It’s a recurring nightmare and makes for a restless night’s sleep close to once a week. I have to use the bathroom and I’m not at home to enjoy the luxury of my own clean, personal space. I walk into the public bathroom and the scene before me is always the same, dark and filthy. I make my way down the row of stalls and peer into each one, growing more and more horrified and anxious at the sight of my choices. My stomach is literally in knots as I choose the least of the evils before me and carefully make my way in and shut the door, being ever so careful as to not allow my clothing to even brush against the germs I can feel swarming around me. The walls close in tighter and tighter and I feel completely helpless in my fight to get through this without being utterly contaminated by the unknown. I am gripped with fear and my only escape is to wake from the nightmare, at which point I thank God that this nightmare is no longer alive for me in the form of what once was a long walk with anxiety.
Looking back to my childhood, I have to admit there were some glaring (like neon-fluorescent) signs that I had a personality perfectly suited for eventual inclusion in the obsessive-compulsive category. When I was young, I remember getting masking tape and creating labels for pants, shirts and skirts, clearly designating each section of my closet. I never went to sleep without first perfectly lining up all my stuffed animals along the side of my bed. I loved going grocery shopping with my mom, not so I could pick out what I wanted, but rather because I got a total thrill out of perfectly packing the groceries in the cart. Every item my mom picked up had its place. I made sure it fit in a way that was neat and organized. My room was always clean and tidy and I was the girl who was always “put together,” hair perfect and sporting an “outfit.” I have the “best dressed” award from high school to prove my dedication to the outfit with a picture of me in a blazer, blouse and matching skirt (did I mention I went to public school?) I stressed my way through school, always striving for the A and felt happiest when things were orderly and controlled.
Fortunately for me and my compulsive tendencies, my childhood was blessed. My parents were selfless, loving and dedicated to their children. They kept my world neat and my heart full. My memories are joyful and my path was straight. I was raised knowing and loving God and was given the gift of faith. My world never felt out of control and by God’s grace alone, I was never faced with any sort of traumatic event that may otherwise have led the anxiety and obsessive-compulsive symptoms to surface at a much earlier age.
Fast forward to my early twenties and I was met with the trigger that would serve as an open invitation to welcome the anxiety in. At twenty-four years of age, my husband and I lost our first baby to miscarriage. My world fell apart as I realized I wasn’t in control and everything in my life was not guaranteed to work out accordingly to my carefully constructed plans. The vulnerability I had miraculously dodged for the better part of my young life had entered stage left and would soon take center stage in my struggle to maintain control.
Several months after our miscarriage, we were blessed with the news that I was once again expecting and my need to control each and every part of my pregnancy became all-consuming. I remember a co-worker of mine at the time describing my feelings perfectly. He equated being pregnant to carrying around a hot cup of tea. You walk around careful not to bump into anything, keeping everyone at a safe distance and constantly wishing you were surrounded by a protective bubble so as not to spill a drop.
The birth of our healthy baby boy was surrounded with indescribable joy. We snuggled him up and left the hospital accompanied by all the so-called “normal” nerves new parents have. As the weeks came and went however, my new-mother concerns slowly but surely morphed into obsessive worry and compulsive actions in an attempt to ensure the world this little miracle of ours lived in was perfect, clean and safe. The more independent he became in exploring his space, the more my protection over him increased. When he started to crawl, all I could think about were the germs he was being exposed to on the floors. I soon enacted the “no shoes in the house” law and made sure every person who set foot in our home abided by it, regardless of how unwelcome and/or uncomfortable it may have made them feel. No one could pick my child up without first being instructed to wash their hands and my trips outside of the house became more and more limited as I became less and less able to fight the worry about the germs that were lurking in all the public places.
I remember story hour at the library (one of our few outings) was a particularly stressful event each week. The adults and children would sit in a circle on the floor while the librarian read a few stories. My kid was the only one made to stay neatly on my lap. All the other children rolled around on the carpet, while I sat horrified at the negligence of their mothers. I just couldn’t understand how they could let their kids play on the rug that we had all been walking over. The risk associated with it just overwhelmed me and my logic grew to be more and more misconstrued. I increasingly felt like an outsider, as I just had such a hard time relating to the other mothers. On the outside, I smiled and did my best to project a relaxed mother who had it all under control. On the inside, I felt as though I was always tied in knots.
