This isn’t easy for me to write about. Just the simple act of typing out these first words has made my heart start pounding. You see, I have anxiety, and although I am comfortable and accepting of who I am as a woman with anxiety, I have yet to reach that comfort and acceptance of who I am as a mother with anxiety. Motherhood is hard; motherhood with mental illness is a completely different ballpark. When my daughter came into this world, my anxiety was no longer just about me.
Anxiety manifests itself differently in different people
My mental illness is such an ingrained part of me that I can’t remember a time in my life without it. Although I received my diagnosis and began taking medication when I was 21, I have been exhibiting the symptoms since early childhood. So many of my little quirks and personality traits are either symptoms of or coping mechanisms against my anxiety.
There are so many misconceptions about anxiety. Having anxiety does not mean you are always worried, anxious, or afraid (though sometimes you are). Having anxiety does not mean you have hyperventilating panic attacks that land you in the ER (though sometimes you might).
Sometimes having anxiety means that your mood can go from green to yellow to red in a matter of seconds. Sometimes having anxiety means a benign interaction with someone can weigh on your mind for the rest of the day. Sometimes having anxiety means that certain triggers can cause you to fall off the deep end of rational thought. Triggers can include things like being late, losing or forgetting something, having to repeat yourself, technology that isn’t working properly, fast approaching deadlines, messes, social situations, waiting in a long line, or other drivers on the road.
Panic attacks can take many different forms. My anxiety generally manifests in ways that don’t resemble panic at all. When I am having a panic attack, I might appear to be sad, I might appear to be quiet, or I might appear to be angry – but most people would never guess that what I was actually feeling was intense, sometimes all-consuming, anxiety.
Unfortunately, at its very worst, my anxiety manifests as frustration and anger. This isn’t fun for anyone. Especially my daughter.
Anxiety is highly personal and oftentimes completely illogical. Many of the things that trigger a panic attack in me may seem ridiculous to others. Honestly, they seem ridiculous to me. I can be knee-deep in a rage-filled freak out and know that there is no rational reason for me to be raging or freaking out. Unfortunately, these feelings are my reality. No matter how much the outside world doesn’t understand them, it doesn’t make them less real to me. I still have to figure out how to work through them.
I’m fairly self-aware (at least, this is what my psychiatrist tells me). I’ve come to understand the things that trigger my panic attacks. Knowing what my triggers are has helped me learn to minimize or cope with my anxiety. Most of my triggers have a single, underlying cause: frustration. Frustrating situations trigger me, and I get frustrated easily.
Some of my major triggers include:
I think I drive my husband crazy because I always have to leave early for things – work, social engagements, my daughter’s activities, etc. I leave early because, if I don’t, I become stressed out and upset. Even though I know that nothing bad will happen if I am occasionally late, it doesn’t matter. The mere thought of being late sends my anxiety level through the roof.
Social engagements combine many of my triggers into one hellish festival of angst. Being on time, being in a crowd, and making small talk… a trifecta of panic inducing triggers. It is bad when I know the people I will be hanging out with – it is a million times worse when I don’t. I am not always anxious in social situations, and when I am, I can generally suppress my anxiety by pretending like I’m just playing a role – the engaged employee, the social acquaintance, or the involved mother. It’s easier to put myself out there when I’m something more than just myself. Sometimes, when the anxiety is too much, I just cancel the plans. I can’t always summon the strength to face it all.
I will avoid calling people at all costs. If I can find an email address, you better bet that I will use it before I pick up that phone.
Not being able to find something I need, especially when I am in a hurry, sets me off into rage-filled panic attack. Anyone in the path of my storm should take cover.
Above are only a few examples of what might cause me to have anxiety. Driving, traveling, blood draws (or just thinking about blood draws), white elephant exchanges, having to redo things, a stranger knocking at my front door, my latest blog post being published… the list goes on.
