I didn’t ask for my anxiety.
It’s been a constant companion since childhood that follows me around like a dark cloud. My mother, sister, and both grandmothers have it. Many of my friends and fellow moms have it as well. Anxiety is something that plagues many, and yet, I do my best to hide it.
I’m ashamed of the one part of me that is weak.
In every other way, I handle my business like a boss. Two small children, two jobs, a contentious divorce? No biggie, I’ve got this. Except for when I don’t. A few select words can bring on a panic attack of epic proportions. For instance, the word “loser” will haunt me forever.
A particularly brutal group of bullies in junior high chose to label me a loser for years. They’d taunt me on the bus, in the hallway, and even went as far as calling my parent’s phone line to attack me. So, when my new husband told me I was a “loser” for crying in front of our children in the car during a fight one day, it sent me reeling into a world of pain I’ve tried for years to suppress.
It all started on a road trip to an amusement park when he asked me to fetch the cooler to get a snack for our kids. “But the car is moving,” I said. We were on a major highway and I didn’t consider it safe to climb over a row of seats for a sandwich. “They’re hungry. What’s wrong with you? Get the sandwich,” he barked at me. We had gone through a recent rough patch and his harsh words stung. He had been dealing with work calls all morning and was cranky.
If he was going to wage a war over a sandwich, I was going to put him in his place. After all, he was setting a terrible example for our children by asking me to do something unsafe. “I am not risking my life due to your poor planning,” I snarked. And then, my world imploded.
“Why are you making such a big deal? The moment we get back from the trip, I’m leaving you. You’re acting like such a loser,” he declared.
Immediately, my heart started to race and tears streamed down my face. “You’re a loser, loser, loser,” rang through my head on repeat, like a scratched CD. His words took me back to a place that I vowed I would never return to. My most raw, imperfect self had been resurrected. My tumultuous childhood fears relived in an instant.
I don’t recall much of what happened the rest of the trip. Anxiety affects so much more than a person’s mental function; it evokes a very physical response to the severity of pain my body feels. As if the external world shuts down and all I can focus on is surviving the trauma that trigger words inflict.
I was wounded. I know that I was intermittently sobbing and struggling to breathe for the remainder of the journey, at one point asking him to pull over on a highway. He obliged, and once outside earshot of the children, confessed that he thought I was putting on a show to elicit sympathy from the two innocent kids that sat in the backseat. The words, “poor planner” had put him over the edge, since planning was essential to his work and defined him.
Suddenly, I was forced to prove that my anxiety was real. But there was no witness stand, no jury to determine the validity of my claims. Just me and my life partner, standing next to a junk yard on the side of I-77.
How could he question something so major, so delicate, so all encompassing?
Breathe, dammit, breathe! I pleaded with myself. I explained to him that I had experienced panic attacks before, but not in front of him — until now. He’s not a particularly emotional man, and grasping the concept of a panic attack was outside the scope of his comprehension.
I explained the various situations where my anxiety rears its ugly head. That every time I get my hair highlighted and the shampoo girl gets a tiny splash of bleach water in my eye, I think I’m going to go blind and run to the bathroom to splash enough water in it to avoid this terrible fate.
I described that I experienced a panic attack at work one day, when my boss told me I wasn’t cut out for nursing because I cried in front of a patient. I’d wanted to help people my entire life and service was a major part of what defined me. My husband didn’t know that I retreated to my car for a half hour that day until I could stop bawling and breathe.
The conversation was an eye-opener for both of us and he vowed to never say those harsh words to me again. Still, there was one request I was uncomfortable obliging. He wanted me to apologize to the kids for scaring them by sobbing.
“Let me be very clear, my anxiety is a medical condition. Would you ask a cancer patient to apologize for hair loss?” I said. He likened that “excuse” to an alcoholic blaming the liquor for an outburst.
I wouldn’t validate his opinion that anxiety was something to apologize for. I wouldn’t teach our children that they should be ashamed of their feelings. I was hurt that the man I chose to spend my life with would ask me to do such a thing — that he didn’t seem to understand my feelings.
The next day, while fastening our safety bars for the amusement park’s biggest roller coaster, my husband, who is afraid of heights, gripped my hand and confessed that his heart was beating so fast he thought he might have a heart attack. “That’s how I feel when my anxiety takes over,” I remarked. “But unlike a ride, there is no foreseeable end.”
He squeezed my palm tight and didn’t let go until the ride had finished. Much like my anxiety and our marriage, the coaster had its ups and downs. At times, we both wanted to vomit. But in end, we had to ride it out to find out what we were made of. He can now sense when he’s gone too far and talks me off the proverbial ledge when my thoughts start to race.
I’ll never forget that day and the lessons we both learned. Opening up about my anxieties has made our relationship stronger in so many ways. My husband not only understands me better, but I better understand that living with anxiety takes real courage. Being honest about my struggles is what’s best of all of us, and undoubtedly, the bravest way to live.