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Carolina Rzeznikiewiz, co-founder of Momjo, on panic attacks and motherhood

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Carolina Rzeznikiewiz is the co-founder of Momjo, a blog about education, entertaining, and supporting moms at all stages of their journeys.

Recently, Carolina began a new journey to seek support for mental health struggles that were beginning to seriously impact her life. As a mother of 3 with a full-time career, she already faced a lot of pressure. Then, when her family members began testing positive for COVID-19, Carolina collided head-on with a new set of challenges. A panic attack—her first—convinced her it was time to get professional help.

Carolina joined First Session for an Instagram Live chat during #MentalHealthWeek to talk about her experiences.

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Could you tell us what it was like learning about your kids’ COVID-19 diagnosis?

For some reason, throughout this whole pandemic, I never envisioned myself having to deal with COVID. I always thought it was something, just like mental health, that happened to other people. So when I got a letter from my son’s school telling me that he had been exposed in his classroom, I went and got him tested right away. He came back positive three days later, then the girls came back positive, and the whole thing just went on from there.

Then, it was me. And then my husband. I was speechless. I couldn't believe that it actually hit us. I also felt ashamed because I had associated getting COVID with not taking proper precautions, not taking care of yourself, not taking care of others around you. So when I got the news, I really looked at myself and my own attitudes and thoughts about myself and people who had COVID before me who I might have judged. I felt like I was now judging myself. 

How did that impact your mental health at the time?

For the first time in my life, I've experienced mental health issues that I didn't know could happen to me over the past year, not knowing what the symptoms I was feeling in my body meant.

When COVID happened, I felt the anxiety creep up. I felt myself sitting at the dinner table, feeling exhausted, trying to make dinner for my kids, trying to keep everybody behaving around me because the kids felt great. 

And suddenly feeling that pressure in my chest and that lightheadedness that I knew wasn't just my COVID acting up. I knew it was my brain telling me, “Wow, this is a lot.”

One night, I just got up from the dinner table. I looked at my husband. I said, “I need a break. I want a break, a mum break.” So I went to the couch, like five meters away from the dinner table. And I laid down with my legs up, and I just stayed there for like 20 minutes, frozen, because I knew I had to take a deep breath.

Was that a panic attack?

It was the start of a panic attack. It was a very mild version. Over the last year, I started having panic attacks. I never did before. I started to identify the very early stages, and I'd be able to control myself. I've been able to recognize it, breathe through it, think it through, rationalize it and just overcome that irrational fear.

Have you heard from other moms who have had similar experiences recently?

Yeah. The communication that's taken place within our community in this past year has been so inspiring and open. That's how we try to keep it. We heard countless stories of moms in very similar situations as mine who are struggling. 

When I first had those panic attacks, it was at the end of last year. So I put out a post saying, “Wow, I never thought this would happen to me. “The number of women who came forward in private messages and in the comments, first of all, saying, “Thanks for talking about it.” But second of all, just saying, “Hey, it happened to me. I've never felt it before this year.”

[COVID] triggered it. The pressure we're going through absolutely threw me off balance—it was shocking but also validating, right? Because you tend to feel alone when you lay down, and you think you're having a stroke, but you're having a panic attack, and the people around you are like, “Are you okay?” 

No, you're fine. It's just a panic attack. And you're kind of embarrassed because you're like, “Oh no, it was nothing really.” … That acknowledgement that this mental health situation is absolutely shared by so many people made me and a lot more people feel less embarrassed. It's definitely out there because we've never been under so much pressure, with being so devoid of motivation—the little carrots that we chase throughout our lives, travel and get-togethers and hugs and family and friends. It really, really empties that bucket for moms. We're just left with our own inner strength and the love of our families.

Can you talk a bit about the experience of beginning to have panic attacks for the first time?

I'm an open book. I'm just going to tell you exactly what happened when I had those panic attacks, and you'll understand why I felt embarrassed. 

First of all, I'd never had any mental health episodes in my whole life. One time, I think I was in the movie theatre when I was a teenager, and I started feeling really nervous, and I had to get up and start breathing. So I knew I probably was a little prone to panic attacks. I'd never had it again.

So it was... Shabbat dinner with my in-laws at their place. I started feeling like something was tickling the top of my head. I was feeling lightheaded. I was feeling like my heart was racing. I felt a stabbing pain in my head. Do you think of a panic attack when your skull is tickling? No. Do you think of a panic attack when a bit of the sensitivity in your body is gone, or you feel a little tingly in your arms? No. 

I was sitting there with my family and my children. If anything is going to happen to me, I want to make sure that an ambulance is on its way. So I told my husband to call 911. 

They come in with so much urgency. They break through the door and come through like, “What's going on?” I'm feeling a little better now.

They're really concerned. They're trying to pinpoint the symptoms and then see what's going on. They look at me, and they're like, “You're fine. Your heart is fine. Your blood pressure's fine. You're speaking to me. You have no cognitive impairments. I think you should go see your family physician and follow up.” And there is my husband, my mother-in-law. The whole family, just staring at me, [I’m] laying there thinking I'm about to go into the next life…

And that made me feel silly for a second, that they didn't need to take me. My in-laws were very loving and very understanding. But they do come from a generation that's not as open or not as welcoming of the normalcy of mental health issues as we are. 

