I had the strangest experience the other day. I became totally overwhelmed with anxiety. Not your run of the mill worries. Not an “Oh man, this sucks, I wish I didn’t have to face this” kind of worry. I’m talking about an “OMG, the world is closing in around me, I can’t breathe or scream for help and no one seems to be noticing” kind of worry.
It didn’t matter that what I was worried about was being hugely exaggerated in my head. That if my fears ever did come true, it would be eons in the future. It didn’t matter that I knew many things would change in the coming years that could make all this wasted energy irrelevant. It didn’t help when I reminded myself that there were many people and backup plans to support me if my fears did happen to come true. I was gripped by unrelenting, dark, suffocating, paralyzing fear. I felt like I was being buried alive, watching the light disappear as dirt fell around me, squeezing away the air pockets that would keep me alive. I was utterly alone, isolated, terrified. It took enormous energy to get through each moment, feeling like the activities swirling around me – kids playing, dog barking, neighbors mowing the lawn – were actions in a movie. I was only watching. I wasn’t part of the life going on around me. I was instead held hostage inside my own head. A tightness gripped my chest, so tight that when I tried to take a deep breath, it only confirmed that I was suffocating, because no matter how much air I tried to suck in, no matter which relaxation trick I tried, it only left me feeling more deprived of air, more desperate, now even further from the calm I so urgently craved.
When my husband came home that night, I told him what I was feeling. He showed concern but there wasn’t much he could do. It was all in my head and I was the only one who could fix this. That experience – of trying to reach out for help, for connection – only made me feel worse, because it reinforced just how alone I was. I was the only one who could change this and since I felt powerless to conquer this overwhelming fear, I was truly, totally, completely screwed. Impotent. Doomed.
Now, you need to know that I am, by nature, a recovering worrier. But I have never, ever felt this kind of panic. My kids have both inherited my anxiety gene and we’ve spent years practicing cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), deep breathing, relaxation techniques and other tools to help us all fight the “worried for no reason” fairies that infest our home. With a lot of practice and a lot of hard work, we’ve all been able to stuff those fairies into a small shoebox and keep them pretty well starved for attention. Sometimes they escape and have a fairy party, toying with our emotions and gorging themselves on fears about job security, money, health, school, friendships; growing larger and temporarily taking charge of things. So we take out our CBT nets and eventually recapture the fairies, put them back on strict diets and squeeze their plumper little bodies back into the Worry Shoebox. We’re pros at this. It feels perfectly normal to use CBT on a daily basis.
So when I tell you that I had a panic attack to beat all panic attacks, that all my well-worn tools didn’t do squat, you know it’s bad – really bad. I have never known that kind of gripping, irrational, isolating, dark fear before. I have worried. I have felt despair. I have mourned and been depressed over loss. But I have never before felt sheer panic caused by an imagination run amok. It was like I was trapped in a bubble, screaming my head off for help, scratching and kicking and hurling my anger and fear at its walls and no one could see me or hear me or help me.
Thankfully, my medical journey with my kids has made me pretty well-read about what happens chemically to the body when fear takes over. The body uses things like tryptophan – that stuff in turkey that makes you feel so relaxed after Thanksgiving dinner – to manufacture neurotransmitters that help the brain calm down. My daughter has a problem getting enough tryptophan and so she takes a daily supplement – I call it turkey in a pill – every morning. For her, it literally changes her world and keeps the worry fairies in that shoebox. So when I suddenly found myself trapped in a world she must face far too often, I took a tryptophan and a short while later, I started to breathe again.
That evening, my seven year old daughter had her own panic attack. This is typically her roughest time of day – between dinner and bedtime. She gets anxious, angry, tries to provoke anger from those around her and worst of all, tends to direct her fear and anger inward, going on about how worthless she feels and how she wishes she’d never been born. Before my panic attack, the only way I could relate to any of this was by remembering my own feelings of PMS as a teenager, when hormones in a growing body were out of whack on a regular basis. But this night, I had a new, deeper appreciation for how truly scared she must be when this happens to her. Intellectually, I always knew her actions – even her spiteful, provocative actions – were fear driven. But now I truly felt just how gripping that fear could be. How powerless and alone she must feel when this happens to her.
In the past, I would have done my best to reign in my own emotions, done my best to stay calm and not get pissed off at her temporary insanity. I would have reminded her of her CBT tools, set limits and rode out the storm in a detached, coaching sort of way. But this night, this night was different. I stopped thinking clinically. I didn’t sigh at her in frustration or give her that “not this again” look. I stopped what I was doing and took her into my arms. I stroked her hair and when she said “Mom, there’s a fairy,” I said “I know, she bullied me today, too.”
She looked at me, a bit surprised and a little skeptical. I looked her in the eyes and said “It must be so awful for you to have to fight her all the time. I felt so horrible all day. I felt like no one understood me and no one could help me. It must be terrible to feel this way.” She nodded yes. And then she buried her face in my chest and cried – letting her anxiety leak out of her and feeling relief at being understood. Her own fairy got a little smaller and weaker. She took in a big gulp of air and we just held each other, rocking back and forth, teammates in the fairy battle, on the same side.
We both slept like rocks that night. I woke up refreshed and battle ready. The fairies haven’t been back – yet. I know they’ll come, at least for her. For me, who knows. I’ve never felt that type of anxiety before and hope I never have to face it again. But now, I have new found insight into the enemy, new insight into the battles my daughter fights on a regular basis. Now I know just how strong and tough she really is, even on days when she loses her battle. As she continues to keep fighting, to have days where she wins the reward of laughter and carefree joy that every child should own – she has become my hero. She is one strong and amazing young lady. Fairies beware.