By Clint Edwards
I started having panic attacks around the time my father died.
I was 18. I’d been working the graveyard shift at Toys R Us, and there was something about working during the night and sleeping during the day, combined with the stress of my father’s death, that caused a pain inside my body.
The first time I had a panic attack was around 6:30 am. I’d gotten off work at 5 am. I was living with my grandmother at the time. It was a Sunday morning, and she’d gotten up early to start cooking a roast. I couldn’t go to sleep because she was in the kitchen banging pots and pans around, and as the sun came up, I became more and more anxious. I tossed and turned in bed, trying to understand the tightness in my body. It reminded me of the butterflies I felt on a roller coaster during the drop. I often looked forward to that rise and fall of my stomach during an amusement park ride, but it usually only lasted a few moments, not several hours.
I became nauseous and I started sweating. It was the strangest thing. I was afraid, but I didn’t have anything to be afraid of. I didn’t sleep at all that day and, by the time I made it into work at 7 pm, I was a wreck. My face was moist and pale, my hands cool and clammy. My boss sent me home. Around 4 am, after I’d been awake for almost 40 hours, I finally drifted off.
I had anxiety attacks here and there during the next year, and I never understood them. They seemed to come out of the blue. But it wasn’t until a year later that I really began to really suffer.
By then I was 19, working at Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse in the garden center, and attending my first year of college. I was still living at my grandmother’s home, only I lived there alone. Grandma had recently had a stroke. She had to move in with my aunt.
It was summer time, and I was supposed to be at work around 6 am, but I just couldn’t fall asleep, and the more I thought about how I couldn’t go to sleep, the more anxious I became, until eventually, I started to vomit. This was the worst panic attack I’d ever had. A horrible feeling of fear and anticipation sat squat in my gut for almost a full month. I found it difficult to eat, difficult to sleep, and sometimes, I felt so hopeless that I just sat down and wept. I felt pathetic, weak, and helpless. I didn’t understand what was happening, I didn’t have a name for it, so I thought the worst. I assumed it was some terminal illness, cancer or something, perhaps a tumor in my head or stomach, or somewhere, that was causing me to feel this way. These terrible assumptions only fed my anxiety.
I lost 40 pounds in three weeks.
I’ve always been described as stocky, and I’ve always had a little fat around my waist, so it was eerie to look in the mirror and see my skin stretch across my ribs like a wet towel. People at work kept complimenting me on my weight loss, and I didn’t know how to respond, so I didn’t say anything. It’s not like I was on some fitness program or diet.
I was hardly eating, and half of what I ate, I threw up.
Once I started talking about suicide, my girlfriend at the time urged me to see a doctor. I don’t know why I hadn’t gone before, probably because I didn’t want to face what they had to say.
My regular doctor sent me to a therapist named Jason and I recall being frustrated and confused by this recommendation because I still assumed there was something wrong with me physically. I assumed the doctor would send me somewhere for an x-ray or blood test, something, not to chat with someone about my emotions.
Jason was a tall, lean man with spidery fingers. He used his hands when he spoke and had a lot of lines in his face. He told me that I had depression and general anxiety disorder. He looked me in the eyes when he told me this, and I’d never felt so weak and alone. Most of my life I’d always assumed that anxiety and depression problems were a joke. They were a cry for attention, and depression medication was nothing more than a placebo. But, as I sat across from this man with degree after degree on his wall and compassion and sincerity in his eyes, feeling the slack in my pants and the long-lasting pain in my stomach, I realized that I had a problem.
Once I told Jason that I’d been contemplating suicide, he set up a bi-weekly appointment. Then he recommended a psychiatrist who later prescribed me a collection of pills—Celexa for depression, Xanax for anxiety, Ambien, Sonata, and Klonopin to be used interchangeably for sleep… I seemed to always be taking something. My father had died earlier that year from a stroke brought on by his 10-year addiction to prescription painkillers. Sometimes I examined the pills I’d been prescribed, thought about my father, and wondered if this was how his addictions began.
My therapist suggested a healthy diet, going to bed at the same time, getting up at the same time, and daily exercise.
“Keeping yourself healthy, and making sure that you are good and tired once you go to bed will make a huge difference.”
And, suddenly, it felt like he’d given me a prescription on how to live, a list of do’s that would make the pain go away. My life changed again, from one of late nights watching TV, to one of order. If I weren’t in bed by 11 pm, I’d have a panic attack. If I had to be up before 8 am, I’d have a panic attack. If I ate the wrong food, I feared what it might do to me. But I suppose the worst was my sudden obsession with making myself “good and tired.”
