The bus ride from school was always the same. As soon as the school bus neared the block where our tiny apartment sat in between dilapidated houses, my palms grew sweaty and my stomach turned to knots. I would take exaggerated steps off the bus after the driver flung the doors open while announcing my stop. I hated going home.
My breathing became shorter with each step I made to the apartment. I had no idea what the afternoon would bring. Some were as erratic as an island hurricane, and some were calm like walking the promenade on the banks of Louisiana. Some afternoons brought the sound of my mother screeching and some the soft melodies of Bob Marley playing in the backdrop. The instability of our household wrecked me from a young age so badly that it would take me two decades before I learned what was causing my constant sweaty palms, nausea, increased heart rate, and shortness of breath.
To the untrained eye I was merely a sensitive little girl, too prone to withdrawal in the face of confrontation or too quick to lash out at the prospect of danger. I was unstable in every sense of the word, feeling insecure because of my family life and confused by the barrage of thoughts swirling through my mind.
My young brain could—at any moment—juggle up to ten scenarios of calamity awaiting me. And to prepare myself I always erred on the side of the worst possible outcome in those scenarios. Would my mother be alive when I got home? I wasn’t sure. Probably not. Would there even be a home to return to? It didn’t seem likely.
In time, I would make a way out of that tiny apartment and the neighborhood with dilapidated homes. I would even find my way to church pulpits. But the uneasiness was there, never leaving me for a second to find peace. Life had given me enough reasons to embrace the fragility of my emotions: divorced parents, constantly moving, spending time in a foster home, my father’s death, and then finally divorcing the one person in whom I had found safety.
In a way my divorce saved me, though. Some would call the dissolution of my first marriage God righting a wrong turn, which may be more truth than platitude. What’s more is that walking through the process of divorce led me to the therapist who discovered what was wrong with me.
My sessions began as couples’ therapy with the hope of getting my then estranged husband and me to reconcile our marriage. That never happened, but I continued with therapy as a divorced young woman. Dr. Mathers and I talked about many things, things that always appeared irrelevant given the new position I found myself in: single. What I didn’t know was that Dr. Mathers discovered from the first time I walked into his office that I was struggling not with the prospect of ending my marriage, but the threat of never knowing what life would be like without being harassed by negative, fatalistic thoughts.
On the day Dr. Mathers told me I had anxiety disorder, I leaned back on the dusty couch in his office, letting the weight of the diagnosis crush me. I had always been mostly healthy physically. No ailments or broken bones. No surgeries. But this—this was deep. My soul was so apparently sick, so retarded from persistent trauma, that there was a name for it. My mind was a little banged up too. It had taken enough blows to limit my capacity to see any good for myself. I had only gotten as far as I had from sheer survival skills and a dash of idealism. Anxiety hadn’t permitted me the opportunity to have hope.
Dr. Mathers, who I should mention is Christian, decided we wouldn’t go the medicinal route to treat my anxiety. “I want you to spend more time talking to God,” he said after I asked him what came next. That’s it? I spent the first quarter of my life shaken to the core by this thing, and all he could come up with was talking? To God? It didn’t make sense.
I was still relatively new in getting to know God, and it seemed like poor taste to unload my emotional baggage on Him so soon into our relationship. He had already found me as a soon-to-be divorcee. Adding anxiety-ridden to the mix felt like a sure way to lower my stock. I did, however, take Dr. Mathers’ advice and started talking. I talked about many things, like my divorce and about how bad I wanted joy to come in the morning because people at my church told me that, in time, it would.
I talked and I talked and I talked, never about my anxiety, but I talked to God. I talked to God so often I would find myself having conversations with Him in the most obscure places like the grocery store. In time our talking would become frequent enough for me to share when I was having a panic attack. And somehow telling Him how scared I was feeling in that moment would dissipate the symptoms. Never did God say anything back in those moments—except on one day.
I was two years removed from my divorce and cities apart from the condo my ex-husband and I had shared. Life was different in a good way, but on this particular morning I woke up with that dreaded feeling of fatality. Tears soaked my pillow, and out of nowhere I began humming Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds.” Don’t worry about a thing, ’cause every little thing gonna be all right. As I whispered the words over and over again with tears still wetting my cheeks, I felt an urge to open my Bible. I parted the pages of my tiny holy book and landed on Matthew 6:
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…So do not worry…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
For two years I had been talking, yet this time God was letting me know I didn’t need to worry because He was there. He was always there.