How to Have a Panic Attack When You're a Mom

The day I had my first panic attack wasn't particularly special or different. My almost 4-year-old daughter was being difficult. She didn't want to wear the boots she had decided to wear after changing her mind 50 times. She didn't want to do this . . . didn't want to do that. It's how life gets sometimes when you're living with a preschooler. It's how life gets when your preschooler is reeling from the chaos and change of a divorce. My ex and I are in the process and nearing the end. She is split between two homes — 60 percent of the time she's with me, and 40 percent of the time she's with my ex. So little things like socks, underwear, and how high her ponytail is could be fodder for a major meltdown, because she's 3 or perhaps because she can't control her life environment.

After the difficult morning, I dropped her at Dad's while I went to work. I didn't feel any worse or any better than I did during any other tough morning. I ate my breakfast in the car (I have a decent commute), and as the minutes passed, I grew warmer and warmer and warmer, which is strange, because I'm always cold. I felt as if it were 90 degrees outside and not 20. I turned off the heat and unzipped my coat, and when that didn't help, I rolled down all the windows. And then, I felt "weird."

I felt faint or bizarre, as if something was about to give. I started to shake, mostly in my hands, as my heart started to pound out of control. I got weak and sweaty and saw dots in front of my eyes. All of this was happening as I was driving along at 70 miles per hour up the highway to work. Realizing I might pass out as I did a few months prior to this or have a heart attack, I pulled over to the shoulder and called 911. My heart beat in my ears, my arms and hands felt weak, and I was scared as hell. What was going on with me?

After the state police and ambulance arrived and did all the required testing, the paramedic gave me the news: "Your blood pressure is perfect. Your EKG is fine. I believe you had a panic attack. Are you stressed or dealing with any life changes?"

Who, me? Stressed? Not me!

I'm supposed to be SuperDivorcedMom! I'm positive. I am nice to my ex-husband and rarely ever lose my cool with him. We are the model divorce. Our mediator was shocked at how awesome we were together. Each day, I smile at strangers, and if I'm sad or angry, I run, write, read, or sometimes cry, but I'm not out partying, sleeping around, or generally self-destructing. I've got this! Everyone thinks I'm just dandy. It's as if me going through a divorce is no big deal. Just business as usual.

Of course I am stressed.

The night before, I read a note from one of my daughter's teachers. It's a list of issues she's been having the past month after the holidays, and it's something the teacher presented to our daughter's play therapist. Oh yeah, she has a therapist. The list notes all of the things my daughter is doing wrong, and as I go through the list, my heart breaks with each bullet point, even though I knew some of the information already. It was like that bullet-point list wasn't about my daughter but about me.

My parenting. Our parenting. Our divorce, ruining her.

1. Often ignores ground rules. Doesn't listen to adult requests.

Fail, fail, fail, Laura. You're failing as a mom.

2. Is angry and irritable.

How could you do this to her? You don't deserve to be a mother.

Paramedic, your electrocardiogram may not pick up on this, but I have failed as a mom. My heart is broken completely. I may be the cheeriest freaking chipmunk you might cross today at the store, Starbucks, or gas station, but I am heartbroken.

The daughter I had — the happy and easygoing child who followed rules and wasn't angry or irritable — is someone new (hopefully just temporarily). I, once married Laura, is slightly someone new. I am juggling work, single-mom life, the rough-paved road to financial independence, and the world of coparenting, which all at once is a big pill to swallow.

Nope, I'm not stressed!

When people ask how I am, I say fine. I mean, look: I eat, shower, work, exercise, and see friends. I pay taxes. I am a functioning citizen of the world! But some days when people ask, I don't want to answer.

Instead of me answering their questions, I want them to tell me something. I want them to say that it will not just be fine; I want them to say that she, my daughter, is guaranteed to be fine. That this bullet-point list of my daughter's angry behaviors will be gone. That I will somehow make it all better like moms are supposed to do. But there are no guarantees in life. All I can do is hope, make good choices, and put one foot in front of the other.

I'm a big girl now. I'm not allowed to have a bad day or a few bad days. And that's why my very first panic attack happened when it did. My daughter was out of sight. I wasn't at work. My ex-husband wasn't on the other end of a phone line or text. I was just by myself when I could finally let the beast called anxiety out that had so long been waiting to unfurl itself from my severely stressed body. As I went to work that day, my mind and body began to "face" these struggles: that bullet-point list of bad behaviors, my financial fears, and my deep insecurity that maybe I am not good enough.

At least I thought that like a good mom, I let it happen when she couldn't see.

Until it happened the next day in the car when she was with me, and what did I do? This somewhat defeated mother handled it like a good mom. I rolled down the windows to get air, sang Disney songs, prayed my shaking body would stop, and told her we might have to "pull over to see some flowers." I breathed deep breaths, and she seemed none the wiser while I sang Ariel.

I write about many things. Divorce. Sex. Women's issues. Motherhood. Eating disorders. But for me, telling people I now have panic attacks from time to time feels humiliating, defeating, and embarrassing. Why can't I control my body the way others can control theirs? Why does a perfectly good morning erupt into body shakes, heart palpitations, and hot flashes? I'm not sure why this is the way my body is responding, but I know that these attacks won't hold me back or keep me locked in my house. I left an unhappy marriage to be free and not to remain a prisoner to anything, especially anxiety. As long as I put on a happy face and take care of myself, hopefully one day my daughter and I will both be just fine and that bullet-point list and broken heart will be long gone.