My God has never failed me. Not even once. There has never been a situation in my life where I looked around and said, “Wow, God really missed the mark on this one.” As I write this blog, I hold my breath. It’s so… vulnerable and exposing. In that lies the freedom of His promise.
To say I had “anxiety issues” may be the understatement of the century. At least the decade. One morning in early 2005, a couple of months after my second child was born, I woke up with a stomach ache. It was different than anything I had ever really experienced before. Sort of a turning, burning, twisting sensation. Nothing to keep me in bed or anything, but definitely uncomfortable. I went on with my day and by 9am, it had subsided. The next morning, it was there again. After about a week, I sulked out of the clinic on the Navy base we lived on at the time in Virginia, with an explanation of “postpartum hormones.” Great.
A couple of weeks later… I woke up a different person.
When I opened my eyes that morning, I knew right away that something had changed. Everything seemed different. The room smelled intensely of the shampoo my husband had used that morning. The light peering through the curtains felt devastatingly blinding. The crisp spring air hurt my skin and when I looked in the mirror it was almost like I didn’t recognize myself. The angles of my face seemed like those of a stranger, yet I was hyper aware that it was me. I’ll never forget that morning. I pushed my way through the day and felt like I was watching myself in a movie or something. I can’t really think of a better way to describe it. I didn’t realize that this was my new normal.
I consoled myself with what the doctor had said and just kept pushing on, convinced it would subside. With this sensation came a feeling of numbness. I had no emotion. No joy, no anger, no sadness, not even fear, oddly enough. There was just nothing there. The first emotion I remember having felt in weeks came as I stood sobbing in my living room at 3am after vacuuming the carpet for maybe the 5th time that day, frustrated beyond reason because I couldn’t get the lines in the carpet straight enough to bring me satisfaction. It felt chaotic and out of control. As Spring turned to summer I couldn’t blame my bleeding knuckles on the cold air anymore as I had to come to terms with the fact that, like many other days, I had washed my hands upwards of 70 times in the last 24 hours. I knew because I counted. It wasn’t until my mother-in-law came to visit somewhere around that time, that I realized that I wasn’t hiding things as well as I believed. “She’s just not herself,” I heard her whisper to my husband as they stood in the kitchen. “Something’s really wrong with her, Christopher.” I sat on the floor upstairs and sobbed into the pile of laundry I was folding after having washed the same load maybe 4 times until it “felt right”.
It really was just all down hill from there. I was scared to say anything to anyone for fear of being deemed “crazy”. That small, over used, generalizing word terrified me. Life moved on and was really pretty sweet. I really didn’t have a care in the world, only you never would have known it by the chaos going on in my head. There was no question that I had developed OCD. Not the kind we all joke about when we make fun of someone’s need for organization. The kind that takes over your life. There’s not enough room in the Internet for me to list all of the little “quirks” I developed or the thousands of completely nonsensical thoughts that ruled my daily existence and convinced me that, without this ritualistic behavior, that something horrible would happen. That if I didn’t touch the upper right corner of every mirror I passed, and every doorway I went through, that my husband would surely die in a car wreck on his way to or from work. Eventually this turned into the need to touch every right angle I saw and if I missed one, I couldn’t seem to push forward with whatever I was doing. If I didn’t wear the same necklace every single day, I was convinced one of my children would fall horribly ill or be injured. I knew it made no sense. I knew it was nothing short of insanity. I just couldn’t stop it no matter how hard I tried. I was in its grip. The pounding heart, the blurred vision, the spinning head, the tingling in my limbs, the muscle aches, the constant headaches, the slurred speech, the stomach pain and overwhelming fits of fear that no amount of hand washing or corner touching could calm. I was terrified of the world. I felt like I felt every emotion of every person I met and none of my own. I holed up in my house. I didn’t sleep anymore. I was paralyzed by fear that wasn’t even really founded in anything.
