Hi and welcome back! As I showed you last time, Christianity brought me anything but peace. Today, I’ll show you where I actually found peace–with no thanks to false beliefs like Christianity.
1995: An ER Visit.
One night many months after fleeing Biff, I awoke in my bed in Vancouver. A sharp pain ran up and down one of my arms. Dread overtook me; my lips tingled; sweat broke out all over my body.
I thought for sure I was having a heart attack. Sure, I’d experienced these symptoms before, minus the shooting pains, but this time it felt different–and serious.
I awoke my new boyfriend. To his credit, he reacted with alarm. He got ready to drive while I called the after hours phone number of a clinic down the road. The nurse there paged a doctor, who called me immediately. He really wanted me to see someone now if I could. Together, my boyfriend and I hustled down to the emergency room at the nearest hospital. I wasn’t insured, but no way was I taking a chance like that. At the time, I’d just lost a close relative who hadn’t taken a stroke seriously enough.
On the way, my arm stopped hurting, but we decided to continue onward just in case. When we got to the tired-looking intake nurse, my lips stopped tingling. Besides being scared out of my wits and quite tired myself, I felt fairly normal again. But I still saw someone to be sure.
A Diagnosis To Remember.
The situation turned out to be a panic attack. They do seem a lot like heart attacks, to people who don’t know what heart attacks are like. (See endnote for an important note.) That said, I only had the vaguest idea what panic attacks even were.
On the one hand, this was the best news I could have hoped for: YAY, NO HEART ATTACK!
But on the other, “Wait, that was all in my head?”
Those pains and tingles hadn’t felt imaginary, which is what I thought panic attack meant. I’d literally always been a stress puppy–one of those people always on a wire’s edge, it felt like. But my circumstances were now way less stressful than they’d ever been while I was Christian. I didn’t understand why the panic attacks were only getting worse.
The next day, I went to that clinic, where I met a doctor who changed my entire life. He checked me out thoroughly. Then, he sat back in his chair and began talking to me about what he thought the ER visit had been about.
That’s the day I found out that I’d been suffering from anxiety attacks and panic attacks for years–and Christianity had only made the problem worse.
Beginning the Climb.
Later, that doctor gave me some cassette tapes. These contained a series of relaxation exercises. He thought that if I followed these tapes, they might help a lot with my anxiety.
When I asked (probably sharply) if these were religious, he just laughed and said he understood completely why I’d ask that, given the history I’d shared (“Um, so I used to be in a cult”), but no, these were just general relaxation exercises.
To say they helped would be like saying that the summer sun at noon is just a wee little bit bright. I followed along with them faithfully every single day. And slowly, very slowly, I began to feel tension leaving my body.
I’d never learned any way to manage stress. In public school and college, none of my teachers discussed any of that stuff. And in Christianity, the literal only way available to Christians to manage stress was to pray and ask Jesus to help with it.
Learning to Breathe.
The slow breathing exercises I learned began to help–slowly but surely. That doctor taught me to take my own pulse, too, which weirdly helped as well. (He told me that if I ever really had a heart attack, it’d feel drastically wrong. Now I wonder if he taught me that because in the case of an actual heart attack, I wouldn’t be able to take my pulse at all. Eh, toMAYto, toMAH-to. It helped.)
I still was quite a “flutterbudget,” as my dad had called me as a kid. I still had panic attacks, but now I knew what they were and could kinda work around them somewhat. And I knew that this was fixable. These episodes had a name, and they had a solution of some kind. If I just kept moving forward, I’d find it.
I’d never had any such assurance as a Christian.
And that’s probably because there is no such assurance available when the solution set consists of casting magic spells at the ceiling.
Beginning My Therapy Years.
Some time later I moved to Kansas, which I found calming and easygoing after some very hectic years. I began learning about Zen Buddhism, and found it helped a lot to center me emotionally and calm me down. That mindfulness stuff helped so much. In Kansas, I felt like I was finally beginning to live again.
Maybe that’s why my anxieties returned with a vengeance.
One night, I hit my lowest point. In the middle of that panic attack, I did not reach out to Jesus. Nope! I’d spent years as a Christian and knew that wouldn’t help.
Instead, I called that county’s only 24-hour crisis hotline. Technically, it was a domestic-abuse hotline, but the guy who answered was very helpful all the same. After establishing that nobody was abusing me, he gave me some phone numbers and talked me down through the panic attack.
It went a lot like this classic SNL sketch at 2:00. (Sorta-SFW.) May all the kittens in the world whisker-kiss and give tiny little stinky kitten lickies forever to those hotline workers.
