Stephanie has been my mentor, close friend, prayer warrior, sister in Christ, and a constant voice of encouragement and truth in my life for the last year and a half. I am honestly tearing up right now as I reflect on our friendship, and am praising God for giving me such a sweet gift.
There are no words to adequately describe the amount of respect and love I have for this incredible woman of God. Stephanie and her husband led the couple’s Bible Study that Clark and I attended shortly after getting married, and they have been very dear to us ever since. I would much rather you read her words than mine…
So scroll down, and I will be here praying that this beautiful story of restoration and faith in Jesus moves your spirit and prompts you to trust that the Lord is (and has been) working in your life. May God reveal Himself and His love to you in new ways as you get to know this stunning friend of mine, and may your heart find the peace and comfort it longs for.
You Are Loved,
Before I sat down to write this I prayed that the words I’m sharing would be from God and not from me. I believe that God is a restorer and a healer, and that He can make beauty from brokenness. “Beautiful mess” is one of my favorite phrases for life, and I believe in the power of sharing testimonies of faith. My story is many things, but the biggest part of my story is the intersection of my mental health and my faith.
First thing’s first. 1 in 5 people struggle with mental health issues*. If you are struggling with your mental health, you are NOT alone, and spreading awareness of how common this struggle is, is something I am very passionate about. If you feel alone/embarrassed/sad/discouraged/fill-in-the-blank due to the stigma society has unfortunately placed on “mental health issues” – please know you have a sister in faith praying for you, and that you are not the only one facing this! Secondly, nearly 60% of adults with a mental illness do not receive mental health services*. Treatment is out there, and it is GOOD. I pray you seek the help you need through professionals (and through faith). You may think choosing to get help means you are weak. Do not believe the lies the enemy tells you! Getting help means you are incredibly STRONG.
I believe that God is a restorer and a healer, and that He can make beauty from brokenness.
My struggle with anxiety is inherently part of my personality. I’m continually fighting against my desire to be “perfect,” against the desire to try to control my circumstances, and against finding my identity in meeting expectations of other people. I believe this part of my story started in high school, while I was a straight A student in AP and honors classes, and also aiming to make sure I was still “well-rounded:” on the competitive and sideline cheer team, in student council, in a business club, and working part-time jobs. I liked to control things so that I could avoid failure and the pain that brings. Nevermind having a strong group of friends or community, I was trying to prove myself. “Community” certainly wasn’t an asset I could put on a resume to prove my worth, so I basically did life independently. After all, I needed to make sure I got into a good college, and what else is there in life besides ensuring you are setting yourself up for a perfect future? (I hope you caught my sarcasm there…).
Well, my hard work paid off, and I was accepted to attend the University of Michigan (GO BLUE!). And in so many ways, as grateful as I am that I went there, it was HARD: rigorous academics, life in small quarters with roommates, and trying to become an independent adult. I was also maintaining a relationship with a boyfriend because I was convinced I could “make it work” even though it was painfully clear we were completely opposite people. (Because I saw my parents’ relationship end in divorce, I didn’t want to also find myself in a failed relationship, so despite the red flags I stayed in this relationship for five years.) And, while my faith had been incredibly strong in middle school, I let that go completely by college.
I liked to control things so that I could avoid failure and the pain that brings. Nevermind having a strong group of friends or community, I was trying to prove myself.
Fast-forward to November of my senior year in college. I procrastinated writing a paper that was due at 8am the next morning, and it’s now 9pm and I’m sitting down to get started. It gets to be about 11:30pm, and I’m stuck. I literally have nothing to write. I can’t even try to “BS” my way through this paper because the topic is so incredibly difficult to even wrap my head around. I know, it’s just a paper, but I truly hadn’t ever let myself fail in life, and I wasn’t prepared to be failing now. And I was terrified.
I ended up in a full-blown, two-hour panic attack. My roommates tried to console me, but nothing was working. I could not get out of my own head. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know the wringer your body puts you through. If not, let me try to paint the picture – physically, your body begins to sweat, you hear ringing in your ears and feel your heart pounding, your legs and arms begin to shake and tremble, you probably end up crying, you may faint, you may throw up, you may have uncontrolled bowel movements, but most all, you are panicked, afraid, and you actually believe you are going to die. You are not yourself during that time period, and you cannot regain control. Your body takes over and it’s completely debilitating – you can’t make it stop, and you can’t get yourself to do anything else. You are paralyzed in time until it ends.
