I’m CSPC Middle School Intern Mackenzie Williams, and this is how I’m living deeply.
The moment of my first anxiety attack, I was in a meeting on The Watershed porch with Jonathan Bromhead. It was October 2022, and he’d just started as CSPC Pastor of Students & Families, so he was meeting with everyone just to get to know us. I was telling him how I grew up in the itty bitty town of Jackson, Georgia and how I met Jesus. Suddenly, I opened my mouth and words couldn’t come out. I couldn’t speak- for about three seconds. It was so terrifying- was I having a stroke? I looked at Jonathan: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t really know what happened there.’ And he was like, ‘Are you okay?’ I told him I thought so. But even at that point where I could say something again, there was a weird sensation like a tingling feeling- it started in the back of my head, traveled throughout my whole body, and left me shaking. Honestly I thought I was going to throw up. The meeting continued, but I have no idea what I said or what he said. I can’t articulate the terror I felt, like, ‘I think I’m going to die on The Watershed porch.’ I remember hearing people who had anxiety and panic attacks saying you feel like you’re going to die. But I had never really understood that until it happened to me. It’s just this overwhelming feeling you cannot escape. You can’t take control of your breathing. You feel dizzy, lightheaded, can’t really talk or focus, like you’re losing your mind. It was fall break, so I had some time off and drove home after that meeting to Jackson, where it happened again the next day. My mom ordered me lunch, but I froze and couldn’t eat any of it. I was trying to listen to what she was saying, but I could not focus. My mind was racing. I’d been so looking forward to visiting the middle school where I’d taught sixth grade the year before, which I was supposed to do that afternoon. But all I wanted to do was lie in bed and not see anyone. It was bizarre. I’d always been an anxious person –that wasn’t news to me- but I’d never felt like this.
I should mention these anxiety attacks followed a series of heart palpitations I’d been having for weeks. The day before my first attack, I even went to a doctor, who did an EKG and said my heart was fine. But for liability reasons, she still recommended I go to the ER. That freaked me out and I illogically convinced myself I was dying. (I had no idea anxiety could manifest itself in heart palpitations.) So all this had been in the back of my mind before that first really big anxiety attack. After fall break, I came back to Knoxville and talked to my CSPC leaders Bethany Johnson, Dan Davis, and the whole youth staff. They were just so encouraging and fully embraced me in this struggle I couldn’t fully put into words. Not once did they make me feel dramatic or anything. (And I’m fully convinced their response is part of my healing.) I was already doing counseling at the church with Summers McMurray at their recommendation. (They knew my move to a new town, fun as it was, could potentially be overwhelming, too.) So it was sort of wild that I was already in counseling, and then this anxiety came out like it did. It’s not that I wasn’t being honest or that Summers wasn’t doing her job. Anxiety can truly go unnamed for a really long time. You can be feeling the symptoms without being fully aware that you’re even anxious. The brain’s ability to shut off certain things you’re feeling so that you can get stuff done is a gift, but it’s also hard and keeps us from acknowledging what we’re really feeling. But at this point, everyone I was close to at CSPC was telling me, ‘I think what you’re dealing with is severe anxiety.’ My counseling with Summers got more intense as we explored tough questions: What is this anxiety rooted in? What are the mechanisms believers are gifted with to work through it without feeling shame about it? My leaders also suggested talking to a doctor about the possibility of going on medication, so I ended up going to Trinity Medical in Farragut.