The next day, I checked myself into a psychiatric hospital.
I don’t think much of the psychiatrists that place had on staff. They kept trying to tell me I was depressed. I went along with it eventually because I didn’t want to seem uncooperative, but it never made sense. However, they did stabilize me at least and got me on the road to learning to manage what I soon learned was a downright volcanic problem with anger.
Those docs also put me on a mild medication, an SSRI, to even out my moods while I worked on learning all new ways to deal with stress and annoyances.
Finally, Finding the Real Problem.
A year or so later, shortly after moving to Atlanta, I began calling psychiatric clinics and hospitals to find out who’d see me on a sliding scale. I’d just begun work, but wasn’t yet insured–and those precious SSRI pills were running out. I found one who’d see me for what I could afford (read: for almost free (also read: for 10¢ a visit and free meds)).
That’s when I found out I actually had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This disorder accounted for all of the symptoms I’d experienced. In fact, I was as close to being a textbook case of PTSD as that psychiatrist had ever seen.
I looked at the checklist in the book my doctor held open. Suddenly, my whole world flipped to full-color from black-and-white. It’s like putting on the first pair of glasses I ever got as a kid, when I realized that the world was actually sharp and clear and lusciously detailed instead of vague and fuzzy.
Everything finally made sense.
Yes, this was why I had such a short fuse. It was why I couldn’t handle chaos and unpredictable flailing-about, even why loud sharp noises startled and upset me.
My life’s greatest struggle, summarized by bullet points in a psychiatric text. Go figure.
Depression had made no sense at all. By contrast, PTSD made all the sense in the world. And amazingly, PTSD had some established therapy courses available. People knew what it was, and they’d begun learning how to address it.
Now I had a name for what was wrong. And now I had a clear path ahead of me, though one requiring a great deal of effort to travel.
As of today, I’m about 15 or 20 years out from my last panic attack. Sure, I still have to keep an eye on PTSD. That doc told me that this disorder permanently altered my brain chemistry. Self-care won’t ever be something I can simply ignore.
Long ago, I’d picked up some really maladaptive ways of coping with extreme amounts of stress and feelings of helplessness. I’d done the best I could. Those coping mechanisms had kept me whole for a long time, but now I needed to learn new ways because those old ways had begun to hurt me more than they could help.
So yeah. That’s when things really got better for me.
Jesus: 0. Reality-Land: ∞.
It sure took a while, but I finally found the peace I’d always sought–by ironing out the anxiety disorder that’d plagued me for most of my life.
And I found that peace for myself and in myself. Nobody could have handed it to me; I had to do the work myself.
Coincidentally, that’s the same way I found my life’s purpose, my sense of meaning, and my happiness–which were all also things Christianity had falsely promised me.
It turns out that literally all of the things I was hoping my imaginary friend would just give me was all stuff I needed to get for myself from myself. And once I’d gotten them, I realized how much more meaningful they all were than something handed to me from someone else–especially when that other person didn’t really exist.
All Hat, No Cattle.
When I talk about Jesus not changing people, especially with big problems like addiction, mental illness, anger management and all that sorta thing, I’m not talking out of my rump. I know what kind of work is needed to fix those problems. Not only that, but I’ve done that work. It’s hard. That’s probably why Christians look to quick magical fixes for those kinds of problems.
Christianity is completely inadequate as a fix for big problems. Without a real live god at the center of it and doing stuff for adherents, Christians’ solutions for life depend on the social systems created by their leaders. And there, too, Christianity completely fails, even the nicer flavors. It’s not set up to address serious problems like the one I had, but wow, the folks trying so hard to recruit members for this religion would absolutely love for their marks to think it’ll do the trick!
That’s where we’re heading next. The marketing hype around so many of Christianity’s promises is simply false. It doesn’t deliver. It’s not true. But that hype really appeals to a lot of people, so don’t expect hucksters to get an attack of the consciences anytime soon.
NEXT UP: LSP on Monday! Then, how the marketing hype around peace dehumanizes Christians’ enemies–and keeps the flocks dancing on the wire. At some point we have a Super Special coming, too. Busy busy! See you soon!
About heart attacks: Don’t take chances. It’s okay to see a doctor if you think you’re having a heart attack. Better safe than sorry! Also, bear in mind that many women don’t experience the typical popular picture of heart attacks. For them, it can often feel like the worst case of acid reflux or indigestion ever. In short, if you’re worried you’re having (or have had) any sort of serious health crisis, don’t feel ashamed of seeing a doctor immediately. A doctor would rather tell you it was a panic attack than not see you and it turn out to be something really bad. (Back to the post!)
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