The Strongest Woman

3 comments | November 14th, 2012

(by Theresa)

Someone whose opinion I respect a great deal recently told me I am the strongest woman she knows.

I wanted to tell her she was wrong. How could I be the strongest woman she knows? My mother was the strongest woman I have known, and she to my knowledge never had a panic attack. In fact, I don’t think anyone in my immediate family has.

I can remember the first time I had a panic attack. I was at a band rehearsal after school, struggling with one specific measure in the music. I was also in college credit courses and working at Wendy’s, so I had a lot on my mind. When it came time for me to play the measure, I flubbed it badly and got a lot of what I perceived as negative attention. I ended up in tears, hyperventilating, and shaking so bad the section leader told me it was ok to go home. I felt like a failure and that added to my panic.

How could I be considered strong? My mother never to my knowledge battled depression. My brothers seemed impervious to those demons. Sure my biological father lost his battle with depression, but knowing this only made me feel like I had some inherent flaw.

My descent into clinical depression was a slow one. A boss who gave me tasks almost guaranteed to fail. Units who “fired” me as their project lead. A job where a whole lot of nothing happened most of the time. And then the proverbial straw- an injury that left me in pain sitting or standing. It hurt to move. Each diagnosis was something else and the pain continued. Suddenly I lost interest in everything. I could not focus. In a meeting the day everything fell apart, I spent the whole meeting fighting tears and repeating to myself, pay attention, pay attention. I felt like a failure. A disappointment to a family rich in the tradition of military service.

How could I be strong, when my mother, nor anyone else in my family had anxiety attacks?

I never much liked riding or driving in cars, but when I was made Safety Officer for over 2K people, and began getting daily emails from the main safety office of all the ways one can get hurt or die in a car, I became a very nervous driver and passenger. Additionally, being safety officer made me hyper aware of all the dangers that surround us in our every day lives. Suddenly I experienced flares of anxiety doing things that had never caused me trouble before. On bicycle rides. Cooking. Doing my job as a number cruncher. Working out.

I didn’t at that point have experience with physical aspects of anxiety attacks. As I approached the end of my Air Force days, I started having chest pains. They were dull, in the wrong place for a heart attack, but scary nonetheless. I walked into sick call and got an EKG immediately. The doctor found nothing wrong, and when I explained that I was leaving the Air Force, moving to New York City, and getting married, she diagnosed the anxiety attack and scoffed. Wait til you have children! I felt like my anxiety was being dismissed as nothing. I was clearly weak. What followed was four months of mostly fog. I remember little from the first three months we lived in NY.

How could I be strong? I don’t remember even in the hardest of times, my mother or family showing signs of any distress.

But here I am regularly having to talk myself to a calm state. My heart drops into my stomach, pausing before it races back up. My breathing speeds up, my stomach twists into knots, my teeth grind and my shoulders tense. In the subway, even with a vise like grip on my toddler, I feel anxiety pulsing through. What if he slipped out of my hold? What if he fell into the tracks? In our neighborhood I see so many people and cars not following the traffic lights and even came within thirty seconds of getting struck by someone running a light.

So many what ifs pass through my mind that if I stopped to listen to each what if, I would be paralyzed. And that is just the danger related anxiety. I am constantly worried about bothering people with my double stroller (in line style). The judgmental stares if my infant is crying, nevermind he is teething and we out for a walk to sooth him. Some days I barely feel up to going out at all.

How could anyone think me strong?

Perhaps because I do go out on those days the inertia is pulling at me to stay home.

Perhaps because I manage to be relatively free range as a parent even though the world seems so randomly malicious. I let my three year old walk on the sidewalk up to the corner without holding my hand. He climbs the highest ladders at the playground.

Maybe because I made New York City my home. I had never lived anywhere with more than 300k people. My mother would regularly say she didn’t think she could be brave enough to learn the subway system or ride the buses. She would call as I walked home from work and get nervous that I was walking alone. She couldn’t imagine feeling safe with a full sidewalk of people walking with you.

Maybe because I adapted to my husband’s culture even if the religious aspects are of no importance to me personally. Maybe because I make sure my sons are exposed to that religion and culture even though it does not speak to me.

Maybe because I am married to someone on the spectrum, and while there are many wonderful aspects of loving someone with Aspergers, I have supported him through his own times of crisis, just as he has supported me through mine. I provide a safe and comfortable home for him to help keep him steady. I recognize when he needs time to decompress and trade or take over evening chores with the kids.

Maybe because I became a stay at home mom when I was fired. It was not my first choice, but I have changed, have come to love this job, and can’t imagine wanting to do anything else anymore.

Maybe because I am one of those women who women who experience depression during pregnancy. Maybe because my recent pregnancy included nausea, vertigo, and the loss of my father. I am an antepartum and postpartum depression warrior.

Maybe because I had to spend the last three years watching ALS rob me of my hero and mentor – my mom.

Maybe because my second son was born as hospice eased my mother’s last days states away. That she was gone the day we got home.

Maybe be because I am active in support networks reaching out to people struggling with mental health challenges.

Maybe I am stronger than I thought. {end story}



  • Theresa

    Posted on November 14, 2012

    Strength is measured in different ways. Thank you for sharing my thoughts.

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  • Lisa Danson

    Posted on November 14, 2012

    I think most of us are stronger than we think and it isn’t until we are confronted by situations that demand we be strong that we find out.

    To the writer, you are most certainly strong and have helped me remember I am too.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted on November 14, 2012

    I’m only 17 so what do I know but sometimes I think the strongest people are the ones who can admit when they are weak and need help.

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