“Mom, are you sure we should drive to the store today?” you asked me, just the other day.
“Of course!,” I replied, pulling my hair into a top knot. “Why wouldn’t we?”
“Because it’s raining,” you said. “Because there’s lightning. And we don’t want our car to get hit with lightning.”
I explained that the car has rubber tires, and this prevents the car from being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. But in that moment, I put everything together: This was about more than just a fear of thunderstorms. Your frequent stomach aches, the way you get quiet before entering a room, the constant, worried questions, the frantic look in your eyes when there is no routine or structure, the way you refuse to say goodbye to a guest.
I put down my hairbrush and said, “You’re having anxiety.”
“What’s anxiety?” you asked, your brown eyes imploring.
I paused for a moment to think of how I’d go about explaining this to you, my almost 8-year-old. My mind flashed to the time I was driving home from a day of classes, my heart racing and my lungs breathless. I remember thinking that I could be having a heart attack, that perhaps I should pull over and call an ambulance. Then I worried that maybe it wasn’t a heart attack, but I was having a sudden onset of Stage IV cancer. That, or I was going crazy.
That was hardly the first time, though. In grade school, I got into trouble once. You read that right: Just one time, and I still remember it vividly. I was in the restroom with my classmates, and some of the girls decided to reach up, grip the outside of the bathroom stall with their hands, and hang with their feet dangling. It looked fun, and so I decided to give it a try. As soon as my feet left the ground, our very strict and unforgiving fourth-grade teacher came in to check on the giggling group. Silence fell over us, and we followed the teacher into the hallway where she proceeded to line us up and lecture us about respecting school property. Then she said she was going to notify the principal.
I remember standing there, blood rushing to my face, my heart pounding in my chest to the point where I could swear it was visible to everyone around me. I was shaking and sweating. She was going to notify the principal? What would my parents say? The moment truly felt as if my world was about to end. I was simultaneously terrified and embarrassed.
In high school, I spent a solid three years going to the doctor for all sorts of tests and medications to treat my stomach issues. I was very often consumed with cramps, food aversions, nausea, and shakiness. My doctor, very frustrated, finally exhaled, “You need a punching bag.” Basically, he thought there was nothing wrong with me and maybe I just needed some sort of physical activity to relieve my stress. Or maybe I had Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Or, as a last resort, perhaps I was just a hypochondriac. I was basically shooed out the office doors with an eye roll and a sigh.
In college, I continued, as I always had, to struggle with learning the basics of science and math. I remember leaving my algebra class several times to use the restroom and snag a milk carton from the cafeteria, certain that my racing pulse and mind were a result of low blood sugar. I would guzzle the milk, toss the carton, and slink back into class, feeling only slightly better. That is, until the next class.
Every time I sought help, I found none. I was dismissed because of my type A personality and eldest child status. I just was who I was, and I should suck it up and deal. When I was a rule-stickler and a tattle-tale, I was deemed a stiff, a know-it-all, a nervous Nelly, a worry wart. The problem was I had no tools, no answers, and no community. Anxiety is extraordinarily isolating when you don’t even know you have it, and those around you — including medical professionals — dismiss your symptoms or throw an inaccurate diagnosis at you just to shut you up. Therefore, you begin to follow their suit. You try to hide, play down, and dismiss. Your self-esteem plummets because you begin to feel as though you can’t trust yourself and listening to your own body is getting you nowhere except plugged into the “disliked” social category. But as I’ve learned, dismissal never works long-term, nor is it healthy.
When I suddenly realized that you had anxiety, I instantly felt sadness, knowing you’re stepping into my boat of constant turmoil. But I also felt a tremendous sense of relief. Because unlike when I was growing up, our struggle has a name.
In the early years of Dr. Phil’s talk show, he would often tell troubled guests, ones in denial about the challenges going on in their lives, that “you’ve got to name it to claim it.” This has stuck with me. When the worry, the fear, the racing mind and heart begin; when the breathlessness, the stomach aches, and the panic set in; there is a name: anxiety. Simply by naming the problem, we’re claiming the problem. And by claiming it, we can begin to utilize the tools we have to deal with it.
For me dear daughter, anxiety can be tamed by exercise — particularly walks in the sunshine. It can be lulled by focusing on a simple and enjoyable task. I have found that doing a word search (yes, like an 80-year-old woman) is incredibly helpful. Many times, deep breaths and recognition that anxiety is rearing its ugly head, and not that something truly awful is happening, is enough to begin to bring me back down to my baseline.
I shared with you that anxiety is when you worry about something. That worry gets big and begins to make you feel bad. Like when you have stomach aches. I have felt nervous about many things throughout my life, but sometimes things that seem big aren’t bad. Sometimes they are really cool and happy things, but we have to make our anxiety obey us before we can be brave enough to do those cool and happy things. Luckily, since I have anxiety, and you do too, we can work together when we begin to feel anxious.
The most important thing is that we aren’t alone. We have each other. And by naming and claiming our shared struggle, we’ve already won half the battle. We won’t let a doctor dismiss you, a relative deem you a “nervous Nelly,” or a friend tell you that you just need to chill out. We will stand together, claiming our anxiety, and embracing who we are, without shame. We will figure out what works best for you, and we will relentlessly pursue peace. We are mom and daughter, and nothing can stop us, not even the big A.