I wanted to believe I wouldn’t panic.
I started a writing project with a lot of anticipation and excitement. I felt oddly optimistic. I had reasonable expectations, was excited to try something new, and felt thankful for the habits of mind (journaling, weekly prayer with a friend, writing habits, and breath prayer) that have helped me combat my habitual anxiety. Plus, I have a new mantra: baby steps! Surely I won’t repeat old patterns?
Do not go gentle into the crazy-making, I told myself. Just don’t go there.
And then, like Peter walking across the water, the floundering started.
The weird thing is, it started after a lot of good stuff happened. For about a week, I was stoked. Then I started hyperventilating.
“Who do you think you are?” my little soul-gremlins whispered.
Every time I sat down to write, I felt hopeless. Every time I thought about the project, I felt dejected. Clearly, I don’t have the know-how, skill, platform, or insight to do anything, much less this. No one cared. What did it matter if I kept going?
Today this happened. Not last month. I am in the middle of this.
Oh, my friends, this is an old, old (old) pattern with me. It’s from waaay back, the anxiety I felt before elementary school science fairs, the clenched stomach I got in art classes in high school, the pit of despair I felt when looking for my first job, the PTSD when I felt a desire to read the Bible after a long time away, the existential terror I feel every time I try to do new things.
If you struggle with anxiety, if you are afraid to start new things, please know that you are my sister or brother.
Sometimes, it is hard work just to breathe.
Paying Attention to Anxiety
I’m trying to pay attention to this anxiety because I am done trying to pretend it isn’t happening. I am done trying to pretend I don’t sweat when I try something new. I am done trying to pretend I have everything figured out. That is the soul-sickness that has kept me from God for years. That is the self-mutilation that has kept me anxious and afraid.
No—the truth is I am a messy, broken, fearful person who is trying to learn to keep her eyes on the light, and it is not always pretty.
Now that we’re honest with each other about just how confident I’ve been feeling lately, here is what is keeping me sane:
1. Breath prayer.
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. I say that all the way home from my girls’ gymnastics class. I will lie down and sleep in peace because you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety. I say that as I’m worrying that my anxiety will keep me up for another night, even though I’m exhausted.
The thing about breath prayer is it is a turning away from the crazy-making thoughts towards the truth I need to cling to. It is an over and over reminder that my inadequacy is not a new phenomenon, and is, in fact, a blessed relief.
It is also very simple. Prayer. Breathe, repeat. I can handle that.
I do the work.
I sit down and write on schedule. I do the laundry. I spend time reading to my kids. I answer email. I pray. I run a dust cloth over the furniture. Then I write some more.
When my writing is poor, I plug my nose and write crap when I am scheduled to. I am faithful about this, even when I feel shaky afterwards. I take comfort knowing that Anne Lamott calls them “shitty first drafts” for a reason. I write like it’s a school assignment I have no choice but to finish. I give myself an A for effort, every time.
When I feel blocked, I lower my standards, as William Stafford counseled.
3. I try to focus on someone other than myself.
This is hard. When I look at all the amazing writers out there on the Internet, I am tempted to pretend they do not exist. I read their lovely posts and I do not tweet them on purpose. I hope all those more-successful writers notice.
So today, I sit down and write some nice comments on other people’s blogs. I subscribe to their work. I send out a bunch of tweets saying how inspiring their posts are, because it’s true.
Afterwards, I notice my breathing is easier.
4. I remind myself I have a choice.
If a project makes me sick and depressed, I can stop working on it. If I stop feeling passion about it, I can stop. There’s no “should”. There’s no “have-to” except in my head. I am not a mouse caught in a trap. I am a beloved daughter, doing her best to be faithful.
I don’t want to give up. But I can choose to keep trying each day with gratitude, instead of telling myself I’m a despicable person if I do anything less than succeed wildly.
5. I focus on love. I think of the email I got from a twenty-year-old girl who said everyone thought she was fine but inside, she was screaming. That broke my heart a million different ways. She said over and over how she should read the Bible, but didn’t. That was me too. Sometimes that is still me.
You know what? I desperately need this book. Perhaps writing it, for me and one other person, could be a generous act of worship.
What Changed Today
Today, I feel better. Here’s what changed: I showed up, and I did some hard work, and it didn’t kill me. In other words, nothing outside me has changed—not my platform, or my penchant for anxiety, or the hard work that lies ahead of me.
What changed is I was faithful for another day. And that is nothing to sniff at. That, indeed, is all Jesus asks of us.
Here’s the truth I want to sing to you today: it is okay to realize that you’re afraid. It is okay to admit it. And it is a blessed, blessed thing when you can move forward anyway.
Each day holds a thousand invitations to step out of the handcuffs we’re used to. Can we hold hands as we drop our chains?
Image credit: Kristina Patenio