I appreciated Mark’s thoughts on anxiety this week. I know I’m not alone in feelings of anxiety, but sometimes it feels like I am. Recently, I’ve been growing tired of a particular kind of anxiety and have asked God if we can really drill down on this issue in my life and get it out of the way. Part of that process is confession and bringing what was formally in the dark into the light. So I wanted to share about my struggles with anxiety and dissociation.
Anxiety has been in my life for a long time, but I wasn’t aware of it until my early thirties. I was seeing a counselor and she reflected to me that I seemed to have a lot of anxiety. I furrowed my brow because I had never thought of myself as an anxious person. She asked me that week to do an experiment and just tune into the anxiety that seemed to be lurking at the back of my mind; I didn’t need to anything about it, just notice it. So I invited any anxiety – which I wasn’t even sure was there – to come forward. It was like a floodgate opening. I was a mess! I could barely function, I had physical symptoms, lack of concentration, and overwehlming fear. That started a journey which I am extremely grateful for, but that has also carried with it a lot of pain.
What has been the biggest challenge for me is learning to stay present in my body when fear kicks in. My biggest fear is that I will be rejected, unseen, unvalued, invalidated, and silenced. My mind began working to prevent this by becoming a people pleaser and a perfectionist. If I don’t make anyone mad and I don’t do anything wrong, no one can reject me! Brilliant! The problem with this is that in order to do it, my true self must receed. Here’s a great explanation of what I experience, from an article called “Unlocking the Secrets of the Wounded Psyche”:
If a child’s emotional environment is good enough then the child will develop as an integrated whole…creativity, confidence, and sense of self will unfold organically…the child learns to protect the self in a healthy way. However, when a child is abused, when her needs are unmet, or when a child is shamed this healthy developmental process is compromised. A psychological survival system kicks in…a part of the self withdraws, and for this to happen the psyche splits. One part regresses and one part progresses (develops very fast).
It goes on to describe how the psyche splits into a hidden “child” or “vulnerable” self, who takes with it vitality, creativity, relationally authentic experiences, and innocence and into the “adult” or “protector” self whose job it is to keep the vulnerable self safe from further harm. This adult self can look different from person to person. For me, it looks like a highly competant, highly driven, smart, capable, nice, pleasant, outgoing person. A lot of this is truly who I am and I can still operate from this place. But what I lost is the ability to say “No”, to displease or dissapoint, to offer ways others hurt me, to deny others what they want from me, and the ability to remain myself when others want me to be something that I am not. I could not remain myself, I could not say no, I could not displease or dissapoint, I could not offer vulnerability.
To be something you are not, or to give something from yourself that you do not want to give is, I have learned, a deeply violating and destructive experience. To cope with it, my mind learned to “split”, to do what needed to be done to get through moments of discomfort and danger.
Once I became aware of this, it became a deeply disturbing and unsettling experience. It was like being trapped in a cage within myself, aware now that I was locked away, but unable to call for help. I learned that this experience has a name, derealization/depersonalization , and it brought some relief to know I was not alone and that there was a way out.
One of the things I am struggling through right now is that I frequently experience fear, panic, and shame (which leads to dissociation and disconnection) during Vespers, and sometimes in Pilgrim Group. As I walk into church, I can feel my heart rate go up, the lump in my throat start to rise, and fear begin to swirl in my head. I try to calm myself down, try to comfort myself. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If it continues, by the time I get in the doors, I feel what I call “balloon head” – my thoughts have gone to static, a disconnect happens between my body and brain, my head is floating and my body isn’t fully there. When I sit down and service starts, sometimes I feel like I’m in a war zone and that at any moment I will be expelled from the community I love so much. I fight really hard to stay present in my self, but most days lately I just can’t do it.
I deeply long to show up authentically and vulnerably. I long to not hide and to be known. I long to offer openly the gifts God has given me of kindess, compassion, intelligence, determination, and creativity. I am truly interested in hearing others stories, and that isn’t the problem. I can be there for others very easily. The problem is that I can’t seem to bring myself into Vespers wihtout a large measure of self-protection The rules of my internal system say that being vulnerable is dangerous. In my logical self, I know better. But that piece of me which developed to survive in my early life, it’s still working on getting the message. We’ll get there. Through the grace, compassion, and deep safety of Jesus, we will get there.