My Struggles with Anxiety and Depression

 

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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.

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The Soul Rain

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By Michael W. Raley

Into each soul rain must fall

To cleanse us from the everyday toxins,

To wash away our impurities.

Just as the sky and clouds become

Brighter shades of blue and white,

So too are we renewed

When the storm front passes.

The soul rain brings us relief

And helps us to grow.

As we gain another experience,

Whether storm or shower,

We become more aware

Of what we need,

Focusing and refining our desires.

Although there are times

When the rain seems to linger

For far too long,

Just reflect back on the hot and dry days

When no relief was in sight.

Let the rain cleanse you,

O my soul,

For the new day is coming.

The Ruins

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By Michael W. Raley

Life of late has been contentious,

As the weight upon my soul has been strenuous.

I search for peace of mind

Across my own lot of space and time.

However, the ocean of memory has washed away

The promise of a renewed, hopeful day.

The ocean’s salt has eroded

And the bitter acid rain has corroded

The temple’s once impenetrable foundation,

That now stands as a relic from a past civilization.

This monument long past its glory is ready to crumble

With the slightest pressure or rumble.

What once symbolized the bliss and joy of salvation

Is now littered among the ruins and dilapidation.

 

 

 

The Long Road through Hell

“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.

The Wall

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By Michael W. Raley

I stare at the wall and wonder,

“What does it all mean?”

Have I spent my time on the right causes

Or have I just blindly followed the crowd?

I moved forward to only get knocked back down;

I wonder how many more times I can get back up.

What I’ve known no longer works

And my journey begins anew.

I’m older, wiser, and more discerning;

Armed with equal amounts of skepticism and reason.

At this point, there is no turning back,

There will be no retreat, no surrender.

I will get around this wall,

Whether it be over, under, around, or through,

I’m coming, on my way to a breakthrough.

 

 

I Cannot Say

 

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By Michael W. Raley

I’ve reached a mental block,

Wedged between a wall and a giant rock.

Nothing makes sense

As my fatigue and anxiety become more intense.

I  want to break out,

But I’m also comfortable in the house.

I’m disillusioned with former truths I held dear,

As I’ve realized they were only tools for conformity and fear.

This is not the way it was supposed to be,

Bound up because I am meant to be free.

I will be free one day,

But when that will be I cannot say.

 

 

 

The Toolbox of Problem Solving

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Christmas 2000 my mom and dad bought me a large red Craftsman toolbox, complete with sets of wrenches, ratchets, hex wrenches, and sockets. (I’m doing my Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor grunt from Home Improvement as I think about it). At the time my wife and I lived in our second floor apartment, where I kept the toolbox in the living room (which is a great conversation starter if you have company). Soon we bought a house and moved out of the apartment where the tool box till this day sits in my disorganized garage.

I still have and use all of those original tools, along with others that have been added over the years. My parents gave me those tool knowing that I would need them and they equipped me for any job that may arise. I have confidence that I have “the right tool for the job,” which started with a generous gift.

Tools are great when you have to change your car’s oil, replace a garbage disposal, or put a new heating element in the dryer, but not all of life’s problems can be fixed with a 7/16 wrench. Relationship issues, health problems, finances, school, spirituality, and whatever else life throws at you require a different set of tools. There are times though, when I wanted to take a metaphorical sledgehammer to life and do a demolition and rebuild.

When it comes to life’s problems, all of us have the tools to get the job done. I believe we are equipped by God and through our own experiences to work on the problem at hand. What if we realized how empowered we truly are to face our problems? We have to take the initiative to open the toolbox. Grabbed the wrong socket? Just get the next size larger or smaller. Maybe the bolt takes a metric socket instead of a standard, you just have to see what works and what doesn’t. If the problem comes up again, you’ll remember the exact tool you need.

Have you ever prayed and prayed, and prayed some more, but nothing happened? We all have. Have you ever sat by passively waiting on God or someone else to fix a problem? Meanwhile days, weeks, months, or even years may go by with no results and we are left wondering what is wrong. We’ll shrug our shoulders and say, “It wasn’t meant to be.” or “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” But, what if our unanswered prayers are God’s way of telling us that we have the tools and we can take care of the problem ourselves? For example, I have three hammers, it would be silly of me to call my dad and ask to borrow a hammer because I have what I need.

Tools and resources are available and we must seek them out. Miracles just don’t fall out of the sky, as we have to live in the real world. The real world is a messy place, where we will get greasy and sweaty doing the hard work. We live in a time if great resources and information, thus there is no excuse for us to wallow in ignorance or portray a helpless victim.  Open up your toolbox and start with what you have, where you’re at. You have the tools you need for now and you’ll keep adding to them as you go. Work on being the master craftsman of your life.