Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me. Psalm 23:4 (NRSV)
I had many of them—panic attacks—long before I knew what they were or what they were called. I can still vividly remember the first one I experienced. It was 1969 and I had just returned to the USA from Brazil full of guilt that I had not fully lived up to my calling there as a missionary of the United Methodist Church. I was at an airport where I had just met up with three of my colleagues with whom I had been in Brazil since 1965. I tried to rationalize my guilt by saying, “I’ve talked to God about my failings.”
No sooner did those words come out of my mouth, than my heart sank to my stomach. I was merely experiencing the depression that follows a manic high, and within a few days I was in the security ward of St. Joseph Hospital’s psychiatric ward in Lexington, Kentucky. That was the beginning of what has now been a thirty-year struggle in the darkest valley of schizo-affective syndrome. The panic attacks led to additional hospitalizations, rushed trips to the doctor’s office for a sedative, and finally to terrifying fear in the middle of the night.
My panic attacks were often, perhaps always, associated with the fear of dying. Slowly I have come to terms with this debilitating fear. Medicine and therapy have taken the edge off the terror that would overcome me. I prepared myself to die. Earlier in 1999 when I faced a serious heart procedure, I was ready to go. I had begun to read God’s word in 1998. I had started to pray every day. There was no particular moment when it happened for me, but gradually I became aware that I was no longer afraid of the darkest valley.
Feel free to join me in my prayer: “Dear Good Shepherd, thank you for being with me when panic overtakes me. Help me to realize that I don’t need to be afraid to die. Don’t let me dwell on death to the point of not being able to function properly until the time actually comes for me to go home to heaven. Amen.”