Ch-ch-ch-ch-chaaaaanges

So, I’m moving in five days.

From Missouri to Wisconsin, with a pitstop in Nashville for Elle’s bachelorette extravaganza.

I have moved many, many times. To dorm rooms and college apartments and intern housing and a place in New Orleans with a black-and-white checkered floor. None of them—not a single one—have ever quite felt like home, although New Orleans came pretty dang close there for a while. H-o-m-e always meant my mom and dad’s house, with my creamsicle orange bedroom and DVR’d episodes of the Kardashians. Where the pop-tarts run aplenty and the Diet Coke is fully stocked. Madison, that sweet city, with it’s endless stretches of lake and homemade ice cream and free-range everything: it makes my heart beat.

Some people thrive in transitions, and some people turn into sobbing messes. I’m somewhere in the middle. I act stoic when I say goodbye and then listen to The Oh Hellos while I drive away and cry.

There’s so much GOOD to look forward to. Living in Wisconsin, getting married, a new apartment above a coffee shop. But there’s so many good things I’m leaving behind, too. In Missouri, and as a #mish. If you can look at tomorrow with no fear in your heart, congratulations: you are not me.

But here’s the bottom-line, at the end of the day: the sadder you are to leave people and places, the more you loved them. The more you should be grateful for them. Those pages will turn and that sun will set and rise again, and we keep dancing on, from place to place to place to place. The stars are our map. Jesus is our trail guide. We will lose our way. We will find it again.

I’ve had a really, really great week. Some snapshots of these people I love:

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Kayla, a grad student I’m in discipleship with.

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Mary, a freshman and also one of the most kindhearted people I’ve ever met.

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Team Mizzou went kayaking and pseudo hiking/rock-climbing. It was an exercise in team building, to say the least. 😉

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Alyssa, a senior and the very first woman in discipleship at Mizzou! This picture just sums us up perfectly. Awkward and not-at-all camera ready. Bahaha.

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Molly, a junior and an old soul…she taught me how to pose like a sorority girl. I’m giving us A pluses.

On Anxiety, Jesus and Bradley Cooper

Y’all, I have quite a treat today. My dear friend Catie, a mish at Mankato in Minnesota, is sharing her complicated, layered story on battling anxiety and coming to terms with God. Her honesty is beautiful. If you’re interested in contributing a guest post to my new website, launching May 14, please shoot me an email here.

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Near the end of the movie American Sniper, Bradley Cooper’s character, Iraq war veteran and Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, is sitting in his living room. Gunshots, yelling, and chaos are heard, and we, the audience, assume Kyle is watching television. The camera pans around the room, revealing only a blank wall. It is then that we catch the first glimpse of the inner turmoil that plagues Kyle. He gets up, walks out of the house to the backyard, to his son’s birthday party. His son is enjoying the sunny day, playing with his friends. As viewers, we sense the relaxed, fun atmosphere. Then, Kyle’s emotions are tangibly felt through the screen. Again, we view the party, but this time through Kyle’s eyes. He is on high alert, seeing even the friendly family dog as a threat. A birthday party is no longer a light-hearted event; something disastrous can happen at any moment, and Kyle cannot help but be on constant guard. To the outside world, there is little to be anxious about. To Kyle, struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an illness in a class of anxiety disorders, it is as if everyone is dancing around land mines. Director Clint Eastwood nearly perfectly enthralls us into Kyle’s mind, immediately sensing the false urgency. We know there is no real threat, but we can’t help but feel threatened.

As someone with an anxiety disorder, I deeply connected with that simple scene. Eastwood and Cooper did a fantastic job at portraying the way individuals with anxiety disorder perceive the world compared to what is ‘actually’ happening. Finally, someone was able to explain to the rest of the world what goes through my mind. The sense of panic, the invisible threat, the worst case scenario, the way two people can be in the same setting, but have very different experiences. Dear rest of the world, this is what it is like for those of us who are battling far more than you see.

However, I don’t consider myself a victim, though I used to. I’m not embarrassed to take medicine for my illness, though I used to be. And finally, I’m not scared to share about it, although I would say I am more guarded. I cannot attribute any of this growth to my own doing. It is all through Jesus Christ, who gives me the strength to carry this cross with both joy and dignity. This post is the fruit of hours of prayer, months of encouragement, and years of anxiety. To share this message with you is an incredible gift. I’ll walk you through my journey, the struggles, and the ultimate joy I’ve encountered now, especially serving as a full-time Catholic missionary. I hope this blog will encourage those of you who have an anxiety disorder, and bring light to those who don’t. Most importantly, I desire for you to know the love Christ has for you personally, despite whatever you think is too big for him to love you through.

