It’s hard to be afraid; especially when we have been taught to think a certain way about fear. I’ve grown up in the church. I’ve been told countless times that God tells us not to fear. It’s almost trite now.
“The Bible says, ”Fear not nearly 365 times, once for every day! We obviously have nothing to fear.'”
Or how about,
“God commands us not to fear or worry, choosing to do so displays a sinful lack of faith in the Father.”
As if I had a choice in the matter.
“Think positive, pray harder! Trust!”
As though I don’t weep and cry out to God to take my fear from me daily.
“Be careful not to give in to the temptation to fear! It’s from the enemy and is the antithesis to faith. Fear means you lack faith!”
Tell me to resist the temptation to breathe, because that would be easier.
Or my favorite,
“You can’t love like Jesus when you live in fear.”
My fear is borne of my love. I love so much it makes me afraid.
And my heart grows heavy. And I feel small and faithless. Sometimes the Church has made me to feel like I am a broken Christian. Not broken, in the glorious way they ask us to be for God, where our cracks are filled with gold and we can boast about our “brokenness” because we have already been healed. But truly, completely broken in a wrong sort of way. A Christian doesn’t worry, doesn’t fear, a Christian has confidence and joy and hope! Optimism!
And I sink into my fabric seat on Sunday’s with coffee stains and I worry.
I sink into the couch and close the blog link.
I have struggled with fear my whole life. I was a shy and sensitive child. I see that in my own kids. I passed it down. I felt more of the world than most. It was so loud and quick and bright, but also beautiful. My dad knew how seriously I took the world, and encouraged me to laugh more and joke more and let go more. And I remember laughing with him.
But I also remember when I was six years old. I remember the night my brain broke. I remember when it fundamentally changed. When the mylination and the development of the limbic system in my brain that was learning to control my emotions, and my prefrontal cortex that was developing to control my behavior, when my paraventricular nucleus the lights up our fear response, was overloaded with and the delicate systems, the orchestra of neurons in my brain, was altered completely.
I remember the night my daddy died tragically and traumatically before me innocent six year old eyes.
Like a burn, the memory is seared into these systems of my brain. Now it remembers how one moment life was so good; the crickets were out, the smell of late summer was in the air, the smoky pine scent of Labor Day evenings in Oregon. The smell of dusk. The days were still long but there was something almost crisp about them. A bike ride in the park, laughing, plans for the park again tomorrow. My brain remembers how absolutely normal life was, until the very moment it wasn’t.
Obsessively. Compulsively it remembers the rug being pulled out. Even when I am not consciously thinking.
In an instant, a fathers relaxing bath at the end of the day to wash the dirt and sweat and fun off, became something sinister. Laughter with my mother turned to fear in milliseconds as my father moaned through the bathroom door.
Life. Normal life. Daily life.
And then death.
It was a normal night right before the first grade was supposed to start. We had plans and a future and regular day ahead. A night of me sneaking into bed with mom and dad, and them dragging me back to my room again. Regular bedtimes struggles.
Until it wasn’t.
And the fear came.
The fear has never left.
My brain learned in those following moments that life could change for the worse in an instant. It didn’t know these things before. But it learned. And I watched. I watched my mom preform CPR on my slippery 200lbs naked, blue daddy. I watched as she begged him to come back, because he was already gone. I watched as the paramedics lifted him out of the claw foot iron bathtub and laid him on our wood floors in the hallway. Water spilling everywhere. I watched as men in uniforms tried to resuscitate him. I watch as they used the defibrillator.
I watched as they carried him out on a stretcher, a sheet covering his naked body, with an oxygen mask on his face, a bag in their hands. Squeezing. I watched as they loaded his grey body into the ambulance as my mom held his cold hand.
And my brain learned. My little child’s brain with no context and a tenuous grasp of death. My brain changed that night. Overload. Critical failure. Reboot, and then,
It was rewired.
Like a pancreas loses its ability to produce or control insulin, my brain learned how to fear. It learned adrenaline, it learned fight or flight, it learned at any moment horrible things could happen. Any second the normal and routine will slip and it will happen again. It learned excessive emotional response.
I was physically changed.
And as a woman, as I developed, as my brain grew that fear grew too, and so did my desire to control it. And so that’s when the OCD began, and the panic attacks. If I could control life somehow, the terrible things I feared wouldn’t happen. I didn’t realize any of this. It was all happening in my brain, just beyond my grasp, subconsciously. It seemed normal to me. I had always been this way I thought. Everyone was this way. This was how brains worked.
But that is not how regular brains work. Mine was different now.
And then I had my own children and the small compulsions, the triple checking of things and the panic attacks gave way to intrusive thoughts. The worst part of OCD. The worst part of fear. The part where it takes over, the part where it hijacks your thought patterns.
