Defeated by Anxiety

I tried
To match eternal light with how I live my life
Of course, I was forced to retreat
From victory I accept defeat — Avett Brothers, Victory

This summer I took my daughters on a 3,000 mile road trip through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado to mark Catherine’s graduation from High School. It was a lifetime experience I will never forget, nor will there be sufficient time before I die to adequately thank to God for those precious days. They pass away, but the memories remain.

One of our stops on this trip was in Buena Vista, Colorado where our dear friend Austin Ashcraft was leading white water rafting rides down the Arkansas river. Though our time there as a whole was electric, I knew going into this that the ride down the river would likely stir awake the hornet’s nest of my lifelong battle with anxiety. And it did. But I refused to allow fear to keep us from this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As we prepared for the seven hour rafting trip, I felt the first stirrings of anxiety boiling deep within. I’ve had panic attacks since I was a child, and so I know its early tremors very well. As we drifted down the river, I deployed all my best weapons against anxiety to good effect — the rhythmic Jesus prayer, displacing my focus, breathing exercises, and so on. But when we came to the place where we could stop and jump into the chilly river for a fun splash, my anxiety erupted in full fury and sent me into a downward spiral. The best word to describe this lifelong experience is terror, as you sense your psyche is fragmenting from within, and all ability to control your inner world has been lost. As we got back in the raft I managed to hide it from the girls right up until lunch, but when we disembarked again and went to sit and eat together, the armor cracked.

My daughters could tell there was something wrong with me, though I kept doing my best to hide it. I’m quite expert at that. Catherine said, “Dad, are you okay?” I said, in a likely unconvincing way, “Oh, yes. Fine.” Maria said, “Dad, no you’re not. It’s okay for you to not be okay. You don’t have to be strong for us. We’re big girls.” Well, with the detonation of that bomb I quickly made an excuse and went off to a side area, out of sight, and briefly cried. As I collected myself, I thought of a line from Wordsworth, “The Child is father to the Man.” Going back to the girls, I said, “You’ll never know how much both of you saying those things helped me. Thank you.” Catherine patted me on the shoulder and said, “No problem. Now have some SunChips!”

The greatest ally of anxiety is isolation, secrecy, self-reliance, going it alone — all fueled by fear. And I fall into those as easily as anyone. But there along that river bank my daughters broke down my resistance and lifted me up from the ground by the hand. I was able to accept defeat, accept that the anxiety was beyond my strength to battle alone. But with their beautiful love, unafraid to see their father a broken Man, the Children were victorious. Omnia vincit amor.

The next few hours of the trip, while still challenging, were entirely different. I was no longer alone. And sometimes “I am with you” is all you need to know. Love indeed is the real victory, The rest simply follows…

23 comments on “Defeated by Anxiety

  1. Jennifer says:

    I was awake way too early this morning with stomach churning anxious thoughts. Those white caps on the water that makes it rough but still navigable.

    When I read this: “I was no longer alone. And sometimes “I am with you” is all you need to know,” I cried. It reminded me of the assurance of a good friend who encouraged me after my first (?) full blown panic attack that left me truly afraid for my sanity (as you aptly describe here: as you sense your psyche is fragmenting from within, and all ability to control your inner world has been lost), that friend telling me calmly, ‘you’re okay, I’ve been there too, it sounds like a panic attack’ allowed me to at least get my feet back under me and for the vertiginous catastrophizing to stop, like Jesus restoring calm to the raging sea (never mind to the disciples).

    Thank you, Tom, for sharing this story with us here. It’s a blessing, more than you know, or maybe you do know. Seriously though, thanks, friend.

    p.s. this also reminds me of John Swinton’s book “Finding Jesus in the Storm: the Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges” which I read this past weekend in anticipation of my new job and how glad I am that I did. He also has a fantastic book called “Dementia: Living in the Memories of God” which I am chewing through more slowly. His gift is reminding the reader over and over again of how we strip people of their dignity and humanity by focusing on pathology. He is a compassionate up-lifter of the down-trodden and has a beautiful ability to see the person. (He also co-edited “Distability in the Christian Tradition” which is stunning and formational for me. (Swinton is a mental health nurse – turned ordained minsister – turned professor of practical theology and chaplain in Scotland — I think that’s right)

    • Jennifer says:

      One more thought: Redemption. How astonishing it was for me once upon a time when I first experienced how a suffering I had endured was became a light in the darkness for someone else. It convinced me viscerally that this is so often how God heals our woundedness: not by erasing the scar but by letting good for another pour forth from it. ❤

      So I guess I am saying thank you for anointing us with the fruit of your suffering.

