Finding Hope, Promise, and Faith in the Midst of Anxiety
by Holly Kooi
I have a story to tell. It’s a story I’ve hidden. I buried it deep within a beat up cardboard box that I duct taped shut. After scribbling the words 'Do not open' on all sides, I shoved the box in a corner of my storage room. But a boxed up story doesn’t help anyone, and, quite frankly, I need the storage space for my son's bicycle. So out it comes, opened and unpackaged.
This is my story of anxiety. It’s a story about change, intense struggle, a loss of faith and a lack of self-worth. It’s about identity and truth, coffee, and Jesus. It's the story of how God's promise to never leave us or forsake us walked out of the Bible and into my life.
My name is Holly and I like to laugh. I like to smile. I like to like people. When I was in grade school, socializing was all I wanted to do. Although I did go through some serious teenage angst, I didn’t worry. I climbed trees and rode roller coasters and enjoyed time with friends. I just didn't worry.
But then I did.
Losing my stability and my identity
In 2014 I experienced the most turbulent change in my life. The year began with excitement and hope. After two years of working as interns for a mission team, my husband and I were formally invited by the team to be full-time missionaries in Vienna, Austria. Confident in God's plan, we were certain everything would fall into place. But it didn't.
Due to Austria's visa application process and necessary interviews for living in Vienna full-time, we flew back to the U.S. with the intention to stay for two months. Though we were hired for the full-time positions and approved for Austrian visas, our visas were not issued until it was no longer safe for me to fly back to Vienna as I was pregnant with our first child. We stayed in the U.S. for another seven months. Dependent on family and friends for accommodation, we didn't have a stable home. We were nomads.
To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. It seemed we were always moving, changing, adapting, repeating. The near continuous amount of change I experienced was mounting at a rapid pace. When our first child, Elliott, came into the world, a strong, stable part of me dissolved.
Shortly after Elliott was born, my husband, Will, went back to work for our supporting church. We were still in the U.S. I was by myself a lot – more than an extreme extrovert should ever be. Elliott was with me but I found it difficult to have meaningful conversations with a little human who pooped on me all the time and refused to sleep. The high of being a new mom wore off the longer I was alone with him. Motherhood went from being beautiful to frightening.
Everything seemed dangerous. I pictured tragic ways of losing Elliott. At first, I didn’t want to leave the house. Too scary out there. Then I didn’t want to go downstairs. Elliott and I could slip and fall. Then I didn’t want to leave our room. Then I didn’t want to leave the bed. It was safest just to be still. My brain felt out of control. I was in a state of constant fear.
Out of embarrassment and shame, I tried to keep my fears hidden from everyone but Will and God. I prayed with great desperation for God to fix me. "I'm broken," I'd tell him. "I was a normal, functioning, happy person, and now I'm broken. I don't want to be this way. I didn't ask to be this way. Please fix me. Please." Day after day I asked to be fixed. Yet day after day I woke up terrified.
The tone of my prayers changed from hopeful to intensely bitter. My faith had weathered storms in the past, but never like this. I was angry. My faith, I figured, must not be enough. I must not be worth fixing. My prayers for healing ceased. Deep down, I knew this was a deafening alarm to get help. But if God certainly wasn't doing any groundbreaking work why would someone else?
Finally, with Will's encouragement, I managed to get to a doctor. We concluded I was battling postpartum-anxiety. I finally had a name for what I was going through. To arm myself in the battle, I began to take medicine to slow my thoughts and my body’s reactions. Unfortunately, most anxiety medications can take anywhere from six to eight weeks to begin working.
For me, this meant my anxiety would get much worse before it got better. I experienced my first high-grade panic attack in the middle of the night just a few days before our little family of three boarded a plane back to Vienna.
The hidden reality of panic attacks
Panic attacks are caused by an overwhelming feeling of dread and impending danger. The body triggers what’s called the “fight or flight response.” Adrenaline kicks in to help you fight off, or run away from, danger. But there is no real danger. So now your body’s confused. Instead of shutting down the adrenaline pipe, the body responds with, “Hey. What if you fight and flee? Yep. Nailed it.”
For me, panic attacks begin with tingling in my hands and face, followed by numbness in my legs, arms and face. Nausea and the inability to breathe kick in. I begin to sweat and shake. If it’s a bad one, I either see spots or blurs of what’s around me. I feel dizzy and faint. All of this happens within about sixty seconds but can last up to twenty or thirty minutes. If I have help I can usually get my breathing under control in five to ten minutes, but the shaking and tingling take ages to wear off.
When I had my first panic attack we were still in the U.S. But a few days later we flew back to Vienna. I think that’s when my body more or less said, “Ok, no. You have moved me so many times and I gave you a child and I am so stressed out and now you’re back here… and I don’t know if I’m feeling culture shock or reverse culture shock plus I’m jet-lagged… Just, no. I’m done.” It had a point. My mind and body were at war.
Our first night back in Vienna, I had the worst panic attack I’ve ever had to date, and after that night they just kept coming. Always at night. Always scary. This was new territory for my husband and me. Neither of us knew how to handle them or what to do.
I slipped into a season of depression. Then one afternoon with Elliott asleep and Will away at work, I had another attack. My attacks were no longer confined to evenings and early mornings. They could happen anytime, anywhere.
