You are going to be okay

Seven things I"ve learned from my experience with mental health and healing

My story begins in January 2015, on my first mission trip to India. We had a glorious time ministering to some of the many villages that dot the landscape of this strange but beautiful country. On our last day, as we made our preparations for our flight home, a layman traveling with the group had a crippling anxiety attack. He was staying behind for business for two additional weeks. As we were planning on leaving, he wanted nothing more than to be flying home with us. The thought of being 11,000 miles away from home had caused him to experience a very real problem. The pastor I was traveling with grabbed me and we went to encourage our distraught friend. While standing in his room and listening as he Facetimed with his wife back home, I made a crucial mistake. I thought to myself, “Come on, man, get yourself together! What’s wrong with you? Get a grip!” Little did I know that in less than a year, I would be standing in his shoes. 

Over the next few months, my family noticed I was developing an ever-worsening, totally involuntary facial tick. While beyond my control, I covered it well when in public and reasoned that it was just a habit I would need to break. They were also noticing that I was more on edge than ever. There were subtle changes in my personality and demeanor taking place that caused me to be quick-tempered and argumentative. These were real symptoms of an underlying problem that I was the last to see. It was clear to those who love me most, but I was blind and defensive regarding the changes. After all, we had just celebrated the greatest year in ministry since I had come to pastor First Odessa. We baptized more in that single year than at any time in the history of our church and God was blessing our hard work. We had completed a major building project a year earlier and were seeing the rewards for our investment in God’s Kingdom. I was loving ministry and the hand of God’s blessing, but I was totally worn out both physically and emotionally.

It came to a head in December 2015 when my son and I were deer hunting and camping together. It was a bitter cold trip and we were tent camping. We sat around a big campfire into the night, until it became time to get some sleep. I lay down in the tent, scrunched deep in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. A little after midnight, I awoke with a feeling of panic and anxiety I had never felt in my life. I was smothering, unable to breathe, panicked and afraid. An oppressive darkness had come over me. I quickly dressed and went outside into the cold night air to build the campfire high for warmth, but also because I needed the light to pierce the dark night all around. I did not know what was happening or why. The darkness was not only emotional and spiritual, but there was a physical affect as well. I could feel the anxiety running up my spine into the base of my head and neck almost like a hot iron being pressed on my skin. And, for the first time, I was unable to “get it together” like I had thought regarding my friend in India. There I sat, hovered beside a campfire, trying to get my mind under control as the stresses of life and ministry came to an ugly head!

When I got home, I shared everything with Andi, my wife, none of which came as a surprise. She had known something was wrong for months. I was grouchy and complaining, coming home from work worn out, just to get into my chair where I would fall asleep almost every night. When she asked, “What’s wrong with you?” or “Why are you so fussy?” I was defensive and would always retort with “Nothing, I’m not fussy! What’s wrong with you? Why do you do that?” All of which were signs that something was indeed not right.

From the dark night of our camping trip, and every night until I received help, the darkness intensified the closer it got to bedtime. I would get my Bible out to read, meditate, and pray as I sought sleep. Many nights I lay with my hand resting on the bible hoping the anxiety and fear would dissipate and I could drift off. I knew I needed help but did not know who to call. Andi told me to call my worship pastor because he had dealt with anxiety for years. On Saturday, December 26, 2015 I called him at 9:00 PM. He came straight over. I told him what was going on and before I could finish, he began describing my symptoms perfectly. He had walked this road of anxiety, depression, and panic. He understood. He counseled and prayed with us. He ministered greatly to his pastor that night.

I then called our family doctor and set an appointment. My physician was in his mid-60’s and had been around the block. I took my wife to ensure that I would not downplay any of the symptoms. Upon hearing, my wise doctor told me that I was not the first clergy who had sat in his office telling this familiar story. In fact, he had encountered many through the years who had experienced similar issues. He listened, treated my symptoms, and set me on the path toward managing my problem.

