A Smoldering Wick

It was sometime in the middle of the afternoon, I think. I couldn’t tell you what day of the week, probably not a Friday given the demeanor of the doctor sitting across from me. His legs were crossed revealing ugly argyle socks and on his knees he was balancing a notepad and file folder from which he read off my chart of symptoms and progress over the last several days as a guest in the psychiatric ward of St. Vincent’s Hospital. I shifted my gaze back and forth between the ugly pattern on the overstuffed chair I felt far too small in and out the window behind him to a couple of leaves clinging on for dear life in a late October breeze. I had been told the night before that my stay was going to be extended because my symptoms hadn’t yet abated in spite of increased medication.

“Bipolar Disorder,” he said.

It was the very first time that an official diagnosis had been ascribed to me. He gave a short synopsis of the disease and then explained how my symptoms fit the profile to the best of his assessment. He asked if knew much about the disorder.

I mumbled something about a somewhat from books I had read and that it probably meant I would be a psycho killer like on all the crime dramas I watched. Up until I had been in the hospital I had resisted any sort of labeling, but I knew something was very wrong with me – and if this was an answer, then good. Answers can lead to solutions and management, which meant I could go back to life as it were.

“You’re a teacher?” he asked. It seemed like a genuine question so I gave it the time of day. “How long have you been teaching?”

“I’m in my second year,” I said, finally making eye contact. “Junior high. History and geography. It’s a small school, but I love it.”

He said something about a daughter in seventh grade loving geography and then went into a long list of why teaching is hard. I knew where he was headed.

My career was probably not conducive to life with my disorder, at least not right away – maybe a year or so of figuring out life on medication and therapy. But teaching is stressful and requires a lot more than a typical 9-5… perhaps changing focus for a while would be good.

… But wait… That job was a gift from God! I spent a lot of years (and a hell of a lot of money) to get that degree – why would God clearly lead me to that position only to rip it away? Did I not hear God properly? What if I had made the wrong choice and this was God’s way of correcting it?

My plans to work overseas were definitely out. What would happen if I had an episode in a country where I couldn’t go to the hospital?

… But wait! Those plans… I mean, they had to be from God! No one willingly decides to move to hostile countries and be exposed to disease or violence or poverty or whatever completely out of their own interest. That’s a desire God put in my heart – why would God encourage me in this direction only to let my dreams come crumbling down in an ugly, boring office in Oregon? Why not let the dream die while I’m overseas somewhere doing something amazing? Did I get that wrong, too?

My hope of ever having a place to myself to call home was probably not a good idea either. I swing so fast without medication, what happens if I need help? And that migraine that’s lasted all these months… well, it’s not safe to be alone.

…But wait! You’re saying I need a caretaker? What about my independence? Am I that unstable that I need 24 hour care? Am I really that sick? In these scenarios, what man would ever have me as a wife? What friends would stick by me through such a difficult mess? And the stupid migraine, would it ever go away? What would happen to me?

At first I sort of let it glance off me, trying to keep some semblance of hope. After dinner, I sat in the common area with my back to the other residents in hope of some privacy – I didn’t want my emotions to be noticed as I broke out my journal and started to express myself the same way I had been working through pain for the ten years prior.

I made a list in my journal of remarkable ways God had taken care of me in the past, many in the miraculous category that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that He had incredible things in store for me.

But none of that mattered now. What mattered is that someone with a lot of letters after his name pulled the rug out from under me.

I knew in my head, and probably somewhere in my heart and soul, that God was good and he would take care of me – but I was bone-shakingly terrified of what that might look like. While others expressed their admiration for having such faith and such trust, the truth was that I didn’t see any way my life would get back on track, and that I had far less peace or confidence that things would work out than people gave me credit for.

That night, after hearing those words, I couldn’t see beyond ten minutes at a time, and the future scared me.

My doubts, my fears, and my anxiety won – and the one candle of life I had to burn in this dark world, of hope and trust and faith, was reduced to a smoldering wick that barely glowed.

