What I Mean When I Say I Have a Panic Disorder

I couldn’t breathe. I sat in traffic, staring ahead at the red light in front of me, and I couldn’t breathe. I rolled down the window, turned my air conditioner up high, and cranked up my podcast in the hopes that I would relax if I lost myself in the familiar voices of my favorite radio host. But not even Ira Glass’ dulcet tones could soothe me right then. I pulled at my ponytail and silently begged the light to change.

I was having a panic attack, and I had to get to safety.

A few months later, I sat in my aisle seat and tilted my head forward against the seat in front of me. The bathrooms were three feet away, but in this half hour in between pulling away from the gate and reaching altitude, they were inaccessible. I was trapped in my seat by the glowing no seatbelt sign and the watchful gaze of an army of flight attendants. I closed my eyes and quietly whispered to myself, “I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay I’m okay.” I felt the plane lift into the air and breathed a quiet sigh. I would have the freedom to move soon. That would mean some modicum of safety.

I remember the first time I had a panic attack; though, of course, I had no idea what was happening. I was a freshman in high school and I was in the middle of a quiz in math. Out of nowhere, a thought sprang into my mind: “How embarrassing would it be if you threw up right now?” And I couldn’t let it go. Suddenly it was the only thing I could think about – and terrifyingly, I started to feel some nausea creep into my stomach. Was I getting sick? I had no idea, but now I knew only one thing: I had to get out of there. I had to get away from the ticking clock and the silence interrupted only by the scratch of my classmate’s pencil. I couldn’t graph equations; I could barely see the paper.

I went pale and clammy and asked the teacher to be excused. I dry-heaved in the bathroom before heading to the nurse and calling Mom to pick me up from school.

Seven or eight years later, I was on vacation in New Jersey with my best friend. We’d decided to spend a night on her uncle’s sailboat and everything was fine. It was a beautiful August evening and we sat out enjoying the night air before retiring below deck to sleep. I couldn’t sleep though. All I could think about was the subtle rocking of the boat in the marina and sound of waves. I began to feel sick again and before I knew it, I was sitting on the shore with my head between my knees, begging myself not to throw up here.

We spent the night in her aunt’s summer home instead and chalked up my panic to seasickness.

It took me 12 years before I was actually diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and put on medication that has finally evened me out enough that I could go out for an evening without being gripped with fear. I know my anxiety intimately and I know its triggers. When I go to events, I have to sit on an aisle seat so I won’t bother anyone if I have to get up to leave – a lesson I learned when I went to see a movie in Japan and had a panic attack in the middle of it because I couldn’t get out to go to the bathroom. My own graduation for my Master’s degree consisted of me quietly chugging water, doing breathing exercises, and willing the speaker to hurry up because I didn’t want my parents to see me getting up and running out of the auditorium.

I don’t know what causes my panic attacks and anxiety, but I do know mental illnesses of this kind run in my family. Even with this knowledge, it took me a decade to even recognize that I wasn’t just getting sick when I was stressed – I was having panic attacks and dealing with them poorly. Even after realizing I had anxiety, it took me two years to work up the courage to see a doctor and to get help. I know that my anxiety cost me at least one job, and has severely limited the types of careers I can invest in (it’s hard to be a teacher when you feel like you’re going to pass out in the middle of class).

And, I know, that one of the reasons it was hard to seek help was because of the stigma that surrounds mental illness, particularly in the American church.

So when John Piper did one of his little mini-podcast Q&A things this past week on whether or not anxiety is a “sin,” I cringed. And then I braced myself and hit play.

