Like so many others watching, “This Is Us” had me at first pilot. You know a show is good when it seamlessly touches on every human emotion and experience, many of which I can relate to, but when I watched last Tuesday’s episode it was more than relating to one (or more) of the characters’ emotions, it was a deep understanding of a topic completely misunderstood: anxiety and panic attacks. When I watched Randall progress slowly into his panic attack at the end of the episode, I was immediately catapulted back to my own experience—it was like I was watching part of myself slowly break down on television.
We all have a threshold for the stress we can handle, some can handle more than others. Bottom line is, we are not super heroes, we have a limit to the stress our minds and bodies can take, and if it they are given too much, mind and body will break.
I guess that’s why they call it a ‘break down.’
For me, the stress was like adding bricks to a bridge made of fragile toothpicks. My bridge was doing OK, but then a brick titled “marriage” was added. Then “terminally ill husband.” Then a couple more called “twins.” Then more called “debt and financial struggle,” “pregnancy #2,” “two-year old twins,” “in-home hospice care,” “newborn baby,” “dying husband,” “death” and the final brick to break me–“grief.”
My bridge crumbled.
I couldn’t do it anymore, hold all that weight. I couldn’t be the strong one anymore, even though, ironically, it seems that the people who seem to be “holding it all together,” the people who are told how strong they are, are the ones who need permission to be weak (read my other post: Checking myself into a mental hospital was the sanest thing I’ve done)
Not allowing weakness results in the body and mind being forced into anxiety and panic. It takes over every cell of your body. It’s like you’re on a carousel and can’t get off. No matter what you do, it just keeps spinning and all sense of balance falls out from under you. Chronic panic attacks are unbearable and debilitating in and of themselves, but chronic panic attacks while trying to parent kids brings any semblance of balance to a grinding halt. No matter how much you love your kids, no matter how much they need you, no matter how much you try to push through, panic and anxiety creep in like thieves and attack, usually when you least expect it. Your bridge can collapse at the grocery store, the pick-up line at the kids’ school, during family movie night, during church. Your body shakes, your lungs feel like they are being squeezed and suffocated, you break into a cold sweat and that spinning carousel of thoughts and flashbacks makes you nauseous and blurs all clear vision. All logical thoughts and decision-making grind to a stop. All you can do is hold on for dear life and pray it passes. Pray you can make it somewhere where you won’t make a scene. Where you won’t scare your children with your inability to function. Sometimes it only happens for a minute, sometimes 20 minutes, but either way it’s one minute too long.
People who haven’t been there give advice like, “just don’t think about it,” “just try to think positive,” “don’t worry, everything will be OK,” “look at all you have to be grateful for, why worry about the things you can’t control…” And the anxiety sufferer smiles and nods, but inside is screaming, “It’s not that easy!” We know we can’t control things, we know we have things to be grateful for, we know how much we love our kids, we know how much they need us and we want to be there for them, but anxiety is complicated, it takes over, it demands our attention and energy even if we try to ignore it.
I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist, but I believe panic and anxiety attacks are usually a result of emotions that are trapped and unprocessed. I believe anxiety and panic are ways for our minds and bodies to beg for attention, self-care, self-love, and spiritual care that can only come from God. There’s nothing anyone can do to physically take the bricks off our fragile bridges for us, it’s something we need to do ourselves, but the first step is acknowledging that weakness is only a result of the strength we’ve had to have to carry our load for so long, and now, it’s time for rest.
Feature image via NBC
— This Is Us (@NBCThisisUs) February 15, 2017