Read Part One, here.
Read Part Two, here.
Read Part Three, here.
The first three parts were difficult to write, because it was uncomfortable to "go back there", and this fourth part is difficult for entirely different reasons. So much good, so many fruits, so many lessons, so much excitement about what to share. If I had you cornered in a room, I would talk and babble on, full of energy and delight about the goodness of the Lord! As I said at the very beginning, the worst experience of my life is the thing for which I am most thankful -- it has changed everything.
For reference: I have always understood and believed that I have led a "charmed life", in the sense that, although I have had traumas and sufferings in the past, I have had inordinate blessings. I have never been neglected, felt unloved, or struggled with my self-esteem. I have never suffered hunger, poverty, a broken home, or a terrible disease. I have not experienced existential angst. I have been a generally and genuinely happy and grateful person who loves my life, my family, my country, and my God.
But as with everyone, dark things were lurking within, hidden things that I denied or manipulated or ignored, and those were the things that God wished to purge out of me, in order to bring me closer to Him, the end for which I was made. Among these sins and faults were my need for control (specifically, the careful way I managed and sublimated some profound fears so that they wouldn't affect my life), and the "idolization" of my mind. God had to strip me of these things because they kept me from Him.
As you have seen from my story thus far, I lost all control (which is an illusion anyway) and I effectively lost my mind. Both idols, suddenly gone. What was left? Just me and God. Just us, creature and Creator, looking at each other. Just me, trusting Him to get me through. I still loved Him, and I willed to trust Him.
That is all He needed.
What He did for me is indescribable. The most profound fruit of my suffering was loss of fears.
Let me give you just one example: my fear (phobia) of flying.
I manipulated and stuffed my fear of flying by, well, essentially not flying for 12 years. Though I flew a lot in my youth, I began to be fearful after I had children; I didn't want to be separated from them, and since I was not a pilot, I could not be in control (theme!) if something went wrong at 30,000 feet. My particular negative thinking pattern (as the cognitive behavioral therapy identified so well) fell into the "catastrophic thinking" category. I was always taking my active imagination to the most unreasonable yet disastrous outcome, thinking in headlines, always living in the future, queen of the "what ifs?", and learning how to carefully control against impending doom. I liked my charmed life, and I was determined to keep it, but that meant anticipating and fending off all sorts of conjured disasters.
So, yes, except for one anomalous trip to take my daughter on a college visit, I stopped flying for 12 years. I knew my fear of flying was irrational and that driving to the corner store was much more dangerous, but it didn't matter. Booking a flight would mean weeks and even months of anticipatory worry, dwelling on the fiery crash that was surely my fate, never able to relax fully knowing that a plane trip was on the horizon. Once I was on a plane, I was not actually anxious, but the build-up was torturous. To rid myself of that fear, I just stopped flying. No more worries, problem solved!
So back to the fruit: After God brought me through my mental breakdown, I had no more fear of flying. Just like that. I was on a plane to visit my daughter less than two weeks after my re-emergence, and I had no anxiety. The freedom from fear was exhilarating! Just weeks after that trip, I was on another plane to the east coast, to visit my second daughter. No fear, and my husband and I had our first long-distance getaway in almost 20 years!
Before God healed me of my fears, I was concerned about what would happen if my gravely sick mother-in-law died. How was I going to tell my grieving husband that I could not get on a plane with him and accompany him to the funeral? How could I tell him that my fears would keep me from being a comfort to him at the loss of his mother? For the years of her illness, I tried not to think about it. About three months after I lost my fear of flying, Dean's mother died, and I was able to fly with him to the funeral, with no worries or hesitation. It was a huge blessing.
In addition to that first trip to my daughter's home in Nebraska, the subsequent trip to see my other daughter in South Carolina, and the trip for my mother-in-law's funeral in Atlanta, I have flown to South Carolina again (after the birth of my second grandchild), and I recently flew back to Nebraska. I will be flying back east this week to attend the White Coat ceremony for my son in medical school, and in less than a month, I will be flying to Virginia to give a talk to Catholic college and high school students.
From one flight in twelve years to seven flights in fourteen months... you have no idea how big that is. God freed me from my fears. I cannot describe the gift of that freedom! I don't even think the same at all. If the plane were to go down in flames, or if my children were to lose me to a terrible disease, or even if America collapsed in moral decay all around us (which it might), none of this is beyond God's control, or outside of His loving Providence. He can be trusted, no matter what, period.