My attacks always began in the night, so I dreaded going to bed. All of it revolved around sleep. The evening hours approached me like a cliff. I started exercising two hours every day, mostly cycling. But then I had a panic attack one night, and I assumed that I must have done something wrong. Perhaps I didn’t exercise enough, so I upped it to two and a half hours. Within a year, I was exercising four to five hours a day (biking, lifting weights, running…). I exercised more on my days off. If I wasn’t at work or in bed, I was in motion. If I didn’t get enough exercise, I feared that I would have a panic attack. I dropped out of school because I couldn’t stand sitting for more than a few minutes. I sometimes I peed blood because of over-exertion, and sometimes I still threw up from anxiety. It felt a lot like I was running from something, some hidden danger that I couldn’t define, but feared nonetheless.
Friends often asked about my life, why I never hung out anymore, what was my motivator for exercising so much. I was open about my problem. I often explained to them my fear of sleep and anxiety, but when I put it all into sentences, none of it made sense. It all seemed irrational, even to me, and yet it was very real and painful inside my body. I often wondered if there was some disconnect between fear and logic inside my mind, and I wondered how I would ever get myself back into sync.
I sometimes wondered what stress in my life had brought about my problem. I wondered if it was nature or nurture—was I born this way? Or was it a product of the stress around me? Was it my father’s drug addiction and abandonment that made me this way? Or was it my mother’s rage and depression that was a result of my father’s abandonment? Perhaps it was a mix of both. What I do know is that everything I did, every action, every thought, became focused on avoiding another panic attack, and when I think back on this time, I realize that my anxiety controlled my life.
It took me three years to figure out the right mix of medications, exercise, and schedule, but eventually I started to live a relatively normal life again. I got back into college and, at 22, I got married. I’d started to gain a little more control over my life, and a little more weight, but there were still times where I felt out of control. Where I couldn’t go to sleep because of a panic attack that made me ill and irrational for days or sometimes weeks.
Mel and I were married about three months the first time she suggested that we have a child. This must have been early 2005. We were living in Provo, Utah, renting a small two-bedroom condo. I suppose we’d talked about it while dating, but it was mostly playful. We talked about what the child would look like: short and stocky like me, or short and slender like Mel. We talked about its personality: would it be funny and loud like me? Or reserved and thoughtful like Mel? We picked out names and discussed who wanted a boy and who wanted girl.
But it didn’t seem all that real until after we were married. And I suppose I’d always had mixed feelings about having children. Sometimes I wanted them. But mostly I didn’t. Especially when I was around other people’s kids. The screaming, yelling, whining, and the late nights really freaked me out. I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle a child.
“I think we should start trying,” Mel said.
It was early evening, around 5:30 pm, and Mel and I were making dinner.
“Trying what?” I said.
“Having a baby.”
“What? Slow down,” I said. “I think we need to wait.”
Mel went on, asking me why we needed to wait. Why we needed to slow down.
“We love each other… right? We are married? There’s no reason to wait.”
I agreed with her on the facts that we were married and in love. But I told her that we needed to get used to being a married couple. We needed to save money. We needed to be more secure. I brought up a bunch of clichéd arguments as to why I didn’t want to have a baby yet, but really, all I thought about was how babies don’t sleep through the night. I thought about her going into labor at midnight, and how it might bring on a panic attack. I thought about my medications, my schedule, and how much better my life had become, and I wondered if I was strong enough. At the time, I honestly waited for the anxiety to take over again. I worried that I might stupidly trigger it, somehow, like a lost soldier unwittingly wandering into a minefield. Would having a child undo all that I’d done? I was terrified of having a setback.
Mel and I went back and forth on the subject. It wasn’t until things got heated that I brought up my anxiety.
She knew about it, but she’d never really seen the brunt of it. I’d had a few attacks while with her, but never a full-blown one that lasted a month or more. I worried that she didn’t understand what I was going through, and what having a baby might do to me.
“I will get up in the night with the baby,” she said. “I will take care of that. Don’t worry about it.” And, when she told me this, I did feel a little better. But honestly, I knew the truth. I knew that if we had a child, I would have to help in the night. I couldn’t avoid it, nor did I think it was right for me to avoid it. I thought a lot about my father and how he wasn’t around, and I felt a strong sense of duty. If we had a child, I needed to be there. Every hour of every day. I needed to be fully committed. I refused to walk out on my child like my father had done to me. And the thought of that duty scared the hell out of me. I feared that I didn’t have it in me. I feared that somehow my anxiety would get in the way, making me incapable of being the kind of father I wanted to be.
