At the start of this new year, I felt God speaking the word BRAVE over my life as I thought about the previous year and what I wanted to work toward in 2015. In meditating on what it means for me to ‘be brave’ in my life, I’ve been reminded of these words from the book Daring Greatly …
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As I talk with other women – family, friends, co-workers, clients – I’m learning the truth of this quote. To ‘be brave’ is to be authentic and vulnerable in telling our own stories, which in turns invites others to tell theirs, allowing for connection, healing, and ultimately, opening up the path toward wholeness. I don’t exactly know where to begin today, but I have felt God urging me to write about a part of my life that I have only recently begun to share with others. My prayer is that by telling the truth of my story, it will help someone out there to know they are not alone and that it’s okay to be honest about who you are and where you are in your journey. So here I go …
I’ve mentioned before that I am, by nature, a Type-A, perfectionist. I’ve been this way my entire life. I’ve held myself to a very high standard for years, and when I do something, I do it with everything I have within me. There is no half-way. It’s all or nothing.
In some ways, these are great qualities to have as I’ve accomplished a lot in my thirty years of life and have a lot to be proud of, shown by two degrees and several medals hanging on the walls of my home and work offices, just to name a couple of things.
In other ways, these qualities have been a major stumbling block as I’m often my own worst enemy, beating myself up for “not being enough” or “being too much,” and holding myself (and others) to impossibly high standards, which causes the endless cycle of doing and going and trying and working to be the best, all of the time.
The truth: Type-A and perfectionism is exhausting, and it’s not working for me anymore.
A few months ago, this happened …
A Monday morning meeting out-of-town turned into me driving myself to the emergency room of the closest hospital because I thought I was having a heart attack. Upon walking in, tears streaming down my face, and telling the medical receptionist what was going on, I was immediately rushed back to a private room where I was hooked up to a bunch of machines and would be evaluated for the next four hours. The diagnosis: a severe panic attack.
Let me back up …
I think it would be safe to say that I have struggled with anxiety for a very long time. Anxiety is what drives the Type-A, perfectionist personality in the work to accomplish and succeed and ensure you absolutely do not fail. Ever.
But if I had to pin-point when the symptoms of my anxiety started to manifest themselves, I would say it was the summer of 2010. At that time, my current job was at-risk of losing all of the funding that supported my position and if we lost those funds, I would be laid off. We had just moved into our new house, so the pressure was on to stay financially secure. And following a period of unemployment after grad school in 2008 due to being “overqualified” and yet “not qualified enough,” I was terrified to go back to square one and have to job search again. I couldn’t sleep, I could hardly eat, I stopped running for a short time, and I didn’t want to do anything. On one of my worst days, I came home from work at 5:30 and got into bed, in my business suit and dress shoes, and just laid there exhausted but unable to sleep.
I went to the doctor and in describing my fears and symptoms, was diagnosed with anxiety. I believe “common and manageable” were the words used to give me comfort that this too would pass and I was indeed, okay.
I did end up getting laid off, by the way, in the fall of 2010. After six months of tireless searching (including a month’s sabbatical to Florida to get my head together) I finally found another job. I was doing well, feeling great, and eager to get back to work after the time off at home. Things were good for about four months when one day at work I wasn’t feeling so well and decided to leave early to get some rest. On my drive home, I started to feel a tingling sensation all over, and then I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and then everything went black. When I ‘woke up,’ I was pulled over in my SUV on the side of the two-lane highway, with absolutely no recollection of how I had gotten there and completely freaked out at what was going on. I called my husband, not making any sense and sobbing, who came and picked me up and rushed me to my doctor, again.
This time, it wasn’t just anxiety. It was a panic attack. And it felt like death. And this girl was not okay with it. At all. But I went on living life like I always had, believing that if I could just “get it together” I would be fine.
From then until about 8 months ago, I actually had managed to keep the anxiety under control for the most part. A few minor panic attacks at times – nothing to the extent that I had before. I had what I needed to take care of it if I felt it coming on in the course of a day. Some days were good. Others not so good. Such is life.
