Imagine you’re a fireman being rushed to the scene of a blaze. Your fire truck pulls up to a building engulfed in smoke and flames when you come to a shocking realization: It’s your own house that's on fire. A sinking feeling forms in the pit of your stomach. Meanwhile, a fear of the unknown mixes with knowledge, desperation and the need to just do your job.
Well, last week, I felt like that fireman.
My daughter called me three days in a row from college with escalating panic and tears. She voiced anxiety that I had never heard before. Her emotional climb wasn’t due to the usual school angst: feeling overworked, over-partied and just plain overwhelmed. She had increasing feelings of gloom and doom that had emerged from out of the blue.
Usually, I can quell any emotional situation that arises with my family. Hey, I am a professional. But it became increasingly apparent that she wasn’t experiencing anything that a prescription of my calming words could handle.
I racked my brain—and hers—searching for a cause of her anxiety and hence a solution. “I just don’t know what to do,” she told me. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” Her words hit my heart and my gut. I urged her to go to the student health center, which she did. But she ended up only talking about a hurt finger. Perhaps the fear of being labeled as “crazy” or opening up to a stranger was just too much.
When I realized that her visit to the student health center was just that—a visit—and she was still increasingly symptomatic, I began to panic. I imagined the worst: that she had suffered an unresolved horrible trauma, was potentially suicidal or truly losing her mind. As the mother of four daughters, during their teenage years even I thought that a possibility.
Summoning my doctor’s hat, I told her to go to the emergency room and added a precautionary order. “If you don’t go, I will send EMS to your dorm room,” I told her. “I can do that, you know.” Reluctantly, she went. It turns out that she was experiencing panic attacks, a common form of anxiety as a reaction to stress. Her blood work was normal and she actually felt relief after going to the ER. Luckily, she had a very compassionate and competent doctor who—with my daughter’s permission—called me. Together, we developed a plan to manage her anxiety.
Being on the other side of the table as a concerned but helpless parent increased my empathy for what the families of my patients go through. Eventually, every mom will arrive at a point where she doesn’t have all the answers for her kids. But that doesn’t make you powerless to aid them. You can still be their hero by helping them find the help they need.
Have you ever felt helpless to assist your child? Post a comment and share what happened.
Janet Taylor, M.D., M.P.H., is a mother of four, a psychiatrist in New York City and director of guest support for The Jeremy Kyle Show. Follow her on Twitter @drjanet. Got a question for Dr. Janet? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.