It is the thing I don’t talk about much. How it all started. I can wax poetic on the need for us all to be a little more vulnerable and break the stigma of mental health and shed light on our hurting places so we can experience healing individually and collectively. I am honest about where I have been and where I am now, if you ask. But I don’t often talk about how crippling anxiety came to take up an unwelcome and permanent residence in my life.
Have you ever sat with someone near death? Ever heard a death rattle? It is the sound that haunts me even now, all these years later. I spent the last week of my grandmother’s life at her bedside. She was already immobile and speechless when I got there, the unexpected stroke that followed her terminal cancer diagnosis rendering her so. I’m not sure even now she recognized me when I said her name and she opened one eye to look at me.To date, those seven days constitute one of the best and worst weeks of my life.
By the time I got to the hospital that day, I was one month out of a bad relationship and scared to death to be at home alone.. As difficult as it was sitting there watching death creep in bit by bit, I was still grateful to not be alone. I watched my grandmother’s toes, then feet, then legs turn black with necrosis, and still she kept raggedly breathing on her own. She was a fighter, that one. I remember wishing that she was still alive and awake and ready to fight my latest battle with me. She had always been so larger than life with so much wisdom and grit packed into her five foot frame. And I wanted her to open her eyes, move her lips, and tell me how to keep pressing on and waking up every morning and facing each day.
But she didn’t. Her breaths got shallower with every day. Occasionally, those shallow breaths stopped and we were sure it was her last. Then her chest would heave again and we would resume our vigilant watch. To give my great aunts, my aunt and uncle, and my mama a break, I volunteered to take the night watch two nights before she died. As soon as everyone left and I turned out the lights and laid down on the narrow couch, the death rattle started. I couldn’t stop shaking at first. That sound will run chills up your spine like nothing else. It is as though somewhere deep in my soul I knew she was half in this world and half with her Jesus, and she was not going quietly. I lost count of how many times I paged the nurses to please suction her throat, until they gently told me it was doing more harm than good and I needed to let her be. So I sat up until dawn, white-knuckled, listening to that awful sound of death taking a life, and waited for the hospitalist to show up for his shift and increase her morphine dose.
I haven’t slept through a night since. I had nightmares for almost a year after that, dreaming that I could hear her calling my name in a death rattle voice and begging me to help her breathe. They were the kind of nightmares that wake you up in a cold sweat panic. A little too vivid. A little too real. A little too hard on the heart. What little sleep I got was awash in fear. The days weren’t any better. I lived in fear, afraid that all of the threats made in that bad relationship were going to come true and the cops wouldn’t get there in time.
Anxiety is a wretched beast. It robs you of joy and being present in the journey. It robs you of trusting others. It robs you of physical rest and resting in the promises of a good God.
What anxiety burglarized, the Lord has redeemed. But not the way I expected. I thought I would do my due diligence and do what I needed to do to get well and I would just be well and that would be it. If I have learned nothing else in the last four years, it is that this life is much more an ultra-marathon of hills and valleys with an unsure end than it is a sprint with a clearly defined finish.
And yet, I still see the this wild and wildly surprising race as redemptive. In the same firm/gentle way the Lord healed my screwed up childhood/adolescence, He has stitched back together my broken heart and broken mind and breathed new life into my aching lungs. I still have the wounds, physical and emotional and spiritual, but they’re not gaping open. Instead, the scars are revealed bit by bit to people who need to know vulnerability so that they may learn vulnerability themselves. I know what I have survived and just how much I can take. I know what I will and will not tolerate. I know how soft I am and how strong I can be. I know how to make it and I know that I must choose each day to show up, and live, and live life abundantly.
I am grateful to be used in that way, to see my wounded parts be used for restorative practice in others, redeeming not just my own hurts, but also the times I was the one who was hurtful. I recently spent a serious evening with a member of my tribe who is hurting deeply. I won’t reveal the specifics, but I will say that I left that conversation weeping for that person’s hurts and also awash with gratefulness that I had once been in that very place and could lend a bit of understanding for the journey.
Two friends whom I hold so dear are in the midst of something no parent should ever have to experience: the probable end of their child’s life. I struggle to find words to comfort them. They are brave and wonderful and kind and anyone who knows them is blessed. So many of us are standing by speechless with shared grief and waiting and praying and hoping for what seems impossible for one precious little girl, believing our God is a good God with our best in mind.
A recent addition to my tribe revealed her struggles with mental health over a meal I can only describe as grace-laced. Because a lot of hard things were said and a lot of listening happened and I cannot help but rejoice when observing another person taking those first slow and unsteady steps into freedom.
Through that night that sent me down the path of anxiety and depression and trying desperately to keep it all together when I was falling apart, and through the communal grief of the last few weeks, I have been reminded that as much as we shatter together and hurt one another and watch others hurt, we also have the remarkable ability to repair together, to share each other’s burdens and lighten the load of grief.
This discovery, too, is redemptive. For so many years, I remained hardened and hid my heart far away. I weep with wonder now when I happen across another soul whom I can look straight in the eye and say, “I am wounded. This is my pain, my burden, my sadness. It does not look the same as yours. Yet here it is. Will you walk with me in this? Will you offer up grace for the days when I have none and know that I will do the same for you? I see that you are wounded, too. And that’s okay. Tell me your story.”
It isn’t what I thought it would be. I still have days where staying in bed appeals far more than dealing with the overwhelming nonsense and hatefulness people seem to drag with them. The world can be so incredibly harsh when you have a too thin skin and a too big heart. But I get up and show up and remember what I have survived. And I smile. Because without my scars, I wouldn’t be who I am. Without my scars, I wouldn’t be of much service to the people I love when they hurt. Without my scars, I couldn’t share their grief. What anxiety stole from me, what death steals from families, what unholy lies steal from broken hearts, the Lord redeems in community with Him and the people He has placed in our paths to share in our hurt and to comfort us as only wounded healers can. Grace upon overwhelming grace. Amen.