Ask your Dad
Put On Your Parenting
By Levi Agee
In 2012 I was fortunate enough to have two things given to me: a beautiful baby girl and an anxiety disorder.
One day nearly six years ago, I was working hard preparing for my first big commercial directing job. We had a new baby at home who wasn’t sleeping well, so Mom and Dad weren’t sleeping well. Naturally, I was using copious amounts of caffeine to stay afloat. I was staring at my computer screen when this “pins and needles” shockwave traveled up my calves. I stood up to stretch my legs, and the sensation soon flooded the rest of my body. I got dizzy and barely made it 12 steps before running into the wall.
My heart was beating like crazy, and the receptionist asked if I needed an ambulance. I was confused. Disoriented. Was I dying? I hadn’t died before so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I might have been dying, but I didn’t want to put anyone out, so I declined.
I called my wife to come get me. On the way home the sensation came back with intensity and my body and mind were taken over almost like being possessed. We went to the emergency room. All the tests came back negative. They didn’t know what was wrong with me other than supertachycardia—a fast heart rate.
I continued to suffer these terrifying panic attacks multiple times a day, for about three months. I hid it the best I could from friends and co-workers. Having my little fits in closed rooms and basements. I was becoming incapacitated by fear. I would play with my young daughter and go to birthday parties but I was always in my head, always a missed heartbeat away from locking myself in a bathroom.
Finally, a cardiologist told me my heart was fine but that I should probably talk to somebody—he was referring to a psychologist. It never dawned on me that this could be something to do with my brain. After reading about anxiety and finding a local psychologist who took my insurance, it all clicked. I had panic disorder. I had suffered a massive panic attack and then became so afraid of those sensations that I started avoiding things that caused stress or fear. Huge dumps of adrenaline would course through my body, causing all kinds of physical and mental symptoms.
I got medicated with some benzos and learned breathing techniques. I was on my road to recovery, but something still didn’t feel right. I was calm but still afraid. I was becoming incredibly tired, experiencing weird side effects and having intrusive thoughts that scared the hell out of me.
I was afraid of dying and leaving my new child and wife just like my biological father had done to me. It took me a while to connect those dots, but I had never felt such existential and primal fear in my life until after having a child. I had someone to care for, and I could barely take care of myself. I was so disappointed in myself, but committed to trying everything possible to rid myself of this anxiety so I could become a good father again.
With time and more therapy my panic attacks went from three or four a day to about one a day. I found a new yoga therapist that really resonated with me. I learned how to support a healthier lifestyle, and lost about 70 pounds.
As my daughter got older I could see anxieties and fears in her that I thought she inherited from me. Some nights that connection would break my spirit. Every time she was too scared to be in a room in our house by herself or unable to be left at school without a parent for more than a few hours I would blame myself for making her feel the same things either through nurture or nature. It wasn’t until a lot of self-introspection and reading authors like Pema Chodron and Brene Brown did I realize that I was fine exactly the way I was and so was my daughter.
My anxiety is such an incredible teacher. It has taught me patience, empathy, resilience and compassion. My panic disorder slowed me down so I could stare into the present moment and see that’s truly all we have. I look at my anxiety disorder as a blessing. What joy that I can experience this first before my daughter and pass on all the things I’ve learned. What a great gift that she can confide in her daddy what that ache in her tummy feels like, and we can sit and breathe through it together. So I can look into her eyes and honestly say, “You will make it through this. I know because I am making it through it, too.”
My one major advice from all this is love. Whether you are having mental health issues or are just in a rut, the next negative thoughts you have or the story you tell yourself, ask yourself, “What would I tell my little sweet child if they came to me with the same issue?” “I’m not good enough.” “I’m too scared to do this thing I’m afraid of.” “I can’t sit still for one second. I have too much energy.” “Nobody loves me.” Imagine your kid saying that thing you are saying to yourself. How would you respond? You would say, “It’s OK. That everything is fine and you are loved.” “You can try and that’s good enough for me.” “I love you without conditions.”
We were all somebody’s little boy or little girl once. We all have that same need to be loved and told it’s OK deep down inside of us. You have to put on your oxygen mask as a parent first before helping your loved one. It may sound counterintuitive, but your mental health and well-being cannot be pushed aside. Get in therapy. Go to the gym. Schedule a spa day. Read books that you should have read in college. Your kid will see you taking care of yourself and will hopefully adopt that behavior, too. There’s still a chance that they screw up and become a mess just like you and that’s OK, too. Raise the best damn mess you can raise.
Levi Agee is a creative director at an advertising agency and has a 6-year-old who has never slept through the night. He was diagnosed with OCD and panic disorder five years ago, and has been using his meditation practice to build better mental health skills. He runs an online support group for people who suffer from anxiety and depression called Central Arkansas Nervous System.