little girl in an aquarium

Before my husband Rodney and I decided to have children, we met with a physician for counseling. I was worried about having a child given both our histories of anxiety and depression. Would the poor kid would be doomed? Do we have a child anyway? Would having a child be selfish? How can we create another person knowing  her chances of being anxious and depressed could be pretty high?

While I don’t remember the exact conversation with the physician, he said any children we had could have a predisposition for anxiety or depression, meaning they would inherit the propensity for a those disorders, but full-blown depression or anxiety wasn’t a given.

Now, nearly 10 years later, my daughter Zora sits in front of me with a stomachache, glistening eyes, and a voice knotted with anxiety.

“I don’t want to play capture the flag at climbing camp,” she says in a scrunched up voice, her dark eyes buried under furrowed eyebrows.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because I never get to climb on the wall. I just sit on the side!” she croaks angrily.

“Why?” I persist.

“Because there are always people ahead of me!” she says.

“Why don’t you push to the head of the line?” I ask.

“Because they won’t let me,” she answers.

Her dark red hair forms an angled curtain around her face. Her skinny arms wrap around her knees.

I try changing the subject. “Have you had breakfast?” When she’s anxious, she won’t eat. I was like that, too.


“C’mon, then,” I say as I lean over to pick her up. She struggles in my arms, then grudgingly throws her arms around my neck.

“What am I going to do when you’re bigger than I am and I can’t pick you up?” I whisper into her ear as I carry her lanky frame into the kitchen.

After a bowl of dinosaur oatmeal and a glass of soy milk, we’re upstairs in her room picking out clothes. She flops on the mattress and looks at her feet.

“I still have a stomachache and I’ve eaten,” she announces.

“Look, next week I’m off and you don’t have camp. You don’t have to go anywhere. Won’t that be fun to look forward to?” I say.

Transitions are difficult for her. New situations are difficult for her. Asserting herself is difficult for her. There are expectations to meet, not only hers, which are likely high and unreasonable, but also what she perceives others may expect of her a.k.a. mind reading. Reminding myself what I think and feel may not always be real has always been a struggle for me, and I can see my little girl shares that propensity.

She nods, and we get on with the business of getting dressed. I kneel down beside her and pull a t-shirt over her head and mint green leggings over her feet and narrow hips. I grab her hand, and we head downstairs and out the door to camp.

Once in the car, Zora and Jasper request no music or NPR. They’re not bickering, which means that dark cloud of emotion has moved on. I relax and pull out of our street onto the main road.

“Next year, when I’m in fifth grade, can we get a fluffy dog?” she asks.

“We’ll get the dog that’s right for us at the right time,” I say. My response is maddeningly parental and noncommittal, so I add, “I read that cockapoos are good for kids.”

“What’s a cockapoo?” Zora asks. Jasper, who is four, snickers. I said “poo.”

“A cross between a cocker spaniel and a poodle,” I say. Then, knowing that silliness takes her out of negative place, I continue.

“So… you and Jasper are either,” I pause for a moment, thinking “‘Evodneys or ‘Rodvonnes — a combination of me and Daddy.” They giggle. “Which name is better?”

“Rodvonnes!” she’s taken the bait. We spend the rest of the trip to rock climbing camp describing the characteristics of Rodvonnes, everything from sensitivity to loud noises like toilets flushing in public restrooms (all Rodney) to wide, freckled noses (all me). And, I think to myself, the sensitivity and mood issues.

But so what? Yes, Zora is a genetic mashup of me and Rodney, but our own struggles with depression and anxiety aren’t her destiny. Zora is her own person: sensitive, anxious, change adverse, but also funny, creative, sarcastic, tenacious, and original. As her mom, I can’t mold her into less anxious, gregarious person. Changing her into something she’s not is a losing battle and a rejection of her unique talents. My job is to help her become and accept herself.

“Tell us more about the Rodvonnes, Mommy!” Zora urges me, as we pull into the parking lot at the camp. Yup. She’s excited about her own possibilities.

