What It’s Like to Have a Panic Attack While You Preach
I don’t talk about it much but I struggle with depression and anxiety. I have for a long time. Sometimes it seems like no big deal, sometimes it is a very big deal. For the most part, I am fortunate as I know many people have struggles much worse than mine.
One of the ways my struggles like to show up once in awhile is with panic attacks. I don’t really like the term panic attack, there is something about the term that I have never really been comfortable with. But that is what they are, panic attacks. There is no reason for them, but they happen sometimes. Sometimes I do have provoked anxiety attacks but more often than not, there is no reason for me to be feeling what I am feeling.
I have been fortunate for the most part that these attacks have shown up when no one else is around and nothing significant is happening. Usually I’m in bed, or just getting ready for the day.
That is usually, but there was one time it was different.
One time the ugly monster of panic overwhelmed me just before I was about to preach.
It was a strange morning. Something felt off but I couldn’t place it. I went through my usual Sunday routine of waking up at 4 am and heading to the church to pray and practice. Then I went to the gym and drank a tea before going home to shower and get back to church.
Normal routine, but a feeling of unplaceable uneasiness.
I brought my family to church and all seemed normal, except for this feeling of pressure I started to feel within me. I sat in the front pew just before the service started after talking with people a bit in the lobby of the church. As I sat down I could feel my heart begin to speed up. And the pressure was no longer in me but all around me. I had the feeling I was being suffocated from outside even while I could breath.
Nothing was abnormal, same old same old, but I started to feel it.
As my heart picked up pace I could feel the cold sweat come to my forehead. Not now, oh please not now is all I could muster as a thought or prayer or something. And then it hit.
I just couldn’t. What couldn’t I? Anything really in that moment. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t see clear, I couldn’t catch my breath. I just couldn’t. If I could have I would have run. I don’t know where, but anywhere but there.
The worship leader got up, welcomed everyone and asked everyone to rise. I did no rising!
I hunched over more in a posture that looked like prayer but truthfully was fear and panic crumbling me from the inside. And I stayed there as the song ended and the next one started. And the cold sweat seemed to turn to slow tears as I didn’t know how what was expected to happen would have happened that morning.
As the second song ended I muster a small prayer that moved past my fear with the simple short words of “please God, I can’t do this.” And as the slow tears welled up and song came to a close and I tried to steady my breathing as I knew I had to pray following the end of the song I heard the stern but gentle words ring inside my head “You won’t.”
I got up in a blur and don’t know what I said. I sat back down trying to count my breaths. The music played and I stood. I was not being genuine, but in that moment I just felt I had to give an appearance that things were okay even though I didn’t feel that way.
As the song ended I began a short walk to the stage to preach and it felt like the longest trek of my life. My legs felt heavy, my heart continued to beat faster than I could count and I under my breath before I turned on my mic whispered “I just can’t” and my slow pace quickened and the echo of “you won’t” rang loud in my head.
I preached on Hosea. I don’t know what I said. But I said it. Or I didn’t. I don’t know. I often listen to my preaching to see how I can improve but I can’t listen to that one. As the service ended I skipped out of the customary handshake line a little early and locked myself in a bathroom for a few minutes. And things turned somewhat normal.
I went downstairs and heard about peoples weeks. Their aching bones. The children who don’t call. The dangers of getting older. The sad lack of flowers on the church stage. The dislike of the paint colour. And also the heartfelt words that the sermon cut through their heart and challenged them in a way didn’t want to be challenged but needed to be.
I don’t know how that happened. But I know I didn’t do it.
And that was the hardest Sunday I ever had, and I hope never to repeat it.