So they're like, “Oh, okay, you're fine.” I'm like, “No, I'm not fine. My body might be fine. My heart might be fine. My brain might be fine, but from an emotional perspective, it's not fine.”

That's what prompted me to just go on social media and write about it right away. Because I'm like, “This shame that I just felt, no one has to feel.” I wanted to get that message out there. I became a bit of a mental health advocate because I realized that no one is immune. No one can just decide not to have mental health issues. It's not the way it works. 

What has it been like navigating mental health issues as a mom?

A real part of being a mom is a job you can't take a vacation from. 

Do I carve out my own time? Not enough. The only time I get to myself is half an hour to work out every day, 6 times a week. And after the kids go to sleep at 9:00 or 9:30 pm, which means that by the time I get to my bed, it's 10.

This is why I go to a spa and get a massage, get my nails done. Honestly, as soon as COVID started, self-care in the cliche sort of sense of the word had really gone down the drain. 

How do you communicate with your partner about mental health matters?

I was born in South America, and I come from a culture where moms take on the primary role as caregivers. We do pretty much all the chores around the house. My mom has always been one of those super devoted women who always had food ready for my dad and us. She would work 10-hour shifts in retail. When we first came to Canada, she would still come home and make sure everybody was fed, and laundry was done. I look back to her, 20 years ago, and I really don't understand how she did it. I'm in absolute awe.

When I try to take on that stoic sort of approach to motherhood and wifehood, I fail, and I become resentful. So when I see my husband sitting at the table, waiting for dinner, and me setting the table, making the kids sit down, I'm like, “Wait a second...”

I used to try to be like that because that's how I grew up. But at one point, I realized that it was taking a toll on my mental health. It was making me aggressive, angry, resentful. So there came a point in our life where I had a conversation with my husband, and I said, “This house, half of it is yours. You need to be there. If I'm cooking, you're cleaning. If I'm cleaning, you're bathing the kids.”

And the way my husband has stepped it up in the last year, especially since he's been here in town, not travelling for work... And 100% of the time spent with his family has been beautiful from that perspective. Even though my workload is heavy between Momjo and work and mommyhood, having his support by having that conversation with him made a huge difference. 

What advice do you have for people who would like to become mental health advocates?

I think if you've had any kind of issue with your mental health, you become an automatic advocate, right? But if you've never had a panic attack, never suffered from anxiety, depression, or various conditions, the way to become an advocate and become supportive of everybody else is to listen, have conversations, ask questions and open your mind.

Nobody is immune, right? The same way we can be advocates to try to end cancer, right. Or, you know, ALS—any horrible, debilitating disease. We can be advocates for taking care of each other, hearing each other out, and supporting each other through mental health. So to me, those conversations are basic.

When it comes to mental health, I don't know what the numbers are like. I don't know if there's a proportion of people who will never have a mental health issue in their entire life... So be there for those who are going through it now. Get educated about what it's like, just in case you come across it in a year, 5 years, 10 years.

I think it creates a very empathetic and kind place to live when people can advocate for each other when it comes to mental health. It makes people feel less alone, less judged, more loved and embraced. And that security blanket automatically creates a much safer place for people who are dealing with it. 

What has been your experience getting that kind of support?

The number of friends who happened to see my Momjo post but then just jumped on Facebook or called me or sent me text messages and said, “Hey, I'm here for you. I went through this.” 

A couple of years ago, I would have never thought, “That person? Mental health issues? What?”

[When people] reach out and they share their stories, the stigma just disappears. It evaporates. When you realize that you're embraced by people who either went through something like what you went through or helped somebody in their families who went through it or just have empathy and love for you. I felt so propped up and so loved. I was made whole by those interactions. It really was validating.

Is there anything you’d like to share about what you’ve been working on with Momjo?

Right now, with Momjo, COVID has been hard. Having our kids at home, and trying to maintain a social media presence and trying to put out interesting fun content, has been beyond challenging. 

What we’re focusing on now is being open books, sharing stories about our experiences. That's what we feel people need, including ourselves. We want to connect with others. We want to feel less alone. We want to feel like we're part of a community. 

And by sharing those experiences, we're really, really feeling that. And we're getting amazing feedback from people. 

At the core of it is just honest connection. I went on social media a couple of days ago and told people about how I feel about another sort of mental health trigger—beauty filters... How uncomfortable I feel with filters that change your face makes your eyes look bigger, and your nose look narrower, and your lips puffier.

We want to talk about authenticity, and we want people to see truth on social media. When you're browsing through a mom account, I want you to feel like you're talking to a friend, like you're talking to someone who's going through the exact same things you're going through. So when we talk about filters, when we talk about the nitty-gritty, dirty part of our lives right now, which is all the challenges that moms are going through, I get excited. It's what's been feeding us. It's what's been giving us the energy to keep doing this in a time of so much uncertainty.

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