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Foggy vision. Burning pain. Shallow breathing. I can’t walk. Heart palpitations. I’ll never get through this. Heart racing. I’m dying. Uncontrollable crying. Choking. Shooting pain in throat. Why? I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. I’ll never get through this. Dizzy. Foggy. Numbness in my face. Blurry. Dizzy. Thump thump thump. Why? Who can help me? I’m dying. Smoke. Can’t feel my arms. Dry mouth. Frozen. Tongue numb. Can’t speak. Why won’t my legs work. I’m going to faint. Nausea. I’m so tired of this. Upset stomach. Heavy chest. I’m dying. Tense. Trembling. Chest pain. Shaking. Crying. Heart hurts. Stomach pain. Why? Crying. Excruciating. Trapped air. Hyperventilating. Shooting pains down my legs. I’m dying. Can’t breath. Water in my lungs. Shrinking. Collapsing. Sweating. Dissolving. Crying. Crying. Crying. How did I get through that? Despair. Crying. When will it happen again…

Even after thousands of panic attacks – some with as little as one of the above symptoms, some concurrently, some all at once — one thing that’s consistent is the fact I am certain I am dying and that whatever is happening to my body will kill me. It sounds silly, dramatic and totally irrational, but the feeling could not be more real, more terrifying or more debilitating… every.single.time.

You’d think I’d be able to apply logic: “It didn’t kill me last time,” “This will pass,” “It’s a panic attack.” True, I know my reaction to the sensations I feel are that of panic, but what I don’t believe is that panic brought them on in the first place, so each time this happens all I think is, “It will get me this time, this time it will get me.”

What’s hard to explain to those close to me is that in every single attack I have, the terror is just as strong as the last, but each time it happens, outsiders’ sympathy and help lessens, understandably so. “Oh, there she goes again.” For those of you who never have (and hopefully never will) experienced a panic attack: it’s like someone is about to push you off a building, like you’re on a sinking boat, a crashing plane. If you’re with me… hold me, reassure me, let me know I am safe with you.

I could be walking along the street, watching a movie, out for dinner, in the shower, at a party… in fact, I can probably guarantee I’m doing something with entirely no stress attached to it and I’m probably quite happy or relaxed… then bang. Blood drains. Here we go again.

I wanted to start writing about my demons. Anxiety. More specifically, panic attacks. This year, panic attacks have destroyed me. My life has fallen apart, and I have no idea how to put back the pieces, but I’ve been writing in a diary. It’s a total mess and random collection of thoughts, worries, feelings, anger, etc., but the idea of writing a somewhat more legible piece that others could read and quite possibly find help in seems like quite the cathartic task.

I hope the above image gives a little insight to others in how panic attacks can feel, so you can see what we’re up against.

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Thinkstock photo by Vanessa Galeote

When I attended my first yoga class, I was expecting to leave feeling relaxed and especially “stretchy.” While I did leave with a new spring in my step, I also left with a lesson that would come to benefit me for years to come.

In came in the middle of a sun salutation. I’m following along, trying to slow my brain, control any flatulence and be the good, diligent student in class: “Not everyone will be able to [insert weird way to contort your body here], but that’s OK. Just meet your body where you are right now. It’s OK to modify. It’s not a weakness, it’s just acknowledging you aren’t there yet. That’s why yoga is called a practice.”

This comment was likely said millions of times over the instructor’s career, however it was news to me. News that would stay with me for years to come and would give yoga millions of brownie points in my book. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

This seemingly simple advice applies to so much more in life than just yoga. Mental illnesses can be all-consuming and it can be frustrating to not be able to do what we need to. Get out of bed. Get dressed. Brush teeth. Clean room. Go to work. Calm down. These minute tasks can feel like finding a needle in an ocean when you’re going through a panic attack or in the depths of depression. And when easy tasks like those listed above feel hard to do, it can be ridiculously frustrating and just add more stress.

Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

Maybe getting out of bed sounds like the worst thing ever. Perhaps just looking out the window while lying in bed is a good first step. Meet yourself where you are now.

Maybe getting dressed takes a lot of effort. How about getting out of bed first? That’s a step in the right direction. Meet yourself where you are now.

Clean room. Ha! Cleaning, yeah, right. Have you had a glass of water? Water is so good for you and might just motivate you more. Meet yourself where you are now.

I first realized the benefit and impact of these statement one dark February day. It was perfectly light out, but it sure didn’t feel like it. Staring at a wall sounded more interesting than looking at the cute puppy pictures my friend had sent me to try to cheer me up. On this particular February day, I was reminded of one self-care option: journaling. I wrote in a journal a lot as a depressed kid, but as a depressed adult I found the notion overwhelming. You really want me to write in complete sentences when I can’t even figure out what color the sky is right now?

I gave it a shot. And after just one sentence, I was already stressed. But then, I realized something profound. My brain was running a million miles a minute even though it wasn’t functioning (the joys of depression and anxiety simultaneously, am I right?) and full sentences weren’t working. But words. Words I could do. I started writing words. Big, small, fat, plain, decorated, sideways. Words all over the page. Words that weren’t sentences and weren’t fully formed thoughts, but were words that came to the forefront of my mind. What I found was writing these words helped them calm down in my head. And as my thoughts swirled less, my brain calmed down. And as my brain calmed, my mood lifted. I felt relief in journaling the way that worked for me. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK.

Yoga is a practice. Life is a practice, too. Practice isn’t just for musical instruments and sports teams. Practice is all around us. When we meet ourselves where we are in the present, we can easily set a goal for ourselves.

I can’t journal right now, but I can write words. Maybe as I practice writing words, I’ll be able to work up to writing sentences. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

I’m too stressed to color inside the lines of my new coloring book, but coloring outside the lines feels better right now. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

Self-care is hard. Not all self-care ideas will work for all people. And not all ideas will be right in the moment. But don’t be afraid to meet yourself where you are now. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Modify, modify, modify. It’s not a weakness, it’s doing what you’re able to in the moment. And that’s OK. Meet yourself where you are now. Acknowledge you aren’t there yet and that’s OK. Life is a practice.

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Image via Thinkstock

Every day is a challenge. I wake up with a nervous stomachache. I get dressed and put on my mascara, trying to hold the brush tightly with shaky hands. I try to eat something, but I can’t. Everything makes me feel sick. At school I greet my friends with a fake smile and try to appear as calm as can be. It doesn’t last long. I spill out my worries in a stream of chatter. They are all irrational, so nobody understands. They tell me to “just calm down” and “it’ll be OK.” I don’t understand why it’s only me fearing the things that are so small to others. I feel in absolute danger. I don’t feel safe here. Or anywhere public. I want to curl up in my bed and tune out the world. Anything can go wrong.

In class I change my position many times in my desk. I cannot sit still. My mind wanders off into so many places. Wait? Did she just call my name? I fiddle with my pencil, carving my name into it with my finger nails. Oh no… pencil broke. I can’t get up to use the pencil sharpener. What if it doesn’t work? What if everyone looks at me? “Does anyone have a pen?” We start taking notes. I’m copying anything she writes on the board, but around my notebook page I sketch flowers with vines along the margin. I shouldn’t be doodling in class at my age, but I can’t help it.

I drop my pen. My hands are shaking. Now my legs are shaking. I can’t breathe. I feel dizzy, and my head is swaying from side to side. My desk is shaking now. My whole body is shaking. I pick up my pen. No, keep doodling. Distract yourself. It gets worse. The teacher is at the front of the room. I’m in the back, suffocating. I stand up and leave the room. Everyone’s watching. I run to the bathroom stall, tears dripping down my face. Pure anger that I cannot manage to stay in a full block without having an anxiety attack. Five minutes go by, now 10. I stop shaking and wipe my eyes. I go back to class and sink back in my desk and continue my doodles. I look up at the clock. I still have 45 minutes to go. How can I do this?

