I had my first panic attack when I was a sophomore in college. At the time, I was living several states away from my family, working and succeeding in school. But I remember feelings of panic as my heart raced for no particular reason and I found it hard to breathe.
My first panic attack wasn’t the first sign that I was struggling with anxiety. As a kid, my parents were often telling me to stop whining and trying tirelessly to talk me down from my constant worried state. Their attempts only left me feeling more frustrated. I imagine they felt frustrated, too.
Maybe it was their generation that didn’t lead them to throw around words like “anxiety” — especially as it related to kids — but I definitely had signs of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Signs that I wish someone had recognized.
I remember lying in my bed unable to fall asleep until I shut all the drawers in my dresser. If they were open just a crack, I would try to talk myself out of getting up … but I would always cave. I’d get up, close them one by one, and get back in bed feeling defeated.
I also used to obsessively check the doors and windows to make sure they were locked. Sometimes I’d get up in the middle of the night unbeknownst to my parents, and methodically turn doorknobs to make sure everything was in order while my family slept. I was probably around 11 or 12 years old.
I became frantic about making it to places on time, too — so much so that I would go into hysterics, throwing enormous fits of frustration when we were going to be late to school. I would feel angry that my family couldn’t understand just how important being on time was to me.
But worst of all were the raging fits of worry — mostly, that a tornado was going to destroy our home on a perfectly calm and starry night. I can still remember it so clearly: being 10 years old and lying in the hallway terrified, yelling about tornadoes while my parents locked their bedroom door and my brother calmed me down.
You might be inclined to think my parents were being cruel — locking out a screaming and kicking child. But I was 10; I’m sure they felt I was just being overly dramatic. After all, there weren’t even any clouds in the sky that night. I only know this because my brother took me outside to look at the sky, just so he could show me there was absolutely zero threat of a tornado.
Now that I’m an adult and a mother, I see that I needed therapy. I was left without any coping skills, feeling afraid all the time and consumed with worry. I’ve since been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and OCD, and I can’t help but wonder how much heartache could have been prevented over the years, had my parents only known what was going on in my head.
The truth is, I was a perfectly “normal” child otherwise: I made really good grades, had lots of friends, and was involved in several of extracurricular activities. I worked hard at making others around me happy and couldn’t stand the idea of not being liked.
On the outside, I was popular, happy, and succeeding in life. But on the inside, I was a mess. I can see that now. My heart hurts for that little girl who needed help learning how to cope in a world that terrified her.
To this day, I’m still a highly sensitive person. I get easily frustrated if I’m not careful; I cry easily; I can be impatient and irrational; and I’m bothered by conversations for days — sometimes weeks — after the fact. And most of all, I still worry constantly.
But the difference is, now I have tools. I have medication. I have coping skills learned in therapy, and best of all, I understand that my mind is often not seeing the world clearly. This awareness has helped me readjust and calm myself in ways I never could as a child.
I can’t imagine what it would have done for me as a kid to know that my brain functioned differently than other people’s. To understand that sometimes, even when I was convinced something terrible was going to happen, my mind was just playing tricks on me.
When I feel my emotions getting out of control, I’ve learned to take a step back and ask myself if I’m seeing a situation clearly. I would have never been able to do that without therapy and knowledge of my mental illness.
Imagine giving a child the gift of knowing that they are unique and different — but that it’s OK, because there are coping tools available when they feel helpless. Believe me, it’s way more productive than being told you’re just a too-sensitive crybaby your whole life.
Still, I don’t blame anybody for what I went through; the road I took was the one I had to take. I just wish someone had taught me as a child that my outbursts, obsessions, and feelings of inadequacy were not a result of being ridiculous, but rather my brain believing things that weren’t always true. And I wish I had been equipped with coping skills sooner — ones that would have helped me better navigate that tricky path to adulthood. Because let’s fact it; the older we get, the harder life gets.
It would have been nice to have been told there was nothing wrong with feeling deeply and requiring reassurance about the world around me. It would have been helpful to know that I was made this way, that things could be easier, and that there was hope.
This knowledge can be a powerful gift — especially to a child. And I think it’s one all our kids deserve.