Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A "Smooth Transition" from Cancer to Panic Attacks

As we say good-bye to September (Childhood Cancer Awareness Month) and enter into the 25th Anniversary of National Mental Illness Awareness Week (October 4th-10th), I can't think of a better way for me to encourage others than to share about my anxiety disorder and how it took it's toll during my daughter's battle with cancer.

I've always been an anxious person, ever since I was even quite young.  
I was afraid to sleepover at the houses of friends, I was terrified of bugs to the point of turning my clothes inside out before putting them on to make sure no bugs were taking up residence in a pant leg or sleeve, and I was fairly certain that I had contracted every illness that I saw portrayed on TV or in film.  
My poor mom and dad spent many nights with me as I would wake to "see" bugs crawling on my ceiling, or I'd feel my stomach burning and I was afraid that the acid was eating away its lining.

With that all in mind, I'm sure you can imagine how convinced I am of God's sense of humor when He gave ME a child with a rare disease.  Not JUST a disease, but a RARE disease.  

Really, God?  Now THAT'S a good one.  

My daughter's rare disease comes with a 50% chance of developing Wilms Tumor (a malignant solid tumor kidney cancer).  Now the hypochondriac has a child with a statistically significant chance of developing cancer!  

Wow, really are going to show your strength in my weaknesses...because you are hitting me right in the most vulnerable places!

At 15 months old, the tumors showed up.  It was fall of 2005, and we were headed into battle with our infant. 
We had a tremendous amount of support, prayers, and incredible doctors and health care providers to help us through...but that didn't mean that it didn't feel like Hell on Earth.
One weekend, some girlfriends and I took a short retreat to do some Christmas crafting. I was suffering from a cycle of relentless migraines, which wasn't unusual and totally expected at that time in our lives.  I was taking a combination of migraine prescription medications along with OTC medications to try to combat the debilitating pain.

As it happened, we girls went to see the movie Narnia:  The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.  We were seated in the theater and the previews began.  The first preview was for the movie Cars.  
The engines were roaring and tires were screeching.  My heart began to pound in my chest.  I felt my entire body going into a frenzy as the preview grew louder and the theater grew darker.
The opening scene of Narnia included the drone of an air raid siren and the distant rumbling booms of bombs being dropped.  
My chest felt as though it were taking the blows of those felt like it was weighed down by steel.  I couldn't breathe.  I knew something was wrong and I needed help.
I pulled my sister out of the theater and into the hall with me.  I was taking shallow, rapid breaths and telling her that I needed help, I didn't feel safe.  I wanted her to call an ambulance.  She was able, after several attempts, to calm me down and to get me to realize that I was safe; that I was just hyperventilating.  She retrieved my other girlfriends out of the theater and we went back to the hotel we where we were staying for the weekend.  

Once back in the hotel, I got slammed with another migraine and still felt like there were a dozen other things wrong with me.  I called a nurse hot-line through my insurance and spoke to the nurse on-call about my migraines and the medications I was taking and the symptoms I was experiencing.  She was fairly certain that I was dehydrated and experiencing the effects of that. 

"Is there anything else going on in your life right now?"  She asked.
"Well, my 16 month old daughter has cancer..."
Short silence...
"Your daughter has cancer?  Are you seeing anyone about this...a counselor?"
"No, I don't have time to see DAUGHTER has CANCER.  How am I supposed to find time to see someone when I'm still working full-time and also caring for my daughter?"
"You NEED to see someone.  Please, promise me you will call your primary physician on Monday and you will set up an appointment to get your migraines and medications evaluated.  Then, ask her for a referral to a counselor." 
So, I did...I did just that.  Because I couldn't survive...not with all the support, faith, prayers, and help in the world.  I needed counseling and I needed different medications to help my body and my brain process what was happening in our life. 
I am NOT ashamed of suffering from an anxiety disorder...NOT ashamed of experiencing panic attacks...NOT ashamed of seeing a counselor.  These experiences have helped to shape me into the beautifully broken person that God intends me to be.  They have brought me closer to God in that they show His strength in MY weakness.  These experiences have made me more empathetic to those around me who are struggling...they have opened my eyes to how paralyzing mental illness can be and that it can happen to anyone.
Did you know that there is a National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness coming up on November 6, 2015?  You can download a toolkit for that day, and find other ways to engage your faith communities on the NAMI website.  Also, be sure to show your support by taking the stigmafree pledge!  With one in five adults in America experiencing mental illness, we can't afford to be silent.  Jesus has commanded us to love one another; and that includes those suffering from mental illness as well.  We cannot allow those who suffer to feel alienated or ashamed.  There's no room for that in God's Church.

Pray:  Heavenly Father, I know that I may be one day away from my own panic attack or diagnosis.  I trust that you are sovereign; that you are in control, and that I have no reason to be ashamed of a family member, a friend, or myself for suffering from mental illness.  YOU have told us that you'll remain close to the broken-hearted, and that includes those experiencing mental illnesses.   Father God, in our weakness you are strong.  And, if I am scared, or if I DO let the stigma of mental illness cloud my opinion of someone, I ask you to have the Holy Spirit reprimand me and show me my fault.  In your gracious and holy name I pray...Amen.

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