I’ve had anxiety on and off since I was about 8 years old. I am not always anxious, and I don’t appear that way to someone who doesn’t know me. But I am prone to massive attacks of anxiety, and although I have a good idea what my triggers are, I never quite know when those attacks are going to happen.
Take, for example, this afternoon. I’d been having a good few weeks of anxiety-free living. It was lovely. I walked around like a normal person, did my chores, my work, cared for the house, my kids. And then last night, my toddler woke me up a million times for no reason; I had my period and felt sick; it was a MONDAY after a nice long weekend; and then my third-grader came home complaining of a headache.
He picked at his dinner and went to go lie in bed. He’s the kind of kid who never goes to lie down in bed. My heart began to beat out of my chest. Everything that had been piling up all day reached a crescendo, and the most irrational thoughts flooded my brain.
I was certain that my son was getting sick. And not just a little sick. And not just the kind of sickness that would pass. No, something that would likely kill him. Some rare virus. Or perhaps a brain tumor? I mean, obviously, something was very wrong with him.
See that? It makes no sense to go there, but when anxiety strikes, my mind goes to the worst-case scenario situation immediately.
And the thing is, I could see it happening. I could see how irrational my thoughts were, but I couldn’t stop them. I couldn’t stop my heart from racing, my legs from turning to jelly, and the ridiculous thoughts from flying through my head.
Then I began to worry about the worry. I wondered if my son could pick up on how nervous I was. The last thing I want in the world is for my kids to be infected by my anxiety. I know anxiety so well, and it pains my heart to imagine either of my children having to experience it.
So I sat there, hanging out with my son, offering him sips of water, trying to soothe him, trying not to smother him—all while the stress hormones flooded my body, and I felt helpless. All I wanted was to be the calming force in the world for my son who wasn’t feeling too hot himself, and I simply could not do it.
When anxiety strikes, it prevents me from being the mother I want to be. I am not able to be present with my children. I am somewhere else, a captive to my thoughts. I’m supposed to be the grown-up, but I morph into a child—totally powerless and vulnerable.
I hate myself then. I want to make it stop, but I can’t. I want desperately to return to my old self, but I have to wait—often for what seems like forever. Sometimes the anxiety passes in a matter of minutes, hours. Sometimes it’s sort of just there, underlining my life, for weeks at a time. And even when I have a good few anxiety-free weeks or months, I know it will return. It is always somewhere, itching to invade my life.
I don’t have any perfect solutions. Medication has never really worked for me, but I know it’s a godsend to some. Daily meditation and exercise help me. Recognizing when an anxiety attack is beginning to happen sometimes means I can use mindfulness and breathing to lessen its effects. But sometimes it’s too big and ugly for that, and I just fall victim to it until it’s over.
One thing that I have started doing is saying out loud to my children: “I’m feeling anxious right now. I think I need to sit down for a sec.” I had thought for a while that this was a terrible idea. I thought I should probably hide the anxiety from my kids, to protect them. But I realized that they’re probably sensing something from me anyway, so I might as well just tell them why I can’t really listen to them or play with them.
The results have been kind of amazing. My kids have been kind to me. They’ve stopped playing and put their hands on my shoulders, said a few kind words, and actually made me feel better. Usually just saying I’m feeling anxious—getting it off my chest—is a huge relief. But there has been something extra reassuring knowing that my kids can hear about my anxiety, be OK with it, and even reassure me.
I know my anxiety is not their responsibility. It is not a burden I want them to bear. And so I do my best to protect them from it. I take care of myself as well as I can. I get help when I need it. I believe that despite my anxiety, I am a pretty great mom.
But my tendency toward anxiety colors my motherhood in ways I wish it didn’t. It has ruined whole weeks and months of my life with my kids.
I hope, if anything, that having anxiety teaches me to be more compassionate about the big emotions that my kids sometimes experience. And I hope that if either of them develops anxiety, I will be able to recognize it, get them the help they need, and nurture them through it.