In the last post (A Christian with an Anxiety Disorder), I introduced a predicament: Anxiety disorders are spiritually and physically crippling and yet Christians claim to have heavenly hope that outweighs any earthly evil. How are we to respond to anxiety disorders? In contrast to the world’s approach, which commonly views anxiety as something to eliminate, I encouraged you to view anxiety as a tool in the hands of an almighty, personal God who has good plans for your life. That sounds like a wise approach, but it’s anything but easy. The next few posts will spell out how we can do this.
What follows is the first chapter from my book, Struck Down But Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety. It introduces how anxiety crushed me (and continues to do so) and how that crushing puts us in the perfect position to hear God’s call on our lives.
To Be Crushed
I have heard it said that when God wants to do something impossible, he takes an impossible man and crushes him. I currently serve at a seminary where I teach international students what we call “theological English.” I also work with native-English speaking students, guiding them in how to write various types of theology. When I am not working, my passion is to write about theology myself. In 2006, if you would have told me that this would be my occupation and passion, I would have said, “Impossible.” I had no interest in attending seminary and learning theology. I loved to write, but I did not know where my place would be in the writing world. That was before God crushed me. So much for impossibilities.
Let me start where my life took a darker turn. There is a history of alcoholism in the men of my family, and I struggled with this during my college years, especially after my father died from a brain tumor in 2004. I was searching for certainty and consolation, and I found in alcohol a warm illusion of both. First, alcohol does not bring you certainty, but it focuses your attention on concrete sensations, which is a counterfeit of certainty. It really ends up only exacerbating the problem: in the end, we are more uncertain under the influence of alcohol than we were before we picked up the glass. I wanted to feel God somehow, and feeling the fuzzy effects of alcohol was a substitute I settled for. Second, alcohol does not bring consolation. Again, it brings the illusion of consolation, a counterfeit—a fleeting sense that things will somehow be okay because you feel okay.
Looking back, I can see how my struggle with alcohol was putting me in a perfect place to be crushed by God—not destroyed, but crushed. There is a great difference between the two. To be destroyed is to be dissolved without hope of recovery or resolution. To be destroyed is to be no more. But to be crushed is to be reduced, to be emptied of all the false hopes of self-sufficiency. To be crushed is to realize that you are thoroughly and unequivocally dependent.
My crushing began one night after a week-long bender. I was waiting on the curb outside one of the dormitories for my girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife (another impossibility made possible). I remember the comfortable evening air, just hanging over the campus. I breathed it in with a sort of exhaustion. As I was taking in the smell of grass and a hint of smoke from a nearby cigarette, a wave of heat crept down from my head and then rushed through my back and legs. My breath grew shallow; my throat closed up, and I couldn’t swallow.
“I think I’m having a panic attack,” I said. I didn’t even know what that meant, but I assumed it was something I couldn’t recover from without medical help. I begged her to drive me to the hospital, but every step I took towards the car added tension in my chest and shoulders. Within a matter of seconds, the whole world looked dark and foreign and terrifying. I knew it as soon as we started driving: I was going to die, right here in this car on the way to a hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania. This was it.
I would love to tell you that I met that moment with resolve, but that would be a lie. I was not brave. I was full of panic and terror, losing more control of myself every second.
The next twenty minutes were hell on wheels. A few miles into the car ride I started yelling and praying for help. An 18-wheeler churned down the dark country road in front of us. “Can you go around him!” “It’s a double line! And there’s curves!” My future wife was crying. “Please, just GO AROUND HIM!” She swerved and sped around him, both of us hoping that no one was around the bend on the opposite side.
I took out my phone and dialed 911. I’ll never forget that conversation with the operator. It went something like this:
“911. What’s your emergency?”
“Yea, I’m having a panic attack! I can’t breathe!”
“Okay, sir. Can you tell me where you are?”
“I’m in the car, on my way to the hospital . . . in Hershey.”
“So, you’re already on your way to the hospital?”
“Alright, well we can’t do anything if you’re already driving to the hospital.”
“Okay, well, can you at least pray for me?!”
“Sir, if you’re already on your way to the hospital, there’s nothing I can do from here.”
“But can you pray for me?!”
That was the first time in my life I remember really asking for prayer. It wasn’t the sort of asking that I had done before: the kind where you don’t really care that much if the person prays or not. This was real earnest pleading. It felt like the only option I had left. Even in that moment of raw panic, I was thrown by her response. Maybe she didn’t believe in prayer, or in God. Maybe she was just embarrassed. I’ll never know. But I’ll always remember what it felt like to ask for something in desperation and not receive it.
A few minutes later, they checked me into the hospital. I sat on a bed in the hallway for about an hour, sipping ice water. My friends came to make sure I was alright. Doctors told me that I had a reaction to a type of Tylenol cold medicine and that my symptoms would disappear over the next few hours. I was relieved, even though I still felt the same way: like an alien in my own skin, struggling to perform the basic bodily functions of breathing and speaking.
