I thought I knew what fear was. Turns out I didn’t know the difference between a common fear and a nightmarish one until I was 52 years old. That’s when my wife Martha was told she “may” have Alzheimer’s disease. I say “may” because this disease can’t truly be diagnosed except by autopsy. So there we were, as I describe in my forthcoming book A Path Revealed—looking into an unknown future with no solutions.
After that jolt, I thought nothing else could shock me. But almost two years later I was forced to take Martha’s car keys away. As she stormed upstairs crying, I cried to myself, I didn’t just take her keys away—I cut her heart out.
I learned soon enough that fear, like earthquakes, can bring aftershocks. And that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to prepare for them. One morning, two years after taking Martha’s keys away, I was fixing breakfast when I heard a thud! coming from upstairs. I rushed up the steps to find Martha in a full seizure, her body stiff and shaking, and her face frozen like that in the painting The Scream. This was the first time I’d seen anyone, let alone my wife, overcome by a seizure.
Maybe you too have awakened to discover that what you thought was a nightmare was not a nightmare at all—but that it was real. If you have, then we may have something in common.
Most people I know are able to handle run-of-the-mill fears. I remember as a kid doing an accidental belly-flop off the high board and my swim instructor telling me to get right back up there. “You want to face the fear quickly by doing the dive right,” he said. So I did—fear gone.
But the fear of Martha’s condition was not that easy to shake off. Its effect may be similar to what you face in your crisis. I guess you could call it intense anxiety. It freezes you in your tracks; it holds you under water long past your ability to breathe.
How do I cope with such fear or anxiety? Can I cope? I kept asking these questions of a friend of mine who described himself as having been “born in fear.” The late Canon Jim Glennon was an Anglican minister from Sydney, Australia, who I’d been introduced to by mutual friends.
“We all get scared, that’s not the issue,” Jim said. “The issue is what we do with the fear. Or, what we let the fear do to us.” Jim told me had a nervous breakdown early in his pastoral career, in his late thirties. It was then that he began in earnest to search for ways that God might heal him.
Each of us, he said, must do our own searching, reminding me of Jesus' statement: “Seek and you shall find.”
So in the late 1990’s I began a search that continues to this day. What I’ve discovered about fear and anxiety may be similar to your own discoveries.
Do I fight fear? Or do I give in to it? Or do I just ignore it? None of these options worked, I learned. If I fight fear, I lose, exhausted from the struggle. And if I give in to it or ignore it, I also lose.
Fear and anxiety are not eliminated through a one-time effort, at least that’s what I’ve learned by trial-and-error. This kind of fear keeps popping up like a whack-a-mole game. But fear’s no game. It can be toxic stuff, especially when mixed with bitterness.
As I continue to search, trust, and understand, I’ve discovered and experienced some insights that are fleshed out more fully in other posts, such as:
- Look for trusted guides, like my friend Canon Glennon.
- Learn to focus on God, not on our fear-driven problems.
- Know that you probably will be forced out of your comfort zones, like I was.
- We’re all busy, but moments of intentional silence, such as meditation, prayer, and contemplative reading of the Bible, are vital to this kind of search.
- Flashes of intuition can change your direction for the better, so stay alert.
These are some of the lessons I continue to learn while seeking to be driven not by fear but by the movement of the Christ’s mind and spirit.
I really like the way Anne Lamott closes many of her Facebook posts, so I’m going to make it my own too: May God bless you real good.
I am offering a free guide, "How Can My Crisis Be Turned Into A Spiritual Journey Filled With Meaning?" which shares my experience in learning how to negotiate such a trek. To receive it, and sign up for my weekly newsletter, please fill out this form:
P.S. In closing, I remind you that I’m neither a licensed psychologist/psychiatrist nor an ordained minister. What I’m sharing in this post and others is drawn from nearly two decades of experience wrestling with the consequences of Alzheimer’s disease on our family. Each person’s odyssey is unique. As you travel your own path and encounter serious obstacles—be they mental, emotional, physical, or spiritual—I strongly encourage you to start an ongoing conversation with a trusted counselor, guide, pastor, or doctor.