Thursday, January 22, 2009

In the Grip of Anxiety

I Corinthians 10:13
Bob Rakestraw

My warmest Minnesota greetings to each of you reading this today. I know how some of you are faring so far in 2009, but with most of you I don’t know. I truly wish you well in the ways that matter most. I do know that God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It’s a good thing, because we certainly do change, and so do our circumstances.

Five Days from the Pit

The first five days of 2009 have been, as far as I can recall, the most awful time of my life, health-wise. I have never known such anxiety. To back up a bit, my health began to take a further downward turn in the fall, leading to a bad month of December, and culminating in the frightening days of January 1-5. A combination of decreasing strength and increasing fear led to some truly awful episodes of anxiety. (I am using the words “anxiety” and “fear” as synonyms, although generally fear is understood as being tied to a realistic threat from one’s environment, whereas anxiety is not. I find both words necessary to convey my thoughts and emotions.)

Even though I have struggled with anxiety both before and after my heart transplant of 2003, I have lived most of my life with no major problems with it. I do confess that during our honeymoon, when I was 23, I had to have some serious talks with God about my fears concerning the financial challenges of the months and years ahead (after all, I had now “taken to myself a wife”). But I never knew how real and frightening serious anxiety could be until recent weeks.

What Was Going On?

It is hard, with words, to convey the terror of those days. (I say “those days” because, praise God, my last really bad day was January 5.) I’m not sure how to understand it all. But I began to experience terrible fear within me—gripping my chest and abdomen, but definitely centered in my thoughts: thoughts of great apprehension, fear, and fear of fear. The “episodes” basically involved my sitting or standing in a completely overwhelmed state, feeling as though I was not only losing control of a sound mind, but had actually lost it. I would cry, and say to Judy, “I can’t take this any more.” I wasn’t banging on anything, or shouting out loud (but I was shouting in my mind) and didn’t have any external symptoms except my frightened words and cries. Inside I was a wreck—crying to God for help but feeling under the grip of a terrifying force that seized me at the most vulnerable edge of my fears.

What fears did I have? In part, the accumulation of 25 years of heart problems, especially the past five since my heart transplant, with no medical hope of improvement—only a heart attack or attacks predicted to end it all quite soon—began to settle in me. But why now? I don’t know for sure, although I have some ideas.

I do know that the fear had a lot to do with the future—not the far-off future, not standing before the Lord at the end of my life, not even the rather unpleasant scenario I’ve been told to expect that will end my life, but the fear of the immediate day itself, or the portion of the day still before me. I became terribly anxious about how I would spend my time. What would I do all day long? With my lack of energy becoming more of a problem each day, I can do less and less.

I had been having trouble sleeping, and would wake as early as 2:00 a.m. To look forward to the long hours ahead would create such a sense of panic within me that I felt out of control. Each episode—lasting from 15 minutes to an hour or so—reinforced the apprehension about the next episode. I learned later that this was a classic pattern of fear-adrenaline-further apprehension-fear. Adrenaline was pumping furiously during this cycle, and the more I fought the fear, the more I became filled with fear.

What to Do?

During some long, cold, lonely nights and days I spent a lot of time reading the scriptures on anxiety, praying for some understanding of this “enemy” (or “thorn in the flesh”) that seemed to be lurking around each corner of the house (actually, lurking within my mind), waiting for the right moment to pounce. I said to Judy several times, “Something has to change. I don’t believe God wants me to go on like this.” I sensed strongly that something would soon change.

Finally, I did two things. One, which I had done several times before, was to follow James chapter five and call for the elders of the church to come to our home and pray for me. Another, which I had never done before, was to visit a mental health professional to discuss what was happening to me. Between the elders’ prayers, the doctor’s guidance and medications, a truly marvelous 40-year-old book the doctor recommended (Hope and Healing for Your Nerves, by Dr. Claire Weekes, Signet paperback), and the prayers of many others, I began to understand and conquer the awful, awful fear.