I am the daughter of two very loving parents from a stable, middle-class Catholic home. We went to church most Sundays, and prayed before meals and bedtime. There were few things I had to worry about as a child. The phrase, “I’m bored,” also never passed my lips. How could I be bored, when there was so much to explore? Walking through our small woods in the backyard became an epic adventure, thrills lurking around every tree. That same imagination was also my demise, crafting grand disasters in my head (One of my biggest fears was that someone would drive by our house, through a match on our driveway, and start our house on fire- my family jokes about that now). Overall, though, it wasn’t anything to be concerned about, just a healthy little girl enjoying the world around her. High school certainly presented more challenges (And don’t worry, I grew out of the match-on-the-driveway fear), but even through that I remained pretty grounded. With fabulous friends, excellent grades, and living life as a top athlete, I had a really beautiful life, and I was extraordinarily happy. Faith wasn’t central to my life, but it certainly played a part.

Then college hit. The pressures to do well in my pre-medicine classes, to perform every day on the track as a collegiate varsity athlete, develop friendships and keep the relationship I was in healthy, all at once, took a toll. I found myself wearing thin, crying more, and thirsting for happiness. I wasn’t praying like I used to, and I didn’t take the effort to live my life in the way God wanted to lead me. Still, I wouldn’t say I had an anxiety disorder yet. My worries weren’t out of proportion. I had genuine reasons to be sad- missing my family, friends, old teammates, and the drastic changes from living at home to living in a college dorm were difficult for me to process.

By sophomore year, life became more balanced. I loved my roommates, was doing very well in school, was slowly taking steps to grow in my faith, and was consistently racing well. Finally, for the first time in a year, I finally felt like myself again. However, that wouldn’t be for long. Two major events would soon become pivotal landmarks in my life.

Finals had just finished after my sophomore year, and I was in my last race of the season. In the lead the whole way, I grinned as I neared the finish line. I was only 100 meters away when I realized something was very wrong. My muscles weren’t moving like they usually did, and I gasped for more oxygen. Collapsing at the finish line, I was eventually taken to the hospital. There I received a terrifying diagnosis: my kidneys had completely failed. For a week, I was becoming weaker, with no diagnosis or treatment. And then, one night, God healed me. The doctors had no explanation as to why I was better, just that I was, and I was able to go home.
Just three months after my hospital stay, I survived yet another rare threat on my life: a plane crash. I was in a four-person seaplane in Minnesota when we crashed into a small swamp. Again, miraculously, God saved my life. As I laid on a hospital bed yet again that summer, God clearly spoke to me, telling me to be a leader in my faith. It was that moment I realized I needed to work on living life totally for him.

These two events triggered two major chain reactions. I plunged deeper into my faith, but also experienced, for the first time, what it was like to have deep anxiety. It is common for individuals with a genetic predisposition to generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) to have it ‘flare up’ either in their twenties, or after traumatic life events. I had the double whammy.

It wasn’t an immediate change. I tried to adjust to life post-two-near-death-experiences, settling into a relatively smooth rhythm. But slowly, I noticed subtle changes as the fall semester wore on. I was excessively stressed, but I justified my stress with the fact that I did have a lot to be stressed about. I was more irritable, but I figured it was just because I was tired. I would be sad, confused, and angry, all at the same time, but thought I was just being overdramatic. It felt as if a gorilla was sitting on my chest as I tried to sleep at night, suffocating me. My thoughts constantly wandered, and focusing in class was near impossible. Loneliness crept in, and I felt extremely isolated from the ‘outside world’.

It was the changes in my gratitude to God that indicated to me that something might be wrong. Following the plane crash, my faith wavered but remained a constant. I still attended mass weekly, and began attending a bible study. One day, a priest asked us to share in our small group one good thing from the week, and I remember literally not being able to think of anything. Mind you, I was a doing well in track, got to see my family at nearly every track meet, and was doing well academically. This was when I noticed something might be wrong. I thought I was just being ungrateful to God for his abundant blessings, and that tore me apart. I wrote often in my journal, telling God that I wanted so badly to enjoy all the good things He had given me, but I didn’t know how.

