Got Panic? Managing Anxiety as a Mom
The year is 1984, the location Pizza Hut, and I’m about 10 years old. This particular dinner outing stands out in my memory more than any other, because something strange and harrowing occurred that night for the first time, something that I’ve experienced countless times since, especially after becoming a mom: my first panic attack.
Do you remember Pizza Hut back in the ’80s? If so, you’ll no doubt recall the jukebox, that big booming music machine from which diners got to select the hits of the day. Oh how I loved that jukebox. When the song I chose would finally play, it took all of my self-control to refrain from doing my very own rendition of Kevin Bacon’s iconic Footloose warehouse dance across the tables and booths. That’s right. While my gal pals were dreaming of being the next Mary Lou Retton, I had my sights sets on becoming Kevin’s character, Ren McCormack. Yes, I, the loud-mouthed Jewish girl from New Jersey, would bring music and mayhem to my conservative and devoutly Christian community in rural Pennsylvania.
On that particular evening in 1984, though, while eating a monstrosity of cheesy, meaty, and grease-laden pizza, a song’s searing guitar chords penetrated my brain and wouldn’t leave. The jarring and clanging noise burrowed deep inside my mind, and before I knew it everything else had become a blur. I couldn’t talk, nor could I make out what those around me were saying. All I could think was that I needed this music to stop, immediately. Too embarrassed and confused to explain what I was experiencing, I asked if we could turn the music off. Ha! I’d like to see you convince a Pizza Hut manager to turn off the music during the dinner rush. Never going to happen. So I just sat there in my own personal torture chamber.
My panic attacks (which I refer to now as P.A.’s) continued for decades. One minute I’d be perfectly fine, and then some trigger – loud music, a difficult conversation, a crinkly plastic bag, an offhand comment, or a fleeting thought – would flip the panic switch. Sometimes there was no trigger at all and a P.A. would arise completely on its own. In Poland during my Peace Corps service, all it took was a delay in getting a cappuccino to send me into a tailspin that left me one sugar square away from being tossed out of a coffee shop on my ass. During these moments, the walls would close in around me and I’d feel completely out of control.
Wouldn’t it be so super awesome if I could say that motherhood was the antidote to my anxiety? Nope. In fact, it only got worse. Each day I was struck by a new worry: She’s cross-eyed, color blind, cognitively or physically delayed, left handed (a particularly dumb worry since I’m left handed myself), suffering from neck problems, stomach problems, heart murmurs, social issues – the list went on and on. I’m pretty sure if I’d been only a little more outspoken about all the thoughts racing through my head during her checkups, the nurse and pediatrician would have freely exchanged the term “Munchausen” the moment I left the room.
Finally, when my daughter was 18 months old, I got the help I needed. And it wasn’t even the P.A.s that propelled me to seek treatment. It was the exhaustion. You see, some of us who struggle with anxiety get incredibly tired and run down from all the panic episodes. And eventually, we discover one very effective way to avoid the whole situation, which is to sleep. If there was ever such a thing as the Sleep Olympics, I am fairly certain I would have been the world record holder in 2006. And 2000. And 1995.
In the three years since starting treatment, something surprising has happened. I’m improving. Amazing, right? It doesn’t surprise anyone more than me. With help, I’m learning to kick the shit out of my anxiety. Sure, I’m not 100% panic free. I’ll probably never be. But there is hope for someone like me. Just ask my kid, who recently spilled yet another cup of milk across the kitchen table. She responded exactly the way her mama has done over the last few years, which is to say, “That’s OK,” when something goes wrong. No fear, no panic, no self-recrimination. And that, my friends, is music – and not the blasting, panic-filled kind – to her mama’s ears.
~By Wendy Widom