Piper frontloads his discussion by talking over and over about how Jesus tells us not to be anxious, calling it a “sin.” Both Paul and Jesus, Piper says, agree that anxiety and worry are sins because God “wants us to trust His [sic] all good, all wise all providing, all protecting, ever assisting care.” “This is a trust issue,” Piper says. He goes on and on about how trusting in God will allay anxiety and how our great challenge is to trust God more and more. He claims that ALL of us are anxious, placing anxiety within the purview of original sin – it is part of human nature, it is part of what God must forgive and losing anxiety is part of being a mature Christian and having mature faith! To wit, he says:

There is not a human being on the planet, except Jesus, who doesn’t struggle with anxiety. All of us are flawed in our faith. If we were perfect in our faith, we would be anxiety free. And the more we mature in faith, the more anxiety-free we are. But I don’t think there’s been a person who in this life, when faced with some new threat, with some new dangers, some new difficulty doesn’t have anxiety pop up in their life.

He goes on like this for four minutes and twenty seconds – out of a podcast that is seven minutes and thirty-two seconds long. At the 4:20 mark, he acknowledges that there are “pscyho-physical conditions that make extreme anxiety and panic attacks for example – uncontrollable phobias – a real life problem.” He refers to such cases as “unusual” and that the believer with anxiety problems needs “wise counsel” from someone who knows him best. One must then tackle anxiety on a spiritual and physical level, which may include medication that allows one to be calm enough to see God’s way through anxiety. Piper also, weirdly, comments that we can “sanctify” the physical and natural strategies for handling anxiety.

I summarize all this because 1. I don’t want to make you listen to the whole thing and 2. It’s important to see his narrative here. He spends over four minutes discussing how anxiety is a part of human sin, how it is sinful and a sign of distrust in God. He then ostracizes those who are disordered as “extreme” and “unusual.” By placing anxiety on a spectrum wherein more anxiety means more sin, and less anxiety means you’re more “mature” in faith, Piper is high-lighting cases like mine as being on the extreme end of sinfulness.

This could very well be a poorly expressed point, helped along by a use of the term anxiety that doesn’t correspond to clinical definitions of anxiety disorders. But like I’ve said time and again, intentions aren’t magic, and what matters is what he said. And what he clearly prioritized, what he wanted to get across, was that anxiety is sinful. That giving oneself over to fear is a problem, not because it disrupts one’s life and makes it impossible to perform daily tasks, but because it evinces a lack of faithfulness.

One of the ways in which my anxiety used to manifest itself – besides nearly constant nausea and panic – was through constant evaluation of my actions in terms of “sin” and “not sin.” I worried, day in and day out, whether or not I was doing “enough” to trust God that day and whether or not I was walking away from God. I berated myself for swearing one day, and for not witnessing to my neighbor the next. I developed a form of scrupulousness about my anxiety as a way of handling myself – because, of course, I had no idea that I had a disorder that was making me obsess over these issues. I imagined, on a nearly daily basis, how God would see me from the Throne in heaven and how God would review that day.

In retrospect, I was clearly and obviously struggling with a disorder. But rhetoric like Piper’s – rhetoric about how we all worry and we all sin and how worrying about basic things was a matter of faith – kept me from the realization that I needed help. I thought I just needed to pray harder, to trust God more, to exert mind over matter.

And it worked, for a time. Until it didn’t. Until I found myself standing in my apartment entryway, with my hand on the door handle, purse and keys at the ready and completely and totally unable to open the door and step outside. I needed groceries, but all I could see was me fainting in the frozen foods aisle, throwing up in my car during the three block ride to the store, passing out in the elevator and being found, Law and Order style, by some nice couple going out for the day.

It’s absurd when I write it all out. I had no reason to worry that all that stuff would happen, just as I’ve never had any reason to believe any of my anxieties over the years. But that’s the point of a disorder – that they don’t make sense, that anxiety is something so irrational that it can’t be explained away with more “trust” in a deity or spiritual exercise.

For those of us who struggle with this kind of irrational fear, spending five minutes telling us it’s sin only to throw us the bone of “in extreme cases you need medication” is totally and completely unhelpful. Such rhetoric and discussion only serves to prove us right in our anxieties, to inform us that we simply haven’t been good enough, and to provide us with further reason to worry.

I don’t need people who don’t experience panic and anxiety to tell me not to worry. I need people who say “I know you’re worried. How can I help?”