Ironically, I was a mentor for students with mental disorders, and for the past two years the ladies I served both had anxiety. I was fully aware of the signs of an anxiety disorder, and started to notice that I was the one now experiencing the symptoms. I almost started to feel like a hypocrite as I guided these students, and yet did nothing about my own problem. Slowly, I sank deeper into a pit of ignorance and denial, while at the same time drowning in my anxieties.

Thank Jesus for a fantastic friend who had anxiety and encouraged me to see a doctor as I explained to her all that was happening. It took me forever to make that call. While I so desperately wanted to be healed, I didn’t want to admit I had a mental disease. In my mind, I had always been put together. Here I was, having to acknowledge that I was falling apart.

When I finally made the call, the doctor sent me to see a counselor first. I felt so ashamed on the walk to student Health Services. In the building, I hid my face, not wanting others to know I was there to see a *gasp* counselor. But as my name was called to go to the counselor’s office, I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing I may find peace of mind once again.

The counselor was fantastic, and asked many questions regarding what I enjoy, what my daily life looks like, what events I run in track, everything, without being pushy. He dug deeper, asking about how I react to certain events, why I knew I needed to talk to someone about this. After an hour, my counselor confirmed what I was afraid of: I had generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). It was a strange dichotomy-I was both embarrassed and relieeved to hear that I actually was ill.

Before I put myself into a very small box and make it seem as though this is a rare disease, I want to be clear. Anxiety disorders are unfortunately not uncommon in the United States. Forty million adults, that’s 18% of all Americans over the age of 18, are affected with an anxiety disorder (stats can be found here). Unfortunately, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only a third of those suffering from anxiety disorders seek treatment. That’s a lot of people struggling without aid, and it breaks my heart, because I know the beauty that comes from receiving help. There are many different kinds of anxiety disorders, just as there are many different classes of disease that can make you nauseous or have a headache. These disorders encompass a wide range, including GAD, PTSD, social anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
When I was diagnosed, I instantly feared the way the world would see me. Despite commonality, there’s still such a stigma around the term ‘mental illness.’ Would people think I was strange? Would I be treated differently? Only a handful of people were trusted with my diagnosis. I didn’t even tell my family until nearly a year later. Up until that point, I always saw those with mental illness as somehow damaged, like they couldn’t fit in to the daily grind of life and all that comes with it. And yet, there I was, living life. How was I to make sense of this all?

My counselor gave me many cognitive behavior therapy exercises, which basically means he suggested different ways of viewing things and ways to step out of my anxiety when it hit. It was now summer, life was more relaxed, and I was able to handle the lower level of anxiety with these exercises. Sure, it would ‘flare up,’ but never to the extent it had been during the school year. I started to think I was healed. Perhaps all I needed was to be guided on healthy ways of dealing with anxiety, and I was fine. I stopped going to see my counselor, thinking I had received the help I needed.

It turned out I was not healed. Senior year started, and along with it came downpours of anxiety storms. Things that normally caused me slight stress were causing me to fixate and run circles in my brain. All the while, small decisions seemed nearly impossible to make, because I was so exhausted from trying to figure out the big issues. I knew I my fears weren’t reasonable, but I felt helpless to combat them.

The hallmark of GAD is that the anxiety isn’t over any one thing in particular. Anxiety may be triggered by an upcoming exam, but it hangs around even after the test. I’d sit in my room, heart pounding, on edge, with a mind that was racing in no specific direction. Imagine you are trying to relax while sitting in a room with ten televisions, all turned on, playing different programs, at the loudest volume. This was my life, and the ‘noise’ from my brain was unbearable. I’d even go so far as to describe it as crippling.

I’ll never forget the day I realized it was time to go back to my counselor. The noise in my mind had become so loud; it was if a speaker finally blew. All of the sudden, silence. But it wasn’t a good silence. I was standing in our student lounge, and looked around. It felt as though I was having an out of body experience. I knew where I was, but I felt, and wanted to be, invisible. The quiet scared me, because it wasn’t from peace. It was if I was being smothered, and couldn’t scream out. Immediately, I called for an appointment.

