According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million people over the age of 18.1
I am one of those 40 million people. As far back as I can remember, anxiety has dominated my life. Being anxious is part of the human condition- it’s the nerves before a presentation or a big game, a first date, or a job interview. However, anxiety becomes an issue when it hinders decision making and holds you back from living the life you want to live. I can’t tell you the number of times my anxiety has talked me out of potential opportunities because deep down, I didn’t feel worthy of said opportunities or the imagined potential disaster. As the saying goes, “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.”
Anxiety is a bully, taunting and mocking you constantly. If anxiety brings along his buddy, depression, then you’re in for a really bad, no good, awful day. In my experience with anxiety, I for many years did not label it as anxiety. I and others thought of me as “quiet,” or “shy,” or my personal favorite, “socially awkward.” Though great strides have been made in the medical and psychiatric fields concerning the awareness, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health issues, there is still a stigma associated with mental illness. For those with anxiety, depression, or any other illness, having to fight our inner battle with the outside perceptions of others can delay our healing process as it did with mine. Mental illness is a serious issue, it should never be joked about or dismissed. Just because someone doesn’t “look sick” doesn’t mean their issues should be swept aside with flippant comments such as “What do you have to be depressed about?” “It’s all in your head.” “You need to do more of this (pray, give it to God, etc),or “Get over it.” If a friend or family member had cancer would you tell them, “Turn that frown upside down and suck it up”? I would hope not. People with mental illness are not weak or lazy, as they are some of the strongest people out there because they fight every day to get up and try to live a “normal” and highly functional life. Compound a mental illness with any number of autoimmune diseases, and life becomes even more difficult.
Since I have done my own research into my anxiety, I can truly see how much it has controlled my life. When my anxiety was triggered, physical symptoms would follow: deep breathing, shaking hands, a racing heartbeat, the “fight or flight” response, becoming agitated, stuttering and stammering over my words, all of which made want to dig a hole and hide. These attacks would come on during social situations such as job interviews, leaving the house to go to work, or simply going to family gatherings. However, people often comment about how calm I am and never appear to be rattled, which in all honesty is my learned ability not to show the outside world what’s going on inside of my mind. The next time you watch ducks swimming on a lake or pond, just remember those calm, peaceful birds are peddling their legs in the water as fast as they can; I believe that is a fitting analogy for how I have managed to hide my anxiety.
I tried different techniques over the years to deal with my anxiety and depression. The first is that sheer will power “put your nose to the grindstone” mentality. That only wore me out and wore down my nose. I came to faith in Jesus Christ back in 1999, which I hoped my faith, studying the Bible, praying, and “Let go and let God” would free me from this darkness. After all, Jesus said not to worry (Matthew 6:25) and the Apostle Paul said, “Be anxious for nothing,”(Philippians 4:6), plus there are 365 verses in the entire Bible that tell us to “fear not,” so why be anxious? However, I began to learn that my depression and anxiety were not going to go away by saying prayers or shouting out Scripture. I came to the rational, logical, conclusion that my battle was not with demons or doubt, nor was it because a talking snake convinced two people in a garden to eat a piece of fruit,but there was something wrong with me mentally, biologically, and chemically, which could be treated.
I tried to deal first with the depression and made the decision in 2008 to talk to my family doctor and he prescribed my Prozac, which I took until 2010, when I felt good enough to try to conquer depression on my own. Things were good for a couple of years, then life began to pile up on me: my health declined, my wife had problems with her health, grief and loss, family issues, infertility, a crisis of faith, and being laid off from my middle management job and starting over at the bottom, to changing careers at mid-life. I could not cope and went back on the Prozac from 2016 until mid-2018, when the Prozac stopped being effective. My doctor then prescribed me Celexa, which is also used to treat anxiety. I do feel better mentally, though I am not completely free from depression and anxiety, I do have more good days than bad ones.
