Hello and Welcome,
I would like to introduce myself by telling you my story that chronicles my journey through panic attacks, anxiety and depression. I tell this story to give you hope that anxiety and depression can be successfully managed at any age, any time... After you read my personal story, there is a section about my professional credentials and experience.
My Personal Story
My genuine and sincere commitment to providing therapy for families is rooted in my experiences in my family-of-origin. Anxiety and depression were my constant companions as I grew up. It wasn't until I was in my thirties that I was officially diagnosed with panic attack disorder with agoraphobia and major depression.
Before I proceed with my story, I want to pay a special tribute to my parents, now deceased, who, although frustrated and overwhelmed at not knowing how to "fix" the pain I was in, continued to persevere with what they felt was right for me. It must have been a lonely struggle for them. At that time and for years to come, the medical community had limited resources on how to treat panic and depression.
I recognize now that much of what they did "saved" me from what could have been a destructive lifestyle. I know I write this story with their approval and support.
I also want to thank those special friends in my life who walked and continue to walk this journey with me. They provided and continue to provide me with compassionate and loving support. Most importantly, I am grateful for my belief in a loving Heavenly Father who I know sustained me through times when human hands, for whatever reasons, could not support me.
It was the first day of kindergarten. I was five years old. My only memory of that day was sitting against the wall, choking back sobs and trying to settle my shaking body. Why had my mother left me here? Years later, she told me I had started to cry when she dropped me off at the door. She was about to take me home, but the headmistress insisted that I would calm down after she left. My mother hesitantly agreed. The headmistress was wrong. My distress escalated, and I did not calm down. On numerous occasions since, my mother told me she wished she would have followed her intuition and taken me home.
My anxiety had a significant effect on my family. Although both my parents experienced anxiety and depression as well, I did not become fully aware of that until my adult years. They hid it well. Our family motto was to "steel yourself" and keep going, no matter what. And I tried. But my fear and anxiety constantly bubbled over. It seemed I was frightened of everything.
We didn't talk much about feelings in our family. And we avoided talking about my anxiety because when we did, there was a sense of futility, embarrassment and humiliation. We just soldiered on as best as we could. My parents had tried everything they knew to help me, but nothing seemed to work. Educational colleagues of my father and some well-meaning relatives all had theories of what was wrong and what would "cure" me. The most popular theory was that I was manipulative. I knew I wasn't manipulative, but my behaviors certainly indicated that could be true. In fact, my "manipulative" behaviors were my coping mechanisms.
Trying to keep up appearances and pretending that all was okay took its toll. On my part, there were lots of tears. After years of being a stay-at-home mom, my mother started working. That seemed to bring her a sense of relief and purpose. Since my attacks usually occurred in the morning when she worked, my distress increased. My father, at times, blew up out of frustration and worry over me. It was difficult for my family to maintain a positive outlook. Encouragement and expressions of good physical touch were in short supply. Both my parents were perfectionists, and they set high standards for all of us. I fell short of meeting those expectations many times. I felt that I couldn't do much that was right, and I longed for someone to understand what I was feeling inside.
The differences between me, my siblings, the neighbourhood kids and my school classmates became more and more noticeable. I was sensitive and easily teased. I didn't feel accepted, and I spent much of my time reading and day-dreaming. I had a wonderful imagination, and I created an internal world where I could find solace when the daily challenges of life became too overwhelming.
The panic attacks became particularly pronounced when my parents would leave for a night out. My heart would pound, my mouth would feel like sawdust, and my legs would feel like rubber. I would feel nauseous and break out in hot and cold sweats. All common symptoms of a panic attack. I would spend hours walking or biking around the small town I lived in. If I kept moving, I could cope. Reflecting back, I believe that exercising and breathing in the fresh air helped contain the panic. Gradually, the panic would subside, and I could return home, exhausted and calmer.
School was particularly daunting. The attacks continued from kindergarten through grade 12. My goal was just to get through the day without letting my anxiousness become too apparent. I wasn't a stellar student, but I did manage to make good-enough marks to enter university. Doing so was a quite an accomplishment as my teachers had told my parents that I would be lucky to complete Grade 12!
One of the bright lights during secondary school was my participation in synchronized swimming. My mother, who could see my confidence eroding, signed me up for classes. I had a wonderful coach, and I am so grateful for the opportunities she gave me to succeed and flourish.
