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ARE YOU SURE?

What hideous words. To most people, these are just three small, monosyllabic words making up a simple question with a simple “yes” or “no” answer. To those of us who struggle with anxiety, more specifically those of us who have actual anxiety disorders, the words are not so meek. Rather, they come with slings and arrows aimed at an already-sore spot in our psyches.

Yes, I did just admit to having a mental disorder. For some of you, this is simply surprising, neither negatively or positively. Perhaps you’re completely unfazed. Some of you felt a sudden onrush of discomfort due to pure fear or the adoption of the stigma attached to mental illness. Lastly, I pray that some of you felt a surge of relief in hearing the implicit message that tells you that you are not alone.

I heard a pastor once say, in reference to seeking counseling during a difficult period of his life, that “counseling isn’t just for crazy people.” In the same way, mental illness is not exclusive to the clinically insane. The stigma of mental illness is rather ridiculous considering the statistical prevalence of mental illness, but that’s another rant for another time.

As of late, this is what I’ve been obsessing over. There have been several situations over the past few weeks that have made me extra aware of my anxious thought patterns. I am a very self-aware person as it is, but these circumstances have added a new level of understanding by showing me my anxiety in a new light.

Let me just interrupt this for a brief moment to state my intentions for sharing this. First of all, I am sharing it simply for the sake of sharing it. Secondly, I love the field of psychology and its practical applications. Thirdly, I hope that by sharing this that some may find some encouragement—be it ever such a small drop—through my ponderings. That’s it.

Anyway, one recent situation that brought about new understanding occurred at work. Currently, my day job involves detailed data analysis to create more meaningful data for the use of my department. Your eyes just rolled back as your neck simultaneously craned backward in a momentary episode of narcolepsy, right? Understandable. My point is that I spend my daytime hours breaking down numbers (which is hilarious given my extreme lack of mathematical ability.) When presenting a report to my supervisor, he glanced at the figures, and then opened his mouth to ask, “How sure are you of these numbers?” Without hesitation, I answered, “Very,” with confidence. Shortly after, I turned and left his office. As I walked back to my desk, I thought, “That man has no idea what that question just did to me.”

What it did was to start a relentless, swirling cycle of follow-up questions asked by none other than my own tenaciously analytical mind. In a matter of seconds, my brain was filled with unyielding uncertainty, impatient inquiries, meta-thoughts, ambiguous feelings, and overall mental chaos. Here’s a sample of my rapid-fire thoughts for the next several minutes following my manager’s inquiry:

Was I really sure? What if some are wrong? What if ALL of them are wrong? No. You checked them as you typed. Did I? The numbers might be transposed. I could’ve had my hand on the wrong keys. What if I looked at the wrong data in the first place? What if this trickles down to affect the whole department? What if I did the wrong formulas? No, I checked them just like I checked the numbers. Did I? Maybe I mistyped them. No, I typed them all carefully. My data entry skills are incredibly accurate. But what if they’re not this time? What if they’ve never been and I’ve just been really lucky? That’s ridiculous. Is it? Yes, it’s ridiculous. IS IT?

The above is just a sample of the amount/types of thoughts that can occur simultaneously in one minute alone, continuing for any number of minutes, hours, or even days depending on the situation. It can be about something as seemingly small as this or something much larger. Looking back, I know that the numbers were/are right. I knew that the logical side of me fighting to be accepted as true was correct. I didn’t feel that way though. I couldn’t believe it at that moment. That was the nature of the “episode.”

I recently finished the book Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, a fascinating account of the author’s actual 18-month stay in a mental hospital in the late 60s. In one chapter, she describes an inner dialogue between two “interpreters” responsible for perception. “One needs data, the other needs an overview; they influence each other. They get dialogues going.” One observes, the other translates (not that we are limited to two.) She describes mental illness as being an issue of miscommunication between interpreters one and two. An example:

INTERPRETER ONE: There’s a tiger in the corner.
INTERPRETER TWO: No, that’s not a tiger—that’s a bureau.
INTERPRETER ONE: It’s a tiger! It’s a tiger!
INTERPRETER TWO: Don’t be ridiculous. Let’s go look at it.

The person then picks him/herself up and walks over to examine the corner. She states, “If you are not crazy, the second interpreter’s assertion…will be acceptable to the first interpreter. If you are crazy, the first interpreter’s viewpoint…will prevail.” She goes on to further describe it using the scenario of waiting for your train to move out of the station. When the train next to you starts moving, it feels like yours is moving. The first interpreter makes the claim that it is your train, so the second steps in to set the first straight. However, you can find yourself “suspended between two realms of consciousness: the one that knows you aren’t moving and the one that feels you are. You can flit back and forth between these perceptions and experience a sort of mental vertigo.” (137-141) I think this is a brilliant explanation that can be applied to episodes of anxiety. You’re not sure of anything in these moments, even though you know you should be.

My question is this: what if there was a third interpreter with the final say? An anxious mind is one in which certainty seems rare, nearly unreachable, or even impossible in severe cases. Dynamic and unstable thoughts lead you to a lack of constancy in an ever-changing battlefield. But what if there was something that was always true and always true in the same way? What if there was something or someone you could go to that you could rely on to always tell the truth, always be the same in nature, and always be available?

I believe there is. I know there is. The Bible shows that God is immutable, meaning that He is always the same in His nature, character, and will. He never changes and can never be made to change. It is this truth that has caused my own anxiety to be in remission (if possible.) I am able to accept my mental processes and live with anxiety, but not be controlled by it.

Imagine yourself in the midst of an apocalyptic storm. Torrential rains pound down upon you like showers of nails. Tempestuous winds toss you around like tumbleweed in a tornado. Earthquakes throttle the earth violently making stability non-existent. Then, you spot a tree in the middle of it all. A lush, emerald-hued tree stands tall and beautifully, defying the death-seeking threats that swirl around it by remaining perfect in form and structure. Not one leaf is moved though the atmospheric conditions are crumbling mountains into the turbulent sea. Not one piece of bark is even considering relenting to the winds. In holding onto this tree, you too can enjoy that perfect stability. That’s God. No matter what we feel, think, see, or experience, He is the same loving, perfect, beautiful, true, strong, all-powerful, holy, good, gracious, and infinite God. He always has been and always will be.

It may sound odd to say this, but knowing this enables me to see my anxiety as beautiful. I think it has placed me in a unique position to appreciate this truth in powerful ways. I know what it’s like to be unsure about everything so, to know that God is always God, even though my own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions wage war against themselves, is utterly amazing. Even if 90% of me feels totally unstable and only 10% can remember God’s constancy, I am able to hold onto that 10% and find peace, comfort, and joy. Supernaturally, the 10% actually becomes bigger and more powerful than the 90% (and eventually overtakes it.) I realize that’s mathematically impossible, but it’s true. And hey, I mentioned my lack of arithmetical ability.

Well, I know that this was bit longer—even for me—but I truly appreciate any of you who hung on. I hope you enjoyed it as I thoroughly enjoyed writing it. I have a sneaky suspicion that it’s actually just Part I as I feel like I have so much more to say on the matter. Stay tuned.

Works Cited:

Kaysen, Susanna. Girl, Interrupted. New York: Turtle Bay Books, A Division of Random House, 1993.

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