Not long after the first anxiety attack, I stopped leaning on God for help.
Before I had a name for it, it was simply this strange, overwhelming force that took over like a flood of cold water. It was regrets and fear that curled around my ankles like seaweed. It was a struggle for air and for balance, a body and mind that somehow stopped being in my control.
I prayed. Hard. I read the Bible and taped verses on my wall. I went to Bible Study and tried to describe it, tried to talk about the insomnia and the panic attacks and the water to a group that was largely unfamiliar with such phenomena. We called it worry and connected it to the words of Jesus: “Do not worry . . . Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…See how the flowers of the field grow…” And I remember nodding and smiling, but thinking, Birds die, though. Plants wither. People disappear.
I felt like I was disappearing. Physically, I shed dozens of pounds. I lost passion in things I once cared about. Sleep deprived, I wandered through the day avoiding people, because I could barely speak in coherent sentences, and the trauma of such interactions would haunt me until the early hours of morning.
I found myself most vulnerable at night. I went to God and begged for my life back. For sleep. For air. For normalcy. I repeated his own words back to him accusatorily: “You feed the birds, you water the plants, you rush to the wounded’s side and stitch them up, but here I am. Wounded. Here I am saying again and again: This hurts. This hurts. This hurts. Where are you?”
The silence rolled in like water and my faith nearly drowned in it.
Salvation came in the form of a soft-spoken therapist with the kindest eyes, who fed me with affirmation and breathing exercises and slowly brought me back to life. It came in the form of Zoloft, a pill I took at night that boosted the better parts of my brain. It came in biking, journaling, yoga, a better diet, a few good books. And in the end, I wound up with what is called self-care, with what felt like a strong boat, gliding me over dark waters I never wished to return to again.
And of course, my faith never truly left me. I still believed. I incorporated prayer and church and reading the Bible back into my life, because these things are so much easier to do on the other side. Above the surface, God feels close. Faith feels safe. Life glides easily on. But whenever I went under, I slipped away from the church and away from my faith, because those long silent nights had never really left me.
It came in short bursts this past year. It stole in through graduate school and turning twenty-five and a sudden, strange struggle for sleep. I would hear my anxiety at night, grabbing the intercom, informing me I should be very afraid of what was to come and regretful of time lost. Failure was behind me and before me and in me. Inevitable. And all at once, I couldn’t sleep. I laid awake to the sound of my racing heart and the silence of the world, my thoughts oscillating between past and future, and every couple of a minutes, a small voice chirped in to remind me that if I didn’t sleep now, I would most likely die.
The self-care strategies faltered, the water started to rush in, and I went under, pulled deep into the dark world where anxiety feels like intuition, like reality, like a fear so sharp that you will turn to anything to blunt it. So I turned to the wine for silence and Netflix for distraction and to romance that I decided would save me. It was numbness, I knew that, but I chose to call it peace anyway, because I had forgotten what peace truly felt like.
One morning I surfaced on the couch of a friend, and I felt the tumultuous world around me, the exhaustion in my bones, my anxiety awakening to the bright sun of sobriety. And without intending to, I thought this thought: This isn’t peace.
And then remembered these words from Proverbs:
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight”.
And then I took a breath.
I didn’t hear it like a fortune cookie. Like a spell. It came from desperation, that’s true, but it pierced through me and solidified slowly in a way that rash spirituality often does not. I heard the words echo through my mind and all of them faded out except two, again and again. Lean not.
I know about leaning.
In the worst moments of this past year, the anxiety has risen up like a tidal wave and I have moved from rock to slippery rock, thinking this one will save me, this one will hold me. And sometimes they did, for a spell, but too often I slid back beneath the surface. I spent so much energy surviving that I forgot it was possible to simply live.
There is a rush of relief when you remember where home is.
But there is also pride to swallow, and it is bitter. After that fateful morning, I went about my day discussing these things with God, explaining my distrust, explaining that I would try if he would, and I wasn’t expecting a miracle but maybe a boost. And I began the work of rebuilding my boat with God, integrating him into the woodwork of my self-care.
There are so many disclaimers and resolves I want to place before this sentence, because it sounds so tied up and neat, and I know the presence of God exists in both storms and sunlight and he doesn’t always show up like we expect him to. But if I’m honest, lately, it feels like he’s led me into kinder waters.
I got to God in a conscious effort to lean, an exercise in trust. And as I’ve been handing over these renegade thoughts of mine, I’ve felt an exchange, like osmosis. I’ve felt peace. Real peace. A peace flowing into my sleep and into my relationships, into the mornings when I wake up and the world is still.
And even in the mornings that are unstill and in the nights that never seem to end, I am still held up by this hope of newness. The medication fails and my breathing doesn’t work right, but I can remember to reject the narrative of anxiety and reach for these verses like a touchstone, and let it be true for me. I can choose to lean into the love of God, and it is always the most radical act of self-care. It is always the thing that gets me through. Remembering I am safe. Remembering I am loved.