What I Would Tell My 12-Year-Old Self After His First Panic Attack
I can still see myself standing on second base in that little league game. I was 12 years old, playing my first baseball game since returning from breaking my right femur six months before. As the pitcher threw to the batter, I began to think to myself, “Will my legs work?” As the ball crossed the plate for a strike, I thought more. “How are they working? Wait, how am I breathing?”
The next pitch was a ball. “Am I going to make it to home plate? Are my legs going to get me there? Wait, why do I feel weird? My legs feel funny. Are they still working? Where are my parents? Can I still breathe? Wait, what is really happening? Is any of this real?”
The next pitch was a strike. “Let’s try moving my legs up and down. They feel weird. Kind of light. Does that mean I’m going to die? Am I dying? Am I even alive?” I swallowed. And then I swallowed again. My mouth was dry, my heart racing. My body felt light as a feather, almost like I could fly up into the sky at any moment, but in a way that was against my will.
The other team’s coach came out to speak with his pitcher. “Why is he doing this? I just want to get off the bases. I can’t keep standing here, I’m going to die soon. If I’m not dead already.”
The next pitch was ball four. “I can move now. Ball four. That means I can go to third base.”
As I trotted to third base, my legs felt so strange. I didn’t know how my body was working or how I was breathing. And I knew one thing. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this anymore and I didn’t want to be on the bases anymore.
“Mom! Mom!” I said.
“What’s wrong?” she said as she got up out of her chair.
“I want to go home. I don’t feel well.” I looked at the coach. “I need to go home, Coach Greg. I don’t feel well. I’m nauseous.”
He looked at me with disbelief, confusion and a bit of empathy and said, “You sure? Ummm…OK. I hope you feel better.” He looked towards the other coach and said, “Can we get someone to run for Brett?”
I ran off the field and into my parents safety and within a minute I was in my parents’ back seat, not entirely sure if I was even still alive or if I was in some dream or some state of being outside of my own body.
That was my second panic attack. My first was a week earlier in the middle of English class, after which I had the teacher call my dad to take me home. But this panic attack on the baseball field in front of all of my friends, their parents and my teammates was the most memorable and most pivotal of my life.
It was eight years and hundreds of panic attacks before I would go to a therapist to discuss these episodes and begin to learn to manage my anxiety. As a parent now and as someone who still deals with anxiety, I wish I could go back and tell myself and my parents what to do.
Here’s what I would tell my 12-year-old self:
You are OK. This is a panic attack. It’s not that unusual, especially for someone who had a trauma (a broken leg with a long recovery), someone who probably is predisposed to anxiety (anxious father). The best thing to do now is take long deep breaths, and ground yourself in some way that gets you out of your head and back into your body. Don’t go home. Take a break. Tell the coach you aren’t feeling well, but may want to come back in. Maybe sit on the side with your parents and tell them what happened and what you are feeling. Then go sit on the bench and drink some water. Focus on watching the game. Chat with a teammate. And then on the way home, ask your parents to take you to get help. It’s OK to ask for help. Remember, it’s normal to have anxiety. It’s normal as someone with anxiety to have a panic attack. It will pass. But it’s a sign that you need to speak with someone. You need to learn to understand this anxiety better.
Here’s what I would tell my parents:
Your son needs help and it’s OK that you can’t fix this for him. He just went through some serious trauma and anxiety runs in the family. It doesn’t make you a bad parent to admit that your child needs therapy. It’s not your fault that he is having this problem. It’s also OK that you don’t understand what is going on in his head. Just listen and get him to speak with someone that may understand. And just because he tells you he’s “fine” later doesn’t mean he is.
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