Shortly after Tim and I got married, we moved to a new church home. We were there for two years before Annabell was born, and for those two years we did a pretty good job remaining anonymous.
Then our little girl came along, and being a parent changed everything. I needed other moms. I wanted to build friendships, but meeting new people wasn’t the most comfortable endeavor. Thankfully, our church offered an introvert-friendly method of mingling called “Volunteering.”
Doing Busy Like a Boss
I started in the nursery, then added women’s Bible study. Over the next couple of years, I said yes a lot. Soon I was on the leadership team for our adult Bible fellowship, launching a marriage enrichment group, supplying baked goods for various events, arranging meal trains for new moms, teaching preschoolers, and facilitating a women’s small group.
During this time, Tim and I were also diving into the uncertain waters of self-employment. We’d just started figuring out how to manage a fledgling remodeling company out of our basement when that second pregnancy test turned up unexpectedly positive.
Liam came along a few months later. My first panic attack followed his arrival by two weeks. It marked the beginning of a downward spiral of anxiety, panic, and depression.
A Little Thing Called Burn-Out
When I landed in counseling two years later, I hadn’t yet made any connection between my volunteer commitments and my illness. But when my counselor asked me to list all of my roles and responsibilities on a 2’ x 3’ white board, I filled it.
Granted, the things I wrote were “felt” roles and responsibilities. Not all of them were legitimate, but I didn’t understand that yet. Whether or not I was truly responsible for everything I wrote down, I carried the emotional burden of responsibility just the same. And the load was crushing me.
My counselor recommended scaling back. A lot. She explained that I’d been so busy for so long, my body had learned to run on adrenaline. My panic attacks were simply my body’s way of trying to keep up, by dumping every ounce of adrenaline into my system every time I tried to slow down.
But, I’m Too Busy to Not Be Busy
Following my counselor’s advice was difficult on several fronts. My first and most noble-sounding excuse was the degree to which people depended on me. Wouldn’t it be wrong to let them down? (I was still under the delusion that the world—or at least the micro-world of my church community—revolved around my willingness to fill certain roles.)
On a deeper level, one that was harder to explore, I was afraid of who I’d be without excessive busyness. “Serving” at church looked good on the outside, but how much of it had become a convenient distraction from my real problems? As long as I was busy doing laudable things, I could avoid the truth that my faith was shaky—that I had Big Questions but was afraid to answer them.
I could hide the truth from my community because, in church, service looks like spiritual health, and busyness is a virtue. If I backed out of my commitments, people would expect a reason, and I hadn’t yet learned that admitting weakness is actually an act of strength.
Out of the Dragon Skin
It took a few more weeks of emotional upheaval, and a major panic attack, to convince me that my counselor was right. I began weeding out the nonessentials, which was hard because everything I was doing seemed good and important.
I wish I could say with every relinquished commitment, I breathed a little easier. The truth is, the process made me even more twitchy. I had too much time to face my demons, the very thing I’d been avoiding for years. Without the buffer of distractions, I had nowhere left to hide.
God and I did some serious business over the next six months. (Well, He did the work. I basically sat in a corner and tried not to cover up all the things He was laying bare.) I felt like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, when Aslan stripped him of layer upon layer of dragon skin. The process was painful, but necessary.
One by one, I found words to voice those Big Questions. One by one, He answered them. In most cases, His answer wasn’t what I wanted or expected, but in the end, exploring my doubts led to deeper faith. I can’t explain how that happened, I only know it wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t slowed down and surrendered to it.
Busyness is a powerful anesthetic. It does a bang-up job masking our problems, but it does nothing to prevent illness and dysfunction from spreading.
When someone asks me how I’ve been, and my response is “busy,” I take a mental note to rethink my schedule. Is busyness causing undo stress to my mind, body, and family? Am I using it as an excuse to ignore something uncomfortable, but important?
I ask these questions on a regular basis, and the answers often lead to a season of slowing down. Inevitably, God shows up with his Aslan touch and strips away things I didn’t even know were there.
It’s never easy, but it’s always worth it.
This post is the 4th in the No Worries series. I’m creating this series partly for myself—to process lessons God is teaching me about battling fear—and partly for those fighting similar battles. My prayer is that these thoughts would offer encouragement and community. To read previous posts in the series, click the links below: