The past three years of my life have been painful, challenging, and anxiety-ridden. I lost a pregnancy. I walked with my family and church through various challenges and heartaches. My youngest child was born with Down syndrome, which shook the whole life I was building on its foundations. I lost a friend to cancer. There were so many days spent in the depth of survival that I lost a bit of my bearings. I swayed under my daily reality. I’m still swaying.
Sometimes you find yourself walking out of the challenges of your life, and you no longer recognize the landscape that changed while you were in the fog.
So it’s true to say that these years have brought me to a richer spiritual space. But it doesn’t look like I would have expected. My faith is deeper but also ragged. I’m a bit battered and I’m still figuring out what it means to live here, on the other side of the crisis. What does faith look like now, when the wild wind has calmed, and I’m not sure I remember how to walk without being forced to lean in?
The panic attacks happen more frequently now. Yesterday, I felt one coming in my two-year-old’s therapy class. I felt my body slow down in the middle of singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and began to feel distant from the motion around me. By the time I was in the car with him on the way home, I could sense the cobwebs knitting together across my chest. They formed and tightened over my lungs. They wove up my throat and toward my brain.
When the cobwebs come they whisper that I’m too sad, too tired. They say I’ll never feel better, that life will always hurt. They want to mummy me, weave and weave around until I’m bound and they can settle for a long sleep.
Here’s what prayer looks when my breathing shortens and the panic rises. When I pull into the garage and my baby is asleep and my breath is shallow and tight. When there is one hour before I pick the older kids up from school and jump into the mode of homework and drop-offs.
Prayer is breathing then. As deep as possible. Through my nose and out my mouth.
And after time, once the oxygen is coming again, prayer is telling the truth. I list all the feelings I notice: I’m scared, I’m lonely, I’m overwhelmed, I’m grateful, I’m relieved, I’m sad.
I list and I list while I breathe. And there is no feeling unacceptable to list in the presence of God. There is no such thing as emotions that cancel one another out. So when I pray that I’m grateful and jealous in one breath, the grace of God says, “Yes.” When I pray that I’m overwhelmed and also angry with myself for not holding it together, the grace of God says, “Yes, you are. I know.”
And I list and I list, breathe and breathe.
It’s that simple. And when the feelings have all been listed, I invite Jesus there, to the wild space where all the emotions weave and weave around each other, directing me to chaos.
Prayer unravels the feelings that are hiding there, the sorrow behind anger, the insecurity that conceals itself under stress.
When Jesus comes to them, he takes the wrinkled weavings and shakes them out so I can see clearly—rage, disappointment, grief, fear, joy, discouragement, frustration, gratitude, longing—all lying in clear sight under the gaze of the God who loves me.
See, everything is complicated, but prayer doesn’t always have to be. Sometimes it’s just breathing. Sometimes it’s simply saying what’s there in the shadows of my mind.
Yesterday I didn’t have a panic attack. It wasn’t because I prayed the right thing and God blessed it. I don’t believe there is a secret prayer-recipe that will pave your way to mental health. God has made us soft and malleable, capable of being changed by the challenges we move through, so mental health is soft and pliable as well. Grace comes to us in all our neediness, both diagnosed and undiagnosed.
Yet I do believe that I’m learning how to attach myself to a Faithful Presence that holds me through the tremors. I do believe that I’m beginning to understand how God can meet me before a panic attack, during a panic attack, or after one.
And this time, when the panic rose from my chest up to my neck, I breathed. I received God’s healing grace on the reality of my emotions. I believed that I was loved. And, in that moment, oxygen and grace settled deep.
It was imperfect. It was prayer.