When the Dark Cloud Looms
I'm not free to explain exactly what it was that triggered what would prove to be one of the worst bouts of anxiety/depression of my life. It is enough to say that early on a Saturday morning a fear entered my head that I had made a critical and irreparable mistake at work on Friday. Even though I had a checklist at home that seemed to indicate that I had in fact done the right thing, my mind would not let me accept that evidence. There was no way for me to access my office until 9:00 Monday morning, so I spent the entire weekend circling in a downward spiral of fear and shame, unable to eat, pacing the floor, unable to sleep, raging with terror, tossing in bed, refusing hope, uncontrollably rehearsing words of confession, and dreaming up nightmare scenarios. Normally lacking in imagination, the grave outcomes I concocted were ingenious. My mind rewrote my life into a Shakespearean tragedy.
But God is not an idiot, and, thankfully, He is the author of my life. Looking back I can see that all through those black hours, though I felt so alone and helpless, God was guiding me with the faintest glimmers of light. There was the near-constant prayer, which at the time felt fruitless. There was the unflagging support of my devoted husband, whose words of comfort at the time seemed powerless. There were a couple of Scripture passages about trusting God which I repeated over, and over, and over in my head, seemingly to no avail. There was a morning and an evening church service. There was an impromptu invitation to the home of a dear Christian family who listened to my fears, prayed for me, fed me, and did a fine job making me feel genuinely loved for a few hours. Through the cloud of my suffering I had not recognized that all of these were the threads with which God was holding me together.
All I knew at the time was that somehow I had survived until Monday. I drove to work, numb with exhaustion, praying, determining to trust God no matter what happened. When I arrived I found that my checklist had not lied. I had not made the mistake I thought I had. No confession of failure would be needed. Everything was fine. The crisis had existed only in my imagination, but the episode left a deep impression. The immobilizing terror was gone, but a deep unsettled feeling would linger for days. What if I had made that mistake? The plates were still spinning, but they could just as easily have crashed. What mistake might I make in the future that could destroy my life? And then, if I could be so mistaken as to think I had made such a blunder when I really hadn't, well, that about as bad as making the mistake in the first place, right? Surely I was incompetent. Furthermore, I had succumbed to a fear so dreadful that I had been tempted with suicide. What on earth had happened to my faith that it let me sink this low? I felt humiliated.
Yet, I was alive. Purely by the grace of God, I'd endured a 48 hour storm of self-inflicted horror and several days more under the wispy dark clouds which trailed behind it. Humbled, I clung to Christ and regained my footing. Determined never to be caught so unprepared again, I once again began taking stock of my life.
Up until that fateful Saturday morning I had allowed my days to fill up with everything that wasn't Christ. I was working two jobs, one of which consumed most of my "time off". I worked at work, and I worked at home. Part of this keeping-busy was engineered, I realize now, as a way of distracting myself from the grief of losing my mother and from various other sorrows that had piled on top of it. From there it had snowballed with no intention on my part as I allowed myself to take on more and more responsibilities that I could just have easily refused. I was over-committed at work and home. For a while I enjoyed the challenge and felt a sense of accomplishment. But soon my sense of worth and meaning began to be tied up in my ability to keep the many plates spinning.
The emotional energy I was expending in the process was immense, however, and I was doing little to replenish it. I still prayed most mornings and nights, but little beyond that. I was not spending much time listening to God's voice in Scripture. Thankfully I'd been getting excellent teaching at church, but it was like drinking gallons of fresh water every Sunday and then going dry for the rest of the week. It was just barely enough to keep me going. I had also been sorely lacking in Christian fellowship until only a few weeks before that horrible weekend. I was dreadfully weak, but, until the storm came, I hadn't really noticed. When it did, I was nearly overwhelmed.
This is why I've spent so much of this series thus far on foundation-work. For the Christian, God's word, prayer, and Christian fellowship form the infrastructure of a stable emotional life. These are the means God uses to strengthen our faith and hope in Him. If we spend time in the Scripture daily, pray constantly, and fellowship regularly - building close bonds with our brothers and sisters in Christ - we will find we have an emotional structure which provides refuge and peace even in the midst of the raging storms and spiritual battles of life. This stability - this deep faith - will, in and of itself, douse many of the flames which might otherwise have triggered an explosion.
