This is how it starts. Maybe there’s some big life event, a huge transition, like the birth of another child.
I started up after the birth of my third son. I thought it was just the stress of having three kids. But whatever it is, whatever you ascribe it to, you start blowing up all the time.
Not just at big things, like the 4-year-old painting the wall. Little things, like the 2-year-old dumping the Duplos.
The Duplos. OMG, I could feel every nerve leap into my throat at the sound of them clattering out onto the hardwood floor. The noise itself made me feel hateful. Even simple requests will lead you to sudden, unexpected, and unwarranted rage. “Mama, I’m hungry,” could send me into a spiral of anger. “But you just ate!” I’d snap from the couch as I nursed the baby. “Do I look like I can move? Go get yourself a banana.”
Then you hate yourself for being mean. Your heart hurts because you love these kids so much, and you never want to hurt their feelings. But the yelling comes again, and again, and again.
I thought, like many of you, that I had suddenly developed an anger problem. I thought, just like you, that I was a terrible person. I also thought I was alone. Who treats their kids like this, except bad people? Who feels like this? I had no idea that, like so many moms, my anxiety disorder was manifesting as anger.
I wasn’t mad. I was actually terrified.
We all find out in our own ways. Maybe it’s an internet article. Maybe it’s a friend. I found out from my psychiatrist who was checking on my postpartum anxiety. I finally broke down. I let my secret spill. “I feel so bad for my kids,” I sobbed. “I have no patience for them anymore. None. I can’t deal with them. They deserve better.”
“It’s all part of the same anxiety disorder,” she said gently. “Sometimes anxiety manifests as stress, which manifests as anger. You aren’t angry at your kids. You’re terrified. It’s very common.”
I cried, and cried, and cried. Not only was I not angry, I wasn’t alone. Not some horrible aberration, but a normal mom. A sick mom, but a normal one. Like you. Like all of you who yell at your kids for seemingly no reason, like all of you who can’t stop the rage from bubbling up even when there’s nothing to get mad at. I was so grateful to find out that I wasn’t the only one.
That validation saved me.
Three years later, I still take medication for anxiety, which has gone from postpartum anxiety to generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD. I hadn’t suddenly become an angry person. I hadn’t developed a rage problem. I was anxious. I was scared. Maybe not about my kids, maybe about something else entirely. Maybe the Duplos clattering made me so angry because I already felt like I was losing control over our household. Maybe my son asking to eat while I was nursing enraged me because I was scared I wasn’t able to meet his basic needs.
Maybe, maybe, maybe.
I can see it now. You can see the tension building, feel the fear or panic (or both) rising as the anger builds. Clutter and messes in particular can send many of us into a spiral of rage. You friends in anxiety, you understand this: The terror that once it gets out from under you, you’ll never be able to gather it back in again.
I’ve lived in mess. I am terrified I will live in mess again. And what do kids do but makes messes? We all know this. We all objectively accept that kids will destroy a room in 15 minutes and then absolutely refuse to clean it. It doesn’t matter that we know it. It enrages us. And this rage stems not from their behavior (expected), but from our own terror.
Or imagine you’re trying to get out the door in the morning. Your youngest left his shoes somewhere unimaginable and can’t find them. You start to get mad. Then you get outside and realize you’ve forgotten the car keys, so you have to leave the kids in the yard while you unlock the house with the hidden key and go dig the real keys out from the debris cluttering the kitchen table. You don’t have time to pick the mess up. The rage begins to rise in you.
Then the youngest won’t climb into his car seat, and all of the frustration of the morning builds up and snaps out: “Why can’t you do this right? You’re not a baby!” you demand of your all-of-3-year-old. His lip trembles. And you just want to cry with him because your anger has nothing to do with him and everything to do with being anxious and overwhelmed.
This is what it means to live with an anxiety disorder that manifests as stress and anger. Every single day, you try your damnedest to keep a lid on your emotions, try not to mind the clutter or being late, try to stay on top of yourself and ask, “What am I really feeling?” That takes a heck of a lot of effort and a hell of a lot of metacognition. It’s exhausting. Sometimes you’re too far gone to manage it. And you yell, and you lose your cool. You yell at the ones you love the most. The ones you would literally do anything for.
And that, perhaps, is the most heart-wrenching part of it all.