My four-year-old daughter immediately begins to cry and shake violently whenever she is confronted by a small dog.
Once the anxiety has overtaken her body, there is no coaxing or reasoning with her. I try to prepare and encourage her, but it is extremely painful for me to watch because I know that feeling of paralyzing fear intimately.
In fact, I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not battle anxiety.
Even in preschool, I was haunted by worry, guilt, and shame, over things as simple as inviting all of the girls in my class to my birthday party and learning to use a public water fountain in front of other kids. Each and every one of my actions was motivated by fear.
I constantly worried about hurting or disappointing others, and I constantly worried about other people, places or animals hurting or disappointing me. I almost never felt safe.
I am not my anxiety
Throughout my adolescence, my crippling perfectionism–my impossible expectations for myself and everyone around me–made my life (and probably my family’s) a living hell.
During my college years, I became hell-bent on hiding my mental illness, cringing when I was called “too sensitive” or “emotional.” I strictly relegated crying to when I was alone in my bedroom and learned to self-medicate with alcohol so that I could appear “normal” and “fun” whenever I was in a crowd.
I prided myself on being the life of the party and pushed away anyone who expressed concern over my dangerous lifestyle and precarious well-being.
A decade of life and painful loss later, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I cannot pretend away anxiety. My propensity to worry is a part of my personality, as much a piece of me as my affinity for polka dots and dark chocolate or my disdain for pattern mixing and cantaloupe.
Yet, although it often shapes my choices and emotions, mental illness is not my identity. I am not my anxiety.
My mother was not her anxiety or Alzheimer’s disease
While watching my sensitive, emotional and anxious mother lose her sense of self to early onset dementia, while I was getting married and having my own babies, I learned that identity is much deeper than what we see on the surface.
Although both shaped her personality, my mother was not her anxiety or Alzheimer’s disease.
She was my mom, she was a wife, a writer, a teacher, and an artist, and she was a daughter of the one true King, even if she no longer knew it.
In the aftermath of losing her and then losing my grandfather, I’m finally learning to embrace–and cherish–the present, instead of always worrying about the next thing that could or should happen.
I’m learning that I’m not responsible for the outcomes of others’ decisions. And I’m realizing that everything in my life doesn’t have to be perfect to be good.
I’m learning to value the messy moments and difficult journeys instead of the shiny awards and awe-inspiring results.
I’m learning to value people instead of things, effort instead of accolades, and gratitude instead of perfection.
I need you to tell me to keep fighting
I may still struggle to turn off my brain and sleep at night. I may occasionally shake, weep and/or have heart palpitations when circumstances spin out of my control, but I refuse to let anxiety steal my deep and abiding peace and joy. I continue to cling to Christ as He slowly but surely helps me climb out of each and every dark mental, physical and emotional struggle, through His strength and grace alone.
I’m still fighting each day because anxiety is a bit like grief. It never really goes away.
Even after I think I’ve finally put in my time, paid my dues, and worked through the pain, anxiety (and depression) continues to resurface at the most inopportune moments. It paralyzes me, telling me I can’t possibly go on when I’m stressed, exhausted, or overwhelmed.
Like the grieving process, coping with anxiety is an ongoing, lifelong process.
I’m learning to take deep breaths. I’m learning to slow down and notice the good in each day and in each tiny moment. And I’m learning to recognize and communicate my needs and to pray–not to change God’s mind but to change my perspective.
I will most likely have to fight for courage and contentment and talk myself down from the fear of failure and rejection every day for the rest of my life.
Please understand that having a “good attitude” may never be my instinct, but it will always be my goal. So if you see me struggling, whatever you do, don’t criticize me.
I need you to tell me to keep fighting.
Lauren Flake writes about the joys and heartaches of her Christ-filled journey as a wife, Alzheimer’s daughter, and mother to two beautiful little girls in her native Austin, Texas, at LaurenFlake.com. Her #texasstrong fundraiser has now raised over $140,000 for Central Texas Memorial Day flood victims, in memory of her mom, Dixie.