It’s been 15 years since I had my first panic attack. I was thirteen years old, walking through Kohls with my mom. It was a normal day, my mother and I were joking around while we shopped, and I felt fine. Then out of nowhere I started feeling abnormally anxious, sick, like something horrible was about to happen. My vision started to blur, my throat started closing up and my eyes started welling up with tears. I didn’t know what in the world was happening, I was terrified and my first reaction was to try desperately to hide. I started to pretend I was looking at some clothes, and fell back while my mom kept walking, my heart pounding harder and harder. But it got more intense, the horrible “something horrible is going to happen” feeling started weighing on me and I was hyperventilating. As soon as my mother turned around and saw me, I started sobbing. She rushed over and tried to comfort me, asking over and over again what was wrong. But I didn’t know. Neither of us knew what had happened.
That first attack was horrible, because it was the first. But as time went on, it’s like the more practice my body got, the better it got at having an attack. They would be stronger, longer and more frequent. And eventually would be triggered by things around me. Too much stress, the possibility of any sort on confrontation, needing to speak in front of the class! And, unfortunately, church.
Not church itself, but the music. I loved praise and worship. I loved to sing, I loved the peaceful feeling it gave me, and I loved trying to discreetly sing along with my friends mother who belted out songs like she was auditioning for American Idol. But my heart, my anxiety, whatever, couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s a small church. Meaning wherever you’re sitting, it’s close to a speaker. And this isn’t an organ playing church, or a silent hymnal singing church. This is a loud, full band, the pastor plays an electric guitar, kind of church. But the volume and the vibrations from the overhead speakers became ammunition for my fragile mind to throw itself into another attack. And for years, it happened almost every week.
I’d be standing in service, in a spot close to the back in case I needed to run, quietly singing along and internally bracing myself for the inevitable. The more I thought about it, the more likely it was to happen. Then I’d feel it. Anxiety starts rising, heart starts going faster and I’d start to feel flushed. Music is still playing in the background, but now I can’t hear it. I’m totally focused on controlling myself. My whole body tenses up as the anxiety levels rise, and my throat starts constricting as if something terrible is about to happen. My heart is now racing and I’m feeling nauseous. It’s only been a minute but it’s already too much and the floodgates break. Tears start streaming before I even realize it.
No, I can do this. Hold it back, hold it back. Lots of people cry in church, no one will notice this is different. Oh God, I’m dying. Why are you letting this happen? Hold it back. Hold it back.
I can’t hold it back. Once my body starts shaking with sobs I always run. In the bathroom, or straight outside, wherever I can go to hide and ride it out alone. The minutes bleed together in a rush of shaking, sobbing, hyperventilating anxiety until I lose track of time. And finally, the sobs die down and I can stop the tears. I sit on the floor and concentrate on breathing again.
Ok, it’s over. I’m okay. I’m okay. Oh God, I’m tired. I’m okay. It’s over.
Finally, I can stand up and wipe away the makeup that’s now ruined, and I’ve got no energy left to fix it. It’s finally over but the shaking continues. I was sweating a bit from the attack, and now that I’m calm, I’m freezing. My throat is taking it’s time opening up again and will now hurt the rest of the day. And all of a sudden, I’m exhausted.
When I go back into service, my husband will give me an encouraging, knowing smile, put his arm around me and kiss me on the forehead. All I want to do at this point is lean into him and fall asleep. By the way, my husband doesn’t get up to follow me because he learned a long time ago I need to be alone. If anyone tries to comfort me, the sobbing last a lot longer and it takes forever to calm me down. I’m not upset for a rational reason, so comfort doesn’t help. So even though my only desire is to go sleep it off, I can’t do that. I’m in church and I’ve already missed the first twenty minutes of todays sermon. I need to stay awake. The rest of the service is always the same. The pastor continues his sermon, my husband sits there nodding along, and I’m trying my hardest to stay awake. I usually fail.
Once service is over, I don’t want to socialize, I don’t want to make plans with anyone. All I want to do is go home and sleep off the horrible wrongness holding me by the throat that won’t go away.
I’ve tried going up to alter calls for prayer. I’ve tried allowing my name to be put in the bulletin, or on the church prayer chain so the congregation always has me on their mind. I’ve tried healing services. I’ve tried staying inside during a panic attack and allowing someone to attempt to calm me down. Just guess how much any of that has ever helped.
Alter calls make me feel sick because I can’t stand being the center of attention. Prayer chains are awesome, except when people come up to me asking if I’ve been healed yet. Every time I tell them no, I feel guilty, like it’s my fault I haven’t received a supernatural healing. I’ve already explained that allowing someone to be there with me during an attack only makes it worse. And healing services? The church does not understand mental illness and doesn’t know how to handle it. Healing services were all the same. I’d be put in front of everyone again and have someone pray over me, but this time everyone else would join in, either laying hands on me directly(which I wouldn’t mind if I didn’t also have back problems that made it painful to stand like that) or stretching their hands out from all over the room. And even on a good day, I’d feel the anxiety building up inside of me from the overwhelming attention and expectation on me. And it would end with the speaker prodding at me, trying to get me to tell them I felt better. I didn’t. And now I’d be enduring weeks of people telling me, “just keep praying, it’s only in your head, God will heal you.”
After years of the same things over and over again, I eventually flipped out on my mother and forbid her from doing anything else. No more talking about it. No more prayer chains or healing services. God doesn’t want to heal me, I’m done. It’s only years later that I can understand how much I must have hurt her. She was only trying to help in the only way she knew how. But I couldn’t help it. I was hurting so much and the very idea of church had become so anxiety inducing that I was questioning everything. The first seed of anger was planted and I shut down, no longer willing to admit I had any problems any more. And no longer willing to pray about it either. All I had heard from God was silence and all I felt was abandonment.
It’s been years since I put a stop to any kind of help from the church. I still go every week, and I haven’t turned away from God. But things are different now. My anxiety ruined church for me, and even now that my family has started attending elsewhere, things remain the same. Now I’m on a medication that can sometimes keep an attack at bay, as long as I don’t drink too much coffee before service. But that seed of anger that was planted all those years ago, it grew. It was watered by the depression that was never healed, by my unnamed issues with life I still haven’t received a diagnosis for, and then for pmdd that developed after I had kids.
My hope is that one day I can get past all this. That I can figure out a reason that God would allow all these things to happen to me. That I can work through the anxiety so I can truly enjoy church again. I’m still angry at God. But it’s almost like that feeling after an argument. Like you’ve gotten out all the horrible things you had to say, and now you feel a bit better and maybe you can start to forgive. I have no shame in admitting that because lying and saying I’m fine helps no one. Especially me.