From that night on, my panic attacks began to increase in frequency. I would find myself incapacitated at the most unexpected moments and would not know how long it would last or when the attack would end. By March, they were happening every other day. I finally found myself at the university’s mental health clinic asking for an appointment, and I was told I could not be seen for a month. I was not one to ask for help (I can do this on my own, thank-you-very-much) or cause trouble, and so I accepted their answer – a month it is. And then it hit me – how can I wait one more month when I’ve already been secretly struggling every day for the past three months? I remember I was hardly able to share the truth that it was in fact an emergency, and that I had to be seen RIGHT NOW.
I know this was the first of many times God would intervene to show me He was with me, even if I had not yet fully accepted Him back into my heart. As I’ve said, I did not have a real relationship with God at this time. I wasn’t praying, I was just trying to do life on my own. In response to my statement that this was in fact an emergency, the receptionist said a therapist named Joy could see me, and I was shocked that this was possible. Didn’t you just tell me I had to wait a month? I thought. I sat down in her office and was surprised at how comfortable I immediately felt with her, sharing what I’d been experiencing on my own. I know without a doubt she was an angel that God sent me that day, this amazing woman named Joy! She was the launch pad for what became an on-going journey for me for the next six years.
I know this was the first of many times God would intervene to show me He was with me, even if I had not yet fully accepted Him back into my heart.
I continued therapy and graduated college (and wouldn’t you know it I had a panic attack on graduation day). After graduation I moved home, and even though I wasn’t sure about my faith, I had this feeling that God was trying to get through to me, and wanted me to work on my mental and spiritual health before I would be ready for the next phase in life.
Even though I was seeing a therapist and now taking medication, the panic attacks had not yet fully subsided (in fact they never did go away completely). Panic attacks can come at any time, unannounced, and without any direct cause. Therefore I became very scared because I was not in control. I could be out in public and then have a panic attack, and the fear from the loss of control made me feel less than normal to say the least. Because of this, I remember one morning being so confident that my fate was decided – my life would continue to be a never-ending string of unexpected panic attacks. I wouldn’t be able to hold a steady job, I wouldn’t find someone to love me (because who would take on this burden of being with a ticking time bomb?), and I definitely didn’t love myself. I felt an incredible sense of depression. I remember it was a beautiful Michigan summer day, and yet I just felt completely broken and utterly hopeless.
My mom had been encouraging me to start attending church, and even though I was reluctant, I went, and I started feeling that God was present. Time went by, and on one Sunday my pastor announced that there was a group of people who had decided they would like to be baptized, and we would be doing baptisms as part of the service. My pastor then said, “And some of you will feel prompted by the Holy Spirit to come to get baptized too, and you will.”
It was such a pivotal moment for me. I felt God calling me to Him, and I was desperate for hope. I had been baptized as a baby, but decided that morning that I was ready to commit my life to Jesus as an adult because I believed He was the only hope I had if I was to ever get through my struggle with anxiety and panic attacks. I whispered to my brother next to me I was going to get re-baptized, and my sweet brother said he wanted to go with me. We walked together to the pool they had set up, and I believe that day changed the trajectory of my life forever.
I had been baptized as a baby, but decided that morning that I was ready to commit my life to Jesus as an adult because I believed He was the only hope I had…
I spent the summer working on my mental health and working part-time. I finally decided in late August that I would use the degree I had worked so hard for and look for a full-time job. I’m not exaggerating when I say I applied for 40 different jobs, and not a single one hired me. I was living at my parent’s home in Michigan and so I began to look in Washington D.C. (my mom’s twin sister lived there and offered me a place to stay if I found a job). I believe God prompted me to wait on the job search after graduation, and kept the doors shut on the 40 jobs I applied for, because he had a dream job waiting for me in DC – one that wasn’t even posted until early September.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11
I took the opportunity in DC, which was specific to my degree and allowed me to be in a work environment I loved. I lived with my aunt and uncle and found an amazing church to be part of. I finally decided to end the relationship I had been in all throughout college, and focus more on my personal growth. After a few months I moved out of my aunt and uncle’s home into a three-bedroom apartment with two other roommates, and was fully on my own.
