My First Panic Attack
When I had my first panic attack, I had no idea what was happening to my body. My mind told me that I was in danger, that I needed to hide, to get low, get quiet, and seek shelter. Of course, that’s hard to do at your kid’s preschool during drop-off when there are all kinds of lights, loud noises and people milling about.
I don’t remember much about that morning, except that when the first wave hit me, I collapsed on the floor, right in the middle of the hallway (thankfully I had already dropped my kids off). A girlfriend of mine ran towards me and proceeded to half-carry me down the hall and out the front doors of the preschool. I’m sure we got plenty of stares along the way, but I was oblivious at that point. The next thing I remember was sitting in a white SUV with a pack of close girlfriends who were fervently praying over me as they waited for my husband to arrive (they had called him and explained the situation as best they could). When my husband got there, he took me straight to the ER, not knowing what else to do. I was awake, but in a daze. I was mostly afraid of what was happening to my body. My arms felt like they were on fire. I kept rubbing them to make the burning sensation go away but it wouldn’t. I felt shell-shocked. Dazed. It was a bit of an out-of-body experience, as if I was watching myself from above. It was freaking weird.
The Second Episode
After some skeptical eye brow raises and clarifying questions from the ladies at the ER front desk (my poor husband didn’t know what else to say except: ‘My wife seems to be having some kind of nervous reaction’), I insisted that we should leave, that I was fine, that I just needed to rest. So that’s what we did. I went home and took a long nap and felt better. But hours later, after picking up the the kids, feeding them snacks, and sending them to their room for a quiet time, all I wanted to do was sleep. Again. It was that heavy kind of fatigue that is hard to push through. To even walk felt like trying to slog through wet concrete with big heavy boots on. Everything felt heavy. Impossible. Overwhelming. The kids kept coming out of their rooms, needing something. I was too tired to fight. Too tired to lead them back. Too tired to set healthy limits. I remember praying, as they climbed all over me, “God, I can’t do this anymore. I’m just so tired…”
And then, the second wave hit me. This one was more intense than the first. I knew I needed to get away from the kids to let it pass, so I headed to my bedroom and locked the door behind me. I have no idea why, but I headed straight for the closet. Little did I know that place, where I tucked myself safely between my husband’s soft cotton t-shirts (yes, he hangs his t-shirts), would become my place of refuge for the next two years. It was quiet, dark, soft and safe. It was a place where I could let all those weird sensations wash over me, the white-hot adrenaline rushing through my body, the heat searing my arms, the sense that I was a weak, helpless animal being hunted by a ferocious predator. I would curl into a tight little ball with my head tucked between my knees, kind of like those tornado drills we’d do in the hallway of my elementary school (do they even do those anymore?), and I would wait for it to pass. They usually only lasted about 5 or 10 minutes (but it always felt much longer in the midst of one).
In the beginning, when the panic attacks were so intense, I would sleep for hours afterwards, sometimes days, on and off. It reminded me of the way I felt after running a marathon. Just completely depleted. My body hadn’t run 26.2 miles but my mind had.
My New Normal
That was my life for the next two years. Those first few months were the worst. I just wanted to figure things out. What was happening to me? Was I going crazy? Had I completely flipped? My poor husband! My poor kids! Once I understood that I was having panic attacks (thanks to a slew of licensed professionals that helped me), I wasn’t quite so afraid of them. I mean, sure, I didn’t like the actual experience, but it wasn’t as bad once I knew what was happening. And that there was a name for it was somehow comforting. That I could say, oh, I’m having a panic attack. Okay, here it comes. Go into the closet. Breathe. Let it pass. When before, I would be quite harsh with myself thinking things like: What are you doing in the freaking closet? Get a hold of yourself. That kind of talk never helped much.
The part that was actually the worst for me was the depression component that came with it, often immediately afterwards. I am a very visual person, if you haven’t already noticed by the way I write. I think in images. I dream in bright colors and vivid scenes (sometimes pleasant, but often times, frightening). During this season, my dreams terrified me. I ‘saw’ demonic images, flaming red dragons with sharp talons clawing at me and chasing me. I watched people I knew being burned to death. I visualized rape experiences of my own with strangers (even though by the grace of God, that is something I have never experienced). Oh, it was scary.
Much of the time, I felt like I was falling. Falling from a tall building. Falling down into a deep, dark hole. But I would never land. I just kept falling. It was frightening, that weightless, wondering when I will hit bottom sensation. But then another part of me always felt heavy. I’ve heard others describe depression as a fog or a wet blanket. I agree. I described it to my therapists that it felt like I was carrying a huge boulder on my back and it was with me wherever I went (reminds me of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress – the man with the Burden on his back). Even the little things, like cleaning the kitchen, making dinner, or running errands felt impossible. Overwhelming. I just remember crying at the sight of the piles – laundry, dishes, toys. When in reality, in a healthier state, I could have easily tackled those things in a couple of hours. But I wasn’t in a healthy state.
