Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

Priscilla Warner: Oh, Where Are You, God?

Following is one of my favorite excerpts from “The Faith Club”:
As I listened to Suzanne I felt that I was in the presence of someone with deep faith who had dealt with suffering and loss in a way that I couldn’t. I was a bit envious of Suzanne’s strong belief in God. I wished it would rub off on me. I wished I could believe that God would get me and my sister through the upcoming months that I knew would be so challenging.
When Ranya arrived, I filled her in on my sister’s condition [she was just diagnosed with breast cancer], and her eyes registered the concern and sympathy I needed. She asked about my sister’s treatment and encouraged me to take care of myself as I tended to her.
“I don’t know if I can handle this,” I confessed, getting teary again.
And then I decided to share with Ranya and Suzanne the source of my biggest doubts and fears.
“I’m not someone who handles stress very well,” I confessed. “I’m basically living in a state of low-grade panic. A state I’ve lived in all my life, essentially.”


I grew up in an unconventional household, I explained. My mother was an artist who held dream analysis workshops in our basement every week, shunning PTA meetings for gatherings of like-minded free spirits. In his forties, my father was diagnosed as a “mild” (in his words) manic-depressive. And, over the years, certain members of his extended family suffered “nervous breakdowns,” which were whispered about behind closed doors. They spent time in and out of mental institutions all their lives, and the constant awareness of this instilled in me a fear that I, too, would one day go crazy, suffer a “nervous breakdown,” disintegrate into madness.
This theory of mine was given validity by the one secret I had largely kept to myself: the terrible, debilitating panic attacks I’d suffered from the time I was fifteen years old. These attacks came out of the blue. They started as a rush of adrenaline, a jolt of electricity that caused my whole body to shake. My heart galloped; my lungs tightened up so badly that I felt like my chest was being crushed. My throat closed, and I couldn’t breathe. I gasped and gulped for air, like a fish on dry land. I thought I was dying. I felt nuts, sure that this had never happened to anyone else in their life, ever.
My first panic attack had taken place while I was working as a waitress at the Brown University Cafeteria in Providence. As I stood in my polyester uniform dishing out peas, surrounded by strangers and bathed in fluorescent lighting, I hyperventilated for the first time. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t work. I could barely stagger to the pay hone to call my parents and plead for a ride home. A doctor who made house calls examined me as I lay in my parents’ bed, terrified, and told me I was “just a little bit nervous.” He wrote out a prescription for Librium, a tranquilizer, and for the next thirty years I was left wondering what on earth was wrong with me.
I switched from Librium to Valium, but the panic attacks continued regardless of what I took, ate, thought, did, or felt. [I LOVE THAT SENTENCE!] I had no idea what caused them. Maybe I was mentally ill. Certainly things were out of control in my body and my mind. I suffered panic attacks at night, alone in my room, behind the cash register at my father’s supermarket, in restaurants, in college classes, at work in various ad agencies, in subways, buses and cars, even at the beach.
Despite my weak emotional constitution and looming panic attacks, I managed to build a good life for myself, with friends and boyfriends, academic and artistic successes. I met the love of my life and got married. I survived two pregnancies, despite several panic attacks, and gave birth to two wonderful, healthy sons. But I was a fraud. Nobody knew I was broken, that my body reared up and betrayed me on a regular basis.
“Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time declaring myself as a true believer in God,” I told Suzanne and Ranya. “My body has always felt out of control, which has made my whole life feel out of control. If your own body is in chaos, its’ hard to imagine a world of order, or a God who keeps things in order.”
Suzanne and Ranya didn’t look at God that way. They didn’t see God as keeping the world in order. “That’s because you’ve never felt the kind of frantic chaos within your own body that I’ve felt,” I told them. “You’ve never longed for that order.”
After reading a medical pamphlet a friend gave me, I linked my own panic disorder to the fact that I had a mitral valve prolapse, a common heart murmur. Sometimes a valve in my heart didn’t completely shut. And often my body reacted with a “fight-or-flight” response. I’d also traced my panic to a near-death experience when I was sixteen months old and hospitalized with a dangerously high fever, convulsions, and an acute infection. A doctor happened to find me in serious distress, alone in my bed and unable to breathe. He performed an emergency tracheotomy on me right then and there.
No wonder I worried about dying, I told Suzanne and Ranya. No wonder I worried now that I would not be a source of strength for my sister.
“I wish I believed in God,” I said out loud for the first time. Nobody in my family had ever talked about God. Not my father, my mother, my sister, or my brother. In twenty years of marriage, I’d had only one two-minute conversation with my husband about God.
Maybe, I realized as I spoke, all that was about to change. After the attacks of 9/11, I’d been afraid God didn’t exist. Now, with my sister sick, I wished with all my heart that I could believe in God. Maybe Suzanne and Ranya would show me how.

