I mostly swim in Anxiety Ocean. Often I have a life vest, a privilege I’ve earned after years of constructing such a tool for myself. Sometimes I float. Other times I freestyle. On rare occasions I even get to ride in a boat. But sometimes I find myself treading water, out of breath and exhausted, just trying to keep my head above the crashing waves.
Yesterday was one of those days. It started when I opened my eyes for the day. I could spend hours contemplating the triggers for this particular instance, analyzing every detail of the night and day before: Was I too tired? Did I have an overly emotional response to something? Did I forget to take care of myself in some way? Did I drink enough water? Am I internalizing some tragedy from work? Am I maintaining boundaries? On and on and on. But it doesn’t really matter what triggered it, if anything. I have to keep reminding myself to stop actively trying to blame myself for swimming in this ocean, as if I there was ever another option and I just didn’t take it.
There is no other option. This ocean is my life. And it’s not always fighting its way into my lungs, but it’s always there. In fact, when I finally started to admit it was always there, the less it tried to fight its way into my lungs. The more I could float.
But not always.
Yesterday I was fighting for breath. I was fighting to remember my coping skills. I was fighting to hold on to my self-worth. I was fighting the voices in my head telling me what a failure I was.
I was leading worship in the role I’ve played dozens of times before, but this time my heart was beating out of my chest and my stomach was roiling with snakes. My breath came in short gasps and my palms wouldn’t stop sweating. I was so cold, cold all over, cold all morning. The body’s response to trauma: send the blood-flow to the vital organs. Anxiety is traumatic.
I stood in front of hundreds of people, feeling naked and stupid. “No one likes you. You sound incompetent. What are you doing trying to be a pastor? You can’t do this. These people don’t believe in you. They don’t trust you. They think you’re a fake, a fraud. They think you’re vain. They don’t think you’re funny. You’ve only been here a year and have too many failures to count. What difference have you made? They won’t even remember you when you’re gone, except how thankful they are you left.” The anxiety attacks me because I can’t hear these voices and say, “Yeah right, thanks but no thanks, take your lies and leave.” I say instead, “Is it true? Are you right? Am I that blind? Have I been this way all along?”
Self-doubt and insecurity are the constant companions of social anxiety. They are the sea monsters pulling at my kicking legs as I fight for my life in the ocean. “You’re messing everything up. Things were better before you got here.”
And the worst part of it all is I know, logically, that of course none of it’s true, at least no more than is true for any other flawed and imperfect human. I’m not universally hated. I am a good pastor. I have skills and gifts and talents and God has called me to this work. I have family and friends that love me. I am fun. I’m a good friend and a good person. I know, intellectually, that these truths are evident and contradictory to the sea monsters’ lies. But the knowing doesn’t help. It’s like a person having a heart attack knowing they’re having a heart attack. Knowing it won’t stop it.
But it does provide an opportunity to address it. Take an aspirin. Call the doctor. So yesterday I had to implement my safety nets, something I haven’t had to do in a while. Call my husband. Breathe. Cry on the phone. Lock myself in my office for a few minutes. Breathe. Take the rest of the day off. Watch the West Wing. Snuggle my baby. Drink water. Breathe. Eat cereal in bed. Watch the Olympics. Go to bed early. Breathe.
And today, though the ocean is always with me, today I get to float calmly in my life vest. Today I get to appreciate the beauty of my life and all those who love me.
Today I am a survivor.