Then the tears came. They were silent but so heavy that they drew attention and by the time I was taken back to my room, I could hardly breathe. My chest was so tight I couldn’t inhale, my sinuses and ears were plugged from the crying, and my heart was beating hard enough to break free. I felt dizzy, flush, was sweating profusely, and I grew increasingly angry that I was handling all of this so poorly, so much that it spiraled me further into panic.

I woke up late the following morning with a bruise on my arm where I had been injected with something to sedate me. Apparently I had slept without incident through the night, and given stiff and sore limbs, probably hadn’t even rolled over. My heart had slowed down and I was able to breathe more properly, but it didn’t change the sadness that I felt. It was all I could do to hold back the tears during breakfast and into some of the sessions.

Once my head cleared up a bit more, I went back to my corner and did some more reflecting – this time being perfectly honest with God about how scared and worried I was.

It wasn’t audible or bright lights before my eyes, but I suddenly remembered something I had learned from my youth pastor in junior high, about ten years prior on one of the few nights I attended, about suicide and feeling far from God. Overall it was a lesson in anxiety and trust, but he had tailor made it for me when I casually mentioned how depressed I felt:

“When you’re overwhelmed, the first thing you should do is tell God exactly how you feel. He already knows anyway, better to be honest. Then take a nap. When you wake up, eat some chocolate or a grilled cheese sandwich or something that makes you feel better, and then go back to sleep. When you wake up, have another snack, and then let God do some talking – but listen closely because He might show you something in the quiet. Then allow yourself to have a friend, and know that everything will be okay.”

As I wrote that last paragraph it sounds sort of like a step by step formula for happiness you’d see on a meme on social media, but he actually had a biblical basis for it.

His summary was of a story  about a man named Elijah who was not only a servant of God, but was basically the most awesome one to come along in a long while, years and years before Jesus would show up, who had witnessed God miraculously change lives time and time again. In fact, one night he basically decides he’ll prove God’s power in a way that defied all logic and reason that I can’t help but wonder if he even stopped to think about what he was claiming God could do. But his faith was so great he trusted God would not only follow through, but do so beyond imagination… and God did. It’s a story of real faith put to a test. But the greater test happened the next day… Elijah gets notice that there’s a bounty on his head, and not even 48 hours after watching God do the impossible, Elijah is overcome with such fear and anxiety and doubt that he asks God to take his life. He’s done. He’s tired. He’s ready for heaven. His fire is burning low, about to extinguish. It’s more or less a suicidal lament by a man considered one of the greatest prophets of the Almighty God.

And God noticed.

I imagine it was in a kind voice, strong and confident, but not condescending or patronizing, that God told Elijah first to rest and helped him into a deep sleep. When Elijah woke, God brought him bread to eat, then suggested another nap, after which he was told to eat again. After his body had recuperated, God took him to a cliff and asked Elijah to look for Him so that he might be encouraged by God’s presence. Elijah then witnesses the vast gamut of God’s power, from raging seas and storms and lighting and thunder, to a still, small voice heard on the wind. The promise God made was that He wasn’t just in the massive crazy miracles, but speaking softly to the heart too, and in so doing, was never far off. God was near; every moment, every flinch, every tear, every sigh of Elijah’s pain was heard by the creator of the universe. As if that wasn’t already more than enough, God brings along a friend who could be of support and friendship for Elijah so that he no longer felt so alone.

If my pseudo-seminary training serves me right, God essentially created the most ridiculously awesome plan for dealing with anxiety.

Step 1: Tell God how you really feel, hold nothing back

Step 2: Take a nap

Step 3: Eat some carbs

Step 4: Take another Nap

Step 5: Have a snack

Step 6: Listen – like really, truly listen as God reminds you of who He is

Step 7: Allow a friend to walk beside you

Step 8: Watch as everything will be alright… and who knows, He might just use you for something absolutely incredible.

