I had my first full blown panic attack on my wedding day. Well, to be more accurate, it began at the exact moment that I was to walk down the aisle and meet my betrothed at the other end.
All of a sudden I was completely alone. After having people fussing around me all day long, everyone assumed their positions and I was left to cross the daunting aisle all by myself. To this day, my mother and I wonder why we did not think to have her escort me down the aisle. My father, who would have been the traditional choice, was not in our lives and, frankly, my wedding was planned at a bit of an accelerated pace. We just never really discussed that aspect of my wedding. It was a blind spot.
The expeditiously arranged event was not due to a bun in the oven or any other sort of potentially scandalous plight. It was just love, plain and simple. A 6 month whirlwind romance that had two 25 year olds longing to start their lives together. That, and the fact that my sister had an enormously grand affair planned for her own wedding three months later that we did not want to encroach upon, had us moving at a rapid organizational pace.
I didn’t care about many of the details of planning my wedding, unlike most brides. I just wanted to be married. I had met a man who made me feel safe in the world and who lived his life with uncommon morality. Characteristics that I was longing for in my own life.
We had approximately zero dollars and zero cents allotted to throw a wedding. My father had left our family essentially bankrupt and as much as my mother wished she could contribute financially, she had been burdened in all aspects of her own life as a result of my father’s actions. After designing and building the home my sister and I grew up in, she had to sell her precious abode at a huge loss, find her first paying job in 20+ years and move into a rental property.
My wedding dress was second hand; “vintage,” if you will. One of my mom’s church friends sewed the alterations and created the veil. She even took some of the lace from the dress and appliquéd it to my shoes. Payless brand, dyed pumps, if I remember correctly.
None of that really mattered to me. I wanted to be as far away from the chaos of the life that I had come to intimately live over the previous years and start a new one. No more Jane O’Flaherty. I was to be Jane McDaniel from this day forward. New name, new life. If I could only get across the chasm of red carpet between my future hubby and me.
Standing alone in the narthex of the church, my heart began to feel as if it was going to jump out of my chest. The pounding was almost unbearable. My ears tingled and my eyesight grew blurry. The congregants stood and all eyes were on me. I tried to remember what we practiced at rehearsal: Step. Together. Step. Together. Except, instead of “Step. Right foot forward. Together. Step. Left foot forward. Together. Step. Right foot forward, etc.,” I could only move one leg: “Right foot forward. Together. Right foot forward. Together” and on and on down the aisle. I was the most ungraceful, lurching bride ever to traverse a wedding aisle. My sister and I can reenact this ridiculous walk until tears of laughter stream down our faces.
By the time I made it to greet my wedding party, I could barely remain standing. Using the sister-eye-contact-that-needs-no-words for communication, I summoned her to my side. She and my future husband put one arm under each side of me to keep me standing upright during the ceremony. With their literal and figurative support, I made it through. I said, “I DO.”
I never talked much about that first panic attack. It was easily negated in my mind by stories of traditional ‘wedding nerves’ and the frequency of brides and groomsmen fainting on their big days. Nothing to worry about.
But what I didn’t know then was that there was so much more to come. More pain and suffering, more panic and fear. And most often in silence and alone. Because, you see, we can not just leave one life behind and instantaneously become something else. One way or another the issues and pain we wish to suppress will rear their ugly heads.
There were long stretches at a time where I thought I had “it” handled. I was intermittently consumed with child bearing or child rearing or traveling or house hunting or volunteerism or mom’s clubbing or buncoing or partying or helping other people with their own problems to stop and pay attention to my own internal struggle. But when I did have quiet moments, the panic could set in. Not always but enough to say, frequently.
My husband would leave to go on a business trip or a weekend away and I felt scared, alone and incapable of handling all of my responsibilities. Frozen in fear, consumed in panic. And completely alone. Surrounded by friends and family, but alone. No one knew. I couldn’t let anyone know. I would be judged and rejected. And worse yet, I would have to face the reality of my own mental health struggles.
Believe me when I say, this went on for years and years and years. Not even those closest to me knew the depth of the struggle that I faced. I strived to be the embodiment of the perfect wife and mother. And I in fact loved being a wife and mother, much more so than I could have ever imagined. I tried everything I could to not allow my own personal issues effect my children. They were and are the best thing I have ever done with my life. I tried to give them the best parts of me and keep the darkness to myself. I also knew that I would do everything within my power to keep them from experiencing the scary stuff that I went through as a child and young adult.
I was living those days with anxiety, depression and PTSD and I leaned heavily on my husband for support. His presence was like a safety net and a buffer between me and the outside world. He was my safe person. In his absence I felt like I couldn’t stand on my own two feet. When he wasn’t there, I had lost my crutch and I wasn’t strong enough to bear this burden, whatever it was at the time, alone. Come to find out this is very common among people with trauma. Finding a safe person and limiting social activities to those in which the safe person can participate.
Lots of therapy was needed in order for me to understand my diagnosis of trauma, PTSD and the resulting anxiety and depression. Once I allowed myself to open up to my therapist, the pieces of this mind-puzzle all started to make sense. Instead of feeling like a freak show living inside a normal looking person, I began to understand and accept myself. Gradually, I was able to build my own reservoir of self-sufficency through practicing mindfulness, meditation and self-compassion.
My husband left this morning for a long business trip and I was able to say goodbye without any of the old fear and anxiety creeping up. My two feet felt solidly planted on the ground. I feel strong and capable. And I feel proud of myself for navigating a very difficult course.
If you suffer from anxiety, depression, trauma or PTSD like I DO, or know someone who is struggling with these issues, I hope the articles below will help you learn more about these issues and how mindfulness, meditation & self compassion can soothe the symptoms.