I woke with a start. It felt as though a huge, strong, invisible hand was gripping my throat. It was almost impossible to breathe. My chest was heavy, my heart pounding and skipping frantically inside. I was dying. I just knew it. I felt death trying to pull me under as I desperately tried to remain conscious, the room whirling around me.
With widened eyes, I looked over at my sweet sleeping toddler boy beside me and the thought crossed my mind that I’d never see him grow up. With that, tears sprang into my eyes and exploded down my cheeks as I tried to stand to go to the bathroom. I was completely disoriented. Terrified. It was my first panic attack.
That was nearly 14 years ago. I’ve had hundreds more since. And although the symptoms waxed and waned, the panic was a near-constant companion for many years. In 2016, circumstances sent me spiraling again into nightly attacks that woke me from my sleep in sheer terror. Only this time, my panic was accompanied by debilitating depression.
Over time, my struggle became my story.
My mental illness defined me for years, and I could not see a way out. I believed I would never escape my constant panic and ever-present sadness. I feared I would never be the happy mom my children needed, and I could see the impact that my struggle had on my family. That’s when I began writing The Gift of a Happy Mother. It was a story very much in real-time as I journeyed my way to better mental and emotional health. As with most things, my progress was not linear but more of two steps forward, one back, and three sideways progression.
I still face ups and downs, but I no longer allow myself to be defined by them. Emotions are fluid, and as the waves come and go, I have learned how to simply adjust my sails. So, if you’re struggling with a mental health issue or just bogged down with difficult emotions and can’t see a way out, I want to come alongside you today with a bit of hope and encouragement.
Separating Yourself from Your Emotions
In his article titled Three Lessons That Help Me Overcome Anxiety and Depression, Jason Large says, “When we suffer from depression and anxiety, it becomes very easy for us to get wrapped up in our feelings and start thinking about ourselves in terms of our disease. When you spend so many days feeling depressed, it’s only a small step to start thinking of yourself as depressed. Identifying ourselves with our feelings is a trap these diseases set for us, luring us into becoming self-fulfilling prophecies of doom.”
I found this to be so true in my own situation. It was as though I fell into a pothole but then dug myself a tunnel ruminating about the pothole. I’m not saying at all that my mental illness was a fabrication or that my situation wasn’t real. Mental illness is all throughout my family tree, and I am grateful for the treatments and medications both I and my family members have relied on. What I am saying is that the problem was exacerbated because I couldn’t separate myself from the illness - my experience from my existence.
The first step in feeling better was to separate those two things. I began telling myself daily that I was more than my feelings. I was made up of more than this difficult period in my life. I began speaking words of encouragement to myself. Don’t doubt the power of your words or of what follows “I am.” What we think and say to ourselves can literally change our brains and bodies.
Self-affirmations are not, by any means, a cure for mental illness or the final answer for emotional struggles, but they are a mental health tool that can help us make positive progress.
Steps Toward Feeling Healthier
Here’s something you need to know. Your mental and emotional struggles do not make you a bad parent. You may never be “cured” but you can feel better than you do today. You can rise up with new hope and strength.
I know firsthand how the constant anxiety can cause you to be irritable with your kids. I know from experience the bone-tired mental exhaustion you get from constantly battling this, but you keep fighting anyway. You are a warrior, just like me.
We battle demons no one else can see.
We face them down every day with shaky legs and the fierceness of a mother protecting her cubs. It takes amazing courage, but we don’t give ourselves credit for that. Instead, we criticize ourselves for struggling at all.
I’m happy to say that I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack in over a year. I’ve tried many methods to improve my mental health, and I’m grateful to say that I’m living free from constant fear and panic now. While I may occasionally have bouts of depression, I’m finally seeing more beauty in life.
- I asked for help. I saw a therapist for a while and I found that to be very helpful, but not only that, I opened up to my family and friends about my troubles. I accepted their support. I stopped trying to wear a mask and just started being real with people. It took a willingness to be vulnerable which was deeply uncomfortable for me, but to my delight, no one ran away from me screaming. They just genuinely wanted to help, and support feels so, so good.
- I took baby steps. When going into the store felt too overwhelming because of my fear of a panic attack, I just drove to the parking lot. I seriously got up, put on a full face of makeup and changed out of my pajamas and I just sat in the parking lot. One day, I found the courage to go inside for a few minutes. Now I can shop for hours. Baby steps are still steps in the right direction. Do one small thing each day that makes you feel a little better and a little stronger.
- I worked hard on changing my thought patterns. Our thoughts have a very real impact on our demeanor. If I allowed myself to think toxic thoughts like, “My children deserve a better mom than me,” those thoughts would poison my days. My negative thoughts would leave me feeling irritable and disappointed in my life. I realized, though, that I couldn’t heal with those thoughts running rampant. I couldn’t be the mom I wanted to be with a toxic inner monologue. Studies show that we can actively affect how our brains rewire themselves to create new neural networks and override pre-existing ones. The way to build new neural networks is by changing your thought patterns. I did this by “catching” the negative monologue mid-thought and thinking a corrective thought instead. Instead of “I’m a shitty mom” I thought, “I’m doing the best I can.” It was a tedious process, but it was helpful.
Whatever you are facing today, I hope you know you are more than your current struggle. You are fierce and brave. You are enough. You are a warrior. Keep fighting because soon the light will find you again.