So I’ve been having a pretty challenging time as of late. “My issues” are many and varied, but of course are consistent with those that I’ve struggled with throughout much of my life, having to do with the ongoing, lifelong fallout from my abusive upbringing and the many trials I’ve endured since then, especially as all this relates to my faith. Those who have read this blog or its previous versions or who know me are aware that my mother was the abuser in my family of origin and that I’ve long struggled to overcome that abuse. I think the primary way this struggle has manifested in my life- both then and now- is through anxiety, and, to a lesser degree, anger. On the anxiety side of things it was really apparent when I was a child in that I had a pretty bad stuttering problem. Especially in 6th grade, I couldn’t get two words out without turning them into four, and the “Christian” kids at my “Christian” school mercilessly persecuted me for it at every turn. It was really bad when I was called on to read out loud in class (and looking back, especially now that I work in a school and have teachers as colleagues, I can’t imagine why I was ever called on except out of some misguided sense of duty or fairness). I could turn a paragraph into a chapter full of repetitions, “um’s,” etc. So my mother’s abuse made me so nervous that I stuttered, and the stuttering and school abuse I reaped as a result of it made me more nervous still, making for a particularly vicious cycle. Anyway, over time and by the grace of God the stuttering (and, I thought, nervousness) waned and my confidence grew to the point that it was for the most part a non-issue in my life, except for occasional times when situational anxiety would lead to some temporary stuttering. This made me a pretty functional fellow as an adult and I was glad for the most part not to really think about it.
Obviously, this didn’t mean that the lingering effects of my abusive upbringing didn’t still present challenges to me, as they most certainly did. Along the way of course I leaned lots of functional, adaptive ways to contend with my anxiety and stress and deal with latent anger, and also all kinds of maladaptive ways of dealing with all of the above. For example, I’ve said for a while that I learned to “rely on God” from a young age “in the absence of (emotionally/psychologically) reliable parents.” In my youth, this reliance on God took the form of Scripture reading and memorization, prayer, and corporate worship, all of which provided the foundation for a faith life that has been a bulwark against life’s many challenges to this day (though on this day it feels like that bulwark has crumbled dramatically). On the maladaptive side of things, I learned to blunt the pain and dull the anxiety by indulging my passions/impulses, with overeating being but one example (ahh…isn’t allusion a beautiful thing, especially when writing things supposedly fit for public consumption?). This “toolbox” of adaptive and maladaptive coping skills served me pretty well through adolescence (save for one particular period of time as a teenager when I was unusually depressed- even for me) and into adulthood, though the underlying source of my anxiety, fear, anger, and depression was obviously never fully dealt with or even addressed. I have sought counseling at several points in my life and have had varying degrees of success with it. Still, I’ll always be the adult child of an abusive parent whose only hope for growth, healing, and wholeness is to integrate that experience into a well-rounded picture of who I have been, am, and hope to be.
At some point in my adult life, though, I began to notice some (most likely) psychosomatic symptoms that have proven increasingly troubling to me. Quite a few years ago (more than five, probably less than ten) I developed what I can only describe as a “vocal tic.” I think it’s fair to say that I definitely experience it more when I’m tired or stressed, and so I believe that it’s very much related to the stuttering of my (mostly) youth. I got it checked out and even saw a neurologist, who said if anything it was “mild Tourette’s,” though I still believe it is more likely related to anxiety. Despite this setback, I’ve still been a downright functional guy, having gone to and graduated from college and seminary. Along the way I’ve helped start a few congregations and preached probably more than 30 sermons (paradoxically, I have few speech troubles when preaching, I’d say). I’ve held down a number of full-time, professional jobs, led more than a dozen small (cell) groups, etc. In short, by God’s grace, I’ve done okay in spite of all this. I have a wonderful son whom I adore and an amazing, dedicated wife who has stuck with me through thick and thin. I have a lot to be grateful for.
