I defended my dissertation one week before the pandemic shutdown. Five years of focused work finally concluded. The plan was to take some time, perhaps work on turning my research into a book, and just slow down a bit. Instead, panic.
In my last post, I mentioned the relentless stress that came with my particular Pentecostal upbringing. Obviously there were good times, but those moments don’t linger in my memory as much.
Recap: (minister, often sweaty) “God loves you so much that he came to earth to die so that you can have abundant life! There’s ****NOTHING!!!!**** you could ever do to change that. And I mean ever! Also, I want to mention one quick additional side note. Yes, God’s love, blah blah blah, but if you’ve sinned and don’t come forward to get prayer now, well, (okay, here’s the moment where the minister really has room for some creativity –– maybe something about “fire insurance”) you’ll burn in hell for all eternity.”
It’s funny, in a tragic sort of way, because my kids remind me daily how remarkably detailed and extravagant children’s imaginations are. We adults seem to have lost our whimsy for the world. Ever so slowly, our magical visions of what could be have been crushed by a world trying to shape us into objects for their own use.
My childhood imagination was strong, though. I remember playing outside in my backyard for hours all alone, imagining I was in the “Assault” game on American Gladiator (I had to look it up, too; Assault is where you try to use those weird guns to hit the target above the “gladiator” who is shooting tennis balls at you). The people on TV made the game look hard, but honestly, I won every time.
I also remember dreaming that the devil, accompanied by a band (obviously), slowly came up out of my bedroom floor, seeking my soul. It’s a bit fuzzy this far removed, but besides the complete terror, I think the devil was actually a pretty good musician (Charlie Daniels lied).
Those very real images –– I’m going to over-explain here: for me as a child, those metaphoric descriptions of how bad hell is were extremely real –– of fire lakes and weeping+teeth gnashing also pulled me out of bed on the regular. I’d be settling in for a good old sleep when floods of anxiety would suffocate me. “I will die, and it’s coming any day now. Alternatively, Jesus might swing back by the planet. Either way, the end is near, and hell is looming.”
So, as one does when being crushed by eternal torture, I would literally jump out of bed and start pacing, trying to get through the episode.
Before I experienced depression, I assumed I knew what it was. Hey, we all have bad days! And when I heard people talk about panic attacks, I figured it was just a little worry gone awry.
During my PhD program, my family and I lived on campus at Georgetown University, literally in one of the dorms. I know what you’re thinking, and yes, it was super nice. And also yes, students did think it was super normal and cool to have a family live in their dorm with them. And yes again, the dorm complex did catch on fire twice (thrice???).
Anyway, you might recall that COVID affects one’s breathing. Well, about three weeks into the shutdown, I found it incredibly hard to breathe. I didn’t know this at the time, but I have a significant dust allergy, and as you’ve probably guessed, an old dorm room is the greatest utopian paradise a dust mite could wish for.
(Fun fact: I’m not allergic to “dust,” and I assume almost no one is. No, I’m allergic to the dust mite’s, let’s say “droppings.” So, even if you’re not allergic, this is all still really disturbing)
I also didn’t know at the time that I had a significant issue with my sinuses in general, creating a perpetual sinus infection, further reducing my airflow.
The result: panic. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, I’m sorry. The feeling, how I experience it, is complete pain. Sure, it isn’t like an injury; rather it is pure energy intensely firing from all directions toward not dying.
I was back in my childhood headspace. Pacing. Shaking. Racing. Trying my best to get through the episode.
Then, and still today, my dreams were extremely vivid. The first dream I can remember when all this started had me gasping for air as I awoke, like I literally couldn’t breathe. In the dream, there was a terrible storm, causing massive waves to crash onto the shore where I was standing. I ran in from the water to a building close by. Right when I reached the outside of the building, a wave slammed into me, crushing me against the wall. Just when I felt the wave subside, another hit me…and another…
Floods of anxiety. Wave after wave after wave…
I’ve always loved the story where Jesus walks on water (Matthew 14). He’s like part Aquaman and part, well, I guess two parts Aquaman.
The disciples are in a boat (insert T-Pain joke), being crushed by waves, literally this time. The Bible says that Jesus was on the shore and decides to go to them. My first question is, how long of a walk was this? Did Jesus get halfway and then regret his decision to go on foot instead of in a boat? Were his sandals waterproof?
The waves were crushing the disciples. The storm was raging. It’s relentless. And Jesus shows up there.
We all know that Jesus eventually calms the storm, but Jesus found them and met them amidst the storm.
Let’s listen closer, the disciples saw Jesus in the storm.
Pentecostalism creates these sharp lines of demarcation: good v. evil; peace v. chaos; victory v. defeat.
But in life there’s both peace and anxiety. There is doubt in faith and faith in doubt.
Peter, unbelievably, voluntarily gets out of the boat, sees the storm and is afraid. Why? I think the real panic, a literal drowning feeling, is because we don’t think we can waiver and be close to Jesus, almost as if it’s a sign that we’re the problem.
Too many Pentecostal pastors and counselors have prescribed prayer and fasting for mental health challenges. Yes, God can heal, of course (feels like a disclaimer I have to say, or maybe I just want to make sure God knows that I know that God can heal, as not to confuse God when God reads this later) but let’s not forget that Jesus was in/a part of the storm.
In other words, if you’re struggling, it’s okay. Really, it is okay to struggle. You’re not alone. Not only is Jesus there, but there are millions of people around the world who know and feel your pain.
(And if you’re trying to help someone who’s struggling with their mental health, don’t suggest isolated prayer mixed with no food)
Life is movement and change, meaning it’s inevitable that we find ourselves in stormy waters at times. And just like the peaceful times, Jesus is there. Jesus is there with us when panic attacks. It’s not a sign of sin or a lack of faith. Indeed, it’s a sign that we’re human.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year-plus in meditative prayer. I’m coming to learn that healthy living isn’t about “consistency,” trying to maintain a “normal” way of living. Surprisingly, that actually seems to cause anxiety when life changes unexpectedly. No, the goal is to move with the Spirit––emphasis on constant movement. Accepting that change is inevitable and so is God’s love in and through it all brings a new kind of peace and hope.
I pray that you find that ever-changing-but-never-missing peace of God today.
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