Panic Attacks and Marital Stress

Reader’s Question

I recently experienced my first panic attack a few days ago. I have been under severe stress for many years now. I believe I’ve handled everything in my life with admirable strength. However, due to the most recent life change, I feel that I can’t seem to convince myself that everything is better now than it has really ever been for most of my life. I have been married for 15 years and had been with him for 10 years before we were married. The problem started after one year of marriage when I got pregnant and my husband started telling me that I was too disgusting and he could hardly stand to have sex with me because of my physical condition. I developed post partum depression after our second baby and withstood this attitude as well as his absenteeism at least 85% of the time from our home. He had legitimate excuses and I was patient thinking things would be better between us. But as time went on, we grew apart and his demeanor toward me was horrendous. He interrogated me for the first 10 years of our marriage at various intervals about a man I dated three times before we were married, to the point I wanted to commit suicide. The only thing that kept me hanging in there was my two girls. I went to a marriage counselor without him and the counselor told me I would be happier if I divorced him. He refused to go and made fun of me. After 13 years of marriage, and seeking resolution with him regarding us, to no avail, I couldn’t take it anymore.

The day I decided to divorce him, I believe he knew as well that we were over. He stayed out late again. Only this time he was on his motorcycle and had an accident, no helmet. He had severe brain trauma. I couldn’t leave the house to go looking for him and leave my children. I didn’t know who to call to check up on him and so I waited until the girls were taken to latchkey to go looking for him, when I received the call that he was at the hospital. I never knew what to expect for the rest of my life, but I vowed that I would take care of him for the rest of his life. At this time, we were living in a small house that had black mold growing so badly that we had to shut off all but two rooms in order to stay away from it. I was depressed and broken down mentally. No one would step up to help me before his accident because he was so intimidating. But after his accident, my whole family stepped up and completed the house he had been building for us over the course of 7 years. He would never let anyone help with it because he wanted it to be perfect and he was the only one that could do it.

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It took a solid three months with over 30 people there everyday to complete it and my husband was in the hospital this entire time. I was informed that I would be staying with a cousin and she would help with my children. I went there that same night. For the majority of the hospital time, I stayed with my cousin. When I realized that her husband and son were picking on my oldest daughter because she wouldn’t ‘play’ with them, laugh, joke, etc., and they started calling her names, I knew I had to leave. I spent a lot of time at the hospital and thought my girls were treated well, but realized differently when my daughter broke down and told me. She was depressed and they didn’t like it that she wasn’t jovial with them. She had just turned 12 at the time. My cousin threw a huge fit and told me I was spitting in her face after all she did for me when I left her house. Her husband did things like park his truck so close to mine that it was on my bumper. Her brother told me to grow up and act like an adult and to stay for the remainder of my husband’s hospital stay because his sister was upset. But I moved out anyway for the sake of my children and stayed with my brother. That never blew over with my cousin.

After my husband came home he physically attacked me over the medicine he was taking and while he was beating me, my daughter called the police. He went to attack her and I stopped him. No report was filed; I couldn’t do it to him because I knew the attack had to do with his brain trauma. He started driving 3 months after he came home, remembered where almost everyone he ever knew lived or worked. The brain trama caused him to forget his work skills, but he could still fix mechanical things, he just needed to get his strength built back up.

Fast forward ahead one year and my husband has been recovering quite well. My children and I are quiet around him and talk very low and try to accommodate him to keep him calm. He decided he wanted to be like he was prior to the accident and was leaving the house more frequently and staying out later and drank more alcohol. He was drinking alcohol shortly after he came home from the hospital with the help of his family and friends supplying it. I informed him that that attitude was old and if he wanted us to work out it needed to change. He told me in no uncertain terms that he was going to do what he wanted. I was always leary about leaving my 9-year-old home alone with him but figured he seemed to be better by now and did just that. That is when he attacked her and threw her down by her neck. Her neck hurt her for three days and she only decided to tell me about it when it wouldn’t stop hurting. When she finally broke down to tell me about what her dad did, I started looking for an apartment.

We were out in about three weeks and I filed for divorce. My family then decided that I was doing the wrong thing and has been angry at me for leaving him, ignoring me at family functions, treating me like a stranger. All because they put their time into completing the house that my husband started and I was now leaving it with him. The only thing is that my one cousin married my husband’s sister. They just don’t want to take care of him and they know he can’t refinance this house because of his income. There is so much more to this, but I have supportive friends who helped me move out, and set up my apartment. I never felt so good in my life about something. I am away from him.

Why am I having panic attacks? I still haven’t gotten my divorce yet. I guess I feel sorry for my husband and his condition but on the other hand, he was never really married to me, but to his friends. I also figure that if my family is so angry at me for leaving him, they can move in with him. And I can only show so much gratitude for my family’s help during the most difficult time in my life. I don’t know how to cope I guess. Something has gone awry in my head. I exercise, follow a few guidlines to relieve stress to no avail. HELP!!!

Thank you for any feedback.


Psychologist’s Reply

You’ve made a decision to protect your children and a good decision at that. Making a final decision to save yourself and your children doesn’t mean the stress is over however. A new set of stressors will emerge as you quickly discovered. In many family systems, there’s a designated caretaker and responsible aduilt — and a designated incompetent person. Guess who’s who? I’ve seen the situation hundreds of times and you’re correct that the family will be angry with you as they realize they will have to deal with him now. I worked with a woman who was in the process of divorcing her abusive and hell-raisin’ husband when the family as a group suddenly offered her $12,000 to stay married to him — just so he wouldn’t be calling them from a bar late at night. She declined by the way.

The ordeal of the past several years has emotionally exhausted you. The panic attack is a physical and emotional indicator of a high stress level. It’s like winning a boxing match with a heavyweight fighter — you can win but it will still take you six months to heal up from the beating! You’ve taken an emotional and social beating and are still dealing with the husband, family, etc.

I’d recommend seeing a counselor/therapist as well as consulting your family physician or a psychiatrist. You’re most likely experiencing a stress-produced depression — can’t sleep, can’t concentrate, brain runs too fast, severe fatigue, etc. Panic attacks can be managed with medications/counseling and will slowly disappear as your stress level subsides. A panic attack is similar to the red lights on your automobile dash — they surface when you’re running hot and decrease when the vehicle is running cool again.

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