I had a much-dreaded doctor’s appointment the next morning. So dreaded, in fact, that my husband had to take off work to go with me. It wasn’t a gigantic deal, but I was terrified in a way my anxiety meds couldn’t help, and it was bleeding into everything.
I was yelling at my kids to clean up the playroom, again. The nagging was futile, of course, because I’d done it a hundred times, but the mess was still enraging me. All I asked: Don’t make a giant mess. And they trashed the place like miniature frat boys. We had to get out the door in 15 minutes, in which time they needed to put on on shoes and wolf down sandwiches, and I was yelling about toys on the floor. I knew it was stupid, but I couldn’t stop. I finally turned and walked away mid-sentence.
“Go eat your food,” I muttered. “We can deal with this later.”
When my husband called, I raged into the phone. He confronted me about it later, telling me I need to calm down. I need to stop yelling. I need to stop getting angry. “This will all be better after your appointment,” he said. “It will all be better. You’ll be able to calm down.”
He knew I wasn’t angry, not really. I was just fucking terrified.
It’s hard to cope with an anxiety disorder. It’s even harder to cope when your anxiety manifests as anger and impatience. You can take meds: my therapist started me on a preventative dose of hefty ones when I confessed how angry I got at my kids all the times. The meds help, they really do. But they can’t tamp down everything, especially the everyday stuff we all have to deal with. Scrambling for babysitters. Disappointing family members. Scrabbling to clean the house for guests. Dealing with a doctor’s appointment on the horizon. I hit every one of those high notes that day.
When my husband called me on it, I got angrier. Because, well, I got more frightened. I felt like a terrible person, like a terrible parent.
He hates to bring up things like this because he knows it upsets me so much. It’s hard on a marriage: anxiety like this can lead to big fights, can make it hard to communicate. If you’re not raging, you’re crying or curling up inside yourself, two other pretty horrible coping mechanisms your fight-or-flight brain produces.
Honest discussions become difficult, which means it’s hard to improve the way you function as a couple and as human beings. Everyone needs to be able to take criticism. Sometimes, criticism about my anger makes me feel like something is eating me up from the inside. Or maybe like I wish it was.
It’s hard on the kids, too. I try to apologize to them. I try to explain to them: Look, I’m not really angry at you. I’m freaking out that I have this appointment tomorrow, which is no big deal really, but which I am just really worried about for no good reason. But I’ve already yelled. They’ve already been caught in the crossfire of my emotions.
My 8-year-old can parse out the distinctions to some degree. My younger sons cannot. They hear, “Mama yelled at me and now she’s sorry,” — and worry I might yell at them again. I try hard to be reasonable. I swallow my anger and try to be chipper, try to prattle on about something, anything. I play Hamilton and sing along because I know it will calm me down, the familiar words, the cadence of singing itself. I know the kids like it, and it will help them forget that I was mean. So, often, Lin-Manuel Miranda is our Band-Aid.
Everyone with anxiety has their unique Band-Aids.
These are some of the ways I cope now. I’ve lived with anxiety for years, recognized it now for almost a decade. I haven’t quite mastered the walking-away part of it, because I can be bulldog-stubborn, especially when I get mad. But I try to take deep breaths. I try to see the long view. As a woman once told me her wise grandmother said, “Will this matter in 100 years?” Most often, the answer is no.
I seek out my dog, who’s trained to be attuned to my emotional state and usually right at my side anyway. I pet him. It’s been proven that petting an animal can refuse your heart rate and calm you down. I read a book. If I can’t focus on anything else, I lose myself in well-trod TV territory.
If I can’t escape in the moment, I try coffee. It helps; it can tamp down my anxiety and hence my anger. Though, for some folks, caffeine triggers their anxious feelings.
I try to find something I love and cling to it, whether it’s wearing a favorite scarf or a having good hair day or cuddling my youngest son while he watches his favorite episode of Paw Patrol.
I’ve mostly learned to curb the impatience. I can recognize it in the moment now, find my triggers, and prepare for it. I remind myself of it constantly as I’m in the situation. I know finding shoes is a big deal in our house, so I ask carefully once, then ask again, then help them locate said shoes, no matter how annoyed I am. Because I can see the trigger coming on like a freight train, I can step out of its way. We know clutter sets me off, so we try to keep it at a manageable minimum.
It’s a complicated dance. It requires a lot of self-reflection and self-awareness to figure out your triggers and how to deal with them, then a lot of remembering once you’re in the midst of them. But it can be done. And when you slip, you apologize and you move on. The moving on can be hard. But it’s crucial. If you brood, you will spiral farther down.
If you have an anxiety disorder, you need help. You might need therapy, probably cognitive behavioral therapy (I’ve had a lot of it, which helps me be aware of the thoughts I’m having and change them), and you might need medication to help you cope too. Every time I write these essays, people message me, desperately, asking what meds I take, what might work for them. But what works for me may not work for you, and you need to talk to a doctor or psychologist about what may be best for you.
Self-care is also important. Super important. Remember the spoon analogy? When you’re anxious and angry, you’re short spoons. Take care of yourself. Be gentle. Give yourself grace.
You also need to find out what can help you retreat. I remove myself from the situation whenever I can manage it (which let’s be honest, I suck at, but I’m working hard on it).
Most of all, I have apologies. Honey, I’m sorry. I love you. I don’t mean to yell or turn off or be hateful.
Babies, I’m so sorry. I love you so much that it hurts me to yell, and some days, if you asked me if I could shut off my voice permanently, I’d jump at the offer, just to spare you from myself and the outbursts that get worse when I’m stressed.
I am not perfect. My anxiety hurts us all. But I am trying. I promise, I am trying. Please stick with me, stay with me, give me space and grace while I keep trying. I know it’s a lot to ask. But when it comes down to brass tacks, I’m scared. Remind me of that. Remind me I’m frightened, not angry. Remind me I’m displacing.
Remind me I love you.
And remind me that no matter what, I am worthy of your love, too.