The year 2012-2013 was one of the hardest in my life. I had just moved to a new country (England), married my British husband, left my US family in a permanent fashion, graduated from university with my MSc in Library and Archiving, and was awaiting my spouse visa so I could begin work and start repaying student loans which had accrued in the USA from my BA and MSc. So many changes, pressures, and difficulties caused a season of difficulty theretofore unknown to me.
I had struggled with anxiety most of my life, as far as I could remember. Biting my nails since I was 7 years old (something I still struggle with) various ticks when I was a young child, and various bouts with depression as a teen testify to this fact. However, until 2012, I had not known the depths of physical illness that can accompany these mental issues.
Within the cacophany of change, my anxiety increased. I began to have panic attacks on a regular basis. I would suddenly come over feeling sick, my heart would race, sweat would drip from my forehead and arms, uncontrollable dizziness left me feeling that I would pass out. These episodes would last anywhere between 20 minutes and a couple of hours. I pleaded with my husband to call an ambulance on a few occasions – I was certain that I was on death’s door.
This all came to a climactic head in the Spring of 2014 when panic ensued during a day at work. As the unwell feelings grew, I told my boss I had to leave work due to sickness. I walked less than 100 meters off the premises before I realised I was too dizzy to walk to the bus stop. I had to return and ask my boss to drive me to the nearest hospital, where – because of my manic behaviour which was part and parcel of my panic attack – I was seen immediately by a nurse. When no physical ailments were discovered, I was sent home with a view to see my personal doctor the next day. The following day I was diagnosed with acute anxiety, and given medicine to aid me.
In the months before her death, my mother experienced a similar ordeal. In early March 2019 she shared with me that she had been struggling with anxiety for a number of months, and wasn’t sure what to do. Nearly 20 years ago she had experienced a similar struggle when insomnia had caused severe anxiety in her life. She believed that God had used this two-decades-ago experience to show her the error of her ways, and bring her back to him. Before this time, she reported little interest in the things of God – though she had attended church. As she grew closer to God, the painful episode subsided. She believed she had been delivered – and that God had grown and graciously forgiven her for her sins.
Fast-forward to 2019 – my mother was experiencing similar issues once again. The only difference now – God was not alleviating the physical symptoms. She remained sleepless for weeks. Despite repenting of any sins she could imagine in her life, the insomnia and accompanying anxiety continued. The physical impact of this insomnia was horrendous – as noted by my story, anxiety is far more than just feeling a bit of stress or worrying too much. It, and depression, are deeply complex conditions which affect the whole person – a topic which shall be discussed in more detail in a later post.
My mother became convinced in the early months of 2019 that something was wrong with her spiritual life. God had released her from this situation decades ago when she drew closer to Him – so why wasn’t the situation repeating itself? She couldn’t figure out what she had done to cause this situation. She agonised over it – trying to assess the sins in her life to find the cause and root of her anxiety and sleeplessness.
I lament her unfortunate conclusion. My husband, my family, and many of her friends tried to convince her otherwise. Experiencing anxiety does not mean God is punishing you for sin. It does not mean you are no longer loved by God. We live in a fallen, faulty world, and it is no surprise that the effects of this are felt across so many facets of our life. Undoubtedly, we have much to work on. However, this does not mean that every episode of anxiety, depression or mania is punishment for our own sin.
One verse that I often found solace in during my anxiety was found in Philippians 4, verses 6 and 7:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
My mother also knew this verse well, and believed it to be proof that she was the cause of her own turmoil. She failed to uphold this command – she was being anxious. However, as my husband and I frequently told her – she needed to hold on tightly to the second verse, not the first. In this portion, God’s promise is to guard hearts and minds in Christ. Notice – it does not promise that the anxiety will cease. It promises that peace will be found in Christ, despite the anxiety.
Some say religion is a crutch – something the weak hold on to as they are unable to hold themselves up. I wouldn’t disagree – Christianity is certainly for the weak. And all of us are weak – in need of Christ. This reality becomes palpable when you are suffering with mental illness – not because fostering a relationship with God through Christ will relieve your mental illness – but because you can find hope despite your mental illness. I wish my mother had realised this magnificent truth in the midst of her hardship.
Evidence suggests that she did understand this truth frequently. She had previously struggled with assurance of God’s love for her because of sin in her life and the lack of ‘fruit’ (works that demonstrate one’s love for God). However, in 2009 she wrote something astute and truth-resonating:
“Faith is not something that merely happened once in the past, but it is on-going, and fruit-producing. If a Christian doesn’t produce [enough] fruit in their lives [can] they lose their salvation? I don’t believe so, because Scripture is very clear that it is God who is the cause behind every sinner coming to Christ by faith, and what god begins, He brings to completion…So let us rest in Christ, realizing that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Him alone, and what he accomplished at the cross.”
I hope many who read this will find comfort in this truth – that you don’t have to be perfect or ‘okay’ to be with Christ; indeed, it is those who are not okay who need him most. We are all works in progress.
A song I have recently discovered puts it well, titled “Maybe it’s Ok”:
Maybe it’s ok if I’m not ok
‘Cause the One who holds the world is holding onto me
Maybe it’s all right if I’m not all right
‘Cause the One who holds the stars is holding my whole life