Today I had an appointment to visit a dental specialist I’d been dreading seeing for months. The clinic called me repeatedly for weeks in advance to confirm, and I was so anxious I couldn’t even answer the phone. But the one thing I hate more than the dentist is listening to voicemails, and I didn’t want to receive any more, so I finally called back to confirm…and immediately felt the swell of all-consuming dread that made me want to flake.
I have severe dental phobia and a lineage of terrible teeth. Ever since childhood I’ve had nightmares they all fall out, clinking to the earth like cartoonish piano keys. Some of them did fall out, eventually, or I guess they were helped out by a dentist who shamed me during the procedure. I brush and floss twice daily, so all this did was encourage me to vigilantly avoid the dentist all throughout my 20’s.
Thus a mental back-and-forth began about what would happen if I kept the appointment with a brand new dentist (doom, worry, shame) and what would happen if I canceled (inevitable rescheduling, possible fee for canceling, doom, worry, more shame), playing out in my head even as I drove to the appointment. I regularly see a dentist I love and trust who is kind and never shame-y, but the work needed in my mouth is beyond the scope of his repair. I am seeing this new dentist on-referral.
This appointment was further delayed while the clinic was closed due to covid. My regular dentist, however, was ahead of the curve and put all of the safety regulations in place BEFORE the state mandated them (shoutout to The Dentist’s House of Edina as one of the few clinics in MN that was able to see patience during The Spring Lockdown of 2020!).
So, today is the day, I kept telling myself. For better or worse, today you see a specialist about the weird things going on in your mouth.
To ease the nerves and to brace myself for the incoming shame-storm, I planned to be early: paperwork already filled out, plenty of foot-tapping time in the waiting room to calm my nerves, and a clear understanding of my insurance benefits to minimize any billing confusion. Instead, I was late to the appointment by a minute, and hadn’t found the time to register anything online. I barely remembered my insurance card, and my mask broke in the parking lot. The front desk lady was curt. I was about to leave and write a shitty yelp review about how their harassing phone calls made me too anxious to show up, when a short-statured assistant emerged and sweetly called my name. Because she was wearing full PPE I could only hear the smile in her voice as she took my temperature, affixed a mask to my face, and then ushered me back to the holy of holies, aka one of the many procedure rooms lining a corridor that seemed to go on forever.
Once seated in the reclining chair of impending doom, the sweet lady placed a heavy apron on me that covered my entire torso and most of my legs and all of my arms. It was thinner than the two ton lead-filled radiation blankets of my childhood memories, but was just as effective in fully sedating my limbs. I could barely move a muscle. It was also a kind of chic purple color, so while she processed my x-rays I wiggled a hand out from underneath my thigh and felt for my phone to take a photo, first of my feet, then of my face. The blanket clasped tightly around the back of my neck, making it hard to turn my head left or right.
I got busted taking the selfie and quickly explained that I had to take a photo because this weighted blanket felt just exactly like the perfect physical illustration for what having anxiety feels like every day, like being present yet unable to move naturally in any way. Paralyzing.
“Oh, I understand,” she said quietly. Then, even quieter, she told me “My father recently passed away. And on the night it happened, I couldn’t move – I couldn’t really even breathe. A few days later, it happened again. When I was able to get seen, my doctor told me I had anxiety, and broken heart syndrome.” I didn’t even know that was a thing, but I googled it. Paralyzing fear, chest tightening, even cardiac arrest. Your broken heart, it turns out, can actually stop beating.
And just like that the room filled with something – pure acceptance. We are humans, beautifully flawed, totally messed up. I told her, “I mean this in all sincerity, I will pray for your broken heart”. I was able to say this to her and mean it, because I had fought with anxiety all the way there but I had not let it keep me from coming to this appointment. Many of my days, anxiety wins the day. But not today.
If the anxiety had gotten to win this time, we’d never have had this time, this human interaction — and I would not have gotten to find out I have nerve damage from a hit to the face I took last fall. Now I get to budget for a root canal!
The root of anxiety is fear. If you’ve seen the Pixar movie Inside Out, the wiry neurotic purple guy voiced by Bill Hader acts exactly how anxiety feels in real life: erratic, overthinking, afraid of anything outside of its control.
Since there are so few activities that anxiety finds safe, when it wins I feel trapped in my body, unable to do anything at all.
The other night, after a long day when anxiety won, I was immobilized on the slanted old hard wood floors in my bedroom, just scrolling. Social media can be the poison and the medicine sometimes, can’t it? Because after a while of just scanning posts, I see a share from someone I admire about her mental health and how signing up for virtual therapy has made all the difference in her world.
A side bar about therapy: I was raised conservative, and while many religious folks have taken a more open-minded stance over the years, “talk therapy” was the butt of many jokes in the culture of my youth — something only truly messed up people needed. As a result, I’ve only been to counseling if it involves my relationships: first, during the divorce of my early 20’s, and now as a part of the marital upkeep I do with Christian (which we love and recommend – seriously, couples counseling is like date night for your hearts!).
But I am a truly messed up person; everyone is. So I saw, in that IG post, a beacon of hope. I signed myself up for therapy that night, and was matched with a counselor in my city the next morning.
And because I tend to stack all the hard things in one day, after I left the dentist I bought myself a petit four, drove home, put the car in park, and dialed in on a video conference for my first ever therapy appointment. And I noticed something about my counselor right away: her vibrant purple hair.