The frequency and intensity of the panic attacks resulted in extreme fatigue by the time I reached the age of nineteen. Not knowing what else to do, my physician prescribed pre-natal vitamin pills for short periods of time to boost my energy levels. I have since learned that fatigue is common for those who experience intense periods of panic. We usually have limited reserves of both physical and emotional energy.
When I was 21, I moved out of home, a family rule. Although I loved the freedom of having my own small place, I remember staying up well into the early morning hours singing hymns to calm myself down so I could sleep. Mornings were my worst times, and I would play games with myself to keep calm. For instance, I would tell myself that if after I finished such and such a task and still needed to call someone for help, I could give myself permission to do so. Almost without exception, the panic would diminish. Driving at night also calmed me down and helped me sleep.
While attending university, I didn't experience the panic attacks as intensely or as frequently. I believe that having more control over my school courses and schedule helped alleviate them.
For a few years after I completed my degree in Education, I taught school. However, my past school experiences, the bureaucracy and my panic attacks were an incompatible fit. Finally, I started my own improvisational drama program for youth ages 3-18. I loved it, and I experienced success! The panic attacks were infrequent while I was working i that I had control over my program and, in particular my working hours. I scheduled my work hours for the afternoons and evenings as mornings were the times I experienced the attacks the most.
When I was in my early 30's, I decided to attend graduate school in Utah. Although I enjoyed the environment and succeeded academically for the first time in my life, the panic attacks, now 6-10 a day, were interfering more and more with day-to-day life. I returned home to B.C.
In my second year back in B.C., the panic attacks became almost unbearable. Teaching and driving, two activities that usually relieved the panic, created distress. Simple tasks like having my hair cut, grocery shopping, going to the library, and renewing my driver's license were highly stressful. For years, I kept my hair long simply because I was afraid of having a panic attack while I was having my hair cut. Life became a chore.
Thankfully, the next year, my 35th birthday, I received the professional help I needed to better manage the panic and depression. I started on medication, but it took a few years to find the one that worked best for me. (Please note that medication was my last option.) Medication alone wasn't the answer. I had so many fears that I had to work through. Some of them I worked through myself, and for others, I sought therapy.
The medication was helpful in that for the first time I felt calm. That calmness gave me the confidence to start doing things that I hadn't been able to do before. One example: I had a fear of shopping malls. One night I decided to go to the shopping mall just after it closed. I made myself sit in the car for 15 minutes before driving home. The next day, I drove there again during the late afternoon, got out of my car, walked to the door of the mall and then returned to my car. Everyday I returned to the mall and pushed myself to do a little bit more. At the end of the week, I was able to walk through the mall and back again. Soon, I was going through the mall, shopping and buying clothes. What a treat!
My parents and I started to unravel the years of pain, anger and loss. Even though I was an adult and had been living on my own for several years, my parents accepted my invitation to visit the specialist I was seeing and learn about how they could best support me as I continued my journey ridding myself of my numerous fears.
That one visit they had with my specialist was a turning point in my relationship with my parents. They came to understand that I was anxious, not manipulative. They expressed their helplessness at not knowing how to assist me as they watched me struggle with anxiety. They revealed they felt they had failed at parenting me. They indicated they wished they had known how to provide a home environment I considered supportive, loving and emotionally safe.
My parents were assured by my specialist that I had managed the panic attacks well because of my up-bringing. Hearing that information was a relief for them as they could now appreciate that they had succeeded in helping me through a difficult illness. Even though I had panic attacks, I worked from the time I was sixteen; I moved away from home by the age of twenty-one; and I managed, with some interruptions, to continue my education and work.
As my parents and I continued our journey of awareness, I learned that my mother had experienced anxiety throughout her lifetime. I now understood that her withdrawal from me when I was experiencing attacks was not out of lack of love for me, but rather stemmed from her own distress and pain at seeing me anxious and not knowing how to comfort me. As time progressed, the relationship with my parents became closer, and they supported and encouraged me in my various endeavours. As my mother grew older, her anxiety increased. Although her anxiousness brought back some painful memories, I was able to provide, for the most part, the emotional support and understanding she needed.
Thankfully, I no longer experience panic attacks or anxiety.
After several years of working for the government, I decided I wanted to pursue a degree in Drama Therapy. I drove across country to Montreal by myself. For me, that was a major accomplishment! For years, driving even 30 miles was an anxiety-producing situation.
