When I was eleven, I developed an anxiety disorder which manifested itself primarily as hypochondria; with depression as its cousin companion.
I was not, however, the stereotypical sort of hypochondriac child that one associates with verbally fretting over every ache and pain, scrape and bruise; analyzing each sniffle and cough; feeling for lumps; or sighing and fainting with weakness. No, I was nothing like Colin in The Secret Garden. At least, not on the face, that is.
I kept it all a big secret.
But there was no garden to draw me from my prison. The obsessive-compulsive need to check and re-check, to console and re-console, was the driving force of my thoughts. I lived with nauseating fear and anxiety for years on end, and the most anyone ever noticed was that I was “too quiet,” “too serious,” and “ought to smile more.” They saw my shyness; they did not see my affliction. Inwardly, I was miserable and crippled.
To cope with the anxiety and depression, I turned to food for comfort, and by the time I was 15, I was 50 lbs overweight. I hated my body and my self-confidence was next to nil. But the Lord saw fit to redeem me from this food addiction and I was able to lose the weight over the next couple of years by changing my eating habits. The hypochondria, however, continued unchecked all throughout my teen years but subsided to a relatively tolerable level during my early twenties. It was still an on-going struggle in those years, but wasn’t as severe as my teens. When I was expecting my third child in early 2010, I experienced a major regression.
It felt like I was back at square one: thrust into the psychological nightmare that was my teens.
At this time, a plan I had pursued for many years suddenly became an impossibility, and though I won’t get into the details concerning that here, suffice it to say, the grief that came with the loss of my dream, along with the physical discomfort of early pregnancy, soon caused me to have stress-induced ocular migraines—something I’d never experienced before. (An ocular migraine is when you suddenly see swirls or splashes or prisms of color in your field of vision.)
And that’s what triggered my regression.
See, here’s the thing: Hypochondria was always the predominate way my anxiety disorder manifested itself. (For those who don’t know, hypochondria is an irrational fear of serious illness.) So, until I had a diagnosis—that the migraines were harmless—you can well imagine all the worst case scenarios I came up with trying to understand what was causing such symptoms. It felt like two hands had closed around my neck and were squeezing tighter and tighter.
My whole world went dark.
Unfortunately, the way hypochondria works is that even with a clean bill of health, you still irrationally fear the worst is going to happen anyway, and you become obsessed with that particular fear. What’s more, if the feeling of impending doom doesn’t have something to latch onto, you subconsciously find something for it to latch onto. And so you’re always going from one fear to the next, waiting for the other shoe to drop. I continued in this nervous state of mind all through that spring, and well into the summer.
So, how is an anxiety disorder debilitating exactly, you might wonder? Well, it’s like living in chains. Every aspect of your life is hindered by it. Your pursuits, your relationships, your walk with God, even recreation. No matter how much you try to have fun and distract yourself and lighten up, it’s always there, always a tightness in the throat, always an undercurrent in your heart and mind, threatening at any time to well up and drown you. It makes you physically weak and cold and shaky. You wake up each morning and the anxiety hits you afresh like a crashing wave. And once you become enslaved to anxiety, it honestly feels like there is no possible escape.
Unfortunately, I was unable to enjoy pregnancy in such an anxious state of mind, and I struggled with the physical discomfort of it. I felt like I was just crawling through each day, weighted down by heavy burdens. Of course, I wanted to give my burdens to God, but I didn’t know how to make that a reality. It was as if they were glued to me.
Yet through it all, God did not abandon me. Instead, He rescued me not on my timetable – but on His. Psalm 40:2 says, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”
Early signs of healing came while I was on vacation at the family cottage during that summer of 2010, while I was still expecting. I had a growing sense of exasperation, of enough is enough. In my darkest moment I remember telling myself, “Look, you have got to get better—or go mad. If you continue down this road, it will only end in madness.”
