Passing On Anxiety

by Erin Morrison-Fortunato
Originally Published: 
An anxious little girl with a short haircut looks to the side with her hand on her chin

Soldiers, fire fighters, astronauts, fairies, and princesses swarm around me in the haze. I press my face against the cold Formica, searching for my breath and confused as to why my eyes won’t focus. I twist my fingers into my Cinderella skirt, grabbing at the fabric, squeezing my eyes shut, wanting security and safety from my own body. The adrenaline is cycling through me, and I am unable to escape because I can neither run in flight, nor protect myself through fight.

My best friend, coincidentally dressed as Cinderella, grasps my dress and yanks at it. “The Halloween parade is starting. Get up!” she orders. My head spins as I haul myself off of the desk. I know he is out there, and he is taking me with him after the parade’s end.

My biological father wasn’t what a father should be. I was unsafe when I was with him.

As the procession through the parking lot begins, I see him, his face in the crowd. My stomach lurches, twisting inside of me. My hearts races. My breath escapes me. I search for my mother, my safety. She recognizes the panic in my eyes. She pulls me from the parade, my savior, and leads me into a classmate’s home along the route. She holds my hair and rubs my back as I retch into the toilet, as I retch and heave long after there is nothing left in my stomach but cold fear.

I was eight-years-old. And this, this was far from my first panic attack. These attacks, my extreme separation anxiety from my mother, and my concerning stomach ailments plagued me for years. Much to my mother’s credit, her love and dedication kept us traveling from pediatrician to gastroenterologist to a child psychologist. She searched for the answer, but I was very literally too smart for my own good. I knew the shit storm that would rain down into the lives of the people I loved if I were to explain my anxiety. I consciously decided to live with it, instead of reaching out to take the help that was being offered.

Anxiety and panic have haunted me throughout my life, rearing their ugly heads at me during times that should have been joyous: college, my first years of teaching and, especially, in the wake of each one of my children’s births.

When I woke from a dead sleep at 3 a.m. on the night of my 3rd child’s birth with my heart slamming against my ribcage and unable to control my breathing or my racing thoughts, I knew I was in trouble once again. I immediately made my appointment with a therapist, a woman who was an expert in postpartum depression and anxiety. She was going to save me from the torturous, irrational worries that afflicted me: the fears that my house would burn to the ground with my children inside, that my van, with my babies strapped into their car seats, would spin out of control and over a bridge into the bay, that a vampire would attack my children. How would I keep them safe?

The therapy helped, but it was the drugs that saved me. And, I was hoping that they had saved my children as well. My greatest worry, far above and beyond the burglars, SIDs, and choking hazards that plague my nightmares, is that I passed along the anxiety gene. I hoped that if they couldn’t see the anxiety in action, couldn’t detect it on me, they would never take it on themselves. I reassure myself that they are safe, as safe and happy as any children can be. They have loving parents, who prize their well-being above all else, who keep them safe. But…

“Winter Wonderland” became our favorite Christmas song of the holiday season. My 3-year-old daughter, who fancies herself the next Kelly Clarkson, sang along at the top of her lungs. One day, just after belting out the line, “Later on, we’ll conspire as we dream by the fire,” Cecily quipped, “Why are they dreaming by the fire, Mommy? They should go up into bed to dream. It’s not safe to sleep by the fire. They’ll get burned.” I thought that this line of reasoning was so cute and funny that I couldn’t help but share it on Facebook. I didn’t give it a second thought until a friend commented, “Like Mother, like daughter.”

I read that simple phrase, and ice shot through my veins. What I had thought was just a confused and tickling thought process from my little girl may actually be an indication that the fear had already set in. I began to pay closer attention to what I had once thought were the small things over which my children fretted.

“Why, Mommy? Why does he have to die?” Cecily weeps uncontrollably into my chest as she watches Belle lean over the seemingly lifeless body of the Beast. It will be hours, maybe days, before she will let go of the grief she feels on Belle’s behalf. Let me remind you, the Beast lives. This matters not to my incredibly empathetic daughter.

My six-year-old son’s eyes glaze over with terror when he was faced with the realization that he had lost his math homework. “I can’t go to school. Can’t go! I’ll get in trouble. I lost it, and I’ll get in trouble!” My own pulse begins to race, as I am desperate to stop his panic before it grows. This…this is my fault. No, I didn’t lose the math homework, but the fact that he is having such an intense reaction to a minor mistake is clearly due to my influence, both genetically and environmentally.

He’d seen my own worry, no matter how hard I’d tried to disguise it. He’d marinated in it as he nestled inside my body, my extreme worry over the development of those ten fingers and ten toes. He’d nursed from it as I wept in regret my over my maternal failure to eject thoughtless visitors who had coughed and hacked their germs all over my newborn. Throughout his six years, he had hidden in my overprotective arms, held my hand as it clenched his in concern. I had poisoned him.

And, now, I must heal them. I must teach them to recognize the body’s physical reaction to stress and worry. I must give them the strategies that have worked in my own life to calm unnecessary fear. We talk, we write, we draw away our worries. We reason with our frightened minds, mapping out the solutions to our problems. And, if we harbor worries over which we have no control, no solutions, we must work on letting them go thorough visualization and breathing. I believe that I can live successfully with my anxiety. That, most importantly, I can model for my children a healthy way of approaching life. I can give them a healthier childhood than I gave myself.

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