Finding who I am and what I am worth
Looking back, I’m thankful for that particular panic attack. In the thirty minutes it took to have the attack and recover, it both woke me up to my needs and used up the last ounce of energy I had to stay silent. It’s what drove me to finally call a professional counselor, someone who’d been recommended to me should I ever need someone to talk to in Vienna.
I’d also been told he was a Christian, a fact I was excited about at the time of the recommendation but felt less so now that my relationship with God was on hiatus. But I hoped if anyone could understand how and why my mental state seemed intertwined with my spiritual state, it would be him.
Our sessions took place away from my house. Although I was still scared to go out, my desperation for normalcy outweighed my fear of freak accidents and sudden tragedies. The first few sessions were intense and difficult, but it was an enormous relief to unload all of my thoughts and fears and to be understood.
I described the vicious connection between my anxiety and faith: My faith is weak, therefore I am weak; my faith can’t be restored, therefore I can’t be restored. My faith is bad, therefore I am bad. I immediately regretted confessing this. I feared judgment and disappointment. But instead, the counselor responded with compassion, empathy and kindness. From our conversations, I discovered four very important truths.
First, anxiety does not define the whole of me. It happens in my brain. I am not my anxiety. My identity doesn’t lie in my anxiety. I am susceptible to it, but it is not who I am. Second, anxiety entered my life the same way disease and cancer enter the lives of others. It’s connected to my biological makeup, not the strength or weakness of my faith.
Third, there is a difference between wanting a God and wanting a magician. I wanted a magician. I knew the verses where Jesus healed people because of their faith. So I said, “I’ll take miraculous healing too, please”, forgetting that God always works in my best interest. And fourth, I am worth fixing! I just may not be healed in the way I prefer.
Finding home at a Viennese cafe
But I was still lacking … something. Uninterested in prayer, I didn't ask for guidance or direction. But as I look back, I believe God guided my feet nonetheless.
Soon after I began my counseling, Will needed what we call a “real” breakfast. As Americans who are used to massive portions of bacon, eggs, pancakes and biscuits, the traditional Viennese breakfast of meat, cheese, bread and marmalade can cause a pretty intense case of breakfast-induced home sickness. I quietly opened my laptop and began the search for a proper breakfast.
On Valentine’s Day, 2015, we walked into Cafe Little Britain for the first time. I gasped loudly at the scene: shabby chic decor, shelves of beautiful teapots and glass cases of cakes and bread, cookies and brownies. The breakfast was amazing, the coffee delicious. Our entire experience from beginning to end was a complete joy, not just because of our meal but because of Ada.
The owner and professional smiler of Cafe Little Britain, Ada greeted us with delight. She instantly fell in love with Elliott. Her sweet spirit was contagious. She doted on Elliott and talked with us whenever she had a moment. She didn’t know us at all but it felt like we’d known each other for years. It was here I knew my search was over. I realized I’d been led to the missing piece of my recovery plan: refuge.
In this precious, pink, cozy cafe tucked away in a corner of Vienna, I found peace. In the light- filled space I could see everything. There was nothing there that could physically harm me. In Ada, I found not a threat to Elliott, but a guardian and protector. A friend.
I had asked God for an instant fix. Instead, he gave me a space where I could feel safe; a place where I could cast off anxiety and rediscover myself as Holly, as a mom, a wife, an expat and a child of God. I found a place where I could build a new life in Vienna. I found home.
The road to recovery
Two years later, I can breathe again. I joined a Christian mother’s group. I opened my Bible and intentionally looked for people who wrestled with pain and were angry with God because of it. I found them and felt understood.
My good days exponentially outnumber the bad. Certainly, I do have days where it feels like a relapse. But I haven’t had a high grade panic attack in a year and a half. The last low grade one was many months ago. I’m no longer on anxiety medication but I see my counselor once a month to keep myself in check. And Cafe Little Britain continues to be my safe haven, my reset.
As for my faith, it’s a work in progress, as it always has been. I now picture that dark season as a time where I stopped walking forward and instead sat down in a puddle of mud. And Jesus sat down in the mud puddle with me. He patted my back while I insisted on crying into my own arms and patiently waited for the moment I realized I could cry into his.
Some days my trust in the Lord couldn’t be stronger. Others I’m right back in the mud. But I have a clearer picture now of who God really is, what his son really does, and how his spirit is working to bring the best parts of me to the surface. Like my body and my brain, my faith needed time to heal as well.
My anxiety is and will likely always be a part of me. But now I have the tools, awareness, and strength to live a fulfilling life. In my weakness I have found strength and a passion I didn’t know was there.
If you have anxiety, you do not have to and should not stay silent. Reach out to someone you trust. Above all, know that you are loved for who you are. God has not left you. He is sitting right there next to you, ready to hold you and lead you to a place of peace. I hope my story will inspire you to take heart. We’re in this together; you’re not alone.
Holly lives in Vienna, Austria with her handsome husband and two tiny kids as a life mentor and an ambassador for Jesus. She loves meeting new people and hearing their stories over a cup of coffee in one of Vienna's fantastic cafes. She's passionate about people, writing, photography, journaling, and mental health. Currently, Holly is working on a way to bring mental health awareness to the forefront of conversation in Vienna. To connect with Holly, visit her blog or follow her on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.