I’ll never forget my first panic attack.
We’d decided to explore Red Rock Canyon while we were on vacation in Las Vegas. Spencer wanted to go bouldering, and while a bit nervous, I thought it sounded adventurous. What could go wrong?
Well it went wrong almost immediately. We climbed up a rock to take a picture, and the sky started to move sideways. Growing up, I had a reasonable fear of heights, but I’d never felt dizzy only six feet off the ground. I sucked it up to take the picture, but scrambled down quickly.
It got worse from there.
Jumping two feet from rock to rock felt terrifying. My heart was pounding as we climbed down stones, my shoes skidding on pebbles. We weren’t necessarily being “dangerous” by any means. We weren’t climbing boulders bigger than what you might climb in a large river or on a hike. But I was deeply afraid.
The worst scenario came when we were climbing down into a gorge. The rock ledge was wide enough for half of each foot, but the rock jutted out so that you were leaning back over that ledge. I started to shimmy sideways when my entire mind went blank. I froze. Before, I had rationalized the fear, but standing on that ledge, my mind skipped thoughts, jumbling my mind so nothing was coherent. The only thing that I knew was that I was going to fall and crack open my head at the bottom.
Spencer noticed something was wrong. As he came back toward me, I started to ball. I was frozen. My mind was black. I simply could not move.
It took everything in me to make it down that rock. Eventually, I crawled onto my hands and knees to get down. I told him I was finished – that I needed to leave. I couldn’t keep bottling up the fear. The bottle had cracked.
We climbed up the hill to go back to the car, and I started losing my breath. It was a steep climb, and I wasn’t really in the best shape, but it felt worse than that. My brain raced, trying to assure me that I was almost at the car, that I was almost safe.
The moment I hit the front seat, I started hyperventilating.
I cried and cried and cried and tried to breathe. Spencer just stared at me in shock. He certainly had no idea that I had been that afraid – and really, neither had I. I tried to calm myself down, tried to slow my breath, but it took me about ten minutes before I settled down.
I swore I would never go bouldering again.
Living with Anxiety
“Stressed out” is a normal setting for me. I tend to err on the side of negative, and I can take things too seriously. While I’ve had similar feelings during stressful seasons of school life, I never let it get as far as a panic attack. I had enough of a positive attitude to get myself under control.
My fear at Red Rock Canyon wasn’t necessarily irrational. But after that instance, the anxiety didn’t stop. I haven’t had a panic attack since then, but I have started to isolate myself from activities that make me feel overwhelmed… activities that I used to handle in my daily life with a lot more strength.
So, let me tell you what anxiety feels like for me nowadays. Picture this.
You can see the big beautiful spaces inside of yourself; all the wonderful things you dream, the things you plan to do, the mission only you can accomplish. There are flower crowns, tropical rainbows, hiking trails, tidal pools, and wild horses. There are plays, paintings, poems, maps of the world, and puppies. It’s all the things that inspire you, that make you feel alive.
And now imagine a giant chasm dividing you and those wonderful things. It’s enormous, endlessly deep, and terrifying. The only way to get across is a slippery tight rope that may or may not be secure.
Maybe, you tough it out once or twice and get across by the skin of your teeth. But the chasm follows you each time you do something, the tight rope never getting any safer or easier. Every time is like the first time crossing.
You’re forced to ask yourself: will I fall? Will I actually make it across the chasm again? You’re exhausted by every attempt, and sometimes you just decide that enough is enough. You can’t keep crossing the tight rope. It’s not worth the fear of death.
I think everyone has to cross chasms in their life. It’s called going out of your comfort zone, and that’s where the best things in life are. But people unfamiliar with anxiety only cross on tight ropes the first time. They get better and better at crossing each time.
But for people like me, it doesn’t seem to get better. A lot of things require you to cross on the tight rope. And constantly facing that kind of mental battle wears you down.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have clinical anxiety, nor do I experience it as intensely as others do. But I can feel it creeping into my life more and more, and I resent it. I used to feel so vibrant, you know? I used to cross tight ropes and learn from them, crossing again and again until I could build bridges. But not lately. Now it feels like little is worth crossing for.
But I’m going to turn tight ropes into bridges again. I’m not sure how it will work, but I know I’ll need a Carpenter and a Cross to make it through. It’s going to be dangerous, terrifying, and tiring – but I won’t be alone.
And you’re not alone either. No matter how you experience anxiety, you are not alone. It doesn’t matter if you need medication, or can self-help yourself to victory. There are people there for you. God is there for you. I encourage you to look through scripture, find your tight rope guide, and cross your chasms.
Because even if you feel like the tight ropes never get easier, you are getting better. It’s okay if victory is just making it to the end of the day.
But that’s still a victory. That’s still walking the tight rope.
If you’re struggling with crippling anxiety, please don’t be afraid to seek a professional. It’s not shameful or wrong to seek out medicinal or clinical help. Give yourself permission to take care of your mental health.
How else do you handle anxiety? What gets you across your tight ropes every day? What promises or scriptures do you claim?