It was the middle of the night several years ago, yet the memory is strong even today. I awoke suddenly, not by something external, jarred from within. In a few seconds, I was convinced, by heavy breathing, tightness in my chest, nausea in my gut, fogginess in my mind, and the echo in my ears there was something terribly wrong. I couldn’t breathe. I felt wholly threatened by something. I moved from my bed down on the floor and put my feet up on the edge of the mattress. I had to get a rush of blood to my head before I lost consciousness. I wasn’t sure what was wrong, but I was sure whatever it was, it was terrible. I thought I was dying.
“I have to get to the hospital,” I frantically told my husband as he peered down at me troubled and confused.
A quick car ride later, I trembled violently as I walked up to reception. I don’t remember what I told the gal who greeted me at the Emergency Department but I must have made it clear that I had to be seen by a doctor and fast.
After an array of exams and tests, the conclusion made by the doctor, a man seasoned in his career who spoke very decidedly, was that I had experienced— not any of the diagnosis I was expecting appropriate for such dramatic symptoms— was a panic attack.
The news was completely unexpected. It hadn’t even entered my mind that this was even a possibility. And I felt embarrassed. I would like to believe that I am sympathetic to the fragility of human mental capacity. I know first-hand how easily persuaded the human brain can be to adjust to negative stimuli. I have empathized with many others who have suffered various breakdowns. For years, I had thought through the implications of different perspectives and movements within Counseling and Christian Psychology and, while I have attempted to move toward a more holistic view of the fallen soul nature and fallen biology of man, my prejudices somehow remained intact when it came to me. Even as a person who claims to be well-versed in frailty with reasonably low view of our human anthropology, I had the realization that I never thought I would experience such an event. I had much trouble being so kind to myself as to allow compassion to assuage my embarrassment. Panic attacks seemed reasonable for anyone given the right set of circumstances, yet I supposed I believed I was somehow immune. Yet, printed on the discharge paperwork— my discharge paperwork— was the confirmation. I didn’t need the kind of medical intervention I had thought, perhaps a heart catheterization or treatment for a blood clot. I needed an anti-anxiety medication and some coping skills with long-term therapy.
I want to back up just a little. The point at which this event happened was relentless and difficult. Within a few months, I had been anesthetized multiple times. I don’t know about you, but having someone put me to sleep and cut my body open in some way or another is utterly terrifying. I am naturally a calculated, involved person and relinquishing control to this degree is just about as scary as scary can be. It took all willpower to move my legs and feet to walk into the surgery center over and over again. I hated it. Yet it was what I needed. My body, in order to be well—or at least better, had to be broken and repaired over and over again.
The breaking broke me down. And this was my body’s response. This was my mind’s response. I felt threatened beyond mental capacity.
A few years later, another set of circumstances, panic happened again. And then again. Body takes over and fight, flight, or freeze ensues. Again, jarring. Again, embarrassment. Again, coming far enough out of the thick of it to grow in acceptance and arm myself with some kind of negotiation. Over the past several years and even recently, I have come to realize that the body does keep the score (ref: The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk) and this will be a part of who I am—a person affected by traumas that shapes part of the story God is writing in me.
At some point, I was introduced to the remedies that has helped the most. First, I have learned acceptance and anticipation. Being mindful and learning to listen to my body, leaning in to feel my humanness, has lessened anxiety. This mindfulness coupled with learning a coping mechanism that utilizes senses to ground the brain in reality and decrease the self-preservation response has helped me cope (Hint: this is important. It sounds quite sacramental, doesn’t it?). Self-care has been a must. I am not divine.
I have learned through the years that the same processes that are at work in my flesh are paralleled in my soul. I see it over and over again. Until my flesh completely fails, self-preservation, the very God-given process that lends itself to do just that—self-preserve—Is something my spirit mimics. Though this is true, I am not called to save or preserve my own soul. I cannot do it. In the same way that I ground myself in the truths around me physically, I also have a strategy for negotiating soul panic. And the best part, what is born of being open to this process gives space for seeing the hope of resurrection.
This is the whole reason for writing in this season. I hope to work through this—first on the whole, and then share the way this has manifested itself in different areas of life. In the same vein, I hope to offer thoughts that shape expectations for living in the hope of resurrection without circumventing or denying the crosses we still carry here. I hope you will join me!