It developed within me as a cocksure atheist and stayed with me even after I became a Christian (first Protestant then Catholic). I can’t tell you how many times I pleaded with God to heal me of it, expecting or at least hoping that He would miraculously cure me of this affliction.
But He didn’t.
Like St. Paul, God allowed this thorn in my flesh to persist, even for years after I was baptized and then received the other sacraments. Could He have taken it away in the blink of an eye? Certainly. But He didn’t, and I can say that ordinarily He doesn’t do things like that, because they are not actually what is best for us.
Instead He came alongside me as I struggled with panic attacks, dread, and agoraphobia. He was there to help me face the fears, giving me grace at every point, even though I didn’t always accept it. And through the setbacks and victories, our Lord helped me to draw closer to Him, to the Church, and to other people. It was through the anxiety disorder that I became the man I am today.
I’ve now been a Christian for twelve years, and I still face what would be called disordered anxieties. The difference is that they do not have the stranglehold on me that they once did. This freedom, then, has not meant that I’ve been free of all fears, only that in Christ I have found my weakness is strength.
In the years since I first shared the story of my conversion from atheism, of which this anxiety disorder and depression were an important part, many people who have suffered similarly have privately contacted me. I feel a special kinship with them, because I can truly understand what they are going through. It is terrible. And hopefully I can offer to them some fellowship and compassion and hope for healing.
For me, this is experiential evidence of the Catholic teaching that grace builds on nature. It doesn’t abolish it or stand outside of it. Instead, God heals and fortifies our wounded nature with His grace, to fashion us (with our cooperation) into the beautiful creatures He made us to be.