Living with anxiety is difficult, but not impossible. And faith is the key to finding hope in the darkness.
When I was young, I suffered from panic attacks and bouts of anxiety without ever knowing there was a name for it. I had difficulty sleeping at night, always fearful of the unknown, of sounds unexplained, of the dark. I’d find myself breaking down for what seemed like no reason. And after having children, my fears took on a whole new life, at times appearing imminent and turning my reality upside down. It wasn’t until four years ago, after a particularly horrible panic attack, that my husband and I realized that it was more than just emotions that were plaguing me. I had an anxiety disorder. And I needed help.
I was put in touch with a therapist through the guidance and help of my local bishop. Before going to my first session, I was nervous. I didn’t know what to expect. The thoughts of having a mental illness had never entered my mind and yet, here I sat, waiting for an official diagnosis and to start therapy sessions. Thankfully, I left that day filled with hope. Yes, I was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety. But I had someone to help me navigate this uncharted territory and to learn to cope.
Over the years, even after therapy, I’ve learned many things about myself and about living with mental illness. It’s dark. It’s lonely. It’s overwhelming. And yet, it’s not without hope.
There is one key to all of it that has been at the core of my learning and coping- faith. Yes, out of all the different coping mechanisms I learned in therapy and from experience, faith has been at the center of it all. My relationship with my Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ have always been the source of my strength. These past four years especially, I have relied on that more than even I realized. My faith is the foundation of my being.
I could have all of the advice from experts, listen to wisdom from doctors, and rely upon the therapy and solutions from men, but, without my faith in God, it would mean nothing.
It was difficult for me to learn this, especially in the beginning of my therapy. Darkness and fear were ever present as I began my journey. They felt like hulking monsters, always waiting in the shadows. While I now know that I have had anxiety for most of my life, once I admitted it and began the road to “coping”, it was like tearing off a bandaid and prodding at old wounds. It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, made worse by the fact that I was dealing with three physically challenging issues as well (infertility being one of them). My world was dark and lonely. I went days without feeling joy or even the desire to smile.
Truthfully, most people who saw me wouldn’t know this. I put on a brave face, as many of us do. I tried to cover the storm I felt on the inside with extra doses of cheerfulness that were forced and meaningless. I would smile, but the smile didn’t come from within. And when I did find some joy, it was immediately replaced again by hopelessness and fear. I felt abandoned and isolated. I wondered where God was. I always believed in Him and that He was there to help us through our trials. And yet, I didn’t feel Him.
But I soon realized that He was there all along.
“Sometimes the world appears dark. Sometimes our faith is tried. Sometimes we feel that the heavens are closed against us. Yet we should not despair. We should never abandon our faith. We should not lose hope.” (Joseph B. Wirthlin)
Miraculously, I didn’t abandon my faith, though it was difficult to hold on to at times. I credit the support of my husband, a kind and understanding Bishop, and a therapist who somehow knew exactly what I needed to hear. And, more than anything, the loving and patience of a Savior who never left my side and gave me the strength I needed to stay the course.
There are three ways in which I learned how use faith to cope with my anxiety. I still use them daily as mental illness is often a daily battle.
First, finding the faith to hope that things will improve and that I will have light again. This is easier said than done. I had family and friends who would essentially ask why I couldn’t just “fake it ’til you make it”. You know, plaster on a fake smile and pretend that things are okay. Or, they would wonder why I couldn’t just let things roll off my back, as if I was hanging on to my misery on purpose.
But unless you have been there, you don’t understand how hard that is to do. The darkness and loneliness you feel goes deep. It’s something that I didn’t understand. I had days of frustration where I would cry and wonder why I simply couldn’t just “let it go”. I would look in the mirror and wonder who I was. For me, the fear had wound itself deep and it required me to address it head on. And that meant that I couldn’t just pretend to be okay or simply say “I won’t be scared anymore”.
What I needed more than anything was the hope and faith that I would get through it. I needed to rely on my Heavenly Father to help me, knowing that eventually, I would make it and find the light that I sought. That light is always there.
One of my favorite books is “The Lord of the Rings”, and I love the movies just the same. One of the most poignant moments in the film for me is when Frodo finds himself alone, facing a terror that he can’t yet see (Shelob, the giant spider). He’s in a blackened tunnel, trapped with webs, being hunted by this giant menace. To me, it’s symbolic of us in our own trials. How often do we find ourselves stuck in a dark place, being hunted by our past, our fears, our trials… They can be relentless, haunting, and full of sticky webs that trap us there. But, like Frodo, we can find a source of light. At his lowest point, he remembers a gift he received from elf queen, Galadriel. It’s the light of Earendil, the elves most precious star. He remembers what she said to him when she gave him this priceless gift:
“May it be a light to you in dark places when all other lights go out.”