In my quiet moments, I began to wonder what was going on. I knew in my heart that my fears were illogical and unfounded, yet I was driven by this desperation to do everything I could think of to keep my son’s world clean and safe. The “looks” I started to get from my family were becoming more obvious every time I wiped my son’s hands, furiously washed his pacifier that had fallen to the ground or became impatient with someone who wasn’t conceding to my strict rules. My husband’s confusion with my behavior began to turn into frustration as he simply could never do anything quite right, at least not by my unrealistic standards. I was stripping him of enjoying special moments and outings with our son by bringing along my obsessive worry everywhere we went. I continued to justify my behavior by believing that what I was doing was best for my son.
Twenty-three months after our first son was born, our second son came into the world and blessed our lives beyond measure. I was overjoyed, overtired and falling deeper into the throes of anxiety. Now I had two precious lives to protect and the most exhausting part was not the late-night feedings or the early mornings, but the constant, ever-present worry. It was draining me of the person I once was and I hated it. I tried so hard to hide it all and keep things neatly concealed behind my smile, but I know my unhealthy state of mind was glaringly obvious to those closest to me.
One of the hardest things to deal with was the way my anxiety was affecting my relationships. As far as I was concerned, no one could do anything quite right and I constantly felt annoyed and angry that others wouldn’t take the same precautions that I found to be obvious.
I was impatient. I was frightened. I was embarrassed. I felt completely alone in my struggle to protect my children. I knew my fears were illogical but had no idea how to put an end to the worry. Why were these thoughts creeping in? I never used to be this way. I have everything I’ve ever dreamed of in my husband and children and I can’t seem to get past the worry to enjoy these amazing gifts. My God, where are you in all of this?
In the Midst of the Storm
His words felt like a betrayal; every assertion an unwelcome exposition of the truth I was fighting so hard to deny. “We are going out to dinner after this appointment,” he said, “and I can tell you she won’t enjoy a minute of it. She won’t be the one to open the door to the restaurant for fear of what germs lurk on the handle. She will Purell her hands after touching the menu, wipe down her utensils with her napkin and avoid using the bathroom at all costs.”
We were at my therapist’s office and I was suddenly regretting inviting my husband along to my appointment. My intention in including him on this visit was so my therapist could tell him what she had told me; that my anxiety was not a personality flaw. She was supposed to explain to him that it all made sense; the combination of my type A personality, my family gene pool of “worriers” and the dramatic hormone shift and drop in serotonin as a result of pregnancy and childbirth had created these anxious moments and resulting behaviors. She was supposed to stick up for me and encourage him to be patient and supportive as I continued to work through it.
My husband had a different plan and it’s an understatement to say it took me by surprise. Fact is, he had been patient and he had been supportive and he had enough of both. He wanted his best friend back and he knew I was struggling immensely. He wanted to look at me and once again see genuine joy, rather than a smile that was trying to hide one fear or another. I can still see the look on my therapist’s face as she processed the reality of the information my husband lay before her. Her response was the very last thing I wanted to hear.
Have you ever heard of the man who was trapped on his roof as a result of a flash flood? Fearing for his life, he cried out to God to save him. Shortly after, a man in a small canoe rowed by and invited him in. “No thank you,” said the man. “I’ve prayed to God and I trust he will save me.” A short time later a police rescue boat came by and offered to bring the man to safety. Again he replied, “No thank you. God will save me.” As the flood waters continued to rise, a rescue helicopter flew overhead and lowered a rope ladder for him to climb aboard. Once again the man insisted that God would save him. He perished in the flood and, upon reaching Heaven, immediately asked God why he did not save him. And God replied, “My child, I sent you two boats and a helicopter.”
