It’s evening. The day is nearly done and the world is winding down for the night. You’re safe at home but suddenly you start to feel panicked. It’s somehow a little bit harder to breathe. Increasingly, you lose your grip on the situation. You start crying so hard you have even more trouble breathing.
The sound of your tears brings someone to the room. You can see they’re trying to talk to you, trying to figure out what is wrong, but by this point you are past the point of conversation. Everything so far has left you shaken, gasping and unable to control your body. You’re lying down, trying to regain some semblance of control but nothing is working. You feel their hands on your back, gently soothing you.
Soon your eyes are locked with theirs. They don’t look away and don’t allow you to either. “Okay, we’re going to breathe,” they say. Together, you breathe in and out. The panic begins to subside, the tears stop flowing and a sense of calm begins to return where chaos reigned mere moments ago.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 20 per cent of Canadians, or 7.2M people, will experience a mental illness. Of that group, five per cent, or approximately 1.8M people, will be/are affected by an anxiety disorder.
Stephanie Cunningham, an industrial relations graduate of McGill University, is part of that five per cent.
Anxiety is a reality she has had to deal with her whole life. But with the help of a Navigator staff, she has come to see her anxiety as an asset, one that enables her to bring the Gospel message to those around her in ways few others can.
Growing up anxious
Stephanie grew up in a Christian family, raised by parents who modeled strong commitments to faith and community. From the time she was a young teenager, she says her youth leaders and pastors invested their time and energy to help her understand faith and make it her own. As a 12-year-old she was teaching Sunday School, and as she grew up, began leading small groups for younger students. This strong foundation of faith helped guide and orient her in the midst of the difficult and trying circumstances of her mental illness.
But in the midst of these formative years, the seeds of anxiety were also being sown.
Looking back to when she was younger, Stephanie says she was “a little bit uptight, even as a kid, working really hard to follow the rules.” She says it confused her when things weren’t unfolding in a pattern she could understand.
“Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree made me so anxious as a kid because I couldn’t understand why this bear was doing all these stupid things to get honey. Of course the balloon is going to pop when you’re flying towards a tree, of course you’re going to fall. I couldn’t understand why he was doing it.”
As she grew up and went on to higher education, Stephanie depended heavily on following patterns to stave off her anxiety. “I tried to seem smart, cool, likeable, nice and funny so people would appreciate these things about me. If I could control what they thought of me then I was controlling who I was.”
When she graduated from university, Stephanie says she thought her anxiety would go away. “[But] it didn’t go away,” she says. “I started to realize a lot of my anxiety came from looking for my identity in structures or systems or patterns I could recognize, but not looking for security in the Lord.”
Learning to befriend anxiety
After graduating from McGill, around the time Stephanie was expecting her anxiety to vanish, she met Ron Pagé. Ron is a Navigator staff who gave a seminar at her church one Saturday on befriending anxiety. She says she started seeing Ron as a therapist in November 2016.
In her meetings with Ron, Stephanie says his questions focused on getting to the heart of the emotional need, helping her to better understand her anxiety. “Those guiding questions point me back to the emotional need, and if it’s giving me anxiety, I’m not looking for that need in the right place,” she says.
Looking to the emotional need has also helped Stephanie when an anxiety attack sets in. After she has sufficiently calmed down, she gets a journal and goes through what happened. “What was the unrest in me? Why was it something I couldn’t get a grip on? What was ‘the Need’?”
She says the culprit is almost always her default tendency to look for her identity in the circumstances: what she’s able to do, able to accomplish and how she interacts with others.
The solution, she says, is making the conscious choice to be with God in those moments. “It’s choosing to rest in the truth of who God is, the truth of what he is doing and the truth of who he made me to be. It’s the difference between believing in God and believing God. Believing He is who He says He is, believing He can do what He says He can do, believing I am who He says I am and believing I can do all things through Christ.”
Anxiety and discipleship
Learning to see anxiety as a friend and an asset has not only helped Stephanie personally, but it has also become an important part of how she disciples and comes alongside others.
She credits the impact of her church teachers and leaders with showing her the importance of investing in someone else’s life. “Having a small group leader who would follow up and answer my questions, guide me, direct me and shepherd me closer to God – that was invaluable for me as a teenager. To have a group of older, cool people in my life who were being the hands and feet of Jesus helped me see the value in being that role model for a younger person.”
Her experience with anxiety has opened her eyes to what it’s like to deal with a mental health issue and enables her to come alongside others in similar situations.
“My anxiety has given me the words to say, like ‘I feel you, I hear you, that’s what my life is all about. Feeling I can’t do it, like it’s too much and I’m not good enough. But here’s an alternative to that: I believe in a God who’s bigger than all that. He’s the source; He is the one who makes me feel worthy, solidifies my identity and my value. I’m broken, but Jesus died for my brokenness. He died for my sin. I’m gifted with the Holy Spirit, who allows me to draw near to God in a real and tangible way. These encounters with God are what empower me to grow and make it through the day. The common ground of anxiety and a mental health struggle allows me to speak real truth to where they’re at.”
Stephanie says her struggle with anxiety and mental health enables her to take her experiences of God and relate them to others in a genuine way. She understands anxiety and knows what it’s like to live with it. This allows her to be Jesus to others in ways many others could not.
Stephanie’s mental health experience is not a barrier to effective discipleship. It’s an asset, because she is willing to join God at work and trust Him with everything she has to help others grow closer to him.