Bedtime is always interesting with three kids. Despite the best intentions of having everyone in bed, teeth brushed, read to and prayed with by 7:30pm, inevitably we’ll wander closer to 8:00pm before the chaos winds down.
One night last week, my middle daughter Leia was having some, um, challenges, with her bedtime routine. Every parent is familiar with the stall and this night, she was pulling out all the stops. She was thirsty, she wanted me to read another book, she had to go to the bathroom (again), there something scary was hiding in her closet. Exasperated, I sternly asked her, “WHAT are you scared of?!?!” Her lips started to quake and rivers of tears nimbly cascaded down her cheeks. Almost instantly, she began sobbing. In between gasps, she howled,
“Dad, I’m scared of everything!”
Her words echoed off the walls like a thunderclap. I held her tightly and stroked her hair, momentarily dumbstruck for something fatherly to say.
I didn’t have anything to say because I can acutely sympathize with her words. Put more succinctly, growing up, I lived out what she verbalized: I was afraid of everything. Not just your typical “afraid of monsters” that plagued most young kids or the “afraid of interacting with girls” as I got older; I was literally afraid of everything. Shots at the doctor’s office, hot stoves, strangers, flying on airplanes, riding roller coasters, the high diving board at the pool, jumping off ledges, being left behind at a store, dying, hell, strangers with candy, horror movies, large dogs, the remote possibility of my parents dying young. Granted, some of these are normal childhood fears, most of them are not. Unfortunately, my fears grew up and matured with me. Monsters, girls, and speaking in front of the class were replaced by phantom brain tumors, elusive physical pain, uncertain job situations, bills, and my perceived shortcomings as a husband and as a father. I did my best to internalize my fears, always seeking to control every outcome, determined that structure, hard work, and sheer willpower would see my through.
These actions and thought processes worked for a short time, until the panic attacks, like uninvited guests, stopped by.
They would start slowly, almost imperceptible at first. A general sense of uneasiness…probably something I ate earlier. Palms start to sweat. Wait, why am I pacing? My breathing increases rapidly and I began to cough nervously. The sense of uneasiness is gone, replaced by terror. WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING? Why is my left arm throbbing? Oh shit, that’s a symptom of a heart attack, isn’t it?!?! Dizzy, I try to drink a glass of water, but my right hand is shaking so violently that I end up splashing most of it on my face and shirt. Amber, I think we have to go to the hospital, we should probably find someone to watch the kids while we’re at the hospital wehavetogotothehospitalwehavetogotothehospital WEHAVETOGOTOTHEDAMNHOSPITALRIGHTNOW!
After roughly twenty minutes of this, Amber is able to calm me down. I’m not dying, but I’m scared. This scenario would repeat itself with different health issues (cancer, heart attack, blood clot, appendicitis, take your pick from WebMD) six to eight times a month.
I felt hamstrung by my fears, struggled with low self-esteem, and had no confidence in my ability to control my circumstances. This was not living, this was merely doing enough to survive to the next day and avoid the next panic attack at all costs.
Thankfully, I decided to get help and talk with my doctor. Six years ago, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Along with counseling, medication, prayer, and support from family and friends, I’m doing ten times better today than when I was first diagnosed. My panic attacks are now few and far between. When they do drop by unannounced, my first inclination is not to drive 100+ MPH to the nearest ER; rather, I pray, breathe, and have mental exercises work through to calm my mind. I’ll be the first to admit that these steps do not come easy to someone like me. I’m high-strung, prone to worry, and anxious by nature. I’ve learned through counseling that while I can’t change those unpleasant aspects of my personality that I don’t like, I can change my reactions to unpleasant situations. In a given stressful situation, I might be more nervous than the average Joe off the street, but I don’t need to let that nervousness define or control me.
The sum of who you are is not defined by your fears, panic attacks, anxieties, bipolar, depression, or PTSD. You ARE NOT what you may struggle with, suffer from, or overcome.
“Hi, my name is Keith. I live with GAD, but I’m not GAD. I’m Keith.” See the difference?
As Leia’s hot tears stained the front of my t-shirt, my heart broke. I thought about what I’ve gone through on my journey; the fear, insecurities, lack of self-confidence, and the panic attacks. If I could protect her from those things, I would do so in a heartbeat. However, time and experience has taught me we don’t always get the luxury to pick the cards in our hand. That said, we do get to play the hand we’re dealt to the best of our abilities. As I held her, I spoke of the love Amber and I have for her and our promise to protect her and help her to grow in self-confidence as she matures. I encouraged her with the fact that while its okay to be afraid, but we shouldn’t let our fears hold us back from living and experiencing the world around us. Most importantly, I reminded her of the power of faith in our lives and of the love that God has for her.
As our conversation drew to a close, a sense of relief and calm settled over the room. I gently swept the curls from her brown eyes and softly kissed her forehead.
“I love you, baby. I’m proud of you and hope you have a great night’s sleep.”
“I love you too, daddy.”