Anxiety, Fertilizer and the Promised Land


I don’t know what anxiety feels like for anyone else, but for me it feels like a fist reaching in to grab and twist my stomach. It is pain and fear and worry and regret. It is a loud voice of accusation that sends me scurrying for cover, and running back over the past few days trying to figure out what I’ve done wrong, which sin I have committed. It is utterly without logic and completely terrifying.

Anxiety is the voice that invents arguments and manufactures hurt. It tries to convince me people are mad at me when they are not. Anxiety is the voice that tells me that it is always my fault, my mistake, my burden. It tells me my life is a ruin that I tore down with own hands.

It causes me to hold on to the feelings I felt at the worst times of my life so, not only can I see the remembered thing and hear it, I gag as I feel the icy fingers of terror reaching down my throat. My anxiety takes a simple question, extrapolates the worst possible answer and then immediately shows me exactly how devastated I would feel if the worst possible thing happened.

It is a perpetual disaster drill for an Armageddon that is not coming. It is a physical battle that manifests first in my stomach, then in raised hairs on the backs of my arms and a bone-deep cold across my shoulders and down my back. It writes my life as a foot race and tells me I am so far behind there’s no hope I’ll ever catch up. On the worst days my anxiety blocks out the sun and shouts the worst lie of all: You are alone. You are completely alone and no one has ever loved you.

When the skies clear, when I am back in my right mind and able to look around, I know for a fact that not only am I not alone now, today, I have never been alone. I have never been untethered or left to my own devices. I have never been cast out or abandoned. On the good days I can see that my life is far from a dystopian fantasy and I have resources and choices. On the clear days I can see that I am not backed into a corner.

I had a lot of runs of bad days in the years when I was working freelance. There were so many days when I was sure I was drowning and I could not find the ground beneath my feet. Looking back, I can see that the actual dangers were pretty small. I had work. My bills got paid. My skills grew and I learned a lot about the type of work I wanted to do and the environments where I flourished. In hindsight, I can see the doors that opened and the roads I would not have been able to take if I’d been working traditional office hours. But in the thick of things, it was harder than I was willing to admit. Even to myself.

Now I’m in a new chapter. While my days look nothing like they ever have before, the work is full time and scheduled and there is a rhythm to it that I find very comforting. My work life is really good, which makes a lot of other things much easier, so I was quite shocked to find myself in another run of dark days not too long ago.

There was a situation I was dealing with and I could not see a way out. My first instinct was to hibernate, turn away and close my eyes and pretend the situation would just magically resolve itself. That only made things worse. When I finally got up the nerve to look the issue in the face, at first that wasn’t better either. I could see the depth and breadth of the issue and it was … a lot.

Right around that time I was listening to a podcast where Jonathan Van Ness, of Queer Eye fame, was interviewing one of his co-hosts, Karamo Brown. They were talking about life and choices and unexpected pathways and Karamo said the advice his grandmother gave him was this: Sh*t makes great fertilizer. It was an encouragement to see hard times as change-makers. My first thought was, “Well, sure. Great advice if you look like Karamo Brown and have a hit TV show on your hands.” But I couldn’t get his words out of my head. Could the issue I was facing be a good change masked as a problem?

A few days later I was driving to work, and a thought popped into my head. “Do you really think God brought you this far just to abandon you at the gates of the Promised Land?”

I didn’t.

I sincerely believe that God is at work in my life, in good times and in … fertilizer times. I changed what I was praying for going from “God, fix it” to “God, show me the way.” I started to find the hope I needed—to see that I was not powerless in the situation I was facing. I had choices. The situation was not impossible but it was also not going to solve itself. Sh*t is only fertilizer for a thing that is trying to grow. For everything else it’s just poop. I took action and while I can’t say that the situation is completely resolved, I can say that I am on the path to resolving it. I might be in the Promised Land after all.

I am learning to recognize what the voice of anxiety sounds like in my head. I do simple things, like whispering to myself, “You’re feeling anxious. I know it feels like you’re drowning, but there’s air. Take a breath. See?”

Deep breaths, it turns out, are not just for yoga. Sometimes just the act of naming anxiety for what it is helps to pull me out of the spiral. Other times it takes longer, but if I get myself into a safe place and breathe carefully I can usually keep from slipping all the way under. Anxiety, for me, is like my migraines that way. It is much easier to deal with if I take action right away and don’t let it develop into a full-blown attack.

I’m writing this down, mostly for myself, as a reminder for the next time anxiety brings me into dark days. (And that next time is coming. It’s never too far away.) When I’m in the dark, everything is a source of terror so I need a written reminder that God has not brought me this far just to slay me at the gates. There are almost always choices. There is always love. And there is hope even on the days when it seems like the world is on fire and nothing will ever be right again. Sometimes it’s a small hope—an ember, not a flame—but it’s there, even when I cannot see it.