It started the evening of June 18th. I was in bed working on my computer when out of nowhere my left arm felt very wrong, like it had suddenly fallen asleep. My forearm and fingers felt numb, and I couldn’t move my hand normally. I leapt out of bed in a panic and started pacing and trying to move my fingers. Was I having a stroke? This felt bad.
Eventually things felt a little bit more normal. I convinced myself that it was just a muscle spasm or maybe the start of something like carpal tunnel. I was able to fall asleep. But in the morning, I still felt like something was wrong. I could feel my heart pounding heavily in my chest, and my arm felt tingly and strange. I called the advice nurse, who said it didn’t sound serious and booked an appointment for me.
That night I went to see RENT with my son Zachary, but I wasn’t really able to enjoy it like I normally would because I was so conscious of the strange feelings in my arm and my chest. This began a long and difficult season of anxiety and fear.
In July, when I was visiting Indiana for my parents’ 50th anniversary, the symptoms got worse and worse: backache, arm tingling and numbness, heart palpitations. I was terrified that my kids would wake up one morning in the hotel and find their father dead in his bed. It got worse and worse until I finally went to the emergency room. Again, nothing wrong with me. Maybe it’s a pinched nerve. I was able to attend the party, sing with my siblings and appear in the family pictures, but I still had the nagging sense that something was wrong.
August, September… Worse and worse. Numbness and tingling, heart palpitations, dizziness. My doctor suggested that it might be anxiety, but I dismissed it… I’m a positive and optimistic person, I told myself. I was not worried about my life. I didn’t stay up at night ruminating on my problems. Besides, this was physical. It couldn’t be anxiety.
I kept moving, doing the next thing in my Google calendar, like always. But slowly the joy was being stripped away. Every day I taught, every trip to Novato for church services or appointments, every experience with my kids, every outing with friends was haunted by these troubling feelings. I couldn’t shake the terrifying feeling that something was very, very wrong, and I lived in fear of having a heart attack or stroke. Every night I wondered if I would wake up in the morning, and I prayed constantly for deliverance and healing.
One of the worst nights came toward the end of September. I couldn’t even fall asleep because my heart palpitations were so bad. After an hour of tossing and turning, I put on my clothes and shoes and headed out for a desperate walk – fear-filled miles of furious pacing, frantic prayers and hopeless tears. I walked until I was exhausted, and I finally I could fall asleep.
The next morning I took to Twitter and opened up about what was happening. Here’s what I wrote:
Wow, y’all. I didn’t realize what you’ve been going through.
For months I’ve been experiencing physical symptoms ranging from breathlessness to heart palpitations to pain/tingling in my left arm. It’s been really troublesome. When I was visiting family this summer in IN, I even went to the ER because I thought I was having a heart attack.
I’ve never talked about it publicly. It feels super vulnerable, even for someone like me who puts it ALL out there all the time.
People have told me it sounds like panic attacks/anxiety. I have resisted this diagnosis, because I didn’t realize that anxiety can have such *physical* symptoms. I am positive and optimistic about life. I am generally very happy. How could this be anxiety?
I certainly don’t feel anxiety in my mind, but perhaps my body is subconsciously feeling it and reacting in this way. Or maybe it’s the trauma of the past finally catching up to me. There’s been plenty of trauma, and I don’t think I’ve ever really dealt with it.
Last night was particularly hard. I think that’s why I’m finally talking about it here. I search the internet and I can’t find anything that sounds like exactly what I’m experiencing, but I know I can’t be alone in this.
I’m surprised by the sheer PHYSICALITY of this. I always thought anxiety was a strictly *mental* feeling, like feeling overwhelmed or depressed or worried. Now I’m starting to realize that my BODY is reflecting my anxiety… This is a revelation.
Thank you for reading. I would love to connect with people who’ve experienced something similar. I have been feeling very isolated and afraid, and I cannot continue to live like this.
The response was overwhelming. People identified with my experiences and helped me accept that this actually was anxiety. I broke down and cried so hard, and relief washed over me as my body started the process of letting go of these fears and feelings.
It wasn’t over, but I had hope again.
I scheduled appointments with doctors. I got in line for therapy at Kaiser. I talked with Jamie Lee Finch about trauma and how our bodies process it, sometimes years later. She helped me see that I was going to be okay.
Life went on. I preached. I taught at the school. I did things with my kids. I ran my support groups. But it didn’t get better. I got on Zoloft. It didn’t get better. It got worse. Ringing in my ears, tightness in my arm, lightheadedness, heart palpitations, breathlessness. It was really scary, and I was starting to lose hope.
