My house is quiet; kids tucked in, baby nursed, and passed out in the bassinet. My husband is beside me in the bed, sprawled out and engrossed in a sci-fi novel on his Kindle. With a flick of my finger, I scroll social media to check in with friends and acquaintances. It’s an ordinary Thursday night.
I’m still coming down from the day. Chaos, commotion, enthusiasm, and energy; my children have no shortage of any of the above. I am taking a full, deep breath when it hits me.
At first, a tingly sensation comes over my whole body, and then a jolt of terror explodes through the center of my chest. I am all at once, instantly, not ok. My heart races, and I am filled with a heavy and foreboding dread. I might die.
Like, right now.
I spring out of bed and hit the bathroom, my insides churning, my bladder feeling suddenly weak. I breathe hard and choke back tears and attempt a full body assessment. What is going on? I have no answers.
I think through the possibilities. Do I have a blood clot again? I recall last year’s life-threatening clot lodged in my lung. Is my heart?…or no—maybe it’s my kidneys failing. I am spinning. It’s been maybe 60 seconds since I was peacefully stretched out in my bed. I reason myself to stability.
Emily, you’re fine. You’re not going to die. You don’t have a blood clot. If you do, you’ll know. You’re familiar with those sensations, which are not like these.
I return to my bed and don’t say a word to my husband. I’m afraid he’ll look at me like I’m a total weirdo (which, let’s be honest, I am—but not because of this). I still feel tingly and weird. I thrash restlessly for hours, well after he turns out the light and snores his way to the morning.
It had been a normal day, a normal month even, full of garden-variety challenges I was used to navigating as a mother with many children. I truly hadn’t felt it coming: my first anxiety attack. It was the first of many to follow, never at times I could anticipate or abate, a direct threat to my well-established reputation for being a steady, capable, available person.
Terror is the best word I can use to describe it. But I also felt weak, uncertain, unable to rescue myself from whatever this new experience was. I thought terrible thoughts and what-ifs curled their sharp nails around my thin places.
The next month was full of more experiences like this, every few days before I had a full meltdown. What started as anxiety attacks escalated to emotional shut-down.
I would go about my day, clearing dishes and hanging up coats, and within minutes, would be curled up on the couch in uncontrollable sobs. I couldn’t answer questions like, “Can I have a string cheese?” or “Is it ok to put on a show for the little kids?”
I waved my hand, a very non-committal gesture to say, “Go figure it out.”
Then I cried harder because there was no way to “be a good mom” in this condition.
I mentioned it to my general doctor early on, and at the time, he focused on other health concerns of mine and dismissed the anxiety bit. I mean, I hadn’t exactly gone in with an articulate way to describe what I was experiencing. I did also have physical symptoms, which he addressed compassionately and thoroughly. But when I realized these episodes were untenable for me, I knew counseling was the next right step.
My counselor tells me I’ve come to the end of myself, and most women arrive here somewhere around the age of 40, give or take a few years. Just a little ahead of schedule at 36 years old, I’m here. I mean, I have a few more pieces to my heap-of-a-mess pie—postpartum depression and PTSD—plus some layers of latent grief from earlier in my life, but this “pile-up” experience is apparently not unique to me.
I’ve known for a few decades that counseling might benefit me, given all the things I’ve experienced, but in my 20’s and early 30’s, I was really committed to figuring things out myself without anyone’s help. I’m a fighter. Even if it meant taking the long, winding, treacherous road, I’ve always chosen the DIY way of things, for good or for bad.
I told more than one friend I was trying to “untangle a web of things I couldn’t see or understand.” I have thrashed. I have cried. I have gotten still and quiet and withdrawn. I have hated every minute of being completely out of control of my internal well-being.
I’m not jazzed about my well-kept threads unraveling into a tangled mess before my eyes, without my permission, but I have also come to realize God is at work in me, specifically in this weakness, and He has allowed this unraveling for a real and important purpose.
I have not arrived at an “all-better” spot, although a few months of counseling have brought me enormous gifts and breakthroughs in areas I didn’t know I needed them (highly recommended). It’s like God has allowed a “momentary light affliction” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18), which, although painfully crushing, is ushering a deep and profound healing in areas of my soul I didn’t know needed such attention.
None of this is what I wanted, or asked for, but I see good and beautiful things coming out of it. I have never been more convinced of God’s personal and intimate love for me as I have been through this experience. He is not absent. Details surrounding my care, emotional and physical support from my community, the compassion of my husband, the growth in my kids to contribute to our daily household routines are all enough to draw tears of gratitude.
I have been profoundly humbled in this season—much more than I ever signed up for—but I’ve learned that being at the end of myself is not a commentary on my value or worth. Even when I have nothing left to give (and admittedly well before I’ve given anything), I am loved by God, chosen before the foundation of the world, as He says in Ephesians 1:4.
At the end of myself, I put my tired certainty to rest—all the answers I’ve been eager to supply—and let my questions hang in the air with a foundation of hope. I trust Jesus is before all things, and in Him, all things hold together, even me (Colossians 1:17). While I feel like I’m breaking apart and unraveling, He has me in the palm of His hand–this may be the only thing I am completely certain of.
Arriving at the end of myself, although painful and wretched in plenty of ways, has ultimately freed me from pressure to perform. I have shaken off the notion that if I want to do important things in the world, I need to draw attention to myself, build my audience, push doors open. If the Lord goes before me, I don’t need to lead the way. I’m here on His errands, to do His will, and He will make a way for each and every thing He calls me to.
At the end of myself, I no longer have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders. I can’t anyway, even if I want to. I’ve had to set that crushing boulder down in order to enter God’s rest, which He gives generously to those who will trade their pride and self-sufficiency for it. I can’t have the rest without the surrender.
Being at the end of myself has been a paradoxical, vulnerable place where I desperately, feverishly crave a way out of pain and discomfort, but where I have also learned God is able to hold me. He is able to bring the care and support I need, and He has. To count all the ways would require many volumes of books. If He ever opens the doors for me to write those books, you can bet I will.
At the end of myself, I can finally acknowledge my days (all of them) are in God’s hands. I am from the earth, a finite, regular mom, formed and sustained by a love beyond anything I can grasp.
I find myself swimming in grace–grace I could not know if I were not at the end of myself.
Emily Sue Allen is the founder of the Kindred Mom blog and host of the Kindred Mom podcast. She also is an ongoing devotional contributor to Joyful Life Magazine, a member of Hope*Writers, and has contributed writing in a variety of online spaces. Living a deeply nourished life, and helping women find joy in the midst of their motherhood journey are among her greatest passions. She is a contemplative, creative soul who celebrates the beauty of humble things and deeply values the grace and truth of Jesus Christ and the riches found in the word of God. She lives with her husband and seven kids in the Pacific Northwest, and blogs at emilysueallen.com. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter, “Notes on Nourishing,” for personal stories about intentionally nourishing your spirit, mind, and body. Find Kindred Mom on Instagram (@kindred_mom) and Facebook, and say hello to Emily personally on Instagram (@emily_sue_allen).