How I Reclaimed Joy by Confronting my Anxiety
by Rev. Dr. Ruth HetlAnd
Dan's Note: It's wonderful reconnecting with someone you hadn't heard from for ages. Ruth and I participated in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) together in the summer of '97 in St. Paul, Minnesota. CPE is like boot camp for pastors in that they plop you into a clinical setting such as a hospital or nursing home and you just have to BE present for the people there. Sometimes, we got assignments called 'verbatims,' in which we had to document a specific interaction from our memories and share them with the group.
That summer in '97 was the last time I heard from Ruth until we reconnected on social media. (Let this be another reminder that Facebook isn't ALL bad.) We've chatted a few times about writing, our lives and how they've evolved, and toyed around with different possibilities to collaborate with a writing project. I never knew she was struggling—battling, really—with her own demons. Until I read this . . .
I went for countless walks around the perimeter of the dry, dusty cemetery next to the country church where I served as a pastor in Texas. As an introvert, I relished the time alone in that quiet place. I usually listened to music when I walked but not always. In my final years there, I noticed that whenever the music wasn't playing, I was whispering to myself, “Why do I feel so broken?"
I whispered this to myself, to God, to the gravestones, to the wind brushing through the cedar trees.
I had been a pastor for sixteen years, I was serving a church I loved, I had children and a husband who were sweet and kind. I had good health and accomplishments.
However, I was exhausted. Regular, crippling panic attacks on Sunday mornings began thirteen years before. I dealt with them by running five miles before church, reading books on visualization and relaxation techniques, and gritting my teeth and praying feverishly to God. Nothing worked. The panic attacks continued and grew worse. I soon dreaded Sunday mornings.
Our family doctor, a believer, said perhaps it was spiritual warfare. My husband suggested I take Xanax. I ran hundreds and hundreds of miles and completed marathons, chasing some sense of calm. I read piles of books on anxiety, panic and depression. I took anti-depressants. The years ticked by, and I was feeling increasingly like a bag of skin filled with shattered glass on Sunday mornings. I put on a smile along with my alb and went through the motions of the church service. I recited the liturgy, administered the sacraments, and preached. And I wondered why God wouldn't deliver me from the anxiety that was becoming an ever-present, suffocating part of my days.
Anxiety squishes joy. I felt helpless. Eventually, I traded in the running for drinking too often and sneaking off to the cemetery to smoke (I had quit smoking a dozen years ago and didn't want my family knowing I started again). I was eating junk and gaining weight by the day. My clothes were tight, and my self-hatred was ballooning, too. The smile was still plastered on my face every day at work, but inside I was busted. Empty.
So this was where I was at spiritually and emotionally when I accepted a new call at a church in another state this past winter. I accepted the call knowing that I needed something to change. Not surprisingly, a change in location only slightly jarred my self-contempt and soon I was reconstructing the same patterns as before but now in a new zip code. The panic attacks followed me across state lines, as did the desire to numb out with food and alcohol.
I was an imposter, a poser, two-faced. I was play-acting for my congregation as the smart and happy new pastor with a shiny doctorate and many years of experience, radiating gladness.
In truth, I was just busted-up, old me.
I had been at my new church about a month when I had a meeting with another pastor in the area about an upcoming event. I wasn't looking forward to the meeting or the event because I was dreading everything by then. But I put on my smile and welcomed him warmly into my office as we planned and I chirped about how I couldn't wait.
As we talked, however, our conversation started to get real and we were sharing about our lives as pastors. He told me some stories and I told him some stories and he mentioned a year-long health and spirituality program at the Minnesota Institute for Contemplation and Healing near Crookston, Minnesota.
The Holy Spirit felt near in that moment and conversation because my old, busted ears perked up and I knew I needed to find my way into that program. I knew that I had to feel better. I had to stop circling around my same old methods for dealing with life because they were not working.
Something had to change and it had to be me.
I began the Health and Spirituality program which is personalized for each participant. For me it is pieces of prayer, therapy, spiritual direction and directed reading. In the last months, I've shed a lot of tears, but they feel different now. They feel like healing tears. With the gentle guidance of the folks at MICAH, I have been given the gift of seeing my life through a different lens and the power to ask new questions and discover new insights. I'm given tools that help me mine through the layers of emotions that life builds up.
It's a dear and astonishing thing, after one has grown accustomed to feeling so bad, to start feeling joy again.
My transformation has only begun, but it feels like pure grace to be able to breathe again. I've caught myself smiling, my footsteps are lighter, I'm feeding myself with nourishing things, and going for long walks for the love of it rather than because I'm punishing myself for having gained a few pounds or because I'm feeling chased by life itself. The compassion I used to reserve only for others is now something I know I must administer to myself as well.
Transformation happens. The great revelation for me has been to understand that it doesn't happen alone.
Life seems to be singing this reminder to me in everything - recently my car wouldn't start. I was at home alone and I thought, “Aha! I have jumper cables.” I located the cables but then stood there realizing they were useless unless I had someone come over with their car so I could connect to it. I needed help.
Every one of us needs help sometimes. I have always known this but have only begun to live this. I still like to go for quiet walks in church cemeteries, but these days when the headphones are off, I find myself whispering, “I feel thankful,” to myself, to the gravestones, to the wind brushing through the maple trees, to God.