"I cannot even put it into words, but it was as if God picked my fearful body up as my mom had when I was a little girl, and held me in His arms until I was calm. It was then that I knew that God would not let me suffer from this for my entire life."
Visit here to listen to Saint Mary's College senior Jess Jones tell the story of encountering grace as a comfort and stronghold amidst all anxieties. Subscribe to the free Stories of Grace podcast on iTunes U and receive automatic notifications when a new story is published. Read the full text of Jess' reflection below.
Do you remember the first time you were ever sent to your room for doing something really, really bad as a kid? Personally, I used to get sent to my room all the time for time outs, and I mean all the time. My parents weren’t the ones who sent me though. Nope, I sent myself.
One time in particular it was bad, so bad. I was three, and I remember it vividly. It was my mom’s day off which meant it was cleaning day, a big day in our house. I was the proud handler of a bottle of Windex and some paper towels, and I was on a mission to clean the glass coffee table. Just so you get some perspective, this was not a task to be taken lightly. This coffee table was the center of the room, the focal point if you will. It had to sparkle, and I was the girl for the job. I sprayed as much Windex as I could on that bad boy, and from the kitchen I heard my mom yell, “No more sprays, please.”
I thought about the situation before me. She would never know if I sprayed the glass again. She couldn’t see me. Before I knew it, my little fingers pulled the red handle and Windex sputtered onto the glass. Fear and regret swept over me, and I started to cry. Without cleaning up my mistake, I ran to my room afraid.
A few minutes later, I heard mom’s footsteps and my name being called. As she made her way to my bedroom, I replied that I had sentenced myself to a time out. “Why”, she asked. “I sprayed the bottle again”, I replied meekly. She was not mad, and she really didn’t say anything at all. She just picked up my little body and held me in her arms until I was calm.
As you can tell, I was big into self-discipline, and this was not a one-time thing. As I reflect back on my own little feelings though, I realize this moment was the start of something much more serious: correcting and disciplining myself out of fear. Fear of what others would think of me. Fear of what could happen.
It doesn’t quite make sense to me, even to this day. I grew up in the most loving place anyone could imagine. Even in my head, I knew that I didn’t have anything to be afraid of.
Still, as I grew up, these small fears grew too. They grew into a real and constant monster that appeared to be much wiser and stronger than myself. This monster had a name: anxiety.
My parents watched me change from a curious and bubbly little girl to a young lady living in fear. During school or at night—it didn't matter where I was really—I would have overpowering anxiety attacks. At school, I would run to the bathroom and cry as my body sent me through all the unforgiving traits of an anxiety attack. Shaking, hyperventilating, chills, the list goes on. The same thing would happen in my room at night, and I would wake up my parents begging for help. But, they had no idea how to tackle this. Neither of them knew God at all, nor did I. So, at this point in time He was not a place to seek guidance or refuge. All we could do was keep wondering why I was so afraid of the consequences of any little thing. Even now, I wish I knew.
When I was ten, my parents sat me down and told me I was switching schools. Not only was I switching to a new school, but I was switching to a Catholic school. To my recollection, I didn’t know what being Catholic meant, even though my dad was Catholic. I had never even been to Mass. The idea of this unfamiliar place caused me many more sleepless nights filled with panic. However, I thank God everyday for my parents’ decision.
The first few weeks at my new school did not help at first. They were challenging and filled with foreign things like Mass and prayers. The longer I was there though, the easier it was for God to pick at my heart. Little by little it opened up in new and unexpected ways.
I was captivated by the Mass and these mysterious prayers. Soon, I found myself praying before bed and looking forward to Mass. Soon after, my parents followed. My family and I began to go to Mass together, in addition to scheduled Mass time during school. The sense of community I felt, and still feel, in Mass helped me to feel safe in my world of anxiety. The music, so beautiful, almost felt like it was rocking me into a new place, a comfortable place.
In 2007, my mom and I were baptized side by side at the Easter Vigil. For those of you who were baptized as babies and don’t remember the feeling, take my word for it, being baptized is the most incredible feeling a human being can ever experience. To this day, I have never again experienced something so beautiful. I cannot even put it into words, but it was as if God picked my fearful body up as my mom had when I was a little girl, and held me in His arms until I was calm. It was then that I knew that God would not let me suffer from this for my entire life. I knew he would give me the tools to be strong and fight this anxiety, to help me be able to experience things outside of my comfort zone.
When my mind began to wander and my body began to shake warning me of the attack that would soon follow, I would pray—hard and devotedly. My prayers were simple and repetitive, always “Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over and over, breathing along with the words, I could feel my body surrender.
After years of prayer, I finally felt called to see a doctor about my anxiety the summer before my sophomore year of college. It was then that I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and a Phobia. In July of 2014 I began a rigorous and intense form of therapy called exposure therapy for my phobia—the source of most of my anxiety. I am not healed, and I will never be fully healed. There will always be good days and bad days. However, I do not let my anxiety run my life and constrain me to my comfort zone. I now know that God is with me always. He walks with me, and whenever I feel myself revert back to those anxiety-filled days, I feel overwhelmed with His mercy and love. And in that moment, he just picks up my little body and holds me in his arms until I am calm.