My buttons were popping with pride and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was sitting in the front row, and on the platform at our church was my wife Melissa speaking to a gathering of about 150 people. Our roles were reversed from the normal routine of me at the microphone and she in the shadows. Her topic? The yo-yo journey she has been on with a severe anxiety disorder. There were many wet eyes and knowing nods as she explained her wrestling match with anxiety since age 11.
Shortly after we met Melissa shared with me that she suffered from an anxiety disorder. Truth be known she could have said that she suffered from just about anything, because I was so taken with her beauty and intrigued by her thirst for knowledge that nothing would dissuade me from pursuing her. She stretched me in so many ways, and as far as I knew I was more than up for any challenge she may throw my direction. So what if she got anxious from time to time? I was able to convince her to go on both roller coasters at the Pacific National Exhibition (even I was anxious about that!) and she would ride on elevators with me, something she had avoided for years. I figured I would break her of this anxiety. It would all work out and smooth over. She could trust me. All would be ok.
Was I ever in for a reality check.
We were married in December 2004. The world was our oyster, with limitless possibilities of where we might live and what the future might hold in store for us. Shortly thereafter I was hired as the Associate Pastor at North Pointe Community Church (then Central Tabernacle) and she finished her Masters of Science in Physical Therapy at the University of Alberta. We were both happy doing the things we loved-helping people our areas of calling. Things were looking up and we were excited at the opportunity to see the world and minister together.
Then I got the phone call.
It seems most bad news comes in the form of an unexpected phone call at the most inopportune time. I was working and in meetings, and Melissa was on her way to visit her parents in nearby Wainwright, Alberta for an overnight stay. Because I was in busy I had my phone on silent and missed the several calls from Melissa and from my brother-in-law Chad. When I finally got through to Chad he assured me that everything was ok, and that Melissa was at their house recovering. She had a massive panic attack and was rendered paralyzed on the side of the highway, unable to drive; unable to think. She thought she would die. Chad was her rescuer, and now I was on my way to pick up the pieces.
To this point Melissa had been very good at covering up her anxiety through prayer and scripture memory, therapeutic exercises, regular medication, and her silver bullet pill called Ativan. Whenever she felt things were unravelling out of control she knew that it would help calm her so that she could move, think, reason. But for the first time it let her down. After taking 5 pills she was still stricken with fear and was unable to move. Her lifeline had let her down. Prayers didn’t work. She had hit a new low.
Life from that moment got very restricted for her. She had to be around me or her mom for comfort and security. We were her “safe” people. She couldn’t drive in the dark, even with me, and was unable to drive outside of the city by herself. For months I had to drive behind her to the university so she could get to work at the hospital without a full blown panic attack. Not only did her world get small, mine did too. I would be invited to speak at camps, retreats or conferences and would have to turn them down either because she wasn’t mentally able to fly or because the distance that I would be from her was too great. I found myself covering up a lot, and making a lot of excuses. Most people have the same understanding that I had about anxiety. It’s ok, it will go away. You’ll be ok. To mention that my wife couldn’t bear the fact that she was separated from me or her mom, or later, the kids can be difficult to explain. Especially to a Christian crowd.
You see, for years Melissa has prayed, fasted, placed Bible verses up around the house, car and anywhere else they can be seen as a constant reminder of the power and presence of God. She has pleaded for God to remove the anxiety and do a miracle of Biblical proportions. Only silence was heard. Even well meaning people can add fuel to the fire, some suggesting that she need to pray harder, truly give this to God or perhaps she might even be oppressed or possessed by the Devil. Mental illness is so desperately misunderstood. People would never say these things to someone who had cancer or a broken leg, but depression, anxiety or or any other mental health issue seem to be the realm of the spiritual. After years of this daily battle it led to a crisis of faith. Melissa took a break. Not from God, but from trying so hard. In that time the Lord spoke to her like he did to the Apostle Paul who pleaded that the Lord would remove the thorn in his flesh-evidently a condition in his mind, body or spirit that was overwhelming for him. Melissa’s answer came in the same form as Paul’s; “My grace is sufficient for you. My strength is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Now Melissa has chosen to focus less on praying for herself and more on praying for others. She is open to a miracle that would eradicate this anxiety from her mind, but in the meantime she has chosen to reach out to others and share her story. I’m sure it’s painful at times, but she has chosen to embrace her pain in order to bring relief to others. Hers is a story of faith, hope and love. And her ministry is flourishing. I know that God’s strength will be made perfect in this weakness, and she will be the bearer of hope to the 30% of society that deals with a mental health disorder of some sort.
As for me, I am ashamed that I wasted years feeling resentful, sorry for myself, or even feeling at times that it wasn’t as real as she was making it out to be. I was selfish and ignorant. I just didn’t understand. Thankfully in this weakness of mine the Lord has also given me strength. I am convinced that her weakness actually saved me from getting over-committed and focused on things that would only be a distraction for our family and ministry. I can now echo with conviction the words of Paul in Romans 8:28 “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” All things even includes mental illness…and selfishness. Thank God that He is at work in both of our lives.