In about a six week period of time near the beginning of 2011, I had two panic attacks. I have had panic attacks in the past once or twice but they were very rare and not close together at all. These two freaked me out - big and close together. And so I sought some help. This was kind of a big deal to me for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which were having to admit that I, even as a pastor, don't have it all together and I was taught in Bible college to distrust psychology. But like everything else in my life that has gotten deconstructed, these biases did too, and I reached out for some help.
I connected with a friend of mine who works at a local mental health agency to seek his advice. In talking, I learned that, apparently, not everyone has a near-constant pain around their heart. I don't think I realized this. I guess I thought everyone felt like I did, always a bit on edge, always a tad nervous, always carrying the weight of the world. And feeling it in my chest.
I never knew it before, or probably would have been able to admit it, but I have a problem with anxiety.
My anxiety rears its ugly head in different types of situations.
For instance, whenever I have a church business meeting of some sort, I get freaked out. I attribute this to be conditioned by business and deacons meetings at churches I previously pastored in which I would be judged, condemned, accosted. On more than one occasion, the Vintage Oversight Team has watched me break into unexpected tears at one of our meetings. Tears of fear that I'm going to be taken to the woodshed for something. Tears of utter relief that the Vintage Oversight Team is so gracious and kind to me.
Sometimes the weather makes me panic, especially when I am traveling. When I was young and stupid, not even feet of snow and ice could slow me down, but now I hate to drive even in rain. I hate it when work takes me out of town and the weather keeps me away from home longer than I expected. I feel like I am letting Vanessa and the kids down by not being there. It makes me feel so powerless and helpless.
Often, people's problems make the pain in my chest worse. I care so deeply that people make wise choices and follow Jesus that it tears me up when they don't. This is especially true when people's foolishness is destructive in the lives of others. So many times, I have fielded a phone call from someone from church that has left me anxious for days.
With the help of my friend and in hopes of being a more emotionally healthy and authentically whole person, I am pursuing a strategy to handle my anxiety that includes the following things:
- Being Caffeine Free: My doctor-friend told me that caffeine is directly related to anxiety. He said that reducing my caffeine intake could be more effective than going on medication. So, I went cold turkey. And that was a big deal because I drank a lot of coffee. I mean, a lot. I had about 10 days of terrible withdrawal symptoms: headaches, muscle pain, flu like symptoms. It was awful, but it passed, and I emerged on the other side without the need to constantly have a cup of coffee in my hand. Decaf tea has replaced coffee, not just for Lent but maybe forever. And the pain around my heart was noticeably lessened.
- Friendships: Loneliness exasperates my anxiety. Therefore, I have been intentionally pursuing friendships. I now have three friends I meet with on a semi-weekly basis. It's getting to the point where I can tell these guys anything and receive their counsel and advice. With their voices in my head, I have a counterbalance to my anxious fears.
- Counseling: Speaking of other voices, I know that I need to talk my issues through with a counselor. As a pastor, that is a hard thing to admit and an even harder thing to do. For several weeks now, I have had an email in my inbox with a list of recommended counselors. I haven't made an appointment with one yet. But I will soon. And I'm sure it will help.
- Exercise: In recent days, I have begun exercising. Three days a week, I am running and working out. I need to lose 17 pounds, and certainly, exercise will help. Plus, the physical activity helps to relieve stress. I've been sore, but I've been feeling good.
- Routine: More than ever, I crave the structure of our daily family prayers and our weekly Sabbath. We need to connect with God each day as a family, and I need to take myself off duty each week. I am now at the point where I relish the relaxation and calm of Sunday afternoons. It just feels so good.
I am not all the way better, but I am on my way. I don't think I'm alone. Any other anxiety sufferers out there who want to share their stories? I'd love to hear them.