Now, this is the scary stuff. This stuff you only dare discuss with your best friend on a long walk so that you don’t have to look her in the eye. Or what comes to mind when you stare into the flickering campfire late into the night.
But this just may also be the stuff of magic. My heart’s cry is for connecting: connecting the dots in my own worldview. I think we find the answers only in connection: with our Creator, with each other, with the natural world, and with ourselves.
This piece originally posted two years ago. My husband and I had lost so much all at once: I miscarried our third child due to an ectopic pregnancy. Soon after, we lost our family business that we had poured ourselves into. In his thirties, my husband badly needed a hip replacement. This is a snapshot of the middle of that time.
Worry. Fret. My-life-is-over-and-somehow-it’s-all-my-fault floods in. Heart-pounds from anxiety. Breathe. Let it pass. Encourage myself. Reach out to someone I trust. Feed my brain encouragement. Rest. Filter my inputs. Repeat.
What’s going on here? Good question. If you’re just tuning in, I’ll fill you in: You see, many changes are afoot in our family’s lives. My husband has a degenerative hip condition that has grown progressively worse. At age 36, he finally needs a hip replacement. He cannot walk without wincing pain. He is out of a job, and now we are both “stay at home parents” for the time-being while he schedules doctor appointments, and we strategize how to pay the bills. What next?
After his surgery? We still haven’t planned that far out. Each day has enough trouble of it’s own, you know? There are a billion unknowns. Sometimes I feel like my confidence has evaporated with all the hopes and dreams we both had for the business. My world seems dangerous and foreboding. I’m tiptoeing around corners, suspicious of what other catastrophes are lurking there. At these times, I feel neither safe, nor sound.
But here’s the rub: I must live. I have children to care for. I have a husband whom I must stay connected with. I cannot escape reality. At times though, I do break down. It’s the debilitation of grief. Dinner becomes cereal. I wear dark sunglasses to preschool pickup to hide my puffy eyes. My husband is incredibly tender with me in these times. Still though, it feels embarrassing to be brought so low.
So, in the midst of this, I’m almost surprised to find myself still living. I feel depressed and anxious, but I don’t die. And then, when I find myself still living, I look around frantically for something to help. I need tools. Tools that fit me – that I can use well. As with tackling any job, This girl needs her own tools.
There are things that don’t work. Like cookies and too much coffee and trash tv shows. I’ve tried them all extensively.
Then there are thing that DO work. Like looking squarely at myself in love. Like crying out to God, and scouring the Bible for comfort. Like working hard to keep my heart safe and sound.
I want to show you a tool that WORKS. It’s called the Bible. I believe every word of it is true: penned by a God who knows what it’s like to be a human: because his Son was one, on our behalf. The book of Proverbs is chock-full of wisdom about how to live. This verse stuck out to me:
“Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
To stand guard means to hold back unwelcome visitors, and to welcome in friendly ones. So, to guard my heart is to protect my self-image from the smashing attack of anxiety. It’s to hold back hopelessness, and welcome in positive self-talk, and God’s promises in the Bible.
Sound fruity? I thought so too when I first heard of this idea from my husband: this idea of “protecting my heart from my own thoughts of panic and worthlessness.” You see, I was sure that my doom was an objective reality. Everyone knew it – I was certain. But a funny thing happened: I heard that the engine giving steam to this awful misery could actually be anxiety itself: feeling anxious about feeling anxious. “Oh no! I’m freaking out! This is so stupid. Stop it! Pull it together! There is no reason for freaking out!” I would feel bad about feeling bad, so that would make me feel even worse. I would just collapse in on myself.
So the turning point became a simple matter of accepting the mess I had become. I was a mess. Okay. That’s okay. I feel panicky and I dread asking for help and how I will look, and I worry for my kids’ future, and so on. Okay. Those feelings are okay. I am still myself. And I still accept myself. Instead of beating myself up about being such a worry wort, I choose to just be. Neither good nor bad – just legitimately accepting me, as I am, right in this moment. I learned the saying, “Float, don’t fight.” It helps at that turning point. Then the wave passes, the panic subsides, and I am still okay. No hammer has fallen, much to my surprise. When I treat myself kindly like this, and keep practicing at it, eventually the feelings of anxiety subside altogether. Why? Because I am building my heart up, not tearing it down. I am literally constructing a space deep within me, with healthy boundaries, for me to take good care of myself, regardless of life circumstances. With the love and grace of the Lord, I start to feel safe and sound.
To help me understand this landscape, I think of a house. Or a mansion. Or whatever you want it to be. And I think of a tall stone wall around it. There is a grand gate, and I, the owner of the mansion, am standing at the gate. I see friends there and welcome them in. I meet repairmen there, and direct them to the leaky plumbing, or the overgrown weeds. I turn away pushy salesmen. I bar the crazy bum yelling obscenities. You see, this is MY house, and if I don’t take care of it, no one will. This is my own space to feel safe and sound.
Each of these visitors represent something: The friends are people whom I trust. I trust them to be in my home, to fill it and add to it, and to point out what repairs they see need tending to. The repairmen are the tools for the job: truth from the Bible, helpful advice, books, and materials to do the fixing and cleaning. The salesmen are people who come into my own life with their own agenda. They care more about selling me their “product,” than discovering what’s on my side of the gate. They talk, but they don’t listen, because it doesn’t meet their “sales quota” of sorts. And the crazy bum is the anxiety and depression, screaming back at imaginary accusers. She doesn’t even see reality. She cycles through some long-ago crisis, fighting as if she were still under enemy fire. I learned that it’s not my fault when she starts her tirade. But I can choose to keep her from entering my house, or at the very least, to run after her when she wiggles her way in and starts smashing windows.
Guarding my home requires vigilance. After all, this is serious business! This is my life! And in order to stand guard, I must be present. If I distract myself or hide from the task, everyone will let themselves in, and trash the place. By paying attention to everything from my relationships, to the very thoughts in my head, I can start choosing the life that God has placed inside of me to live, instead of being swayed by everything that comes up, then blaming every outside influence. I have a part to play in my own life – and I am surprised at how stunning that is to me!
This is not about rules and regulations. This is about the sweetness of freedom that comes from love. For me, I’ve found that I feel better when I work hard at digging to the bottom of my anxious feelings, accept them in the moment, and speak kindly to myself about my worth and belonging. I feel safe and sound, in my God’s love for me, and my own love for me. When I don’t, I just drag on in depression for longer. That’s all. And there’s the Lord’s forgiveness to cover me front to back. When I think of all of that, I can’t lose. And that, dear friends, is why I have hope, after an exhausting day of battling anxiety: no matter how I come out of the fight, He is right there to accept me, and call me his own, just as I am.