His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy, there’s vomit on his sweater already, mom’s spaghetti.”
Back in the day, that was just a fire bar delivered by Eminem in his song “Lose Yourself.” Today, they are accurate and spot-on symptoms of something we call anxiety. For many, anxiety is a crippling reality, and everyone has to find a different way to cope with theirs.Questions about God and the meaning of life and how it all works linger even after we’ve had great therapy, coping mechanisms, and medicine. Eventually, we need to make room for God.
The thing about anxiety is it can touch anybody. There is no special group or social status that exempts you. In recent months, several high profile athletes have discussed their battles with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Former NBA star Ben Gordon recently wrote an op-ed for The Players Tribune detailing his lifelong battle with anxiety. The entire piece details an incredible journey from how he managed it as a player when basketball was his outlet, to nearly ending his life when basketball was taken away.
The part I kept getting stuck on was this:
This started way back in the day. I remember being in Sunday school and the pastor explaining that God had created everything in the universe.
The plants? God created them.
The people? God created them.
The universe? God created it.
And I just remember this thought hitting me, like, Yo, if God created everything, then who created God?
And that was when the loop started. I got stuck. My mind started racing with these deep thoughts, and it’s kind of like quicksand. You try to get out, but you just sink deeper and deeper.
If God created everything, then who created God?
Who created God? This one simple yet massive question sent poor, young Ben into a spiral. It unlocked the door to his anxiety that never seemed to close. He had a way to deal with it though, through basketball. That was his outlet, it was how he handled it. He could step on to those 94 feet of hardwood and escape.
Many of us turn to different things to cope with our anxiety. For some, it is fidgety movements; others draw; and sadly, many people turn to destructive behaviors. A lot of people view the answer to anxiety as escaping it. Therefore, whatever will numb the feeling or take the mind off of it is the answer.
Ben used to blackout on the court. He was completely in the zone, whatever was going on in his heart and mind simply didn’t matter. His anxiety couldn’t reach him there because he was in another place. I believe it. I remember watching him in high school, thinking He is in another world. The way he played looked like he was on another planet. I modeled much of my game after him in the hopes I could reach this level in the same way he does. Little did I know, he truly was in another place.
When his career ended, he went on a downward spiral. He began using drugs as a way to numb his pain and ultimately considered ending his life before deciding that is not what he actually wanted. He didn’t know he was battling anxiety. Nobody had ever put a name to it before, so for him, it was just his natural condition. And when it couldn’t take it anymore, he was going to end his life.
Many people go down this path. When the anxiety becomes too much, and they just want to end it, they view this as their only option. Sadly, the majority of us know someone—or of someone—who has gone down this path.
What changed for Ben is that he started going to therapy. He began seeing a counselor who gave him the space he needed to talk. Therapy is proven to be effective for working out the issues in the head and heart. What many of us have needed is a safe space to talk about how we feel and what we’re going through with someone who can ask the right questions and help us see clearly.
I know this not in theory but in practice. When I turned 27, I reached a state of peak, deep sadness and despair. It was through very good counseling I got to experience the relief from the things that burdened me. The anxiety that had begun to crush me and turn me into a shell of myself, slowly diminished (but never quite went away fully) over the course of several months.
I am grateful for this, Ben is grateful for this—but I can’t help but think of so many who will not have this relief. Ben and I come from communities where going to therapy is viewed as a sign of weakness. To sit before a counselor means that something is wrong with you and you are broken.
And that is actually the truth. You are. We all are. We live in a post Genesis 3 world where sin and brokenness has found its way into every aspect of our lives, including our psyches.
I understand the complicated history between my community and mental health. Our entire existence in this country has been one of struggling and striving. Historically, we have not been in positions that afford days off to deal with the issues of the mind, and thus we’ve powered through and soldiered on. I am sure that there were many slaves who experienced anxiety, depression, PTSD, and so many other issues but there was no option to call in sick, as the result would have been a brutal whipping and possibly death.
Those lessons of being resilient in the face of pain were passed down through generations. When you are traditionally the last hired and first fired, hourly and not salaried, you are mindful of the days you take off and often don’t feel empowered to even ask for them. I remember times in my childhood when I would lament about being tired or just not feeling up to it. My parents would tell me it doesn’t matter, you have to get up and go to work every day because bills still have to get paid.
Propaganda has a great line in his poem Precious Puritans where he says, “It must be nice to have time to contemplate the stars.” We’ve never had the time to do that. Black people therefore have come up with all sorts of ways to cope with our mental health issues. We’ve often dismissed them as just being in our head (ironic, isn’t it)—or if you’re Caribbean, the answer is usually drink some tea and take a nap.
It has been encouraging to see the talk of taking mental health seriously in the black community. The talks, however, have fallen short. Therapy is good. Coping mechanisms are good (when they lead to greater health and well-being). Medicine is good.
But these do not answer Ben’s question, which is also the root of anxiety for many of us. Questions about God and the meaning of life and how it all works linger even after we’ve had great therapy, coping mechanisms, and medicine. Eventually, we need to make room for God.
Jesus provides us with an example of what it looks like to trust the Father in the midst of our anxiety. I think of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Palms sweaty, knees weak, arms heavy, and sweating blood. He pleaded with the Father to let this cup pass from him. In the end though, he said not my will but yours. Jesus modeled what it means to turn to our Father in our most anxious moments.
Therapy was life changing for me, but I think the fact that I had a counselor who was consistently pointing me back to Jesus and the root of my identity being in union with Christ is what was the true game changer. I was constantly reminded of the true High Priest who had been in my position and modeled the way through.
Ben Gordon started with the question who created God? It sent his mind and heart racing. The answer that should have calmed him is God created you and is in control. When Jesus offered us the opportunity to trade our burdens for his, he was offering us peace. The very real and very painful effects of mental health issues may never go away this side of glory but God has given us a myriad of ways to start to deal with them—and he has given us himself.