Racing heartbeat. Tingly hands. Dizziness. Difficulty breathing. And worst of all, a palpable sense of impending doom. All my symptoms pointed toward one conclusion: I was dying. Right there, stuck in a traffic jam on Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, I was going to die. At least, that’s what I thought.
Panic attacks will do that to a person—make you think you’re having a heart attack, experiencing a brain aneurysm, or facing some other fatal physical dysfunction. Of course, nothing of the sort is actually taking place. In reality, it’s just that your fight-or-flight response has kicked into gear. But as adrenaline runs rampant throughout your body, you’re convinced that your life-plug is being yanked out of its wall socket.
How would you feel if you were confronted by a crowd of giants who each weighed 700 pounds? Would that scare you? That, some experts say, is how a three-year-old who weighs 40 pounds perceives the world he lives in, and they speculate that this may be the source of panic attacks in adults. The technical term for a panic attack is agoraphobia. In my case, I couldn’t drive more than a few blocks from home alone without being gripped in terror. Only if I had a “safe person” with me could I go much farther.
This kind of thinking obviously led to my having a very dysfunctional life. Allow me to share my personal experience.
King of the excuses
“Randy, could you go over and measure the Jacksons’ house for carpet installation?” Working my way through college, I’d often found myself having to dodge such simple requests from my boss, the owner of the floor coverings store where I worked. Had the gentleman not already been bald, I’m sure he would have lost a great deal of hair from scratching his head in wonder at my strange (and apparently rebellious) responses. Thank God he was a man of grace!
But real trouble surfaced as I neared the end of my nine-quarter graduate seminary training. In order to earn my master of divinity degree, I needed to attend several weeks of training in—get this—Chicago, Illinois. Ironically, the training center was just a few miles away from where I’d had that horrible panic attack on the Dan Ryan Expressway!
“But I can’t leave my job just to go with you for a few weeks,” my wife, Diana—my “safe person”—said. She was right, of course. In the end, I quit seminary and went to work full time at the floor coverings store.
Shame is a constant companion of those suffering from mental illness, and I was no exception. Why can’t I just think my way beyond this whole situation? I wondered. And what about God? Why doesn’t He step in to fix things?
A light turns on
Until recently, I hadn’t even known that anyone else in the entire world was suffering as I did. I certainly didn’t know that any of this had a name—until one night I happened to hear a radio interview. “Persons with agoraphobia often can’t go places alone,” said the interviewee. “Since they’ve had panic attacks, they begin avoiding places where they might have another one.”
Why, that’s me! I thought excitedly. At least now I knew this monster had a name: agoraphobia. Maybe there was hope for me after all! And it was the hope factor that kept me going year after year. Oh, I tried to fix the problem on my own. But self-help books and even psychotherapy hadn’t made much difference. At least, I wasn’t any closer to feeling “normal” than I’d been a decade or more earlier. If anything, the demon of anxiety disorders was more deeply entrenched than ever.
As it turned out—and I think God had a hand in what eventually took place—I was able to finish my seminary degree in Seattle, Washington, where Diana and I had moved. But panic disorder and agoraphobia still ruled the day. Unable to properly carry out my pastoral duties due to my problems with traveling, I resigned after a little more than a year.
Eventually, I was offered an editorial position at a Christian publishing firm. I excelled at this vocation, but after 10 successful years, I turned down the invitation to become the senior editor of the publication for which I’d served as assistant and associate editor. Not that I’d wanted to decline, but the inability to travel was the continuing deal-breaker. When I found myself turning down the position a second time due to my dysfunction, I grew desperate. I knew it was time to swallow any pride I had left and do a very hard thing.
Making the call
“Um, yes, I’d like to make an appointment with a psychiatrist,” I told the receptionist over the phone. It was one of the most difficult phone calls I’d ever made. After all, who wants to admit they have a mental illness, let alone make an appointment with a “shrink”? But as it turned out, that phone call made all the difference in the world.
When the day of the appointment arrived, I found myself face-to-face, not with a bearded, spectacle-wearing Sigmund Freud clone, but rather a completely normal-looking professional. Dr. Wagner not only turned out to be knowledgeable but also reflected a sincerely caring demeanor. It didn’t take him long to confirm my self-diagnosis. And then the good doctor uttered six life-changing, hope-inducing words: I think I can help you.
Dr. Wagner explained to me the combined power of appropriate medication with therapy and the regular practice of long-lost behaviors such as driving alone. But I had a continuing concern: “Will the medication turn me into somebody I’m not?” I asked apprehensively. Dr. Wagner smiled and informed me that I was not destined to grow a third ear or become a serial killer.
Indeed, since those days, the medication he prescribed has had quite the opposite effect. It has actually helped me to become more of the person God intended me to be. How? By enabling me to interact with others and the world at large in ways that I simply couldn’t have while bearing the oppressive weight of my anxiety disorder.
It took several months to fully experience the joy of rising above anxiety disorders. I learned to love flying to meet various professional appointments. Today, instead of anxiety, driving alone in a car often brings feelings of great satisfaction and peace.
Am I totally “healed”? Since I think anxiety disorders are a complex interweaving of biology and environment, I don’t know that total “healing” is the goal. In my case, I can still feel anxious sometimes. But my life was rescued from suffering beyond my wildest dreams, and that’s good enough for me. Maybe the next generation of intervention will provide biochemical and behavioral healing to an even fuller expression. But I’m satisfied with my life today, which is a huge deal, given where I was years ago.
Yes, I found a solution to rising above anxiety disorders. My solution may not be your solution, but today, more than ever before, hope and help are available to address your mental health challenge. If you’re suffering as I once did, I urge you to shed the shame, poke stigma in the eye, and get on with your life.
How? A first step should be contacting the right healing professional(s) to help in relaunching your life. As for divine intervention, God’s healing touch won’t necessarily come through miraculous healing (though it might), but that doesn’t mean He’s out of the picture. More often than not, He uses human instruments to heal and transform. So while calling upon God for healing is a good thing, calling a psychiatrist and other healing professionals can be a key part in heaven’s ultimate healing protocol.
Anxiety disorders are no fun. I know from firsthand experience that they can derail your plans for life. The good news is that you can get back on track and enjoy life in a way that you may have long ago abandoned as unachievable. Trust me—you can rise above anxiety disorders. But it’s up to you to make the call.
Randy Fishell is a former editor of Guide magazine, a character-building story publication for teens. He is the author of the book An Anxious Kind of Mind: A True Story About Anxiety Disorders, CreateSpace, 2017.