I was really scared to tell a Christian doctor I was dealing with anxiety; the relationship between Christianity and mental health has been shaky at some points in the past. I didn’t know if I’d be talking to a Christian who very lovingly believed medicine wasn’t the answer, or a Christian who believed it’s a gift that the Lord has given us. I was blessed to get care from the sweetest doctor- she’s a really good friend of mine now, and she just very gently listened to my whole story. The nurse was the same way. Everyone just treated me with dignity: ‘We believe you.’ That was so refreshing. My biggest fear was that they’d say, ‘Mackenzie, why are you so stressed out? Christians are supposed to be the calmest people on Earth because we believe there’s someone in control and we’re loved. This makes no sense.’ But that wasn’t my experience at all. We talked a long time about different types of medication, the doctor’s perspective on them, and how they can affect your brain. Summers also helped me with that. She walked me through the chemistry of it. So we came to the decision to start on a super low dose and just see how it goes. I remember leaving that doctor’s appointment and having my friends rallying around me: ‘We love you. We want to figure this out with you.’ I met them at the mall and for the first time in a few weeks, I had an appetite. Then I got back home and it was a beautiful sunset, and for the first time in a while, I could breathe a little bit easier. I felt heard not just as a person, but also as a believer. It was really a sweet gift from the Lord to experience a love like that. Not one person along the way has been like: ‘Are you sure you made the right decision? Should you have prayed more? We don’t know if anxiety medicine is good for you.’ I haven’t had to make my case to anyone in the faith, and I’m just so thankful for that. No one was shoving me into deciding to go on medicine, but no one tried to keep me away from it. They were like, ‘If you decide with the doctor that’s best for you to function and to give glory to the Lord, that is great. And if you come to the decision that you don’t want to, that’s great.’
I’ve been on the medication for a year now. Basically, it opens up the receptors in your brain to receive serotonin again and calm down, because in an anxious state, those receptors close off themselves. That’s why you spiral and don’t feel like yourself. This medication allows your brain to function chemically like it should. It helps me feel like the Mackenzie Williams that the Lord created me to be- I can function as I was created to function. It doesn’t change the control I have over situations, but it helps my brain from spiraling completely. It’s not a magical pill- I still deal with anxious feelings, catastrophizing, that sort of thing. But I had gotten to the point where if there was a little bruise on my shin and I Googled it, I would convince myself that I had liver failure and was going to die. And it affected me socially because I didn’t want to be around people, even though I love them dearly. I feel like I’m more capable of glorifying the Lord with the help of this medication than I was when I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to eat anything. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to do any of that because chemically, my brain was shutting off. That was not glorifying to the Lord. Please understand, I’m not waving this flag of, ‘Everybody take medicine!’ I’m just saying explore the option without feeling pushed. I badly want people who struggle with anxiety or who love a struggler to approach any option of dealing with it without any shame. Jesus Himself dealt with highly anxious and terrified feelings- so bad that He sweated blood! Jesus isn’t disappointed with you because you’re a little more anxious than other people. He gets it. Jesus is pleased with you even in your anxiety. The Lord’s ways are higher than our own, and you can have a life that sometimes is anxious but also full of faith at the same time. If you can get back to functioning the way you were designed, that is glorifying, whether that’s through medicine, prayer, counseling or just working through it. That’s what I’ve experienced and that’s what I hope other people can, too.
My long-term goal is to keep working with middle school-age students in ministry. Our current 11- and 12-year-olds are the most anxious generation the world’s ever had. They’re coping by using things previous generations didn’t have at their disposal. They can get on TikTok and numb themselves for hours. It’s not healthy. They really want an adult who doesn’t try to ‘fix’ them, but who just sits with them and is like, ‘I’m not going to give you a speech right now. I love you.’ There was a beautiful full-circle moment at middle school ministry camp this past year during our one-on-one time. I lead the 7th grade girls, and one girl shared, ‘For some reason, I always think the worst thing is going to happen, and I don’t know why.’ I think I giggled a little because I was just like, ‘The Lord truly does use absolutely everything.’ We don’t always see Him use it, but sometimes we get to see it. In moments like that, I don’t feel like the Lord has just tortured me with this anxiety. I feel like I live in a fallen world, and yet the Lord is using some of the fallenness to bring Himself glory in some crazy way that we can’t always wrap our minds around. I was able to look this student in the eyes and be like, ‘Me, too.’ I don’t know if that was a magical moment for her, but it was for me. I’m so thankful I was able to be there to say, “I still love you, the Lord still loves you, and you’re going to be okay.’ I realize I work with the most anxious generation the world has ever seen. What a gift to be able to speak truth to them, love them, and help them see that they’re not doing this by themselves; that ultimate security, calm, and peace can be found in our Savior.