A little more than a year ago I experienced my first panic attack… I mean a real panic attack. It was a Sunday night and I had just given a talk at one of the local Coptic churches in the city. When I was about to head home, I suddenly felt nauseous and dizzy. Mind you, I’ve fainted many times before so I knew how to handle the whole dizzy part. I found the nearest chair to sit down on and held my head between my hands trying to control the spinning motion inside of me. While seated I could sense my whole body was shaking uncontrollably – what happened next felt really weird. My throat tightened up and I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore. My heart started to race – the palpitations were so strong my heart nearly came out of my chest. My breath also increased rapidly and heavily; I experienced shortness of breath and hyperventilation. My whole body heated up so quickly that I almost had to rip my jacket off!
Through the entire experience, which lasted about 15-20 minutes, I felt I had no control over my body’s reaction, neither did I have the slightest clue as to why my body was reacting this way. After all, it was not the first time I had given a talk in front of people. All I can say is that it was totally unexpected!
Eventually, my body started to calm down, and everything naturally began to return to its ordinary function. Nevertheless, I still felt off for the next few days. In fact, I experienced a second panic attack about two weeks later. The second time around I tried to fight it but that only made the panic stronger. After this experience I was depressed for about a month, scared of this dark overwhelming feeling that overcame me – that’s the only way I can describe it.
Why did I just share this with you? I am sharing this story with you today in hopes of changing some of the mental health stereotypes in the Church. Going through this unpleasant experience made me really think about how Christians should view mental health and more specifically mental illness. I also want people to know that they are not alone and that there are people out there that can help! Hopefully, this post will help me spread that message.
The first person I ran to once I had the courage to talk to someone was a priest. For anyone who knows me this wouldn’t sound so shocking since I usually talk to my spiritual father first no matter the reason. But this time felt different. Was he going to dismiss my experience as being ‘nothing’? Will he understand what I’m going through? Will he think less of me because of this? These were all questions that were going through my mind before I went to see him.
Thankfully the priest I went to knew exactly what I was going through and how to help. All my worries of being rejected or misunderstood disappeared.
Side note: I learned that not all priests will know how to respond or deal with this issue but that doesn’t mean the Church is somehow failing. Some priests are more knowledgeable in some areas than others either because of their background or their own personal experiences.
I initially thought I was having these panic attacks because I was far from God or somehow lacked faith. When my priest heard me say that he responded with the most beautiful and comforting words. He said, “Michelle, now you will experience Christ in a way you have never experienced Him before. He draws near to those who are suffering, and He will draw near to you.” So, if you are going through depression or any other type of mental illness know that God is near! And you are not going through these things because you are being punished or because you are far from Him. Having a mental illness doesn’t make you less of a Christian or less of a person than anyone else.
After that, he explained to me that mental illness is not just a spiritual issue. A Pastor who wrote an article called, Too Blessed to be Depressed? wrote, “If you are a Christian who struggles with depression, don’t make the mistake of thinking if you just pray enough, claim enough, repent enough, or believe enough you will be cured.” I personally made the mistake of thinking that receiving Holy Communion would take me out of the dark, fear-filled state I was feeling. I was treating Communion like a magic pill and God like a genie – I wanted my wishes to appear instantly. Holy Communion and the sacraments of the Church are part of the treatment and healing process and not the only solution.
So, I went to see a medical doctor, who was Orthodox. He also explained to me that panic attacks could be caused by many different factors. It was not necessarily coming from a lack of faith but perhaps from a chemical imbalance in my body (low magnesium, low Vitamin B, etc.) or other causes like major stress, irregular sleeping patterns and even lack of exercise (which I was guilty of all). He also encouraged me to keep attending church services on a regular basis and to pray, especially prayers of thanksgiving.
The fact that he was Orthodox helped a lot because he didn’t only look at it from a medical point of view, but kept in mind the spiritual side of things. As Orthodox Christians, we understand that we, human beings, are composite beings – body, soul and spirit (also known as ‘mind’). So when one part of that person is suffering then the whole person is suffering. This Christian view of anthropology shows us that mental health is as important as physical health. They’re intertwined; the health of each one is important in maintaining the health of the other. So, when dealing with a mental illness, we should seek both medical treatment and spiritual guidance without being ashamed.
Mental illness is not new. You can see it in the Old Testament with Prophet Elijah (1 Kings 19:4-9) and in more recent times we see St.Tikhon of Zadonsk who was known to have struggled with depression. I think our Orthodox faith gives us the means to understand, to cope and especially to heal from our illnesses because Christ was incarnate and His Incarnation changed EVERYTHING! There’s nothing you and I are going through that Christ doesn’t understand. Our quest as Orthodox Christians is to be whole, whole (and holy) human beings. And the only way to be whole is to offer everything to God, the good, the bad and the ugly.