Is There a Purpose Here?

Why am I writing this piece? Purely out of desire to help someone. If there is one reader, or the friend or acquaintance of some reader, who is suffering from anxiety, or will at some time in the future, and will find help in this writing, I will be totally grateful. This is why I write. I hear accounts of how someone has forwarded an item from this blog to someone in need, and God has used it to strengthen that person, and I am filled with thanksgiving. This gives me a reason to live, which, as some of you know, I have struggled with significantly.

It is interesting to read my January, 2008, blog posting on—of all things—anxiety, and the relevance of Philippians 4:6-7. What I have experienced recently makes the personal testing part of last year’s writing seem mild by comparison. I know those experiences were not mild, but recent events have challenged me at a much deeper level—at the very core of my being.

I have not discussed a scripture text in this piece. This is very unusual for me. There are basically two reasons for this. First, I am still so overwhelmed by the Bible passage from December, 2008 (2 Corinthians 12:7-12), that it continues to be a powerful help in sustaining me now as it did during the recent very bleak days. Second, the scripture I want to comment on next will “fit” better after this piece and the next, so I will simply offer it to you now as a remarkable promise from God for 2009.

“No testing [or temptation] has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (I Corinthians 10:13, NRSV).


Anonymous said...

While we have been separated by many miles and far too few opportunities to visit over the years, I continue to cherish our friendship since the 1960’s.

It hurts me to know the suffering that you are experiencing, and I have shed tears for you on many occasions. Often, I simply reflect upon what it must be like, and feel such a sense of powerlessness to make things any easier for you.

My mom’s health is failing, and that compounds the feelings, I think. However, I have been able to see the indignity of poor health firsthand, including those anxieties you described.

These difficult things have registered in me in a surprising way. You see, I have been what one would call “tough minded,” especially in my younger Marine Corp days. After Prairie Bible Institute training when I joined, I was always pushing myself to achieve. Outwardly I was fairly understanding of the imperfections of others, but I was rarely forgiving of myself. I was harsh and judgmental, and did not realize its depth or destructiveness. I focused my frustrations at the divine plan that included misery, tragedy and injustice. Inside, this toxin was simmering. Of course, I thought that I was relying upon the Lord to be gentle and kind to others who have struggled in various ways in their life—but with age and maturity, I am discovering how precious “gentleness” and “loving kindness” actually is. I never realized how much of this fruit that I lacked.

With the recent loss of my father and brother, mom’s constant pain, and with yours, I am finding a better perspective than the Marine Corps approach of “bucking up, buckling down, and fighting back.” Discipline I need, yes. But what I long for at the deepest level is loving gentleness. The end of life issues are more than pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps and going out with a great testimony. The world’s approach offers little help with its harsh treatment of the body. I long to exhibit His gentle loving care towards those whose lot it is to have to deal with overwhelming anxiety, pain, and agony before their days on earth are done. I hope you can also be gentle with yourself in your trials, because God has been gentle with all of us over all our days. He is the Master Builder and is fashioning us for Him, as you well know.

Bob, my heart goes out to you--even more now, if that be possible—to you and Judy. I pray that God’s warming love will enrich your soul and give you strength in your anxieties, fears, and pains.

You and Judy are the most wonderful people I have ever known. How wonderful our Lord must be if He can fashion you two into such precious gifts as you are to me. When I think back on the times we had together at Prairie, I wish we could have spent more time having fun with you—like playing ping-pong, and joking. Life goes so fast, yet so slowly sometimes.

May His peace flourish in you both.
Roy Danielson

Anonymous said...

Thank you!

Bob, I first began the high privilege of knowing you by vicarious means– you were one of several alumni featured in a video presentation prepared especially for the 1992 homecoming celebrations at Prairie. Your testimony rang with authenticity and your words of encouragement were compelling.

