I like to think that you can tell the state of someone’s heart by looking at the state of their nails. If you looked at my nails, you might be startled by what you see. My nail beds are often red and bloody from where I have picked and scratched at them. Leftover glue from gel nails that I tried to compulsively pick off but couldn’t, remain on the ridges of my nails like some ice on the sidewalk you just can’t scrape off. And the tops of my nails sticking out in disarray from where I have picked and nibbled at nails that have gotten too long.
I had no idea when that nasty habit started, but I know it must have been at a very young age. Whenever I got stressed or overwhelmed at school, I would start to pick away at the loose skin around my cuticles. I answered a question wrong in math class, pick. Got made fun of by the other nasty 7th grade girls, pick. Had a track or cross country meet I had to run in the next day, pick. Stress, pick. Busyness, pick. Perfectionism, pick. It got so bad that my thumbnails now show the signs of my abuse. Tiny, close, horizontal lines now dart the once smooth nail bed of my thumbs. They are not the attractive sort of ridges that old women sport because of years of working in garden beds or changing children and grandchildren’s diapers.
My hands are of a young woman, with a secret for stress and anxiety, that only appears if you look closely at my thumbs. Which of course all the nail technicians everywhere I go to get my nails done do. They cast furtive glances at one another as they examine my nails and whisper to each other in a language I am not meant to understand. I know that I have nasty nails, I just didn’t realize until recently, how much my nails reflect what is going on in my heart.
Yes, I have been down the dark, deep, never-ending hole of anxiety, but maybe I hadn’t conquered as well as I thought upon looking at my nails. I remember early days of learning and realizing that the obsessions in my head were not something that most of the population heard on a regular basis.
My mother first thought I had anxiety when I was in maybe 9th or 10th grade. I somehow got it in my head that I needed to pee everytime I got up in the night. Come to think of it, it wasn’t really that I was afraid of wetting the bed, I knew I could hold it, but just that I might wake up, maybe sometime in the future and be discomforted in some way that I couldn’t control.
And, anxiety, the betrayer of the body, took that fear and twisted it into a compulsion that I didn’t even realize I had trouble ignoring until my mother pointed it out. I remember her voice ringing out tired in the night, if you don’t stop going to the bathroom I am calling a psychiatrist to check you out. That did the trick, though I was afraid of discomfort, I was more afraid of being labeled.
Those were years before words like obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and medication, would be swirling around in the sentences of those closet to me. I thought everyone was that way, maybe that’s why it took me so long to tell others when I started to notice the unmistakable signs of anxiety. But no, I would just wake up, tears streaming down my face, knots of pure evil rumbling around in my belly, and think I was going insane. That if I dared to tell someone how I was feeling, what I was really thinking, they would have me committed. And in a good Christian school like Grove City College, you could be ostracized for having such an illness.
Good Christians prayed that their anxious thoughts would go away, maybe I wasn’t praying hard enough. Maybe like the blind beggar in Matthew, this was to atone for the sins of my parents or grandparents. Christian people didn’t turn to antidepressants; they made their children have secret panic attacks in their rooms and go to see Christian pastors who thought they were also ordained to be counselors. If I had had such parents, I would have been quilting Philippians 4 on a nice pillow cushion while fighting off another panic attack, not throwing my Bible violently against the wall of my dimly lit chapel prayer room annoyed that the medication hadn’t kicked in yet.
It was in that musty, dusty, comforting room adjacent from our main chapel hall that I really found Jesus. My roommates throughout my college career were people who loved to be in the room in the afternoon, right around the time I did my devotions. I always would be ready, sitting on my bed, hands poised in an uplifted position, Bible and various markers ready to go deep into a study, when one of my roommates would arrive breathless from the cold, or class, or just filled with excitement and chattiness and the moment would be lost.
It wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I realized if I wanted to have a truly holy, uninterrupted prayer time, I would need to find a different spot: that and the fact that I kept falling asleep and waking with a lurch and feeling terribly guilty during my devotions. So I found that chapel room as my new safe haven.
The room was a little dusty, with rays of sunlight or sometimes rain glinting through. On cold winter days or particularly damp ones, I would have to turn on a light to read and see. The walls were layered with prayer requests from strangers on campus and half-finished Bible verse artistic attempts that petered out on the walls hopefully not like the faith of those who first thought to construct them. There were cushions to sit on the floor, some very dilapidated Bibles with peeling covers, a random smattering of pens on the floor, and a chalkboard outside where you could mark if you wanted people to join you or leave you alone.
It was here, in this dusty, hidden corner of my college campus that God began to speak to my heart. Many times I would come to Him stressed, with worries of boys I thought I loved, sorority drama and tests and papers to be prepared. I came to him often in joy with fun news to report and exciting moments throughout the day to share. Sometimes I came to him sad or angry. Like when my anxiety left me crippled for months or when the recent boy I decided would surely be my husband had decided I was wrong.
But the comfort I felt in this room, was such a small taste of the comfort I know we will discover one day at the feet of the cross. I think now that my life has gotten so busy and so full of activities and hours that must be worked, that I have not allowed myself to have time like that for a really long time. My devotions these days tend to look like rushed readings of scriptures before heading out the door to my commute, podcasts to replace listening for His voice, and prayers that are more centered on me than ever before. I think that we all go through seasons like this — seasons where we suddenly find ourselves farther from God. Like we accidentally took a train but realized we got off at the wrong station, not really sure how we got here, but looking anxiously to find our way home.
I believe that God still shows up and meets us in these moments. Because he knows our hearts and all things, and His spirit has a way of discovering that girl who wrote those letters and cried out those prayers many years ago on the dusty floor of her college chapel. God doesn’t ask for us to be perfect in our pursuit of Him, but He does ask us to show up. And I intend to spend this holiday season reconnecting to the God of Harbison chapel. The God of whispered wisdom, a soothing voice, and a whole lot of patience.
Yes, I have changed from that anxious girl I once was. I still pick my cuticles, but I get weekly manicures now. I let someone else take care of my hands, assess them, and make them beautiful. In many ways, I think that God is doing the same thing with my heart during this season. Taking it delicately in His hands, surveying it, smiling, and picking up His tools to get to work again.