Faith in our Savior can be that same light for us. When we are faced with darkness, loneliness, and fear, having faith and hope in Him, we will find the light we seek. Maybe not immediately, often not all at once, but it does come.
Second, faith and trust in ourselves. I think this can be one of the hardest things to believe. It’s so easy to feel weak, to see our own faults when we are being tried. The devil would have us despair and think that we aren’t strong enough to continue. But, we are stronger than we know.
“I know that frequently it is not easy to face up to that which is expected of us. Many think they cannot do it. We need a little more faith. We should know that the Lord will not…ask us to do things for which we lack the capacity. Our problem lies in our fears…” (President Gordon B. Hinckley)
There were many days I would wake up and not feel like facing the day. I wanted to just hide under my covers, close my eyes, and hope that my problems would go away. Each day was a trial. How would I do it? How could I do it? The anguish I felt was so overwhelming, I didn’t know how I could possibly do one more day.
But I did it. I would dig deep and drag myself out of bed. I would get dressed, do my hair, put my makeup on. I would play with my kids, clean the house, make dinner…Why? Because I knew I had to do it. I had children who needed me to take care of them, a husband who loved me, family and friends who cared. I was able to dig deep and find the courage to face the day, sometimes drawing strength from those around me.
More than anything, I needed to have faith in myself. It wasn’t until I started to believe that I could do it, that I could overcome my trials, that I was able to start making some progression. We have to believe in ourselves! The Lord believes in us, so why shouldn’t we feel the same way?
Finally, faith in the Lord and His ability to give us the strength we need to carry on. I was reminded of this last night in a family discussion. We were discussing instances in the scriptures in which groups of people had heavy trials and burdens placed upon them. Their reaction to those burdens made all the difference.
If they murmured and complained, their trials remained heavy. Because they lacked faith, they did not have the help they could have had.
But the people who continued to praise God, to exercise faith in Him, found that their trials were made easier. The group we talked about in particular were the people of Alma (from the “Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ”). They fled into the wilderness to escape persecution because of their faith, and ended up in bondage with a heavy tax placed upon them by their enemies. Instead of cursing and being angry with God, they continued to show faith in Him.
“And now it came to pass that the burdens which were laid upon Alma and his brethren were made light; yea, the Lord did strengthen them that they could bear up their burdens with ease, and they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord.” (Mosiah 24:15)
Though their burdens and trials were not immediately taken away, the Lord strengthened them. He made “their burdens light”.
As Jeffrey R. Holland counseled in talking of mental illness,
“Above all, never lose faith in your Father in Heaven, who loves you more than you can comprehend… Trust in God. Hold on in His love. Know that one day the dawn will break brightly and all shadows of mortality will flee. Though we may feel we are “like a broken vessel,” as the Psalmist says, we must remember, that vessel is in the hands of the divine potter. Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed.”
In looking back over the past four years, I didn’t realize how much the Lord had been helping me. It was so easy to become weighed down and depressed, to not see His help because it was not what I wanted or thought I needed. I wanted it to end right away. I felt tired, and still feel tired now, from the weight of my fears.
And yet, I can see now that the Lord had been carrying me. He has given me wells of strength, fortitude, and courage to keep moving forward. He has blessed me with more faith. He has given me hope. I have been in His hands:
‘“Know ye not that ye are in the hands of God? Know ye not that he hath all power?’.Hands are one of the symbolically expressive parts of the body. In Hebrew, yad, the most common word for “hand,” is also used metaphorically to mean power, strength, might (see William Wilson, Old Testament Word Studies , 205). Thus, hands signify power and strength.
To be in the hands of God would suggest that we are not only under His watchful care but also that we are guarded and protected by His wondrous power.’ (W. Craig Zwick, “The Lord Thy God Will Hold Thy Hand”)
It is has been a comfort to know that I am in His hands. Just that knowledge alone gives me an added measure of faith to defeat my fears. As the scriptures say all it takes is the faith the size of a mustard seed and all of us can find His help, His strength, His comfort. The Savior has been where we are and no one else can understand the pain we feel, whether physical, emotional, or mental, than He can. As He said himself,
“…yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands”. (Isaiah 49: 15-16)
For more articles and ideas about having a Christ-centered Easter, follow #PrinceofPeace on social media or visit here.
I’d like to thank Brent Borup for allowing the use of his beautiful artwork of the Savior. For more, visit his website or follow him on Facebook.
W. Craig Zwick, “The Lord Thy God Will Hold Thy Hand”
Jeffrey R. Holland “Like A Broken Vessel”
J.R.R. Tolkein “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”
The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ
The King James Bible