Thursday, September 13, 2012

Hold On 'Til Normal

I remember sitting in a showing of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Some time towards the end of the movie, I started feeling overwhelmed. I started to feel terrified and I wanted to jump out of my skin. It had nothing to do with what was on the screen, but there in that dark theater I felt alone forced to deal with this alone.

After the movie, the feeling didn't go away. In fact, it stayed with me for months and months. At first I thought they were panic attacks, but the more I studied, I found that this wasn't like that. Panic attacks tend to come on suddenly, hit very intensely, and then leave just as quickly. That wasn't what I was experiencing.

The way I try to describe it to people is “nervous feeling.” That intense knot you get in your stomach when you have to give a public speech or think about death or see the red flashing lights in your rear-view mirror: that's what it felt like. As far as I could tell, there was nothing that I was nervous about, but the feeling forced my mind to very dark thoughts. And this stimulation of horrible imagination only fueled the feeling in my stomach.

I know that others have suffered much more than I, but this was crushing. It wasn't that it was painful, so much as persistent.   I couldn't escape it. It was like being trapped in the anxiety of a nightmare with no sense of waking. There was no way I could accurately convey even to those I loved how I felt like I was in a constant state of horror and there seemed little I could do about it.

The worst was the nights. Darkness would fall on my mind like a shroud and I would literally writhe in fear. I couldn't eat, I couldn't catch my breath, I couldn't enjoy distractions like TV, and I couldn't sleep. But after a long while, out of nowhere, a new feeling would overwhelm me: Normal.

I don't think we have a good way to describe “normal.” Feeling “good” implies the experiencing of some immediate pleasure. But that wasn't it. It was the absence of “bad.” Each night, my wife would patiently wait with me through the throws of my struggles and she would encourage me to “hold on 'till normal.” And more and more often it would come late in the night.

Some gastric meds and some lifestyle changes helped a lot and the feeling began to fade. And more and more I began to feel normal.

I don't think that I ever really appreciated what it was to be normal. I think that is the horrible shame of it. Feeling normal is such a blessing. Our bodies and minds are more fragile than we imagine. The slightest imbalance can throw our health spiraling out of control. Do we savor the feeling of normal? That feeling you have when the headache finally subsides, do you take time to notice it? Or are you like me and find yourself living in relief without attention.

I will often find myself praying, when it suddenly hits me how much healing the Lord has done for me. And I burn with shame because I don't appreciate it enough.

I am not grateful enough for calmness, rest, the ability to walk, the smell of fresh air, the fullness of my lungs, the beating of my heart, the relief of a hot shower, the satisfaction of eating, the peace of an anxiety-free mind, and peaceful sleep.

I am not grateful enough because I don't notice when everything is going fine. It is only when things go wrong that I truly appreciate those now-gone moments of peace. Why is that?

Even after most of my chronic problems subsided, I barely noticed that I was back to normal. Why? How can I be so inattentive to such an amazing blessing.

And everyone once and a while I relapse and I am consumed by the nervous feeling, trapped in that inescapable prison of fear. But I know that it can get better. I can hold on 'til normal.

I've spent a lot of time in prayer over this. I've come to the conclusion that I do not deserve normal. Every day I sin and in the battle between the grace of God and my selfish soul, I often feel like I am far from holiness. There is so much waste in my life. There is so much more good I could be doing but the inertia of laziness plants me in front of the TV or constantly checking Twitter instead of spending time with the Lord in prayer or giving my time to those in need.

That is why God gives us normal. On that blank slate of feeling, we can be free from any overwhelming problems so that we can do good. When I fall back into my anxious state, I am hit by how little I have used my normal to help others or to improve my soul. But guilt is not what God wants from me.

A man a greatly admire once told me the story about how he was in a super market buying some chocolate oatmeal, and he was overwhelmed with the thought of all those who couldn't afford to buy chocolate oatmeal and were in fact starving at that moment. Wave upon wave of guilt flooded his heart as he felt this indulgence was horrible decadent and offensive to those with little. But he said that God spoke to his heart at that moment and said:

“I don't want your guilt. I want your gratitude.”

I do feel guilty about how little I appreciate normal, but that is not what God wants. He wants my gratitude.

I think that is the key. If I can always recognize the blessing of normal, then maybe I can feel a persistent sense of gratitude in my life. If I remember that every normal moment is a gift, I can treat it as a gift and use my times of normal wisely. And when times are dark, I can remember that normal may be just around the corner, and I can be thankful for the memory of normal too.

And if I can be truly grateful, maybe I can finally start to progress on the road to righteousness.

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