anxiety

15 Ways I’ve Changed as a Person in the Past 15 Years

1996 was a big year for me. I went to the Bahamas, got engaged, and graduated from college. I got married, moved to New York City, and started my first pastorate. When I think back on who I was then, I want to just shake my head and laugh. The key sentence in the first chapter of my upcoming book sums it up, “I am not who I used to be.”

To commemorate how I’ve changed in the past 15 years, I thought I’d do a series of blog posts about my personal transformation. In the coming months, I’ll make lists about how I’ve changed as a theologian, as a husband, and as a pastor. But to get things started, I thought I’d write about how I’ve changed in general, as a person.

So, here are 15 statements that are true of me now, but I couldn’t have said about myself in 1996.

1. I don’t bite my fingernails.
I used to bite my nails a lot. During games. While I drove. But then, a couple of years ago, I got very sick while traveling in Florida. It was miserable. I was too sick to bite my nails. And I haven’t bitten them since.

2. I take money seriously and have an actual plan for it.
If I could tell the me of 1996 anything, it would probably be to take the money stuff seriously and to get it figured out as soon as possible. I can’t believe how much money I’ve wasted over the years. Two things have made a huge difference – the weekly budget lunch with Vanessa and Dave Ramsey.

3. I am authentic.
I grew up in a family and church culture where faking it was the norm. And then I married a person who is relentlessly real. Thanks to her, I’ve learned that it is better – and essential – for me to take off my mask and let people see the real me. Yikes.

4. I have a problem with anxiety.
So, speaking of authenticity, I can now admit that I get this unexplained, uncomfortable, unwelcome pain around my heart. I’ve blogged about it before, and I’ve been doing some things to combat it – giving up caffeine, exercising, and more – but I think being able to admit honestly that it is something I struggle with is a huge first step to getting better.

5. I can make it in the real world.
The summer after I graduated from college was miserable. I bounced from job to job, unable to find a place where I fit. When that kind of thing happens, you begin to wonder if you can make it in the real world. Then I started pastoring my first church, and making it in the marketplace was no longer a concern. Until we started Vintage. 6 years into being a bi-vocational pastor, I now know that I have skills and abilities that translate in the real world.

6. I care less about politics and more about people.
I used to think of politics as life or death, the future of the country and the world hangs in the balance. People on the other side of aisle are to be opposed and defeated. Now, I think of politics as a sport. I still root for my team to win, but I care much more about civility and understand than victory.

7. I embrace mystery.
I don’t have to have it all figured out. How liberating is that?

8. I try to listen more.
When I worked at a church in Boston several years ago, I used to write a note to myself on top the agenda for each interminably long meeting I had to attend – “Don’t interrupt.” I’ve learned that it’s far better to, in Francis Schaeffer’s words, earn the right to be heard, than to simply be the one who talks the most or the loudest.

9. I exercise.
Seriously. Three or four times a week. This might be the craziest thing about me that has changed over the past 15 years.

10. I intentionally sabbath.
Sundays are the highlight of my week: up early for some alone time with God, Vintage, lunch with friends, nap, watching football or playing the Wii with Vin, family TV time, some alone time with Vanessa. This is what heaven is like, right?

11. I parent.
Three times, in the past decade and a half, when driving to either the hospital or the courthouse, I sang, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Three times I was right.

12. I value friendship.
It’s not that I didn’t value friendship 15 years ago. It’s more that I didn’t realize how much I should value friendship. Having a few guys that get me and love me. I’ve come to realize that it is a rare gift.

13. I wear my goatee short.
In 1996, my goatee rivaled that of Alexi Lalas. I rocked the long, red face mullet. 15 years later, it’s high and tight, as it should be.

14. I don’t run from conflict.
I don’t like conflict, but I am much less afraid of it. Just when I think I’ve seen it all in church conflict, something new happens. I’ve learned over the years that ignoring it and hoping it goes away doesn’t work. The best way to deal with it is honestly, humbly, and head-on.

