I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into when I started this series about living and parenting with anxiety. To be quite honest, my motivations were somewhat selfish in pitching it to Kveller. I figured it would allow me a space to process what had been happening to me. And, I would at least get paid for the most difficult months of my life so far. Got to find that silver lining somehow, right? But, what I wasn’t counting on was the response to it all.
Beyond the wonderful comments on the pieces themselves, I was shocked by the amount of personal messages I received from people–both from friends and complete strangers. Some were from folks who had experienced anxiety in the past and wanted to reassure me that it will get better in time. Others were still in the thick of it like me, and wanted to simultaneously commiserate and support me. And some were simply messages of thanks for talking about anxiety so publicly.
Hearing from those who had been there or still are is incredibly bittersweet. I’m grateful to see that I’m not alone, but saddened by how many people–particularly women–are also dealing with this major life upheaval as well. I had no idea how many others out there, some from within my circle of friends and acquaintances, were also struggling with anxiety. I heard more than once that I was brave for talking and writing about my experiences out in the open. Trust me, at times I felt anything but brave. But the overwhelming need to expunge these experiences from my brain and put them anywhere else overrode the fear of what others may think. In my mind, I had already lost so much in terms of my day-to-day regularity, so what was left to lose?
So many others felt either shamed or scared to publicly disclose what was happening to them, and chose to deal with it, at times really struggling, in private. Because the one thing I’ve seen is that despite the progression that has occurred around the way we talk about mental health, there is still a very real stigma attached to it. After all, in other times, not too long ago, everything I recently experienced would most likely be deemed a “nervous breakdown,” and who knows what sort of treatments (if any) would be offered.
There is also stigma surrounding treatment for anxiety. Wariness appears at times when I disclose that I’m on medication. I have a feeling some people think I should just be strong enough to get through it on my own. I feel that I’m strong enough to find an array of tools to help me handle my anxiety, medication being one of them. I also use acupuncture, yoga, coloring (really!), deep breathing, exercise, diet, supplements, and more. I am also always happy to listen to folks share what has worked for them and consider if it’s a good fit for me. But there is no shame in doing what you need to do in order to be not only functional, but also happy and productive.
So, what can we do? We can continue to talk about it and write about it and share our truths. With friends and family there was a slow process of sharing what was going on. I had to be upfront with a small handful of folks at the start since I needed their help to make it through the day. Amazingly, nobody judged or shamed me or made me feel bad in any way. Instead they were encouraging, supportive, and incredibly giving, both with their time and love. I realize just how lucky and privileged I am.
There was a learning curve as to how to talk about this all with my husband. His instinct was to “fix” whatever he could so I would feel better, but with anxiety, there’s no quick fix. We had to learn a slightly different language to talk about it all. One night, I just had enough. My skin was crawling from being so on edge all day. My mind wouldn’t stop buzzing from all the “what if’s.” I was exhausted because I hadn’t gotten much sleep, and I was completely over not being able to fit into any of my clothes anymore. I snapped and started crying.
“I just want to feel normal again,” I wailed as my husband looked at me helplessly. “I just want to go back to where I was at a few months ago. I just want to feel like myself again.”
I wasn’t just anxious, but scared that things would never be “normal” again. And my husband, ever the logical one, basically confirmed that. He said that he didn’t think things would ever go back to how they were, and in that moment, it was the last thing I needed to hear. Now, weeks away from that meltdown, I understand what he was trying to say. I’ll get better, but it will be a new normal. And at some point, it may be just as good or even better than it was before this all happened. At the time, I couldn’t even fathom that. And so, we learn a new way to talk about all of this, a balance between reassurance, normalizing, and comfort.
I also struggled for a while as to how to explain all of this to my 8-year-old son. After all, he was keenly aware that something was wrong, and I didn’t want him to worry about me (oh, the irony). I started simple. I explained that I was sick, but that it wasn’t anything contagious. I explained that while it impacted my body, it actually starts in my brain and my thoughts. It was actually a really great conversation that led to some realizations on his part, especially connecting things like fear and excitement to physical feelings. We talked about brain chemistry on a very basic level. It helps that my husband is a pharmacist and could fill in bits and pieces on how my medication helps me.
It’s been four months now since all of this began, and my son really seems to understand. The other day he grasped the notion that this isn’t fleeting, like a cold or a broken arm, but rather something that might stick with me for a very long time. “You just learn to do your best,” he tells me, echoing a phrase we frequently use with him. Ain’t that the truth.