This summer, while most of my friends seem to have been prancing around on beaches and smiling for cameras, I've spent most of my time creating a vast array of situations in which all the good things in my life could be taken away from me due to unforeseen external factors. My mind is convinced that the universe picks on me, and that I'm destined for catastrophe. I suffer from anxiety for a bit, every year or so.
Somewhere along the line, probably as a result of some repressed traumatic incident from my childhood, I developed an inclination for my mind to prefer a particular neural pathway. This puts me on constant high alert. Phone calls terrify me as potential bringers of bad news, babies scare the heck out of me due to their dropability, and the other day I heard a noise and panicked because I couldn't work out whether it was my phone, work computer, Macbook, Skype, Facebook, Instagram, email or TV. Luckily it was just my fire alarm.
Sometimes it turns into social anxiety, and the fun really begins. Negative past experiences tell me that talking to girls will result in being compared to a rat like that time when I was 12 years old, or that on a date I'll say something totally bizarre like that time I asked my lady friend across the table what the plural of foetus was. She wasn't impressed. (It is both foetuses and foeti by the way, I researched afterwards).
I've literally trained myself to droop my eyelids when talking to strangers to disguise the panic and hide the crazy before I go back home to research lung disease while also discovering that the back pain that I'm assuming is caused by my worry could be spinal stenosis, fibromyalgia or spondylitis.
If I can't think of anything to worry about I usually just arrive at the inevitable conclusion that I will probably die really soon because there's no way that things stay good for long. It is usually at this point that I grab beer and vow to name my firstborn Lorezepam if I survive.
Pill poppers of the Pacific
Originally I was reluctant to be this open about my mental issues, concluding that if people knew I was like this then everyone would be freaked out, would slowly stop talking to me, leaving me isolated and destined to fall into an escalating drug addiction and die painfully and quietly with only cats as friends. But it turns out that New Zealand has a bit of an issue. It turns out that 25% of you are probably just as nuts as I am.
According to a study reported on in the Sunday Star Times, last year 784,000 Kiwis were prescribed drugs for depression, insomnia and anxiety. This is up 50% since 2007 putting us in the high end of the world spectrum for anxiety and depression.
Anxiety is driving a significant amount of behavioural and emotional problems in children and there are dangers that we are too readily turning to a pill to be the messiah of our minds. With a growing trend like this, you've got to ask what's behind it, and then how best to address it. It appears to be the plague of the next generation for the West, like smallpox. Just more panicked and less itchy.
The study suggests that while medication helps, it doesn't fix the deeper causes of mental disorders. With the fast pace of modern society and the complexity it brings, doctors are finding it is far more simple to just throw drugs at patients rather than addressing underlying issues. And while a small percentage of depression is actually caused by a chemical imbalance, quite frankly, Prozac is cheaper than sorting out someone's marriage.
"Make me happy. Make me feel good."
But perhaps these are all the wrong questions. In the early 90's, influential pastor Eugene Peterson once addressed the question, "Do pastors face more difficult problems today than in previous generations?" He responded by saying, "I know this is a mixed-up, difficult, damaged generation. But it's arguable that the main difference today is not how much people are hurting, but how much they expect to be relieved from their hurting."
"The previous century suffered just as much; in fact, probably much more. Just think of all the illness, death in childbirth, infant mortality, plagues. The big difference today is that we have this mentality that if it's wrong, you can fix it. You don't have to live with any discomfort or frustration. And the pastor is in the front line of people who get approached: "Make me happy. Make me feel good."
Perhaps the real issue here is that we are constantly bombarded with narratives about human experience that insist that life should be about one carefree road trip after the next and to expect life to be a fulfilling and exhilarating journey of adventure. That to experience anything else, to suffer, is in fact wrong.
Maybe that's the issue. We've convinced ourselves that suffering isn't supposed to happen to us. That it's not necessary. And it makes it difficult for us to understand our suffering God. And we are certainly not okay with not being okay. So we try to make it stop rather than dealing with it. We avoid the source. Not that I would know any better, I have panic attacks over non-existent problems.
I just don't think you can just swallow your brokenness away.
I'm not on drugs, kids.
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.
Sam Burrows previous articles may be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/sam-burrows.html