Still, it’s been hard, and it seems to be getting harder. I would say that I’m a much more fearful person today than I was even five years ago. I’ve wondered if this is due in part to the fact that there’s more “at stake” in my life now (e.g., I’m a parent, a homeowner, etc.) than there was before, but in any case, that fear is at times very pronounced. I’m afraid, for example, of major storms (and NE Ohio seems to get more than a few in my experience here). In this case the fear doesn’t have me cowering in the basement (unless there’s a tornado warning, and even then, I don’t exactly cower), but I’m quite aware when a storm is coming and I’ll track it online, alter plans in response to it, etc. I’m also afraid of flying. Up until about five years ago I had flown quite a bit for a quite lower (barely) middle class Texas boy who grew up in a trailer, but not so much any more. Kirsten and I had a few bad experiences with our most recent flights and since then I haven’t flown and wouldn’t exactly be willing to now. As for the (no doubt, related) anxiety I began talking about above, it is becoming more and more pronounced. I’m anxious about our personal finances, and to a certain extent there’s good reason for it in this economy, but the way I deal with it probably isn’t all that helpful. I devote much too much energy to thinking about where we are in terms of our debt and plans to eliminate it. The good news there is that by the grace of God Kirsten and I are both gainfully employed and are making good headway at eliminating that debt. We have long term mortgage and student loan debt, but again by the grace of God we have a great mortgage with a fixed rate and a manageable payment. We have two car loans too, but by this time next year, God willing, all of our considerable credit card and other consumer debt will have been paid off, and for that we are very grateful. Still, I spend hours out of my week, each and every week, looking at the numbers and plotting out the timeline until the day of our (consumer) debt freedom. I dutifully check our bank account online every day, sometimes multiple times a day, looking for any changes or suspicious activity. In short, I’m anxious about it all in what I think is a pretty unhealthy way. I’m anxious about many, many other things too, not the least of which is my son’s safety when at daycare or preschool or at the park or even around our thoroughly child-proofed house. I’m anxious about my marriage in ways that are damaging to it. I’m anxious about my health and to a certain extent I have reason to be as my maladaptive overeating has put me at risk of a number of related health problems. I’m even anxious, of course, about my anxiety, and all of that has led to some of the psychosomatic symptoms I alluded to above, including neck pain, the above noted speech issues, abdominal pain, random muscle-twitching and joint pain, etc. Finally, then, the anxiety itself and related stress has become increasingly unmanageable as my coping skills have lately proven more and more futile in dealing with it all. All of this came to a head the other night when I found myself on the precipice of what I can only guess was a full-fledged and heretofore unexperienced-by-me panic attack, and that of course, was a frightful thing all by itself. As I pride myself on being a survivor who even thrives in chaotic, stressful situations, I abhor the thought that I would find myself so overwhelmed by present stressors that I couldn’t cope with them (and was so dramatically unable to cope with them that I was on the verge of “losing it”).
I made it through that experience the other night by returning to some tried-and-true, foundational coping skills, namely- quoting scripture (Philippians 4:6-7, II Timothy 1:7, I Corinthians 10:13) and by the use of a mantra (“Jesus, my Peace”) coupled with controlled breathing. That got me through the other night, but the memory of it still scares me to this day and I find myself even today struggling with intrusive thoughts in regard to it which are playing on the very fear/anxiety which gave rise to the experience in the first place. So, what’s to be done? Well, I’ve taken a few preliminary steps which I think and hope will prove helpful. For starters, I went to the doctor yesterday to get my neck pain checked out. He didn’t really find anything to be concerned about (not surprisingly) and along the way said my blood pressure was fine, to boot. So hopefully those are two less things to be worried about. I also called yesterday to start the intake process for getting myself into counseling again, and I hope to begin that very soon. Aside from the above, there are some well-known, time-tested remedies that have perpetually been on my “to do” list but which I’ve never seemed to be able to get around to, namely, getting better sleep, exercising, and writing and reading every day, along with immersing myself more intentionally in the disciplines of my faith- prayer, Scripture reading, etc. In the past I’ve shied away from these faith disciplines in reactionary fashion as a result of the way they were used and abused in the “fundagelicalism” of my past, but now I’ve been reminded that they’re important to me not because God (or my “Christian” “neighbor”) will smite me if I don’t do them, but because they’re good for me. In fact, I need them. If, after all, some of my psychological struggles come from feeling like I lack integrity in pursuing the life I feel called to live, in following Jesus rather than “American” consumer culture, for example, well then there’s likely little more that I can do personally in pursuit of that life I aspire to than to practice the individual disciplines that such a life call for.
Having said that, I am well aware that individual disciplines are only a start, and a halting one at that. I know that much of what ails Christianity in America has to do with the extent to which it has been privatized and individualized by American consumer culture/civil religion. I know- believe me, I know- that I can’t follow Jesus alone, and the degree to which I have felt forced to do so here in NE Ohio has much to do with the psychological/spiritual predicament I find myself in now. After all, the perceived lack of community that has been the norm for most of our time here has simply been damaging to the corporate ‘life together” that I yearn to participate in, and the lack of a (local, communal) remedy to just this dilemma will likely continue to exacerbate all these other problems. So, to the extent that I can pray, I will do so that God will provide what I need- no more, no less, and that I will know it when I find it. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep “putting myself out there” like this so that these personal struggles don’t become entrenched, private ones in the name of “keeping up appearances” or other nonsense of that ilk.