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04 March 2020
A friend of my husband texted him today. She and her daughter were standing in line at Walmart. This particular Walmart was nearly stripped of cleaning supplies. There was a hint of panic in the air as everyone grabbed their coronavirus survival gear. She told Jonathon, “This guy almost pushed us over trying to get to the front of the line first. We are just a hairs’ breadth away from a full-blown panic.” I found that alarming, as I know a thing or two about fear. I’ve been fighting it for some years now. It’s distressing to see people building proverbial panic rooms when they could be free and courageous.
I was around eight years old (my mom can correct me if I was younger) when I contracted a strep infection that went undetected. My mom says I changed overnight. I woke up with night terrors and strange pains, my arms jerked involuntarily, and my heart beat irregularly. But the worst thing that happened, and what I remember the most, was the OCD that developed during that time and has plagued me in one form or another since then. Eventually (after being told I was a mental case and needed a shrink by a heart specialist), a throat culture finally confirmed that I had a raging strep infection. Said heart specialist called my parents in a frenzy with orders to go get the antibiotic he had prescribed pronto. At the time, we didn’t know there was a name to the bizarre reaction I had to the strep. But now I do and it’s called PANDAS—Pediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptoccocal Infections. To save a bit of time, I’ll quote an article from vinehealthcare.com to explain, “PANDAS means a Group A strep infection—such as strep throat, scarlet fever, or rheumatic fever—which uses molecular mimicry to fool a child’s own immune system into attacking the child’s forebrain (called the basal ganglia). This leads to abrupt onset OCD and related symptoms.” Going on, “The broader but more recently identified PANS describes the same sudden onset of symptoms, but with no identified strep infection. PANS can be caused by a number of various infectious diseases.” Lyme disease and mycoplasma pneumoniae just happen to be two of the diseases known to trigger PANS. I recently tested positive for both and the doctor suspects I contracted the Lyme in my childhood. I know. Some people get all the luck.
Now, anxiety stinks. But OCD is kind of like the Jurassic Park version—you know, genetically modified and on steroids. There are a number of misconceptions out there about what OCD actually is. You can read accurate descriptions here, here, and here. For most of my life, I didn’t realize that I was dealing with OCD, I just thought that there was something terribly wrong with me. The intrusive thoughts that paraded through my brain almost non-stop at times were too horrible for words and triggered surges of adrenaline that reduced me to a trembling, sobbing mess when I was alone. I’ve always been a closed book, and no one but those very close to me saw me fall apart like that. I kept it together at work, at church, and with friends, because trying to enlist help outside of my family backfired. Once I tried to get help from a Christian counselor at a youth conference. Poor lady. She tried, but I could see the bewilderment in her eyes at what I was dealing with, which made me feel like an extra warped case. It wasn’t until I reached my twenties that I stumbled on an article about OCD. Suddenly it clicked, and I could have wept for joy. Further reading took me to practical tips for dealing with intrusive thoughts. I realized I had been doing it all wrong. I’d been trying to make them go away by praying, or shaking my head, or replacing them with something good. What I needed to do was acknowledge the thoughts and then refuse to do the ritual that made them temporarily go away. I discovered that the physiological experience of fear—the shaking, heart pounding, stomach churning—only lasted about five minutes if I refused to feed the fire. Bit by bit, and with God’s help, I began to retrain and discipline my mind. I have been slowly working my way out of the panic room.
Having an intimate and somewhat dramatic acquaintance with fear as I do, I have noticed a few things about it. First, you cannot suppress it. It doesn’t work to will it away, shove it in the closet, brush it under the rug. At least not forever. There in the dark, it just grows bigger and bursts out again. You have to face fear honestly and walk straight through it to get to joy and peace. That’s the only way. Second, you cannot coddle fear. Then it grows to such monstrous proportions that it controls you. Fear in the driver’s seat is dangerous. It makes you do the stupidest, most irrational things. When you are controlled by fear, you hurt people and ruin things and places in a panicked effort to survive. But fear loves to be in control, and in the wider world outside my mind, fear sells. Worse than that, people who love to be in control keep fear in their weapons arsenal.
