that it was only temporary and that God would tell us when to get back together. It's still the hardest thing I've ever done, and I was absolutely miserable for six months. I couldn't concentrate on school, cried myself to sleep, hardly ate and was absolutely the worst person to be around. I was also taking an intense acne regime called Accutane, which can make its recipients feel suicidal, so just a great cocktail of emotions all around. (For the record, I don't regret taking Accutane. It eradicated my acne when nothing else would, but that's for another time.)
People helped dig me out of the hole: Two of my best friends, Elin and Julia, went on a road trip with me over that summer to Yellowstone National Park, where we camped, hiked and swam (basically all the things I hate). But it was so cathartic to go to a new location with the people I loved most in the world and who knew me completely. We visited our friend Marissa at a Bible school on our way back, where one of the students told me prophetically that I had a spirit of fear. I don't think I even realized it fully until then. Finally, at the end of the summer, I went to London to report on the Olympics with my journalism program. All of this helped clear my head and keep me occupied, but I was still terrified of going back to school and seeing Luke again.
Then something happened about a week before returning for my junior year: I had a feeling one night that something big was about to happen. Pray, I felt God telling me. And I did. About an hour later, Luke texted me and said he felt like God was telling us to get back together. I was so happy that I literally danced around my room and cried with relief. But I still wasn’t sure if this was from God or us, so I prayed about it all that week, still unable to decide.
After we got back to school, Luke and I just decided to go for it. It was so spur-of-the-moment that I was terrified we were going to break up again, and I knew I couldn't go through that a second time. I'm a pessimist, and I always mentally prepare for the worst so that I don't get hurt. Would I have to transfer schools to avoid seeing Luke everywhere if we broke up? I started having panic attacks, and I'd often dry-heave in the shower, sliding to the floor because my head was spinning.
I started attending counseling, where I realized I'd had a Generalized Anxiety Disorder most of my life but didn't realize it until the breakup brought it to light. I also realized that I probably had OCD (I haven't been diagnosed, but I'm pretty sure). Once I get a tick in my head, I can't get rid of it. This has come in many forms, including when my family and I went on cross-country road trips in America while I was growing up, and I had this thing where I'd blink at houses I liked as we drove past, and they'd go into this imaginary world I was building (I was 12, O.K.?!). But it got to a point where I couldn't stop blinking at things, and my mind was constantly preoccupied with it. It sounds incredibly weird (which it was), but it was mentally exhausting. I tried explaining it to my sympathetic mom, but it was difficult to describe what was going on in my overactive imagination.
Back to college again, where I was literally sick from worry. I was taking a prescription anxiety medication that made me awake at night and exhausted during the day, so I missed more than the excusable number of classes. Students were also required to attend chapel three times a week, and I was absent so many times that people sitting around me started playing a game to see if I’d be there that day. (It's cool, guys. I would have done the same thing.) I explained everything to my somewhat understanding professors and boss, but it wasn't a great situation.
I even stopped reading during this time because I came across too many things in literature that I connected with my life, which sent me down spirals of panic. Great idea for a creative writing and journalism double major, right? To this day, I haven't rediscovered my love for books, and there are songs I can't listen to because they trigger memories of that deep depression.
I have this thing where, if people aren't overtly friendly, I automatically think they hate me. So if I think God is telling me to do something, I brood over it because I don't want to let Him down, but I'm also too scared to do whatever I think He's telling me. So in my agonizing over this decision about Luke, I was like Martha trying so hard to anticipate the LORD's needs that I forgot to sit at His feet and enjoy His presence like the Mary I so wanted to be.
I began to realize that the LORD doesn't speak through fear — that's Satan's tool, and he'd been manipulating me my whole life. God would not make me dry-heave my way into obedience. His is a still, small voice, not a punch in the gut. He would have told me to break up with Luke immediately, not keep me dangling at the end of a string for two and a half years. Luke and I both received confirmation after confirmation that we were doing the right thing, but I still doubted. I had just gotten this tick in my head, and, like blinking at those stupid houses, I couldn't get rid of it.
Nothing got better overnight. I started taking a different anxiety medication, which helped lessen my panic attacks. I talked about it extensively to Luke, my parents and close friends. I was prayed over by church members. I discovered some of my family's mental history — that my dad's side struggles with anxiety. All of these things helped validate that what I had wasn't a spiritual defect but a treatable condition.
In "Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer," C.S. Lewis says (yeah, I went to some of those chapels, so I know the drill), “Some people feel guilty about their anxieties and regard them as a defect of faith. I don't agree at all. They are afflictions, not sins. Like all afflictions, they are, if we can so take them, our share in the Passion of Christ.”
Sometimes I imagine Jesus literally sweating blood out of anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before He was crucified. As awful as that was, I think I needed that image so I could know that even Jesus panicked and suffered so I could live boldly. So when Luke proposed to me in December of our senior year, I was a little scared but mostly excited.
Currently, I am not great but O.K. I still occasionally freak out about situations but never as bad as before. I went off my medication after our wedding because I felt constant and emotionless. I didn't feel in love with Luke, although I knew I was. But I have absolutely no qualms about whether I made the right choice. I know by now that God had always planned for us to get married. Luke is my best friend and always digs me out of the mental ditches I dig for myself. He is logical and grounded and knows when I need space or encouragement. And on our wedding day, I felt such profound blessing on us that even I couldn't misunderstand it.
So for all of you dealing with anxiety or OCD, things get better. It's good to have someone rational in your life who sees things clearly when everything in your line of sight is distorted by fear. Don't be afraid to seek out help — it means you're brave and want to improve your quality of life. And those things that you obsess over for weeks on end? They hardly EVER come true. To this day, Darth Maul hasn't chopped my head off with his two-sided light saber. People can't read your thoughts like a speech bubble. I am not the antichrist.
And people will still love you if you're broken and crazy.
"And there will come a time, you'll see, with no more tears.
And love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair." —Mumford and Sons