I remember the first time I really lost it on my kids.
I’m not talking about getting a bit snappy with them, yelling a little, or having a “mommy meltdown.” I’m talking about full-blown rage. The kind of anger that overtakes you like a tsunami, taking your breath away, and leaving you gasping, sobbing, and absolutely exhausted.
It was, of course, completely undeserved, and although I tried to repair the damage I had done through apologies and gentle hugs, the guilt and shame I felt that day rocked me to my core. I chalked it up to a bad day, but then, it happened again.
Although thankfully not common, these anger outbursts occurred sporadically over the years, and each time, I was left feeling more guilty, more exhausted, and more confused than the time before. I couldn’t understand what was happening. I mean, yes, each time there was some sort of trigger or stressor, but they were always minor—nothing warranting a blowup of that magnitude.
And stranger yet, it always seemed to come out of nowhere. Just like a tsunami, the wave would strike out of the blue and we (myself included) all just had to hold on to whatever we could and wait for it to pass. In those moments, I felt completely out of control.
Jekyll and Hyde.
It was nearly a decade later that I began to gain some insight into these bursts of rage and was able to start to heal things a little bit. I was sitting in my counselor’s office, unpacking my shame around having to put my children through yet another outburst when my counselor gently interrupted me, “Christine, when this happens, you aren’t a monster or a terrible mother. You are having a panic attack.”
I burst into tears.
She went on to explain the correlation between anger, anxiety, and trauma; I found myself relieved, scared, and confused all at once. I knew that I had struggled with anxiety for much of my life, and I considered myself fairly well-versed in mental illness.
I had plenty of friends in the field, had access to lots of resources and mental health professionals, and had even taken psychology courses in college, yet I had been completely oblivious to the fact that bouts of rage could be a symptom of unmanaged anxiety and trauma. In fact, prior to that appointment, I would have told you that although I struggled with anxiety, I was lucky enough to have never experienced a panic attack. I thought that panic attacks were the classic heart-racing, clammy, hyperventilating that you see portrayed in movies and on TV. I had no idea anger could be present.
Realizing that I was not a terrible mother allowed me to let go of some of the shame I had been carrying. But it also empowered me. Through therapy, meditation, and at some points, medication, I have learned the cues my body gives me to let me know I am on edge (turns out there are a lot of signs).
I have learned what is happening in my brain in those moments of panic (fight, flight, freeze) and the steps I can take to try to intercept it. I have learned the importance of decompressing, knowing my limits, and taking space when I need it. I have learned to tune in, even when it is uncomfortable and to communicate with my family when I am struggling. I am now able to offer myself some grace and compassion while also holding myself accountable for managing my anxiety disorder.
If I were to guess, I would bet that anxiety will always be a part of my story. But now, I get to choose how it gets written. And I want my story to be one of vulnerability, healing, and hope. I can’t take back any of the mistakes I made in the past, but if my kids learn anything from me, I want it to be that we are not defined by our mistakes. We are defined by what we choose to do with them.
I want them to know that we may not be able to choose all that afflicts us, but we can choose how we manage it.