My name is Emily Brooks, and I have an anxiety disorder.
It began when I was nine years old and didn’t understand what was happening to my body and mind. It hit me like a sickness, and I thought it would go away like one. But it didn’t. I would recover for a little while, and then it would come back. But I didn’t think of it as a part of myself. It was just something that happened because I was afraid of specific things, like getting sick or leaving the house or talking in front of people.
But the more episodes I had, the more I began to expect it. It wasn’t going away. It was a part of me that I had to deal with. Eventually, I realized I had a disorder, and that it had a name. There was a medication for it. There were counselors for it.
There’s a hope that comes from knowing you’re not alone. What’s happening to you is normal and treatable. But there can also be despair. I had thoughts like, This is me, and, I will always be this way.
By the time I went to college, it was such a part of me that I allowed it to become part of my identity.
It’s still hard to not think of it that way, but I am challenging myself not to. Because I believe there is a subtle but very real danger in identifying with a mental disorder. Not because I think we should reject that part of ourselves and hide away from sharing it. And not because it is evil or bad of us to have fearful or sad thoughts.
I believe the danger in identifying with a mental disorder is that we can begin to embrace our thoughts as though they were not disordered–as thought they were a healthy, normal part of us that don’t need to be challenged.
It may seem strange to think that people with disordered thoughts would embrace those thoughts, but I know this happens because I have done it. I have had unhealthy thoughts and believed that I needed to have them. Anxiety and depression can easily be masked as “deepness” or “realism” or “preparedness” or “intelligence.” This is because the very word “disorder” implies that something that was once good has been twisted into something unhealthy. Fear and sadness in themselves are healthy emotions and thoughts. They become disordered when they become unhealthy, destructive, and debilitating. But if we stop recognizing the difference and identify with our unhealthy thoughts, then we are embracing a false reality as truth. We are putting lies on pedestals. We are telling ourselves that we don’t need to get better.
If I struggled with a chronic illness, I would not feel pain or sickness and think that it was good and that I didn’t want to get better. I would need to learn how to cope and find peace with it, but I wouldn’t ever be asked to embrace it as my identity.
There is a difference between having self-acceptance and grace for oneself and embracing one’s brokenness. I think now more than ever people are beginning to accept brokenness. In some ways, this is healthy. But at times this acceptance becomes a celebration. The individual finds their uniqueness in their brokenness and doesn’t want to let go of it, whether it is mental or spiritual.
I am not ashamed of my anxiety and depression. Shame can only be destructive. But I must not celebrate it, either. Healing only comes when we acknowledge that something must be healed. I must acknowledge when my fear and sadness is good, as well as when it is unhealthy because only then will I be willing to change. I must recognize when my own mind and body are lying to me so that I can seek the truth–and I must believe that there is truth despite how I feel.
Jesus healed many people while He was here to show us what wholeness looked like–what eternal life looked like. In John 5, he approaches a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years. Anyone would imagine that this man has wanted to be healed for all of that time, and so it is surprising when Jesus asks him:
“Do you want to be healed?”
We can’t know why Jesus asked this, but I like to think about what might have been going through the man’s mind.
Thirty-eight years is a long time to deal with any struggle. Long enough, maybe, to get comfortable in it. To wait by a pool waiting to be healed but never really approaching the waters, fearful of what would have to change if you did. You would no longer be the invalid beggar. You would have to stand up and enter society and become a new man.
Do I want to be healed?
If Jesus asked me, what would go through my mind?
“Yes! Of course! Take this anxiety away!”
But then, if he did that, I would have to be brave. I would have to stand up. I would have no excuses. No more identity to cling to. Old habits would have to die. Part of myself would have to die.
But yes, Lord. I want to be healed, and that desire points me to the kingdom. In the words of Andrew Peterson, “This heartache is moving me closer than joy ever could.”
Though I know that true wholeness and healing won’t come until I enter the kingdom, I also know that my identity is already embraced by a God who sees me whole. I hope to embrace that identity, too.
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