When my anxiety manifests as frustration and anger, I am generally only angry with myself. Unfortunately, other people may be caught in the cross hairs. During the entire episode, I know that I am being irrational. When it is over, I am usually a sobbing wreck who feels utterly ashamed of myself for reacting that way I did. Yet it continues to happen, over and over again.
Anxiety is overwhelming, and I have learned how to cope through most situations:
I am usually five to 15 minutes early for everything.
I don’t generally attend social gatherings where I don’t have a good friend present.
I avoid large crowds as much as possible, and if I can’t, I get there early to scope it out and find a spot that is in the back or on the edge.
If I need to call someone, especially where a difficult conversation might ensue, I will go so far as to write out what I need to say (needless to say, I will never be a telemarketer or political volunteer).
I try to pack whatever I will need for the next day before I go to bed. That way there won’t be a last minute rush to find things before we leave for school or work.
I plan as much as possible when I travel, I let others drive when I can, I never answer my front door if I’m not expecting someone, and I go to my family and friends to talk through things I am worried about.
These coping mechanisms help, but I can’t always be in control of every situation. This is hard. I like being in control. Medication has helped tremendously. It’s not perfect and it certainly has not cured me, but the tiny white pill that I take every morning gives me a little extra patience. A little more control. A better chance at having a good day.
Anxiety and parenting
The hardest part about my anxiety is navigating it while also being a mom. Motherhood is not what causes my anxiety – all that other stuff I mentioned does. But sometimes my anxiety affects who I am as a mother. Since most of my anxiety stems from frustration, my daughter has found herself in the middle of my panic attacks on more than one occasion. These are the hardest moments for me.
There are days when I find myself going from zero to yelling in no time flat, often over situations that have nothing to do with her. When we are running late, when I’m driving, or when I’m in a situation where I feel uncomfortable, I may lose my patience, I may get angry and yell, or I may use words that are unkind. My daughter feels the brunt of my anger, even when that anger is not directed at her.
It is in these moments that I feel my absolute worst.
It is actually because of my daughter that I’ve become better at coping with my anxiety. When I am anxious, I am not the mother I want to be or the mother my daughter deserves. Most of the time, the anxiety passes quickly and I am able to subdue any negative reactions. It is when the anxiety does not pass quickly or I am unable to see the panic attack coming that I have to work extra hard to remain in control.
I’ve found that being honest with my daughter is the easiest and most successful tool I have. When I lose control and my attempts at gentle parenting fly out the window, I am honest and explain to her what happened. I apologize to her. When I am able to feel the anxiety attack coming, I simply tell her that I need to go away by myself for a few minutes to calm down. When I come back to her to apologize and explain what happened, she looks at me with big eyes full of forgiveness and says, “It’s okay, Momma.”
It doesn’t always feel okay, but her generosity means everything.
I feel guilty every day of my life that my daughter has to learn to cope with MY anxiety. My greatest hope is that she doesn’t have to cope with anxiety of her own someday, but I’m remaining realistic. I hope that by being honest with her about who I am and what I am dealing with, I am better enabling her to potentially navigate these issues in the future. I also want her to understand that, regardless of our age, we aren’t always able to remain in control of our emotions–and this is okay.
Giving someone space and grace as they regain control is one of the kindest ways to help someone.
While I am often ashamed of how I react as a result of my mental illness, I am not ashamed of who I am for having a mental illness. I want my daughter to know that having a mental illness is no different from having any other type of illness–we talk about it, we seek medical help for it, we diagnose it, and we work together to help make it better.
I also want all of the other mamas out there who suffer from a mental illness to know that it’s okay to not be perfect, to not always be in control, and to make mistakes. Those beautiful little people that we created love us unconditionally, just as we love them unconditionally. They will forgive us for our mistakes just as readily as we forgive them for theirs.
It’s also okay to not suffer in silence, to talk about it, and to seek help. And if you don’t have someone you can talk to, please know that you can always talk to me.