  • Larry Parker

    This has been an intensely spiritual week for me, as most BBers know, and reading this perspective on an all-too-similar experience just adds to it. Wishing G-d’s job was to give the world order … THAT’S ME!
    Have to and will get your book, Priscilla. You are courageous beyond words.

  • Lynne

    Re: Larry, I’m thinking that does’nt jive with the “free will” clause we’re born with. On the other hand I wish God would hurry up and take up residence here already and “clean house” because I think we have a major mismanagement problem going on. I hate turning on the news any more when I see the heinous things people do to one another! The sociopaths are getting younger. I know, I know…all in His good time.

  • Larry Parker

    Theologically, I’d say wishing G-d would give the world order (as a child or as an adult) is usually a sign that people around you who are supposed to care about you/love you/befriend you are using their “free will” in a negative way :-(

  • Margaret Balyeat

    Lynneand Larry:
    If I’m not misunderstanding, Lynne, you aren’t necessarily talking about your OWN PERSONAL life being in order, but rather the life of the world as reported everywhere we look around us. that is also a manifestation of “negative free will”, granted, Larry, but in a more universal sense than “people around you” sometimes the people in your immediate environs can be ttally positive, but the trafedies world-wide are enough to wonder where G-d is. that was, I think a major collective response for americans on 9/11 and it grips the common mind again whenever we’re faced with a “newsworthy tragedy” that illustrates the continuing inhumanity with which the world’s denizens treat one another
    This post hit me where I’ve been living lately too, calling out to g-d and at the same time begging for a sign that He’s truly there and DOES care about me! It’s not a pleasant place in which to live when your faith seems to collapse beneath your feet and underneath isthat familiar old abyss with it’s mouth wide open just waiting to devour you once more.

  • Lynne

    Thanks to both of you Larry and Margaret, you’re on the money! Yes I frequently think of myself as naive wanting people to treat me as well as themselves. Guess I’ve been stepped on too many times, but I don’t want to become a sad reflection of those worldly wise smart asses around me. Yes Margaret I do wish God would be a little less subtle sometimes where the general populas is concerned. Not that I have any say in the matter. Job’s approach worked about as well. I don’t really wonder where God is…just where am I in this mess?

  • Sue

    All I can say is Dittoo to this eccerpt. I too have have denied my Mental Health issues for LONG due to not wanting to be classified with the “rest of them” . I also have a mitral valve prolapse and have been told that contributes to my anxiety. Whether its bipolar, my MVP, hereditary or PTSD the fact remains I have an illness that I have just barely gotten by with and now its catching up.
    I have hope, I will learn, and grow and my struggling faith is still there, even if a wee bit…I must believe in something, even just a little to get on my knees every morning and ask for help .

  • Denise Hoffman

    Priscilla, Your courage is indescribable! I can relate more than most people surrounding me will ever know. Approximately 9 months ago, I met, for the first time ever, my birthmother and 4 half-sisters. Needles to say, it has been a wonderfully surreal and overwhelming rollercoaster of a ride emotionally. I, too, had panic attacks…some which were contributed to a severely deviated nasal septum (now corrected), mild mitral valve prolapse, and from what I now understand after counseling and my own research….being separated at birth (there is a physiological effect on the mother and infant because of this), and remaining in an orphanage for 2 months before I was adopted. At the time, it felt like the “initial separation” at birth felt like I was also separated from God, and that subsequent disasters would be part and parcel of my life (and absorbing others fears in addition to my own). Thanks to Yoga/Meditation, and brave souls like you, I no longer feel separated from anyone…especially God.

  • Panic

    Panic attacks are horrible, and I only hope that you can find peace for yourself.

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