The symptoms didn’t go away. I got back to my dorm room late at night and tried to lie down. But I couldn’t keep my shoulders in place. My throat felt as thin as a pinhole. I tried to massage my own shoulders and heard a crunching sound (one of the body’s ways of reacting to stress). The next morning, I walked around the campus, trying to shake off the feelings. But they wouldn’t leave. So, I went to the nurse’s office. I had to take deep breaths in between sentences just to tell her what had happened and how I felt. What should’ve taken thirty seconds took ten minutes. After a few moments, she handed me a brown paper bag. “Breathe into this,” she said. “You’re really fighting? Do you want me to call an ambulance to take you back to the hospital?” I nodded my head and took another deep breath. My chest ached from breathing so deeply. “Yea, yea I think so.”
Fifteen minutes later I was back in the same hospital: my first ambulance ride. Laying on a gurney, holding an oxygen mask to my face while two teenagers wearing EMS shirts made awkward conversation—not exactly the stuff of Hollywood. They called my mom and my future wife, who met me at the hospital. The doctors drew blood and ran tests, but they didn’t find anything. “There’s nothing wrong with you physically,” said one of the doctors. “You’re free to go.” Free to go? Free to go? My own skin felt like a prison. I was an alien among humans. I wasn’t free to go anywhere.
I never seek out controversy, but I looked straight into his eyes and said, “I’m not leaving here until you give me something.” He came back a few minutes later holding a pill bottle filled with Ativan—a drug that essentially slows down your brain. Clutching the pill case in my hand, I walked out of the hospital with my mother and girlfriend. I felt delirious, confused, and frustrated. But more than anything, I felt helpless. I felt . . . crushed.
I decided to go home to rest and figure out what was happening to me. For the next few weeks, I was made of fractured glass, ready to shatter at the simplest challenge. Everything required effort. I lost 30 lbs. in about three weeks because I stopped eating. It was difficult enough to breathe and swallow; eating was a chore. I was also extremely sensitive and hypervigilant. I have since heard others who struggle with anxiety say that they “could not feel comfortable in their own skin.” That’s a good way of putting it. It’s like being scared and having that feeling of horror of surprise never really go away.
My mind flapped wildly in the wind. I was too aware of myself, looking at my fingers as I ate and my feet as I walked. Every few seconds I would feel the backs and tops of my teeth with my tongue. I tried not to look at myself in the mirror. It felt too bizarre.
I couldn’t find peace. I couldn’t find stillness. I couldn’t find rest. I couldn’t find contentment or joy or even distraction. All I could do was feel terrible and terrified for no reason. That was the most disturbing part.
After several days, I remember saying to myself, “Nobody can live like this. I’m not even a real person.” This was my rock bottom: weak, joyless, hopeless, and spread thin. I couldn’t even function socially. I shut out my future wife, who is the most important person to me. I shut her out not because I wanted to or even because I chose to; I simply could not process anything outside of myself. I was paralyzed by panic and hypervigilance for no reason. What was happening to me? And why?
I learned one thing very, very quickly: when you hit rock bottom, your ears and eyes open up. It’s hard to describe. It’s like a fog clearing in your mind. You see and hear more of the world around you, and everything looks different. More to the point, in this newly cleared landscape of everyday experience, you listen for anything and anyone that might offer hope. You don’t hear much, which is disconcerting, but you’re still listening. And if you hit the bottom hard enough, you might even turn to an old hope, something long neglected, perhaps even . . . the voice of God? Could God—who had really only ever been a sweet-sounding idea in my childhood—be real?
I rummaged around for my father’s old Bible. I found it on my brother’s bookshelf: tattered and well-worn. The black leather cover was soft and flimsy from use. I opened to Genesis and began reading. And I couldn’t stop.
I can’t say why, exactly. It wasn’t like I could hear an audible voice telling me that everything would be okay, that one day I would not feel or think that my own skin was a prison, that I could have peace if I only believed—none of that. I just had a sense that this was the only way out, if there was a way out. That sense kept me focused on every creased, highlighted, pen-marked line of that little black Bible.
I might not have heard the voice of God yet, but I was listening more intently than I ever had before. Everything else—places, food, people—became quiet. In between waking and sleeping, I was always clinging to that Bible, staring at my strange fingers running over the tiny letters. I brought it with me everywhere and began to feel as if my life was becoming linear. My days were oriented around sequences of sentences, chapters, and books. The printed page gave crystal clear directions to my crushed soul: move from left to right, top to bottom. Then turn the page and repeat. My mind did not flap as wildly in the wind when I was reading.
The mental anguish I experienced for those first weeks and months was enough to wipe away everything else from my life: alcohol, schoolwork, relationships, aspirations. Things became very simple: survive and bring that little black Bible with you everywhere. These are the goals of someone who’s been crushed.
God, I am crushed.
I am low. I am listening.
You make me breathe and think and talk.
You uphold me at every moment.
You are all to me.
Please, in my smallness, build me,
Brick by brick,
Into that temple of your Spirit
So that my smallness
Finds strength in your greatness.