Monday, July 13, 2009

Panic and faith

I get panic attacks. If you know me, you know this. I tend to bring it up, not to get attention, but because I need folks to understand that if I start acting very weird in a situation that is otherwise totally normal, it's because my body is telling me that I'm getting ready to die.

That's basically what a panic attack is. Your body and your mind get into a loop where you are having panicked thoughts, and your body is reacting as though you are being dangled over the edge of a cliff by a shoestring. Some folks who write about panic attacks --which are evidently very, very common-- say it actually starts with the body and your mind starts to spin with thoughts in order to explain what's going on in your body. They say that if you can calm your body down, your mind will follow suit. Sometimes this kind of works --deep breathing takes the edge off-- but it's not quite that simple.

When I first started getting panic attacks, it was a profound challenge to my faith. In fact, it still is. Rationally, I know that no matter what my emotional state, God is in control, and He is a good God whose modus operandi is love. But I never had these panic attacks until 2001. I had had fears, and I certainly had depression in my teenage years, but I had been at a place for a long time where I could deal with these things through prayer and reading the Bible. These panic attacks responded to none of that. I prayed, I read my Bible, I had other people pray over me. Nothing worked. It was the first time in my life that my faith offered me no relief, and that only compounded the fear. Was I not saved? Had God turned His back on me? What was going on?

The church doesn't generally do a great job of dealing with mental illness --or illness in general-- and the teachings that are out there tend to be pretty unsatisfactory, particularly in churches that subscribe to some version of the prosperity gospel. The mystics offer some sense of comraderie (St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul and Mother Teresa's journals come most immediately to mind... I know there are many others) but few answers. Only the belief that He is strong, and He is faithful, even if everything in my mind and heart is screaming otherwise for reasons I can't explain.

So I've done a lot of reading on my own, and I continue to read constantly about the brain. I understand a little better now about how this is a biological process, part of being on the earth with a feeble, failing body, which includes the brain. I understand also that I am not alone in having these attacks, but that folks don't talk about them. So I do, and about 95% of the time, the people in my life are fabulous about it (and occasionally they either admit that they have them, too, or that they know someone who does). When they're not, I have fairly little trouble parting ways with them if they decide that's what they want. In my better moments, I consider the attacks to be my version of Paul's thorn in the flesh, which he begged God to remove, and God said no, that Paul would learn through this that "My power is made perfect in weakness". Kinda harsh sounding, but God is constantly having to train us to rely on Him so we don't barrel down the path of self-destruction through self-idolatry. I guess it makes sense.

So this is my paradoxical weakness: my faith is threatened, made seemingly less legitimate, by a fear I often cannot control. I cannot take pride in my faith, because it, like everything else in my mortal existence, is a feeble, patchwork thing, prone to failing and breaking down.

It's 2:30 am. I got up about an hour ago because I was having one of the attacks and could not get it under control. I opened my Bible --which I honestly don't do very much anymore-- and that ribbon bookmark thing was at Psalm 34, which I read over and over and over again, and am going to repost here, copied and pasted from Bible Gateway. The whole Psalm is comforting, but I was particularly comforted by verse 4: "I sought the LORD, and He answered me, and delivered me from all my fears." David doesn't say that God will deliver him from the source of the fear (although he had just managed to avoid being killed), but from the fear itself. I pray God will do the same for me, but even if He doesn't, He's still God, and I'm still His through Christ.

Psalm 34

The LORD, a Provider and Deliverer.
A Psalm of David when he feigned madness before Abimelech, who drove him away and he departed.

1 I will bless the LORD at all times;
His praise shall continually be in my mouth.
2 My soul will make its boast in the LORD;
The humble will hear it and rejoice.
3 O magnify the LORD with me,
And let us exalt His name together.

4 I sought the LORD, and He answered me,
And delivered me from all my fears.
5 They looked to Him and were radiant,
And their faces will never be ashamed.
6 This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him
And saved him out of all his troubles.
7 The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear Him,
And rescues them.

8 O taste and see that the LORD is good;
How blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him!
9 O fear the LORD, you His saints;
For to those who fear Him there is no want.
10 The young lions do lack and suffer hunger;
But they who seek the LORD shall not be in want of any good thing.
11 Come, you children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of the LORD.
12 Who is the man who desires life
And loves length of days that he may see good?
13 Keep your tongue from evil
And your lips from speaking deceit.
14 Depart from evil and do good;
Seek peace and pursue it.

15 The eyes of the LORD are toward the righteous
And His ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the LORD is against evildoers,
To cut off the memory of them from the earth.
17 The righteous cry, and the LORD hears
And delivers them out of all their troubles.
18 The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

19 Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
But the LORD delivers him out of them all.
20 He keeps all his bones,
Not one of them is broken.
21 Evil shall slay the wicked,
And those who hate the righteous will be condemned.
22 The LORD redeems the soul of His servants,
And none of those who take refuge in Him will be condemned.


Sarah Notton said...

Amy - thank you for sharing this. I've been there too, and it sucks on so many levels. Sending supportive thoughts & prayers your way.

Fox Confessor said...

I have them... rarely, but I have them. The world around me becomes a jumbled mess. I can't make sense of any of it. I can't breathe. My heart races and I suddenly want to flail out against everything around me.

Thank you for sharing. That Psalm was very appropriate. God bless you.