She was only 16, but she was convinced she was having a heart attack.
Although I assured her she was a healthy young woman and it was highly unlikely she had heart problems, she was terrified something was seriously wrong. From her repeated visits to online medical sites, a practice we had teased her about for years, she recognized all her symptoms: heart palpitations, shortness of breath, chest pain and a sense of choking. She walked around with her hand on her chest, trying to rub away her increasing discomfort. Over the course of several weeks, the pediatrician and cardiologist confirmed her heart was indeed healthy and suggested perhaps we might consider other causes for her symptoms. I gently told her it was time to see a psychiatrist to talk about her anxiety.
While her symptoms did not reach crisis level until shortly before her junior year in high school, we always knew Brooke was a “worrier.” We had been through any number of incidences where her fears and worries interfered with her doing things she loved to do. She perseverated about her health, with every twinge of discomfort morphing into a potential brain tumor and a visit to the doctor. Every field trip or church camp required weeks of pep talks prior to leaving, although she would ultimately go and have a wonderful time. Each new school year presented additional worries about new teachers and friends. Brooke required an enormous amount of reassurance and verbal processing. And the reminder, over and over again, that she was a brave soldier.
No one outside of our inner circle ever suspected her struggles. While we knew how much she worried, she appeared to the world to be fearless. She played sports, auditioned for and performed lead roles in numerous plays, had many friends and did well academically. A natural leader, she appeared comfortable in every social situation. She was the life of every party, with a hilarious sense of humor. She was one of the popular kids; beautiful, poised and sure of herself…at least on the outside. This was not a kid who seemed on the surface to be having any troubles navigating the perils of adolescence. This was not a kid who the guidance counselors would have flagged for intervention.
Brooke began having panic attacks the summer her older sister was preparing to leave for college. I remember a night when she woke me up because she was struggling. I took her back to her room and tried to reassure her she was safe, yet even I wasn’t convinced. The look of sheer terror in her eyes chilled me to the bone and I was afraid I was losing her to the demon who was whispering in her ear. In that moment, as anyone who has ever had a panic attack can tell you, she was absolutely certain she was dying. I prayed out loud and held her until it passed. I told her emphatically we would do whatever it took to make these panic attacks stop.
And we did.
After an evaluation by the amazing psychiatrist who became our companion on this journey, the decision was made to put her on medication to help her get the panic attacks under control and make the anxiety more manageable. The first medication we tried made things worse. She sank into a deep depression and struggled with simple tasks she had been managing with no problem before. For months, it felt like we were going backwards, instead of forward. Because each medicine takes time to get to a therapeutic dose, the process of trying each medication would take weeks. A week at this dose, followed by a week at the next dose, wondering if we were seeing any progress, our hearts sinking as we realized things were getting worse instead of better. Once the decision was made to switch to a different medication, the slow painstaking process would begin again. Weaning off the old medication, gradually introducing the new. Watching, waiting, hoping.
While we began the medication trial and error, we also began the search for a therapist to help Brooke learn the new skills necessary to manage her anxiety. Again, we tried one for several months before deciding she wasn’t a good match. Looking back, I think the eventual success of finding the clinical social worker who she ultimately found helpful probably had more to do with the fact she was finally on the right medicine by the time we found her. While it is not true for everyone, in Brooke’s case, she was not able to truly benefit from the process of therapy until she was stabilized on the correct medication. Thank God, her psychiatrist was a gift straight from heaven and was a tremendous partner in Brooke’s journey back to health. Throughout the process, she continually promised Brooke she would be healthy enough to go to college when the time came.
Brooke is now indeed a healthy, happy college sophomore. She is continuing to learn about the ways in which her brain works best and is still followed by a doctor. She is confident of her ability to manage her health and knows what to do when she hits a rough patch. She knows how to ask for help and still surrounds herself with people who will tell her she is a brave soldier on the harder days. She knows her anxiety disorder and ADHD diagnoses are only a part of who she is, but she also knows they are a part of her life she must intentionally manage on a daily basis.
Brooke’s junior year in high school was a nightmare in many ways. Seeing your child suffer and not being able to fix it is excruciating. During the depression stage of her journey, we were constantly checking with her to make sure she was safe. Too many teens in our community had succumbed to a singular moment of seemingly unbearable pain and ended their lives. For a time, it was my constant fear and we watched her closely for any sign she might be in danger. I was constantly torn by when to let her withdraw and recharge and when to push her to try harder to live a “normal” life. I struggled to find a balance between hovering over her and constantly taking her emotional temperature and giving her some space and treating her like a normal, ornery teenager. I reminded her again and again that God was right smack in the middle of this with us. Every day was an occasion for prayer. Every day a reason for gratitude. We believed in the process and we believed in Brooke. With our help, with God’s help, she fought her way back. She is my hero.
Earlier this week, Brooke beautifully shared her story in an online article for her college’s Odyssesy magazine. She is twice the writer I am and I encourage you to read her brave account, if you have not done so already. When I told her how proud I was of her willingness to encourage others by sharing her story, I asked her if she would be comfortable with me doing the same from a parent’s perspective. As I knew she would, she wholeheartedly agreed.
Like her, I want other families to know they are not alone. With the right help, people get better, the process works. Mental illness is not something about which any of us should be ashamed. Parents, we have to stick together and love each other through these hard spaces. Please let me know if there is some way I can encourage you or be praying for you and your family.