    • Thank you, Jennifer, for your wonderfully honest words here that are an anointing on ME. Love also the deep insights from your reading, which really ring true for me. Your reading these days has been so rich!! So grateful there are people like you who are passionate about understanding human beings in their fragility and reality, and compassionate about walking with them. May God sustain you each day! Juncos, jays and all…

  2. Stephanie Folse says:

    Beautiful!

  3. Maureen says:

    Tom,
    Thank you for sharing your story…
    Anxiety paralysis a person to the point that they can’t live life to the fullest as God wants us to.
    “ The Child is the father of the Man “ is a beautiful quote and is true… we are not alone in our anxious moments.. God is working through others to pull is through… we can learn so much from our children.
    You give me hope that one day I can travel
    the river rapids and enjoy the beauty and the excitement of life!

    So glad you had the opportunity to experience such a fantastic trip with Catherine and Maria..

    What memories and stories you have to tell!!

    Have a wonderful Thanksgiving with Patti and your family.. You have so much to be thankful for. You all are a blessing us!

    Peace,
    Maureen
    🍁🦃🍁

    • Maureen, Thank you so much. I love hearing from you. So good to have companions to break bread with along this way, as you and I have over the years. STM<3 Blessings on you and your family, especially for a Thanksgiving filled with gratitude.

  4. amyansaturday says:

    Oh Dear Friend…..thank you…just BEAUTIFUL!
    PS…next time shed those tears in front of your loved ones! (Wink Wink)
    Love, Amy T

    • Thanks, Amy!! Love seeing your name. And yes, sage advice for certain to share vulnerability with your loved ones; though it was the more than 20 people around us at that moment that made me shy off to a private spot.
      Blessings!
      Wish we could do *Grounds for Celebration* for a coffee tawk again…

  5. Larissa OFlynn says:

    Hi Dr Neal!

    We met during the presentation you did last Spring for the Regnum Christi women’s strength finder’s course. Your words truly touched me. Later, after reading in your blog about your struggle with anxiety, I was moved again.

    I often struggle a great deal with shame and discouragement surrounding chronic anxiety.

    God truly used you to let me know that despite my own battle with anxiety and panic attacks, God can and desires to use me. We are all broken vessels but if we trust in God and not despair, He will shine through our cracks and even weld some of them together.

    I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your openness and honesty in sharing your struggles. I know I am not alone in the graces received.

    May God grant us the gifts of continued persevere and growth.

    God Bless!

    Larissa O’Flynn

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Larissa — Wow. This is so beautiful to receive and hear. Thank you for being so honest as well. Shame and discouragement, yes. But having each other, hope. May God grant us the gifts of continued persevere and growth. God bless you! TomNeal

  6. Joseph Donovan says:

    My goodness, what can one say to all that except from the victory of Christ I accept the defeat of my illusory self and the birth of the me I was made to be.
    Such wonder.

  7. Theresa says:

    Dr. Neal – I had my little 9 year old boy in bed with me this morning scared to go to school. A friend in his Cub Scout Den tested positive for Covid, there is a difficult science test today, he couldn’t find his spirit shirt for “spirit shirt friday,” and there were many other triggers happening in his little 4th grade world. I just snuggled with him and rubbed his back and was clicking through my emails. I saw your title and decided to read it out loud to him. He was all ears. I am sure you don’t write for a 9 year old audience, but I wanted you to know that God’s timing through you was perfect for my anxious son this morning. There were still some tears and nerves going to school this morning, but he made it there. His teacher emailed a few hours later assuring me he was fine – he calmly took the test and was laughing with classmates. Thank you for being there for us this morning & for your vulnerability. Theresa

  8. Hedy says:

    This is wonderful. Thanks for sharing yourself with your world.

    Beautiful!

  9. Katy says:

    This is incredible. This is Jesus Christ made man. Such moments of grace in their confident question (Dad, are you okay?), assertion (it’s okay for you not to be okay), your humility (you are more in love with what is real, in loving and being loved, than preserving a false sense of security). And when I read “No problem. Now have some Sunchips.” I immediately thought of “well then, Tom Neal, get the hell on with it”…from the best, Sherlock. Their behavior and affection I was no doubt learned from you and your wife: “I love you, I am with you, I’m staying, so let’s live.”

    “The next few hours of the trip, while still challenging, were entirely different. I was no longer alone. And sometimes “I am with you” is all you need to know. Love indeed is the real victory, The rest simply follows…”

    Thank you for this witness. As Jennifer wrote “this is so often how God heals our woundedness: not by erasing the scar but by letting good for another pour forth from it. ❤ So I guess I am saying thank you for anointing us with the fruit of your suffering.” I thank you as well. Your witness is a conduit of healing.

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