There have been times, and maybe there will be again, when fear gripped me so tightly, that I struggled to breathe. I forgot everything else. I forgot to see. I forgot how to turn on the lights to scare away shadows. Those moments have shaped and rearranged me. I am not my anxiety. I am not my depression. But I carry them with me, even on the sunniest days, in the happiest moments.
The first time I had an anxiety attack, I was thirteen. This was right after a Sunday school lesson about demons, and I found myself wondering for months, maybe even years, whether I had experienced a demonic attack. It was a scary time, a time before my nightmares had stopped, a time before I knew how to have faith without positive emotions. I thought that if my emotions could be swayed so easily, my salvation and my Christianity were false. I questioned God’s existence, and, despite continuing to attend church regularly, I felt wildly alienated from it.
It happened just before I registered for seventh grade. I would be in a new school, in with the big kids (in my school district, 7th through 12th graders shared a building). I had been dreading growing up all summer and mourning the loss of my childhood. Finding comon ground with Peter Pan, I didn’t want to grow up at all.
It was a Sunday night. I had been lethargically spending my last days of summer, being as unstructured as possible. After the talk about demons, I had an uncomfortable feeling as I got ready for bed, a tightness in my stomach, a sense of dread pawing at the back of my head, right above my neck. I decided to sleep downstairs, on the main floor, instead of in my bedroom, upstairs. This is something I did often when I was younger due to frequent nightmares; I had grown adept at predicting when I would have one and preferred to be close to my parents’ bedroom. This way I could stay up late reading without keeping my sister awake, hoping I could ward off the various villains of my dreams with a book. I would eventually fall asleep, regardless of my efforts. Then, the nightmare would come.
This particular night it was different. It was dark and warm, as Augusts in Minnesota are apt to be. I laid out sleeping bags and tried to settle in, but I couldn’t. Instead of drifting into an unconscious hell, I was wide awake. My chest got tighter and my mind raced faster until I could no longer think. Fear was all there was. I felt paralyzed. Just the same, I forced myself through the kitchen and dining room—it seemed to take an eternity—into my parents’ room. My mom was still awake, a lamp lighting the room, providing some amount of relief from the terror of darkness just outside.
My mom looked at me and asked what was wrong. I don’t remember if I managed to say anything or if my face gave away my distress. Then my mom prayed. She prayed and prayed. I threw myself on her bed and cried. Eventually, I began to breathe normally again. The gripping sensation in my chest subsided. My mind calmed and I focused on the words my mom was saying, the love and concern in her voice, the reassurance.
My mom began to sing a song that I had heard ever since I was little “Jesus has all authority here in this place, He has all authority here, for this habitation was fashioned for the Lord’s presence, all authority here.” It was immensely comforting.
For the rest of the night, and for several nights after, I slept on the floor in my parents’ bedroom. I would fall asleep holding my mom’s hand.
In the following months, I seemed to lose my identity, my sense of grounding. I didn’t trust anything I thought or felt. Seventh grade began, which was difficult enough; new classrooms, new teachers, new classmates, a whole new way of life. And while cruelty exists among children of all ages, suddenly cruelty was coupled with extreme emotions and the makings of deeply rooted insecurities. For the most part, I could handle the blonde girls with straight hair who had icy stares and snide comments. I could handle the guy from Illinois, (who I thought was kind of cute) calling me ugly “as a joke” every day. Even then, I knew these things were ultimately unimportant.
What I handled less well was the existential angst I was undergoing. I hadn’t discovered Descartes yet, so my eyes hadn’t been opened to the ultimate good that comes out of doubting everything; and I really, really wanted to be a good Christian. I wanted God to exist. I wanted my faith to be real.
I did not know then that my depression was probably made worse because of some vague impression I had that Christians were supposed to be cheerful. I had had little to no exposure to healthy attitudes regarding depression. Mental health was a taboo and framed as a spiritual affliction, not a chemical imbalance. Even when my youth pastor resigned that year due to his wife’s depression, he skillfully skirted around the word, talking instead about stress and serotonin levels. For many evangelicals, maybe even people in general, negative emotions are associated with feelings of shame, when the reality is that negative emotions are healthy in light of negative life events. You can have negative emotions without abandoning hope, and you can forget your hope without abandoning God or the church. What’s more, you will not be abandoned because of these things.
These were things that I did not learn for years after seventh grade. They are things that I am still learning. This keeps my depression more or less at bay, and my anxiety attacks are short and relatively irrelevant. As a thirteen-year-old I used the tools I had available to me, which, while shoddy, have made a significant difference.
The first tool was logic: If God exists, God exists whether or not I believe it. Unless you are hardcore into Berkeley or some other form of idealism, this is pretty basic. I would repeat this to myself to prevent going down mental rabbit holes even Alice would probably have shunned. While I didn’t realize I was being intensely philosophical, this premise became a significant step in the process of understanding the relationship between belief and ontology. That simple sentence was an existential lifeline.
So I had tackled the notion that existence was belief-independent. However, my work was far from over. I had to tackle the eerie feeling that perhaps my experience of God was completely false, and that I was really being tricked by some demon, possibly without an actual will of my own, heading down a path of complete destruction and eternal torment.
No big deal. Buffy deals with this kind of thing in her sleep, right?
I remember sitting in the bathtub one day. I was nearly through my seventh grade year, and I had stayed home from school. I was staring at the faucet sticking out of the wall. The water looked almost as if it were tinted blue-green as it lapped gently against the sides of the bathtub. My mind was turning over and over again, stuck and numbed and terrified.
Suddenly I thought of something I had heard in youth group, “God is not a God of confusion.”
For the first time in months, I felt that I could trust my senses and emotions. Sure, sometimes they jumble things up and get it wrong. They don’t always match reality, but for the most part, I can trust my experiences. However defective these tools are, they worked. They gave me enough space to breathe and enough time to sort through other big questions as time went on, without a sense that I was somehow failing all of the time.
I slowly rebuilt trust in my mind, trust in God.
Today, I don’t know how many anxiety attacks I have had. They usually erupt out of an unbearably deep sense of loneliness, at times of great uncertainty, not a fear of the demonic. Lately, they have had an affinity for grocery stores as well.
I have close friends with anxiety who have taught me a lot. Recently, I’ve learned that I have a lot of family members who have anxiety. Some are medicated; others aren’t. Some see therapists; others don’t. Still others don’t even recognize their constant sense of fear as having anything to do with mental health.
Talking about it, sharing my fears, and learning from others’ experiences have all helped me shed some light on those midnight monsters that tried to steal the last moments of my childhood. Despite all the weird and destructive instruction from that Sunday school lesson all those years ago, one things was true: beastly, dreadful monsters cannot live in the light.