I once heard an anxiety attack described as “the feeling you get when you miss a step on a flight of stairs, only it lasts for 20 minutes.” My attacks were coming every hour and would sometimes last for 45 minutes. They were always the worst in the morning. I’d get up well before the sun to be able to work up the courage to drive my oldest daughter to kindergarten. The one mile drive seemed like an eternity. So many other cars, all just accidents waiting to end my children’s lives. So many things I couldn’t control. Certain stores just pushed me over the edge and I’d leave full shopping carts in the frozen food section because my brain was just on overload. The lights, the 4 door handles I had to touch to get to where I was standing, the 10 shopping carts I had to inspect until I found the one that “felt right” then wondered how many other germ-infested hands had been on it that day. The crumpled tissue someone had dropped on the floor. Why was it there? What did that person have that necessitated the tissue? Did my son touch it? Did he breathe the air close to it. He was bound to get sick. We need to leave immediately. Before long I just didn’t really go anywhere that I wasn’t obligated to go. As long as I was at home, I could control my environment and I didn’t have to explain my behavior to anyone. I could put my son down for a nap and hide in my closet in silent fear of nothing beyond my own thoughts, until he woke up. Then slowly, gently, there in the silence, God pushed on my heart.
I didn’t really grow up in church. We went sort of sporadically, and more than anything were just sort of “Christmas and Easter” sort of people. I would say I was a believer but I did not, by any means, really have a personal relationship with Christ. When I say, “God pushed on my heart,” I mean… it was a nudge. It was the recognition of an emptiness that was allowing me to spiral into deeper and darker places. I longed for peace. I longed for it. I longed for it in the way that your lungs long for air when you’re underwater too long – a sense of panic was setting in. When it doesn’t really occur to you to pray, you just wander around looking for answers that just aren’t there. Doctors threw meds at me. Some took the edge off. Some didn’t. Some just turned me into a walking zombie. I didn’t care about anything. As someone who, in the past, had often been chastised for being overly compassionate or overly sensitive, I had reached a point where it was just all I had in me to make it through the day. My marriage was suffering and I was too busy in my own head to notice. I was failing as a mother and just couldn’t find the energy or clarity to even try to be better. I was desperate on a level I had never known.
I was at the end. I just couldn’t go any further. I needed something and I didn’t even know what. So God moved. God moved the heart of one of my dearest friends. Someone I had known since our husbands were stationed aboard the same ship in San Diego. They had settled in a town very near where we were and had begun attending a church there. She pushed me. She asked me numerous times to come to church. The church she wanted me to go to was nearly 45 minutes away and the thought of that drive, the new people, the everything-ness of stepping out of my box felt so overwhelming. She asked enough times that I finally agreed. Of course I got lost on the way there and by the time I arrived, I was frazzled. My hypersensitive body was uncomfortable in the chairs and my eardrums twitched under the bass of the loud music. I kept reminding myself to just breathe. The sermon started and I couldn’t tell you what the pastor spoke about. I listened intently, but it was more than the words. It was the feeling. It was a feeling that caused tears to stream down my face uncontrollably for over an hour. There was something special in that room and I started to feel the tiny breath of peace. That made me go back. Week after week I began to crave that comfort. Even if it was just for 70 minutes a week. I needed it. The rest of the week remained unchanged with the exception of one thing. The music they played on Sundays had become calming and reassuring and I sought it out on the radio during the week. In the midst of my darkest moments, it spoke to me. God’s words, His message, playing softly in the background while I trembled there on the floor.
In the middle of a horrible panic attack one day, I crawled into the shower. Fully clothed I sat on the floor under the warm water and begged God to kill me. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t make it through one more minute. I hadn’t really prayed since I was a child… maybe ever before… from my soul. All of the fear, all of the pain, all of the blatant anger just poured from my heart and mouth as I cried out to God. “WHY are you letting me suffer like this!? What did I do!?? You’re taking my marriage, You’re taking my children, God! If You love me, how can You let this go on!!? Please, God, please just take me. I don’t want this life anymore.” I sobbed the sort of sob where you just can’t cry hard enough to get it all out. I hit the tiles on the floor and the walls and begged for relief. I plotted my death down to the way my husband would deliver the news to our families, to our children. I prayed to die.
Despite my begging, nothing happened. I took a breath, and then another. In my lowest moment, in the darkest part of my being, I finally found Him. He had been there all along, just patiently waiting for me to need Him badly enough to step outside of myself and reach back out to Him. “Jesus Paid it All” played from the speaker on the bathroom counter. I recognized the words because my grandma, Emma, would sometimes sing that song gently to herself while she cooked.
“I hear the Savior say, thy strength indeed is small. Child of weakness, watch and pray. Find in me, thine all and all. Jesus paid it all. All to Him I owe. Sin had left a crimson stain, He washed it white as snow.”
I took it in… I took a breath… I made it through the next minute and my heart slowed. I made it to the next chorus and the desperation lessened. The song changed to “Lift High”.
