Since the birth of our daughter, my wife has been dealing with an anxiety disorder. At its most extreme, she suffered constant panic attacks, triggered by things as slight as our children arguing or the worship music in a darkened sanctuary. Today, tightness in her chest often prevents her from exercising, or a rush of adrenaline keeps her up for hours at night. The symptoms can mostly be managed and aren’t obvious day to day. To most who meet her, she appears healthy, “normal.”
Unlike other illnesses, whose symptoms might be overt and lead to expected changes in behavior, anxiety imposes limits only its sufferers know. And this can be the biggest challenge, the hardest symptom to bear—limitations on one’s life that others do not expect. We grow up believing the world is our oyster, and we are told constantly that nothing should prevent us from laying hold of what we desire. As she, and we, have wrestled with the implications of living with anxiety, by far the most significant struggle has been acceptance of her body’s inherent weakness. We had not realized how conditioned we were to see good health not as a gift, but as a right alongside liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Only when our health turns for the worse do we discover otherwise. “Although our world is full of disease, accidents, and random misfortunes,” writes Bob Cutillo, a physician at Colorado Coalition for the Homeless in Denver, “many of us never plan on being sick or dying and are quite shocked when we are. How have we come to think like that in a world like this?”
Advances in medicine have achieved so much good—reducing suffering and extending life—that we now demand miracles. We wield ...1