15. I have tattoos.
Who would have guessed that.

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Strategies for Anxiety

In about a six week period of time near the beginning of 2011, I had two panic attacks. I have had panic attacks in the past once or twice but they were very rare and not close together at all. These two freaked me out – big and close together. And so I sought some help. This was kind of a big deal to me for a bunch of reasons, not the least of which were having to admit that I, even as a pastor, don’t have it all together and I was taught in Bible college to distrust psychology. But like everything else in my life that has gotten deconstructed, these biases did too, and I reached out for some help.

I connected with a friend of mine who works at a local mental health agency to seek his advice. In talking, I learned that, apparently, not everyone has a near-constant pain around their heart. I don’t think I realized this. I guess I thought everyone felt like I did, always a bit on edge, always a tad nervous, always carrying the weight of the world. And feeling it in my chest.

I never knew it before, or probably would have been able to admit it, but I have a problem with anxiety.

My anxiety rears its ugly head in different types of situations.

For instance, whenever I have a church business meeting of some sort, I get freaked out. I attribute this to be conditioned by business and deacons meetings at churches I previously pastored in which I would be judged, condemned, accosted. On more than one occasion, the Vintage Oversight Team has watched me break into unexpected tears at one of our meetings. Tears of fear that I’m going to be taken to the woodshed for something. Tears of utter relief that the Vintage Oversight Team is so gracious and kind to me.

Sometimes the weather makes me panic, especially when I am traveling. When I was young and stupid, not even feet of snow and ice could slow me down, but now I hate to drive even in rain. I hate it when work takes me out of town and the weather keeps me away from home longer than I expected. I feel like I am letting Vanessa and the kids down by not being there. It makes me feel so powerless and helpless.

Often, people’s problems make the pain in my chest worse. I care so deeply that people make wise choices and follow Jesus that it tears me up when they don’t. This is especially true when people’s foolishness is destructive in the lives of others. So many times, I have fielded a phone call from someone from church that has left me anxious for days.

With the help of my friend and in hopes of being a more emotionally healthy and authentically whole person, I am pursuing a strategy to handle my anxiety that includes the following things:

– Being Caffeine Free: My doctor-friend told me that caffeine is directly related to anxiety. He said that reducing my caffeine intake could be more effective than going on medication. So, I went cold turkey. And that was a big deal because I drank a lot of coffee. I mean, a lot. I had about 10 days of terrible withdrawal symptoms: headaches, muscle pain, flu like symptoms. It was awful, but it passed, and I emerged on the other side without the need to constantly have a cup of coffee in my hand. Decaf tea has replaced coffee, not just for Lent but maybe forever. And the pain around my heart was noticeably lessened.

– Friendships: Loneliness exasperates my anxiety. Therefore, I have been intentionally pursuing friendships. I now have three friends I meet with on a semi-weekly basis. It’s getting to the point where I can tell these guys anything and receive their counsel and advice. With their voices in my head, I have a counterbalance to my anxious fears.

– Counseling: Speaking of other voices, I know that I need to talk my issues through with a counselor. As a pastor, that is a hard thing to admit and an even harder thing to do. For several weeks now, I have had an email in my inbox with a list of recommended counselors. I haven’t made an appointment with one yet. But I will soon. And I’m sure it will help.

– Exercise: In recent days, I have begun exercising. Three days a week, I am running and working out. I need to lose 17 pounds, and certainly, exercise will help. Plus, the physical activity helps to relieve stress. I’ve been sore, but I’ve been feeling good.

– Routine: More than ever, I crave the structure of our daily family prayers and our weekly Sabbath. We need to connect with God each day as a family, and I need to take myself off duty each week. I am now at the point where I relish the relaxation and calm of Sunday afternoons. It just feels so good.

I am not all the way better, but I am on my way. I don’t think I’m alone. Any other anxiety sufferers out there who want to share their stories? I’d love to hear them.

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