The first time I sat with our son while he was experiencing a panic attack, everything in me wanted to wrap my arms around him and make it stop. All I could do was pray and wait for it to pass.
Anxiety and panic are all too familiar to my son’s generation. It’s estimated that at least half of young women born between 1980 and 2000 suffer from an anxiety disorder and a third of young men.*
Our adventurous, athletic and creative son had his first collision with anxiety and panic in his early 20s. It came out of nowhere. He had migrated from Indiana to Nashville, Tennessee, where he moved in with a group of guys he’d met while working at a church camp. He was enjoying the city, working at a local Cheesecake Factory, skateboarding, and making music. Though he’d experienced periods of mild depression in the past, anxiety was something new, and his first panic attack was confusing and frightening for him. It passed and he lived mostly anxiety-free for the next five years.
But slowly anxious feelings crept back in, and by the time he began talking openly about it, anxiety had almost become a way of life. Traveling long distances in a car became difficult and flying in an airplane was impossible. It was during a trip back to Indiana to visit his family that I saw firsthand what he had been going through.
Our son’s first reaction to his condition was to believe that something was wrong with him mentally, or at least emotionally. Anxiety and panic may be prevalent among young adults, but it also affects people of all ages, even the very young. We couldn’t park the diagnosis on the doorstep of mental illness. We believed there had to be another reason for his suffering.
In one life-changing year, our son ended a long-term relationship and made a big career move, giving up a secure job for a promising opportunity with a major Nashville record label. The work was demanding – late-night video shoots, meetings with label executives, and long hours working on deadlines began taking a toll. His anxiety escalated. Depersonalization—the feeling that he was observing himself from outside his body—became his new normal.
At the end of the summer, he lost his job because of limitations caused by his condition, and he crashed. That’s when he made the most difficult decision of his young life—he moved home, to the farm, knowing that he needed help.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9
I clung to that verse while consulting medical doctors, homeopaths, psychiatrists, and counselors – anyone who could offer our son more than a prescription. I wanted to believe God had a reason for allowing this to come into our son’s world and into our lives. At the same time, I was desperate to help him.
Had our son come home with a broken arm, even a broken heart, I would have known what to do. But a broken spirit? I had no answers.
Together, my husband and I talked about options, and we committed to walking alongside him in this, just as we would if he had cancer or a serious injury. We made space in the house that had been an empty nest for the past three years and welcomed our son home.
Daily, we watched our son struggle to pull himself away from the depression that threatened to engulf him. He was both comforted by being in the home where he grew up and disappointed that he was one of “those guys” who lived in their parents’ spare bedroom. We kept reminding him that this was just a reset and that he would get on the other side of it. He’d get his life back.
At the same time, all of us wondered if we’d missed something in his childhood. Was there a trauma that we didn’t know about, and he was suppressing? Was he emotionally scarred as a child when my marriage to his father ended (though he now has both a loving dad and step-dad)? He explored both those possibilities with a therapist.
There’s an adage that says, “A mother is only as happy as her unhappiest child.” Though I can’t fully understand what he’s living with, I have carried his pain like a heavy cloak around my shoulders. I would give anything if I could take it from him and bear it myself.
Many nights during his first weeks at home, I fell asleep pleading with God to release our son from this prison. My answers came in the mornings, and they weren’t the ones I expected. Day after day, I could sense the Lord drawing me to acceptance, to peace, to calm, to unconditional servant love for our son. My anxious spirit was not helping, and it wasn’t showing him what I believed in my heart—that God was with him in his illness, and he was already there waiting for him in his healing.
Gradually, my prayers turned from lament to praise. I began visualizing my son whole and healthy and thanking God for that outcome, claiming it in the name of Jesus.
God showed me things I could do to assist my son in his healing:
- Stop looking at him as if he’s broken.
- Stop always asking him if he’s okay.
- Make myself aware of the clues that he is struggling and respect that.
- Extend grace when his condition limits his productivity or interaction.
- Gently guide him to habits that can help him break through or at least help him endure depression.
- Talk about things that are positive.
- Ask his opinion and solicit his help around home where practical.
- Speak of my own hope and confidence in a positive outcome.
- Encourage and facilitate “active waiting.”
- Listen without judgement and share my thoughts without always offering solutions.
Looking back, I realize our son was mentally and emotionally ill because, for a time, he folded into himself and let fear overtake his life. He was on a downward spiral and could see no way out. He truly believed he’d have to live with anxiety, panic, and depersonalization for the rest of his life. Though he never seriously considered ending his life, there were days when he prayed for escape.
I’d like to say the church is where he first turned for help. It isn’t. The friends who stood by him and didn’t try to fix him, who listened to him and prayed for him became his “church” at a time when he couldn’t get to church. They modeled for our family the most loving way to come alongside a young man who is hurting by not turning away when he needed them most.
It has taken time, but our son is on a journey toward health and wholeness. He no longer uses alcohol to self-medicate. He has placed himself on a strict diet and, while still taking anti-anxiety medication, he’s receiving unconventional, long-term therapy that is slowly bringing change.
But the healing that’s bringing the greatest change goes so much deeper than diet, medication, and therapy. True healing began for our son when he surrendered, when he called out to God and verbally acknowledged that the Lord may be allowing this in his life. He opened his heart to the faith that he had shoved to the background and began looking for God’s purpose in this. It was a humbling, painful time of self-revelation, but it was also a time of cleansing and recalibrating his life.
Every day, I claim these promises for our son, and for me:
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him.” Isaiah 30:18
“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’.’’ Jeremiah 29:11
Who would choose to face down mental illness? Our son is the first to say he’s a different man now than he was before anxiety threatened to take over his life. As a family, our dependence on God and our faith in his goodness have deepened. Walking through this season has impacted the relationships we have with all four of our sons. It’s brought a greater tenderness and compassion for one another and a deeper appreciation of what we have as a family.
Would I want our son to go through it again? Never. But I’m grateful for a God who wastes nothing and who is able to bring good out of even this.
*American Psychological Association as quoted by Forbes.com, February 18, 2016.