It’s a force I have known far too intimately throughout my life.
I awake screaming in the pitch dark.
It’s eleven o’clock at night. I’m standing in the middle of my bedroom shaking, making startled noises from the aftershock of the dream. My throat is on fire.
Once I process where I am, I feel the loving touch of my wife who heard my blood-curdling shouts from across the house and came to be with me when I broke loose from the clutches of whatever night terror I had just crossed paths with.
We sit on the edge of the bed. She holds me for a minute or so and slowly caresses my cheek with her lips. She lays my head on her shoulder, running her fingers through my hair.
“Just breathe, baby. I’m here. I’m here with you.”
The sound of her voice in the darkened stillness is so angelic. Almost ethereal to my half-awakened senses as she helps me find my calm again. She returns to the living room to put the finishing touches on her work for the day.
I lay down the needle on an old record on my bedside table and Lady Day or Frank or Duke Ellington serenades me back to sleep.
But when I open my eyes to the new day, it’s still there. I can feel it all over.
When I’m in the shower. When I get in the car. When I’m standing in line at the supermarket. When I lie on the couch eating dinner.
I feel it all over, blazing within me like an inferno.
Knot in my stomach. Heart jackhammering a thousand miles an hour. Heart feeling like an ocean of sewage and poison and urine.
Chest feeling like a machete is cutting it wide open. Hands sweating. Hands shaking. Feet nervously tapping up and down. Tears welling in my eyes and I don’t know why as they splash down my face like acid rain.
My mouth is wide open, but every syllable is a feral mass of stammering gibberish and humiliating twitches, terrified that I’ll say something that’s wrong or that I’ll make a mistake and that someone will judge me for it.
My brain is an echo chamber where the laughter and insults of my playground bullies and psychological rapists loudly roll on an endless loop; where all my ghosts of Christmas Past flutter from every side; hissing in my ears in haunting reminder that I really am inferior, that I am worthless, that I am a hideous freak, that I will miserably fail to measure up if I even try to use my talents for good in the world.
You see, that’s the saddest part of all.
The damage was done. The mix tapes of my Christmas Past are connected to the wires in my brain. They put that there. I did not choose that.
But I was the one pressing play. Again. And again. And again. And again.
I was the one stumbling around in the dark with a flash light and a tape recorder, hoping to spot the ghosts that are in there. Maybe capture some E.V.P.‘s…
I was the one inflicting the piercing explosions of pain with a million shiv stabs to my own brain; forgetting the thousands of words of glowing affirmation I’ve received from the people who love me, while meditating instead upon the dozens of ignorant and disparaging things my antagonists have said of me.
I was responsible for rewinding to those parts which were especially malicious, and building the foundation of my house upon it.
You know, the parts that made me want to die. Those ones.
I listened to it so many times I had every line of it memorized. I used to recite it word for word along with them while the laughter and the verbal assault echoed again, the venom surging through me anew, afflicting my indigo heart with an even gloomier sickness.
Before too long, I even started believing those lies about what they said I was.
Suddenly, every waking moment of life has the feeling that comes when you’re walking down stairs and you miss one of the steps and you’re falling and you know it’s really going to hurt when you hit the ground. Or like you’re on stage before hundreds of people, the spotlight is shining right in your face and it sweeps over you that you’ve forgotten all your lines.
It’s natural to feel that heightened sense of panic when encountering an enormous bear unexpectedly. It’s not healthy to feel that way 21 hours a day.
It’s one of the reasons why to this day, it requires intense prayer just for me to walk into any kind of social setting. Or to make a phone call. Or to introduce myself to someone.
Believe it or not, being a minister with Social Anxiety Disorder has its challenges.
Two years ago, I had finally gathered the confidence to write the book I had always wanted to write.
The words were flowing. I really was a writer after all. It felt so good to know that in my heart. The most beautiful things I’ve written were coming from the deepest parts of me.
That is, until I opened the door and welcomed fear and anxiety to make themselves at home once more.
Instantly, my writing sessions were nothing but daydreams of people laughing at what I would write. Suddenly, I was convinced I really wasn’t a writer after all. It felt so terrible thinking that was true at the time.
Next thing I knew, I was writing one afternoon and forgot how to breathe. I fell to the floor in my office hyperventilating, thinking that I was about to die. Coughing and wheezing and gasping for air with eyes bulging.
Once the smoke had risen, I had lost all confidence.
I haven’t written a word in 16 months.
Fear is relentless. It seeks to suffocate, to paralyze, to reduce you.
But things have been changing in my life. I am happier and more confident than I have ever been.
Although Social Anxiety Disorder and general anxiety are struggles that continue every day of my life, I am enjoying the peace of mind no matter what I encounter.
Whenever I begin to feel it, for the first time in my life, it’s gone within minutes.
I’m sure there are some who would scold me and tell me I shouldn’t be writing this.
A minister is supposed to be a golden pillar of perfection. He’s not allowed to have “problems.” If he does then he should just sweep them under the rug, put on a plastic smile and pretend everything is sunshine and lollipops in his world.
But that’s not me.
At least not anymore.
I would much rather draw from that pain and tell the world that the God who I serve is greater than anxiety disorders. That He rescued me from the lowest and most darkest depths of depression imaginable. How He’s shut down panic attacks I’ve suffered within seconds. How He helped me to forgive the people who put me on this black couch so much that I feel a love for them.
And how much better my life is becoming the more I’m learning to let His peace reign in my heart rather than the anxiety and the laughter from my ghosts of Christmas Past that nearly destroyed me.
I’m through listening to fear.
I’m done thinking I can’t use my gift of writing because of worry that I won’t measure up.
Welcome to my journey.