Once I arrived in Montreal, I immediately felt the effects of depression. I felt tired, uninspired and hopeless. Just before I had left Victoria, I discovered that the program I was scheduled to participate in was not going ahead as anticipated. The moving van had already left so I didn't change my plans. I just hoped for the best.
I moved to Ontario the year after arriving in Montreal. I then taught university for a year. During that year, my health continued to deteriorate. Finally, I sought out a physician who informed me I had numerous physical health problems. I was shocked. Except for bouts of fatigue, I have always been physically healthy. My family has a tradition of not going to a physician unless we are practically dying. It never occurred to me that something might be physically wrong.
I was on bed-rest for a year. And I couldn't work. I was devastated as work is my life-line.
Away from home, not able to work, and far away from my support system did not contribute to my well-being. I was angry that I now had to cope with depression and physical health problems. It seemed like everything I had worked for was for nothing. Therapy didn't seem to work. I recognize now that many family-of-origin issues were rising to the surface, and my therapist and I were trying to fix external behaviors rather than delving deeper and making changes in my internal world.
There was one bright light. While I was teaching, several of my students commented that I was easy to talk to and I listened well to their various complaints and concerns. As well, I had submitted a proposal to SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) and, while it wasn't approved, my ideas received high praise. The difficulty was that I didn't have a Social Sciences background. The committee strongly recommended I seek a degree in Psychology or a related social science and re-apply.
I was accepted into Wilfrid Laurier's program for Social Work. After 18 months of an intensive program, I graduated and went on to work with families struggling with mental health issues. Studying and working kept the depression in check.
During the time I was at Laurier, I bought a rescue dog. Taking him for walks and receiving unconditional love that only dogs can give improved my mood.
Just as I seemed to find my niche in Ontario, I learned that my parents were experiencing numerous health problems. I moved back to B.C. to help my sister take care of them. During the next five years of working part-time and caring for my parents, my family-of-origin issues kept popping up. I was sensing the losses that I experienced growing up with panic attack disorder. And I was face-to-face with the reality of my parents' declining health. Although I didn't know it at the time, I know now that I was experiencing anticipatory grief.
I met with a Satir therapist, and she suggested I take Satir training which consists of learning the Satir therapeutic method by working through your own issues. It was through my Satir training that I was able to come to terms with many of my family-of-origin issues. As I continued with the training, I became less reactive, more positive, and more compassionate towards myself and others. I was able to see family patterns that I needed to change for my own well-being. Finally, I was making meaning of my life. I was able to start forgiving others and forgiving myself which was a significant step to achieving a more healthy and balanced life. It is a good feeling to know that, for the most part, I am driving my thoughts and feelings instead of them driving me!
From time-to-time, the depression does drop in for a visit, but I am able to cut that visit very short!
Although I have seen many therapists, I have found that therapists trained in Satir Systemic Therapy and Mindfulness have helped me make sense of my internal world and commit to changes that have resulted in positive growth. Those same therapies have been the most useful for my clients. Please look at my page, How I Work for more information.
My Professional Qualifications and Experience
In 1993, I completed my M.S.W. with an emphasis on Individuals, Families and Groups. Most of my therapeutic work focused on working with families and youth in mental health centres in Ontario and B.C. From 2009 to the present, I have taken intensive training in Satir Transformational Therapy, and I continue training in this therapeutic modality.
My other education includes a B.Ed. (Elementary) and a Ph.D., both with a focus on Drama in Education. When appropriate, and particularly with children and teens, I use role-play as therapy. Please see How I Work for more information.
My previous work experience includes working with and for children and families in the contexts of recreation, government, and education.
My professional affiliations are:
- Member, BCASW (BC Association of Social Workers)
- Member, BCCSW (BC College of Social Workers)
- Member, Satir Institute of the Pacific
- Board Member, B.C. Bereavement HelpLine
I know what it is like to experience anxiety, depression, loss and anger, and I know how to help you work through it. If this is what you and your family are experiencing, I invite you to:
- Read my free report, Creating an Emotionally Supportive and United Family
- Contact me at 604-233-0845 for a Free 15-Minute Consultation.
- If you wish, you can also e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
I look forward to meeting you!
Judith Barnard, MSW, RSW
Registered Social Worker
I am located in Richmond, B.C. I provide therapy services for Richmond, Vancouver and the Greater Vancouver area including Delta, Burnaby, New Westminster, Surrey, and White Rock.