The point of the story, though, isn’t so much about how I or Elijah or anyone else should go about the business of handling anxiety as much as it is about the character of God.

When I pour my heart to God, my fears and frustrations and worries, I admit that I half expect Him to be angry with me for being of such little faith. I figure He gets frustrated that no matter how many times He shows me He’ll take care of it, how many times He has to tell me it will be alright, why can’t I get it through my thick skull and hard heart that He’s on my side? I sometimes see God as impatient, and that my anxiety a barrier to my heart He’s tired of having to deal with and that He’ll likely choose to be distant and begrudgingly step in, spouting words like humans do, “Snap out of it! Take a Xanax and chill! It’s not a big deal, let it go! I don’t understand why you just don’t pray more, it’s a heart problem!”

But God doesn’t do that… Instead, God meets us where we are, even if it’s huddled in a cave, broken and emotionally spent and even thinking about ending it all.  He will not extinguish even the tiniest, smoldering wick. Instead, with care and gentleness, He meets our most basic needs – and exactly what we need in that moment – and restores us and fans the flame so that we can go back to the business of shining brightly.

As I sat in my corner of the common area, I heard my name called and glanced around to see two friends walking toward me – as if on cue for step 7. Throughout our conversation was a stream of reassurance that they believed everything would work out somehow, helped remind me of truths and realities that included that was braver and stronger than I felt, but that God had something incredible in mind.

They were right. God didn’t drop me then, and he hasn’t dropped me since.

All of the uncertainties that broke my heart as I was first diagnosed all those years ago were put to rest with a promise in the long hours as I shouted my fear and worry out to God. I went back to teaching and thrived, even taught overseas for a couple of years. And not just overseas, but in a country that ends in “Stan,” among others. While I’ve had a fair variety of housing experiences, but I now live alone and manage a very successful and rich and independent life. In the mean time I’ve had more opportunities to see God work and bring me through things that once overwhelmed my heart with anxiety.

I’ve learned in the process that there’s one other step that is necessary in the process.

When God told Elijah to rest, to eat, to watch and listen, the healing and restoration was predicated on Elijah actually listening and doing what he was told. He had to step out in faith and trust and follow God’s leading. When I feel like I’m completely overwhelmed… or even just plain whelmed… I have to ask God what to do, do some real listening, and then step out in faith by doing what I’m led to do.

In other words, I’m not sure that simply hoping things will turn out and muttering the same “God, please help me through this,” prayer are necessarily going to make things happen on their own. They could, because God is ridiculously awesome, but I’m pretty sure it’s my responsibility to act.

I’ve gotten where I am today because I continued on with each step unable to see far enough ahead because I believed God when He said he wasn’t finished with me. I did what it took to see the things He laid out for me happen. It’s a process of trusting and doing and trusting some more, taking confidence in the very real truth that God is near.

I still find myself occasionally huddled in a corner or out on a late walk with tears streaming down my face because I can’t see far enough ahead to put my fears and worries at ease. Usually they’re issues that aren’t particularly little, but all are things I feel like I should be in a place where my faith and trust in God shouldn’t be as fickle as they are.  I’d say I only have a mildly crippling episode every other month, but I think part of that is wrapped into having other mental health issues. I often go straight to meds when I ought to go straight to God first, but generally my Step 1 and 2 in the 1 Kings 19 Plan (rest) requires a little assistance; it’s hard to have the presence of mind to tell God how I feel when I can’t even form sentences.

But I take heart knowing that God will deal with me gently when I’m in such a fragile, crumpled state. I know He will take the tiny little embers of my faith and not let them fade. My hope is that He’ll grow it into the kind of flame that roars and radiates, even spreads. More than anything, I want God glorified in how I respond to new challenges and unknowns.

I’ve rested; I’ve eaten a cheeseburger… rested more, ate some chocolate, and listened to reassurance whispering to me in moments of quiet I’ve worked very hard to make happen.

Now it’s time for Step 7: Welcome a friend to walk beside me.

Consider this an invitation.

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