“Finding Who We Are” Entry #18: Drowning in an Unknown Anxiety Disorder

I believe that this is the longest period of time that I have gone without posting in almost a year. My friends, I am not doing well, if I can be honest with you. I’m definitely needing your prayers in these moments. I plan to address this issue tomorrow evening.

Today, though, even if it is a day late, I’m blessed to have an opportunity to share a great friend’s story. Logan and I have put up with each other for three years now, and have grown into the men that we are together. Every ounce of his story bleeds honesty and transparency.

You may have never heard of his anxiety disorder, but it is incredibly enlightening in its presentation. We hope that you are encouraged by his story!

I had everything going for me as a child. I had good friends, quality education, great parents, a loving church family, and a passion for living life. I was a naturally upbeat and vivacious kid. I was the one who wanted to stay out later than my other friends, keep swimming in the pool, venture ever deeper into the forest behind our neighborhood, and generally enjoy life.

By age eleven, I had dreams of doing something significant in life. Even at an early age, I had an unusually strong sense of my faith in God and a desire to act upon it. My dream was to lead a group of my peers in doing ministry in my community, and I actively tried to make this dream a reality. I had a bit of trouble finding this group of peers, as I was both homeschooled and an only child! Nevertheless, my dream persisted, as did my passionate desire to be involved in something of significance. I vividly remember walking out into the woods one day and praying for hours (as an elven year old) that God would use me. I didn’t know the path forward, but I was confident that God was about to do something in my life to propel me towards my aspirations.

Then it happened.

Not long after this time of ardent prayer in the woods, I began to feel heavy guilt for certain things that I had been doing in life. As you could guess, there’s only so much trouble a home schooled eleven year old can get into—we’re not talking about grand theft auto or homicide here. Nonetheless, the guilt was unbearable, and I confessed everything wrong I had ever done to my mom one morning in the living room.

I was embarrassed and ashamed about the things I had confessed, and I remember that I couldn’t stop crying. This anxiety driven confession persisted until Dad got home, and then throughout the evening. By that night, my parents were already telling me that I shouldn’t worry about telling them everything and that my sin was ultimately between me and God. They were right, and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop. My chronic anxiety over my sin persisted all through the next day, and the next week, and the next month.

It lasted for ten years.

As an eleven year old, I used to look forward to time with the Bible and in prayer; now I absolutely dreaded it. Reading the Bible and attempting to pray felt like opening myself up to a tidal wave of guilt and anxiety. Even when I wasn’t engaged in spiritual exercises, I found that I could not escape the anxiety. I was horrified by the perceived need to confess every single infraction to God, my parents, or some other authority. My spiritual life, once my greatest source of satisfaction, had become a living hell literally overnight.

It began to ruin my life. I was always thinking about this new “spiritual problem” that I had. I could not have been more ill at ease if I was living in the middle of a minefield. Every conversation, every school assignment, every friendly interaction, every thought, was a terrifying opportunity to sin.

I was miserable. It was not unusual for me to ask God to forgive me for meaningless, often involuntary actions and thoughts up to one hundred times a day. I began losing sleep. I started falling behind in school. I remember weeping when I turned twelve because all I could think about was my fear. My quiet times lasted for hours and felt like sheer torture the entire time I was completing them. One misstep in the process, and I would have to ask God to forgive me.

Let me give you an example of how these thought patterns would develop within my mind. Let’s say that I prayed and gave thanks for my dinner before I ate it. Immediately after the prayer, I realized that I had been a little distracted, and had said the prayer somewhat habitually. So I might pray again and again until I felt like I had really prayed. After this, I felt guilty because I knew it was ridiculous to pray that many times, and therefore I had sinned by showing a lack of faith. So I prayed that God will forgive me of that. I would try to do all of this and look normal at the dinner table, not letting on to my inner struggle.

But was this lying? That question would haunt me until after the whole meal was over. I might seem distracted and so my parents would ask where my head was at. I would say I was just having some anxieties, but then issue them an apology for not being more present at the table. By now I felt sick and didn’t finish my meal. I would throw half of my food away, and then immediately realized that perhaps I had committed a sin of wastefulness. I would ask God to forgive me for the entire incident and try to start over, but then I couldn’t decide whether or not it was even o.k. to make such a request to God.

The cycle never ended. There were almost never any breaks. All I looked forward to was sleep, but I knew that when I awoke I would be picking up where I left off.

My parents tried to help. They had no clue what was happening to me and it scared them to death. My mom would spend hours, almost daily trying to talk me through my despair. Mom and Dad showed me innumerable Bible passages, prayed and fasted for me, and arranged meetings between me and different pastors. These pastors, in turn, tried to do what they could.

I was reminded more times than I could count about my identity in Christ, that I was forgiven, that God loved me and that my worry was not necessary. It didn’t help.  I was beginning to come to the hopeless and draining realization that no matter what I knew was right or wrong, it wasn’t going to help. I suspected that there might be a mental health situation occurring with me, but I was assured repeatedly by people that I trusted that I was not sick, and that I simply had a faith problem.  

