A few years ago now, my wife and I joined another couple from our hometown for a meal. Our dinner conversations eased their way into a discussion about mental illness. I remember my friend asking if I’d be willing to explain anxiety. What does it feel like? What does it mean?
I gawked at the question. “What do you mean you don’t know what anxiety is?” He said that he had never experienced anxiety and didn’t know what it actually was. If I am honest, I can’t remember a time that I have been more covetous of another person’s life.
It is difficult to read my own introduction: “A few years ago now...” Giving voice to the passing time reels the truth in. Has it been that long?
In truth, it’s been longer. I can trace the worst of it back to 2011/2012. I remember fear-filled seasons before that, as well, but those are the years that I associate with the onset of the worst of it.
In the past year or two, it has become crippling. It constricts my body. It feels like paralysis. Like life plateauing.
The mornings grew more difficult to wake up to. I grew to dread them for the way they’d allow for a few seconds’ worth of stillness—like heaven—before my body realized I’d woken up, and the air itself manifested hands that pushed down so hard into my chest that I thought I’d fold in two.
Work became almost impossible, like burnout combined with a complete lack of confidence that I watched walk away with no control over. Anger became my default emotion. I was so quick to it—irritability or resentful retreat—my two options for interacting with the ones I love most.
This is the clearest I have (or have been able to) articulate it yet. I’ve found resonance with the words of those I’ve sought out to try to understand what got me here. Descriptions like “a vague inner feeling of discontent” and “a generalized melancholy” hit so close to the mark that I read them out of someone else’s book and thought that I wrote them myself.
Most people, I think, are quicker to extend grace to others than they are willing to embrace it, themselves. I can’t number the amount of people I’ve encouraged to seek help—counseling, medication, whatever they need.
Whatever you need.
Whatever it takes.
It’s not weakness, it’s life. We’re made for one another.
And yet—for fear or for pride—it took me years to seek the healing I wanted to give to others, and as the adage goes: you can only extend a helping hand to drowning men if you’re not drowning, yourself.
I was drowning. And I use the past-tense not because the water has completely receded (it hasn’t), but because I think that I have, at the very least, started to cough it out of my lungs. Thanks be to the month of January and guest bedrooms at friends houses and God and my wife and travel, life finally forced me into a psychologist's office and a medical clinic and counselor’s chair, and none of it has been easy, but it’s all been CPR or the Heimlich and I’m breathing on the deck above the water and the undertow.
I wrote “Anxiety” at the start of this, thinking of my friend and hoping that it could be an explanation extended to those like him, wondering what the word means. Or perhaps it could resonate with others like me—an attempt at empathy that gives breath to suffocating lungs. Like the way that—even if it is in seasons of despair—knowing we’re not alone in them somehow breeds hope and resuscitates us.
One of the things that my anxiety has told me is that my story is too self-pitying or self-aggrandizing to share. Too cliché to waste everyone’s time on. And yet I know that through all of this, it has been in reading—to borrow a regular TWLOHA analogy—“words like friends” that articulate the struggle where I have found the most healing.
I read a prayer recently that I’ve repeated over these words:
“Make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. And where there is sadness, joy... Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love.”
My friends, you are not alone, and your story matters. I will say it over and over until it becomes trite and cliché as the lies tell me my story is, and then I will say it again.
“You are not floating alone in this awful void.” And neither will the void last forever.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and I am thankful for the opportunity to share these words with a community of people who have consistently exemplified consolation, understanding and love for so many people, for so many years, including me.
May these words be an extension of their care. May they be a salve.