So it’s official - I am 40. Time to celebrate? It’s hard to tell. Some people dread turning 40 – it seems like an ominous milestone, like the point of no return on the aging scale - not that we can ever turn back time - but maybe it is the point past pretending that we can. Certainly 40 seemed really old when I was 10. And 20. And 30, to be honest. It is interesting how we react as we reach these somewhat artificial landmarks of our birth (surely they are more significant to our mothers?!) and reflect on our journey-to-date. Did things turn out the way we expected or hoped? As a highly academic high school student I, and probably everyone else who knew me, assumed I would go on to a post-secondary education to get a degree or two. Maybe a masters. We would’ve thought it was a pretty safe bet. Instead I enrolled and often dropped out of a number of classes at a few different schools. My experience with panic disorder was peaking as I attempted to further my education – no doubt the fluorescent lighting and the crowded campuses and classes didn’t help. But I still think about going back to school, and I probably will. (It’s nice to be able to control the crowds and lights with an on-line course.) When I was younger I assumed I’d be married and have kids – actually I always pictured myself with three boys, but still living in my parents’ home. I did end up with three boys, and I am very thankful that Paul & I have our own home.
The part about turning 40 that makes me sad isn’t so much about the years, it’s more about being a grown-up in general. Not that I usually feel like a grown-up. Every time I have to do something particularly adultish, like negotiate mortgage payments or navigate parent-teacher interviews, I feel like a fake, a timid child hiding behind the mask of a mature and capable woman. Surely if you are old enough to have kids and a car and a house and a real job you must be mature, stable, and sure of yourself? When would I outgrow panic and self-consciousness like I outgrew dolls and crayons? Did I miss the day I was supposed to become confident and competent, shedding my fears and doubts like last season’s fashions? I was surprised to learn that most of us are much like insecure tweens, but with bigger clothes and bigger bills.
What I’m sad about as I turn 40 is anxiety. When I was younger and figuring out this diagnosis of “panic disorder” I was told that most children grow out of their anxiety. I clung to this fact like a life preserver in the raging tempest of my life. This was a ray of hope to me that pierced the terrifying darkness of my fears. And I was certain it was true – how on earth could I as an adult still have so many fears? Imagine a grown-up too scared to go on an elevator! Imagine an adult who freaked out and bolted out of the mall because she was claustrophobic. But yes, I can imagine exactly that. I slowly but surely became that adult. The specific phobias have morphed over the years but fear still has a firm grip on this 40-year-old, grown-up mother and wife.
I know now that millions of other adults are struggling with varying forms of anxiety, and that was somewhat comforting to learn, but it was a crushing blow to realize that it applied to me. The hope that freedom would come with maturity that was a lifeline through my teenage years… Just hang in there, you’ll grow out of it… turned out to be a lie. Truth is I grew more into it - I became accustomed to fear, I expected panic attacks. I absorbed all of this terror and dread into my personality, my self, my soul.
I mourn the hope of “growing out of“ anxiety. But I am learning that it is not so much about growing out of fear as it is growing into God. I thank Him for the forty years on this earth that He’s given me, including the anxiety, for that is part of the journey that brought me to where I am today, where I am supposed to be. But now I know that even though I feel fear it is not part of who I am. I am learning that my true identity is in Christ, not in anxiety. (see Ephesians) I yearn for the peace that passes all understanding. (Philippians 4.7) He can do infinitely more (and better!) than I can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3.20) – His miracles far surpass my teenage hopes. Even though I still struggle with anxiety, it does not define me. As I stumble along the path God has set before me, I am trying to cast my cares on Him (I Peter 5.7), trying to lean on Him (Proverbs 3.5). I don’t always get it right, but He does. I will continue to age and change, but He remains the same, (Hebrews 13.8) and that is worth celebrating.