Three and a half years ago, I began having panic attacks. And by panic attacks, I don't mean brief moments of anxiety, I mean hours of debilitating, paralyzing fear. After a few hours it would subside, leaving me spent and overcome with despair for an hour or two, and the cycle would begin again.
The strange thing was that there was no good "reason" this was happening to me. I had a happy marriage, healthy children, a lovely home--by everyone else's standards, my life was charmed. I had always been the girl with her act together--others came to me when things got rocky. How could I possibly be the one going off the edge?
But I was. Dramatically and suddenly, I was falling off the edge. Things became so dark I could no longer care for my children--my mother had to come and help us manage. My husband was a rock, but even his unwavering support wasn't enough to rescue me. I spent my days huddled in a ball of anguish, feeling the waves of despair and panic wash over me, again and again. I wanted, with all my heart, to die, and I thought about it constantly. And to anyone who would listen, I would say, "This shouldn't be happening to me. There's no reason for me to feel like this," as though if I said it often enough, it would all go away.
You see, I knew, as a Christian, that hard times would come. I was prepared for that. But these were supposed to be hard times that happened outside of me. When the trials came, I thought I should be able to retreat into my heart, my mind, the "safe place" where God offered comfort. But this time, my heart and my mind were the war zones. To retreat into them was only to be lost further.
In the middle of this, a light switched on for me during a conversation with my brother. I shared all this with him, wondering aloud where God was, and why I was left to wallow in my own despair. And my brother said something that stopped me in my tracks: "Sis, He's the God of the wilderness too."
Yes. The God of the wilderness. The God who brought his people, the Israelites, out of slavery and allowed them to wander aimlessly for 40 years in the most barren land imagineable. Not because He was cruel, or mistaken, or inept--but because there are lessons that can only be learned in the wilderness.
I stayed up late that night reading about the Israelites and their dark places. The story that jumped out at me most (you can read the whole passage here in Exodus 14) was the story of their recent escape from Egypt. The Egyptians were hot on the heels of the Israelites--their doom seemed sure. But Moses confidently reminded them:
"Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again. The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still." (v. 13-14)
So, it turned out, I was experiencing God's presence, though not in the warm and fuzzy way I expected. It was more like a helicopter rescue. He was the guy on the ladder, hanging on desperately to me while the waters churned below. If He let go, it meant sure death. But if He would just hang on to me, then maybe, maybe I could make it out of this terrible place.
And He did hang on. As I quit fighting my time in the wilderness and instead began to look around, He gradually led me to other side. Through a variety of means including, yes, medication, He helped me climb out of that dark pit. And now on the other side, I see so many reasons why I had to walk through that wilderness. In my "charmed life", would I have ever seen the things I saw in that terrible place? Would I have had to trust God for my very next breath, my very ability to survive? Of couse not.
The wilderness will come again, that is sure. Maybe not in the form of depression and panic attacks, but it will come again. We live in a fallen world where heartbreak and tragedy are unavoidable. But the dark places don't seem so scary to me now, and the wilderness doesn't seem so wild. I've been there. I learned the lay of the land. And I saw Who was there.