Though my faith is not what it used to be, I have found comfort in relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises, listening to classical/instrumental music, and trying to implement Stoic philosophy into my life. Stoicism is a practical philosophy, which in a nutshell is managing your responses to what happens to you and determining if the event is within or without of your control. Stoicism is incidentally one of the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Though I know that my war with anxiety and depression are far from over, I have won many recent battles and that gives me hope. My hope for you is that if you are struggling with your mental health, please seek treatment and determine what is best for you. You don’t have to live life as a prisoner of your mind. The keys are within reach, grab them and work on freeing yourself. Stay encouraged, there is hope, there is healing. You can’t erase what has been written,but you can change the narrative. Be the hero of your own story.
“Long is the way and hard, that out of hell leads up to light.”
-John Milton, Paradise Lost
The search for relief and answers often leaves us with more frustration and questions, as we can come up to another dead end in the maze.
The suffering, whether physical or mental changes you in ways more profound than you ever anticipated. In the beginning, you may “Let go and let God,” or you may offer up incessant prayers, hoping God will hear and move on your behalf. However, the pain continues or worsens and you begin to doubt. You begin to take your “spiritual inventory” to see if you are hindering God’s work- confessing sins, speaking scripture, and doing everything you can do be a good believer. All of these things- confession, reading scripture, and good deeds- are perfectly good things to do, but there should be a balanced approach to our life’s problems.
I have spent the last fifteen years seeking the balance between reason and faith. I have learned through my own experience that sometimes you have to be the one in control. You must realize that you have the tools and resources at your disposal to face your problem. Like most life lessons, I learned the importance of balance the hard way through trial and error.
On my blog, I have shared stories about my health struggles with Celiac disease and other issues, but it was my Ulcerative Colitis that served as the catalyst for this balance. Ulcerative Colitis, an autoimmune disease, is inflammation in the colon, which can cause frequent diarrhea, stomach cramps, bleeding, anemia, weight loss, and other things that disrupt a perfectly normal life.
I was diagnosed with UC in 2000, and it went into remission until 2002, when it came back with a vengeance. I was young and naive in my faith, thus I underestimated my opponent. I believed that this would pass like it did the first time, but it didn’t. I prayed everyday, asking God for healing, claiming healing, standing on the word, confessing sins, every cliche you can think of, I did. No results.
Accepting the fact that maybe divine healing wasn’t “God’s will,” I sought medical treatment in 2004- after I lost thirty-four pounds and became anemic. After blood transfusions, a colonoscopy, new medications, and a lifestyle change, I was on the road to recovery and things were fine, as long as I continued the medication and watched my diet.
From time to time, however, the UC escapes and reeks havoc like the Joker breaking out of Arkham Asylum and tormenting Batman. I became anemic again in 2015 with mild inflammation of UC, though I had no outward symptoms. I started with a new doctor and a new medication that worked fine until late 2017. The newest medication has stopped working and I have been on four rounds of steroids since December. Of course, like all medications, steroids have side effects, which include weight gain, mood changes, and in some cases, cause long-term bone damage.
I have now started another medication-a biologic injection to get my UC under control. As of this writing, I am in the beginning process, waiting for the medication to build-up into my system. I am hopeful the new treatment will work and I can get back to living life. I do my best to live a full life, despite the UC and other health issues.
My battle with UC has been my own long and hard way out of hell. Living with this disease for almost twenty years has changed the way I look at my faith. I’ve accepted the reality and gravity of my health and it’s not something to take lightly. Just because a book written thousands of years ago says that Jesus or God healed this person or that person, doesn’t mean it’s going to happen for every one. We read, teach, and preach about the healed and delivered, but what about the people who did not have their prayers answered? Why are their stories not in the Bible? If I were a gambling man, I would wager that for many of us, our stories would mirror those not found in the Bible more often than those that are in the Bible.
If you are battling a chronic disease and struggling with your faith, I understand. If you’re searching for a spiritual reason for the sickness, you probably won’t find it. I would encourage you to be discerning of everything you hear and read. You must use good judgment and seek out medical treatment. I would encourage you to take care of all aspects of your life- the physical, mental, and the spiritual. You have to do what is best for you and your loved ones. If you have to change your diet or take medication, you can still enjoy life to the fullest and get the most out of every day.