I had my first panic attack nearly four years ago on my way to the airport. I was dropping someone off, and I had my three youngest kids in the back of the car. My house had been broken into earlier that month. A woman at my kids’ school had been spreading malicious rumors about me and my kids. And my marriage was on the brink of cracking wide open.
It was about a 20-minute drive from my house to the departure drop-off lane. My throat started constricting somewhere along 281 just before Basse. Breathing became a concerted effort, and tears began streaming down my face. My ears started ringing, and all I knew was that my entire body was screaming to get me out of there. My passenger left me, sobbing, without a glance over his shoulder when I pulled up to the airport. I knew I couldn’t drive any farther and pulled into the cell phone waiting lot to call a friend. Somehow, I made it back home. A dear friend brought me dinner and a copy of Gone with the Wind, which became a coveted distraction in the days and weeks to come.
Soon, I learned the things that my body had knowingly tried to tell me, and I woke up each morning to the new reality of my life. There was a brief moment each morning between dreaming and wakefulness when nothing was amiss, and then the enormity of everything came crashing down. Each stay started with an internal earthquake. Eventually I developed a tolerance in the mornings, but there were a hundred unexpected triggers throughout the day. Certain buildings and places of businesses, billboards, songs on the radio—anything my mind subconsciously connected to the crashing down of my life, it taught my body to react with trembling. And it didn’t discriminate between being on or off duty with the kids.
I don’t remember how often I had attacks in the weeks and months to come. I do remember learning to overcome them. I felt my throat tightening in the passenger seat on the way to a kid’s birthday party later that summer. Part of me wanted to panic about panicking, but instead I became hyperfocused on the world outside my window as we drove by: the peeling yellow paint on a historic two-story house, the pink floral pop of crepe myrtles cascading through an iron fence, the faint squiggles of birds flying in the cerulean blue sky overhead. Concentrating on which words I would use to write about what my eyes were experiencing took me out of the spiral of negative thought and into the breath-expanding world around me. As other moments of panic reared themselves, I focused on describing touch, sound, and smell. Distracting myself in the present became key.
There are times when I’ve had to put myself in timeout when my kids are with me. And other times when I can’t, it can be as simple as getting outdoors and lifting the roof from above our heads, literally stepping out for a breath of fresh, non-restricted air.
Eventually, the moments of panic became fewer and far between.
Panic attacks are rare in my life now, but mainly because I’ve walked through the muck of learning to see them for what they are: boiling waters of thought bubbling beneath a lid with no release. I’ve learned to measure the heat with my hand and adjust the burner of my thoughts accordingly. I’ve been forced to pay closer attention to the snowballing of thought that leads to unwanted feelings. Meditation, yoga, and quiet walks by the river, have all helped me to slow down in the madness of motherhood and reclaim power over my thoughts. I’ve learned to make self-care a priority, and to show myself compassion when things aren’t perfectly polished.
Learning to live beyond—and with—panic and anxiety has helped me to become a better mother. I can more easily see when my kids are tensing up with overwhelm, and it’s helped me learn how to better keep my cool when I really just want to blow my lid.
And one unexpected benefit of learning how to cope with panic attacks? I’m really good in an emergency. My ten-year-old dislocated his thumb during a playdate last fall and came screaming to me in pain. I was able to hone in on how to keep him calm, and direct friends to call 911 and get some ice. We made it to the ER and breathed through the panic together. If there’s one thing I know about life throwing curveballs, it’s that you can dodge them—at least with your mind.