My mom has told me about those nights many times—when fear loomed large and I would lie in bed, ticking through a list of questions. The same every night.
“Are all the doors locked? Are the windows shut? Will the angels guard our house tonight?”
I was only 5 years old. Why does a 5-year-old decide she must take up the burden of safety on her shoulders? Where in that little innocent life does the need to protect and control come into play?
There were other times too, like when I spent a few weeks overseas with dear friends. I was 12 years old. They wanted to go out, see the world, explore. Just us kids. I remember the fear gripping at my throat, making it difficult to breathe, difficult to function.
“Don’t you think your parents should come with us? Shouldn’t we not be out alone?”
And the night all our parents were there and my friends just wanted to go outside, out of the hotel to walk around. I remember the drunken singing and stares. I remember the breath that came in short, hollow spasms and the tears that threatened to spill. And most of all, I remember that overwhelming feeling of dread and helplessness. Something bad was going to happen. It was just a matter of time.
I begged one of my friends, “Please take me back inside. I don’t want to be out here. Please, please walk me back.”
There were the days when my mom would go to the grocery store. “I’ll be back around 3.” And at 2:58, I would go and sit by the window, waiting for her return. Each minute that passed after 3 o’clock, my throat would get tighter. My stomach would dance with butterflies. I would sit, convinced that she was gone, that there was a massive car crash and what were we going to do without her? What would I tell my siblings and my dad?
Oh, I have known fear. I have known the demons that dance around the mind, taunting and grabbing. Stifling joy with what-ifs. What if she doesn’t come home? What if someone grabs me? What if someone gets in the house?
And what do you do when you are so young and don’t even know that you are so afraid? You learn to grasp for control. You learn to hold on tight to everything around you and always play the safe card. Always follow the rules.
There is no footloose and fancy free. I must always be guarded, always hold everything tight against me. Always be on the lookout. Always protect.
And then there was blessed high school. For some reason, God saw fit to release me from the constant anxiety and fear for four wonderful years. Of course, there were plenty of other struggles those years, but not the all-consuming, life-stealing fear.
About two years after college, it reared its head again. The terror. The grasping for control, creating a safety net all around. The dreaded shallow breathing and sweating palms. The lack of focus on anything around me.
"Dear God, how am I going to manage this? How am I supposed to live and work and do when I feel my chest constrict every time I leave the house, every time someone comes to the door?"
Life happens. It batters you from all sides. And somehow the sorrows and the stresses and the craziness buries the fear down deep for later. But it never really leaves; I just learned to deal. I learned to keep moving, keep breathing, keep getting things done.
I wake each morning with a tense neck and a heavy heart, and I wonder: ”Is everyone like this? Does everyone live enslaved by fear? Will it ever get any better?” My dear husband looks at me and sighs. He doesn’t know how to break down these walls of fear I’ve built. He wishes I could be at peace. So do I.
And so I strive. I read the verses, listen to the sermons—but nothing helps. Nothing can bridge from the brain to the heart. So I read the words other women have written, about the same struggles, the same wrestling for peace, for freedom. And I find strength from them. I practice what they practiced.
It takes time, hours and days and minutes of practicing and putting to work what I have read, stopping my train of thought in its tracks. Sometimes it takes a pill to swallow down the calm. But mostly I try and fight it with His grace and with His mercy. I dwell on the miracles He has done in my life and I remember. I remember the good, the times I have been blessed. And I hold onto those as signs for the future. I write down thanks. I stare out my window and count the ways He loves me.
And slowly, day by day, I find more peace. More mercy.
Really, life is never going to be just right. There will always be another tragedy, another hardship, another day of stressful events. But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe in striving for a perfect, pain-free life, I miss out on much. Maybe in searching for that ever-elusive comfort zone, I miss out on intimately knowing God. The hard places allow us to know God in a way we never would have before.
And so I find comfort in that: in learning to trust God a little more each day. Maybe it will always be a fight for me, a fight to keep the anxiety back, but the point is, I can fight it. I don’t have to let it consume me. And that is what God calls me to do each day: trust more, fear less. And I am on that journey.
Melissa Wilcox lives in the sunshine of San Diego, is married to a man of adventure and fun, loves God and is in a daily pursuit of what it means to know Him more.