A sudden vision came to me at the cottage, in my mind’s eye, of standing inside a black cave. The only light in there was from the narrow opening of the cave, which was above and away from me by a distance of about two meters. I would have to climb up and then out, to exit the cave . . . but the problem was, my feet felt like they were encased in cement. Nevertheless, I pondered the vision over the next little while.
A couple of days after having this curious vision, I woke up with an idea, an idea that was the fruit of several months of reading books on anxiety, studying and memorizing Scripture, and praying for guidance. I said this prayer: “God, I give you these fears of mine—I put them all into your Hands.” Now, of course I had prayed this way before, there was nothing new about that. But what was going to be different this time is that I wasn’t going to limit the prayer to only once a day. And this is crucial: Whenever I tried to retrieve the burden from God (as indicated by mounting anxiety) I would immediately give it back, even if I had to do that several times a day. In this way it was a lot like the practice of forgiveness. Sometimes you can forgive someone just once and that’s all it takes, but other times you have to forgive a person again and again, seventy times seven. Giving my fear to God only once a day had never been enough, for I almost always snatched it back again.
The second thing I did, in conjunction with this, was to begin thanking God for specific moments rather than only for large things or entire days. See, most days were a struggle for me, very oppressive, and the negative always seemed to outweigh the positive.
Many years prior to this I’d read a book called, “The Maker’s Diet” by Jordan S. Rubin. In it he shared the story of how God had fully restored his physical health from a near death state. But long before his strength returned, he began looking for brief moments in the day when he felt well, even if it was only for a couple of minutes at a time. And when he found them he would say, “In this moment, I am well.”
So, in recalling this, I began searching for moments of joy even if they were sandwiched with suffering; and even if they were only a few seconds long. Things like the kids doing something cute or funny, a good book or TV show, having a treat, a fun time with family, a cool breeze on a hot day, a lovely scent or view, a happy memory, a friendly face, time with God—anything good. I would then pray and say, “Thank you, Lord, for this moment.”
The result was that at the end of the day, I could remember several moments that I had thanked God for, and I felt a new-found sense of gratitude and lightheartedness in the recollection of them. And as time passed, it was these little moments that stood out in my memory—eclipsing the negative. And even though the negative still seemed to be of a larger quantity, it was these brief moments of joy throughout the day that I was trying to focus on now . . . and so they became like beams of light: casting off the shadows around them. I began to have a taste of what a peaceful heart actually felt like; something I had only been able to imagine before.
The third and final thing I did at this time—again, in conjunction—was just as crucial as the rest:
My mother had given me a stack of used books, one of which happened to be about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. I read it out of curiosity, and quickly realized my hypochondria was fueled by OCD thinking patterns. Any time I had an anxious thought, I would try to rationalize myself out of it by going through a list of reasons and facts as to why I shouldn’t be worried. This would give me relief for all of 5 minutes—and then the cycle would repeat. I was going through these mental gymnastics several times per hour, so we’re talking as much as a hundred times a day. Up until then, anytime the anxiety would rise to an intolerable level, I was compelled to go through this ritual of “self-reassurance.” Suffice it to say, I was spending far more time trying to reassure myself, than I was spending in prayer.
So, this book, written by a Christian psychologist, said that the way to loosen the bonds of OCD is to view the rituals as an addiction that needs to be stopped. When you feel anxiety rising, instead of performing a ritual to calm yourself for a few minutes, you have to just let yourself feel the raw anxiety without using a ritual to numb it. Instead of telling myself all the logical reasons why I shouldn’t worry, I would instead simply say, “It’s in God’s Hands.” But the key was that I was not to reassure myself any longer—and this makes sense from a Christian worldview. It’s not our job to comfort and soothe ourselves. Jesus said, “Come unto Me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest.”
We can not know the future, and the desire to feel security regarding the future is one that God does not fulfill. I wanted something I couldn’t have. For if we knew our future days to be secure, the temptation would surely be to make this world our home. Instead, God wants us to trust Him, waiting for our true country . . . without knowing what will happen in the meantime.
