Two years ago, my husband and I were working on our house. It wasn’t new construction, but it was just as involved: we dug and poured a basement, moved an older ranch style house onto the foundation, and brought the house to its studs. We gave it a new roof, new walls, new septic, new wiring, and we became very acquainted with every nook and cranny that needed to be completely redone. It felt like a full-time gig on top of my already full-time actual job. There was a new level of stress: I taught all day, added a couple hours of leading after school care, and came home 10 hours later to a house we weren’t living in yet, a house without any heat in the dead of a north Midwestern winter. We would turn on space heaters, bundle my toddler up in his winter clothing, and get to work alongside my incredibly generous parents who also spent most evenings working on the house project. We felt the pressure of a deadline to move in, I felt the sorrow and guilt of not having quality time with my son, and on top of it all, my husband also lost his job.
That’s when I started having panic attacks.
At first, I didn’t know what was happening. I was in the theater with my in-laws when I had my first one. All the sudden my heart was racing, I couldn’t breathe, and my chest felt tight. The movie wasn’t that bad, so what in the world was going on? I called the phone nurse. Of course they err on the side of caution and listed off the small potential for a greater issue and encouraged me to go in. That’s how I found myself in the ER with my father-in-law, whom I only see about once a year. We made it through triage (and side note: my father-in-law now knows how much I weigh, which is…. great). They told us it wasn’t an issue with my heart. I was out of state and without insurance, so that was good enough for me. We promptly left before seeing the doctor.
I still wasn’t completely positive what had happened, so my next step was Google. I slowly came to realize that I had had a panic attack, and thus started an internal battle in my mind.
I was a rational person, and I wasn’t particularly emotionally driven. I’d been busy and marginally stressed for years, but I could manage it. I struggled with how this could happen to me since I didn’t think of myself as someone susceptible to weakness or faulty thinking that could cause something like this. I tried understanding this strange physical response my body was having as if it could be analyzed and a solution computed. I figured it was all in my head, so there had to be a logical way to beat it.
I battled it on my own for a few weeks, and it was the darkest period of my life to date. Later when I actually went to see a doctor about it, I found out the difference between an anxiety attack and panic attack is that anxiety attacks are a response to a fear or trigger, while panic attacks don’t have any trigger. They happen out of the blue. One moment I was fine, and the next my body was taking over and freaking out, leaving my mind to wonder what in the world was happening and why.
I did feel like I was going crazy. I did wonder if it was ever going to end. And at the same time, I was determined to outwit it because I believed I was intelligent enough to be smarter than the panic and stable enough to not become unhinged by it. I told myself a lot of platitudes: mind over matter, it’s all in your head, give it to God, all you need is positive thinking. I tried yoga, clean eating, and even went to the extreme of cutting out coffee! My fix it solutions were focused on the physical because I still saw it as a wholly physical response since it was so at odds with my mind. Eventually, those things started feeling like putting my hope in a talisman as they continued to fail and the panic attacks became more and more frequent.
As all this started to spiral out of control, I couldn’t just spend more time with the Lord and have it magically fixed. I couldn’t read my Bible without the symptoms worsening. All I could do was say the simple prayer of “Lord, help” because meditating on His word brought me face to face with how He wasn’t fixing me. Those thoughts exacerbated the panic.
The more I tried to get a grip on it, face it head on, or engage in some positive thinking, the panic intensified. At its worst, I had to ask for 3-4 days off work and lie in bed because literally doing anything else sent my body into freak out mode. I eventually had to accept that I couldn’t immediately fix my circumstances: my husband was still looking for work, I was the overworked bread winner, I didn’t have any time for my child, and our home was still months away from being finished. Those were the things buried deep down somewhere that created the perfect breeding grounds for panic to take hold. They were the things I wasn’t even consciously thinking about but caused chaos in my life.
I went on medication for a few months to get a handle on it. That was the short-term fix. Conceptually, I didn’t have a problem with medicating, but it was still somewhat shameful. I remember being off it for several months and going to the clinic for a cold. The triage nurse was a mom in my son’s ECFE group. She asked about the medication and if I was still taking it. I didn’t recognize it right away, and she promptly filled in the gaps, “It’s used for depression.” I wanted to quickly correct her. I wasn’t depressed; I was normal. This was for a short lived period when I had panic attacks, but it’s over now.
The long-term fix came in scaling back on work. I reduced the days I did after care, I signed up to work less, and I tried to maintain some balance. The takeaway is that I really, really needed to make work less of a god in my life, and I needed to be more understanding of the difficulties others are experiencing. Unfortunately, I didn’t loosen my hold on work on my own. God had to pry it out of my fisted hands and still has to remind me daily that He’s first, my family is second.
I don’t have much by the way of advice because I didn’t really beat my panic through any 5 step program, and I still struggle with the shame I felt just having it. It’s possible that I could have it again in the future. I’d like to say with certainty that it’s gone for good, but I didn’t offer up my futon and invite it to stay a while the first time. All I know is that I have to take care of my spiritual and mental well being in the here and now to keep myself from entering into similar circumstances that were ripe for an attack. And if it ever does show up on my doorstep, I can give it the “meh, okay let’s knock this out” attitude and move on with my life. It happened. I hate writing about it and talking about it, but it’s not who I am and it doesn’t own me. I can admit to it, and I can empathize with anyone who has struggled or is struggling. I can overcome with the Lord’s help and still be a foster mom… and still kick butt.