None of us is perfect in our faith, however, and so there will still be times when dark clouds loom and their rumbling thunder makes us tremble. Since that fateful weekend I have developed a strategy of sorts for managing these threatening emotional crises. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Mk. 10:14,15) When my children were little they would come to me for everything, but when they were frightened or hurt their worlds came to a screeching halt and they came running to me for help and comfort. That, in short is my strategy. When I feel even the smallest beginnings of emotional turmoil, like a little child I drop everything and run to God.
For a grown-up child of God, it works this way:
1) Silence everything - This means turning off wherever possible radio, music*, news, television, internet, etc. It is possible that you are using media to try to avoid thinking about issues you really should be addressing. It is also possible that the information you are taking in is triggering your emotional upset. Whatever the case, you will not be able to get to the bottom of your problem, or be ready to listen to God, until you silence all the external demands upon your mind.**
2) Seclude yourself. As soon as possible, find a quiet place, even if it's only for a few minutes, even if it's only the bathroom, your cubicle, or your car.
3) Seek God: Pray for help. Pray for wisdom. Pray for everything you think you need at that moment and everything God thinks you need as well.
4) Seek understanding: Trusting God to give you wisdom, try to identify the cause of your emotional malaise. Examine your thoughts. Try to trace your dark feelings back to their source. What was the trigger? Was it something you heard? Was it something you thought up on your own? Was is something you did? Whatever it was that got that eight-ball rolling, identify it, then get to the bottom of why it troubles you. Perhaps it made you doubt God's love for you. Perhaps it caused you doubt His grace, or His compassion. Perhaps it reveals that you don't believe He really forgives your sin, or that it is you who is harboring unforgiveness. Perhaps you know you've sinned but don't want to repent. Perhaps the trigger was related to a painful experience from your past. Whatever the case the next step is the same:
5) Submit it to God: Whatever you've found - doubt, fear, anger, guilt, shame, unforgiveness, etc. - take it directly to God and confess it. Pour your heart out to Him. Be honest. He knows your thoughts and your feelings anyway. Tell Him what you are afraid of. Tell Him how it hurts and why. If it's a sin that's hard to let go of, admit that to Him. Make your requests to Him. Ask Him to give you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.
6) Search the Scriptures: What does God's word have to say about your situation? Find some passages that speak to your trouble and meditate on them. Commit them to memory. Let His words transform your thoughts and your behavior.
7) Seek fellowship: We are not meant to go this Christian life alone. Together we Christians make up the body of Christ on this earth. Each of us is just one small part of that body. We need each other more desperately than we realize. Sometimes you may need the help of the body to get to the source of your emotional problems. Sometimes you will find that being cut off from that body is at the very heart of your pain.
The pain of depression and anxiety has taught me that there is great comfort and peace to be found in Christ and His church. It has taken awhile, but I've finally learned not to try to tune out the stirrings of emotional trouble with media or with busy activity. I have learned not to wait until things get really bad before I run to Him. I can come to Him right away and for any reason, and you can, too.
Finally a few words of common sense advice: Be sure you are getting enough exercise, enough sunshine, and enough sleep. Don't give in to behaviors that contribute to your problem. If you are depressed and have taken to your bed or your chair, get up and do something. If you are frantically/anxiously busying yourself, sit down and rest. Do the very things your depression tries to keep you from doing: walk, sing, shop, pray, cook, draw, clean house, finish projects, call your friends, go to church, tell people how you really feel and what you are really going through, go out to lunch, read your Bible. These are the very mundane things that help you regain lost perspective.
These practices have seen me through many difficult days, and so I share them here in hope that they be of help to others.
"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort." 2 Cor. 1:3-7
* After publishing this post, it occurred to me that while I have written in others posts on the value of hymns and psalms, I have failed in the context of this series thus far to mention the positive role music can play in the spiritual life. For the purposes of this post, and step #1, however, I had in mind secular music, as well as any other music that might serve to contribute to or distract, for whatever reason, from your ability to focus on the trial at hand.
** I recommend maintaining the media silence at least until you have completely moved beyond the crisis.