The first time I had a panic attack, I thought it was asthma. I was in a church full of friends, singing, and suddenly, I couldn’t breathe right. I wound up sitting on a bench in the bathroom, and the white tiled walls felt smaller. It’s the most afraid I’ve ever felt.
Three friends ended up taking me to the hospital, which I don’t remember. When I was released around midnight, I had a bag full of pamphlets, a hospital bracelet, and somehow, only one shoe.
Most people I grew up with didn’t think about anxiety as a medical condition. My faith background seemed to hold the unspoken belief that anxiety was something I chose. Most conversations implied that anxiety was about how I “didn’t trust God enough,” or how if I just prayed harder, everything would go away. I was taught that anxiety was about what I personally lacked, not about medicine or chemistry or hard seasons of life.
After my panic attack, I knew I owed a few people an explanation of something I didn’t even fully understand. When we got back to the house that night, a good friend stood outside. He had no idea what had happened, and I didn’t know what to tell him. I was unsure how to start, and I remember feeling incredibly nervous.
He asked me where I’d been that night. I leaned against the balcony and took a long look at the horizon. It was beautiful and honest, and I wanted to be like it. So I dove in.
“I went to the hospital.”
“Why? Are you sick?”
“No.” (Wait, was I sick?) “Yes.”
I wanted to tell him I’d had an asthma attack, but I knew that wasn’t the truth. I knew I wanted friendships that were authentic and honest, friendships that could take in big questions without many answers and still be OK. I thought, perhaps, this could be one of them.
“Kind of both,” I remember finally saying. “It’s been a long night.”
“Well.” My friend’s voice was quiet and honest. “I’m listening.”
I opened my mouth and was surprised at how strong my voice sounded. I told him everything. How I’d gone from totally fine to completely unraveled in about five minutes. How my hands shook, and my heart raced, and fear descended like a big black cloud. He got up and stood next to me, just there, listening. I even mentioned I’d lost one of my shoes.
He stayed quiet until I was done, and then he said it.
“I think you’re really brave.”
Me? Brave? This was the opposite of what I expected. But listening and grace—that was just what I needed.
Then, with a smile I couldn’t interpret, he bent down and took off one of his shoes. I just stood there in disbelief, my words still raw in the back of my throat. And then I understood exactly what he meant: He was meeting me where I was. We were the same.
It turned out that the first person I told about my panic attack was the most understanding, and it gave me hope. Hope that people can surprise you, understanding can exist, and heavy things can lift. My hope is that you would, one of these days, feel as light as I did when I spoke up. I hope you know you are not your panic, or your fears, or your illnesses. You are bigger than all of these things combined. I hope you find somebody who helps you see that. I hope you have conversations that are honest, no matter how hard (and I hope the conversations get less hard). I hope people surprise you with listening hearts and with goodness.
I think you are brave. And I hope you believe that.