Updated: Feb 1
I'm dying. Right here on this sidewalk. Alone. I'm going to die."
That was the narrative running through my mind during my first panic attack. I was just 20 years old, and I hadn't realized it at the time, but had been managing anxiety for as long as I can remember. It wasn't until that first panic attack that I would finally seek medical support and receive a formal diagnosis of generalized anxiety and panic disorder.
Just moments before finding myself pacing out there on that sidewalk, I had been enjoying dinner with my family at an Italian restaurant, when out of nowhere the restaurant started getting darker, and my peripheral vision was blurring. My heart started racing, my hands and feet turned ice cold. My whole body began shaking, and my jaw clenched up and trembled. I couldn't breathe. I stood up from my seat and hazily made my way out of the restaurant and to that harrowing sidewalk, where my mom found me and drove me to the emergency room.
As the doctor on-call that evening would explain my symptoms as mental health related, he would try to offer some reassurance by stating, "it was just a panic attack." That one word, “just”, would stay with me for years. In a flippant flash, I would learn to downplay my experience with panic. I would cover my disorder in shame. I would pretend I was fine. I would manage in isolation. When I began to experience a phobia of restaurants for fear of another panic attack, I would just push through the fear, further compounding my anxiety.
Somehow, despite this downplay of the most terrifying experience of my life, I pushed on for more answers. I saw a therapist for the first time, and in conjunction with my primary care physician, was finally diagnosed with a real disorder. I would go on to learn that this diagnosis isn't something to just live with, but with the right tools and support, it can be something to thrive with. For me, with a combination of medication and cognitive behavioral therapy, I have learned that despite my anxiety and panic disorder, I can live a fulfilling life chalk full of adventure, joy, and resilience. I feel fortunate, as I know generalized anxiety disorder isn't always so manageable.
When I became a mom for the first time at age 32, it didn't take me long to realize that my daughter was, inherently, a highly anxious person, too. She startled easily, had unwavering separation anxiety, and struggled with sleep. As she grew into a toddler, I'd notice her resistance to trying new things, her caution, and her keen observation of the world around her. When she entered into preschool, we'd struggle with her willingness to leave me, and eventually, her refusal to attend school altogether. We'd learn through much patience and supportive conversation, that her reluctance was fear-based, often rooted in unrealistic (but all too real for her) scenarios.
My daughter, now 10 years old, has learned to navigate life beautifully. Through formal therapy, and tireless work at home, she has learned the tools necessary for facing uncomfortable situations head on. A lot of parents of anxious children have experienced bouts of guilt, feeling the burden of having "given their children anxiety." By the sheer grace of god, I didn't ever wear that shame or guilt. Instead, I accepted my daughter's anxiety disorder as a high honor - that I was chosen to mother her. That she'd be entrusted to me, simply because I'd truly see her for all the incredible things she is, despite her anxiety.
Parenting an anxious child is a gift. It's also exhausting. I will never claim to have all of the answers, or to have made peace with all of the struggles. Rather, I have learned to embrace my daughter's mental health issue as an opportunity to teach her about courage. Had it not been for anxiety, I may have never come to understand that courage is subjective.
These days, it seems we can't scroll through social media without seeing some variation of the quote "do it afraid." This is a more realistic take on "be fearless." In my opinion, fearlessness isn't necessarily something to strive for. I believe that a certain amount of fear is healthy. Fear forces us to take pause, to assess the situation, to weigh the risks, and determine the best next steps for our own well-being. "Doing it afraid" acknowledges and validates that we all have fear, and attempts to send a hopeful and encouraging message of not holding back even when that fear arises. However, my daughter has taught me that courage is something entirely different. Courage sometimes comes under the guise of honoring the fear enough to say "no" to what's eliciting it.
I often tell my daughter that she is brave even when she decides not to push through the fear. She is brave when she has the courage to tell others around her, those who are cheering her on to take that hard step forward into the unknown, that she isn't ready yet. She is brave when others promise her that fun is on the other side of her fear, and still she opts out of discovering that for herself. I let her know that she has the power to say "no." She has the power to say "not yet." She has the power to say, "not this time." Courage is self advocacy, and the strength to stand up in the face of others and say, "I'm just not comfortable with that."
If I can teach my daughter that anxiety serves as her super power, equipping her with a steady inner compass, maybe she will be brave enough to chip away at the stigma associated with mental health disorders. Maybe she will be courageous enough to stand for herself, in solidarity with so many others fighting for mental health awareness.