I remember walking into my youngest sister’s 18th birthday party, a gift in one hand and my baby in a car seat with the other. He was almost four months old. It was evening and that familiar feeling had begun to creep back in—a feeling that the walls would cave in at any moment; I needed to know where the closest bathroom was in case I threw up.
I didn’t know at the time that I’d been having nightly panic attacks for a month; I thought, honestly, I might just be pregnant again, though I hadn’t told a soul.
I told my mom that night.
“I feel nauseated every night when the sun goes down.”
I can’t remember what she said to me, not because it wasn’t helpful or empathetic (I’m sure it was) but because I had already gone back into my own head space, trying to get my heart to stop pounding.
We sang “Happy Birthday” and ate cake. We passed my baby around and showed everyone how he smiled when we sang, “The Wheels on the Bus.” I was appearing functional on the outside but I was a teetering Jenga tower on the inside.
Soon after the party, I made an appointment with my primary doctor.
“Maybe we should test you for reflux.” He suggested.
“It doesn’t feel like reflux. It feels like I’ve been called into the principal’s office—THAT kind of nausea.”
“OK,” he said. “Maybe you’re just tired. You do have a new baby.”
I went home, defeated, and the undiagnosed panic attacks got worse over the coming months. I spent most nights lying on the bathroom floor with my head on the cold tiles. I would “hear” my baby crying at 3am but go into his room to find him sleeping peacefully.
I finally called my OB-GYN, and he put the pieces together right away. He prescribed anti-anxiety medication and checked in on me over the coming months. He suggested I go see a counselor, and I did. It took several months before I started to feel in control again.
Looking back now, I sometimes feel a little embarrassed that I didn’t see what was going on, that I spent months thinking it was something truly gut-related and not seeing that it was anxiety. But the thing is, it’s hard to see the big picture when you’re living in a tiny, black world.
Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues can look different for every single person. They are real and they are not “just” because you’re tired or “just” because you’re hormonal.
Even though four and a half years later, I still have infrequent panic attacks, the difference is that now I have tools. I know my world isn’t going to collapse and I’ll survive it.
You are important and worth figuring this out. It probably won’t change over night, but things can get better. The hardest part can be picking up the phone to schedule that appointment. You can have a friend or a spouse do that part for you if it feels too overwhelming.
I’m grateful to be able to share my story, and I pray that it encourages you if you are at a similar place.