It wasn’t that I hadn’t considered medication before. I had, for about two seconds. I dismissed the need for medication entirely, much like I had been downplaying the reality of my current state for quite some time. To me, medication felt like raising the white flag. It was a surrender I wasn’t prepared for. I had prayed. Oh, how I had prayed. I felt like such a failure, like my faith wasn’t strong enough to reward me with healing. There was a stigma attached to this anxiety and an even larger one attached to taking medication for something I couldn’t see and didn’t entirely understand. If I had a broken leg, I’d put it in a cast. If I had diabetes, I’d take insulin. Why was it so hard for me to accept this? Was this God’s answer to my plea for healing? Was this my canoe?
I knew if I stayed on that roof for much longer, I would continue to be flooded with waves of anxiety that would carry me further and further from the person I once knew. The storm around me had continued to grow stronger, my obsessive-compulsive behaviors all the more consistent with someone who did not have it all under control. My therapist had given a name to my feelings. She had helped me connect the dots between my personality and need for control and the devastation I felt when that control had been taken from me with the loss of two babies to miscarriage. She had given me suggestions as to how to find a better balance between my worries and careful consideration of what was logical and what was based purely on fear. I had walked as far down the road to healing with her as she was able to lead me. I had much further to go and I was gripped with fear over taking the next step.
We all have a choice to make when we are faced with an uncomfortable or scary situation; fight or flight. In the midst of my anxiety, I felt helpless, unable to fight. When faced with a challenging situation, be it grocery shopping with my boys and wondering what germs they were going to be exposed to while happily sitting in the cart or the simple act of opening a door or pushing an elevator button, I immediately fled in fear. There was no sitting still and fighting the illogical worry over the germs. I ran to the closest solution; hand sanitizer, wipes, whatever I could use to “clean” the fear away. A close friend of mine who walked this road with me explained what I was feeling so well. She equated the panic associated with an anxious situation to stepping on an elevator. As the doors close, and you watch each button light up signaling the rise in floors, you identify a worry and feel the blood rush to your face, feel shaky and uneasy and your discomfort rises. While most would be able to think through the fear and stop the elevator, stepping off confidently onto the floor of reason and logic, those of us with anxiety careen recklessly to the top floor and, by the time we reach the top, our fear has turned to panic and we’ve convinced ourselves that the worst is bound to happen.
It wasn’t that I didn’t feel joy during the few years that my anxiety was at its worst. I took full advantage of being home with my boys and have such precious and beautiful memories of that time in my life. There was just this nagging uneasiness that traveled with me wherever I went. I compare it to standing outside on a beautiful summer night trying to enjoy the sweet air and continually having to swat at mosquitoes. I saw the beauty around me in my family and all the gifts God had given me, I absorbed all the love I was surrounded with and returned it tenfold. But all the while, I was distracted by the incessant worry.
I was dying to jump in that boat and wanted to climb the rope to the safety of the helicopter that would fly me away from all of this illogical nonsense. I was so tired of fighting for control that was never meant to be mine to begin with. I reluctantly agreed to try medication and began down what was a bit of a long and winding road to finding the right one and the right dose. Long story short, God brought me where I needed to be. Ironically enough, healing came with its own set of challenges, a new dose of shame and a heart full of mixed emotions.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be made known to God.” (Phil 4:6)
I was volunteering with my daughter’s class during their designated library time. My daughter was sitting on the floor with her classmates listening to the librarian read them a story. She had several of her fingers lodged in her mouth, chewing away in an attempt to soothe the new adult teeth fighting for room in her already overcrowded gums. I watched as she proceeded to take her tiny soaked hands out of her mouth, drag them across the carpet in front of her to dry them off and immediately shove them right back in, this time undoubtedly with countless germs along for the ride. While this scene would have once sent me into panic mode, I sat still and simply prayed, “into your hands, Lord.”
It’s a prayer I say often and is one of immense freedom for me. I can now acknowledge that, while what my daughter did was gross and may expose her to germs, I can not possibly be in control of her every move, nor does God expect or ask me to be. What I can always be in control of is recognizing that, by continually placing my children in God’s hands, they will be taken care of. The clouds have parted and the gift of clear discernment is once again my own. The paralyzing fear that once kept me from living the joy around me has dissipated and logic and reason are mine to claim.