Toward the end of October, I planned a trip to see my son Jacob in Los Angeles. I had some time off of school, and I thought I would use the weekend to see my son in his new apartment, shoot some promo material for The Christian Closet, worship with friends at New Abbey on Sunday morning and help lead worship at the North Hollywood Campus of New Abbey that afternoon. If you know me, you know that this is my kind of weekend. I was so excited. But the symptoms continued, and even though I was so happy to be going, so excited about all the good things that I would experience, I was pretty miserable.
I got in to LAX late Friday evening, and Jacob picked me up. I was so happy to be with him and to see him in his new life. He mixed cocktails for us, and he gave me his bedroom to sleep in. And I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned for hours. I may have gotten two hours of sleep that night, I don’t know.
The next day, I went through the motions. I had coffee with my friend Michael. I filmed the promo clips. I hung out with Jacob. It was a great day, but I was exhausted and miserable. My head was buzzing. My heart was pounding. My arm was tingling.
That night, despite taking Melatonin and Tylenol PM and feeling so exhausted, I couldn’t sleep again. I might have gotten two more hours. I was a wreck.
And then the next morning, I was at New Abbey. It was so wonderful to be with friends I had only known online up to that point. Candice and Crystal Czubernat were there, Jack Bates, Jerron Hess, Jess Grace Garcia, Jaime Zavala… It was so exciting, but in some ways I was going through the motions. I was exhausted. I was hopeless. I didn’t know how I was going to go on like this much longer.
Brit Baron, one of the co-pastors of New Abbey, took to the stage and opened the service. We were encouraged to hold hands with the people beside us. I was holding hands with Michael on one side and Jacob on the other. Candice and Crystal were behind me, Jerron was beside them… I felt surrounded and supported in spite of my challenges. And then the music began and God spoke to me in such a powerful way. The song was “The Kingdom is Yours” by Common Hymnal. And here is what God said to me, so clearly:
Hold on a little more. This is not the end.
Hope is in the Lord. Keep your eyes on Him.
Y’all, I was undone. I was surrounded by loved ones, and God was singing to me… Hold on, Matthew, this is not the end. I’m here. All will be well.
It’s time for Advent. This is the liturgical season where the church… waits. We wait for the coming (Advent means coming in Latin) of Jesus. We remember that Jesus came into this world as a baby. We remember the ways that Jesus comes into our lives through the sacraments, how we can experience Jesus in everyday elements like water, bread and wine. And we remember that Jesus is coming again. Somehow, someday, Jesus will come to set things right, to bring peace and justice to this messed up world.
In our waiting, we acknowledge the darkness, the pain, the fear. We recognize that we are broken somehow and that we need healing. We pray and seek the light of Jesus, the One who brings life from death, beauty from ashes, laughter from mourning. And in the darkness, in the unknown, Jesus says to us: Hold on a little more. This is not the end. Hope is in the Lord. Keep your eyes on Him.
As we enter Advent, where do you need the healing light of Jesus? Where are you struggling?
Money and job insecurities? Hold on a little more. This is not the end…
Relational brokenness? Hold on a little more. This is not the end…
Sickness? Anxiety? Depression? Hold on a little more. This is not the end…
And for my dear LGBTQ+ friends who are feeling the weight (wait?) of coming out. Maybe you’re the queer spouse in a mixed-orientation marriage. Maybe you are trying to find the courage or the right time to come out of hiding and to make big changes in your life. I have the privilege of walking with many people like this through The Christian Closet, and I know the pain of waiting and wondering how and when and if. So for you, dear ones, I sing these words too… Especially for you: Hold on a little more. This is not the end…
It wasn’t immediate for me. I still had weeks of physical symptoms, sleepless nights, anxiety, depression and fear.
But slowly and surely, things started to change. I got on a new medication called Remeron. I started to sleep through the night. I started to have days where the symptoms only happened a few times, or maybe not at all. I began to have days that felt “normal” again. I had days where I felt happy. I got excited about ministry again. I enjoyed being with my kids at school. I got excited and hopeful about the idea of dating again.
I heard God speak again a few weeks ago. I was at a concert by my favorite band, Over The Rhine. I was on a date with a really wonderful guy. I had had two glasses of pinot noir, and I was feeling really happy. It struck me that I felt… normal. Here’s what I wrote on Twitter the next day:
It’s not 100% better. But it’s SO MUCH better. My arm still feels weird sometimes (maybe it really is carpal tunnel?), and sometimes I still feel palpitations and breathlessness, but I am able to talk myself through it, and it always goes away. I am so grateful for this healing, for this hope that I have experienced. And my prayer for you this Advent season is that you would know that God is with you, that Jesus is coming, and that there is hope for a brighter future.
Hold on a little more. This is not the end. Hope is in the Lord. Keep your eyes on Him.