Taking Up The Shield

Generally speaking, I’m an anxious person. To those who know me best, that is not news, but others are often surprised to hear it. I always get a kick out of seeing people’s reactions when I say, “Oh, yeah, I have terrible anxiety.” I often hear back, “You DO? You seem so calm and laid back. I would never guess that about you.” But it’s true.

I don’t think I suffered with anxiety much at all as a child or adolescent, or even as a (single) college student. My first real episodes that I remember came shortly after I got married. Looking back, I attribute that to being so young (21) and still in college, and not being quite prepared psychologically for such a change in status. After all, my former roommates were still all living together and going to parties and having fun living the college life, and I was living off campus with my HUSBAND. It sounded weird to even say that out loud…”I have a HUSBAND.” I was having a different kind of fun, I suppose, but the reality of being a wife was such a crazy thing for me to wrap my brain around at the time – especially since none of my close friends were even engaged. I felt very isolated. I had chest pain that I was  convinced was angina almost every day of the first year of our marriage. It was literally all I could think about. “Why is my chest hurting? Am I having a heart attack? I must be having a heart attack!”

I read through as many of Lee’s medical books as I could, trying to diagnose myself with anything that would help me have some peace of mind. I should point out that the pain I was having was nothing that mimicked cardiac pain. It wasn’t dull, but it wasn’t that sharp either. It was just sort of there, nagging and persistent.  I remember waking up early one Thursday morning in our downtown Birmingham apartment with this weird pain, and I immediately ran some bath water so I could get in and hopefully calm down. It woke Lee up, and when I told him I was scared I was having a heart attack (again) he took me across the street to UAB’s emergency room. Despite Lee’s insistence that I was not actually having an MI, I didn’t believe him. That visit to the ER basically landed me with a prescription for Ativan and a “good luck” from the doctor. Even as I type this, I’m shaking my head.

I vividly remember spending the next 6-9 months of our first year of marriage feeling scared to death of everything. Nothing in particular, just scared. I don’t know how else to explain it, but it was miserable. There were nights when Lee had to spend the night in the hospital to take call, and I couldn’t wait for him to get home the next morning just so he could lay next to me and hold me. I felt scared I was going to die, that I was going to get kidnapped, robbed, raped…you name it, I feared it. It was only after I became very unexpectedly pregnant with Noah that I was able to calm down and think about something other than me.

Fast forward to 2012, three summers ago. I had developed a stress fracture in my right foot in February of that year and had to take the next three months off from running or doing any exercise with impact. It was awful, and especially stressful for me because my 20-year high school reunion was coming up the following July and I wanted to be in good shape for it. In May I started going on short runs again and teaching fitness classes with more impact since the pain had gone away. I had noticed after a couple of runs that my feet tingled a little bit afterwards. It didn’t worry me too much because I knew my feet were probably slapping the pavement harder than usual – it had been a while since I’d run.

The day after I noticed the tingling, Lee and I went to New York for my birthday weekend. I spent a lot of time on my feet while we were there (wearing cute wedges, of course.)  By the time we got home on Sunday night, all my toes were completely numb. Again, I didn’t worry too much because of the circumstances, but when I woke up the next morning and they were still numb, I freaked out. I began googling every neurological disease I could think of to see if I could find a diagnosis. At some point I became convinced that I had multiple sclerosis, and for the next 3 months I did absolutely nothing but read about MS and worry myself into tears over it. I even lost weight because I was so consumed by anxiety. One Saturday I came home from a run crying my eyes out because both my feet and my hands had begun tingling during the run. I called Lee, panicked and sobbing. He said, “You know what? I’m taking you to my hospital so you can have an MRI. I’m going to call them right now so they know we’re coming. This is ridiculous, Missi. You aren’t going to be assured that you’re okay until you can hear it from another doctor.” I protested vehemently because I knew for sure that I’d get bad news and I wasn’t ready to face it. Once again, Lee had been saying for months that I did NOT have MS, or anything else like it, but I wasn’t convinced.

As you might expect, the MRI showed nothing but a normal brain, and I left there doped up on IV Ativan with a prescription for more. The Ativan that they gave me in the ER strangely eliminated all the tingling in my hands and feet, which helped me realize that it was mostly another manifestation of my anxiety. I was relieved but also slightly embarrassed. I must’ve seemed like a kook to all of Lee’s doctor and nurse friends. For a brief time after all of that, I reluctantly agreed to take Zoloft. It helped tremendously with the anxiety, but gave me so many other side effects that I decided I’d rather just be anxious. By then, I was used to it.

Those are two distinct periods when I had especially intense anxiety, but I’ve maintained a low level of chronic anxiety throughout the majority of my adulthood. Many of you know that I’m scared to death to fly. I’m also scared to go to the doctor. I’m scared my kids will get a disease, or that something terrible will happen to one of them. I’m scared that people won’t like me. I’m scared to stay in a hotel room or condo on a high floor, and the list goes on. I’m not going to lie – it can be exhausting. Soon after Abby’s second bout with pneumonia this summer and all of my personal fear surrounding that, I asked Lee to please pray that I wouldn’t be afraid all of the time. I was so tired of it. It occurred to me that I was always so anxious about something bad potentially happening that I couldn’t enjoy the beautiful things right in front of me. I was robbing myself.