After explaining to a counselor what had happened, she gently said, “I recommend you make an appointment with your doctor. I think it’s time you seek medication.” For the second time in this journey, I was both relieved to know I’d be receiving help, but also horribly embarrassed. Was I so far gone that my only hope was to be medicated? Or did I not actually need medication, and was making a bigger deal out of something that I could fix, or ‘pray away’? Most important, did accepting medication mean that I had stopped trusting in God?
Along with emotional hesitations about taking medication, I also had scientific reservations. As a pre-medicine student who hoped to prescribe medications one day only as a last resort, I wasn’t really on board with the idea of pumping more chemicals into my body. I knew full well the side effects of the possible medications I would be put on, and I wasn’t sure if I was willing to put that on myself. In my days as a nursing assistant, I frequently gave similar medications to my patients, and heard many complaints from them of how these medicines affected their moods and personalities. I had never doubted the brevity and existence of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, but I thought these were diseases that in most cases shouldn’t be treated with medication. Finding myself at the point that I thought should only be a last resort was an extremely humbling experience.

Fortunately, I had a fantastic doctor who walked with me every step of the way. When I didn’t like how a medication made me feel, she instantly changed my prescription. Together, we found medicine that didn’t diminish my personality- just freed me from excessive anxiety. There aren’t enough words to describe how liberated I felt. Seriously. To be fully alive and present in the moment once more was a gift. I could have a conversation, and really listen to the other person without having a thousand things racking my brain. My focus was back, and I enjoyed going to classes because I could now actually learn instead of panic about the million things zooming through my mind. I didn’t feel the need to justify every small decision I made, or stew over them for hours later.

The greatest freedom was in the gratitude I finally felt once more. For so long, I hadn’t been able to authentically thank God for anything. I would attempt, and try, but it always seemed to be forced and untruthful. The last thing I wanted was to lie to Jesus, but I also knew how deserving he was of my thankfulness. Never again do I take feelings of gratitude for granted. What a gift it is to be able to recognize blessings.

A friend told me a story that especially helped me grapple with the faith hesitations I had had:

“There once was a man out sailing on the ocean. His boat capsized, and he was left clinging to a life raft and would die if he were not soon saved. He prayed and asked God to save his life. A few hours later, a fishing boat saw him struggling. The captain of the boat invited the suffering man to come aboard, and they would take him to safety. The sailor, expecting a miracle, or an angel, or some grand act of God, refused the help, saying, ‘God will save me.’”

God sometimes works miracles. Most of the time, though, he veils himself and his good works in the simple acts of kindness of others, and gifts to better our circumstances. In this story, God had drawn the fishing boat captain to notice the drifting sailor, and it was out of God’s kindness that the captain invited the sailor aboard. Yet, because the rescue was not in the form the sailor anticipated, he instead let his saving grace pass on by.

Of all my hesitations and qualms, the biggest fear I had was that I was ‘quitting my trust’ with God by taking medicine. Jesus Christ is the Prince of Peace. I realized that without being medicated, I could not find peace. Did that mean I didn’t trust fully in Christ’s ability to grant peace? This story helped me to say, no. Instead, I found myself thanking God for gifting humans with knowledge to create medications that allowed me to once again feel like the person I was created to be. He could have miraculously freed me from anxiety. Or, he could allow me to continue to battle, knowing the greater good that would come out of my struggle. And oh, how He has blessed me in these past three years.

Now, the majority of my days are free from excessive anxiety. I am so much more balanced than I was during college, praise Jesus. There are definitely still strings of days, even weeks, where my anxiety becomes unbearable. However, I know the signs to look for, and I also know how to battle through them. I’m more in tune with myself, and that’s a gift. Generally, I can sense the day before my anxiety will ‘hit’, so to speak, and can prepare myself by knowing I’ll need to spend a little more alone time that day, and enjoy a quiet night with some yoga to calm down. Usually, there is a trigger, such as a relationship dispute, but there isn’t always. The unpredictability is certainly tough, but I’ve come to recognize my telltale signs, and able to take steps to diminish the effect.

