My whole body shook as I gripped my knees. Hot tears of humiliation and fear hit the cold tile, and I prayed no one would see me crumpled on the floor of the bathroom stall.
I tried to muster the strength to pick myself up and get back to photographing the wedding.
But each time I thought of standing up, my heart began to race and I would begin to black out. I was shivering cold, but dripping with sweat. Waves of nausea, blurred vision, and dizziness kept me pinned to my safe little corner of the bathroom stall.
Two hours later I picked myself up off the floor, wiped my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and walked back out to the wedding reception with a smile on my face.
By the grace of God, and with the help of an incredible assistant, I made it through the rest of the night. Embarrassed and confused at the mystery of what happened, I chalked it up to dehydration, and tried to forget about it.
But I couldn’t escape the nagging thoughts: is something seriously wrong with me—is this what it feels like to start losing it? Am I dying? What if this happens again? Who will take care of me? I’m scared. Am I going crazy?
I hoped it wouldn’t happen again as I made my way to a wedding the following week.
In the middle of family portraits I felt faint, and had my assistant get me water. I tried to ignore the feeling that my airway seemed completely blocked as I smiled and continued to shoot. I started seeing black spots, and then stumbled and caught myself on the side of a chair as I began to black out. My heart was pounding as my panic rose, and my only thought was, I can’t breathe…I have to get out of here. I looked at my assistant, gave her a look that said, I am not okay, and bolted indoors to the bathroom. Once again I was on a cold tile floor, eyes squeezed shut, praying and trying to breathe.
This time it was worse. The waves of dizziness and nausea were overwhelming, and my heart wouldn’t stop racing. I felt as though I had no control over my body; it was alien to me. I had no idea whose body this way; it surely couldn’t be mine.
And nothing helped: food, Gatorade, water, tea, blankets. I would regain enough control to be able to shoot for 10-15 minutes, but then I’d have to go back to the bathroom and try to recover. The whole thing lasted close to five hours
I was terrified, and couldn’t decide if I was dying or going crazy. The thought occurred to me that it could be an anxiety attack. I texted a few friends to pray for me. By a miracle—I am convinced there were angels surrounding me—I was able to pick myself up and shoot the rest of the wedding.
It wasn’t pretty. I didn’t speak for most of the night, because when I talked the waves would crash over me. I was afraid I might collapse, have a seizure, vomit on a guest, or burst into tears and faint.
As we drove home that night I felt humiliated and exhausted. I felt so weak. Was this my new normal?
There’s a story in the Old Testament in which three Jewish men refuse to bow down and worship the Babylonian king as a god, because of their love and loyalty to the Hebrew God—Yahweh. The king threatens to throw them into a furnace. But they stood firm and responded:
…we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. (Daniel 3: 16-18)
This response infuriated the egotistical dictator. In a fit of rage he ordered the furnace to be heated 7 times hotter than usual. The three Jewish men were bound and thrown into the furnace. The furnace was so hot that the two guards who threw them in died.
But soon after the king and guards looked into the furnace and saw something astonishing — there was life within the fire. Not only were the three men not burning, their bonds were released, and they walked freely in the flames with a fourth person in their midst. It was God. In disbelief the king ordered his guards to get the men out of the furnace. The men were not merely alive, but completely unharmed. Not even a hair on their head was singed. The text says they didn’t even smell like fire.
Bullied, manipulated, and taunted by fear to bow down to something they didn’t believe in, and these courageous men were unwavering. With eyes opened they walked into the fire convinced God would be with them. And He was.
I read this story and can’t help but see the freedom, the faith, the courage, the chains that were released. But they had to go through the fire. Can you imagine the terror pulsing through your veins as you walked into a fiery furnace where the only logical result would be your death? I would never expect that walking into the fire would bring me more life, freedom and connection to God than I could ever imagine.
This is my story of walking into a fire. The two incidences at the weddings were the beginning of an unraveling. I had a choice to make: either keep pushing through like I had learned to do so well, or stop, take inventory, and figure out what was going on. The latter would take a lot of work, faith, and letting go of control—I felt much more safe being the one to help others—not being the one that needed help and support.
A year ago I heard a woman talk at a conference about the debilitating anxiety attacks she experienced upon moving her family to New York City. To be honest I thought to myself, this woman needs to get a grip, take a few deep breaths, and move on. Some of my family members struggle with anxiety attacks, and I couldn’t empathize with them. After doing some research, going to the doctor, reading books, and sharing my experiences with others I realized I was having anxiety attacks. I was infuriated when I read article after article that the symptoms were mostly mental, and could somehow be controlled by the person. Nothing about my experiences felt like I had any control; it felt opposite of that. It made me want to call every person who had ever shared the vulnerable struggle of anxiety with me and tell them that I am so sorry I didn’t fight for them more—that I had no idea how scary it was until I experienced it myself.
And though fear terrorized and taunted me that I was dying, that I was crazy, and all alone, I have found truth in my fire:
I will die someday, but I am not dying now.
I am not crazy or losing it. God didn’t create me with a fearful spirit, but one with power, love, and a sound mind. (2 Timothy 1:7)
I am never alone. God is with me always. And if I only open my eyes I see that I am surrounded by love, hope, community and support from family and friends.
Sometimes chains are broken, and bounds are released only through having painful experiences you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.
Nothing about my struggle with anxiety attacks has been quick, easy, or sexy. It’s been one of the most difficult and frightening things I’ve walked through in my life. And I’m still a pilgrim on my journey towards freedom. But I believe that when I’m done with the fiery furnace I will walk out of it without one hair on my body singed.