Today on the blog, I’m sharing a bit about my history with anxiety. Read on for more, and join me in the process of moving from perfectionism to wholeness – from anxiety to rest – by signing up here to get updates about Enough.
What if I pass out, and we crash?
What if I have to pull off the side of the road and have Chelsea drive?
What if she thinks I’m totally crazy for feeling so anxious right now?
These questions – among others – came barreling down on me this Tuesday as I drove with a colleague to a marketing conference in Silicon Valley.
I don’t drive often. I gave my car to my sister back in 2010 when she moved to Missouri to marry her now-husband, and I moved to San Francisco where a car is more of an inconvenience than anything else.
So, it was natural that I should feel a little uneasy driving this week. But my anxious thoughts weren’t really about the mechanics of driving. I’d rented a 2015 Volkswagen Golf – a top safety pick, since that’s the way I make decisions – for the day. The car was great, albeit a little zippy for my cautious taste, but mostly easy to maneuver.
In my mind, I knew this was a good car, and I knew I could drive it just fine. But then the “what if’s” began to take over my rational thoughts.
You might think it strange that I was so intensely worried about passing out while driving. That the fear of passing out started to send me in a panic attack on the 101 – face numb from my shallow breathing, hands white from gripping the steering wheel so tightly. I’ll explain why.
A few years ago, I passed out at work and woke up on the bathroom floor – unconscious and completely lacking control of my body. It took me a while to come to, and I had no idea how I’d gotten there.
After crawling back toward my office – since I was too dizzy and nauseous to stand – I found some colleagues who called up one of our doctors to check on me. (Working in marketing for a medical practice has many perks.) Soon enough I was laid on a stretcher and wheeled into an ambulance. That night was full of blood tests and a CT scan and many questions from the nurses in the ER.
Could I be pregnant? “No.”
Had I had enough to eat that day? “Yes, I think so.”
Did I have a history of seizures? “Not that I know of.”
I left the ER the next morning without a clear picture of what had gone wrong, without understanding why I had passed out on the bathroom floor.
I understand now that I had experienced a vasovagal reaction that day – basically, my body went into fight or flight mode after seeing something scary. That day, the “scary” thing was a wound on my hand that hadn’t healed, and seeing it uncovered got me feeling queasy.
I’d experienced this before – in reaction to seeing, or even talking about, blood or needles – but I’d always been able to get some blood back to my head so that I only felt a little dizzy, but didn’t pass out.
This time was different. And, as I later discovered, it was because I was underweight. My body didn’t have enough fat reserves – enough energy – to help me bounce back from that vasovagal response. So, instead, my body shut down, and I passed out cold.
It took another experience of passing out – this time at my optometrist’s office – to realize I needed to get help.
Over a period of several years, I slowly gained weight and went through counseling to help me feel comfortable with that process. That’s a whole story that I get into in Enough. But what I want to share with you today is a bit about the process of recovering from the anxiety attacks that ensued after these two dramatic fainting episodes. Of how I’m learning to drown out the “what if’s.”
This is something I delve into further in Enough, but as my anxiety has been creeping back into my life lately, I wanted to share a bit with you now.
Darkness and Light Cannot Coexist
The most important part of my recovery process – from perfectionism, from anxiety, from the intense pressures of expectation – has been to drown out the “what if’s” in a healthy way.
We all have our “what if’s” that come to us throughout the day or maybe when we’re trying to get some rest at night.
Work, relationships, health, finances, and the state of this world present us with enough questions to last a lifetime. We all face questions about our identity, acceptance, and sense of love and belonging. We fear all sorts of things – primarily rejection, failure, and pain.
It can be tempting to pretend these questions – “what if I fail?” “what if she leaves me?” “what if he loses his job?” “what if God’s not really out for my best interest?”– don’t exist. But that only works for a little while.
So, sometimes we try drown them out. With Netflix and full social calendars and running and parties and drinking. A constant cycle of numbing and striving and achieving and accumulating. More and more.
But the more we pile on, the more that just exacerbates the issue. Because our fears and anxieties and “what if’s” will scream louder until we finally listen to them.
That’s exactly what I had to do. I had to listen to what my anxiety was trying to tell me. And I had to bring it out into the light.
Darkness and light cannot coexist. When we shed light on the darkest parts of our minds and hearts, the darkness naturally goes away.
My heart and mind can become nearly black when they’re cloaked in worry. And the best way I’ve found to bring them into the light is to name the worries. To say, “I’m feeling anxious right now because I’m afraid of passing out. I’m afraid of injuring the people around me. And if I pull off the road, I’m afraid of what my colleague will think.”
Simply naming the worries helps give me more of a voice over the anxious “what if’s.”
Once I’ve done that, then I can come at them with truth. With reminders of how God’s been with me in past experiences of anxiety. And how even though my face might be numb from the hyperventilating I was concealing and my hands might hurt from gripping the steering wheel so tightly, I would get through this.
And I did. Or rather, God got me through it. As I prayed through those two hours and tried to focus on connecting with Chelsea, I had moments of clarity where the “what if’s” were silent. And when they’d come back, I’d return to the process of naming them and then naming truth.
Finding Your Voice in the Silence
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about anxiety – and perfectionism, for that matter – it’s that the recovery process is just that: a process. And I have to give myself grace when my familiar enemies of fear and anxiety start to pop back up again.
If there’s a plus side to it, it’s that it keeps me in constant dependence on God to bring me peace and show me the way forward. To help me back into the light. To give me a voice again.
One of the most painful things I can imagine is to lose the sound of your own voice. To lose your connection with your breath. To be rendered ineffective.
That’s what anxiety and worry and perfectionism do to us. The fear of failure or rejection can send us to dark, quiet places where all we can hear are the “what if’s.”
Thankfully, bringing those “what if’s” to light and speaking truth aloud – really, out loud –has the power to pull us out of the dark, miry pits we find ourselves in. And the best place to reconnect with those truths, ironically, is in the quiet.
But this quiet is different from the soundless chambers that we find ourselves in when we’re locked in a worry spiral. This quiet is the intentional silence that comes in true rest – “Sabbath” rest, you might say.
I love what Dallas Willard has to say about Sabbath as a way of life: “It sets us free from bondage to our own efforts. Only in this way can we come to the power and joy of a radiant life.”
When anxiety or perfectionism rears its ugly head, there’s not a whole lot I can do on my own to fight it. I need to know truth – that my efforts aren’t enough on their own, but that God’s efforts are enough. That he is out for my good. That I can trust him. That even if the worst happened – if the answer to “what if I crash?” was yes – that he’s still be there.
The answer to every “what if” is God.
God is in every single circumstance. There is no place we can go where we’re separated from his love and care. And that’s the best antidote to anxiety I’ve ever found.
When I rest in his love and sit in silence to listen to his truth, I find freedom. Freedom from the “what if’s,” freedom from constant problem-solving, freedom from fear of other people’s expectations, and freedom from fear of loss. Because I’ve found all I need in the one who loves me.
Now, that’s not to say that I don’t still need relationships and love and community and connection and physical provision. But I don’t live in constant fear of losing those things when I remember that God is ultimately the one providing all I need.
I’ll confess that lately I’ve lost sight of that truth. And my anxiety let me know it.
Thankfully, as I’ve returned to him and brought my anxiety into the light, the truth of his love has started to dispel those fears. Just as he’s done before.
Because he’s love. And his perfect love drives out all fear. That’s a truth I’m banking on tonight. And tomorrow. And the next day.