This Is What It's Like To Live With An Anxiety Disorder

by Elizabeth Broadbent
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I am sick. I should be sleeping. I cannot sleep. My husband has come in to rub my back while the kids (also sick) destroy some precious family heirloom. “You need to go to bed,” he says. “You’ll feel better if you go to bed.”

I toss his arm off me and throw the covers to the bottom of the bed. “I can’t sleep. I keep thinking about the socks I bought.”

He is baffled. “The socks?”

“The knee socks I got for the boys on Amazon. I keep thinking about them, and I keep getting these shivers of terror. Then any single time a Hamilton lyric crosses my mind, I get another jolt of panic. This happens every five fucking minutes.”

“But you love Hamilton!”

“It doesn’t have to make sense. I think I need a [legally prescribed] Xanax.”

This is generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), or what is more commonly called “an anxiety disorder,” by which you probably mean GAD, since others have to do with social issues, phobias, and the like. GAD means that you freak out about, well, just about anything. Sometimes you’re freaking about social stuff. Sometimes you’re freaking out about traffic deaths, or the global spread of AIDS, or the death of bees. Sometimes it’s more mundane.

Sometimes you’re just worried, for no apparent reason, that your car won’t start in the morning. It happened like, two years ago. And even though you know you can call AAA if the kids left the minivan door open and burned out the battery, it doesn’t help. You approach the car with a shiver in your hand. You do not breathe normally until the engine turns all the way over, the lights all flare on, the air conditioner blares to life and the battery meter moves up midway through the measurement thingie. This is good, because you need to drive the kids to school. You go through this every fucking morning.

Other times you worry that you’ll be the first person at the park playdate. Why? You know the other moms will show up eventually. You don’t want to be late, because it’s rude, so you leave early. But not early enough to go to Starbucks. You know you will have to sit there alone for fifteen minutes, at least, until someone else shows up. What will your kids do, without other kids? What will you do, without other adults? You don’t want to sit on your phone. But you don’t want to push them on the swings either (admit it: no one really wants to push their kid on the swings).

You can watch them play. But what if someone bad shows up and you’re all alone? You should have brought the dog. He’s a large dog. He’s a scary-looking dog. You know, intellectually, that you will pull up at the park, let the kids run out of the car, and sit on your phone for ten minutes until your mom BFF shows up. But the thought of those minutes is excruciating, and there’s no clear answer as to why.

You worry about a vast range of things relating to your children. You worry that they have too many toys, which are stifling their creativity. But you worry that if you take some of their toys away, they will hate you forever, and anyway, isn’t it disrespectful to take someone else’s possessions?

You worry that they watch too much TV, and that this also stifles their creativity. Then you notice them playing Ninjago instead of a game they made up themselves, and you know you need to do a detox, but you can’t quite get up the gumption to cut them off, and you know they do honestly need TV to calm down. You worry the dogs steal their food too often and they will grow up to be cat people. You worry they don’t play outside enough. You worry that someone will notice their socks don’t match, or their shirt is stained, or that you forgot to wipe the peanut butter and jelly off their face. For someone with GAD, children are walking, talking, adorable foci of terror.

Then there is the inexplicable. You are terrified, utterly terrified, by baskets of laundry. They sit in your — wherever your laundry baskets sit. Mine sit in my kitchen, and you can judge away, bitches, because they still sit there and torment me with their whiteness, their spilling-over fullness, the fact that clean clothes are falling on the floor and all I can manage to do is to pick them up and put them back in the basket. It takes 10 full baskets and a [legally prescribed] Klonopin for me to sort laundry. And when I do, I leave it in clothes baskets in front of my kids’ drawers, because I totally do not have time to fold laundry. I worry you are judging me for this. I especially worry that the babysitter is judging me for this, and I try to make a joke of it: “I’m too busy doing art with the kids to fold laundry,” I say. We’ve thrown one pot this week. Now I’m worried that you’re judging me for lying to the babysitter.

The babysitter. Oh, the terror of the babysitter. You do not know, unless you have GAD, the agony of having a babysitter. First there’s the terror that she’ll think your house is a DSS-call-worthy cesspool. So you have to clean all the things, especially the bathrooms, because boys pee all over the floor, and especially the kids room, because they also throw Legos all over the floor. You have to get on your knees and beg her to make them clean up after themselves, because that one time they didn’t and you came home and cried in front of God and everyone. Then you leave, and you pray she has the sense to keep them away from the hose and not kidnap them and leave the dogs outside and know the Heimlich maneuver if the baby chokes.

Basically, having GAD means you’re overly terrified of random things that make sense (car accidents) and panicked about things that are completely innocuous and will work themselves out in the end anyway. Do not tell us this. We will punch you, because believe me, if we could turn this shit off, we would. No amount of rationalization will convince us that the laundry baskets are not a terror-inducing misery or that the babysitter will be totally fine. We can’t talk our way out of it. We just have to live it, one fear at a time.

For many of us, prescription drugs help. So does talk therapy. And so does a nonjudgmental hug. Because as afraid as we are, it helps if someone is willing to be in that space with us. You don’t have to understand. You just have to be there. And maybe fold the laundry yourself.