“Broken people call His name. Helpless children praise the King. Nothing brings Him greater fame, when broken people call His name. Lift high, your chains undone. All rise, exalt the Son. Jesus Christ, the Holy One. We lift our eyes to you. Sinners all exalt the Son. Your ransom paid and freedom won…”
Freedom. Freedom. Please God. As I sat there, pitiful and sopping wet I realized that God wasn’t causing me to suffer. God wasn’t robbing me of my marriage and of my family. God wasn’t making me go crazy or just sitting idly by while I fell apart. He was calling me all along. He was battling for my heart already.
I pulled myself to my feet and dried off. I’m not saying I emerged from that shower a new person. I actually pretty much felt the same. What I did have that I didn’t have before: hope. I believe God used that music to speak life into me. That by singing His praises, I was slowly finding peace. Calm. Something I hadn’t known in years. The struggle was REAL. I showed up at church every Sunday. I just kept going. Eventually, I was able to focus on the words of the pastor’s message, take notes even. It took a WHILE. Before I knew it I was lifting my hands and soaking in the worship music, letting it touch my heart and seep into my soul, praising our God, my God. My God that loves me and lifts me and gives me hope everlasting.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” [1 Peter 5:7, NIV]
“People, in every situation put your trust in God; pour out your heart before him; for God is a refuge for us.” [Psalm 62:8 ISV)
I learned to pray. It changed my life. Instead of hiding in my closet, I prayed. When I felt the need to start all of my OCD rituals, I prayed. I sang to myself. I blared worship music in my house to keep me constantly reminded of who was actually in charge. One week the pastor even preached a message on his own anxiety struggles. That he, himself, had been suicidal and struggled with irrational anxiety. He heard me ask for prayer from one of the pastors there and spent time sending me encouraging e-mails on how he came out the other side of his own battles. He encouraged me to seek out the right doctor who understood the nature of spiritual healing and that anxiety is a tool of the enemy. He told me there was always a reason for that level of generalized anxiety and to hunt down an answer while fighting with the strongest weapon I would ever know: faith. He reminded me that “worry fades when we know our futures are secured in Christ”. I was baptized on October 18, 2009. I held onto the momentum. The seed that had been planted in my heart. Even on my darkest days I could remember that this world is not my home. I listened. I learned. This struggle was not forever. It was not permanent. Help was on its way.
“There may be pain in the night, but joy comes in the morning.” [Psalm 30:5, NLV]
“For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” [Jeremiah 29:11, NIV]
I’ve often wondered why. Why did I need to go through all of this? Why did it have to last so long? Why did I have to suffer so? This evil, this thing… it nearly wrecked everything I held dear. Why did it have to go so far?! Over the last five years I’ve realized the simple answer: because He said so. I will not sit here and say that I’m “cured”. I still have bad days. Let’s be real. They are, however, much, much different than what they once were. I’ve learned to control the thoughts, the need for rituals, and most of the time, the attacks. When the adrenaline begins to wash over me, I am able to remind myself that my God is in control and that I am not, in fact, dying. What used to go on for 45 minutes of every hour or two, now lasts less than 30 seconds and are less than once a week. I learned to prayerfully meditate and to avoid “triggers”. I learned how food and lifestyle affect my body. Eventually I didn’t need medication to stay calm anymore. I started to feel human again. We were even blessed with a third, sassy, spirit filled little baby girl.
I learned just a couple of months ago that an undetected autoimmune disease attacked my adrenal glands, likely during my pregnancy in 2005, and caused my body to not only gain 100 pounds, but send chemical messages to my brain that told me, on a loop, that my life was in danger and sent overwhelming doses of adrenaline coursing through my veins almost constantly, effecting my heart and lots of other things. After 10 years of looking for something that made sense, I finally hunted down the answer I was encouraged to seek and through the blessing of medical intervention, I can work on healing my body as well. I HAD to go through that time. I had to suffer. Yes, God could have touched me and taken away every bit of pain in an instant… but He didn’t. God knows me. He knows I’m stubborn as all get out. He knows that I wouldn’t learn anything from a spontaneous healing. If I hadn’t had to go day in and day out learning how to cope with this world in a new way, I never would have learned to rely on God throughout every minute of every day. Some people need coffee, I need Jesus.
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phillipeans 4:6-7, NIV]
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” [Matthew 11: 28-30, NIV]
So… this is my testimony. My story of healing and redemption. My reminder that sometimes… in the words of our beloved Pastor, Danny Rivers and much like reading this post… “it might take a while”.
Published by Leslie Bellieu
Photos by Leslie Bellieu