But I am not upstairs.
While our other staff and volunteers are welcoming people to our community, I am in our office, downstairs from our hospitality space, pacing around, trying to just breathe, and holding back a few tears that want to come out. I feel like many parts of my life are crushing in on me, and I am doing my best to keep them in perspective and not freak out. Inside my head are a myriad of worries and fears and thoughts. Some of them seem like things one ought to worry about, and some just seem ridiculous. Sometimes these all come at my brain at once, and my mind is filled with the anxious and depressing thoughts.
I am worried about Our Common Ground, that we will not have the resources to be sustainable and that it is going to fail. I am worried that folks living outside will no longer have this place to go. Then I worry that Our Common Ground is great, but I am the one that will fail, and I never should have been in charge of this thing to begin with. My mind moves to a meeting I had last week that I can’t stop dwelling on, because I think I screwed it up and didn’t say what I needed to say. Now I can’t stop worrying about it. Then I see the mess in the office, and I think that I can’t even keep my space clean. What am I doing trying to lead something like Our Common Ground? And then I get angry. First at myself, for all of these things. Then, because the anger at myself is too much, I get angry at work, at the church, at things around me. I want to say screw it all and find a job that doesn’t have any stress and run away from everything that worries me. Then I feel awful, which can lead me right back to the beginning of this whole thing.
I look at the clock. I have only been in the office five minutes.
This is the reality of living with anxiety. Sometimes you feel great, and sometimes you find yourself in your office, hiding away from what you see as chaos outside. But the reality is, you are really just trying to hide from the chaos in your own mind.
I have had anxiety for years, maybe much of my life. But it is only in the last year that I have spoken openly about anxiety. Only in the last year that I would admit something might be happening inside me beyond my control sometimes. And it is only in the last eight months that I have taken steps - like seeing a counselor weekly and trying to medication - to be healthier. For many years, I knew something was up in my brain. I would get extra angry at little things, and sometimes in those moments I felt almost like a different person. I would feel overwhelmed with work and worry and life - sometimes to the point where I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and do simple and needed tasks for work. And then I would feel lazy. Like I was failing. I worried that the work of being a pastor and walking alongside neighbors living outside was just not something I could do, or, maybe, something I was never really good at.
And my response to all this, prior to this last year, was to put my head down and work harder. Because that is what one is supposed to do when things are hard. Press on. I saw my feelings and emotions as betraying me, getting in the way, making everything harder. So I would shove them down and move on. When I had a bad day and couldn’t get work done, I would work extra hard the next day, beating myself up until I accomplished what I needed to accomplish. My anxiety and anger and depression were things to overcome. And because I couldn’t overcome them, I felt like a failure.
It has taken me awhile to be honest about my anxiety. I felt for so long like it was something I just needed to get over. Something that, with a few more skills and routines, I could overcome. I felt blaming anxiety for any part of me not accomplishing what I wanted to accomplish would be just an excuse for my own limitations. But the more I have been able to be honest about it, the more I have felt like I am on a good path toward wellness and better mental health.
I share all of this not only to be honest about my anxiety, and to shed light on this common issue that so many people deal with every day. I share this as a way of having a small amount of grace on myself. And also as a way of recognizing my privilege in my struggle with anxiety.
You see, my work at Our Common Ground, and the years I spent before that working with neighbors experiencing poverty, addiction, and mental (un)health, have given (I think) me a decently large capacity for grace when it comes to the reality of mental (un)health and the street and how that can affect my friends and neighbors. But I came to realize over the last year that I was unwilling to give myself any grace when it came to my own anxiety. I am learning, slowing, how to do that.
But my unwillingness to give myself grace had another side as well. I could recognize that my friends dealing with mental (un)health on the street were dealing with things out of their control. I could see they needed more that just some encouragement to deal with what was happening inside of their brain. Yet with my own anxiety, I thought I could just deal with it. I could fix it, because I had the skills to do so. As much as it hurts to admit, I think that deep down, I saw myself as more capable of dealing with anxiety than my friends who lived outside. That I, someone who has taught classes and preached in churches about this very thing - that people who live outside are human beings with the same capacity and agency as anyone else - had internalized the idea that as a middle class person who lived inside and had a steady job, I was more capable of dealing with my mental issues than someone living on the street. Now, the reality is, things like housing and good food and supportive family go a long way toward helping people deal with mental (un)health. (In fact, they are vital much of the time, and one huge barrier folks on the street have in dealing with mental health issues is lack of these things.) And I recognize my own privilege in dealing with my anxiety. But I do want to show how easy it is, in our culture, to internalize the myth that poor people are less capable than others. And for me, it took my own mental health issues to realize just how much I had internalized this myth.
As you can see, anxiety can make the work I do quite difficult at times. It requires me to live in the tension of working with people who are struggling with mental health, on top of so many other things like poverty, addiction, did-connect from others, etc., yet also taking care of my own mental health. It requires me to recognize the power and privilege I bring into our space, while also not downplaying my own anxiety because I see it as a smaller issue that what many of my friends deal with. It requires me balancing caring for myself and caring for others. And it requires me to recognize that my drive to do good work in the world is good, but also means taking an honest look at what I can and can’t do sometimes, saying no to things, and giving myself some grace when I mess up.
If you have read this far, I thank you, for walking alongside me as I share this story, a story that will continue to unfold as I journey on. And the truth is, I hate sharing this. I hate letting others into my own junk like this. And I see so many more things I should be talking about - systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, climate change, etc, etc - rather than my straight white dude anxiety. But I truly believe that one element of toxic masculinity in our culture is the inability to talk about these things. To deal with these issues. So I share this small story today in hopes that we can do better. That I can do better. And that maybe some healing can come to our world to more we are honest about these things.