I saw my mom losing hope, and for the first time in my life I saw my dad without answers. I was breaking their hearts. The thought of suicide had passed through my mind more than once, and I knew that death would be more bearable than what I was currently experiencing. Ultimately, however, I had neither the desire nor the courage to take my life, and I thank God that this was the case.

I knew I couldn’t continue. One morning, about 9 months after the beginning of this nightmare, I sat down in my room to begin my dreaded quiet time. I unfolded my worn out prayer list and surveyed all of the items it contained. I knew that, finally, I didn’t have the strength to make it through today. It was over. With tears streaming down my face I told God I was sorry, but I just couldn’t do this anymore. I put the prayer list down, dried my eyes, and began my life without God.

This phase lasted me until the end of eight grade. I then mounted my attempt to live the Christian life again. The previous hell ensued, and I made it almost to tenth grade. I felt I had to give up again, and lived without a personal Christian walk until almost my senior year.

Throughout each of these long periods in which I no longer felt as if I was able to live a life of faith, I dug myself further and further into trouble. It then became increasingly difficult to overcome these issues when I did inevitably attempt to rejoin my Christian walk.

I lost friends, opportunities, and had my heart broken by dead end relationships more than once. I sought to fill the void in my spirit with anything I could find—accomplishments, friends, girls, and generally constant activity.

During my senior year, I tried earnestly to walk in faith without my anxieties. In my spirit, I still felt like the same scared, bewildered eleven year old kid; except now it was time to apply for college.

I ended up at Piedmont International University mostly because I was afraid to go anywhere else at the time. I was afraid that I could not properly hear God, and would miss His will. It was at Piedmont, however, where I finally received answers. My relationship with my new girlfriend Heather Thompson (now my fiancé) had gotten off to a rocky start due to issues largely stemming from my spiritual anxiety.

In a phone conversation with my mom, I communicated that I was at my end, and that simply didn’t feel like I could carry on. At this pivotal moment, we had a breakthrough. For the first time, my mom began to research my anxieties from a mental health perspective, and within hours she believed she had identified my anxiety disorder.

She was right. And it was an anxiety disorder, not a lack of faith.

When I began reading on what I soon identified as my disorder, I felt as if I had been hit by a train. I have an uncommon form of OCD that acutely affects religious and moral functioning called Scrupulosity. If you have heard of someone with OCD who obsessively washes their hands and is terrified of germs I essentially have the religious form of that.

The realization that I was not crazy, was not overly sinful or faithless, and in fact had a condition in a common family of mental health issues, was incredibly empowering. It hasn’t always been easy, but I am glad to say that today I am hardly effected by this condition on a day to day basis.

The most powerful tool I was even given in my struggle against anxiety was knowledge. The sheer realization that what I was fighting was not actually a spiritual issue transformed my life. I have been able to identify some other ways in which OCD uniquely effects my life, some negative, but some good; in a real sense, I am thankful for them all.

I have never shared this story publicly before, but I am doing so for the following reasons:

  1. Because my fabulous friend Matt asked me to
  2. Because if it is true that mental health is stigmatized outside the church, it certainly is within the church. Well-meaning pastors and Christian leaders often disseminate views about mental health that they truly know nothing about. I know what it is like to come from a church background in which the things that you are feeling are stigmatized and oversimplified, and the consequences are tragic.  
  3. Because not everything that would be categorized as a mental health issue has to be labeled as an out and out disability. Now that I know how my brain works and what on earth is going on, there are certain aspects of my OCD that I consider strengths, and honestly would not want to do without.
  4. Lastly, because such challenges may be gifts from God. I have been blessed to lead my peers here at Piedmont for two years now in ministry in the community—the very opportunity that I asked God for in the woods all those years ago. Nothing is an accident. We may never know how the events of the last ten years prepared me for where I am today. I never thought I was getting what I prayed for; but maybe I was.

I would love to meet you and hear your story. Feel free to comment down below! Subscribe at the top of the page if you loved what you read.

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You are valued.

8 Replies to ““Finding Who We Are” Entry #18: Drowning in an Unknown Anxiety Disorder”

  1. What a beautiful story. I suspected there might be an OCD in there, but I have never heard of this particular variety. I believe God never gives us more then we can handle (at least I try to believe it) and I certainly think that you have been given a unique perspective to mentor others with. Thank you for sharing.

    Matthew, I hope that things get better for you very very soon. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is so amazing. I can’t believe more people have not read and commented. How beautifully you expressed this time. I myself am very young in my faith. Just 6 years ago I was baptized in Lake Michigan. My sins were so big. Someone recently told me I should be in prison or worse. But I have confessed. Once was enough. I only account for being terribly human these days. God bless you.

    Liked by 1 person

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