Jesus, Take the Wheel: Parenting Through Panic Attacks

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A Note from the Editors: Pastor Scott Sauls has said the following: “Studies indicate that when we suffer mental illness alone, the results can be tragic, even horrific. When we suffer inside a support system, however – when we bring our pain and sorrow and stress into the light in the context of redemptive community – the chances of coping well become exponentially higher.” Far too often in recent months, Americans have experienced the tragic and horrific results of untreated mental illness even as we struggle with mental health challenges in our own hearts and homes. Mental illness isolates the sufferer and destroys community at every level, from friendship to family to church to city. Teenagers are at the forefront of this epidemic. At Rooted, we seek to be a small part of your support system, just as you seek to support and encourage the students in your care. This week, we will share articles that examine different facets of mental health, remembering that no matter the challenges we face, we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.

I gripped the steering wheel with hands so sweaty they slipped, leaning forward in my seat and gritting my teeth as I navigated the short stretch of interstate between the airport and my house. All I had to do that Saturday was drop my son at the airport so he could go on a mission trip, but driving on the interstate was enough to send me into a full-blown panic attack.

I had my first panic attack two summers earlier, when I was driving through the mountains of North Carolina. That year my husband was sick with stage four cancer, and it was our last trip as a family before he died. At the time it was easy to understand why I felt so fragile. What I could not understand was why it was still happening two years later.

I was desperate enough that Saturday morning to call my pastor. I told her how ashamed and embarrassed I was. How in the world can a woman who had been driving for nearly thirty years be so afraid of DRIVING A CAR, for heaven’s sake? She assured me that my panic attacks didn’t have to make sense but that they were real, and God helped doctors develop medicine so I didn’t have to live like that anymore. 

I followed her advice, got the medicine, and the panic attacks receded somewhat. I also made an appointment with a pastoral counselor, who helped me see how believing the Gospel means I don’t have to live my life with white knuckles and gritted teeth.

If it had been possible, I would have hidden my panic from my kids. I thought that their sense of security came from seeing their mother as a capable and dependable woman. I wanted to be rock solid, unflappable and serene, preferably at all times, and I convinced myself that that was what they needed from me. After all, I was their only living parent. It felt like everything my sons needed was entirely up to me to provide. I also thought my panic attacks demonstrated a lack of faith in God. I was extremely ashamed that I encouraged my kids to trust God regularly and then could not even muster enough trust to drive them to away baseball games without visible fear.

Over the years though, God has used my weakness to display His strength. As my children watch me struggle, they are learning that they don’t have to “man up” and white-knuckle their lives either.

Though I cannot hide my anxiety on the road, God has been faithful even in the midst of the attacks. Losing their dad as my kids entered their teens meant that I was the person who had to teach them to drive (which can be a terrifying experience for the calmest of parents). Whenever we traveled, I was afraid to drive but equally afraid to let my inexperienced drivers take the wheel of a rental car. One time we were driving through mountains in Idaho. I was verging on full panic, but my son in the passenger seat read Psalm 121 out loud to me for two hours. “I lift my eyes unto the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (121:1). That day it felt as if Psalm 121 had been written just for us. Another time I was in upstate New York with a different son, and we came upon two of the tallest, laws-of-physics-defying bridges I have ever seen. I pulled over to the side of the road, called a friend to ask her to pray, and then my son and I prayed out loud and sang praises the whole way over those arches in the sky.

By the grace of God – and I mean that very literally—all three sons are now licensed, calm, and competent drivers.

While God has done so much for our family through the vulnerability of my panic, I don’t share all my struggles with my sons. Full disclosure usually isn’t healthy for our kids. (This is a particular temptation for the single parent, whose teenager should NEVER be their closest confidante.) As parents we really need to be discerning about what is age-appropriate to share, and what our own child’s emotional needs and maturity are. We don’t have to tell our kids about every battle we face, but we also don’t have to cultivate the appearance of invincibility to help them feel safe. Instead, we let them see us cling to Jesus, who is the only totally reliable source of safety any of us will ever find.

Simply knowing that panic, anxiety, and depression are also battles parents face can give our kids strength to face these battles in their own lives. We can show teens that a healthy response to mental illness is to seek help in God and in His anointed counselors and doctors. It is hard for me to be vulnerable with my kids, but I pray that by being honest I am opening a door for them to feel comfortable coming to me when they struggle.

The panic is less severe now, but it is by no means gone. The fact that Jesus has not yet taken away my anxiety about driving means my kids get to see me persevere in prayer. Fear still grips me, and my kids still see me run to God to carry me when I am weak. My prayers about my driving anxiety are in a sense both answered and unanswered: God has not taken the anxiety away, but He has granted me the grace to endure and (usually) the ability to drive through it. He has been faithful even in my fear, and my children have witnessed His faithfulness.

Not long ago I took one of my sons on a college trip through Texas — 415 miles through Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin, and Houston. The drive was brutal for me. I drove a rental car through major traffic on some of the most tangled interstates in the United States, and I sang off-key praises when anxiety threatened to overwhelm me. 

As we headed safely under one final concrete web into the Houston airport, my iron grip on the wheel finally relaxing, my son began to laugh. “You know what Mom?” he said, “God sure does like you.”

As parents we can take great comfort knowing that even in our weakest, most feeble moments, God loves us. Our kids can see it and believe that He loves them too.

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