I wasn’t an easy child.
My mom believes I’ve been having anxiety attacks since before I can even remember. At the time they looked like tantrums, meltdowns, dramatic episodes… whatever you call an emotional outburst from a young child. But as I grew older, and my anxiety became more prevalent, my mom began to suspect these struggles were something I was born with, and have been living with quite literally my entire live.
As early as elementary school I can remember laying in the hallway, inconsolable for no discernible reason, while my mom told me to come eat breakfast and I sobbed and yelled that I didn’t deserve to eat breakfast.
I don’t know how far back it was when I had my first panic attack, but I remember when I first realized I was having one.
I was in ninth grade, and getting ready to leave with my brother for a social event. I was already nervous about going –most everyone attending would be older than I was, but I was determined to go anyhow. We climbed into the little Nissan Maxima my older siblings had all learned to drive on, and used for transportation in their high school years. The details of what happened next are foggy to me. The important thing, was that there was a spider in the car.
For those of you who don’t know me, I do not like spiders. As a youth, I would go so far as to say I suffered from actual arachnophobia. Probably some of my most significant panic and anxiety attacks growing up were triggered by a spider.
I remember that the spider in the car was very small. Small enough to squish with your finger. But that didn’t matter. It was close in proximity to me, maybe even on me. I cannot remember exactly where it was, but it was close enough to instantly fill my whole soul with a panic so intense I was sure I was doomed.
I know this sounds silly, and looking back I truly can laugh about the intense reactions I used to have in the presence of spiders. One of my favorite stories involves calling and waking up my best friend in the middle of the night to come over and kill a spider for me.
But at the time, this experience was truly terrifying, painful, and utterly confusing. This tiny little spider inside the car triggered a panic attack so intense, I was out of sorts for over an hour. I missed the social event, and either made my brother late or made him miss it as well (I cannot remember which). I remember thinking, “I’m crazy. I’ve had less intense reactions to even bigger spiders before, why I’m I like this? What’s wrong with me?”
I don’t remember how I got from the car to my room, but somehow I did, because I remember sitting on the floor in front of my closet, balled up in the corner, sobbing and hyperventilating. And it was so painful. My fear was so strong I felt physical pain.
My parents tried desperately to console me. But this was something they had never dealt with before. It was as new to them as it was to me. And just as confusing.
They begged me to calm down, reasoned that the spider was just a tiny thing, and that it was gone now. Tried to ask me questions. They did everything any loving parent would do for a child in distress.
But I was too far gone to hear reason. I had left the rational section of my brain completely, and was stuck in survival mode, pumping cortisol and adrenaline, and incapable of a coherent thought.
I remember feeling so stupid and weak, so frustrated at myself. I wondered why I couldn’t just do what my parents asked and calm down.
Then my brother stepped in. And this moment changed my relationships with my family forever.
He just told me to breath, and he breathed. And he sat next to me, and he continued to say, “breath, just breath.” I can’t fathom the amount of patience it took for him to sit with me, knowing he was late for his event, and repeat the same words over and over.
The simple command to breath was something my brain could grasp onto. It took time, and repetition, but eventually it heard the instructions, and then understood them, and eventually began to follow them. As the hyperventilating stopped, and my oxygen regulated, I was able to finally calm down.
Ever since that day, my parents switched tactics when I had an anxiety or panic attack. They learned new ways to help me navigate my way out of them. They breathed with me, sat with me, held me, and were unwaveringly patient every step of the way.
My mom, my dad, my brother, my husband –these are all people who left the sideline roles of coaching and cheering me on, and instead joined me on the field, battling with me, by my side.
Panic attacks are scary and confusing. Not just to the person experiencing them, but also to those who love them, who stand by and witness it. I don’t know how my brother knew what to do in that moment. I don’t know how my parents felt, watching me in pain and not knowing why I was hurting. But I do know that getting down to my level and being with me, breathing with me, fighting with me, worked.
And I have a theory. A theory that this works for everything. Not just anxiety and panic attacks, but also depression, worry, sadness, anger, frustration, loneliness… any emotion or mental state that is difficult or painful to bear. My theory is that the absolute best thing we can do for someone in the trenches is to leave the sidelines and join them there. To stop coaching from a distance. To stop being their cheerleader, and instead be their teammate.
And if anything can incite the discomfort of vulnerability, getting in the trenches with someone absolutely will. But it will also foster the connection, healing power, and exquisite wholeness of vulnerability.
I still don’t like spiders, but I no longer fear them in the same way I did growing up. It took years of therapy and learning to overcome that fear, and that fear has only been replaced by others. If I’ve learned anything about life, it’s that there is no shortage of things to be afraid of. But courage doesn’t mean never experiencing fear. Courage is allowing yourself to feel the pain of fear, and facing it. See to me, “face your fear,” doesn’t mean facing the subject of your worries, it means facing the emotion itself. Facing fear over and over again, because allowing yourself that vulnerability provides you with the insight necessary to hope. And hope is the anecdote to fear.
And THAT is true courage.