I had my first panic attack at nine years of age. I awoke from a weird dream one morning that left me feeling unsettled. As I began to get dressed for the day I started to feel my heart racing. My skin began heating up, and my mind started jumping from thought to thought like an erratic bunny. In a panic I ran to my mother’s lap, legitimately afraid that I was on the verge of losing my mind. But, too embarrassed and unsure of how to explain what I was feeling, I simply told her I had a nightmare and cried there in her embrace until my body and mind eventually settled.
This was the beginning of my life with an anxiety disorder, although I didn’t know it at the time.
As the years went on I found myself having these episodes more frequently. Although their triggers were always different and usually nonsensical, the results were always the same. Crippling fear. Debilitating worry. In a matter of seconds a completely normal event would send my body into fight or flight mode. A certain look from a stranger could fill me with the terror that I can only imagine would be appropriate for someone whose life was actually in danger. My parents would teach me breathing techniques and mental games that would calm me down, but it was never explained to me that there was a name for what I was dealing with and an entire world of people out there going through the same thing.
In fact, it wasn’t until I started experiencing physical symptoms that I was finally given a diagnosis and a proper plan for treatment. In my early twenties I experienced mysterious pains, dizzy spells, trouble breathing, heart palpitations, a whole host of symptoms that had me convinced I was on my death bed. Thankfully, after many doctor visits, blood tests, x-rays and EKGs I was finally diagnosed: Anxiety or more specifically “Panic Disorder.” The word anxiety makes it sound so simple and mundane. But, in actuality it had completely taken over my life. Everything around me suffered. Relationships, school, work…
As Helpguide.org puts it, panic attacks can include:
- “Shortness of breath or hyperventilation
- Heart palpitations or a racing heart
- Chest pain or discomfort
- Trembling or shaking
- Choking feeling
- Feeling unreal or detached from your surroundings
- Nausea or upset stomach
- Feeling dizzy, light-headed, or faint
- Numbness or tingling sensations
- Hot or cold flashes
- Fear of dying, losing control, or going crazy”
This list is the most accurate description of my life over the last 20+ years. I have felt and been overwhelmed by all of these symptoms on more occasions than I could even begin to number. Some particularly hard weeks I would have multiple attacks in a day.
Now that I am a parent it is particularly rough because I want to always be “on” for my children. I never want to let them see me too vulnerable. However, I would be lying if I said my son has never witnessed me in the throes of a full blown panic attack. Especially in these last few months.
This past year I had the great pleasure of adjusting from a mother of one to a mom of two and the awful misfortune of losing my father to lung cancer. The collision of these two events in my life had my anxiety levels and frequency of attacks at an all time high. My husband was forced into the roll of emotional support system and was very often left to fill the place of mom and dad to our kids, while I tried to cope and shield my son from how crazy I was feeling. There were days when I would yell, days when I would just sit on the floor and cry and days when I couldn’t even handle the simplest interaction with my little ones. I felt paralyzed by an unwarranted fear.
Thankfully, through much prayer and support from my loved ones I feel as though this rough patch is finally dwindling away. But I know that there will most likely be another low like this in my future. For no matter how well I manage my mental health with counseling, medication and faith it is still a chronic struggle that ebbs and flows with the different seasons of my life.
And in the midst of those tougher seasons I think one of the most helpful tools is just knowing I am not alone. Knowing that I am not isolated in my own head. That is why I felt so compelled to open up about this in a public forum. I want anyone else who might be going through it to know that they are not alone either. In fact there are approximately 40 million people in the United States with some type of anxiety disorder.
None of us are perfect. Actually, I think we’re all a little crazy in one way or another, so we might as well be open and honest about it. With other moms, with friends, with family. And instead of worrying about our kids seeing us in a vulnerable moment, we can at least be grateful that these experiences have made us stronger and more aware of what mental illnesses can look like. Should it ever rear its ugly head in the minds of our loved ones or our beautiful children we might pick up on it quickly and steer them in the right direction with love and a genuine understanding.