This past summer marked a year in my new (and current) job. Those first twelve months were an up and down series of events as I learned the dynamics of not only a new position, but an entirely different culture of work and of the community in which I was serving. I was putting out fires left and right, fixing things that had gone wrong in the past, and working to establish myself as the leader of this organization and department overseeing services in three different counties. But I was doing this thing, day in and day out, giving it my all, and just keeping my nose to the grindstone, trusting that eventually things would level out and get to normal.
And things did settle down. For a little while. It was during this time that one day I woke up with a headache that started at the base of my neck and worked its way up, covering the entire top of my head, and with it came horrible bouts of anxiety. This lasted for a month. No joke. The pain, tension, and panic felt debilitating and for the first time, I can honestly say I was depressed. I was so ashamed that I was feeling this way. I couldn’t understand how I felt so out of control on the inside, and yet everything on the outside was fine. It was the worst feeling in the world and it took everything within me to get through each day.
At this point in the story, I can hear you saying, “Hannah, enough already. Get help.” But when you’re a Type-A, perfectionist, the lie you believe is that you have to keep it together and that to admit this is an ongoing problem is to admit that you are a failure, confirming your very worst fear. And for this reason, it took me awhile to admit that I had a problem and that I needed help. I’m a Social Worker by occupation – I work with people all of the time who deal with things like this and give out the best advice and support I can – and yet, I wasn’t living by what I preach to my clients and staff – the concepts of “self-care” and “self-love.” The truth of it hit me like a terrible smack across the face. I was lying to myself. And if I wanted to get better and work on overcoming this, I was going to have to do the honest, messy, and hard thing – talk about what I was experiencing and commit to the process of transformation for the long-term.
After talking to my very loving and supportive husband (he’s a saint, truly), I made the decision to call and make an appointment with a counselor. I also went back to my doctor. I explained to both that I could not live anymore with this weight of anxiety and panic on my shoulders, never knowing when it was going to happen, and that I wanted to change. For good. I also went to God about all of this, and instead of asking Him to take away the anxiety and panic, I asked Him to work out His good in the face of these challenges. I confessed my lack of trust in Him and His control over my life and that I knew the path I was on was leading to death and not life in Him. I asked Him to come and change my heart and my life for His glory and purpose.
And since taking these steps, I haven’t looked back. The very thing I was afraid to do – own up to this issue and face it head on – has been the very best thing for me to do. It’s not like all of my problems went away. But through small steps, I’m learning to cultivate grace over perfection and love over fear. I’m feeling more at ease and more like the self I want to be – a woman who is alive and free and full of life, in whatever comes my way, the perfect and the imperfect.
These days, in 2015, I’m trying to live by this …
:: purpose over perfect ::
I am learning to let go of things that are not important in the grand scheme of life, and put my focus on what matters each and every day. I’m working on being gentler with myself and others, and embracing the imperfections of life as opportunities for God to come through in amazing ways. It’s a changing of perspective, a process of being made new, and a refreshing way of doing life because I’m realizing I can’t be and do it all, and that if I say “No,” everything will still be okay.
I know now that I’m not alone in my struggles with anxiety, panic, and even depression. I’ve talked to enough women recently – some of whom may be reading this blog today – and have been surprised to find out that many of them have faced the feelings I have. And as we talk to each other and tell our individual stories of this issue we’re dealing with, it’s been amazing to see and feel the relief that comes from opening up this part of ourselves and the connection that is made as we share our hearts with one another.
I’m still a work in progress and have a long way to go in my journey. But me writing this today is my way of saying it’s time to throw off whatever is holding us back and follow the call to wholeness. Let’s stop playing perfect and let’s just be us. Let’s be kinder to each other and to ourselves by being honest about our lives. Let’s love like never before – right here, right now – the good and the bad. And let’s live out loud, showing the world who we really are – brave, confident, lovely, wild and free women who have purpose and are not afraid to look adversity in the face and go after the abundant life God calls us to with everything we have within us, even if it means a complete 180 degree turn from where we were before. It’s time to take our joy back and live with reckless abandon for His glory.
There is hope. And it really will be okay.