I’ll never forget what the first one felt like. I couldn’t breathe, the room was spinning, my hands were numb, my stomach felt like it might burst open, and I was convinced I was dying. Lying on the bathroom floor, I yelled to my husband in the middle of the night, hoping not to wake my two sleeping children. He ran in, and I told him to call 911. I was convinced that something horrible was happening in my body and that I needed immediate medical attention.

Rewind to one year before this episode: I sat clutching my husband’s hands as the doctor gave us the news—our sweet 5-year-old son had an incurable, progressive form of muscular dystrophy. The world stopped spinning for those few moments. The words coming out of her mouth made sense, but there was just no way that she could be talking about my baby, my precious firstborn son. My brain was processing the information but my heart was hiding away, refusing to let the news sink in. So I let my brain take over. I hit the ground running, learning everything I could, gathering all the information and researching the best doctors, supplements, stretches—whatever would help him the most. I pushed my heart aside for the sake of my son.

As the news spread in our community, friends and family reached out with love and support. I would hear things like “you are so strong,” and “only special people are tasked with such obstacles.” When I looked into the eyes of my loved ones, I could see their worry and sadness, and they would ask if I was OK. But they were really looking at me to show that if I was strong, they would feel strong as well. Everyone wanted me to be OK, so I told them I was. And I believed I was. There just wasn’t time to be anything else. I was running a marathon and could not stop.

And so, life went on like this for a year. Not stopping to ask why, but focusing on the how—how can I be the very best mother and caretaker? I stopped caring for myself. I put my needs aside for my child’s needs. It wasn’t a conscious decision; it was my mother-bear instinct kicking into warp speed. I wouldn’t let anything stop me from doing all I could for his well-being. And he was doing well. He was getting great care and thriving.

All this energy was springing me forward, propelling me into each day and enabling me to keep going. But now as the dust had settled, and we had a better handle on our son’s health and care, my heart started to peek back in. My brain could no longer suppress my feelings. I started to notice this creeping feeling of anxiety … just waiting for the other shoe to drop. If something this awful could happen, what was stopping even more awful things from happening? And as much as I tried to push it away—to tell my heart “no, I don’t have time for you”—these feelings grew until it all culminated in my visit to the ER, which was followed by a few more visits until it was suggested that these episodes were actually panic attacks.

But this made no sense. I was positive I was dying. How could I, the person everyone was saying was so strong, be experiencing what I have always viewed as something only the meek and helpless experience? I was a capable, tenacious advocate for my child, and I would stop at nothing to provide him with everything he needed, even if I had to fight for it. It didn’t make sense! But as I’ve come to learn, sometimes being strong isn’t what’s best. Being strong all the time led me to the lowest moment in my life.

Each panic attack brought out the darkest feelings I had been escaping the past year. I became convinced that I was an incapable mother and wife. I couldn’t ever imagine getting past the attacks; I felt like an utter failure. Panic attacks were the stones that tripped me up. I had hit the ground running and now I was falling so hard, smacking my face against a jagged pavement, and couldn’t find my way back up.

It took the panic attacks to let my feelings back in. When I went for help through therapy—as well as reading up on anxiety and panic, and sharing all I was going through with a few close family members and friends—I finally started to process my feelings and emotions (feelings I had repressed for a year). It was no surprise when I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety disorder.

PTSD is something most of us associate with soldiers returning from war. And, after all, I had experienced my own gruesome battle. I never truly processed all we had been through. When I was finally able to do so, my heart came running back in. It felt good to process, to go back and re-experience the feelings I had pushed aside. I started prioritizing my self-care. I realized that I couldn’t be the mother my son needed if I was neglecting my own needs. I can happily say that this was already several years ago, and today I continue to practice habits that allow me to feel my feelings and nurture my mental wellbeing.

It took me until now to finally feel comfortable sharing my experience. There was a part of me that felt ashamed. I wasn’t keeping my anxiety and panic a secret; I just wasn’t openly sharing it. While I spent time writing and sharing how it has been to raise a child with a physical disability with medical complexities, I was hiding this part of me. Recently, I felt a calling to share as the pandemic brought up mental-health challenges for basically everyone. I was fortunate to already have a “toolbox” for dealing with hardship and isolation.

I have faced the demons of panic, anxiety and PTSD, and come out the other side. I am actually better for the experience. Believe it or not, I am grateful for it all. I don’t take where I am at today for granted. Each day is a gift from G‑d, and I choose to show up as the best version of myself every day. Part of that is taking care of myself on a daily basis.

I see my struggle as a hidden gift from G‑d. First, it opened my eyes to what others around me have gone through or are going through. I hate to admit it, but I had a bit of pride prior to my mental-health crisis. I just figured I was stronger, more capable than others. But I learned my lesson—we all have struggles; nobody is immune. Through my experience, I grew in my empathy for others and have become a resource for those battling similar challenges. I thank G‑d that I can now be a source of strength and comfort to others.

Many of life’s trials and tribulations don’t come with a clear answer as to why they’re happening. In Judaism, we accept that everything is for the best and from G‑d, even when events are shrouded in darkness. I feel fortunate that when it comes to my experience with panic and anxiety, I do see a clear message from G‑d. While not all life’s challenges are clear like this, I see that G‑d wanted me to expand my mind and work on myself, and figure out my needs so I can best serve those around me. As challenging as this experience was and continues to be, I see that it helped me achieve a higher level of self-awareness, empathy and compassion

And for that, I am grateful.