My First Panic Attack: Tales of Infertility and Adoption
Panic attacks are like migraines. Until you have one, you cannot possibly understand what they feel like. If you find it possible to carry on about your day with a migraine, then you might just have a bad headache. Equally, if you are able to name what is triggering you in the midst of the attack, you are probably experiencing anxiety.
Anxiety vs. Panic Attack
The basic difference between anxiety and a panic attack is that anxiety is a reaction to stress, whereas a panic attack is being in the throws of terror. Your fight, flight or freeze goes into overdrive. You cannot breathe, you cannot think clearly, you feel like you might die.
The trigger that is causing the panic attack is no longer relevant. Your body is simply trying to survive. I was 33 when I experienced my first panic attack.
My husband and I lost our first son, Charlie.
Becoming a Mom
I’ve never been pregnant. If you are a woman who wants children, you can imagine how devastating it is not to be able to have them biologically. A woman who is struggling to conceive feels a multitude of things.
- Not a “real” woman
These are only a few of the many emotions that we feel. Trying to conceive a child becomes all consuming. It is not fun (many tried to tell me to have fun trying). I will save my journey with infertility for another time. I mention it briefly now because it is through our 8 years of struggling to conceive a child that ultimately lead us to adoption.
And that’s how we came to be with Charlie.
Charlie was born on February 12, 2008. He was a beautiful baby. Dark hair, chubby cheeks. We named him after my grandfather. His birth mom was a 20-year old college student who wasn’t ready to mother a child.
We picked up Charlie from a hospital on February 14th. What a better Valentines day than the ultimate act of love. A mom letting go of her child to give another woman the opportunity to be one. It was a beautiful winter day. As we drove home I felt myself exhale.
Finally. I’m a mom.
In the two days that followed friends and family came to visit and share in our joy. Everything was finally how it should be.
Losing a Child
On February 16th I went into the kitchen to get a bottle ready. I was talking to my husband about random, inconsequential things when the phone rang.
It was our social worker. Her words are etched in my memory forever.
These are the phone calls I hate to make
I dropped the phone, fell to the ground and started to sob.
My husband had to pick up the phone from the cold, kitchen floor and learned the excruciating news that the birth mom changed her mind. The social worker was coming to the house the next day to take my son away.
I was inconsolable. We called my husband’s mom and dad to come stay overnight with Charlie because I could not bear to be around when the social worker came to get him. My husband and I went to a hotel.
And that is where I had my first panic attack.
It was the middle of the night. I shot out of bed, unable to breathe. I was hyperventilating. My heart was beating so fast that I thought it might jump right out of my chest. When I looked around, all I could comprehend was horror, but I didn’t have a understanding of why.
It took a good amount of time for my my husband to get me to a place of controlled breathing. At that point, I realized why I had a panic attack and I started to sob. I simply laid back down in bed, my back toward my husband and cried myself to sleep.
The next morning, I went to my friend’s house while my husband went home. He wanted to be there to say his last good-byes.
My husband’s mom arranged a gathering of close family members and invited us to her house, which is where we went when my husband picked me up from my friend’s house.
I felt like everyone was staring at me. People tried to talk to me, but I just couldn’t engage. I was so numb to the experience.
I had just lost a child.
I spent the next month walking around in a fog. I felt depressed, hopeless. My anxiety was a constant companion, telling me that things were never going to be okay and that my life will never look the way that I want it to.
The thing about losing an adopted child is that many don’t recognize it as your child. Other than our close friends and family, I would hear comments such as well, at least he’s alive, or you have to think of it as glorified babysitting (this one came from our social worker).
But he was mine. Why didn’t every single person see that Charlie was my son?
I didn’t feel permitted to grieve in the same way that those who lose a biological child do. And this made me angry.
The thing about infertility is that people don’t really understand what it feels like to live with it. Even those who went through it but were eventually able to birth a child cannot understand.
There is a difference between going through infertility and living with infertility.
- I don’t ever get to see what mine and my husband’s genes could produce.
- I don’t ever get to feel a baby growing in my belly
- I don’t get to do the one thing that women should be able to do, which is to reproduce.
This is not in any way to lessen the experience of those who have passed through infertility; there is heartache and lost hope with that too. I am also not trying to feel sorry for myself. Infertility has just been a chapter in my life. It forced me to look deeper into who I am.
I Wonder if He Knows
Losing Charlie was the most emotionally gut-wrenching event that I have experienced to date. He is 11 years old now; probably not more than 30 minutes from where I type this.
- He may never know that I exist.
- He may never know that I silently wish him a happy birthday every February 12th.
- He may never know that he will always be a part of my heart.
But I do.
I am not grateful for having gone through infertility, but I am grateful that not being able to conceive my own child ultimately gave me the greatest gift. Six months after we lost Charlie, we were placed with Jacob.
Charlie gave me the first glimpse into being a parent. Jacob has given me the opportunity to be a mom.
Sunshine Everyday Makes a Desert
Sometimes the most horrific, horrible events in our lives are there to help us recognize the good ones. I could have curled up into a ball and stopped trying. That’s what my anxiety wanted. Anxiety kept telling me that I was not strong enough. Just accept that you will not find happiness, it said.
I didn’t want to accept that I was worthless. There must be something more to me than my ability to carry a child. I decided to lean into this feeling. I dissected it. I wrote about it.
It wasn’t easy, facing my fears and moving forward. The things that are worth having rarely are. For me, it was worth the effort it took me to look my fears in the eye.
Because I looked deeper into my anxiety surrounding parenthood, I was able to figure out that I didn’t think I was worth anything if I was not a mother.
I challenged that thought and decided to stop defining myself by what I do not have control over, and start taking control of my life.
I went back to school to get my masters degree in Counseling. I now have the tools to help other people struggling with their own skewed perceptions.
Know Your Triggers
Anxiety hits all of us in different ways. We tend to have multiple triggers. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of all of your triggers. Then go back and figure out what fear is behind that trigger. This will help you to re-frame and face anxious thoughts with authority instead of submission.
If you are struggling with anxiety, I encourage you to take a look at my resource page. There you will find many tools to help.