Sue has been following this blog for about a year now and I have loved and appreciated her comments. One of her more recent ones made me wonder why I hadn’t asked her to write her story, so I finally did. I love her unique perspective and bravery. I hope what she shares helps us be slow to judgment when we see someone leave after Sacrament Meeting or when someone says no to a certain calling, giving a talk, or saying a prayer.
Sue Wilson lives in Carlsbad, California with her husband Ed. They’ve been married for 37 years. Her husband recently retired from the Fire Department and they are loving the retirement life! They run a motocross racing business for firefighters and police officers. They love to travel in their motorhome and visit all the beautiful places this country has to offer. They have one son who is married to the most amazing girl and they have three daughters. Being a grandmother is the absolute best thing in the entire world. She would spend every moment with her granddaughters if I could! She loves it so much. She serves as a family history consultant, Activity Days leader, and ward newsletter editor in her ward. Some of her favorite hobbies are walking on the beach, doing family history, camping, and crafting.
“Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead.”
That is one of my favorite quotes by Jeffrey R. Holland and it’s something I tell myself during those really hard moments. If you are tempted to quit trying, to quit going to church, or even quit at our most precious gift, which is life, then I hope you’ll read my story and find hope to keep on trying. I am so honored to be able to share my story. This blog has meant so much to me. It was here that I discovered that there are many kindred spirits out there. I’m not alone!
My journey with anxiety and panic attacks began 50 years ago. I was seven-years-old when I first began having panic attacks and I would literally become sick every morning because I didn’t want to go to school, where I was being bullied by my second-grade teacher. As soon as the school year was over so were my panic attacks. But they would come back on and off throughout my childhood and I would just “white knuckle” those episodes. All of those frightening experiences developed into an anxiety disorder because I lived in fear of the next panic attack. The fact that this journey has been 50 years in the making sort of blows my mind.
The hardest part of this whole experience is that it has taken so long for mental health issues to become more accepted and not something of which we should be ashamed. I hid my anxiety and panic attack issues for so long because the few times I did try and explain my struggles I would get this bewildered look from people. If you’re like me, you probably know the look I’m talking about. The only one who knew the true extent of my condition was my husband, and I didn’t even share with him all that I was experiencing. Mental health issues can isolate us and make us feel very alone and scared. Not many knew what anxiety or panic attacks were back in the 1960’s so I was never correctly diagnosed until 1996. I tried medication (which didn’t help me) and read many books that taught me relaxation methods but all of those treatments were just band-aids. It wasn’t until, after many prayers, in 2012 I came across a program called DARE that was developed by a man who had suffered anxiety and panic attacks. This program taught me how to diffuse those anxious thoughts and feelings and accept the physical sensations. As soon as you do that the grip of anxiety loses its power.
Though I experienced times of anxiety in my teen years and in my 20’s my anxiety/panic issues really began to be constant in my life when I was in my early 30’s. I had joined the church when I was 19 years old and loved everything about the church. I was always called to serve in the Young Women’s Program and loved working with the young women. It wasn’t until I was called to be Young Women President in my ward that I was forced to step way outside my comfort zone. I did that for three years and then soon after was called to teach early morning seminary for three years. I loved working with the youth but these callings stretched me to my limit.
I have a personality which is hard even for me to understand. I am good at carrying on conversations with people I don’t know well but I don’t always enjoy it. I really only enjoy talking to people I know well and feel comfortable with. So I am an extroverted introvert if that makes any sense. Standing before a group of people and teaching or speaking is one of the very hardest things for me to do. If you’re the president of an organization or a seminary teacher, it’s pretty hard to avoid standing in front of groups of people. I believe with anxiety that every bad experience you have builds upon itself and you eventually crack under the weight of those experiences if you don’t deal with it. But instead of being honest with my Bishop or my friends or those I served with I would hide how I was feeling. That only made the situation worse. I was scared of what they would think of me. I didn’t want to be known as weak, crazy, or lazy. It’s hard to admit that you have a weakness. Even as a young convert I quickly saw that there was this “Mormon mold” that you should try and fit in to. We were often taught that you don’t say no to a calling or to any assignment. I fought hard to fit that mold and do everything I was asked to do and do it to the best of my ability. That’s great in theory but if you suffer from a mental disorder that could be more harmful than helpful. And since mental health issues weren’t talked about or those in leadership had little knowledge of them it was hard to try and explain why certain things were so difficult for me. The stress from the anxiety began to take a toll on my physical health.
For years I thought I must be a weak person and lacking in faith. I would pray and fast for help but still struggled immensely. I finally decided enough was enough and I wasn’t going to hide my struggles anymore. I began to confide in my friends and to my Bishop and found everyone to be way more compassionate than critical. It began to free me from the heavy burden I was carrying. Before I began being honest I would go to church filled with so much anxiety that I would literally be shaking. I sat in the back row of every meeting, just in case I needed to run out. I was always afraid of what someone at church might ask me to do. Would they ask me to speak, or pray or teach a class or serve in a calling that I was sure would finally push me over the cliff into insanity? That’s how my mind worked. Once I was honest with my Bishop, the Relief Society President, etc. that fear began to dissipate because they were aware of my situation and began to ask me to serve in callings that were a good fit for me. I never thought of leaving the church because of my fears. In fact, my testimony became firm because of it. If I still wanted to go to church every week feeling the way I felt then this church HAD to be true, right?!
The scriptures teach us that we can turn our weaknesses into strengths and one of my strengths is now my testimony. I’ve seen the Lord’s hand in my life more prominently because of my weaknesses. I have been blessed with Bishops who are kind and compassionate. They have been inspired to call me to positions where I can serve and know the service I give is of importance and feel like I still contribute well to my ward. I have had many experiences that taught me we are all different and we shouldn’t compare ourselves to anyone else. We don’t have to fit into any mold. We can follow the promptings of the Spirit and be of great service in His Church.
I have no doubt that many people leave the church not because they don’t believe it to be true, but because of mental health issues and that makes me so sad. There is no reason that should happen. If all they are capable of doing is to come to church and sitting through a Sacrament meeting, then that is good enough. They shouldn’t be made to feel like it’s all or nothing. And I know, from experience, that people can be treated that way. Nobody said these words to me and I wish someone would have so I am saying this for all of you who struggle as I did. It’s okay if you can’t speak in church or serve as Relief Society President or serve a full term mission! You will not be kept out of the Celestial Kingdom because of these things! Just don’t quit. Keep trying your best and allow God to help you.
I will say that the acceptance of mental health issues among church members has gotten so much better in the last 10 years. Talks “Like A Broken Vessel” by Jeffrey R. Holland have done so much to change the way we think about mental health issues! But, also, those of us who struggle need to come out of the shadows and share our stories. This has been what has finally freed me. I can now go to church without a ton of anxiety. I feel so much stronger and better equipped to be honest if I am asked to do something that I know would not be good for my mental health. We have to become our own advocates.
Having a mental illness is no different than a physical illness and people are not ashamed to share their physical limitations so we should never be ashamed to share our mental limitations. It’s a trial we are given to learn and grow from and become a stronger version of ourselves. Every trial I now experience I look for the beautiful blessings that come from that struggle. The blessings are many and if you look for them you will be amazed. Nobody says its better than Jeffrey R. Holland:
“Don’t you quit. You keep walking. You keep trying. There is help and happiness ahead. Some blessings come soon, some come late, and some don’t come until heaven; but for those who embrace the gospel of Jesus Christ, they come. It will be all right in the end. Trust God and believe in good things to come.”
Here is a link to the DARE program that has helped me the most: