It’s hard to believe that we are heading towards two months of lockdown restrictions in the UK and, certainly for those of us living in England, the way out still looks confusing at best. For many, this period of enforced isolation has caused feelings of panic, stress and anxiety, whilst for others, it has exacerbated the anxiety they live with every day.
I have written previously about my own experiences of having, and learning to live with, depression, but only recently did I ‘discover’ that I also have anxiety issues. ‘How do you discover something you live with?’, you may ask. Well, for many years, I have made the (erroneous) assumption that it is perfectly normal to wake up every morning with feelings of dread about the day ahead - even when it doesn’t involve doing anything particularly stressful. I thought everyone had to cope with feelings of being completely overwhelmed when confronted with deadlines and that business meetings caused such exhaustion that you had to take to your bed for the rest of the day. Apparently not, it would seem!
This ‘discovery’ happened just a little while before lockdown began, and had forced me to begin to reassess how I lived my life. Medication has helped to deal with some of the symptoms, but, as with most mental health issues, it also helps to restructure the pattern of your life so as to minimise some of the worst trigger factors. In this regard, lockdown has been a bit of a gift, as the pace of life has necessarily slowed and expectations have diminished. I feel a little guilty at admitting that, but I find that I am not the only person to experience that relief:
‘So whilst many of us felt a sense of terror and experienced fears of entrapment and heightened anxiety when lockdown was announced, a good number of the very same people will now be quite comfortable with the new ‘norm’ and may now be thinking (and worrying) about what comes next….’ [https://www.anxietyuk.org.uk/blog/post-lockdown-anxiety/ 4 May; accessed 16 May 2020]
Having the penny drop like this, is a bit like putting on glasses with a new prescription for the first time. Up to that point, you probably thought you were seeing clearly, but these new lenses bring the world into a new, sharper focus. You begin to look at things differently. Acknowledging the presence of anxiety in my life has opened my eyes to how much I have relied on it to motivate and drive me. It has given me bursts of intense fear-fuelled energy to get tasks done, albeit at the very last minute. It has gotten me up in the morning, when I might otherwise have slept all day. It has forced me to address tasks that I would gladly put off til doomsday. I have succeeded through anxiety-driven productivity. But it has robbed me of much more: quality sleep, effective planning, the joy of completing tasks well, healthy working relationships, a good work-life balance.
Getting a handle on what is going on is a really important part of tackling my mental health issues. Being able to give it a name or identify when it is ‘present’ helps me to develop methods of coping better. My Spiritual Director challenged me to find its spiritual significance and I began to reflect on what image or story might begin to capture something of my experiences. I eventually landed on the story in Matthew 14 of Jesus and Peter in the storm:
When evening came, Jesus was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning he came walking towards them on the lake. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified, saying, ‘It is a ghost!’ And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ 28 Peter answered him, ‘Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.’ 29He said, ‘Come.’ So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came towards Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, ‘You of little faith, why did you doubt?’ 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’
It’s a weird story, I admit, but, in the context of mental illness, it is a potent metaphor. How often have I felt at the mercy of my feelings, like a small boat on the water when the squall rises? When in the grip of the storm, it is hard to see anything else, still harder to think about where God is to be found. Where am I to locate the divine in the midst of my anxiety? Often, it seems that, if he appears at all, Jesus is no more than a shadowy ghost, hard to see or recognise.
I found myself looking for images and ikons representing the story, and discovered that the Methodist Modern Art Collection has a number!
Peter Howson, Walking on Water, from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, used with permission. www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection
Eularia Clarke, Storm over the Lake, from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, used with permission. www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection
It is a story that has captured the imagination of many artists throughout the Christian Era.
accessed from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/396246467194778571/ 17 May 2020
accessed from Grace Episcopal Church, Anderson http://gracechurchanderson.com/2017/08/living-the-dream/ 17 may 2020
Each artist interprets the story in a unique way, but what really spoke to me was that, in each, Jesus walks above and through the storm but doesn’t still it. The storm continues to rage and those in the boat are still afraid. Not only does he come through the storm, but he offers reassurance to his terrified friends: Take courage! Be bold! Have confidence!
I have spent too many years thinking there was a ‘key’ that would unlock the door and allow me a way out of depression and anxiety. It has not been a waste of time, but I wish I had accepted that it is something I need to live with much earlier. Jesus’ call to the fearful is one that says to me, ‘The storm is beyond your control, but it need not overwhelm you!’
I find Peter’s response deeply challenging to my engagement with anxiety. Peter asks for help (twice) and receives it. On both occasions he finds himself able to rise above the storm, and is given agency despite the storm’s strength and power. That ability comes from focussing, not on the storm itself, but on the one who meets him in the midst of it. It is when he is distracted by the waves that he begins to sink.
I have been trying to do a bit of mindfulness whilst in lockdown, little exercises in self-awareness when anxious feelings surface. It is one way - whether you are religious or not - to refocus beyond the lapping waves. It is a way of reminding yourself that the feelings will not last forever, like the storm that eventually blows itself out.
I’m beginning to accept that anxiety will not disappear or be ‘fixed’, but it will come and go. For Peter, as for me, the answer for when the storm comes lies in learning to ask for help.