US actress Kerry Washington arrives for the 28th Annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards at the Bark...

Kerry Washington Says Her Parents' Arguments Gave Her Panic Attacks At 7 Years Old

“Lying in bed, I would race to fall asleep before the sounds would leak from my bones.”

Before she became Olivia Pope on Scandal, Kerry Washington was a little girl growing up in New York City with her parents, who did not get along very well and often argued during her childhood. In an excerpt from her new memoir Thicker Than Water, Washington details how she suffered panic attacks as a little girl because of her parents’ frequent fights. And it’s a powerful reminder of just how closely kids are listening, even when you don’t expect them to be.

According to an excerpt from Washington’s memoir published by Oprah Daily, her parents fought mostly about finances. “From what I remember, most of my parents’ fights were about money, and about the fact that neither of them felt like they were in the marriage they wanted to be in, or more precisely, that they were married to the person they wanted to be married to,” she writes. “They argued about my dad’s spending versus my mother’s thriftiness; my dad’s failures to earn versus my mother’s failure of ambition; my dad’s regular absences versus my mother’s obsession with me.”

Because, as a 7-year-old, she felt as though she was at the center of their fighting. Washington writes in Thicker Than Water, which comes out Sept. 26, that she took it upon herself to try to fix things. And when she couldn’t, she says she felt like a “failure.” After she went to bed, she was still on alert as her parents continued to fight.

“As a young child, I would lie in bed and listen for signs of how serious each battle was and when it might come to an end. Sometimes the entire ‘fight’ would consist of my mother slamming a door to signal that she was done. But sometimes the yelling carried on,” she writes in her memoir. “I developed panic attacks at night. They manifested first as a rhythm of anxiety that encircled my brain, then evolved into a rapid pulsing, a whirling frenzy of metallic thumps, like those nauseating old spinning rides at a county fair.”

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, panic attacks in children are most often brought on by stressful situations. Symptoms include:

  • Extreme fearfulness
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Shortness of breath
  • Trembling or shaking

Washington detailed suffering many of those symptoms as a 7-year-old girl, trying desperately to go to sleep to avoid hearing her parents fight. “It wasn’t every single night, but even on peaceful nights, I trembled at the possibility of it. Lying in bed, I would race to fall asleep before the sounds would leak from my bones,” she shares in her book.

As a mom of three, Washington has rarely shared this much information about her personal life. In fact, she has made a point about protecting her privacy. Which is what makes her revelation that she had panic attacks at night as a little girl all the more poignant. It has clearly stayed with her, that feeling of being frightened in the dark. And she’s ready to tell her story.