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My kids don’t notice my panic attacks, but that is going to change one day

We’re at the park when it happens this time. I’m watching my 3-year-old twin boys scamper happily up and down the play structure as I stand nearby, hovering as always. One of them missteps, and I reach out to steady him so he doesn’t slip off the wooden ladder. The bobble barely slows him down, but it’s enough to send me spiraling.

My thoughts spin out into a thousand what-if scenarios. I envision him with a broken limb, a permanent disability, even dead… all from a slip on the playground. My chest constricts, my head spins, my tongue feels three times its actual size and breathing seems impossible. I’m having a panic attack in front of my kids, and I desperately hope they don’t notice.

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Panic attacks are nothing new to me. They started in college right around the time that I realized that adulthood and real responsibility were imminent and have been a part of my life ever since. Sometimes they strike several times a day; other times I can go for months at a stretch before experiencing the feeling out of nowhere that I’m about to die. Thanks to the help of a great therapist and a lot of aftercare work on myself that will continue until the day I die, I got so good at coping with my anxiety that it wasn’t something I thought a lot about… until I had kids.

Like any typical preschooler, my boys are sponges for the world around them. Drive them past a park once, and they’ll remember its existence next time you turn that direction in town. Let them overhear the word “Grandma,” and they’ll grab their shoes and jackets and have a sit-in by the front door until I give in and grab my keys. I’m proud and amazed by how perceptive they are, except when it comes to my anxiety.

I’m not ashamed of my condition. After all, I’m one of 40 million Americans who suffers from some form of an anxiety disorder. But I don’t want my panic attacks — which are just one small part of who I am — to define how my kids view me as a parent. I want them to remember that I let them jump in puddles, that we baked together every Tuesday, that I always let them snuggle in my bed when they wanted to. I don’t want them to look back on their childhood and remember me being afraid, nor do I want the fact that I have trouble handling certain situations hold them back from squeezing every drop of awesome out of their lives — but I’m realizing I might not have a choice in the matter.

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As young as they are, they’re already picking up on my triggers and realizing when I might have a hard time with things. We’re planning a trip to a theme park soon and to get them excited my husband showed them videos of a dinosaur ride we plan to take them on. “That’s too scary for Mommy,” one of my boys said while watching. “She’s going to need to take a minute.”

“Don’t worry Mommy,” his brother said, “I’ll hold your hand.” I didn’t say anything about the ride and I wasn’t even looking at the screen while they watched the video; I was across the room. But they’re sympathetic enough to think about how I’ll feel in a given situation and at the tender age of 3 are trying to protect me (they also happen to be correct, I’ve been on that ride before and spent the entire time with my eyes squeezed shut and my ears covered, singing to drown out the sounds of the T-Rex chasing the ride vehicle).

As sweet as the sentiment is that they’re worried about me, I hate the thought that what should be an exciting day for them is being tainted by their concern for my well-being. They’re too young to be shouldering my burdens as their own, but I can’t hide my disorder from them. There’s no way to stop doing the deep breathing techniques or focusing exercises I need to do when a panic attack strikes, unless I want to make the problem even worse.

Sometimes I’ll ground myself during an attack by placing my hands on a cool, flat surface and trying to focus my attention on the sensation in order to calm down. Other times I use a spotting technique, where I try to locate five things I can see, four I can touch, three I can hear, two I can smell and one thing I can taste. During particularly bad episodes I’ll say these things aloud, and now whenever I go still for a moment the boys will start pointing out things on the shelves to me or try to put my hands on the floor, even if I paused just because my old lady brain can’t remember what I came into the room for and not because I’m having a panic attack.

Doing these exercises helps manage my condition and allows me to be the best parent I can be for them, but I don’t want them to grow up thinking they have a responsibility to help me cope. I want to serve as an example, to show them that if they ever have anxiety there are things they can do to help themselves.

Instead I feel like I’m showing them that I need them to look out for me, which is not what I want. As the parent, it’s my duty to take care of them, not the other way around. I’ve tried to tell them they don’t have to worry about me, but doing that only seems to earn me more hugs and looks of concern from the tiny faces I love most in the world.

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Back on the playground, the kids notice that my focus isn’t wholly on them and their tandem slide technique. I’m busted.

“Does your chest feel tight, Mommy?” I manage a smile but don’t respond, because even if I could I’m not sure what to say.

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