Newly married and holding hands, we stepped into the therapist’s office. Well, really, he wasn’t a therapist yet, but free counseling was a perk of the university. Students needed hours towards their MFT license.
The months leading up to that room-with-a-couch had pushed us into a dark, deep hole. Night after night I would be awakened by frightened shaking, gulping air, fearful eyes, and choked-out words. I was convinced that was was having a heart attack, or a stroke. Lumbering through foggy sleep-shut eyes, I would find my keys and gently direct my new husband toward the car as we sped the length of road leading to the hospital, my mouth whispering prayers of peace and calm over him.
At times, keys still in the car and sitting in the hospital parking garage, I would discover peace had won and taken over his mind. We would speak quietly, revisiting the fear-filled emotions, trying to make sense of it all.
Other times proved different: Skidding into a parking space, running towards the red Emergency Room sign, my husband grabbing his chest and shouting of heart attack, the nurse hooking husband to the EKG machine. I would stand back wondering if this was what I had signed up for when saying “yes” on that rainy afternoon a year before.
During the months he was plagued with fear and anxiety. He lost his job, couldn’t go to class, couldn’t drive, couldn’t be alone, couldn’t pray.
As we slid awkwardly onto the dark vinyl sofa, our student-therapist guided my husband through introductory questions, wanting to hear his story of anxiety and the areas of his childhood where he may have been a student of anxiety. For weeks we sat on that vinyl sofa as I heard his story and grew in respectful knowledge and love for him. All the while, panic and fear vice-gripped his mind with no release.
I prayed over him, and together we sought pastoral guidance. The religious university we attended came from the long tradition of over-spiritualizing mental ailments in an — at times — unhealthy and guilt-ridden way. So, when our therapist gave us the names of local psychopharmacologists in the area to seek medical help, we took it.
It’s interesting how quick some are to take Advil for headache or antibiotics for physical infection but refuse antidepressants and the like for chemical imbalance. So many are quick to see a physician for physical needs but sluggish to see a therapist for mental needs.
The dozen weeks of walking campus steps and into the room-with-a-couch and having our therapist listen non-judgmentally barely penetrated the fear thick vines choking my husband’s mind. After saying yes to medication and overcoming fear of the unknown that comes from a pill, the oppressive vines began unraveling, loosening their grip. Where darkness and fear resided, the light and hope of God seeped through.
We didn’t know how long the anxiety would last, how many panic attacks were to come, when and if he would receive peace again. In the midst of the unknowns, though, God was faithful. God provided, for me, the strength and energy to be there. God provided me with a heart of compassion and love instead of irritation or frustration. God provided me with patience and hope to be the exact type of team-support my husband needed from me. I wasn’t perfect, but God provided.
It’s been over 13 years since his first panic attack. And while the panic has subsided, anxiety has been one of the constants in our marriage. It could be worse. It could always be worse, but through every painful and difficult chapter to our story, God never leaves us alone. When we struggled to make it through and couldn’t find the space for the spiritual, God was there. And when we were able to break surface, to come to the top and breathe again, it was God who led us there and sustained us along the way.
It seems like us humans who believe in God have two differing responses to life’s shit-storms: We are brought closer to God or we blame God.
Either way, God hasn’t left. Never does.
Bethany Cseh is co-pastor of Catalyst Church in Arcata.