Healing is a beautiful thing and it would certainly make for an easy life if everyone who suffered from anxiety could follow the same simple formula to find their own. Unfortunately, like anything else, there are a lot of moving pieces when it comes to climbing out of what can feel like a bottomless pit. Everyone’s path will be different and mine wasn’t necessarily straight and entirely easy to maneuver. It is true, however, that God never gives you more than you can handle. After much reflection on those few years when my anxiety was at its worst, I see all the hidden gifts that God provided to keep me faithful and trusting in His eventual answer to my prayer.
My husband and best friend was life vest number one. I’m certain there were times when he wondered what exactly had happened to the woman he once knew and questioned whether or not we would ever truly enjoy this life and family we had worked so hard to build. He’s a man of his word, however, and he gave both me and God his word to love me through sickness and health. And he never wavered from that promise. He quietly and prayerfully worked to understand where I was at and what I was going through and supported me day in and day out, from one fear to the next. He’s simply a beautiful soul and I have immense respect and the deepest gratitude for the sincerity of friendship and love he offers me every day.
I’ve always felt that there is no coincidence in life when it comes to one’s friends. Rather, I do believe that each and every person you call a friend has a distinct purpose in your life. And I love to marvel at the thought of God smiling at the exact moment you meet one friend or another, thinking to himself, “ah, good. now my plan is set in motion.” During the worst of my anxiety, I had two friends that offered me what no one else could; genuine understanding. They themselves were living with anxiety and, although it manifested itself differently in their lives, we understood one another in a way that was simply impossible for someone who didn’t live it, day after tiring, frustrating day. We could call one another at a moment’s notice to talk through one fear or an other. Tears, anger, shame; no words were even necessary between us to know exactly where the other was at. Thinking of them, and the many other women I have since met that have lived with anxiety for too long, is a big piece of what compelled me to share my story. It is so important for people to know that they are not alone in their struggles and I am personally amazed (and saddened) at the number of people I have connected with that understand anxiety on a deeply personal level.
Remember the man who was asked, or perhaps more appropriately, ordered to help carry Jesus’ cross when he couldn’t go on? It was Simon, Simon of Cyrene. My husband, my parents and sisters and my friends were all my Simon. They weren’t necessarily asked to help me. They never had any warning that this might be a piece of what they would have to do to love me. The anxiety demanded they step in and they did, wholeheartedly. They picked up the cross with me and we walked together until I was ready to lay it down and let God take over.
There was a piece to the healing that surprised me and took me off guard. Oddly enough, I can remember the exact moment when the feeling of shame overcame me and brought me to tears. I was in my bedroom one morning making the bed and listening to my boys play happily in the other room. It was one of those moments when my heart just swelled and I was overcome with the love that I have for them. In that instant, I saw them for the innocent and precious little beings that they are and I was all at one wrapped in this cloak of guilt and shame, stitched together by all the times I hadn’t been that free-spirited, play-in-the-dirt mother I so wanted to be for them. It was a hard reality to swallow. I would never get those moments back. The times they wanted to sit on the floor with all the other kids, push the button on the elevator, play outside unencumbered by my rules and regulations. The more it became clear to me how illogical my behavior had been, the harder it was to forgive myself. It was yet another layer to the healing and forced me to pull back my pride and live in the humility that was necessary to move forward.
A few weeks ago we took a trip to the Tampa Zoo as part of a vacation in Florida. It’s hard to describe the joy I felt watching our youngest truly “live” the day. She was fascinated with the world around her and I made no hesitation in allowing her to experience every piece of it. She pet the sting rays, fed Mr. Giraffe, rode the merry-go-round five times and even surprised us by riding a toddler-sized roller-coaster all on her own. I literally gave myself a headache from smiling for the better part of the day. Living a life free of the anxiety is a gift I do not take for granted. I am always acutely aware of the many things I do throughout the day that used to be very difficult for me.
In the end, anxiety will always be a part of me, and I’m ok with that. The memories of the worst of it, the gratitude for those that helped me through it and the awareness each and every day of the freedom I now enjoy has all been a part of shaping who I am and who I can be for others who are trying to understand it all and find their own healing. I find myself stronger as a result of the cross, humbled by God’s mercy, enlightened by His wisdom and forever protected in His limitless love.
Copyright 2016 Nicole Johnson