By Dena Hobbs
I stepped up to the pulpit to say the words I spoke every week: “Good Morning! Welcome to White Bluff Methodist Church.” Except this day when I opened mouth nothing came out. Instead of speaking, I began gasping for breath. I found myself gripping the sides of the pulpit to steady myself from overwhelming dizziness. It was a Sunday morning at 11 a.m. and I was having a panic attack in the pulpit.
I am not sure how I made it through that first Sunday panic attack without the congregation noticing. “Maybe they will just think I am ill,” I hoped. I was ill, but I was not yet ready to admit how ill I was.
The Sunday morning episodes continued for weeks. I began having panic attacks not only in the pulpit, but also when thinking about having panic attacks in the pulpit. I knew I needed help, but I was terrified of letting anyone know I was struggling. What kind of church leader has panic attacks, let alone panic attacks in church?
My husband found me a therapist in a town an hour’s drive away. I paid the therapist’s fee in cash so that there would be no record of therapy on my church-sponsored insurance plan. There would be no doctor’s visit. No medication prescribed. My problem with anxiety was a dark secret I kept from all but a few trusted friends.
Somehow, I recovered from that bout of anxiety without my supervising pastor, the leadership of the church, or any of my parishioners learning about it. I viewed keeping my secret as a great success. Now I look back and wonder how many other people in that congregation were suffering from anxiety. If I had been honest about my struggle with mental illness, who else might have been freed to share their struggle as well?
But I was not honest and I did not share about my illness. I feared condemnation and being seen as too imperfect to effectively lead, so I buried my anxiety secret in the depths.
On the Other Side
These days I am on the other side of the pulpit. After children came to my husband and me, I left parish ministry to raise a family. We attend a church where people are honest about their struggles. Each week as the minister blesses people with birthdays and anniversaries, there is often a celebration of an anniversary of sobriety. Each month as we huddle together at the altar rail for healing, arms wound around each other in prayer, I hear requests about anxiety and depression.
Even as I heard others speak my own struggle out loud and without shame, it took time before I felt free to kneel at the altar and publicly ask for healing. It was even longer before I could answer “How are you?” with an honest, “I am struggling. My anxiety is flaring up.”
Over the years, I have become more comfortable being honest about my mental illness among church friends, and the result has been quite surprising. There has been no condemnation, only support. I have not been shut out for my imperfections. In fact, sharing these struggles has brought me deeper into authentic community than I could have ever imagined.
But I know that I am lucky. I am surrounded by Christians who value grace over perfection and authenticity over strength.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I had shared my struggle with recurrent anxiety and depression all those years ago? Would I have been able to receive support and care from those I was called to care for? Would I have been able to exchange my mask of perfection for a robe of grace?
I regret not having the courage to share my mental illness while I was a pastor, because surely, speaking publicly about my struggle would have freed others from the prison of mental illness stigma. But the person I most regret not setting free sooner is myself.
Dena Douglas Hobbs served as a United Methodist Minister for six years before leaving parish ministry to raise her two children. She currently serves as campus minister at Mercer University. You can find more of Dena’s writing on managing anxiety at denadouglashobbs.com.