Can Mindfulness Help My Raging Anxiety When My Kid Gets Sick?
I have my own personal experiences in this area.
It was about 11:30 at night when I heard the strangled cries coming from Chloe's room. She was only 3, but she could still scream like a grown man whose leg had been cut off. So I knew, probably instinctively, that something was horribly wrong.
Already mostly asleep, my grogginess was immediately replaced by that mom-adrenaline: panic. She was sitting up in her bed, and I could tell she couldn't breath. Her large eyes were bulging from her head, veins were sticking out on her fat, red cheeks, and her mouth was drawn back in a silent scream. She looked up at me with tears pouring soundlessly out of her eyes.
My heart was clocking in at 1,000 BPM. I grabbed her and brought her into my room, where my husband was already out of bed, waiting for whatever would walk through our door.
"Get your oil, give her a blessing," I said. I was impressed that my voice wasn't shaking like the rest of my body. As he did, I picked up the phone and called 911. I had never called 911 before. It was almost taboo. "ONLY IN EMERGENCIES!" But I had never in my life experienced the sense of emergency I was having now.
The operator was kind and patient. I told her, "My daughter isn't breathing. She's not choking, but she can't breathe."
She verified my address and said the medics were on their way. Brett began giving her a blessing, as she laid on the bed, her little chest straining for air. Now tears started falling from my eyes. The sweet woman on the other line talked to me. She asked me my daughters name, "Chloe." Chloe. Chloe. Chloe.
Within one minute I could hear the wail of the firetruck. Within seconds of that, they were in our bedroom. They were huge, looming men and women. Four of them, all dressed to the nines in fire gear. They worked fast, one told the other to call and ambulance, then the biggest picked up my baby and carried her outside, knelt down and laid her across his knees. "The cool air can help the inflammation."
Why didn't I think of that?
Tears still streamed from her eyes and she reached out to me, her lips starting to go from swollen red to a pale blue. I held her hand and told Brett to get her blanket. My voice was still calm. He came back. I looked up at his scared face and said, "Call Karen and ask her to come over to the house to stay with the kids. Follow us in the van." My mind worked like a fine honed soldier about to go into the trenches.
The ambulance got there. They told Brett we were going to the Banner Gateway Emergency room as they loaded me and Chloe into the ambulance. And then the ambulance driver said to the biggest fireman, the one who held my baby, "We have no place for mom to ride. She'll have to come separate."
Chloe found her voice then. She screamed and screamed and screamed. The screaming made her chest seize up even more. I was almost afraid for the ambulance driver when the big fireman got up in his face and said, "This mom is coming with her. I don't care what you say. I don't care if I get fired, or if you get fired, I don't care. She's staying with her daughter."
I cried harder but still silently as they strapped me into a makeshift chair and buckled Chloe in. She started crying again because she couldn't see me. I reached over as much as the restraints would allow and started petting her head, as the ambulance jutted to life and began driving quickly out of our sleeping neighborhood.
Then I heard it. Well, I didn't hear it. Her crying had become strangled and quiet again. One of the EMT began quickly filling a syringe with something, while the other pushed an intercom and told the driver to go to the nearest Emergency Room, there wasn't time to get to Banner. The ambulance flipped around, and I just kept talking to her.
In my mind, she was dying. In my heart, she was dying. But my voice told her it was okay. "It's going to be okay, baby girl. It hurts, I know. But it's going to be okay. Mommy's here. Daddy's coming too. Mommy's here." I sang her favorite primary songs while my heart was seizing inside of me.
For five minutes I watched as the EMTS tried one thing after another. The big fireman said, "Her lips are blue," but I could still hear her strangled, forced cries. She's a fighter.
I kept talking to her. Kept praying in my heart. Praying that she would be ok, and that I would stay calm. Just stay calm and love her. Help her be calm. Help her stay calm. Somehow, my head petting and slow, assuring words and singing helped bring her panic down. We pulled into the emergency room. They got us back and immediately and put on an oxygen mask filled with Albuterol. She had petechiae all over her face from suffocation. Baby veins had burst in her eyes from straining for air. But she was calm. She was breathing.
And then I walked out of the room. I left her because if I didn't cry, if I didn't let that small scream inside of me out, I would do it in front of her, and it was upset her, and she'd panic. So I walked out of the room, and there stood my giant fire man, the one who probably saved my babies life. He was crying and shaking. He didn't mean for me to see him, but he looked up, embarrassment flooding his face. And then he said something I will forever be amazed of, and grateful for.
"You were the calmest mom I've ever seen. Ever."
And then I cried. I cried and cried and cried. I gave myself that one minute of anxious pain and fear. Then back into her room I went. She was calmly holding her mask. She looked over at me at smiled a little. The emergency had passed completely.
The next day, she was nearly back to normal. She had had croup and the combination of swollen trachea and the panic of not being able to breathe closed her lungs completely. She was blue before we got to the hospital, almost unresponsive.
Panic and muddy emotions in that moment would not have helped Chloe. "Muddy emotions," says Dr. Orsillo, "are the ones that aren't giving us particularly useful information. They also tend to be pretty intense and distressing."
If I had panicked, would I have had the fore site to call 911? To recognize that my upset would fuel Chloe's fear and panic? Would I have been able to talk and sing calmly to my suffering baby? There was a mindfulness in my calm and actions. I know it was a mindfulness brought by the Spirit, calming me. But wherever you find your mindfulness, know how to get to it, and fast.
Dr. Orsillo says, "Most people define mindfulness as paying attention to the present moment with curiosity and compassion, just allowing the moment to be as it is."
My mind began spiraling out of control for an instant. She can't breathe, she's going to die. She's suffering so much. She's so scared. She hurts. I can't do anything. I'm helpless. My baby is going to die and I can't do anything.
These thoughts are not mindful, not helpful, but they're real. I can, for a few minutes, suppress these emotions and let the mindfulness create a clear path for me. But it's important to eventually acknowledge these emotions, because burying them will only cause them to fester and become stronger and more dominate.
Dr. Orsillo continues, "I think what sometimes happens...partially we think, 'It's really important for me to feel this fear, because what if, what if?' But another part of us feels, 'I wish I could just push this away, I don't want to feel this way.' And those responses to our emotions also make them muddy and intensify them. There's a whole line of research that shows the more you try not to feel something, not to think it, the more you feel it and think it, and the more you're distressed by it."
Dr. Markham* says that we have to acknowledge these emotions. We have to allow them to be. But we don't have to give into them. It's called empathizing. And surprisingly, we need to be empathetic and compassionate even to ourselves.
Dr. Orsillo says we need to "[acknowledge] where your mind is going, bringing some compassion: It's hard to be a mom. It's hard to accept that there are steps we can take to keep our children well and safe, and then, at some point, we have to let go and accept that not every scary future event is preventable. That's hard."
It is so hard, but so much more useful than muddy thoughts and emotions. When I panic, I get confused, frustrated, and even angry. I yell. I scare my kids. This isn't something they need when they're already sick, hurt or afraid. They need a mom who is compassionate with herself. A mom who puts her trust in God, but who also takes all the steps within her power to secure her child's life, happiness or comfort.