Well wouldn’t you know it, God was there again (as He had been all along). My two roommates were a girlfriend from high school who had also moved to DC, and her friend, Shaun. Through what I can only call a crazy, God-orchestrated plan, Shaun and I began dating. This was definitely not my plan. I played by the rules, and this was certainly outside the scope of “acceptable behavior.” I could just hear it: Dating her roommate? What is she thinking? I cared about making all the “right” choices, and by most standards, this was not the “right” choice. So I prayed about it. Then I doubted myself. And so I prayed some more. It was as if God said to me – do you care more about what people think, or do you trust what I have planned for you? So I took a step of faith and again trusted God, and again He was faithful. Six months after we started dating, Shaun and I were ring shopping. And three months after that, Shaun proposed.
And so I prayed some more. It was as if God said to me – do you care more about what people think, or do you trust what I have planned for you?
Shaun and I moved to California shortly after getting engaged. I didn’t want to leave the wonderful church we had found in DC (immaturely fearful that we would never find something as good anywhere else!), but I again felt God’s hand guiding us. There was a ministry at our church in DC that was associated with a bible verse “7:14” and wouldn’t you know it, we were moving to Huntington Beach, California, area code 7-1-4. We found a wonderful church in Huntington Beach and God increased my capacity and desire for community. We got plugged in to a small group, and these wonderful new people felt like family to us immediately. We did a prayer night with them at the beach, and as the sun was setting the sky was full of the colors of the rainbow. In that moment I felt God’s promise of the security we have in Him, the same He had promised to Noah in the Bible:
“Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth.”
The existence of this small group in my life and the depth of our relationships is a direct blessing from God. Community was not important to me, pre-anxiety. But a year later, moments before Shaun and I would walk down the aisle on our wedding day, this life group stood with us privately and prayed over us. It was such a beautiful and intimate moment, one I never even dreamed of having on my wedding day.
As I’ve said, my struggle with anxiety and panic attacks has been now a six-year ongoing battle. I’ve found incredible strength in the Lord, the people He has blessed me with, and through therapy and medication (both of which are gifts from God). Last year I made the decision to begin the journey to wean off medication. I’m now three months into life without a daily pill and I’m happy to say it’s going very well, and I know that is due to my faith in God.
I don’t want to mislead anyone into thinking that my struggle ended the moment I reestablished my relationship with God. That pain has still been very much part of my story over the last few years while I’ve also enjoyed the blessings He has given me. The enemy comes to steal and destroy, and ensures the hard times in life continue, but having a relationship with a loving Father helps because of the peace He freely gives.
“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33
Not only did God give me peace, He also took my mess and made it beautiful. He blessed me with a dream job after graduation when I had zero prospects a few months prior and was certain I would not be able to maintain a job without an attack; provided me with a loving husband who cares for me regardless of my history with anxiety and introduced us in a way I never would have trusted prior; and moved us across the country to a new city and provided us with the blessing of community once we got here. I have had to trust God and take the first step throughout my journey, and God has shown His faithfulness every time.
“Trust in the LORD with all your heart, do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” – Proverbs 3:5
I love this verse from Proverbs. I would find myself reciting it during a panic attack, as I would desperately try on my own to do whatever I could to make it end. It became the cornerstone for hope for me when I could not make sense of what was happening or why. It wasn’t until much later that I learned a panic attack can end more quickly if you can accept what is happening and trust you are okay, which is completely counter to every instinct causing you to believe otherwise. This same principle has become what I strive for now in life – to refocus and trust God, especially when things are hard and I want to default to my control-mode.
Through my experience with anxiety, I rebuilt and restored my relationship with God. In doing so, my biggest problem turned out to be my biggest blessing, and because of this, I would not change any of it. Aiming to be a perfect person does not ensure a better life as I once believed, but by trusting God and surrendering to His will, I have found the small gate on a narrow road that leads to life.
Not only did God give me peace, He also took my mess and made it beautiful.
*National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)