It had been an exhausting summer. It started with a surprise pregnancy that was very difficult and eventually ended in a miscarriage at 18 weeks gestation. But in early August I had no idea that the baby I carried would have such a short life. I was simply putting one foot in front of the other, and though I didn’t feel well, I loved the baby and was glad to be pregnant. Our family of six-going-on-seven embarked on our last big trip of the summer on August 2nd, and I was excited that we’d see friends and family who lived in the South on this journey.
But the summer had been taking its toll, and the blessing and curse that I regularly do battle with was about to rear its head. The blessing and curse of anxiety. Clinical anxiety, not your average everyday fear and worry about the day’s events, the future, and the state of the world. For me, clinical anxiety means panic attacks, which if you’ve had one you know: nothing compares to that pure terror. Clinical anxiety means nausea, perhaps even actual vomiting. It means lethargy, dread, and frequent flirting with anxiety’s close cousin, depression. It means being perfectly content in a crowd of people and then suddenly feeling like the world is closing in and you need to escape immediately.
Apart from these very difficult things—what I would call the curse of anxiety— there is blessing. The blessing of examining my triggers and learning to know exactly what causes my anxiety reactions. The blessing of learning healthy approaches to difficult relationships and being motivated to practice self-care. The blessing of simply knowing the blessing of mental health and stability. And the enormous blessing of people coming alongside me and saying, “We are here for you, you are not alone.”
The New Testament epistle reading in this first week of Advent is not about Jesus, although the next four weeks do lead to his incarnation and birth. Instead, the beginning of our reading in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians starts with this: “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you?” (3:9, ESV). There it is: at the start of this new year in the Church, there is my New Year’s Resolution. Thanking God for you. Who is the “you” that you need to thank God for? Who has stood by you in darkness, has walked with you in the valley of the shadow of death? Many people have done this for me, and I am grateful for all of them. This Advent, though, I am particularly thankful for three people: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Benzodiazepines.
If you know anything about psychiatric medication, you know about benzodiazepines. Though it’s my nature to joke about difficult things, benzodiazepines, or “benzos” for short, are no laughing matter. They are a class of drugs that are among the oldest approved by the FDA for treating anxiety—powerful sedatives that are familiar names to many: Xanax, Klonopin, Valium, and my drug of choice, Ativan. They are a godsend to those of us with frequent panic symptoms because they simply sedate the brain, slowing down the catastrophic thinking and helping us pause and take a breath. But they are also addictive, and some people develop a tolerance to them, leading to the need for more and more to get the desired sedative effect.
As a disclaimer, I want to say that I do not abuse benzodiazepines and I have not struggled with addiction to them, but I know that many people do. If it is difficult for you to read about these drugs for some reason, please stop reading now and know that I have nothing but sympathy and respect for you in your struggle to use these substances in a healthy way.
Continuing with my story, after many hours on the road, we finally arrived at our destination: the top of a mountain in the heart of the Smokies, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. We were in a beautiful vacation house with my in-laws, and I knew it would be a wonderful week of great food, hiking, and gurgling mountain streams. I relaxed after our long drive. Mentally, I was happy to be where we were, and I tried to put the difficulty of the long summer behind me. But physically, my body had stored up my summer struggles: the stressful road trips, the lack of routine at home with my four young children, the many prenatal visits to the doctor and first trimester discomforts, and a number of pressing decisions we faced. Clinical anxiety usually intertwines the mental and the physical, which is why panic attacks are such visceral experiences.
Three days into the vacation, panic struck. There was nothing about the vacation itself that caused my sudden and intense panic—one of the hallmarks of clinical anxiety is the inconvenient and often unusual timing of the panic. For me that week in the gorgeous Smoky Mountains, I actually woke up at 3:00 in the morning having a panic attack. That’s right: it started in my sleep, because my nervous system was so on edge from weeks of stress. Once the panic kicked in, it woke me up. I rubbed my eyes, confused, as my chest tightened and the panic rose. I was up for good that night.
You see, I hadn’t brought my benzodiazepines. It seems foolish now. I mean, I’ve suffered from anxiety for five years; why wouldn’t I have my medication with me fourteen hours from home? But the strange thing about anxiety is that (like childbirth) the experience can fade when you’re not in the middle of it. On our Gatlinburg vacation, I hadn’t had a panic attack in almost a full year. Additionally, I was pregnant, and benzodiazepines are not recommended in pregnancy (though they are allowed under the supervision of a doctor). I hadn’t taken an Ativan in months, and when I packed for our trip, I left the little orange bottle of pills in my sock drawer where it had always been, thinking nothing of it.
When I woke up having a panic attack early that August morning, it dawned on me that I was trapped, inciting only more panic. I was far from home, stricken with anxiety and without medication, and I was supposed to enjoy two more days of mountain vacationing. I called my doctor and asked her to prescribe Ativan and send the script to a nearby pharmacy, but she couldn’t because benzodiazepines are controlled substances that cannot be prescribed across state lines. My heart raced. My ears rang. Every muscle in my body tightened, and I could barely eat. I did mindfulness exercises with my counselor over the phone, and though they helped in the moment, as soon as I let my mind wander, panic rippled through me once again. What could I do?
Enter The Sisterhood of the Traveling Benzodiazepines: three wonderful women I reached out to in desperation that morning. They are of varying ages and occupations: one is the director of Christian education at our church, one is a stay-at-home mom and preschool teacher, one was widowed early in her marriage and now runs grief support groups and organizes visits to homebound church members. They are ordinary women whom I trusted and who knew I struggled with anxiety, and since they all know each other, I felt that I could send them a group message without anyone being worried about what others would think. When they realized my plight, they came up with the name “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Benzodiazepines,” a play on the movie title “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” No, they did not bring me my medication. But they checked in on me regularly, let me be frustrated, and felt my pain.
Through frequent texts and many prayers, these friends walked with me through the next three difficult days as I endured the end of the vacation while in panic mode, and then as I traveled home to Buffalo to get the medication. They made jokes about me having a “Mercedes Benzo,” and they even coined a hashtag for my mission: #benzosinbuffalo. They sent me Scripture to meditate on, they prayed before meals that I would have an appetite, and they never told me to just pray more or try harder. They were a lifeline and they made me believe that such a difficult journey would end, and would end well. How can I thank God enough for them?
As Advent begins, whom can you thank God for?