I met my husband for lunch today. We went to my favorite taco place downtown, and I spent the drive thinking about queso. I turned into the parking garage, surprised at the lack of spots. I grabbed my 8-month-old out of the backseat and happily headed toward taco glory (not the name of the place, although it should be).
When I saw the front of the building, my brain stuttered. It was packed. I found my husband about midway through the line and joined him, noticing my heart rate starting to pick up. I greeted him and immediately said, “So many people. I wasn’t prepared for this.”
He knew exactly what I meant and asked if I wanted to go outside for a minute. “No,” I responded. “It’ll go away.” He knew what I meant by that, too.
He held our daughter while I waited for the panic attack to do its thing. My breathing picked up, my throat closed. I looked around desperately, mapping out my various escapes – bathroom, back door, outside back to the parking garage. But I stayed there as the wave crested and slowly, slowly started to ebb away. By the time we got our food, I was good. The queso was everything I knew it would be.
I have been doing some version of that sort of panicking since I was 6 years old. I didn’t know what it was then, of course, just that I was in the middle of a packed cafeteria and thought I was going to suddenly both cry and be sick. I wasn’t, but that didn’t stop me from being afraid. As a teenager, I began to grasp that what I experienced had a name – anxiety. I pored over the science and mechanics of it. I thought that if I could just out-think and out-logic my anxiety, I could be cured of it forever. That belief was all sorts of wrong, but it took me a very long time to realize it.
I knew my brain was freaking out, the ancient Neanderthal part telling me there was some danger that I should be avoiding. I knew my options were fight or flight. When I fought, I either employed various breathing and visualization methods or yelled (in my head, I’m not that crazy yet) at the anxiety, trying to beat it into submission. I usually flew, though.
As an adult, I’d fly from my office down to the parking garage and sit in my car and wait until I felt normal enough to go back upstairs. And when I got pregnant…oof. Things sky-rocketed. I panicked on the daily. I’d worry I’d be about to have a panic attack and then worry about the effect all that anxiety was having on my unborn baby. My doctor was concerned with my blood pressure, my spotting. I told my boss at the time (who was wonderful) about my medical concerns, keeping the topic strictly obstetrical, and I started working from home, which was immensely soothing to my terrified Neanderthal brain.
I didn’t tell my boss about my anxiety. At the time, I’d rather her think I was a terrible worker. I’d rather her think my body was just totally out of whack. I’d rather her think anything other than the fact that I was suffering from anxiety. Isn’t that ridiculous?
After my first daughter was born, things simmered down. But as she became a toddler, then a preschooler, the anxiety ramped back up again. She was just so unpredictable. I knew that if I needed to escape somewhere, it was now going to be so much harder. And worse, she was old enough to notice my discomfort. I started going out with her less and less, started letting my husband do things with her while I bunkered down in the safety of my house. And I started to really hate myself for it.
Finally, finally, I saw a therapist. His name is Paul, and he is great. I firmly believe everyone should have a Paul.
Each individual’s mental and physical needs are unique and need to be treated as such, whether with medicine or without. In my case, Paul and I decided to try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which, to me, is practicing being anxious. The heart of it was to start out somewhere I’m only mildly uncomfortable, then build it up. Want to know what tops the list for me? Hint: it’s many moms’ happy place.
Yes. I’m terrified of Target. I don’t know why my anxiety is such a beast at Target. I don’t know why it almost guarantees a panic attack every time I go there, especially the further back in the store I am. I started at Lowes, which is oddly a very comfortable place for me. And slowly, slowly, I made my way to Target. I wouldn’t call it my happy place, but I wouldn’t call it my own personal hell anymore, either.
What Paul and CBT taught me is that I have more than the standard two options of fight or flight. I can choose fright, instead. I can choose the discomfort. I can surrender to it, knowing that I will feel what I feel and it will pass, as awful as it may be. In this case, surrendering doesn’t mean losing. It means allowing my Neanderthal brain to do its thing, letting it have its say, and using the modern part of my brain to be patient. After all, I’ve been doing this practically my whole life. It doesn’t feel good, but I know it’ll pass.
Some days are still dark. Some days, the constancy and exhaustion of parenting is just so much. Anxiety itself is exhausting, my mind running around in circles all day and sometimes all night. Some days, I choose to just rest. And that’s okay.
I’m still anxious, but I’m not afraid anymore. Not the same sort of fear, anyway. I realize that I want my daughters to see my anxiety, to see that it’s not something anyone has to hide and smother and suffer through alone. I’m still a good mommy, I still love them, and they know it. I’m not gushing about it to them, but if they have questions, I’m more than happy to answer. I’m just more happy in general. I go more places with them, do more things they want to do. I may freak out when I get there, but it’s ok. I choose fright and, in doing so, I somehow also choose freedom.