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March 18, 2015

Anxiety and the Atonement: My Story

Hello! My name is Sherrie and I have anxiety and OCD. 

For those of you who know me pretty well or have ever worked with me on a project or assignment, this information might have confirmed your suspicions. For some, this information might be surprising. 

In February 2015 I experienced a very severe panic attack. Through this experience I learned some important lessons that I would like to share. But first, some background information might be helpful. 

I’ve always had a little bit of a tendency to worry. I have inherited what I lovingly call the “worry gene” in my family. As I’ve gotten older, perhaps since I’ve had my children, I’ve slowly and steadily become more anxious. Usually whatever I am worried about resolves itself naturally and fairly quickly and I am able to relax and move on. 

Last month, however, was very different. At the end of January, I went with a group of friends to Disneyland. Because of the measles outbreak that had centered there over Christmas, prior to my leaving I checked in with doctors, asked my Mom about my childhood vaccination history, looked up my vaccination records on a public database and received another MMR vaccination. I did all of this because I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I wanted to be certain that I did all I that I could possibly do to avoid the measles and most importantly not bring it back home with me. After I did all of this, I went to Disneyland, had a wonderful time and didn’t give the measles another thought. (Well, not too many.) 

All was well during the trip and for about a week after I got home. However, the news, Facebook posts and the Internet in general were constantly updating me on the newest cases and outbreaks of the measles across the country. I started to read everything I could about signs, symptoms, incubation periods and contagious periods. Because of all of this reading I was very acutely aware that measles generally started with a fever about 7-10 days after exposure. With all of this information circulating in my brain, I started to check my temperature every day and began to check my face and hairline for the telltale spots. Every day. Every time I passed a mirror. I grew increasingly afraid that I was contagious and didn’t know it yet. At that point I began to break down. The Sunday a little over a week after I got home I cried through the entire three hours of Church because I was certain that I was breathing measles everywhere and on everyone. The fact that I hadn’t shown any symptoms and had received three or four MMR vaccinations in my life was not at all comforting to me during that time. My brain had convinced me that I was a measles-breathing fire dragon. It may sound funny, but it was very real to me. 

After that Sunday, my husband who has some experience with mental health, found me a counselor to go talk to because this particular fear was starting to affect me living my life. I retreated to my house. I did everything I could to avoid being out of my house and especially around children. I didn’t touch the Sacrament trays on Sunday. I made excuses to my kids’ friends for reasons they couldn’t come in and play. I had my husband run my errands for me. Any time I couldn’t get out of doing something, I did it with a giant pit in my stomach and feelings of overwhelming guilt. There were several times where I had to force myself to be “normal.” 

My counselor taught me some techniques to help me retrain my brain to react to stress and fear. I worked on them at home and made some good progress but one day I completely broke. In an attempt at “normal” life I had been at the school doing some volunteer work. But simply being there around so many kids pushed me over my limits. Still not showing any signs or symptoms, my frenzied brain insisted that I had just exposed an entire school to the measles. Later, I was alone in my house trying to calm myself, but nothing I tried worked. I knew that I was going to be the lady on the news who had knowingly exposed hundreds of innocent children. The fear, the stress and the guilt were crushing. 

At that moment my best friend came to drop something off and found me in a complete and total panic attack. So many thoughts were flooding my brain and I was hysterical. My husband called to check on me at that point as well. My friend convinced me to come with her for a drive. I resisted at first, not wanting to infect anyone, but she was eventually able to persuade me. She got me to her house where her husband and a neighbor gave me a priesthood blessing of comfort. My friend arranged for me to go the doctor and get a blood draw done that could determine my level of immunity. The next day the tests confirmed that I had “very high levels of immunity to measles, mumps and rubella.” With that news, almost instantly, my fear subsided. 

I don’t tell this entire story to get sympathy. I share it because of the very important things I learned. 

First, one in 40 people deal with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). My situation, while completely consuming and awful, only affected me and my family for about 2 weeks. I have to believe that there might be someone reading this who is struggling with disabling anxiety every day, non-stop. I wanted to share my experience to say that there is help available and to please not be ashamed to ask and seek out help from friends, family members and professionals. My anxiety still manifests itself, but I am learning to manage it before it gets out of control. 

Second, in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we learn about the Atonement of the Savior Jesus Christ. We learn that our Savior suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane and died on the cross to redeem us and save us so we can return to the presence of our Father in Heaven. We also learn in Alma 7:11-12; 

And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and sicknesses of his people.  

And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities. 

I have a firm testimony that my Savior knew how I felt because He had felt it too and because of that, He knew what I would need to be comforted. I prayed, but my prayers were not answered by my fears and anxieties being taken away. Rather, my prayers were answered in the comfort I received from my husband and my friends and the help they provided that the Savior knew I would need. Looking back on this experience, I see the tender mercies and the hand of the Lord throughout it all; my husband having experience with mental health and recognizing when I was in serious trouble and being kind and understanding and helping me to get help, my friend for listening to promptings about how to help me and following through with them, and the Priesthood holders who were willing to take time out of their work day to give me a blessing.

I know my Heavenly Father knows me and my needs. I know that the Savior has felt all that we feel and because of that, He knows how to help us. It may sound strange, but I am truly grateful for this experience. I know that all experiences we are given on Earth are for “our profit and learning.” For me, this experience has taught me greater empathy, true love and kindness and my testimony of the miracle and gift that is the Atonement was expanded and strengthened. 


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