It was an ordinary Tuesday, except for the fact that I was on the verge of a breakdown over lemon zest. This sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it is also serious. This is the face of anxiety.
I sat at my desk, nestled under the far windows in my kitchen, and plugged away at a long list of work tasks — emails to write, spreadsheets to analyze, projects to dream up. My list was long but it’s work I love to do, and I was grateful the kids were in school and I had a quiet morning to dive in.
But on this particular morning, it turned out I wasn’t home alone like I expected. My husband was also there. His job demands long hours and lots of travel at times, which other days affords him the flexibility to set his own schedule and work from home. Super great, except on that day – for me.
Chris came into the kitchen and started tinkering, opening cupboards, pressing buttons on the stove. I winced a little and looked up from my computer.
“Whatcha doing?” I asked
“Making those lemon bars,” he said.
It was barely nine a.m., but he was preparing for the evening when we’d both enjoy having a sweet treat compatible with the limited eating plan we were on at the time.
I tried to get back in my work zone. I reread the half-written email I was in the middle of composing. Glass bakeware clinked together as Chris pulled them from the cupboard. I leaned closer to my computer screen and typed the next sentence. Parchment paper ripped across the jagged metal line, ripping my concentration. I tabbed over instead to an article I needed to read. Deep breath. Chris carefully lined the glass dish with the waxy paper. Every crinkle sent a shockwave of irritation up my spine.
I closed my laptop. I got up and started emptying the dishwasher.
“Why are you doing that right now?” my husband asked over his shoulder.
“Oh, you know. It’s just easier for me to concentrate when it’s quiet, so I figured I’d get the dishes done while you’re baking.”
“Ok, can you hand me the grater?”
I stacked bright plastic kid cups and placed spoons and forks in their designated slots in the silverware drawer. Deep breath. Deep breath. Eggs shells cracked. The metal whisk bounced and scratched inside the metal mixing bowl. Whisk, whisk, whisk. Over and over and over.
I tried to fill my heavy lungs with enough breath.
“Wash these lemons for me, will you please?” he asked.
My heart raced. I washed the lemons.
Then he started to zest.
When my anxiety is high, there are some sounds I can tune out: the dishwasher humming behind me, the dryer thud-thrumming behind the thin laundry room door beside me. But other noises are like nails on a chalkboard to my tender wiring. Every time the lemon scraped the length of the metal grater, my insides cringed in pain. My chest tightened.
This is stupid, I told myself. Get a grip.
But I could not get a grip. I was unraveling. I stopped drying the dishes, but I could not stop the stream of tears.
“What’s wrong?” my husband asked, bewildered.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know. You’re not doing anything wrong,” I said. “The noise is just too much for me right now. I guess I’m having a flare-up of anxiety.”
I walked through the hall into our bedroom, into our bathroom, shut the door, closed the toilet seat, sat down, and cried. I cried hard. I couldn’t not cry hard.
There wasn’t one thing I was upset about. There wasn’t something I was stewing over or especially worried about. This was the most frustrating, shameful thing about anxiety to me — that I couldn’t always name it or explain it. And if I couldn’t explain why I was feeling what I was feeling, then it seemed invalid to feel it.
I heaved air into my tight lungs and prayed for a way to help my husband and myself understand my world of anxiety in which we were both foreign travelers.
My breathing slowed, and my mind filled with a new image. I walked back into the kitchen.
“I want to help us both understand why I’m reacting this way, and I have an idea. Have you ever had a really bad toothache?” I began. “When a tooth nerve is damaged or exposed, things that you normally eat are suddenly extremely painful. Warm things become scalding and cool things become freezing and crunchy things become rock-hard; it’s impossible to eat normally.”
I went on, “Food isn’t the real problem. The way you’re chewing isn’t the problem. There is a raw nerve that when touched produces a visceral, physical reaction you can’t control. This is what anxiety is like. Baking lemon bars is not the issue. My desire to cope with the noise is not the issue. My anxiety is like raw nerve endings and certain noises touch those raw nerves and trigger pain to the point that my system is overwhelmed. My body deals with it through tears.”
I’m not sure if that made things any clearer to my husband, but I know it helped give voice to my experience. Giving voice to our experience can help slowly unravel the tangle of shame we’re living in.
Friend, anxiety is real.
Whether you relate with my experience or not, chances are high that there is someone in your life who does. We all need to understand that anxiety is more than a list of worries and woes that need to be prayed over or surrendered to the Lord. For sure we need to pray, and may we all live surrendered to Jesus! But we’ve got to understand that anxiety is not always synonymous with fear-driven worry. Anxiety can also be a mental health disorder caused by psychological and physiological imbalances with a host of symptoms.
We don’t try to downplay a nerve issue when we’ve got a tooth screaming in pain. We don’t criticize ourselves when our iron levels are out of whack or we need more B12. We acknowledge the deficiency. We take steps to feel better. We seek help.
Five months later and I’m doing better. I’m thankful for lemon zest and the things that force me to cry out to God. I’m thankful for His mercy in helping me understand my brokenness. I’m thankful for the grace that my anxiety has ebbed for now. And I’m thankful that when it flows again, I will be more ready to admit it and be gentle with myself.
Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace,
that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:16 (ESV)
Becky will be speaking on the topic of anxiety at MOMCon in Orlando, Florida, September 5-7. To learn more about the Ultimate Mom Getaway, click here. Becky would love to meet you in person and walk this anxiety journey toward health and healing together.
Giving voice to our experience can help slowly unravel the tangle of shame we’re living in. -@beckykeife: Click To Tweet