Carrying the title of parent around is an anxiety-inducing privilege, even for the most level-headed and chemically balanced individuals. The fear that comes with being responsible for a small human being does not exclude anybody.
Parenthood is replete with doubts that you’re making the right decisions, worries that you’re not doing enough, and fears that the worst is going to happen. There is no darker thought than the one that something might harm your child, and yet it’s one that many parents unwillingly allow into their heads daily. It’s almost like the thought is an evolutionary destiny bestowed upon us.
When you are a parent with panic disorder, common fears and doubts are magnified to the extreme. A worry can turn itself into an absolute in mere moments, making you believe that the unrealistic hypotheticals you’ve created might actually happen.
A runny nose escalates to a five-day hospital stay before you can even grab a tissue. A little fall turns into a concussion. A fever becomes an infection — all within your head, all within seconds.
If you’re lucky, you can proactively take charge of your thoughts and prevent a panic attack. You can come back to the present moment and look at your child, happy and smiling and flipping through a book, and realize that your field trip to the dark corners of your imagination is over. You’re here now with your child, and they are not being harmed.
This vacillation between fear and the present moment is a constant when you’re a parent living with panic disorder.
Panic disorder is an affliction that conjures panic attacks, oftentimes when there is no perceivable danger or identifiable cause. Unlike the more common generalized anxiety disorder, which is more of a constant worry, panic disorder takes random events and renders them fearful and dangerous, no matter how safe they actually are. I’ve had a panic attack while at my birthday dinner, while getting water from a fountain during a class, and while riding in the car with my mother. None of those situations are scary, but my panic disorder doesn’t discriminate.
I remember my first panic attack. I was living in the lower half of a duplex in college when my cat snuck out the door as friends walked in. I ran after her, listening for the muted jingle of the bell I put around her neck for that very reason.
When I got back home, my hands empty of the cat I was hoping to bring back, I couldn’t catch my breath. At first, I thought it was because I overexerted myself running up and down the streets, but I later learned that wasn’t the case. I was sitting on my bed next to my partner as darkness began to tunnel my vision. I couldn’t articulate what was happening to me because at the time I was unaware. I had never had anxiety before.
My partner put his hand on my chest and told me to watch as his hand moved up and down. “Do you see that?” he asked. “You’re breathing. I know you don’t feel like it, but you are.”
This helped me. What I know now, more than a decade later, is that my breath shouldn’t have been located in my chest. If I were taking in the nourishing breaths I needed, they should have been making my stomach, not my chest, rise and fall.
That visceral, physical reaction is what those with panic disorder often have to endure. Quick decision making is difficult when burdened with difficulty breathing or thinking clearly, but as a parent, making quick decisions is fundamental to your child’s wellbeing, so it’s critical to learn to allow panic disorder and parenthood to coexist.
There is no other option.
I by no means have it figured out, but there are a few things that help me manage my panic before it turns into an attack:
- I ask myself if worrying will help change the outcome of the situation. I always know the answer will be no, but by asking instead of telling myself, I engage my brain in a different form of thinking.
- I am prepared. I always carry Xanax and water with me, the former in case small sips of water don’t calm me down, which they often do. Those are my crutches, but maybe yours are different. Whatever you need to feel like you’re on steady ground, keep it nearby.
- I remind myself that anxiety is a survival tactic inherited from our ancestors. Without it, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s natural to experience anxiety and it makes me no less of a mother.
- I forgive myself.
- I forgive myself.
- I forgive myself.
Panic disorder is not for the faint of heart. Neither is parenting. A combination of the two is a difficult journey, but one that many have been on before and many are on right now — together.
If you’re a parent with panic disorder, remember this: if you didn’t worry, something would be severely amiss. It’s okay to be afraid. You are still a good parent.