Fast forward six years and Lois and I had the privilege of coming to know you face-to-face as you and Judy welcomed us into your home and introduced us to new friends as we joined hands with you at Bethel. Now, God’s work in and through your lives was no longer hearsay. It was first-hand. And, especially over these past six or seven years, I would find myself reflecting on the anxieties I would find myself entertaining on your behalf.

Often this would draw me to the Psalms, among other Scriptures–expressions of both praise and confidence as well as lament– as I reflected on what I thought you were experiencing, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, my own struggles in prayer on your behalf.

And then came the Benediction Project.

In one important respect, this current aspect of your life-work has seemed to me to be something of a 21st century psalter as I have been given an authentic voice to the faith-life under stress. And through the struggles, many of us have observed, with joy at times and significant unease at others, one of our contemporaries demonstrate what it might mean to be a person “after God’s own heart.”

May you experience in very practical and tangible ways God’s amazing grace and be overtaken by a palpable sense of His shalom.

I thank God for that – and you.

Paul Ferris

Anonymous said...

Hello Bob;

Thank you for your honesty and tenderness borne out of your pain, weakness, and intimacy with God.

You express well the complexity of your problems - emotional, physical, and spiritual; thank you, also, for being honest about there not being a quick-and-easy solution to your anxiety.

I've been reading a little book called 'The Hopeful Heart' by John R. Claypool, which addresses finding hope in the midst of our sufferings. Claypool describes times when God directly intervenes as we wait upon/hope in Him and we are able to 'mount up with wings as eagles'; other times God encourages us to collaborate with him on solutions and we 'shall walk and not be weary'; yet other times God chooses to give us the grace to 'walk and not faint' (Isaiah 40:31) in the midst of our sufferings.

Thank you for living out this verse in front of all of you use your very limited energy to share God's grace and kindness in the midst of your struggles with us.


Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Dear Roy,

Wow! So good to hear from you. All the way from the west coast. I miss you and think of you often.

I don't want you or anyone else to suffer because of me. I deeply appreciate your tears and concern. I don't want to liken myself to the apostle Paul, but I wonder if 2 Corinthians 1:6 and 4:12 apply here?

Something is going on, for sure, both in you and in me, and through you and through me.

I'm sorry that you have had to suffer as well. I still remember your dad, mom, and Joey, and know that you were close to them. May your mother find God's peace and rest even in the midst of serious suffering.

I often suffer because of others' sufferings, and the Lord has had to remind me numerous times that I do not need to -- and am not able to -- bear their sorrows. He is doing that for them. I do need to pray , however.

I'm glad to hear of God's working the fruit of the Spirit in you. I need much of that work myself, when I read and meditate in Galatians 5: 22-23.

Thank you for your very kind words about Judy and me. Judy finds my health issues difficult to bear at times, but overall she is remarkably at peace and resting in God's loving arms.

God's very best to you and Nancy and the children, always.

Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Dear Paul,

Thank you so much for your very gracious words. I miss you and the rest of the faculty, but I enjoy the touches that we have from time to time.Thank you for your prayers as well, and for the really good words reminding me of the different categories of psalms that pertain to my situation. I know you have made the psalms of lament a special lifetime interest, and I remember your preaching on one of them in the seminary chapel.

Having recently spent a serious year in the psalms (NRSV) I am so thankful for all the underlining, marking and coloring I did because certain themes and sections and verses leap out at me frequently when I open to that great book. I find much comfort there, as I know you do also.

Rich blessings to you and Lois and your dear ones. Judy and I praise God for your friendship.


Robert V. Rakestraw said...

Hi Jane,

What a great reminder of the deep truth in Isaiah 40:31. It has been a while since I have thought on that precious scripture, and I intend to do more with it in the days ahead, due to your gentle and timely reminder. I've not seen Claypool's book, but it sounds beneficial.

I trust that the book is helpful to you at this difficult time. May our Lord truly renew your strength as you need it for each day.