This 'Super' (Anxious) Life - Will Maule
I was brought up in a family that knew and loved the Lord, and for as long as I can remember, Jesus has been in my life. I didn't make up my mind on Jesus and who he was for a long time. I was going to Church, taking it in, but experiencing the love of God was something that just lingered in the background of my life instead of becoming prominent and visible.
I started attending a youth group and then, following that, I went on a CYFA Venture summer camp. It was here that I really started to encounter God in a real way, and where I truly believe I witnessed the presence of God in the community of people, noticing His goodness in their characters. I was positively impacted. I loved God, got a lot out of bible studies, and wanted to pursue him, but I was still young, and I had a lot to learn. However, I had a good theological underpinning to my faith, and I recognised the presence of God in my life. This was all rather manageable and easy going through some great school years and up to A level age. At this point things started changing, perhaps triggered by a migraine I suffered suddenly in a class, which caused me to partially and temporarily lose my vision. This was a traumatic experience, and I soon learned that the symptoms of the migraine were somewhat synonymous with symptoms of acute anxiety, which instilled some level of fear as to the potential and unannounced onset of these dreadful feelings.
It was this fear of uncertainty, combined with a real risk of the feelings returning (migraine or not), that caused me to attempt to control my physical environment, resulting in an active “retreat” from the situations, so to provoke a subsiding of symptoms. Naturally, we lean towards making decisions of behaviour that will result in our fears and negative symptoms becoming lesser. However, I soon realised this was not going to bring freedom, and that facing fear was the only way to truly deal with these now regular symptoms! I remember leaving class feeling really unwell and driving out into the forest, just sitting there and enjoying the tranquility, asking God what this was, and what it meant. I distinctly remember driving down one of the forest roads near our college and listening to ‘Everything’ by Tim Hughes. That song provoked me to cry out to God and begin on the process of surrendering all to him, and seeking him out through this untimely trial.
I don’t recall a distinct answer from God, but I remember never feeling ‘hopeless’ that things weren’t going to eventually improve. In the same way that “recovery” always follows anxiety attacks, I knew that ‘joy would come in the morning’, that light was around the corner, and I was absolutely determined to get there, and to experience a personal revival in living free. I truly believe this was from the Lord himself; as he IS hope, and light and life. There is absolute freedom in Him and in trusting in his promises; I found myself implicitly trusting that God was going to pull me through, and that in His son Jesus there was power that was all-sufficient in conquering trials of darkness as all consuming as this one felt at the time. Whilst this revelation was becoming clear to me, there was much work to do, and it was made difficult by my utter stubbornness to “get over this on my own”, and refusal to accept there was anything wrong, a denial that it was an “anxiety disorder” even though I was struggling to escape nor properly deal with the physical symptoms. I am reminded of Proverb 11:2 ‘When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom’. This was very real for me, it was as if I knew that I was to get nowhere in my proud denial that anything was “wrong” and in my misguided view that I could control it; in reality I had to give over control to God and take wisdom and counsel from others, this was the key, and it took a while for me to understand that.
It became clear that I would not be able to sustain the pattern I was upholding; acute anxiety, withdrawal from situations and then recovery; it is exhausting in its repetitiveness, not least because you expel vasts amounts of energy when embroiled in adrenaline-pumped symptoms of anxiety. I got to a point where the feelings of common embarrassment and shame in relation to anxiety and its experience were outweighed by a desire to get better and start living again.
What I didn’t realise was that through working through it and going about employing CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) techniques I was actually able to work towards a greater freedom, that I perhaps had never fully experienced, and not so much be “returning’ to some previous normality of living. Things needed to shift, and permanent healing needed to take place.
Part of my self-inflicted refusal to embrace anxiety treatment was rooted in my idea of the surrounding stigma, as well as the label of “anxiety”, and in particular “social anxiety”, which was the term that most greatly distressed me. I wasn’t actively “worried” about anything significant nor overwhelming; I therefore adamantly and arrogantly believed I was not anxious. The latter term irritated me even more. “Social anxiety” spewed imagery of an awkward recluse who got so nervous when it came to interacting with others that they were thrown into an immediate panic attack! This was not me. I loved people, had lots of close friends and a wider circle of acquaintances, played a lot of sport, was musical, and had a great time socially. To be (seemingly) labelled something you are not was, to me, the most excruciatingly unjust “judgement” one could come under. It took time for me to begin to learn that my pre judgements of this anxious disposition were misguided, exaggerated, offensive, and all in all, false.
I went from thinking “CBT” was for “people who need therapy” (not me), to realising its fantastic functionality as an effective tool to both manage and, in many cases, solve the woes of the anxious (of which I had now accepted I was one!).
