My husband was at home with the baby and I was at the library when I experienced my first – and only – panic attack. It was Fall; the air outside was just beginning to thin and tumble, threading its way through newly-bare branches and alleyways. I remember that it was dark, painfully dark at 6 pm. I was tired. 

I sat at one of the large tables in the reference section, my notes and books spread around me in a cluttered half-circle. I work best with large amounts of space and quiet, something nearly impossible to come by with a new baby. It was a gift to slip away to the quiet of the stacks and write the book I was working on; it was something I had missed, acutely, for months.

I don’t remember feeling particularly stressed or anxious, but I do remember the pattering in my chest that started like a whisper and progressed to cymbals. I couldn’t focus and had to turn off the computer. My breathing became narrow and superficial; I felt like I was falling down even as I straightened in my chair. The room started hovering like hummingbird wings, and I had to close my eyes and lay my cheek on the cool of the table. I wondered if I was having a heart attack or a stroke and if maybe this was how I would die, here in the quiet of the library.

Finally, the whirling stopped and my heart rate declined. I called my doctor-father and described the symptoms; he guessed it was a panic attack and recommended I get home and rest. 

I did go home, and I did try to rest, but my mind kept circling back to that moment. Why, with an evening of freedom stretched in front of me, did my body react so viscerally? Why not in a traffic jam on the highway?

What had I been doing that triggered my heart and mind into such a response? 

As I processed and prayed, I landed on the truth of it: I was finally making time to write my story.

The book that I was working on wasn’t some side project about an extracurricular topic; this book was my life. It was my story splayed on the page, the outline of a life learning to accept and move through the journey it was living. And my body understood what my brain could not yet comprehend: writing my story would cost me a great deal. 

Getting honest about my questions and unanswered prayers and the path my life had taken — this would cost me. The work before me on that library table wasn’t a putting together. It was an undoing. Writing my story — honestly, truthfully, fully — would be perhaps the hardest work of my life. 

But what my body and brain couldn’t know on that fall night when my heart tried to unlock itself in my chest was this: 

Writing my story would also set me free

I spent the next two years wrestling words into that book, and I wrote at the library and at my desk and on the couch while my daughter slept. I wrote when we moved and started a new life in a new city, and I wrote once I’d been offered a contract for my story that suddenly made the stakes feel higher and riskier. 

But what I found was that as I wrote my story down, I was also being given the chance to rewrite the narrative of failure that I’d unintentionally embraced. None of us can change the details of the lives that we’ve lived, and looking back, I had tended to see myself as broken and failing in key areas of my life. But by the grace of God and through searching for a literary arc even in the confusion of life, I started to see a bigger story emerge. I started to see that my brokenness and weakness didn’t define me.

I started to understand that the shattered places in my life actually helped make and form me, that God didn’t abandon me, and that I didn’t stay in the dust. Love had carried me from there to here.

When we write our stories down, we get the chance to see ourselves again and to re-frame our lives through the lens of a Story bigger than our own. This is what every good writer does – she points to the meaning and purpose in the struggle, enabling us to see that the hero of the book wasn’t great because of her accomplishments but because of what she overcame to accomplish those things. Every truly great writer frames the story through the lens of grace and love, with compassion for the frailties and the successes of the main character. 

When we allow ourselves to write about our lives with this lens in place, we may, in fact, find our stories remade. When we write through this lens, we don’t write to search for perfection in the highs and lows of our journeys. We write for the opportunity to see ourselves anew. We write for the chance to view our own lives through the lens of love that we easily give to others. 

I found that in writing down my story, I learned to extend that love to myself by receiving the love that Christ had already been giving to me through every step of my journey. 

Even when my body feared the heavy, slogging work that was ahead that night in the library, there was hope up ahead. Because the next week, I walked back to the library in the glow of the early evening lamps and sat down again – to write. 

Writing my story did end up costing me a great deal, but it is a price I would pay again and again – because I learned that writing our stories helps us to see who we really are: broken but overcoming, frail but deeply loved.

Ann Swindell
Ann Swindell

Ann Swindell is the author of Still Waiting: Hope for When God Doesn’t Give You What You Want. She is passionate about equipping other women to share their stories beautifully and powerfully through Writing with Grace. You can get to know her more at AnnSwindell.com.

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