I was 21 years old when I had my first full-blown panic attack. I was in the middle of heavy traffic on Los Angeles’ 101 freeway and I thought I was having a heart attack. When I got home, my roommate insisted we go to the E.R. to get checked out. The doctor prescribed me two tranquilizers and recommended that I see a therapist if my symptoms continued.
I didn’t listen.
Five years later, at 26 years old, I found myself at Cedars Sinai again pleading with the doctor to check out my heart because it felt as though it was going to explode. After answering many questions, the doctor patiently sat me down and explained that he believed I was suffering from anxiety and depression. He didn’t believe it was episodic but chronic.
It made sense. After all, these feelings of doom and panic had been quite familiar to me for some time. I just didn’t know that there was a reason behind it all. He prescribed me a strong anti-depressant, which dramatically lifted the dark veil from my eyes, and thus began my long and complex relationship with managing anxiety and depression for years to come.
Being on medication doesn’t prevent you from episodes of anxiety and depression, it just helps you to better manage them, but even that’s not always 100 percent. Before I had children, when these bouts would occur (which were often) I would act in ways that were self-destructive: smoking cigarettes, drinking a bit too much, oversleeping and missing appointments, being quick to anger, not returning phone calls from family or friends, trying to disappear into the walls of my one-bedroom apartment.
Before I had my kids, I had the luxury of working my way through the mental darkness and coming out on the other side more enlightened in how to deal with future episodes. I could be selfish and turn into myself when I didn’t feel like dealing with the outside world.
But that all changed once I had children.
No matter what is going on in my life — good or bad — I have to show up for my children every single day. If I’m running a fever of 103 degrees, they still need to be fed. If I had two hours of sleep and don’t feel like facing the world, they still need to be driven to school with packed lunches. And when I’m looking into the dark tunnel of anxiety and depression, they need me to figure out the quickest way to get out of the other end so that I can be present for them.
I’m much easier on myself than I was in my twenties. I recognize the signs and make adequate lifestyle changes to combat the mental shift. I exercise more, eat healthier, and say no to things when I begin to feel overwhelmed. I’m also more forgiving in the way I parent during these times. I’ll serve cereal for dinner, skip days between baths, call for a cleaning service, order my groceries online, and book the babysitter for longer hours. I’ll let my kids watch YouTube Kids on my phone so I can go to my bed and take a break under the covers.
On one occasion, I even kept both kids home from school because I didn’t have it in me to get myself dressed, the kids dressed, or get lunches packed and all of us out the door. That was a bad day, but the most important thing was that my kids were happy and safe.
Through the years, I’ve learned about myself more and have been able to come up with a few things that, when done consistently, dramatically improve my mental wellbeing and ability to cope.
5 things I do for myself to get through an episode:
I’ve been journaling since I was ten years old. Not only does it help release all of my thoughts, but it provides a great perspective for when I’ve gotten through to the other side. Looking back on everything that has caused me anxiety over the last three decades has dramatically shifted my mindset into better understanding my mental triggers and what helps me to better overcome them.
2. Get outside
Living in the Chicago-land area can really dampen my outlook during the long, dark, winter nights. It’s taken me years to finally understand that getting outside (even in the blistering cold for a few minutes) can temporarily boost my mood. And even a temporary mood boost is better than nothing.
This is not my favorite thing to do, but it helps. Actually, it really helps and I owe it to myself to do things that I may not like, but that my mind and body will benefit from.
4. Reach out to friends
I avoid phone calls from friends like the plague when I’m experiencing anxiety, depression, or both. I have one friend in particular who knows that if I don’t call her back for two weeks or more, then I’m in an episode. She will then hound me until I call her back or even show up on my doorstep. Even though I may not feel like it, talking through my emotions with someone who’s known me since I was nineteen always helps.
5. Stay consistent with my medication
This one is the most important. I’ve been on medication for years. Every year or so, when I’m feeling like I have it all together, I will tell myself that I don’t need them anymore and that proper diet and exercise will do the trick. And every year or so, I’m back at my doctor’s office lamenting on how I made a huge mistake and need my prescription refilled again. There are days (and weeks) when I skip my medication and it’s the most thoughtless thing I can do for myself. As with all things in life, consistency is key, and this is hard to remember sometimes.
It’s been exactly 20 years since my first panic attack and my relationship with anxiety and depression has evolved into that of patience and understanding. It has also taken exactly 20 years to gain the right tools and coping mechanisms to become the amazing woman and mom I am today, in spite of it all.
There’s no easy fix for dealing with anxiety and depression. Some people respond amazingly well to medications, while others don’t. Some people are more comfortable talking to a therapist, while others are not. There is no one cure. But if you’re one of the 40 million adults who suffer from anxiety and depression, you owe it to yourself to find a solution that works best for you.
And if you’re a parent who suffers, you definitely owe it to yourself to be patient and kind and to let go of any and all ideas of perfectionism.