CBT highlighted the “real” presence of a number of symptoms of which I was experiencing, and brought about a sense of elation through that new understanding; suddenly the feelings weren’t so inexplicable, confusing and fearfully strange, but instead recognisable, compiled in a list of the common symptoms of acute anxiety.
To be able to associate with, and somewhat “normalise” these frightening “foreign” feelings was incredibly reassuring, and frankly rather groundbreaking. To know that I was not alone in my confusion of all these strange experiences, and to know that the symptoms had been studied and identified was comforting. I let something go that I didn’t even realise I was fighting against; it was a “normal” condition affecting many and this gave me greater hope in knowing that I was not alone! This element of loneliness is something anxiety sufferers should recognise as common; it is something I now find myself praying for others who are suffering similarly, that they might simply know that they are not on their own!
I always felt better after talking to someone; the frustrations of the symptoms became less and I had a continued desire to see them subside, and to be able to overcome them in situations where this seemed impossible. The continual pursuit to understand that they were just that, “feelings”, and tackling them according to what they are, knowing you are safe and that they cannot physically harm you, was something CBT crucially taught me. As understanding grows, and as you progress in confidence in this truth, coupled with the sovereign and blessed assurance of eternal safety in Christ, you see improvement!
Anxiety, to me, is a complex beast, and there aren’t many straightforward answers as to its origins nor comprehensive solutions to its occasional grip on our lives. Sometimes it will rear its ugly head just when you least expect it, and when all factors are seemingly in your favour. At other times you might think you are destined for the depths of despair but instead God reveals something glorious, the heaven’s open in your life and you experience inexplicable joy and peace. I have experienced both ends of the spectrum, in great measure.
One simply has to come back to His love, it is the key. As the Lord has revealed himself through trial and through hardship, I have experienced His love more tangibly than anything else, His heart that longs to know us intimately, and his loving, fatherly nature that is ageless, unchanging, immeasurable and safe. It is this safety in his everlasting arms, and this blessed assurance of the glory that is to come, that drives out fear, and that is the backbone of my fight against anxiety; transcending me into a confidence in Him, and a deep longing to see others turn to him. I realise that, whilst we are in the world, fear is always at risk of hiding around that dark corner ready to pounce, but that this will melt away in his glory. For me, part of the fight is knowing these truths, but part of it is just simply getting on. Getting on with the mission of which we have been called to for such a time as this, and knowing Jesus is enough. Knowing that God’s call on my life is not dwindled by anxiety, and as a pastor once spoke over me “God is not affected by this, it doesn’t change how he has called you and how he will use you”. It is important for me to actively remind myself that Jesus is King, that he reigns over any fear or anxiety or confusion, and that he will not let it rob me of life, because He is life. As I continued on in my faith and foraged my way through University, I realised that this, to use the mighty words of John Wimber, “doing the stuff”, is not in conflict with “dealing with your issues”. In the same way, CBT and practical tools for managing anxiety are not in any way in conflict with faith in an all-powerful, healing God. If that was the case, I ask myself what would be the point in Christian doctors and psychiatrists? I believe all this can be rather tricky, but I continue to seek to remain humble before God and discerning of heart; I’m sure that see’s you right with the Lord in the end.
In short, I truly believe that we anxiety sufferers do not have time to sit around and think about ourselves all the time. It is not honouring, rumination is not sensible, and we are called to go. When I was in the States I was reading N.T. Wright on the Lords prayer, and the simple analysis that Jesus, in part, gave that prayer to the his disciples to focus their minds on the glory of God, to give them liturgical structure so that they wouldn’t sit around talking about their feelings all day, but instead that they would be encouraged to petition their worries to the Lord, ask for forgiveness, and seek his Kingdom; that they might press on towards the goal. I realised that Jesus uses us in our weakness, and doesn’t call us to sit around worrying. He calls us to joy abundant, life in all its fullness, and, ultimately, to love Him who has saved us from death and brought us into new life.
It is a lie to say that those who struggle with anxiety are not able to ascertain these God given promises.
