On Sunday I quit church... for the day, at least. It was the most beautiful and painfully passionate act of self-care I've ever done.
Hi. My name is Mia, and I live with an anxiety disorder.
It's 4:30 on Sunday morning. My first alarm intrudes on the three hours of sleep I've managed to acquire. I begrudgingly assess the state of my vocal cords and decide whether or not they are well enough for me to sleep another thirty minutes. I hit snooze. Minutes later, my second alarm assaults my rem cycle. I pimp-slap my iPhone and decide whether or not I'm going to steam (a process in which I stand over a pot of boiling water for fifteen minutes to lubricate my cords). I, instead, opt for the less time consuming process of making tea, buying me an extra fifteen minutes of sleep. at 5:15, my third and final alarm goes off. I roll out of bed and into the shower. As I lather, I do minor vocal warm-ups and meditate. It's 6:05. I'm clothed, tea is made, hair is done, shoes are packed. Fortunately, I have very little appetite at this hour, so breakfast is a non-factor. I'm deciding between taking the train or a cab. If the local train is working, I can use public transit but I must be out of the door by 6:10 to guarantee my 6:30 arrival. If the local train isn't working, I'll invest in an $8 cab, which will also buy me an extra ten minutes at home. By 6:30, most Sundays, I've arrived at church...sometimes tired, never angry, always anxious.
I never thought I'd be here--serving at a megachurch in Harlem, three services (roughly 8 hours) every Sunday. When I went to college, I swiftly and gladly left church work behind. I grew up in a mid-sized Baptist church in central-city New Orleans. Every Sunday, I played the piano during the devotional period between Sunday School and 2nd service. I hated it. I hated being called upon. I hated having to leave Sunday school early and not being able to be a kid like the rest of my peers. I hated that so much was expected of me. I hated that I had no choice. I hated the anxiety. Even to this day, I go back to my home church and I know I'll be called upon to do the "sermonic selection." And I know I have no choice so I come prepared. But the last time I was home, I chose to forgo church that Sunday because I knew I didn't want to sing/play the piano that day--that my anxiety needed a break... that I needed a break. Even as a professional performer with 25 years of experience under my belt, a bachelors degree in musical theatre, and an Actor's Equity card, "performing" in church still gives me anxiety. My mom and I went back and forth about whether I'd go to church. I won....that day.
I've always been sensitive to energies--my energy, other people's energies. Christians and other religious practitioners may call them "spirits." I can feel an energy walk in the room before seeing the vessel that embodies it. Being at such a large church has been difficult. When I first started going to church again in 2012, I used to cover myself in prayer before, during, and after service. There were just SO many people -- so many distractions. So many energies. The atmosphere used to encroach on my worship so greatly that I could only sit in an aisle seat in the balcony just in case I needed to escape. At the time, I was unknowingly suffering from an anxiety disorder. Years later, through some act of God, I ended up on the pulpit, Sunday after Sunday, ministering to God's people. When I first started singing regularly, I was just a general body member (i.e. a regular member of the choir who no one knew, so I was able to hide). Even in answering God's initial call on my life to minister, I still found a way to hide in the spotlight. It was comfortable. I was comfortable. No one knew me. No one knew my history. No one called upon me to lead songs. It was great! ... until they found me out.
Being thrust into the spotlight was beautifully traumatic. Yes, I love my gift, but I knew I'd never to be able to go back to being invisible.Over the past 2 years, I've been very visible in not only this church but other churches in the community. I've led worship. I've directed choirs. I've even gone back to playing the piano here and there. But the anxiety never leaves. There are days that are better than others. There are days when I can stay after church--after beating myself up through leading worship--and commune with congregants. And there are days when the anxiety is so high that my knees buckle and my hands tremble. Last Sunday was one of those days.
The morning started off with the aforementioned routine. I got to church a little later than normal. There was an energy in the atmosphere that I could not place but it didn't feel right. I pushed through 7:30 service and tried to take some time to gather myself after that. It's incredibly difficult to do that in a place where there are so many moving parts--people coming in and out of a space that ultimately isn't your own. 9:30 service starts. There is a harsh shift in the atmosphere. I felt as if my worship was being assaulted. I wasn't the only person who felt it, but perhaps I was the only person who felt it as intensely as I felt it. That's what anxiety does to you. You are unable to shut out things that others can turn their heads and close their ears to. I wanted to drop the mic and walk off the pulpit, but I have a little class left lol. I pressed through and left church during the sermon to grab some fresh air. I came back after service ended and decided that I was going to try to press through my anxiety during the third and final service. I made it as far as the 2nd pew and the energy reared its head again. The spirit of anger and toxicity was present and I had to make a decision: do I stay and risk my spiritual health and sanity, or do I remove myself from this toxic space?
If you've ever studied psychology, you might be familiar with the terms transference and counter-transference. Transference is when you project your baggage onto the person who currently has authority over you (a therapist, a pastor, a teacher). Counter-transference is that in reverse: a person who is your leader/caregiver/guide, projecting their "stuff" onto you. I felt that on Sunday and for the first time, I was able to pinpoint it and remove myself from the situation before it became dangerous for my mental health. So, I left. I quit church.
This wasn't the first time other people's "junk" cut through the worship atmosphere. It happens quite often in worship ministries, in particular, because of the sensitivity and vulnerability of our calling and the weight and frequency of our service. I spent the entirety of my first week of seminary questioning the validity of my calling into ministry. Surely, if I can't handle transference of any kind, I am not cut out to be a spiritual leader, right? For the past three years, my diagnosed but untreated anxiety disorder has been festering and tearing away at my bill of health and church has been my tipping point. Sunday was just the icing on the cake, but my anxiety is present on most Sundays. I lose my appetite. I often can't be in tight spaces after church such as trains or crowded restaurants. I'm so exhausted by the gravity of worshiping through my disorder that I often cry after church. I've had to hide my tears on the 35-block walk home behind sunglasses and scarves. After church, I'm still overwhelmed by my open wounds. It's like that nightmare where you walk into a room full of people and realize you're naked! If I can, I cover up after church with a winter coat or a hat because I don't want to be seen. This is not just a case of an introvert who may or may not be socially claustrophobic; this is living with anxiety after being suffocated by a diversity of energies for 8 hours, with no time or space for solitude. This is living with anxiety in a world that is still uncomfortable talking about mental health and wellness, especially in communities of color. This is living with anxiety in spiritual communities that are just starting to overtly allow discourse on mental wellness.
Anxiety. It's silent. It's lethal in toxic spaces. It's painful. It can't just be prayed away, no matter how many times you recite Philippians 4:6. Those that are suffering must begin to be honest with themselves about their boundaries, about their inability to give everything to everyone at all times. We must be honest with our spiritual communities about our suffering. I sometimes dread the day when my dreams become realities and I won't be able to just "quit church" when I feel like it. As I begin seminary, I must remind myself that part of this journey of learning to care for others is about learning how to care for myself, even after I've been jolted by the energies of an atmosphere.
I'll be back to serving at church soon. I've started the hard work of healing. I don't apologize for quitting last week or last year or any other time in order to take care of myself, but I know that my calling to minister is greater than my desire to run forever. Here are just a few words for the weary:
For the worshiper who can't get past the spiritual chaos: Don't quit.
For the minister who battles with herself in the pulpit: Don't quit.
For the deacon exhausted by spiritual warfare: Don't quit.
For the pastor overwhelmed by the weight of her assignment: Don't quit.
For the church goer who quarantines himself in the corner of the balcony: Don't quit.