I'm not the man I once was. I'm not yet the man I want to be.
t seems like you have a low level intensity that just exists underneath at all times."
It’s not the first time I had heard some variation of that spoken over me —but it was the first time that a physician had acknowledged it to me in such a clear and direct way.
I’ve always considered myself a serious person. Most confident when around people 10+ years older than me—my junior high and high school years were as uncomfortable as you might imagine.
That intensity became a badge of honor — forged from countless moments of choosing responsibility over youth, “good” behavior over rebellion, and "do-it-all leadership" over a team-oriented posture.
That intensity served me well into my college years, creating countless experiences that I am forever grateful for. It served me well, until it didn’t.
Six months into marriage and grad school the pressure of curating my facade of control found a weak point and began to exert strain on my body. The stress created by my achievement-complex eventually latched onto my muscles and wouldn’t let go.
Three weeks into battling persistent neck and shoulder tightness, strange numbing sensations, and intermittent headaches I found myself sitting in the passenger seat as my wife drove me to the emergency room. I was confident the doctors would confirm what my WebMD self-diagnosis had already determined. I was dying of some form of a tumor related to an injury that I had sustained in a serious incident 8 years earlier as a teenager.
Spoiler alert — I wasn’t dying. However the team of medical professionals that I met with were less than equipped to see and diagnose my symptoms for what they truly were — my first real experience of an anxiety attack.
Nevertheless January 21, 2015 was a wake up call to me.
I knew that I needed to make radical changes and began to realize that I had ZERO routines in my life that cared for my nutrition and exercise.
Because I had spent so much time fearing death I decided that I needed to distance myself from death as much as I could in that season. For 2 months I gave up eating meat of all kinds as a way of personally boycotting death in all its forms. I eventually returned to eating meat (though my meat consumption still looks very different to this day), but in that season I had to become very self-involved in the decisions that I made for every single meal.
I began to lose weight, at first without intent, and then it became a mission as I noticed the way that weight loss increased my confidence, energy, and overall health. I became religious with counting calories and weighing food. I didn’t eat bread for 4 months.
In April of 2015 I began running here and there.
First only a half mile to one mile at a time, with plenty of rest breaks—but then quickly my fitness began to grow and it wasn’t uncommon for me to run a 5 mile loop at Loose Park in Kansas City.
Quickly I found two new activities that I could pour myself into, and my achievement oriented personality took to them wholeheartedly. By October of 2015 I had completed my first marathon and lost 60 lbs. It was invigorating to have accomplished those goals, and everyone around me was noticing—but it was an exhausting effort to sustain.
Swinging to the other end of the spectrum, I found that the practices I had introduced to create rhythms of balance and wholeness had become instruments of stress in their own way. When I traveled I would literally pack a scale with me so that I could keep track of my weight. Backsliding was not an option.
It wasn’t long before stress manifested itself in an entirely new way. Whereas before it had made its appearance physically in my neck and shoulders, this time it took aim at my heart. I began to notice chest pains that I first wrote off as my imagination, but with each random occurrence I began to be more concerned and this only intensified my anxiety.
When a runner in Kansas City collapsed and died after running the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon, my own “condition” became all that I could think about. Anxiety swept in and once again I was convinced that I was flirting with disaster or even death. I scheduled an appointment with a physician and prepared myself for bad news.
Since that time I’ve been consistently grateful for the way that healing has been made possible because of the ways that others have helped me to see and name unhealthy habits and medical diagnoses.
That physician’s willingness to rule out all obvious conditions, and then choose to listen and offer non-reactive treatment, has made all the difference. Healing hasn’t stopped there. I’ve learned to loosen my grasp on the notion that I can fix everything around me if I but only work another night away, or give up a food group entirely. I’ve come to believe that a healthy life is found in the long-term commitments we make to sustainable choices. Sometimes we’re going to be in survival mode for the sake of accomplishing a dream or enduring a hardship, but we can’t possibly live our lives there indefinitely.
I want my ongoing story to serve as a testament to the role of relationships in our personal development. Don’t allow yourself to fall prey to the idea that we are able to be self-made, or that we are the only ones who can determine “who we are.” We have to have others alongside us who will help us grow and be shaped in healthy ways; it’s how we were made.
In that spirit, here are several of the people who have been instrumental to my ongoing journey of growth:
1. My wife Kira. For the countless moments when you have given me shelter in my weakness. For sitting with me in the moments of anxiety, and never writing off my feelings in the moment. For helping me to contextualize those same feelings, and for reminding me of the very love of Jesus through your own self-sacrificial presence. Thank you love.
2. My parents—for caring more about my well-being than my ability to be an accomplished son. For your testament to simplicity, and for raising your kids to be communicative. I often find myself falling back on the words that you’ve each spoken throughout moments of joy and heartache in life—thanks for letting me witness those. Thanks for loving me.
3. Glen and Diana — for the encouragement and love you have shown across the table or on the other end of the phone. For welcoming me into your family and for raising such a fantastic woman for me to call my bride. You’re non-judgmental, optimistic posture always welcomes us in.
4. Dave, J.P., Melissa, Katie Rose, and Beau. All the moments of vulnerability in the office or through FaceTime. Thank you.
In my journey with stress and anxiety, here are a few things that have helped me.
1. Committing to rest daily and weekly. Try to find time every single day for quiet. I don’t yet have kids, so I know that this is much easier for me than it is for many. Mornings have become my daily time for processing the day ahead of me and meeting God in prayer.
2. Be open to medication. I had never taken any form of daily medication before (my medical history is blessedly boring). That said, my physician prescribed a very low dose SSRI (*serotonin* reuptake inhibitor) around a year ago. I think that it has helped to treat that gentle rolling boil of intensity.
3. Talk with a counselor and find someone who loves you who will let you talk through your life with them on a regular basis (Pro Tip: You need this regardless of how you’re feeling!)
4. Keep a journal. Anxiety and stress can take on so many forms, but when you journal it can help you to identify any patterns that may exist when things do arise. This will help you know how to anticipate and make changes before anxiety attacks take place.