“The color purple relates to the imagination and spirituality. It stimulates the imagination and inspires high ideals. It is an introspective color, allowing us to get in touch with our deeper thoughts.” (source).
Purple is one of my favorite colors. It’s so calming and soft but strong, even if it represents anxiety in one of my favorite kids’ movies. Whenever I see purple I take it as a nod from God that I am seen — even when my worst fears are realized — and I am so deeply, royally loved.
In historic times, purple was associated with royalty, as it was the most expensive kind of cloth. It’s said that they mocked Jesus when they crucified him by dressing him in purple linens.
And whenever I meet fellow purple-loving ladies, I can’t help but think of one of my favorite heroines from the earliest days of the church, Lydia, a Bible character prominent enough that my current church literally named their coffee shop after her.
Lydia of Thyatira (or, Saint Lydia depending on who you ask) was a nonreligious but devoutly spiritual woman who was diligent in business and successful enough to support the ministry work of the early church. Her clothes-making empire employed many women to dye linens — specifically purple cloth.
Acts 16:14-15 New International Version (NIV)
14 One of those listening was a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth. She was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to respond to Paul’s message. 15 When she and the members of her household were baptized, she invited us to her home. “If you consider me a believer in the Lord,” she said, “come and stay at my house.” And she persuaded us.
I admire Lydia — she was a spiritual seeker who made do with what she was given. According to her name, she might have been a servant at the start of her life, or she could have been a free woman (she was named after a place, not given a personal name). She’s known as The Woman of Purple, or The Purple Lady, and was either a wealthy widow or the head of her household — it’s hard to say for sure. (source)
We don’t know whether or not Lydia lived with anxiety.
But what we do know of Lydia is that she was busy, and she must have worked hard. She was a leader, she stayed spiritually open, and was receptive to the message that God loves her. Lydia needed that love to be real in her life, and she was baptized in the faith to show her devotion to it. As was the first European convert to Christianity there ever was, she lived to give out massive amounts of hospitality.
I’d assume Lydia had tons of nerves; the lady had A LOT on her plate. Perhaps this is why she could so deeply trust, and why the message of Jesus so deeply resonated within her?
Matthew 11:28-30 The Message (MSG)
28-30 “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”
For busy leading ladies, Jesus’ words are like balm to the burned-out soul. Still it’s easy to get swept away in the business, in the current of life. Overwhelm abounds at each turn, threatening to capsize our little emotional rowboats.
But our God became human, died, and came back to life again so we would never be left on our own to spiral in anxiety (Matthew 28:20). This is probably why Jesus was so adamant that we allow our trust in him to overwhelm the fear we feel, but it’s a choice — and most days I don’t choose wisely.
There are apparently 365 reminders not to worry in the bible, one for every day — so how is it I find myself paralyzed in anxiety more often than I would wish on my worst enemies? If someone were to write a verse like Lydia’s about me, it might read, “One of those listening to this message was a woman from the city of Minneapolis, a worry warrior with an anxious heart who worshipped God when the mood was right.”
But I know what needs to change.
Taking my focus off the fear I feel allows me to fix my eyes on Jesus, who trusted his very life to God’s plan. With a whispered prayer of the simplest kind – “help me, please” – I begin to detach from that which overwhelms, and recognize the force of life within me: God, who is bigger than anything I could ever fear anyway.
I’m not going to tell you to fix everything we just need to put on our own oxygen masks, or add a better self care routine (although if you find these suggestions are helpful, take them!). I can reduce my amount of commitments, say NO more often, and take a million bubble baths, but I know that life will still find a way to overwhelm me, and there will be days when fear still seeps in. Like guys, I’ve been anxious on my self care days because I was convinced I wasn’t spending them living to the fullest!
The key for me has been to do what the recovering alcoholics love to do: they let go, and let God, as much as it feels like a punch in the gut to admit it’s true.
Living open-handedly before God, I’ve realized, is the best remedy for my anxiety. When I refuse to hold onto my worries so tightly, I can be open to receiving the peace that’s truly for me. Letting go, letting God, repeat. Aka, faith.
And of course, I mean faith and medicine, if you and you doctor agree it would help.
I do this by quieting myself before God every day, doing the best I can muster to release my worries into the oceanic magnitude of Grace, offered freely to anyone who believes And on the days I don’t believe? I start by praying, “help me with my unbelief!”
Well this is #prayergoals sheesh Luther
I’ll see those purple sunset stars the next time I quiet myself to meditate.
I know another purple loving lady – my mama. It’s her birthday this week, and she is our queen. So many walls in her home are painted purple. Her home is a welcoming presence for many, a lighthouse in the night. I’ll be bringing over the ginger rhubarb bars she craves every year.
And later I am face-timing with my daughter who is in the purple bedroom at my ex’s house across town. Her stepsister appears, stringing purple strands of beads around their necks. It seems that purple is all around me like anxiety is all around me and God’s love is all around me, and then a truth settles in: if there’s nowhere I can go and not find God, then all the places where my fear shows up? God will be there, too, nudging me toward grace. Like a purple x-ray blanket or a purple-haired therapist or the purple of sunset shared over a purple bottle of wine I’m sure Christian and I weren’t supposed to open in the park, but we did. And next thing I knew we are under some trees at Lake Nokomis looking up at their canopies, eating grapes like goons and people-watching the lake, my friend anxiety having been put in her proper place in my mind’s periphery.
It was perfect peace.
Philippians 4:6-7 New International Version (NIV)
6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.