Climate change hysteria or eco anxiety is an example. It is quite possible that there is a real problem to deal with, but most of the voices shouting out solutions are not reasoned and self-controlled. They are either controlled by fear or they are trying to control you with fear. Or they’re selling newspapers and clicks with fear. I recall reading an article about Greta Thunberg in which her therapist said that Greta had taken her OCD and was channeling it in a positive direction with environmental activism. Having OCD in common with Greta Thunberg, I find that highly unlikely. I am sure she believes she is being productive, but that’s how OCD works. It tricks you into thinking you’re not obsessing because you’re obsessing about something different than the last thing you obsessed about for years. The topic of catastrophic climate change is just the sort of thing the obsessive mind latches onto and compulsively tries to mitigate. In Greta’s case, traveling around the world to lecture people by painting the horrifying vision she has learned from the people who want to control the rest of us. And really, that’s what it boils down to—control. According to the politicians, we must be taxed exorbitant sums if we are to stop the end of the world in twelve years’ time. We must, essentially, hand over private property, farming, production and the means of production to the government and let them dole it back out to us in little bits and face economic collapse. That’s the solution presented. I find it wanting. But if I had no experience with fear, I might have fallen for it. A lot of people have fallen for it, though, and are completely miserable right now. Instead of enjoying their lives, they are in the grips of anxiety, contemplating certain doom, taking vows of infertility, getting into angry arguments online, and failing to enjoy their brief lives that will still be brief, climate catastrophe or not.
So, what to do? My husband and I were talking about that the other night. He read Psalm 4:4 to me from the NASB, “Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and trust in the Lord.” It’s almost as if God was saying, “There are fearful things in this world that cause you to tremble. But don’t sin. Don’t make your decisions in the grip of fear and panic. Meditate on me and be still. Take a deep breath. Obey Me first and trust in Me. Then, it’s time to act.”
First, face your fears. Get the facts, but do try to get them from people who aren’t using fear to sell you stuff or to control you. I don’t recommend getting the facts from politicians or CNN or Fox. For my two examples, recognize that the climate seems to be changing and that there is a new virus that is spreading. But avoid the dramatic interpretations.
Second, don’t coddle your fears or they’ll grow. Do yourself a favor and turn off the news. Fear gets clicks and ratings and sells newspapers. (Get the book “Amusing Ourselves to Death” by Neil Postman, and you’ll never look at the news the same way again.) Go outside and take a walk. Smile, even when you don’t feel like it. It changes how you feel inside. Every day, write a list of ten things you are grateful for. Gratitude rewires the brain in positive directions. Practice saying this phrase, “If there is a problem, it will become apparent soon enough.” Or, “If there is something I should do about all this, it will become apparent soon enough.” Sleep at night and wake up in the morning and do things. (I know this is super basic, but you have to tell some people to sleep at night, instead of watching TV or playing video games all night and sleeping during the day.) Not going to sleep at a decent hour messes with your circadian rhythm and that messes with your mind.
Third, go do something useful. It is not useful to travel around the world declaring climate change doom. It is useful to buy clothing second hand, plant a garden, seed your yard with wildflowers for the bees and other pollinators, get a more fuel-efficient vehicle, reuse and repurpose old clothing and belongings, etc… It is not useful to mob the grocery stores in a panic and push small children over to get a gallon of bleach or a semi-effective face mask. It is useful to get sleep at night, eat wholesome food that doesn’t come out of a box or a plastic wrapper, wash your hands, get exercise, get in the sunlight for a few minutes and hold the sunblock, wash the dishes, walk the dog, take chicken soup to your sick neighbors, smell some flowers, and…enjoy your life outside the panic room.
You see, we are all going to die someday. Some of us may even die of coronavirus. If I ever get exposed to the nasty stuff, it’s quite possible I could die, given the fact that Lyme disease tends to weaken the immune system. But my faith informs me that the day of my death is in God’s hands. I will die when it is my time to die and not one moment before. Climate change can’t alter that fact, nor can coronavirus. Until then, would it not be better to live under the sun of God’s smile in peace instead of in the panic room scrabbling and scrambling to survive? I’ve been in both places. I doubt I’ve seen the last of the panic room, but I don’t ever intend to stay there again. I hope you feel the same.
The first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb, when it comes, find us doing sensible and human things – praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts – not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.
C. S. Lewis
In the best of times, our days are numbered anyway. So it would be a crime against nature for any generation to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put off enjoying those things for which we were designed in the first place: the opportunity to do good work, to enjoy friends, to fall in love, to hit a ball, and to bounce a baby.