A few weeks after my seminary graduation, I spent a day at Mackinac Island with a friend, and we had a perfect day. As it turned out, that was my last good day of the summer. My body started to react to the grueling schedule and the stress I was feeling. In hindsight, it had been warning me for months—but even if I had realized what was happening, I don’t know what I could have done to prevent it. I needed my diploma, my paychecks, and a place to sleep. I did what I knew to do to alleviate stress. I journaled and prayed about my fears, and I talked to friends. I kept up my walking routine, and I went to bed early when I could.
I started having dizzy spells, even nausea. I was achy and ran a low fever off and on for several weeks. The doctor said it was probably a virus, but just to be sure, he sent me to a neurologist, who concluded my issues were probably inner-ear related. I missed a couple days of work and cut other days short. I felt like I was spiraling out of control; my inner turmoil matched the scatteredness of my surroundings.
On a Saturday morning in early July, I was feeling fidgety, and my stomach was churning. I hoped an errand to the grocery store would mix things up enough to calm my nerves. I picked up a few items, checked out, and then got in line to buy stamps at the postal counter. It was a slow-moving line, and as I stood there, adrenaline started to surge. Suddenly I was intensely hot and needed fresh air. My eyes started swimming, and fearing I’d faint, I bolted to a nearby bench and put my head between my knees. An elderly lady was also sitting on the bench. I told her I wasn’t feeling well and needed to rest there for a few minutes. She smiled sympathetically and kept me company while I gathered the courage to drive the four miles back home.
Then I called my friend Cora who had graduated with a counseling degree and had also experienced her own mental health crisis. I needed someone who knew me to explain what was happening, to help me understand the darkness that descended around me. She came after lunch, and we talked for most of the afternoon. I told her I was frustrated that I had tried to do all the right things to manage my stress and yet had so obviously failed. I was going the only way I could see to go, pursuing God’s plan carefully and wisely—and yet, here I was, coming unglued, my mind and emotions feeling as out of control as my life circumstances. Why, when I was doing my best to follow the path God had put before me, would he let this happen? I felt like he had let me down.
I was frustrated, but even more, I was afraid. Something in me had broken. I had broken. The person I’d always known had quit on me; my mind and body turned against me. My stomach was a twisted mass of dread. I struggled to eat anything—every bite like a cotton wad in my mouth.
That first night my friend stayed with me. She slept on the living room couch, while I tried to shut out the world in my bedroom. I turned my back to the door, curled around my oversized Winnie the Pooh and finally fell asleep.
Dappled sunlight was streaming through the window when I awoke. My stomach was already—or still—in knots. I dreaded what the day might bring, what dark emotions might overwhelm me. Cora got ready for church, prayed with me before she left, and said she’d call later.
I spent the morning praying and journaling. The “what if” scenarios swirled around me. What if I couldn’t pull it together? What if I had to cancel all my plans for the fall—and beyond? What if I moved to Madison and then couldn’t hack the PhD program? What if I couldn’t earn enough money to support myself? What if I ended up moving back home with my parents? What if I just plain lost my mind?
I was thirty-five, and my life had just careened off the mountain road at full speed. I felt like I was sailing over the abyss of a dark canyon. I could not see my way to survival: I was single and living on my own, and I was heading into a future that terrified me. As if that weren’t enough, my ability to manage enormous amounts of responsibility had just disintegrated.