Carried by Community
This is where I say: praise God for community. My friends and family stepped up. Big time. They carried me, it still makes me teary to write this, for the entire next two years. One friend set up full-time childcare for my kids, since I was physically unable to handle them anymore all day, by myself. Another friend set up a meal calendar. Others connected me to licensed counseling professionals. Others prayed like crazy. Man, I look back on that time and realize: I was that needy friend. I was constantly crying. Constantly trying to analyze why this was happening and what had caused it. I remember going out to celebrate a friend’s birthday party and just breaking down in the middle of what should have been a fun, festive occasion centered around my friend. Not me and my drama. Some birthday she had. But I was so desperate and broken, so wrapped up in my own pain, I couldn’t think about others. I was in survival mode.
The Tipping Point
You are probably asking: what happened to get you to that point? In all honesty I can’t say for sure, as much as I’ve tried to analyze it to death. But I will say this: a lot of it boiled down to not taking care of myself. When I took on the mom role, I took it seriously. I wanted to be Super Mom. If I wasn’t going to work anymore, then I was going to work hard at being a good mom, dammit. But the thing is, you can’t be a good mom if you aren’t taking care of yourself. I didn’t know what that looked like. And as a Christian who strongly believed in putting others before myself, I had a slightly warped view of self-care. I thought it was selfish. Not biblical. Wrong. Even when my body started hinting that it couldn’t keep up this pace, I ignored it. I rationalized my fatigue and irritability and busyness, thinking: this is just the life of a stay-at-home mom. And then I’d think of all my friends who had three or four children at home all day and chastised myself for thinking I had it rough.
Now, I can see how God in his infinite wisdom, designed our bodies to communicate to us, to tell us when we are going too hard. And if we choose to ignore what our body is telling us, it starts to speak louder, to ramp up the symptoms until we can no longer ignore them. I was basically been giving my body the finger, saying screw you, I’m not slowing down, I can manage just fine. I’m tough. To which my body replied: okay sweetheart, if you’re not gonna’ listen to me, then I’ll slow you down myself. And it’s not going to be pretty. And that’s exactly what happened. I could no longer function at the pace I had been going. In all honesty, I could barely function at all. My poor husband, friends and family watched my health unravel before their very eyes.
A Long, Slow Journey of Healing
A dear friend wisely counseled me, as I hobbled through those two years, that healing is a process. It doesn’t happen over night. And that kind of pissed me off. Because after it had been a year, I was ready to get healthy and do life again. So I’d had a little blip, a little slip-up. But now it was time to pick up the pieces and not make it about me anymore. I think at that point, people were probably tired of even asking how I was doing. Plus, my heart ached to have my kids at home with me again. I was ready to stop having these weird symptoms, like a super intense noise sensitivity that required me to wear earplugs to church or at Starbucks when they were grinding coffee or around a vacuum cleaner or when a loud track passed by. I felt like I had this weird disability and I hated it. I hated feeling weak.
There were multiple occasions, even during the darkest of days, when I thought: I just need to go on a good run and fight through this. So I would. And Satan and I would have a little chat that went something like this: Screw you, creep! You can’t take me down! I’m gonna pray for every single house in this neighborhood as I run by them and every single person I can think of. So take that! Yeah. I showed him. And for a few hours, I usually felt better. But the fog never completely lifted. It was always there, hanging over me, pressing in from all sides. Even a good long run and a stand-off with Satan couldn’t shake it off.
This is getting long so I feel like I should wrap it up and my temptation is to put a nice little bow on it. But I’m not. Because I still don’t full understand what happened. I know that I am in a much better place than I was two years ago. I know that, for the most part, the depression has lifted. I know that loud noises set me off and that ear plugs and Xanex are good companions to have in my purse at all times.
And I know this: I have experienced weakness and a lack of control over my life like never before. And something in me tells me that is a good thing. Blessed are the poor in spirit. I believe that we all, if we are truly honest with ourselves, are poor in spirit. But when things are going great, it’s easy to dismiss that, to feel like we are completely in control of our life. These two years have taught me that the Lord is my strength and refuge, a very present help in trouble. He was there for me, in a tangible way I have never experienced prior to this situation. I remember Him whispering to me at times: Just hang on a little longer, I am with you, I am in this, do not be afraid. And y’all, I clung to those words for dear life. Because when darkness surrounds you, you’ve got nothing else. But Him.
I’ll leave you with a few resources that have been an incredible help to me:
Boundaries – Drs. Cloud and Townsend
When Panic Attacks – David Burns, M.D.
The Best Yes – Lisa Terkheust
The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine Aron, PhD
Raising your Spirited Child – Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Candles in the Dark – Amy Carmichael
Pilgram’s Progress – Paul Bunyan
Love and Logic Parenting classes and materials
The Bible: The Psalms, Job
Tim Keller: podcast called Peace: Overcoming Anxiety; has another one on clinical depression