Saturday, May 25, 2013

Faith and Fear

Back in January, I wrote about my beautiful granddaughter and how much I loved her. At the time, my son was contemplating employment some 500 miles away and I was dreading the separation. As it turned out, he did not accept that job, and in the ensuing months, he and his wife and daughter moved in with us. With another baby on the way, he was unemployed and without insurance. While living with us, I became even more attached to my granddaughter who is not yet 2 years old. Our family had become somewhat like the Waltons with three generations, including another adult daughter, living under one roof.

This past week, my son was offered Director of Liturgy and Music and a very large parish more than nine hours away from here. He really had no choice but to accept the job since he was unable to find anything closer. In three weeks, they will be moving. While I am grateful and relieved he will be earning money and receiving benefits, I am heartbroken that we will be separated.

I guess it is time to bare my soul a bit. I would call this coming out of the closet, but that phrase has taken on a common meaning far different from my situation. I have lived the past 55 years or so with panic disorder. It’s a mental illness, cause not really known. It is difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced it. To varying degrees, people with panic disorder can develop fears or phobias. An attack can come on unexpectedly. Once an attack occurs in a certain situation, the fear of another attack in a similar situation becomes the catalyst for another attack. In other words, if one believes a certain situation will trigger an attack, then it will. The actual fear is of the attack itself. Symptoms vary, but it can best be described as an intense physiological reaction to most any stimulus.

People with uncontrolled panic disorder structure their lives around the fears they harbor. Even when an attack is not occurring, the knowledge of the possibility creates an uneasiness that can be unsettling, almost as if one were living in a haunted house knowing that a ghost might emerge from a closet at any moment. Those affected often develop a comfort zone of varying sizes surrounding themselves. Venturing outside the comfort zone can be very uncomfortable. For some people, that comfort zone can be a single room in a house. Fortunately, mine never got that small, but it exists nonetheless.

The condition is sometimes called agoraphobia, or fear of the market place. When faced with extreme fear, the body goes into a fight or flight response. Adrenaline is released into the bloodstream, the heart rate and blood pressure rise, and various hormones are released into the body to deal with the threat. In this case, the threat is irrational or imagined, but the response is very real.

My illness started at a very early age, perhaps even in grade school, but really taking hold my first year of high school. I won’t go into detail here, but it kept me from doing lots of things I would have liked to have done. Yet, I have led a fairly successful life, working for the same company for over forty years with an attendance record few could match. My comfort zone is large enough to avoid panic on a routine basis, but anxiety stands at the ready in my mind. Travel is difficult for me, always has been. Anytime I am forced out of my comfort zone, that awful feeling creeps in. Concentration becomes difficult and an uneasy tenseness tightens its grip.

The irony is that I am generally a very rational person and I recognize my own irrational behavior although unable to control it. Doctors think it may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and there are medications that help, but the irrational fear itself often prevents victims of panic disorder from seeking help. I don’t believe I have ever been properly treated. My doctor gives me low doses of Xanax that help me relax a little and sleep better, but does not really treat the problem.

So, why bring all of this out in the open now? The anticipation of my son and his family moving so far out of my comfort zone is causing me tremendous stress. I tend to be a very emotional person anyway, and this has set me off into uncharted territory. I am a sixty-two year old man who cries easily, and this is a rough time. How am I going to handle this separation? With a new grandchild on the way, I am going to have to make this trip. This affliction has shown to be hereditary, and all three of my children have experienced problems with anxiety, though not as debilitating as I. I worry about them also.

Now, all of this must sound silly to anyone who has not experienced it. Frankly, it sounds silly to me too. Most people undoubtedly feel sadness or dread when a loved one moves away or goes off to serve our country. That is a rational feeling. What I am talking about goes way beyond what normal people experience. This experience distorts reality, making one feel somewhat disconnected from his surroundings. It can make a person totally dysfunctional in a matter of seconds. Living an entire life with a millstone around the neck can be disconcerting to say the least.

How does my Catholic Faith play into this? If we have complete trust in Our Lord, we should never need to worry about anything. Jesus, I trust in you. I can say those words over and over again. Yet, my worries still haunt me. Am I a hypocrite for saying I trust in God when my body says otherwise. I find it difficult, even impossible, to relinquish control. Jesus, I trust in you, but apparently not enough to accept my suffering and place it in your hands. The irony here is that once a person with panic disorder accepts it and simply allows it to happen, it generally subsides or disappears.

Is it a sin to be a coward, to be unable to face your fears like many normal people do? Is this a character flaw or simply a medical abnormality? Allowing fear to rule one’s life certainly seems selfish in the sense that one’s personal comfort takes dominance over concern for others. I have mentioned my inability to place all my trust in Our Lord in the confessional. I have prayed for help, and I do admit that strides have been made over the years. Within my comfort zone, which is large enough to manage my everyday life, I am very functional. My daily routine is normally joyful. My co-workers would likely be very surprised to know what goes on in my head!

All of this has made me very conscious of people who live with mental illness, and especially those who suffer from mental anguish for whatever reason. I also know that behavior is affected by these hidden handicaps in many people. Please do not be quick to criticize every person who may avoid a family function or not participate in the way you would like. Pray for those who are suffering inside with fears they are ashamed to discuss, especially young people who are unable to function to the point of being outcasts by their peers, and subject to taunting or isolation. Reach out to those who may appear socially awkward. They may actually be dealing with a very troubled existence. Pray for those who may be alone with these fears and unable to reach for help. Pray for them and pray for me.

Dear Lord, I offer you my suffering in reparation for my sins and for the sins of others. Have mercy on me in my weakness and give me the strength to face my fears with confidence and trust. Help me to accept this small cross joyfully and without trepidation. Help others who may be suffering similarly in isolation with no hope for getting help. Give all of us the strength to persevere. Jesus, I trust in you. Amen.