Tuesday, July 16, 2013

About My Phobia

"Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint;
    preserve my life from dread of the enemy."
    Psalm 64:1 (ESV)

That word, "dread," stuck out to me. The writer of this psalm isn't exactly asking for God to protect him from being attacked- he's going farther than that, asking God to free him from fear. Because even if you're not in danger, if you feel like you are, that really takes a toll.

That particular word from this passage is translated different ways: threat, dread, fear, terror.

Image source.

And fear is something that's had a huge role in my life lately. Specifically, a phobia.

Wikipedia defines "phobia" as "a type of anxiety disorder, usually defined as a persistent fear of an object or situation in which the sufferer commits to great lengths in avoiding, typically disproportional to the actual danger posed, often being recognized as irrational. In the event the phobia cannot be avoided entirely, the sufferer will endure the situation or object with marked distress and significant interference in social or occupational activities."

I am afraid of a certain thing, which I shall refer to as the "object of my phobia." Not going to say what it really is, because like Wikipedia says, the fear is "disproportional" and "irrational." You'd laugh at me, and this whole blog post would seem like a joke, just some silly thing I'm making a big deal out of for no reason. Instead, good writing is something the reader can relate to, feel the emotion of the writer. So just imagine there is a thing called an "object of my phobia" and it's really scary.

It started last year, when I had a kind of traumatic experience with an object-of-my-phobia. When it happened, I was alone, with no one to understand or help me. And I really believe there is a connection between my phobia and a fear of being alone. Maybe my mind has latched onto this thing as a symbol of the more abstract fear of being alone. I don't know. There's some connection.

Last year I was at college. I lived alone and I was happy and independent and could take care of myself. But then this happened, and I was afraid whenever I was alone, afraid that I might encounter the object of my phobia. Like, paranoid, looking around defensively. Good thing I was pretty much done with college. Then I moved back in with my parents, partly because I didn't have a job yet, partly because of health issues related to my stomach, and partly because I didn't want to be alone and I have this phobia.

In December I went to Urbana, a huge missions conference hosted by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. Which was pretty awesome, especially since I really want to move to China, and Urbana is all about missions and God's love for the world and cultural diversity and all that.

But I felt stuck. How can I move to China? My parents' house was the only place I felt safe, certain there was no object-of-my-phobia there. What if I go to China and see one? And it's not like I can get a job in the US either- what if I have to live by myself, and I see one?

But a year earlier, I was in China, and I made the decision that no matter what, I would be moving to China after I graduated. I didn't know I was going to have stomach problems and end up having surgery, which would delay graduation. And I didn't know this phobia would develop, leaving me scared to go anywhere.

I wondered what was wrong with me. "I'm supposed to be in China," I thought. "Why is it taking so long?"

So, Urbana. I went to the prayer room one day and one of the staff members prayed with me. I told her about my phobia, and she asked me to imagine that situation which was traumatic and caused this phobia. She said Jesus is always with us, so he must be SOMEWHERE in that memory. So she told me to pray and ask Jesus to show me where he was.

I went over it in my head, trying to figure out where Jesus was. I thought of some ways that it could have been worse- but no, that can't be the answer to "where Jesus was." I hate when people pretend that "it's not as bad as it could have been" is somehow an answer to why God allows suffering. That just doesn't make sense. I want a God who's more on top of things.

The woman praying with me asked if I had discovered where Jesus was in that memory. I asked her to clarify the question- is he supposed to be in a specific place? Is he supposed to be doing something? What does it mean, "where is Jesus"? Like what am I even looking for?

And she told me it's okay if I don't know where he is- she didn't want me to make something up. (And you know me- I'm not going to just make something up. When God is bad, I tell it like it is.) She said I should keep praying about it, and also go to a counselor for some help with the fear.

So then a day or so later, I came back to the prayer room, and somebody else prayed with me about it. Same deal, asking Jesus where he was that time I was so scared. Still nothing.

And later that week, I found my answer. I found Jesus.

Suddenly, I had this realization- he was there with me, feeling the fear, at the same intensity I felt it. Jesus is a human- he came to this earth and lived among us and suffered and felt emotions. He knows how I feel, and he feels it too. The fear, the panic, the I-need-to-run-and-never-come-back. Jesus, God became flesh, and he understands. And perhaps that's the most important reason for the incarnation.

He was with me.

Wow. So, I was pretty excited about that.

Image source.

But that was at Urbana, a really "spiritual" atmosphere. What I felt was real... but how does it fit in with my everyday life? I still have this phobia. I still didn't know how in the world I would go to China.

And back at home, I thought about one of the speakers at Urbana, who talked about facing fears as we follow God. I wanted to do that. I mean, logically, it doesn't make sense to just live with my parents forever because of the distant possibility that maybe I might encounter this scary thing, which actually can't hurt me so it's really not that bad. It doesn't make sense to be so afraid that I can't even live my life.

So... does that mean if I'm really serious about going to China, I should just "get over it"? And that I'm already a failure for being stuck in this, for not just "getting over it"?

I wondered if I should think of my phobia as a "health problem." Last year when my stomach hurt all the time and I couldn't do any work and had to come home from college and eventually I had surgery, that wasn't something I could just "get over." That was a health problem, and I really NEEDED to have surgery.

It delayed my graduation and my move to China, but there was nothing I could do about it. I NEEDED to get medical treatment. I COULD NOT do the work I needed to do at college. And maybe my phobia is similar?

But a phobia has to do with thoughts and feelings. It's in my head. And I have control over my thoughts and feelings, right? Unlike my stomach problems. Why can't I just get over this?

What is the nature of the mind/body connection? I used to think they were totally separate, but they're not. The counselor I've been going to emphasizes this a lot. How I need to take deep breaths and try to relax in a stressful situation, because my brain needs oxygen in order to think clearly and make good decisions. How when I panic and my body has a fight-or-flight response, more blood goes to muscles instead of the brain, which makes it harder to think clearly.

It's complicated and I don't get it. But, also on the subject of the mind/body connection, I'll have you know I'm now taking drugs for depression/anxiety, which has REALLY helped with my depression (I won't get into that in this post...) and maybe also with the phobia, maybe. It confuses me how I can swallow these drugs and they affect my mind and the way I feel. And in the past I totally didn't believe in that stuff- I believed people should just pray and "get over it."

So do I have control over my thoughts and feelings, or not? Is it all just chemicals? I don't get it. But thank God for the depression drugs!

Anyway... at this point, I'm doing WAY better than I was a few months ago. I don't really think about the phobia that much, and I'm not as afraid. That's because I haven't seen an object-of-my-phobia since last year. Gradually I've gotten to feel safer- but I wonder if that feeling of safety is based on the assumption that I won't encounter an object-of-my-phobia... and I'll go right back to square 1 if I ever do.

I don't know. I know I have to practice relaxing more. And getting desensitized. And changing my thoughts, slowing trying to believe that this thing can't hurt me. I'll be okay, I guess. And I am moving to China.

All this to say that like the psalmist, I also want to be protected from fear. Because I've seen how fear can control my life, regardless of whether there's any real danger. No one should have to live like that.


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 64. To read other people's posts, click here: Deep: A reflection on Psalm 64.


  1. And I am moving to China.

    EEEEKKK! :)

    Thank you for sharing your journey with us. It's hard to write about those things, to show vulnerability. I am so glad you did!

  2. Whoa! A fight against fear and a move to China. I would say that you are super brave! I have a friend in China. She is a teacher and we are meeting today for lunch while home for the summer. Excited to hear of your travels......