When I had my oldest I began to worry obsessively. That is what the obsessions are in OCD. When she was just a week old, my brain began to misfire in a terrible way, with terrible thoughts.
What if my dog eats her?
Now I was afraid of dogs. I compulsively couldn’t go near them. Our dogs had to stay with family.
What if she rolled off the bed and broke her neck?
Now I was afraid of my bedroom.
What if I drop her down the stairs?
Now I was desperately, horribly afraid of stairs. I couldn’t even look at them.
What if I left her in the car?
Now I couldn’t leave my house.
What if she dies of SIDs?
Now I compulsively checked the thermostat to ensure she was cool enough because I read in an article once that 72 degrees was the ideal temperature for newborns and if it changes a half degree in either direction she will definitely die. My fault.
What if the air conditioning turned off while I slept?
Now I was afraid of sleeping.
What if she was ever cut with a knife?
Now I was afraid of my kitchen and could no longer prepare food.
What if I hurt her?
Now I was afraid of myself.
And after a month of living that torture everyday, I got help.
And a diagnosis.
Postpartum OCD and anxiety. Only surprise! The fear I grew up with had a name. OCD.
I’d had it all along.
My psychiatrist was a blessing, and my support group for mothers with postpartum mood disorders was even more so. Medication saved my motherhood. And likely my life, because I was so afraid I might hurt my own child, I would have rather taken my own life than have lived to hurt her.
The change was drastic. One simple pill, zoloft, took the thoughts away. Because my brain needed help. My brain that had been so fundamentally changed by trauma needed an aid to function. It need help turning off the fear center.
But in today’s mommy world, and in today’s church that wasn’t always okay. While my support group held out open arms and said, “Us too.” My church said pray harder, be more grateful, rethink medication. The message from the greater mommy culutre wars said “big pharma” was selling me snake oil, to keep me sick of all things, even though for once I could hold my baby without fear.
But still the stigma remained. It still remains. And there are still those sermons, those blogs, those devotionals I sit through, asking me, no telling me, not to fear.
And I wonder is that really Gods message?
Maybe for some. Maybe for those whose brains function as they were designed to, but what about those of us with stigmatized mental illness? Is it Gods will for us to think ourselves better? How cruel that would be. Can we ask a person to think their bone whole again when it’s broken? Or ask a diabetic person to think themselves more insulin? Can we ask a liver patient to think their enzymes lower? Or a kidney patient to think themselves into dialysis?
No. I believe he is bigger than that. And kinder. Bigger than my OCD. Bigger than my fear. It’s not a command, “Do not fear.” But a comfort.
A lullaby. Hush my child, do not fear.
My kids are older now, I have a toddler, preschooler and my oldest is in school, and recently I have been struggling again. Fear is with me again. I don’t know why. It just is.
Sometimes it’s hard get out of my shower because I’m afraid someone will be standing there to murder me. Sometimes I can’t drive across the river because I am afraid my kids will drown. Sometimes we can’t go on hikes because I’m afraid they will fall into a creek and drown or wander of into the forest and die of exposure. Some days I can’t leave the house because I know we will get into a car accident and definitely die. I don’t let my kids eat popcorn because I read an article on Facebook once about a child who aspirated and died of lung infection. Sometimes we don’t swim because I cannot cope with the constant fear of drowning. Sometimes I leave a cartful full of groceries because I am too afraid to talk to the cashier. Sometimes, I am overwhelmed by the fighting back the fear.
I have to say the same words to my husband every time he leaves, to make sure he will come back safely.
I have to hug and kiss my daughter before school in the same way, sometimes two or three times so there isn’t a school shooting and she doesn’t die.
It feels like a responsibility. A heavy burden, to keep my loved ones safe. Meanwhile I know each action and thought is completely irrational. Each ritual I devise to keep them safe, a cruel joke, but I can’t stop. And so I count in my head, I pick the skin off of my feet, I pick my lips until they bleed, I say things repetitively, ask the same question over and over.
Or I avoid.
Its not that I don’t believe that God is sovereign and in control, rather, I am a prisoner to my brain. It thinks these things whether I want to or not. Compulsively. It thinks.
And I wonder, is this a sin? Is this fear that I am told is the antithesis of faith really the antithesis of faith?
If it were, if I were faithless, I wouldn’t cry out to my God every day for strength. I wouldnt collaborate with my amazing doctor to find meds that work. I wouldn’t go back to alter them when they needed alteration, and I am struggling again. If I had no hope I wouldn’t get out of bed because this fight is exhausting and my brain can torture me. But I hope, and so I can fight. Fight for treatment, fight or normalcy, fight for coping skills, fight for myself and my family.
