Thursday, January 24, 2013

Anxiety and the Crisis of Memory

Four years ago, the world turned dark.

It was January, 2009, and the spring semester was about to begin. The fall term had been difficult but victorious: I wrote in my journal that I felt myself to be "between the hammer and the anvil," yet the pressure exhilarated me. For one of my courses I had written over 300 pages between August and December, and in the other I had earned a nearly perfect grade in Old English.  After two years of uncertainty, I was finally beginning to believe that I was actually smart enough to be in a doctoral program.  I lived and worked with a wonderful community of students and scholars. I had a challenging and loving church home. I was on good terms with my parents and all my friends. 

Lights were all around, but I could only see the darkness. 

Intellectually, I knew everything was okay and more than okay, but that January, just before the first week of the new semester, something broke.

I felt like my world was tottering on the edge of a cliff. I couldn't stop crying, and I began to tremble uncontrollably. I couldn't articulate what was wrong precisely because it seemed that everything was wrong. A blackness hovered around the edge of my vision, as though I might blink and find the world extinguished. The first week of classes began: I went to school, taught my freshmen, attended my own classes, always on the verge of tears. I managed to do my work but little else, and when a friend asked when I had eaten last, I couldn't remember.

I couldn't remember. I don't mean I couldn't remember what was upsetting me: if anything could be called a "cause" of my anxiety and despair, it was probably three years of unresolved stress that I had written off as being "normal" for a diligent grad student. At the time, however, the fact that I could not remember goodness haunted me more than anything. During that dark January, my memory seemed to have betrayed me. One day, for example, I was walking from the library to my car when the name of a Victorian writer--Walter Pater, I think it was--flashed through my mind. Walter Pater has never been particularly important to my work, but in that moment, my mind quailed, and I started to panic. I felt guilty and exposed, as though my dissertation director might materialize in the parking lot and demand a full biography of Walter Pater. (He never did, in case you were wondering).

Throughout that January and into the spring, my memory turned sullen and silent. Walter Pater, I soon realized, was the least of my worries.

I couldn't remember how it felt to enjoy being alone.

I couldn't remember why sunshine had once made me smile.

I couldn't remember the confidence that had come from past semesters of successful coursework. 

I couldn't remember anything ever being easy; my anxiety never disrupted my teaching, but little tasks like picking up a pencil to write a note felt like training with lead weights.

I couldn't remember looking forward to the future. 

I couldn't remember how to quiet worrisome thoughts. 

I couldn't remember.

Most terribly, I couldn't remember the good gifts--peace above all--that God had given me in the past. Gone was the calm certainty my faith had always delivered. I don't mean that I no longer believed in God; I mean that my emotional response the world--fear and trembling--didn't match my claims that God was faithful, and loving, and compassionate. With every tremor, I seemed to contradict scripture. I was worrying about everything. I was neither strong nor courageous. I let my heart be troubled. I did not consider the lilies. 

And yet, once I realized that my anxiety was a crisis of memory, the black margin around my eyes began to fade. Work was good because it distracted me from fear, but in any spare or solitary moment, I poured all my energy into memorizing psalms, especially Psalm 84.

At the same time, many able hands began collecting and carrying memories I had lost in the dark. An excellent counselor helped me identify some of the thoughts that were feeding my anxiety, and challenged me to remember the promises God makes through the Bible. My friends remembered to invite me for supper or study sessions several times a week. My father came to stay for a week, then my mother, then my friend Julianna, and their presence--their mere, marvelous presence--reminded me that I was not alone. Other friends took time away from their own jobs, studies, or families to call and tell me about the times they had struggled with depression, and how they had come through. The books I read for my classes, especially The Pilgrim's Progress, The Book of Job, and Walter Brueggemann's The Message of the Psalms, reminded me that feeling pain did not mean I was unfaithful. The music of John Michael Talbot filled my mind so beautifully that anxious thoughts fell silent.  

I have no idea if my experience with anxiety and depression was typical. Thankfully, I have not endured anything similar since that strange spring four years ago. Regardless, I know that what I endured for a season, some people battle for years. The dark margin which I suffered so acutely is a chronic condition for some. And the betrayal of memory, the spiritual amnesia--perhaps that also haunts  other children who have forgotten they were created in the image of God. 

I often write about memories on this blog, and that's not because I am merely nostalgic by nature (though I am). I use this blog to remember the yellow weight of sunlight, the joy of friendship, the delight of good work, the strength of gardens, the wisdom of sparrows who make their nests on the altars of the Lord. 

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