Saturday, 29 January 2011
The first time I had a panic attack I was sitting through a sermon at church. It was my parent’s church, and the church I went to growing up. I was 18 and home for the summer after my freshman year away at college.
The event was reminiscent of a scene from an amateur exorcism flick—the setting ironically quaint, sun shining through the windows on a beautiful June Sunday morning whilst a charismatic preacher waxed rhetorical fairy dust into the atmosphere.
I played the lead role of nerd-gone-wild. Picture something like a modern adaptation of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Instead of 12-year-old girls unwittingly tripping out on bacteria-ridden English muffins, you have me, a scrawny teenager pathetically suffocating under the weight of his own ribcage.
The previous school year had been semi-traumatic and laid the foundation for the peculiarity of this event. Due to my college budget and an opportunity cost analysis that repeatedly left me picking sleep over time that could otherwise have been spent cooking, I slowly weaned myself off of every food category on the pyramid save for sugar and caffeine. Over time this limited diet left me with two physiological conditions: a nervous system fully dependent on caffeine in order to function and blood sugar levels teetering on the brink of diabetic collapse.
My psychological constitution was equally wanting. When I got to college, I went a little crazy. I obsessed over my workload and evaluated the quality of my work in terms of extremes—for me, it was either A quality or failing quality. I didn’t so much desire perfection as much as I feared failure. Although literally failing out of school was such an unlikely situation, the mere possibility of it occurring—and what I viewed as the devastating results that would follow (ex. homelessness)—scared me out of my mind.
Most people think that Obsessive Compulsive Disorder refers to a condition in which the afflicted has an obsession with cleanliness, tidiness, symmetry, or numbers (or something to this effect). Although this is sometimes the case, the underlying problem is actually that of irrational fear. Legitimate fears warrant due concern and no one thinks any different, but irrational fears draw attention. If you’re worried that the world will end if you don’t count to three, you have an obsession. If you actually count to three to prevent the world from ending, you have a compulsion—and vwahla, OCD.
Freshmen year I had an irrational fear (obsession) that I was going to fail life in general, school in particular. This caused me many sleepless nights and, subsequently, introduced me to a new friend named Ambien. My response to the anxiety I experienced was to seclude myself in the library for 12 hours at a time (compulsive) in order to get my work done. Anytime I wasn’t working on school I was thinking about working on school. Fun was an opportunity cost I just wasn’t sure I could afford, no matter how many times I decided to buy it.
As a result of this process, I grew to resent school. I did not enjoy it; I hated it. It was the primary source of my sufferings and I eventually became very depressed.
By the time I found myself in the aforementioned church service, I was in an existential bind. It turns out that school, and the stress it caused me, were only a catalyst for the start of a much deeper depression that I continued to suffer from after the spring semester and throughout the summer I spent at home. I reached the worst kind of depression; it was generally inexplicable. My body and soul felt so low (it’s the best way I can put it), and what’s worse, I was getting used to it.
Depression can very much become an addiction. It may be uncomfortable and certainly painful, but it’s also attractive as a sedative; it’s familiar and easily accessible. It takes discipline and work to stay positive in a world that’s generally chaotic and seemingly random—at least for a depressive. But it takes almost no work to wallow in despair—it’s a passive act.
For simplicity’s sake: I’ll define despair as a loss of hope. That summer I had lost at lot of hope in life. More so, I had lost hope in myself. I convinced myself that the exercise of my free will was a greater force acting towards my ultimate demise than God’s providence a force counter-acting toward my redemption. I wanted happiness but I convinced myself that happiness was ignorance. I believed God was real and alive but I believed he offered no guarantee that my life would be better, or happy, or joyful in this life. Heaven sounded great but simply a consolation for death, which was probably a long way off. What would satiate the longings of my soul for the next 60 years? [For an excellent reading on this topic read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope]
The sermon topic on this Sunday morning was—maybe ironically—“Finding Joy in the Christian Life.” I wish I could tell you that God met me in that sermon, that my pissed off frown turned upside down. But it didn’t. I listened as the pastor went on about how if you're not happy with your life, you simply don't understand grace; you haven't been "swept up in the love of Christ"--whatever that meant. The way he spoke discounted the notion that there exists any sort of depression separate from spiritual depression-- and even in the case of spiritual depression he simply attributed the problem with not having read the right verses on "joy" in the Bible.
What about a depression that overtakes you even when you're crying out to God the most? What about a depression with seemingly no origin. What about a depression that is probably more than likely attributable, in part, to a chemical imbalance in your brain, the kind that desensitizes you to that tingly feeling you get when your pastor flings cocaine-laced verbiage at you from the pulpit. What I heard that morning was not a sermon, but a eulogy. How could this Gospel be life-giving--it was powerless. He killed it.
For a moment I entertained the possibility that he was right, that the depression I suffered from was entirely my fault. Jesus died for me, I simply have to think more positively. In my current state of mind, this was not an option for me. If Christianity was flipping on the happy switch, then not only could I not do it, I wanted nothing of it. And if that was the case, I had serious reason to panic, because then I really did have no hope, and I was probably going to hell.
My panic attack caused a bit of a scene, and it lasted a long time, but I eventually recovered. I stopped entertaining the possibility that that preacher was right; I realized as a Christian I may at times be unhappy, but I always have hope. Even the Psalmist laments.
Christianity is not a religion that's designed to make you feel happy all the time. In fact, quite often it does the opposite. As the late 16th century English Preacher William Bridge once said [paraphrase], as Christians we do not seek comfort and in so doing, attain holiness. We seek holiness, are sanctified, and in so doing, find comfort.
Is happiness an integral part of being a Christian? What is the difference between happiness and joy?