My two-year-old has discovered how to crawl through the ladder rungs of the bunk bed she shares with her brother. She likes to demonstrate her new-found talent after a drawn-out bedtime routine of bath, books, prayers and hugs. Until recently we would leave the door to the kids’ room ajar, in the case of nightmares, wet beds and any other manner of nocturnal drama.
But lately Sam climbs down from bed, slinks out her bedroom door and then pushes open her mommy and daddy’s bedroom door. And then, with a proud, mischievous grin she just stands there looking up at me from my comfortable perch reading in bed, as if to say, “Aren’t you impressed?,” or, by way of a challenge, “Just try putting me to bed!” And meanwhile, at the end of a long day of mothering, I’m thinking, to quote the title of a must-have book for all first-time parents, “Go the f*#k to sleep!”
Needless to say, this new “normal” has proven inconvenient- so much so that the other night, after four consecutive repetitions of this same drill over the course of an hour, I decided to do the unthinkable and shut Sam’s door.
Sam wasn’t happy. She must have screamed at a high decibel level for almost an hour before finally surrendering to the sandman.
Anxiety can be a bit like the kid you’ve tried to put to sleep but who keeps getting out of bed to torment you. You can do your best to coax her to sleep, but some days she just won’t have any of it. She is wide awake and wants to come out and play, often at the most inconvenient times. When you try to shut the door on her, she can keep banging away loudly, screaming at the top of her lungs. In such instances, it can be hard to know whether to open the door and let her come out, or keep the door shut and listen to her banging, yelling and throwing a temper tantrum.
My own anxiety tends to come in waves, usually in the form of little blips. Twice in my life, the anxiety was more like a tidal wave. Life can be going along smoothly for long, uninterrupted periods of relative quiet until something abruptly life changing happens and the storm hits. Then the “what if’s?” and “what then’s?” can start to slip out of their room where they have been quietly at rest. Soon without my having even heard them creep up, they’re there, looking at me with a big grin as if to say, “I’m back!”
Ten years ago the first of the two tsunamis hit. When the anxiety had become paralyzing, I went to a shrink. I thought she might know what to do when the recurring “what if’s” kept coming back every few minutes to knock on my door. She told me to wear a rubber band on my wrist and flick it every time I had an anxious thought.
That experiment- and that shrink- didn’t last very long. My red wrist and the conviction that I was certifiably going crazy were the biggest indicators that this shrink and I would have a short shelf life. With the help of a little rest and some doctor- prescribed Celexa for a time, I was soon back on track.
Since that time, life and ministry, including Tsunami #2, have taught me the value of a shrink- a good shrink, that is. Gone are the rubber hands. When we get together, my therapist and I mainly just talk. About my issues. About other people’s issues. About what I need to own as my “stuff” and what I really don’t need to own. I have learned that in a profession ranked at highest risk for suicide- next to pschiatry and dentistry (go figure?)- this kind of self-care is critical.
And in the mix I am learning to face my fears when every so often they threaten to party all night long.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that God throughout Scripture often says things like “Do not fear,” or “Do not worry.” Anxiety is part and parcel of the human condition- and thankfully, “do not worry” did not get enshrined in the “Big Ten” as a commandment next to “don’t steal” and “don’t commit adultery.”
Still I have met many Christians over the years who have volunteered that they feel guilty that they have anxiety and/or have to medicate it. (Apparently one in three women in this country now takes an antidepressant, for example.) They find it hard not to view their anxieties as a sign of weak faith. It doesn’t really help that the one passage in Scripture in which we see Jesus’ disciples getting really anxious- in a boat in the middle of a storm- Jesus rebukes them for having “little faith.”
Does this mean that those of us who have been helped by an antidepressant and/or a shrink need to beat ourselves up for somehow being less “faithful” or less of a believer? I would hope not. Life is hard enough. We don’t need to compound the pain with more neurotic, guilt-induced self-flagellation. Christ’s sacrifice on a cross was enough- once for all, Scripture tells us.
And the consolation of the Good News is this: that when we are weak, God is strong. We don’t have to prop up God’s strength by trying to be strong ourselves. That is not how this grace thing works. God doesn’t need us to help God that way.
So in the spirit of John Lennon, who once crooned, “whatever gets you through the night…is alright” don’t be embarrassed to take medication or see a shrink. And most especially don’t be afraid to breathe just a bit easier in the knowledge that God loves you just the way you are, with or without your active basal ganglia.
For more tips on how to manage your anxieties, check out Therese Borchard’s blog, “Beyond Blue,” here at Beliefnet. Here she shares 12 practical ways to manage your anxiety: http://www.beliefnet.com/Health/Emotional-Health/2009/11/Ways-to-Manage-Anxiety.aspx. Or, check out these prayers for strength, compliments of interfaith minister Rev. Victor Fuhrman: http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Prayer/2010/03/Prayers-for-Strength.aspx