Why I Can't Go To Church on Sunday
It’s because of my toes, really.
At least, that’s where it feels like it starts and at this point I’m equating beginnings with causality.
Yes, my toes caused this seizing up, this restriction around my ribs, this odd, half-hearted paralysis of my arms and legs.
This is why I can’t go to church on Sunday mornings.
There’s something in the air that even as I’m trying to write about it, feels like a large block of ice sitting on my lungs.
Last year I went to a new doctor, and another, and a third about a buzzing in my arms and legs. Not a tremor, not a muscle spasm, but a deep resonance, ringing in my nervous system. It felt like electricity inside my bones. And occasionally, the DANGER HIGH VOLTAGE light would come on. I couldn’t really move when it would happen, but part of that may have been my intense curiosity at this odd sensation.
It would only last a few seconds, and then I’d be fine.
Of course, I thought of all the worst-case scenarios. The beginnings of MS, or brain cancer, or some sort of alien ant colony taking up residence, or worse, that I was just imagining it.
But my doctors listened to me, asked all the questions, did the tests, and came up with a fairly mundane answer:
“Unidentified nervous system response to stress.”
They said it would calm down as I reduced my stress.
Which stress, I asked? The one where I have to pay my bills, or my grandma just had a stroke, or I am facing new waves of old relationship grief in yet another year? Those are just the things that everyone deals with, right? It wasn’t like there was one clear major stress factor in my life that I could just eliminate.
My doctors didn’t have specific formulas to fix it, but they told me to trust myself, to do my best and believe that everything would fit back together in my arms and legs and brain. My toes would be just fine.
Breathe and rest; wait and see, they said.
My nervous system isn’t the only thing dealing with flare-ups this year.
I haven’t really gone to church since last July.
You know that feeling of panic that you get on airplanes when they shut the door and you suddenly realize you are packed very tightly with 300 other people into a giant metal tube about to be launched into space? It’s like that, except I get it when I think about ordered pews in a big open sanctuary. It starts in my toes and screams at the rest of me to run.
I am overwhelmingly anxious about church services. Me. The girl who routinely sat through 2.5 hour services growing up, who has judged others based on their inability to “commit” to a church, who has advocated head-down diligence as the way to get through any obstacle. I’ve been having anxiety attacks about church.
I don’t have a problem with Christianity or God at all. My relationship with God is beautiful and vibrant. I’m deeply invested in the college age group ministry at my church. I worked through an intensive Bible Study in the book of Jeremiah all through the fall. I have a fantastic group of friends who encourage my faith.
But Sunday mornings are different; services are too much.
My spiritual nervous system is triggered. I can’t go without navigating tears, my throat closing, and so much internal screaming that I can’t even find grace in the bread (gluten free crackers, in my case) and wine. It starts in my toes and clutches up at my throat, racing through my legs and arms.
It’s not just a problem specific to my church. The electricity starts buzzing at the thought of any service, at any type of church, in any place. I am plotting exactly how I will run out the doors and away before I even arrive.
I haven’t figured out why this is happening.
“Unidentified spiritual nervous system response to stress.”
That’s what I need to do. Reduce stress. Which one? The one where I’m increasingly uncomfortable with my community’s limits on women, or I grew up in a spiritually abusive, shame-driven church, or how I cannot stomach another “normal” couple cuddling in front of me to the sound of harmonizing voices while I am singing solo? I recognize bits and pieces of this surging anxiety, but most of them are outside of my control.
My body is healthy now.
I don’t have those strange nervous system charges anymore and I can’t tell you exactly why. I have a better job now, and my grandma is doing well, and I am more practiced at navigating grief when it shows up.
But there wasn’t any formulaic cure, and I don’t think there is one for my church anxiety either. I actually made it through a church service last week with a close friend who hugged me and invited the two of us, my anxiety and me, to sit beside her. I’m grateful, but I don’t know what will happen next Sunday.
It feels strange to write a story without a conclusion.
It seems unhelpful to tell you about something that I haven’t conquered yet. I’m sorry. If I could just fix it or get over it, I would. But I’m not sure my church anxiety is something to be conquered as much as something to move through and breathe deeply, listening for every important grace. I can’t get through this by ignoring it, pressing on, and feeling guilty.
I trust this understanding that I have with God. I will do my best and believe that everything will fit back together in my arms and legs and brain and spirit.
I am waiting to see. I am balancing on my toes.