It is an indescribable feeling, sitting in a psychiatrist’s office with your child for the first time. It is a place I never imagined myself. Standing on the precipice of hope and despair, I knew we needed to be here but wanted to run. I wanted to pretend everything was okay and my daughter’s struggles were a result of teen years and puberty. But deep down, that gut feeling I gained when I birthed her knew everything was not okay. Everything has not been okay for a while.
My firstborn has always been responsible, but beyond that, carried the need to be responsible for the actions of everyone else. An avid rule follower, she follows every rule to the letter and makes sure everyone around her is obeying as well. When the world around her feels out of her control, she reacts in anger, anxiety, and resentment. As she grew, she and I often rammed heads. There were times I would make her sit outside until she was ready to come inside and treat her family respectfully. I had no idea the level of anxiety she felt below the surface was what caused the anger to boil over. She has never been violent. Her anger was self-directed.
While some characteristics are common in firstborn children, one event that made an alarm go off in my head about the depth of her anxiety happened during our short time in Louisiana. If you don’t know my story, in 2016 our family of six moved 15 hours south to only live there for 10 months. My daughter, a rising 7th grader at the time, had the most difficulty with the move. However, she had the quickest transition to her new school. She met amazing friends and teachers and had the time of her life in the middle school band. In Louisiana, the middle school band was at a high school band performance level. Her band played at the middle school football games and she was living her best life.
One night, after a football game, we climbed into our van with her three younger siblings and headed to grab dinner. It was late, we were all tired, but we needed food. Suddenly, a switch flipped. My daughter who had just had the best few hours, playing her trumpet and laughing with her friends, turned into a different child. She exploded so severely that she scared me and her siblings beyond words. She began screaming “I don’t want to get food, I just want to go home. Take me home, take me home!” Little did I know, we were experiencing her first anxiety attack. At the time, we were adjusting to our move and so much change. I thought, “surely her behavior was a result of the move.”
We moved back to Virginia and she began to manifest increased physical pain. School became a struggle and she begged me daily to pick her up early. Her band class was at the end of the day and she no longer enjoyed the band as she did in Louisiana. The structure was different and the teacher was less enthusiastic. In December of her 8th-grade year, she had a band concert and I had a clear view of her on stage. I have a vivid memory of watching her have an anxiety attack while trying to keep herself together to perform.
I knew we had crossed a threshold when anxiety made her favorite activity of playing trumpet in the band become something that triggered her. She loved playing the trumpet and being a part of the band family. She worked hard to excel and improve. I knew we needed help when she could not make it through a day of school without messaging me, begging me to come to get her. My child who is incredibly responsible and independent was pleading for help. I had to choose to believe her.
Shortly after that anxiety attack, we began meeting with doctors and determined a diagnosis of fibromyalgia. While we believe this is genetic, chronic pain often increases with anxiety. Since her initial diagnosis, we have been to countless doctors to uncover and rule out many other conditions. Her confirmed mental diagnosis is clinical depression and severe anxiety. While she is receiving treatment for her mental health, we are still visiting doctors and doing lab work to rule out other health concerns that can contribute to her mental struggles.
The anxiety attacks come in waves, although now they are less frequent. She has hit herself, picked her skin, pulled her eyebrows, and done other things to cope. Never did I feel like her life or anyone else’s was in danger, but I did everything in my power to help her through her attacks. Sometimes listening to her favorite music helped. Sometimes just sitting with her and believing her was what she needed. I prayed over her brain, for peace and calm. I cried out to God for relief. I tried not to allow my daughter to feel my fear, grief, or pain as I watched her endure the attack. An anxiety attack is scary. You feel like you might be dying. Recently, we learned that anxiety attacks will only last about 20 minutes. Your brain can only stay in that state for that amount of time. Knowing there is a physiological end in sight has helped her calm down quicker.
Next week, I will share more about where we are with her mental health currently. I will also share how we manage her schooling as well as how her siblings cope with her challenges. I hope this has helped give you insight into our mental health journey. While you may not be experiencing this personally or with a loved one, I hope it will open your eyes to the struggles others face and develop compassion for those who experience invisible mental health illnesses. On the outside, someone may appear perfectly fine. You may look at their life and think “what do they have to be anxious or depressed about?” Choose to believe them anyway.