I continue to use this method to this very day. If I feel some anxiety and catch myself on the verge of doing any mental reassuring (not just concerning health, but any fear or worry in life), I view it as a temptation and I forbid those thoughts. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says to “hold every thought captive to the obedience of Christ.” The only consolation or reassurance I allow myself is to go and pray and put my fear and anxiety in God’s hands—whenever necessary—remembering to do so with thanksgiving as well (as it says in Philippians 4:6-7). No trying to cheer myself up anymore or rationalize away the fear (it can’t be done!). You can not pep-talk yourself out of anxiety. I had spent 18 years of my life trying to cope that way, and it never worked. Ironically, it only made the chains tighter! It’s a trap.
Well, after only a few days of employing these three methods, I realized that in the vision of the cave, which I could still see in my mind’s eye, I was now a little bit closer to the exit: the vision had actually changed. And several days after that, I saw myself at the opening of the cave. I stayed at the opening for quite a few days longer, perhaps even a whole week, unable to step my foot through it . . . only able to peer out. But I had hope now. Eventually I did step through the opening, but only one foot at a time. Then I stood outside the cave for several more days. (I just seemed to wake up each morning with an altered image of this vision!)
For the rest of the summer I continued with, 1), the daily prayers of putting my specific fears in God’s Hands whenever necessary, 2), thanking God for specific moments during the day, and 3), refusing to reassure myself ritualistically.
Gradually the anxiety began to lessen quite noticeably, like receding waves. I could feel the difference physically. There was a sense of being able to breathe better, and the darkness began to lift around me. The chains were loosening. I felt stronger.
In time I reached the point where I was standing several meters away from the cave, and then finally, 50 feet . . . then 100 feet away. Today I can still recall the vision in the form of a memory, but it looks like a painting of a cave far far away on the horizon.
By the time my child was born, I was no longer enslaved by an anxiety disorder.
Incidentally, my name, Rebekah, means “to bind” in Hebrew. I came to see myself as being like the widow with the hunchback whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath. The Bible says Satan “had kept her bound for 18 years”—just as I had been. Then, Jesus healed her.
In the following spring of 2011, I did experience a relapse that lasted a couple of months: almost like a test to see if I’d really been healed. Galatians 5:1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Unlike the year before, I was now fully armed, and holding to this verse, I employed the same methods I had used the previous year—and I recovered. I was no longer stumbling around in the dark—my eyes had been opened. The devil had lost his foothold.
The peace and freedom God has blessed me with these past three years is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. (At least, not since I was a young child.) And the difference between those 18 long years and the last three years is that even during times of reprieve, the grip of anxiety was still there, lying low—but these last three years it’s just simply not been there. God had released me from a yoke of slavery.
Please, don’t get me wrong though. It’s not that I no longer have any trials or hardships in life, or that I no longer feel fear, or struggle with depression from time to time . . . I do. I find it difficult to cope with all the suffering in the world. I feel the emotions of others quite palpably; like they are my own. As I was in childhood, I remain sensitive to the aura of each person and tend to be retiring and demure in person; “shyness” still the main charge against me. There are times when I’d like to be a sunny, vivacious kind of personality (a characteristic I admire in others), but I’m a dyed in the wool introvert and bookworm.
Yet thanks be to God: I am no longer mastered and crippled by anxiety.
I feel it important to add, for clarity’s sake, that I am not in any way opposed to the use of medication to treat anxiety and depression. In fact, had I not been delivered from anxiety when I was, I most certainly would have proceeded with this avenue. I view my healing as a miraculous gift from God rather than my own doing, but I know that He doesn’t always deliver everyone in this lifetime; just as some are healed of diseases while others are not. We don’t know why, His ways are not our ways. We all have a unique walk and calling in life, and sometimes God reduces suffering through the use of medication rather than cognitive behavioral therapy: this too is a gift. 🙂
A Thorn in the Flesh by guest blogger, Rachel Xu.