Which brings me to the books: two books that God placed in my life just when I needed them, so that I would understand exactly what happened -- after the fact. That last part is so important, at least in my own personal journey. He took away my fears and anxieties by handing me a most agonizing but personalized cross, and only then, only after that trial, did He show me what had occurred, putting it all in the context that made perfect sense.
I wrote about the first book, Fr. Wilfrid Stinissen's Into Your Hands, Father: Abandoning Ourselves to the God Who Loves Us, here ("Mind-blowing"), and then again, here ("Fearful? Surrender your will"). In the second one especially, I gave a teaser about my breakdown.
The book is short and simple and completely, utterly life-changing -- if you open your eyes, ears, and heart to the words. Over the months, the feedback I have received about it has been phenomenal. Providentially, less than 24 hours ago, I received an email from a regular reader/lurker who introduced herself and told me the following, not knowing that I was in the middle of writing this post:
I have read and re-read and shared and shared some more, the "Into Your Hands" book with many people. All have said it has had a huge impact on their life.She added that she gives copies away (me, too!), and she made sure there is a copy in her parish library.
After God blew me away with Fr. Stinissen's book, He led me to Fr. Walter Ciszek's He Leadeth Me to finish me off! It could not have been a more perfect dovetail. While Fr. Stinissen tells the "what" and the "why" of total, trustful abandonment to God's will, Fr. Ciszek shows the "how" of it. His lived experience of total abandonment (as an American priest arrested and imprisoned by the Soviets and sent to the gulag for 23 years) was the practical application of everything I had just learned in theory from the first book! It was stunning.
While savoring the wisdom of He Leadeth Me, I received many confirmations that God had been with me during my time of suffering, but none so jarring to my soul as something I read as I was flying back from my mother-in-law's funeral. After his heroic faithfulness to the Lord while enduring great anguish in solitary confinement for those first years in a Soviet prison, Fr. Ciszek began to lean too much on his own power, trusting in his own will and strength instead of God's. A spiritual crisis ensued, a catastrophic crash into darkness, which he described this way (emphasis mine):
"I had been afraid before, but now I was afraid of myself."[blink, blink]
My friends, I read that line and I literally gasped out loud and dropped the book on the tray table in front of me. His words were my words! His darkest suffering was the same as mine! I stared ahead, and with absolute awe I pondered what all of this meant. To me, it meant the world, and it meant something universal. So much more became clear to me, and when I finally picked up the book again to read, the story became a love story, a story of joy and peace and trust, even though Fr. Ciszek had almost two more decades to suffer, most of it aching with hunger in the frozen tundra, building cities for the Soviets with little rest. He was at peace, he had joy, and he had lost the fear of death.
The spiritual insights flooded in, and I began to understand God's grace in ways I had never understood before my breakdown.
By this time, I had already been back to the radiologist for my December follow-up scan. Although this would have previously been a huge trigger, I did not experience anxiety or panic. When I walked into the pulmonologist's office a few days later to hear the results, I met him with a smile and a handshake, nothing like the catatonic woman he had met in August. My scan looked good, but I knew going in that even if he gave me bad news, it would be okay. I was not obsessed with "what ifs" or catastrophic imaginings. God is in control, and He is my loving, trustworthy Father. Everything had changed for me, not in my body (which will inevitably decay and die someday), but in my mind and my spirit.
And that's my story. I have so much more to say, but no real way to put it into words. I can tell you that my prayer life has also improved greatly since then, as I have committed to it in a way I hadn't before.
|St. Peter Catholic Church, Omaha, Nebraska. Took my breath away when I saw it last month.|
Important note: All of this does NOT mean that you should not take your medication for anxiety or depression or panic or anything else that is indicted. Mental illness is real, it's a medical condition, and God has given us ways to combat mental illness and anxiety through both modern and alternative medicines.
It also does NOT mean that if God brings you out of a panic attack or anxiety, that you will only feel happiness and joy from now on. You may feel anxious and panicked again in your life. But there can be an interior peace as well, if you trust and love God and surrender all to Him. Emotions happen, hormones happen, trust is an act of the will. Trust Him.
It also does NOT mean that you needn't learn more about your thought patterns or learn to let go of those negative thoughts that feed anxiety. I am a huge fan of cognitive behavioral therapy. I only went to two sessions, but what I learned was invaluable.
And to every peri-menopausal or menopausal woman out there -- if you have started having anxiety or panic, tell your doctor, as it could well be that your hormones are out of balance! If he or she dismisses you, find another doctor!