And so, I think the church has this one wrong.
My God is loving. And he holds me in his arms, and when I say to him, “Lord I am so afraid!” I am not met with condemnation, but understanding and grace and strength.
People take for granted the strength it takes to live sometimes. It takes great faith to do it all afraid.
And there are days, when I do it all afraid.
I wake up afraid.
I make breakfast afraid, laundry, coloring, cleaning, gardening, grocery shopping, walks, games, dinner time, showers, bedtimes.
But never once has God scolded me. Never once have I felt a check in my spirit.
No. I tell the Lord I am afraid.
He says rest in me, my yoke is easy.
I am so afraid Lord.
I know. You are hard pressed my daughter, but you are not crushed. Perplexed but not in despair.
This is hard Lord.
I sweat blood for you in Gethsemane, in my strength you can do hard things too.
Im afraid again Lord.
Be still, I am fighting for you child.
He calls me to read the Psalm 23. He calls me into Lamentations 3. Terror and hurt and bitterness is not new, living underneath the shadow of death is not new. Our hope is in him, even as we walk through the suffering of fear.
His Holy Spirit leads me to the still waters.
So I am not ashamed of my fear. I may never overcome it this side of heaven. I pray for healing absolutely, but the healing may come from talented doctors and medications. It may come through me refusing to give up on myself and my husband and my kids, knowing they deserve a whole wife and mother. My healing may come from perseverance and endurance to find the right combination of meds so that I am not constantly and compulsively and obsessively afraid.
I endure because Jesus gives me strength, even as I fear.
I have seen the cost of refusing treatment, of letting fear win. I have seen what self medication looks like in my family, when fear and trauma are burned into your neural pathways. I have witnessed what it looks like when people reach for alcohol or drugs, or life in complete denial because the fear is just too much. I have seen what it looks like when people crumble beneath it’s weight.
I refuse to pass that legacy down to another generation. I live with fear, yes, I live with OCD, but it does not define me. And it is not a sin. It is not keeping me from the fullness of Christ. Through this very affliction I have come to know his strength, his love, his mercy.
It is the thorn in my side that I will boast of gladly because in my weakness He has made me strong. His strength is made perfect in my weakness, in my fear.
And that is beautiful.
We like our testimonies packaged in pretty little bows, with neat resolutions, left in the past. It’s hard to say this is still my struggle. It is hard to say there hasn’t been healing yet in the way that sells books and pureflix movies. Miracles.
But Paul said suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character hope.
And maybe hope in the face of often crippling fear is a miracle.
And while it’s easy to think in today’s culture that fear and hope cannot coexist, I am proof they can. I have OCD, I struggle with it, but I have hope and assurance that the battle is already won and one day there will be freedom. In the meantime God has provided for me treatment and medication and I am blessed by that.
God gives me the strength, everyday, to do it afraid. My fear is not too big or messy for him, even when it feels too big and messy for me.
So today, we adjusted my meds again. Added new ones, changed doses around, looking for the right combination my brain needs to fire correctly without too many side effects. And that’s hard too. It reminded me of those early germ theory days when scientists knew germs existed, but couldn’t visualize them yet. It’s early days in the study of our magnificent brain. And I am a pioneer in the treatment. So much of finding medication is trial and error, we don’t know exactly how or why the medicines work, but they do, and we are so close to finding the secrets, revealing the mystery, visualizing and mapping the trauma changed and OCD brain.
Until then, a stigma remains and the church will preach that fear is often wrong or a spiritual symptom of something else, and maybe sometimes it is. But there are vulnerable ones like me sitting and listening and maybe hurting in silence, and it’s up to those of us who suffer to use our voices and our testimony to inform people, to encourage.
I do not believe that God inflicts pain or disease, rather that it is a byproduct of the fallen nature of this world. My brain is changed by the curse of death, we all are in some way. But I also believe there is great opportunity; that God can use my suffering, this road I walk for good. He can transform the ashes of my fear and redeem them into something beautiful. Simply because others walk this road too, and we need to know we are not alone.
Trauma is everywhere, we are just good at hiding it.
But we don’t need to. God wants to bring it to light, he wants healing and wholeness for his people. And if my story, my struggle, my mess, my thoughts can shine light into someone’s else’s dark then I will rejoice all the more gladly in my suffering. In my fear.
I know the end of the story already, even if I am not there yet. Jesus has won the war. Death and fear have been defeated. And one day my brain will be healed and whole again.
But until that glorious day, the medications I need to take to help me function don’t define me. My OCD and PTSD and generalized anxiety don’t define me. My fear does not define me. My worry does not define me.
And that is beautiful.
“And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. 8 Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. 9 And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Cor. 4:8-10