I’m exhausted but cannot fall asleep. The sheets are wrinkly; my legs are fidgety. And then it happens…again. My heart races. Pins–hundreds poking at the same time– radiate from low in my back up to my shoulders. I feel queasy. Am I going to lose my cookies? My leg and arm muscles tighten and I stiffen to restrain them from uncontrollable convulsing. My throat constricts. I can’t suck in enough air. I can’t breathe. Stop it! Catch your breath; at least you can do that! Then stand up, whimp! No one else hears the commands; my own voice is captive within me. The panic attack runs its course…and a different kind of journey begins.
When I went to the doctor in search of physiological answers, I wasn’t expecting her seemingly unrelated question, “What are you afraid of?” Nor was I expecting the gushing of tears. In the moment, I could no less identify irrational fears responsible for panic attacks than I could speak Chinese. However, my thought progression was sounding as unintelligible as Chinese sobbing through not having a grip on anything anymore. Panic attacks are apparently the tip of the iceberg.
I used to think that my fear list in life was short, rational, and manageable. I simply avoid the things I fear. Cliffs. Rollercoasters. Snakes. Or I work harder to prevent and control those events that could unleash fear. Noises in the night. Losing track of a child. Launching children into the unpredictable future.
As unplanned and even anticipated changes appeared, I thought I was doing a good job of managing my responses. I sorta, kinda patted myself on the back for offering helpful advice in such situations, solicited or not. Like a programmed auto response to email, I would bounce back an immediate reply. I thought I was managing the input and output, like control central.
My auto-response reaction kicked in when my daughter and I were talking about her loaning me a book she had read. “Do you think I’m beautiful?” she said as she grabbed the milk from the fridge.
Somewhat caught off-guard—yet with assurance and control—I bounced back, “Of course you are.” My maternal radar piqued as I cautioned, “Be careful about relying on your outside beauty. What really matters is what’s on the inside…you know, your thoughts behind your actions.” There, that should help.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” she said again. Oh my, I thought, something is really prompting these insecurities. I need to reassure her. I need to do all that I can do to equip my graduating senior with self-assurance before she heads off to college.
“Your heart is where….” I start to explain before she interrupts.
“Mom, that’s the name of the book that you want to borrow.”
“Oh….right,” shrugging off disappointment in myself. Hmmpf, I did it again… jumping in to save and rescue before knowing what’s really going on. But…if I don’t step up to the responsibility I could be failing my daughter. Ultimately I could be failing God. A confident daughter would mean that I did my job well. What mothers do matters. I do what mothers do…therefore I must matter.
Days later, I heard a radio counselor ask a caller: “Do you know the real issue behind panic attacks?” No, I wasn’t the anonymous caller…because I already knew the answer. Ha! My lips formed the word just as the caller responded, “Fear.”
“Actually, it’s control, particularly loss of control,” the counselor explained.
Me, controlling? I’m the one who wants to help; I'm the one who wants to make it better. Could it be that what I think is best for others doesn’t necessarily reflect the heavy-handed stereotype of control? Could it be that I am on the brink of becoming an empty-nester? Do I think that my value is disappearing like children heading off to college or grandchildren moving across the country?
That night just as I closed my eyes, I thought I heard a whisper lulling me to sleep, “That’s not your job anymore, Julie, that’s mine. You can release them to me. And I still love you.”
Is that you, God? I'm so tired. I need sle-e....zzzz.