When I Had an Anxiety Attack in Front of My Daughter
It was just another weekday morning when I had my first anxiety attack in front of my toddler. I was on my way to work and getting my daughter ready for school. As always, my daughter was running around the house, refusing to get dressed. I still had to finish styling my hair, packing lunches and get my work bag ready for the day. It was too much.
I dropped the knife that I was using to spread the mayonnaise. My dogs started barking when they heard another dog being walked in the neighborhood. There was now 15 minutes to get out the door and I could feel time ticking. At this point, I’m yelling through the house, trying to find my daughter, begging her to ditch her pajamas. She refused. Ten minutes left. She was screaming and trying to run while I wrestled to at least get a new shirt over her head. She wriggled away. I just couldn’t do it anymore! My heart started racing. Pounding. It was at the surface, and I couldn’t stop it. I start to panic and it happened. I had an anxiety attack right there in front of my toddler.
This is the point in the story where I wish I could tell you it didn’t last long or that I had a quick way of coping to shut it down. But that didn’t happen. My anxiety has looked different over the years, from anger to tears to full-blown panic attacks. That day, however, it was tears, which I consider my least traumatizing form of anxiety for others. I started to breathe heavily and the tears started to flow. I began to sob. While I don’t remember much about the attack itself, I will never forget my daughter’s face. Her expression transitioned from her own distress from having to get dressed and go to school, to shock and awe that mommy wasn’t OK. Her mouth dropped and she looked at me confused with her deep blue eyes, trying to figure out what happened.
What occurred next brought me so much comfort and so much shame at the same time. My daughter embraced me. My toddler, who doesn’t articulate that well and still runs and loses her balance, grabbed me and held me. She started stroking my arm and saying over and over “It’s OK, mommy. It’s going to be alright.” The anxiety hadn’t totally ended and I was still sobbing, but I became so aware that my small child was calming me in a way that I couldn’t do for myself. In an instant, I was both so proud that I was raising a nurturer while ashamed that she knew how to handle my anxiety better than I did in that moment.
However, simultaneously I realized I couldn’t cope without help. I took in her words, felt her embrace and started to breathe through my tears. Gradually, my anxiety quelled and I came back to my reality. All the while knowing that my daughter not only witnessed this, but she helped me through it.
That day changed the way I see my anxiety. I work harder to employ coping skills as I see it bubbling. I am more consistent with my treatment and I employ my support system more frequently. However, it taught me a lot about parenting, too. While my daughter saw me in an undesirably vulnerable moment, she knew how to comfort. I taught her that. She knew the words to say without my prompting and knew to try and embrace me. I modeled that for her. Even though I don’t wish for her to take care of me, I learned that I am raising a good human who models what I do and watches how I act. And as a parent with anxiety, I determine what she should know about my mental illness and how I set the example of resilience through it.
For someone who struggles with anxiety, there are a mix of emotions that I feel in the midst of an attack, especially around other people. I feel vulnerable, exposed, overwhelmed and pressured to get better quickly so no one knows how often and how intense my anxiety really is. But when it’s my child, those feelings can be heightened because as a parent I believed the lie that I have to always be OK for her. The truth is, hiding my struggle with mental illness doesn’t help her. It furthers the stigma that mental illness is wrong, bad and is a human flaw. Over the years, I’ve worked so hard to embrace my anxiety as part of who I am and how I cope is part of my strengths. When I hide this from her, I’m hiding part of me.
Do I need to show her all my anxiety? Absolutely not. Regardless of what age, I have to do my own work to take care of and parent her and continue to cope through my day. But I want her to know that I’m not always OK and that’s a part of life for any person. I want her to see my use my coping skills whether it’s generalized anxiety or if I happen to have an anxiety attack in her presence again. When I show her this, I’m giving her skills that can carry her through her own bad days, whether or not she has anxiety. Just like she knew to reassure me because I do that for her, how I overcome the tough things in life also teaches her how to keep going.
I know my first anxiety attack around her probably won’t be the last. But what I learned from the first experience will shape the rest. My anxiety isn’t just about me anymore, but it’s about what I show her as she’s watching me. While I hope my anxiety attacks in front of her are minimal, I hope she knows that her mom is not her mental illness. I want her to see my rise through the difficulty and see that anxiety won’t stop me, but it will teach me something and make me stronger. And ultimately, I want her to learn that no matter what her tough days look like, she will rise too.
Unsplash via Katie Emslie