Thirty minutes before the evening service, just as I always did, I was conversing with people and waiting for the service to begin. From nowhere, in an instant, all my strength went out of me. My body went limp in the chair, my heart rate skyrocketed, and my blood pressure rose so high that I could feel my entire body shake. I wasn't sure what was happening. • I went to my office and lay down on a couch. In about 15 minutes, everything subsided, and I went out and preached. I noticed that afterward I had an unquenchably dry mouth. Something wasn't right. I went to the doctor, who had me hospitalized. I eventually learned I was having an anxiety attack or panic attack.
Upon reflection, I can see I'd had signs of its approach for two years. There were mysterious instances of what I can only describe as a strange and frightening feeling. Now I know that it was the approach of anxiety produced by high stress and overwork—an anxiety that would ultimately crescendo into panic attacks and full-blown depression.
I had noticed that in the spring and fall, my body would ache. I thought I was developing allergies, but the fact is that while the post-Christmas season and summertime gave me a chance to rest, church programs always cranked back up in the spring and fall, and the aching would begin again.
After three days in the hospital, I felt some rest and relief. I had taken a break from preaching on Sundays, but on the horizon was the 800-person conference on the book of Romans called "Romans, Texas Style." The conference was going to be taped for a high-quality video series. The people coming had paid for admission. The pressure was on. In 12 sessions, I would teach a book that I normally take a year of Sundays to preach.
The most important attribute in all the world to me is duty—fulfilling my responsibility. So this was like getting the flu fifteen minutes before game time. It was something I couldn't control. I could preach in a cast or from a gurney, but not when in the grip of this "thing" that was struggling for control of my life.
My hope was that as "game time" approached, my body would rise to the challenge, adrenaline would kick in, and I would muscle my way through Romans. Then maybe I could take some serious time off. But that Sunday night something went terribly wrong. Sleep was impossible. At 2 a.m., an intense heightening of anxiety (although I still had not defined it as such) jolted me awake. All I knew was that it was a god-awful feeling I could only call sinister. It was as though something was hijacking my being. I read a book until about 6 a.m., then I tried to go to sleep again. But another jolt of distress hit me, rousing me from bed.
I went outside to take a walk. The feeling was building in intensity. As I walked, I recited Scripture—Psalm 23, Romans 8—constantly looking to God as this whatever-it-was enveloped me. My wife, Teresa, was up by now and said we should go out for breakfast to take my mind off of what was happening to me. As she dressed, the anxiety hit me like a full-blown tornado.
I had heard of the term panic attack, but it was always something that could happen to someone else, not me. Your body reacts to continual stress by going into a fight-or-flight response. All your blood goes into the legs, and your vision becomes tunneled. You become lightheaded, and your blood pressure skyrockets. The anxiety crests to first-class panic for no reason whatsoever.