It happened to me again last night—that's twice now while tent camping and twice in my own bed. I awoke in an absolute panic, my heart beating fast. I was terrified, and the first thought that always hits me is, "Is this going to keep happening to me? Is this my new thing?" The tent, I understand. I get claustrophobic, and with the window closed and blankets piled on top of me, panic seems inevitable. But in my own bed?
Last night I dreamed that I was with a bunch of friends, and we had to keep going deeper and deeper underground—into the sewer I think. I remember feeling sheer terror while trying to talk myself into being calm. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move. When I woke up for real, I felt the same way. I tried to go back to sleep, but I actually had to get up and move to the couch. (Last time we were camping, I had to leave the tent and sleep in the van.) I don't know what it is about the couch vs. the bed—streetlights shining in seem to help.
In my 20s, I was suddenly hit with fear of heights and claustrophobia. The fear of heights happened when I was probably 21. A bunch of us were exploring the Doe River Gorge, and we had to cross an old railroad bridge that went over the river. By "bridge," I mean a single long plank. By "river," I mean a rushing river, not a creek. I got about a quarter of the way across and froze—absolutely froze. My friend Dave and my brother Stephen were already across the river, smiling and waving at me. My friends Janet and Jennifer were still on the bank, waiting for me so that they could cross. I couldn't move forward or backward. I couldn't even sit. I was sweaty and even becoming resigned to my fate: I would forever live on this log. Somehow I eventually managed to sit and scoot my way back on my butt to safety.
I tested my new fear several times: attempting to stand as close as possible—while still safe— to the edges of gorges or cliffs. I froze every time. Oh, I'm not talking about the kind of fear that keeps you safe—I don't mean natural instincts. I am talking about an unnecessary fear when little or no danger exists.
Claustrophobia hit me around the same time. We were spelunking in a familiar cave, Salt Peter, in upper East Tennessee. I'd been there a dozen times. Loved getting smeared in Tennessee red clay and crawling through tight spaces. There is nothing quite like reaching an underground lake, lighting candles, and singing a hymn. Well, until the time that the panic hit. There I was, crawling next to my friend Adam through a tight place, and BAM! I froze. My heart was pounding like crazy, I broke into a sweat, and I couldn't move. I was terrified. Somehow I got out—and never went back again. My caving days were over. Oh sure—I've been to the big touristy-type caverns, but I am pretty certain I will never crawl under the earth again on purpose with a hard hat and a flashlight.
So there lies my real fear. I can easily avoid caves and cliffs. I don't have to go spelunking or cross a log across a river. I don't even have to go camping and sleep in a tent, although to give that up would be devastating. Camping is a huge part of our family life, and I'll take the risk of panic hitting while I'm in the tent, knowing that I can always move to the van.
But waking in a panic while sleeping in my own bed, in my own room, next to my husband? That is just not going to work out for me. I mentioned that my first clear thought is always about myself: is this my new thing? But my second one is always about a couple of my friends who suffer from severe anxiety, who have dealt with debilitating panic attacks most of their adult lives. How do they live like that? How do they get through day after day, never knowing when they will freeze in utter terror?
I'm on a team for a new initiative at my church, called LOVE>FEAR. It's all about how normal people demonstrate how love is greater than fear—stories of regular people who refuse to let fear triumph in their lives. Our website will be up and running soon, but the Facebook page is already active. I listened to the original LOVE>FEAR sermon series recently. (The series is here on our pastor's blog—Aaron McCarter.com.)
Message #5—Sharing Truth—was our first time at the Vineyard. I remember being absolutely blown away by Aaron's message. We were those people who had left our church, who were hurting—bleeding— from what happened there. We had even said things like, "I would be happy never going to church again, if it weren't for the kids." (From the archives: "Leaving a Church.") We went to the Vineyard somewhat reluctantly, really just to appease a friend. That first day at the Vineyard, Randy and I were pretty amazed. A year later, we became members. (From the archives: A Brand New Thing.)
I know. I've strayed from my original topic. Sort of. Conquering fear is on my mind a lot lately, and I'm offended when it comes to me at night, sneaking in like a thief. I love what Psalm 91:5 says:
"You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day…"
That's a verse to hold in the palm of your hand.