Less than two weeks after asking Lee to pray for me, I learned that Abby had a carcinoid tumor in her lung. For anyone who hasn’t followed that saga, Abby came down with fever and cough the day of her dance recital on Mother’s Day weekend. She took oral antibiotics and it went away, but a week or so later, her fever came back with accompanying chest pain. I took her to the emergency room at Children’s, where she was diagnosed with a lower lobe pneumonia and admitted. She was given IV antibiotics and went home two days later seeming like a new person. But two weeks later, her symptoms all returned. A chest x-ray showed another pneumonia and she was admitted again – this time to the pulmonary floor. A bronchoscopy during that stay revealed a mass of tissue growing in her right lung. Lee was certain that she had inhaled something that had turned into a granuloma, but, as always, I worried that it was a cancerous tumor.

A few days after Abby returned home, Dr. Harris, a super smart and sweet pulmonologist, called Lee with the pathology report. Abby had a carcinoid tumor. We learned that even though this was technically a cancer, it was very slow growing and curable by resection. I felt relieved until we were told that Abby might need to have part of her lung removed, and that if the carcinoid was in her lymph nodes, she might even need chemotherapy. Then, just one week later, her surgeon told us that even if it was in her nodes, she would not need chemo. I was on a roller coaster of emotions, going from slight relief one day to almost paralyzing fear the next. My anxiety and stress levels were at an all time high.

Last Wednesday, Abby had surgery to have the tumor removed. it was a tremendous success, and we are so thankful. During the actual operation, Lee and I sat in the waiting area for four hours – without a doubt, the longest four hours of my life. My stomach was in knots. Minute to minute, I went from feeling confident that she would be okay to crying and feeling scared something terrible would happen. One thing is for sure: whether you are an anxious person or not, nothing is harder or more stressful to a parent than waiting while your child is having a big surgery. All I could think about was, “My precious little girl is having her lung operated on right now. Why did this have to happen to her?” It’s a helpless feeling, knowing that as her mother I could do nothing but sit there and wait and pray while trying not to think about the “what-ifs.” We received updates from her world-renowned cardiothoracic surgeon, Dr. Cerfolio, throughout the operation – all of which brought great news. The more good news we received, the better I felt. When we were told that the tumor had been cut out and that her margins were clear, Lee and I both cried tears of gratitude. We knew for sure at that moment that none of her actual lung would need to be resected, and that the surgery was a success. Shortly after that we were told that she was in recovery and doing fine, and I felt as if the weight of the world had been lifted. The worry and fear I had been feeling since her very first hospital stay was over, and I thanked God countless times. I still do!

Something I’ve realized about anxiety is that it’s really about not being in control. The reason I’m so scared to fly is because I’m not the one in the cockpit flying the plane, nor do I know who is. I was anxious about Abby because I had no control over the tumor growing in her lung, and no ability to get it out. I can’t control how my kids drive when I’m not in the car with them, and that’s been a solid source of anxiety since Noah turned 16. (Please pray for me when all five start driving!) I worry about getting a deadly disease because I don’t have total control of my health. I do what I can to take care of myself, but the rest is left to God.

But that’s actually really good news: God IS in control. It’s up to me, and to all of us, to put our faith in Him or not. Nothing, not one single thing, happens in our lives that does not first pass through His hands. I don’t believe God makes bad things happen, but I do believe he ALLOWS them to happen for a reason.

Every circumstance we encounter in our lives, whether good or bad, is an opportunity for us to see God, to learn from Him, and to grow to love Him more. For weeks I feared the possibility of Abby dying during surgery, and pondered how I would handle it if she did. Every time the thought occurred to me, I concluded that God loved her more than I did. I knew that if something awful like that happened, He would get me through it, and reveal more of Himself to me in the process. It’s hard for any of us to imagine how we’d handle a situation like that, but we can know that regardless of the situation, God loves us, is near to us, and is good. When I arrived at that conclusion, it didn’t eliminate all of my anxiety over Abby’s surgery and it’s outcome, but it was definitely a source of comfort.

I know firsthand that fear and anxiety are crippling and exhausting. When Abby and I left the hospital to go home, I realized that 99% of my exhaustion was related to the anxiety I felt during her surgery. I slept for three solid hours right after I walked in the door to my house. Since May, I have been debilitatingly anxious about Abby’s health at times, so I clearly needed that rest. But the truth is, none of us have to be crippled by fear. Instead, we can be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power by putting on the full armor of God.

Ephesians 6: 16 tells us to “take up the shield of faith so that we can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” Fear doesn’t come from the Prince of Peace, which means that my anxiety is most definitely one of those flaming arrows. The thing is, God will not put His armor on us. We have to be the ones to take action and do it ourselves. We can choose to have faith. We can choose to trust Him. We can choose to believe Him, and not just IN Him. We can keep our minds stayed on Him and rest in the peace that comes from that, or we can allow the enemy to torture us through doubt and fear. I’m comforted to know that while I may not be able to control the circumstances around me all of the time, I can most certainly  control my decision to pick up my shield or not. And so can you.

I’m a work in progress in so many areas…too many of them to count. It’s hard to imagine ever being in a place where I won’t struggle with anxiety. My deepest prayer is that, as I age, I will break completely free from any bondage to fear. Though it’s hard to imagine, I know God can deliver me from that if I allow Him to. But I’m still working on it. It seems that the first step is relinquishing control of every part of my life to the One who made me. I must choose to trust Him. His love is perfect and unfailing. He showed it most and best with the gift of His only Son, but whenever I stop to look, I realize that He is showing me all the time.  When I focus on that, I find there is nothing left to fear, and no reason left to doubt.

“In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all men.” Job 12:10