After a year and a half of arguments,planning, and saving, we agreed to have a baby. The day Mel showed me the positive pregnancy test, I felt like the biggest test of my life was only nine months away.
I am a religious man, and I will admit that I prayed every night for the Lord to make me strong enough. For him to take away my anxiety so that I could be there for my child.
The day finally came two weeks earlier than expected. Mel came down with toxemia, which made her ankles, feet, and face swell. She went to visit with her doctor one morning, only to be taken straight into the delivery room for an emergency caesarean. I recall being really scared for Mel and the baby, but the doctor assured us that everything was going to be just fine. And once everything was said and done, I recall feeling excited to hold my son, but more than anything, I was relieved that it didn’t happen in the night. That things didn’t happen in such a way that I had to break my schedule and risk having a panic attack. And, when I think about all the joy of having a baby, when I think about how much I love my son, and value him in my life, I feel selfish for being more relieved by the time of day that he was born than excited by the miracle of birth.
That first night was a long one. In fact, it was the most restless night I’d had in years, and I will admit that I took twice my dose of Xanax to keep myself calm. However, I knew that I couldn’t do that every night without becoming an addict.
Things got worse once we brought Tristan home. Tristan wouldn’t sleep more than about two hours at a time. The little bugger refused to sleep in his crib, or the bassinet, or if we were lying down next to him. He only slept if someone cradled him in one arm, like a football.
Mel and I usually split the night in half. I couldn’t sleep sitting up, and I often worried that, if I did drift off, I’d drop the baby, so I spent a lot of late nights and early mornings gazing at the TV, my eyes bloodshot, high on Xanax, a small chubby auburn-haired boy cradled in my right arm.
I couldn’t imagine placing the night-time responsibility solely on Mel, but, at the same time, I was taking far more Xanax than I should to keep myself calm. Every time my doctor refilled my prescription of Xanax, he questioned his actions and suggested that I get off it. He reminded me that it was a very addictive substance. This caused me to think a lot about my father’s addiction to prescription pills, and I worried that I was heading down the same path, and yet I was terrified to go back to a life where anxiety controlled me. My obligation to my son was in conflict to my mental health, and it felt like I was between a rock and hard place.
One night, when Tristan was about one month old, Mel woke me at 2 am. It was my turn with the baby. Normally, I would have gotten up, felt a little anxious, taken a couple Xanax, then sat down in front of the TV and held Tristan.
But this time I didn’t.
In fact, I stood in the kitchen for some time. The only light in the house was coming from the TV in the next room. In my right arm was my baby boy, sleeping soundly. In my left was a bottle of Xanax. My eyes drifted between the two. Tristan was swaddled in a blanket with a print of bears dressed as doctors. It was the same blanket we took him home from the hospital in. His face was all I could see. It was soft and sweet and peaceful. I looked at the bottle. I read the instructions—“Take one pill as needed for sleep”—and realized that I’d probably need to take two or three.
I shook the bottle, and realized that it was almost empty.
I thought about my life, my fears, and my anxiety. I thought about how I needed to be there for my son.
And I put the bottle down.
I held Tristan in both arms. I thought about how raising him was bigger than myself. It was bigger than my anxiety disorder. This was a life that was dependent on me, and I needed to be there. I had a duty to raise my son. To get up in the night with him. To be there through thick and thin.
I whispered to myself, “I will not let this control my life anymore. I can’t. I’ve come too far. I have to be there for Tristan.”
I said it a few times. Once I stopped saying it out loud, I said it in my head. I went and sat on the sofa and, every time I felt a little anxious, I said it again and again. I felt stronger saying it. I felt empowered.
For the first time since Tristan was born, I made it through the night free of anxiety and Xanax.
I still had anxiety attacks after that night, but, if I thought about my obligations as a father, I was able to put my mind in order.
To gain control.
This was something I couldn’t do before.
It’s been four years now since I had my last panic attack. I only take one pill a day for depression and anxiety. This is almost nothing compared to the handful of pills I took after I was first diagnosed.
I get up in the night with my kids almost every night (we have a boy and a girl now). Although I complain about being tired the next morning, I often think back on the way my six-year-old son tightly grips my arm as I lie in bed with him after a nightmare and smile. And often I think about my four-year-old daughter curled up in a ball at 2 am, half awake and half asleep, crying and shivering, and how satisfied I feel after seeing her stretch out beneath the warm quilt I laid over her. In those moments, I feel needed. I feel valued. I feel like a father.
There is no more fear in the night.
It’s been replaced with compassion for my children.
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