Friday night I got to my apartment and I felt like I had run a marathon. My heart was racing. My breathing was uneven. I had a pain in my chest, like a stitch in my side from running. I felt dizzy, disconnected and dazed. I sank into a chair and put my head in my hands. Closing my eyes, I begged for mercy. I was having an anxiety attack.
I began to do some deep breathing and push some of the crazier worries out of my head – Identifying each crazy thought, tracing back the thought to its real origins, dismissing said crazy thought and moving on to the next crazy thought.
Self: “He doesn’t like you. Did you see that face he made at you?”
Me: “He was busy and has lots of things to worry about.”
Self: “Nope. He just doesn’t like you. You bug him. You’re a burden to everyone.”
Me: “That’s a pretty big generalization, Self. I am not a burden to everyone. And he doesn’t think so either. He was just busy and thinking of other things. I am fine. Really. I am. I think…”
I can usually control these episodes with mindfulness, prayer and pushing back on thoughts that don’t have their basis in facts. But, for me, anxiety is like a restless dog guarding the house against every blowing leaf in the yard. I can quiet it, but the next stray thought that drifts through my head sets it off snarling and barking, tearing at the window and snapping at everyone that comes past.
Exhausted to the point of physical pain and tears, I collapsed into bed and slept for 14 hours.
The National Institute for Mental Health estimates that 18.1% of the U.S. Population suffers from some form of anxiety disorder and of those, 22.9% of the sufferers are classified as Severe. Anxiety disorders cover things like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and General Anxiety Disorder, as well as many others. NIMH estimates that only about 36.9% of sufferers are receiving treatment for their symptoms (The National Institute of Mental Health, 2016). With an average onset of age of 11-years-old, many people who suffer from these disorders go untreated simply because they don’t recognize the signs and symptoms, or because they train themselves to self-medicate using drugs or alcohol, or other inappropriate coping tools that provide an adrenaline or endorphin rush.
My anxiety disorder went unchecked for many years. I had no idea that the paralyzing depressions that I experienced as a teenager were linked to anxiety. As I grew into adulthood, I developed inappropriate coping tools that led me into some very dark places. Only my husband’s constant vigilance and capacity for mercy kept me alive. Like that dog chasing the leaves, I would snap and bite at him and at my family. It was like I was standing outside myself and watching this person I didn’t know destroy the lives of the people I loved most in the world. Only, when the attack was over, I knew it was me who said those things and I had a very hard time forgiving myself.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation was a large part of the treatment I developed for myself. Along with prayer and time in Adoration, the accountability of having to tell someone else what I had done and said helped me stop and think – but only sometimes. It wasn’t until I was in my forties, when a loved one was being treated for the same paralyzing anxiety, that I realized what I had.
When I woke up Saturday morning, I lay in bed listening to my husband shower and smelling the coffee brewing in the kitchen. I just lay there for a while concentrating on my breathing. The dog was still pacing and growling. I began to try to get at the root of what was bothering me. It had been a tough week with many stressors. One by one, I identified the stressors, and one by one I realized that every single one of them was beyond my control.
And that was the problem. It struck me like a lightning bolt – my anxiety was a function of my need for control and perfection.
In the very first line of the Enchiridion, the classical philosopher Epictetus tells us, “There are things that are up to us and things that are not up to us.” He goes on to tell us that the things that are outside of our control are our bodies, things and other people. The things that are within our control are our desires, our reactions and our actions.
My passion for perfection has extended to everything I touch – if it is not perfect, then I am not perfect and I need to be perfect to be in control of what others think of me. This is most especially true of my children and husband, but also of the projects I run at work or choirs that I have conducted or even this blog post. Again, perfectionism rears its ugly head. But it’s not just perfectionism – it’s a need for control.
I want to control everything around me so that it doesn’t hurt me and so that it doesn’t reflect poorly on me. I want to be liked and I want to be pain-free. But guess what? Epictetus is right. It doesn’t work that way. I have no control over other people and whether or not they like me. I have no control over things -things break -nor do I have control over my body -it betrays me constantly. It grows cancer, decides to shut down systems and hurts when I get up in the morning sometimes. And I am pretty sure that God does not call us to a pain-free life, if the lives of Jesus and Mary were any indication.
As I lay in my bed thinking about my inability to control the world, I realized that the wisdom of the saints are full of struggles with control. People who do great things frequently want to control everything around them. We all do on some level. That’s why we plan. That’s why we rankle at the idea that someone might tell us what to do. But, if we embrace the charge that God gave us – to trust Him – then we have no choice but to give that control to Him. During the Mass, we even ask God to “protect us from all anxiety” and the only way to do this is to surrender that control to God.
We can plan, but our plans are only as good as the actions and reactions of the people around us.
“If the Lord does not build a house, then in vain do the builders labor.” – Psalm 127:1
We must trust that what happens to us is in God’s plan for our lives and that we must not fear his plans.
“Let nothing disturb you, nothing frighten you. All things are passing. God never changes. Patience obtains all things. Nothing is wanting to him who possesses God. God alone suffices.” –St. Teresa of Avila
The dog is at bay right now, and though I know he will start pacing again at some point in the future, I know more about the collar around his neck now and who is holding it. I’m not afraid to use that knowledge.
“Pray, Hope, and don’t worry.” – St. Pio Pietrelcina
Copyright 2016 Katie O'Keefe