I have anxiety.
I’m probably on the mild-to-moderate end of that spectrum–even at its worst, my anxiety has never succeeded in taking me out of school or work or life completely, and I take seriously how much more debilitating it is for others than it has been for me. At the same time, I think I’ve downplayed its effect on me, so I’m trying to give myself the grace to admit that it does affect me pretty profoundly from time to time.
I’ve had some form of anxiety probably since I was a kid. I didn’t know what it was then–all I knew was that there would be days where I could not stop crying, where I fixated on some fear or worry or sadness and it just wouldn’t let go of me. In high school, a friend of mine started having panic attacks, and as he walked through his own journey with anxiety, he wondered aloud to me whether my bouts of crying were my equivalent of his episodes.
The only damage done by my childhood anxiety was that I wrote some pretty bad songs and some melodramatic poetry. As an adult, my anxiety has gotten worse, but at the same time, I’ve slowly gotten better at coping with it. I was on anti-anxiety medication briefly in graduate school but have usually opted for alternative remedies (counseling, hot baths, exercise, aromatherapy, meditation/prayer) because of my skittishness about the addictive potential of such drugs.
And now, I’m a pastor. It’s both the best and the worst thing for my anxiety. It’s the best because there is the potential to find deep healing of the spirit, mind, and heart in and through my work. It’s the worst because for my job to also be my calling, for my work to be so tied up in my identity, for my success or failure as a pastor to feel so dangerously close to my salvation (or lack thereof) means that the pressure and stress I feel at work (most of which is self-inflicted–that’s part of the deal) is harder to shake when it comes.
A group of laypeople at my church recently started a committee on mental health to help equip the church to better talk about mental illness and to support families dealing with its various forms. I’ve helped support their efforts, spoken at an event they held, and incorporated themes of depression, suicide, addiction, dementia, and more into sermons I’ve preached. I’ve lamented that the church often fails to be a safe place to talk about such things.
And yet I find it very difficult to share my own journey with mental illness. I worry it will negatively affect my ability to pastor, even though experience has shown me that sharing my story helps others feel safe sharing their own.
So here’s a small part of my story. Although it comes out in different forms, one way my anxiety often manifests when I just can’t get started on a task. It gets pushed from one day’s to-do list to the next, looming over my week until the deadline is so close I can taste it, growing in its perceived importance and impossibility, proving my sneaking suspicion that I am incompetent and unintelligent. Before long, I’m lying on the floor of my office, unable to get a deep breath or lower my elevated heart rate, feeling like I’m a terrible pastor and an awful person–all because I haven’t sent an email or made a phone call or finished that sermon yet.
I put things off when I am afraid I can’t do something well, when I’m worried I will fail. I procrastinate because I am a perfectionist, and neither of those things are much help to my anxiety. I recently wondered aloud to my counselor whether I were just an unhappy person. He said he didn’t think that was the case–I’m just really mean to myself.
My counselor encouraged me to push myself to get ahead on those tasks, not to let them go until the last minute, and then to mark and celebrate when I complete them–not to get myself a billboard and tell myself how super awesome I am, because that’s not healthy either, but to acknowledge that I can do my job and do it well, and that that is enough.
To help remind myself of this, I went and bought a mug that says “Do the damn thing,” created by local artist Emily Poe-Crawford. “Do the damn thing” is helpful because it pushes me without shaming me–the fact that it makes me chuckle helps take the edge off. It helps me focus while also encouraging me to stop taking myself so damn seriously.
I know that there will be days when I really just can’t do whatever the “damn thing” is, or when to “Do the damn thing” needs to mean asking for helping or stepping away or going to the gym or finding a different task to work on. And there will be days when there won’t be relief, when I have to just sit with my anxiety and breathe deeply and find reasons to be grateful and try to be present and remind myself that it will not kill me.
So I’ll keep this mug on my desk as a reminder to myself that despite what my anxiety tells me, I am capable and competent, there is more than enough time (and caffeine) for what needs to be done, and that what does or doesn’t get done has no bearing on my worth as a child of God anyway.