I called my mother and filled her in. She told me of her experiences with anxiety, panic, and depression. She had suffered the death of my father when I was a child and my only sibling, an older brother, several years later. I knew she had had some issues, but no idea as to the extent. She said, “Now listen to me, you are going to be okay!” Those words spoke volumes to me.

I had thought I understood panic, anxiety, stress, and depression. I remember years prior, a man in my first pastorate telling me that stress had to be managed. I wholeheartedly agreed but had no idea what I was talking about. I preached sermons on dealing with stress. I provided principles I had read elsewhere on managing stress and anxiety, but I had not experienced either. I even remember being critical of those who took medication to manage anxiety because obviously there was an underlying spiritual problem being overlooked. If they would just get closer to the Lord, these problems would vanish, and they could set the medication aside. How naïve and lacking understanding I was!

In Second Corinthians 11:28, the Apostle Paul said, “And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.” I do not presume to know all that Paul is talking about in this verse, but after almost a quarter century of ministering in God’s churches, I think I have an idea, especially if Paul’s work schedule and mine were similar. I worked all the time and never took all my vacation. I was on call 24/7 because people needed me. If I received what I deemed to be an important call in the evening, I left my family to minister to others. I understand that ministry rarely happens at convenient times, but in my case, I had no ministry boundaries whatsoever. I wish I could tell you that on Christmas morning years ago, I allowed the answering machine to receive the call from a woman whose elderly, long-ill mother had passed away. Surely that could have waited until that afternoon, but I cannot. I took that call, not realizing I was under the influence of pride and fear like an alcoholic under the influence of scotch. Pride, because people needed me, and I was determined to prove that the church was getting their money’s worth because no person could “out work” me. Fear, because of an irrational feeling of being afraid to disappoint people. I was afraid that in some way my congregation would be displeased with me, or those who were angry with changes I was making would cause problems and might even begin a campaign to get me fired. Rampant pride and baseless fears become millstones when left to themselves.

Moreover, I had begun to believe the devil’s whispers, “You’ve got to keep this quiet and not tell anyone because they’ll judge you if you do. After all, really good pastors don’t have problems like you’re having. There is something wrong with you, and you especially don’t want anyone to find out that you take medication for anxiety. That would be horrible!” We believe those lies while forgetting that in Southern Baptist life half of our congregations take Vicodin, Zocor, Synthroid, Lipitor and sleep with a C-Pap machine. Who are we kidding? It is time to deal with the pride and fear; it is time to be honest!

What have I learned about managing anxiety, depression, panic, and fear?

First, bring it to the light. Satan works in the dark and the longer you resist being open, honest, and vulnerable the more leverage you give him. Truth disarms when that which is done in the dark comes into the light.

Second, follow your doctor’s orders. Do what he says. If he prescribes you something, trust him. You are not a medical doctor, so stop diagnosing yourself and listen to him. This will be easy if you get to the dark place where I was. Once there, you will long for relief to come.

Third, set proper boundaries. Turn your mobile phone off at night. Set aside time to have dinner with your family each evening without ministry interruptions. Force some discipline upon yourself when it comes to social media. You do not have to be so accessible to be an effective minister.

Fourth, quit worrying about what other people think. There is great joy that comes from being content with who you are and where you are serving. Your identify cannot be found in what certain sore-heads may think of you. It must be found in Jesus Christ alone because His final job review is the only one that truly matters.

Fifth, pray more than you have ever prayed. Enlist those who love you most to pray for you. Do not exclude your spouse from how you feel. If they are tuned into the marriage, they know something is not right already.

Sixth, do not let a label define you. The term “mental health” is a very broad term that should be managed like all other health related issues in life. Just as the common cold and sniffles is not equivalent medically to stage 5 pancreatic cancer, suffering from mild anxiety and depression is not equivalent to full-blown schizophrenia. Obviously, perspective matters greatly when using the term “mental health” to describe another individual so let’s not get bogged down in the label. Let’s deal with the issue at hand and heal.

And, finally, if you find yourself where I was and you have no one to talk to, give me a call. You can track me down easily. I will listen and counsel with you and tell you the words that helped me, “Now listen to me, you are going to be okay!”

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