At the end of class, I take a breath and enter the busy halls of slow-paced teenagers. I’m content for a little while. Only now I have two more classes to go.

I shake and stutter during presentations. I feel ridiculous. My face heats up, and I try desperately to keep my hands from twitching. The teacher tells the class to give a confident presentation and give eye contact. I stand at the front of the room stumbling as I read from the page word for word. I’m angry with myself. Why do I have to do this? I love to talk with my friends and family. In fact, I never stop talking with them. Why do I let myself appear differently around others?

At lunch, the hardest part is making it through the cafeteria. I feel dizzy and hot in the lunch line and grab the quickest things possible. Water bottle, an apple. I’m feeling anxious with the lunch lady as I wait for her to give me my money back. I thank her, now I’m free again. I leave the cafeteria. I never eat in there. I never feel comfortable eating in there.

I consider going back to class. I don’t want to skip. I’ve never been the type to skip class, but I don’t feel safe going to class. Should I just go home? Should I stay in the bathroom for 84 minutes? I’ll try I guess. I’m now in last block. I’m almost done. I just need to keep drawing. That’s all I need to do to get through this. I’m still shaking. My friend plays with my hair behind me to calm me down. When 2:15 comes I feel accomplished. I did it. I lasted all day.

At night I lie awake with a head full of more worries. Dreading the next day, dreading the week. I’m up all night. I’m exhausted, but I haven’t slept in days. My teachers must think I’m lazy with my head down all the time. I’m in bed now. I’m safe. It’s until I remember… it’s only Monday.

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I’ll be 31 weeks pregnant on Thursday. It’s been the greatest of blessings. I couldn’t be more thankful and excited. But today, I’m feeling slightly on edge and anxious.

When I found out I was pregnant, I went off of all of my anxiety meds. I knew if things got bad there were medications safe for pregnancy I could try, but I wanted to give it a go “cold turkey.” This isn’t for everyone and I must say I had the blessing and supervision of my doctor when making this decision. I had very frank and open conversations with my doctor so when we started trying to get pregnant, I could safely wean myself off of the meds.

I’m almost to the end of my pregnancy journey and most days have been just fine, but I still have days when the anxiety gets bad. I start overthinking things. I feel nervous, for really no reason in particular. I’m overwhelmed. I don’t really want to talk to anyone.

I’m thankful over the years I’ve become pretty self-aware of when I’m experiencing anxiety or depression. It wasn’t always this way. There was a long period of time where I had no idea what was happening to me. I just didn’t feel like me. Now, I know what to look for when I start feeling like this. I know the signs and I know the methods of self-care I need to practice.

I go home and take a hot bath. I talk to my husband so he knows I’m not feeling myself and doesn’t take it personally when I’m acting differently. If I feel the need, I talk to a therapist or counselor. I make sure I get some good sleep and wake up the next day to reassess.

I’m really excited about becoming a mom but I’m also (more than) slightly terrified. This is my first child and I have no idea what I’m doing. I know I’m capable and will learn, but I feel like there’s so much I should know.

I’m being vigilant in monitoring my anxiety and taking each day one at a time. If you’re out there and you’re going through the same thing, I hope you know you’re not alone. This is a huge life change. Huge life changes are often accompanied by anxiety. If you have a history of battling this monster, it’s even more important for you to be aware of the symptoms when they present themselves and learn to take care of yourself.

Talk to your doctor or therapist. Talk to your partner or best friend. Watch your favorite movie and take a warm bath.

As for me, I’m going home to order some Indian food, enjoy a soak in the tub and snuggle with my pups.

Tomorrow is another day and one I hope will be free from the anxiety I’m battling today.

Editor’s note: This story is based on an individual’s experience. Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

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Image via Thinkstock


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