It is not an easy road, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, but I can honestly say that having GAD and battling through this has made me a better person. My relationship with Christ has been immensely strengthened through this struggle. Recently, I was speaking to a religious sister about my relationship with my anxiety, and she told me she was amazed at how I’ve embraced it. My relationship with God can no longer be one of comfort when my comfort is ripped out beneath me. I am totally, completely dependent on God’s grace during days of intense anxiety. Even just talking to friends is a laborious task. During my bouts of anxiety, it becomes so clear that without Jesus, I am nothing, but with him, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me (Phil 4:13).”

This has also created opportunities to unite my sufferings with Jesus on the cross. I may not have nail wounds in my hands, but my inner torment bleeds just as much. There’s so much to be said of the power of silent suffering. Because my brokenness isn’t visible on the outside, I can give so much more to Jesus during my anxiety outbreaks. Just as Jesus was alone during his pain and sorrow in the agony in the garden, no one comes rushing to my aid to mend dysfunctional brain chemicals. That gets to be between solely between Jesus and me. It’s our private connection, so much more intimate than merely talking.

There are so many people with chronic illnesses, encountering so much more pain than I on a daily basis. To at least be able to unite myself with them in a small way has helped me understand the pain it is to be human on this earth awaiting heaven. As a missionary, I’ve found my diagnosis to be a unique way to relate to the many college students who also suffer from anxiety (Far more common than you may realize). To relate to something so personal quickly deepens trust, and I’m grateful for the relationships I’ve developed through pain.

Another great grace in my life has been the incredible support systems I’ve had throughout this journey. I’ve experienced such and deep outpouring of love. While I do not share with many about my GAD, those who I have told have been so caring and taken the time to learn more.

Friends have asked me how they can help during times when I’m exceptionally anxious. If you care for someone with GAD, you’re probably wondering the same thing. The best thing you can do is just to ask how you can help. Everyone is different. For me, it means so much to hear others say they’re praying for me, to do simple tasks like washing my dishes (because even the small daily chores feel like trying to build a sandcastle out of marble on tough days), and just understand that I may not want to talk as much, and that’s okay. Never, ever, undermine someone who has GAD’s worries. They realize they’re being irrational, but that doesn’t stop the anxiousness. Just be patient and loving.

If you’re reading this and think you recognize many of the symptoms of GAD in yourself, I encourage you to visit a counselor. There is no shame in seeking help. It is a huge act of humility and courage to acknowledge that you can’t do this alone. Please, take care of yourself.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read about this journey. God works in all things, in all people, in all times. I am so utterly convinced of this. Each day he has new lessons to learn and graces to give. Through something that could have at first seemed to be devastating, He breathed new life and transformed me. I know that without GAD I would not be as close to Him as I am today. Praise Him for He is holy and worthy of all honor.

When The Fam Comes To Town

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My mom, seester + Aunt Peg came to see me this weekend.

If you’re a Claire-type, you do things like make everyone order two doughnuts and watch The Bruce Jenner on TV. If you’re an Ellie-type, you take a lot of snapchats and google the lyrics to the Zack and Cody theme song so you can sing it while riding the luggage cart (maybe I joined in. Maybe I didn’t.) If you’re a Momma-Grace-type, you triumphantly locate the Chick-Fil-A and then drive two hours to buy pencils at the Mark Twain museum. If you’re an Aunt-Peg-type, you ask the waitress for more chips because the nacho cheese is overwhelming.

Possibly unrelated side note, but wise Seester Observation: we have Netflix, iWatches and GPS, but no matter what the world brings, there will ALWAYS be hotel brochures. Google be damned, there will be a rack of brochures on that city’s random tourist attractions (The Cheese Haus! The world’ s largest coffee mug!) until the apocalypse occurs.

Here’s why family is good: they laugh at your jokes even when they’re not that funny. They don’t mind that you talk about Wisconsin all the time. They understand that you need to watch The Bruce Jenner. They think two doughnuts is a completely acceptable breakfast. They stop and pause at things like Mark Twain’s house, which really, who cares about these days? They drive 3 miles off the highway for Chick-Fil-A. They highly encourage Excessive Trail Mix Eating. They know all of the words to “Harper Valley PTA”. They finish your gin and tonics. They YouTube “brides tripping down the aisle” without considering why that might traumatize you for life. They buy you Swiffer WetJet fluid because you’re out.

My family has come to see me in a lot of places by this point: DC, New York, New Orleans, Columbia. They will hop over, wherever I am, to drive me to Target and pinterest wedding decorations. They will always bring Diet Coke. They will always bring joy.