I am now a graduate after an incredible year of the Lord working mightily in my life and teaching me much. I’ve seen Him begin to reveal a call that is far and beyond what I could have imagined back in those super-anxious sixth form days. But that is just it. God transforms us, and things do get better. Of course, I still get tripped up by anxiety; in particular, in the form of a recurring memory problem that gets me frustrated and irritated; but these things do not sink us nor smother our faith. “Flooding” technique is still the most effective antidote to any onset of anxiety, disguised or overt. ‘Feeling the fear and doing it anyway’ will build confidence, and will remind you of the Lords faithfulness, it never ceases to teach me something new about the Lord and about myself as his Child. However, it can be exhausting, and I make sure that I ask someone to pray for me after such an occurrence so that the spirit of God might fill me up again! And he does. It is promised through the prophet Isaiah that when we spend ourselves on things of the Kingdom, in whatever capacity, the Lord dwells richly with us, and His spirit draws near to replenish us where we are empty, often rejuvenating us physically, too! I think the fear for me can be a state of entrapment. I’m afflicted by very physical symptoms, in particular a stomach problem, of which it is unclear whether it is subconsciously tethered to anxiety or not. I occasionally think, what if this is for the rest of my life? What if I feel sick every day for all my days? A sense of dread comes over me, thoughts of fear and hopelessness are rife and a burden of heaviness comes upon me. Whilst it can be both physically painful and emotionally frustrating, I have very real ways of dealing with it, namely through attempting to petition these feelings and symptoms to the Lord and regaining Godly perspective. As John Piper would say ‘What’s 80 years of suffering in the face of a promised eternal glory’?. Whilst I think this can be sound advice for those in a long term battle, I don’t wholly believe it is the right way to go.
For me, part of the key is “Sonship”. For the entirety of my writing of this, the book of 1 John has been left open next to my laptop. A book full of glorious truth, proclaiming who we are as Children of God, and testifying to the greatness and “lavish” nature of His love for us. Really, my problem is the niggling fear that “things won't get better”. But I start to ponder on godly men such as Paul, and his difficulties. That is when I read of his “thorn in the flesh”. It seems to me that due to this untold affliction, Paul was experiencing similar fearful feelings to me, as he cried out three times that the Lord might deliver him, fearing he may never be free from it. But the simplicity in the Lords initial response “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” astounds me. It reminds me that God is enough, and that His great and perfect love actively casts out all fear; that we must continually fix our eyes on him, re-enthroning him daily and re-positioning ourselves as his beloved Children. In this same way, I realised that gazing upon the cross, and just what Jesus did for us, redefines the nature of my suffering. I haven’t suffered, not in comparison to what Jesus suffered for us, so that we might be free; to have the all consuming weight of sin on His shoulders, to pay the ultimate price, so that we may come to the Father with all these requests, freely forgiven and justified through faith. Just as anxiety is psychological, I realised that I must continue to attempt to align my psyche to that of Christs; that I must seek God in my own suffering, for others in their suffering and continue in faith to believe and trust in a great and sovereign God. I soon came to realise that my response must be thanksgiving, prayer, and worship.
I am a big fan of the US Political Drama Series “The West Wing”. I’m familiar with one episode in which one of the Presidential advisors, Josh, is suffering from post traumatic stress disorder following an attempt on the Presidents life. For the whole episode he refuses to believe there is anything wrong with him and denies that he is psychologically unwell. The psychiatrist simply sits there, asks basic non-confrontational questions, refraining from pinning any accusation on Josh’s method of dealing with this issue, and instead lets him come to his own realisation of the situation and its root. Eventually, after hours of emotional turmoil, Josh seeks the professionals help, and experiences breakthrough. At this point, the psychiatrist states that they are done for the day, collects up his papers, stands up and heads for the door. Josh, in a state of euphoric elation, panics and asks him to stay so that he might be able to work through the trauma some more and experience more freedom, fearing that it will never truly subside, fearful that he will never cease to flinch every time an ambulance siren rings out in the street. The psychiatrist gently reminds him that it is going to be ok. Josh asks how and why, and the psychiatrist simply answers “because people get better”. This struck me with great poignancy. That as Christians we truly believe this is the response that the Lord Jesus gives us, that promise that He will carry us home. The promise that He is making all things new, and that he will sustain us by his love and grace. Just as Josh experienced some freedom through his psychiatric treatment and desperately sought more, so we as Christians believe that more of Gods spirit of deliverance, freedom and peace is on offer; we must simply humble ourselves before the Lord, seek him wholeheartedly and ask to be filled up by this spirit.
The phenomenal thing, for me, is knowing that no matter what physical or psychological turmoil may come, and whatever fear may surround, that our God is greater, he will never fail and his love endures forever. I think part of my breakthrough, and a source of hope and comfort amongst the continual trials I face in this area, is that our God is not indifferent but loving and near, that he is Emmanuel, God with us. Indeed, as John Stott writes:
‘A Christian's freedom from anxiety is not due to some guaranteed freedom from trouble, but to the folly of worry and especially to the confidence that God is our Father, that even permitted suffering is within the orbit of His care.’
I know I have a loving heavenly Father, and I am continually overwhelmed by how far he has brought me, how powerfully he has delivered me, how sufficient His grace has been for me, and just how much he has done for me in the sending of his only Son to die for me. In times of uncertainty, fear and anxiety I find myself asking the question ‘After all he has done for me, why would he fail me now?’
I believe this is again summed up excellently by John Newton in one of his writings and so I will finish with this glorious assurance:
‘If the Lord is with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer - His grace sufficient, and his promise unchangeable!’.