How I Realized I Was an Anxious Christian

by Abigail Follows

While serving alongside my husband as a young missionary mom in India, I realized I had a problem: anxiety. The following is an excerpt from my book, Hidden Song of the Himalayas. This chapter describes the moment I realized anxiety was a problem for me and how I decided to face it.

Excerpt from Hidden Song of the Himalayas

Goliath

Back stateside, Joshua and I planned our mission presentation for our supporting churches. Joshua shared facts and Biblical wisdom, the bones of the sermon. I fleshed it out with stories about Ajay and his family, Chotu, Puja’s baby, and others. We wanted our angel dispatchers to understand India’s needs and to feel they knew the Parvata people.

One Sabbath after church, Joshua got into the passenger’s side of our car. “You drive. I’m beat.” 

My smile covered a sense of dismal foreboding. “I’m a bit tired myself. Don’t you think you should drive?”

“Nah. It’s not far.” Leaning the seat back, Joshua stretched. “You can do it, Abby.”

“I really don’t want to.”

“But you can.” 

“But I can’t! Please don’t make me drive.” 

Things heated up from there. I drove, angry. Something in me knew this wasn’t logical. Grown people take turns driving. But wasn’t it better to have the more capable person drive? Someone sturdy who could save us all in an emergency? That wasn’t me. I was the jumpy person who envisioned us all dying in a car crash and should definitely sit in the passenger seat. Probably for the rest of her life.

That night as we lay awake in the dark, Joshua said something that would change everything. “Abigail, listen. This has to stop.”

“What do you mean?” My stomach tightened into a knot. “What did I do?”

“It’s like you have this bubble around you, and you’re only safe inside it. And that bubble is getting smaller. You exercise in the house. You don’t want to drive.”

The silence was loud and ringing in my ears. He was saying I had a problem. An anxiety problem. A mental problem.

“Just think about it. Fewer and fewer places feel safe for you. Your circle of safety is shrinking.” Tears pooled in my eyes as he went on. “Pretty soon, you’ll be stuck at home. Nowhere will be safe.”

What’s so bad about staying home? I almost argued. Women all over the world stayed at home. They stayed home in Saudi Arabia. Some women in India stayed home. Their husbands brought the vegetables home from the market. And the socks and the new bras, too.

Then I remembered. I didn’t want to be that kind of woman. The woman who has to wait for life to happen to her. My pride fought to stay alive. Don’t let him tell you what to do. He has no idea what it’s like to be you. He underestimates the risk. He—

“You’re right,” I said. I thought about my mother. For years, I’d looked at my beautiful mom like a good dream that might disappear. Depression had kept her, as she’d put it, “in a box, in a box, in a box, in a box.” 

And I had been determined never to live in that box. I had squinted suspiciously at my emotions, worried they might betray me. If I noticed anything vaguely resembling a mental disorder, I reined myself in with positivity, poetry, and prayer. 

God had brought me so far, taught me so much. I’d always thought if I just trusted Him and avoided getting too stressed, I’d be okay.

But if I saw stress as a giant ready to crush me, Joshua saw me as David with his sling and smooth stones. Joshua believed I was perfectly normal, sane, and capable of handling stress. Sometimes I found his generous view of me annoying. Now I saw it as a lifeline. And I was ready to reach for it. 

“What do you think I should do, Joshua?” He squeezed my hand. 

“You’ve got to fight it. Do stuff you’re scared to do. Believe that God will give you the strength to handle whatever happens. Otherwise, that bubble will keep getting smaller and smaller. It’ll paralyze you, Abigail.”

I had thought anxiety was something you get cured of, like cancer. But anxiety is not like cancer. It’s like alcohol. It’s an unchosen addiction to worry, to control. You have to stare it in the face and say no every time. Even when you’re tired. Especially when you’re tired. Otherwise, it takes over and convinces you that you’ll never feel happy unless you avoid “just this one thing.” It destroys the faith you’ve worked so hard to build.

Pinterest quote about anxiety

“You’re right. I know you’re right,” I said. And that was the moment I stopped pretending I was fine, the day of the death of my pride.

***

The rest of our furlough was full of baby steps. I tried jogging, driving, shopping in crowded stores, letting Ashi slide down way-too-tall slides, and other life-threatening activities. Soon it was time to return to India. 

Because of road construction, our bus ride from Delhi took even longer than normal, nearly nineteen hours. The first thing we noticed when we walked into our yard was that our house was no longer just a one-level building. An unfinished floor with an outside entrance sat on top of our formerly flat roof.

Joshua unlocked the front door, and Ashi ran in to find all her old toys. Arav crawled after her. Joshua and I set down our bags, then walked back outside to survey what had been our roof. 

“Looks like our landlords have been busy,” Joshua said. 

“Wonder when they’ll move in,” I said.

“They’ve still got a good six months of work left here. Maybe more.”

* * *

We settled back into life in Kushigaun. One October day, I was standing on our porch watching the fog move through the trees when I heard a shofar-like wail in the village. Then drumming filled the air. After four years in Kushigaun, that sound meant something to me. It meant someone had died.

My phone rang. It was Joshua. “Bablu and Tripti’s grandma died this morning.” 

I didn’t know what to say, think, or feel. I’d just seen her! As soon as Joshua arrived to take over kid duties, I grabbed a coat and ran. The drumming grew louder, and soon I could feel it in my chest. When I neared the house, I saw a group of men, each carrying a log. Ahead of them, up the road, four men carried a pine box heaped in silk scarves. They were on their way to the bank of the river to cremate the body.

Jesus, please be with me! I prayed as I entered the courtyard. It was crowded with women, some weeping, some staring at nothing. I spotted Tripti. Her eyes were so pale, she looked as though she’d cried all the color out of them.

“Look! Your sehali is here,” someone said, referring to me as a close friend. Tripti collapsed into my arms. She screamed into my shoulder, the loudest, saddest sound I had ever heard a human being make. I held her and wept.

The women allowed a few minutes of crying, but soon gathered around Tripti, demanding she regain composure. One neighbor got right in her face and forced eye contact. “Take courage. Get yourself together for your own sake.” 

Inside the house, Ama, Bablu’s mother, sat on the floor, back against a wall, silver braid hanging down her front like a fraying rope. Sometimes she cried out or moaned.  

Other women in the room chatted among themselves about whether Tripti’s grandma was now in Heaven. I knew from our cultural studies that these thoughts didn’t express the teachings of classical Hinduism. But something was comforting to these women about the idea of a heaven. 

“I’ve heard you go to heaven if you’re really old when you die,” someone said.

“I think it’s only if you’ve been good,” said another. “Then you don’t have to be reincarnated.” 

As I walked home, I tried to sing our Himalaya Song, but choked on the words:

O, Himalayas, white with snow fall,

Sparkling like the stars above,

Singing sad songs for your children,

For what they see when they look up.

For in your peaks they see the eyes 

Of a deity you’ve not known,

While the hands that carved your surface

Long to break their hearts of stone.

Lyrics from Testify, by Joshua and Abigail Follows

Had I done the wrong thing by visiting Bablu’s family less often? Had my fear of offending someone, making a mistake, even getting kicked out of India rendered me less bold than I should have been? Rather than my stressors, my anxiety was the giant in my life. And now that giant was in the way of the Parvata people’s access to the gospel. God, help me. Give me the strength to take down Goliath!

I hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Hidden Song of the Himalayas. I also have an article up at A Life Overseas with some of my best, most practical tips for overcoming anxiety as a Christian.

Are you engaged in the fight against anxiety? What makes it worth the effort for you? What will you lose if you don’t fight? What do you gain by letting go of control? Let me know in the comments!

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