It was midday Sunday, and I was having one of the most relaxing days I’d had in months. I went to church, pampered myself by getting my nails done, and decided to pick up some last minute groceries. But something was off. My palms were sweating. My heart was racing, and my breathing labored as if someone was sitting on my chest. Then, suddenly, I felt dizzy and confused.
Thinking I might faint, I left my shopping cart in the middle of the store and raced to my car. In what seemed like just a few seconds, I was at a stoplight. Then, another stoplight. “How did I get here?” I thought. Then, I was several miles away with no recollection of the journey. I made it to another stoplight before pulling up right next to an ambulance. With my eyes transfixed on the EMT, I stumbled out of the car and admitted, “I don’t know how I got here.”
This was my first panic attack.
For the next 48 hours, I was hooked up to machines, monitored, tested, and my heart rate skyrocketing to 200 beats per minute. However, the doctor discharged me saying that I was fine. Except, I was not fine.
From the outside, I had it all together. I was a great student, role model, and I was going to be a doctor soon. But on the inside, I felt like I was living a lie. There were so many secrets I assumed I had to keep to myself to maintain the deception. I was afraid that I wouldn’t live up to everyone else’s expectations. I felt that I had chosen the wrong path in choosing to become a doctor. I was hurting from my recent abortion and breakup and had jumped into another destructive relationship. I was broken. But, I smiled and pushed my way through it under the pretense that I could handle it alone.
Meanwhile, the panic attacks and anxiety ramped up significantly as I went from doctor to doctor trying to figure out why every moment felt like death. I was on the verge of dropping out of school, and I spent most of my days thinking I was just plain crazy. Up until this point, no one associated my symptoms to a mental health condition.
So, I did what any good Christian would do. I prayed and cried through it. Most of my prayers were just one word: “Jesus.” In all that was happening, that’s all I could muster up.
To this day, I wonder what would have happened if I had gotten a proper diagnosis and the counsel of a great therapist? Maybe medication?
In some churches, there seems to be a lot of stigma around therapy and medication for mental health conditions. But we wouldn’t tell people with diabetes or heart failure to ‘just pray’ for healing and dismiss their need for medical care and possibly medication. So why do we treat those with mental health issues in that way? The brain is an organ, just like the liver, eyes, or kidneys. Sometimes the answer to our prayer is a therapy session that allows us to gain needed perspective. Also, medication may help someone get a good night’s sleep and function normally.
Though my story is personal, these experiences are not unique to me. Millions of people in the world, in the United States, experience some form of mental health condition at some point in their lives. In fact, over 16% of African Americans have a diagnosable mental health condition, but only a third of us actually receive care.
I do believe that my one-word prayers were necessary. However, in my journey to healing I’ve discovered that answers to prayer are usually an awakening to what we already possess or have access to. I have friends and community in my corner who are present and supportive. I have an awareness of triggers and life situations that may precipitate a return of anxiety symptoms. I have the ability to seek therapy when needed. And, yes, I have the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide my thoughts, and even pray for me when I don’t have the words (Romans 8:26).