On this week, 40 years ago, as a 22 year old, I traveled from my parents' home in the suburbs of Baltimore to Columbus, OH. A month earlier I graduated from college, and was now about to pursue my first graduate degree - a M.A. in Counseling at The Ohio State University.
It was the worst year of my life.
While I had experienced anxiety in the past, and had even tried - and failed - at talking to a therapist, everything just got worse once I arrived in Columbus. I had panic attacks, followed by anticipatory anxiety. then free-floating anxiety. For a number of reasons, I lost connection with my college friends, and failed to develop new relationships. I was fairly competent in my coursework, but pretty much failed at the normal logistics of everyday life. I was okay at work (cataloging and shelving books in the OSU law library and working with junior high kids of divorced parents), but otherwise could not figure out how to do life.
You would think that, as the year drew to a close, I would have been glad to finish up and get out of that place. However, the anxiety just got worse. I was afraid to be alone, yet did not know how to relate to others. On one occasion, out of desperation, I asked some people I knew if I could just sleep on their couch. I needed to know that I was not losing my mind. They saw my heightened state of anxiety and stayed up with me. We sat up, talked philosophy (even though I was the only one interested in the subject), and played cards. And we prayed. They saw I needed the human contact, even though I seemed to have forgotten how to respond to it. Their ministry of presence was a saving grace to me that night.
Looking back, remembering that year from the distance of the biblical definition of a generation, I am thankful for all I went through.
I learned that I experience life differently from other people. I learned that I know little about the normal human interaction that most folks take for granted, and is the core of their relational life. I learned that I may never be very good at the daily, normal activities of life. However, I also learned that I have an acute awareness of the existential pain that is just under the surface for many of my fellow humans, and I can often see it in their eyes, and hear it in their voice.
Mostly, I learned that there is such a thing as a ministry of presence, and it is often the most helpful way to offer grace in the world. I can let others know they are seen and heard, that they are not alone. I can let them know they are not being judged, categorized or critiqued. I can let them know that I was once where they are, and while there are moments when the pain reappears, I am not there now. But I remember.