Friday, January 3, 2014

the A word

I spend much of my life in near-constant fear. Call it what you will: irrational, silly, ridiculous…I would agree with most of those words.  I call it anxiety.  Now, this stuff comes and goes with me. Some days and weeks and even months are relatively normal – and by normal I mean that I don’t wake up with the fear that I’m dying.  Some days, weeks, and months are okay – as in, I’m getting by, spending much of my time focused on things I can’t control, but getting by nonetheless. And some days, weeks, and months are spent in a near haze of dread.
This isn’t anything that should be surprising about me. I have shared much of this in the past when talking about my daughter’s battles with anxiety as well. However, recently I read this article in the Atlantic about author Scott Stossel’s struggles with his own anxiety. First, I read the reader responses to his article where people from all over the world wrote in to share their stories.  I’ll be honest, I read some of them and thought, “well now THAT is just crazy.” I felt better about myself after reading a few of the letters.  And I cried after reading some of the stories, because it’s nice, once in a while, to know I’m not the only one who feels these things.
Anxiety doesn’t define me, most days, but it is certainly a part of who I am. One of the responses to the article described her anxiety as a blanket, or a series of blankets piled upon each other, so that sometimes she feels as though she might suffocate. Most days, anxiety isn’t a blanket for me, but rather, it stays quietly in the corners of my mind. When I’m not busy enough, though, or when it’s quiet at the end of the day, or when things are more stressful than usual, the blankets start to pile up.  It began when I was very young.  Separation from my parents, maybe? I began crying and throwing up when I was in a new situation. I would puke when things weren’t familiar, and when things would scare me, and when I felt out of control. Just writing that, I can see the things that trigger anxiety for me today haven’t changed all that much.  While I am no longer a puker (thank God), sometimes I feel that, just as Stossel writes, “Even when not actively afflicted by such acute episodes, I am buffeted by worry: about my health and my family members’ health; about finances; about work; about the rattle in my car and the dripping in my basement; about the encroachment of old age and the inevitability of death; about everything and nothing.”
As a child, I was told to quit worrying. I was told to settle down, and to knock it off. I hold no anger toward the people who told me those things.  I truly believe they meant well and that they didn’t know that just the tiniest validation of my emotions would have gone a very long way in my ability to move beyond the panic. Instead, being told to quit worrying made me worry more, because, how can I quit something I can’t describe and clearly can’t control? In recent years, with the decline of my mother’s physical and mental capacities, I have become more and more anxious about my own health. Will I be in assisted living by the age of 66 like she was just thanks to my genes? Is my penchant for rich food, and that extra glass of wine going to doom me to a life of terrible health? Seriously, how long until my liver (kidneys, heart…) stops working? Is that headache a tumor? You can see how quickly this spirals out of control…and yet all seems plausible to me in some capacity during the throws of a panic attack.
Have I passed my anxiety to my children? The short, sad answer is absolutely. Probably in the way my anxiety was passed on to me through generations of Blooms and Tammeuses and Helanders and Andrews and probably even long before those people. As I read Stossel’s article, I realized that my reactions to things around me are rooted in both nature and nurture. We are, of course, a product of our environment, and also a product of our families, for better or worse. There are many sad parts of that story – generations of women in my family (and men, I assume) who weren’t strong enough to talk about what was going on inside their heads. The idea that anxiety is a mental illness and something to be ashamed of is something that people still struggle with today and certainly shamed many of my family members to live with their demons, or to self-medicate.
I don’t know if these things are still taboo. In my house, and with my friends, and in my writing they are not. I have found that I need to write about the things that stay in the corners of my mind in order to get past them. I haven’t posted to this blog in ages because what I’ve written for myself (which hasn’t been much) has been a jumble of feelings about what is to come for me. I graduated with my masters degree in December and now things are slowing down, and with that slowing down comes the inevitable panic. It will subside, as it always does, but this article came at an important time for me, I think, as it has allowed me to think more clearly about the things I struggle with on a daily basis. What I know at the end of the day is that we are all human beings. Our minds are capable of incredible things. I’ve also always thought about how our minds are maybe the loneliest places, too, as we the only ones who know what is going on in there. Today, I needed to know I wasn’t alone. I only hope this might help someone else feel the same.


  1. Hope you'll write to Stossel and tell him how much his piece has meant to you. Writers like to hear that kind of stuff.

  2. Metacognition is one thing, but being able to share it is a whole different ballgame. You are baring your soul and sharing it, and it means a lot to those who love you. Keep talking. We'll keep listening. Kiss, kiss, M

  3. You know that I struggle with many of the same things. I find also that it is in the "quiet" times that my anxiety becomes strongest, which is why I throw myself into work and committees, and when I don't have that stuff going on, play on the internet for hours on end. I am hoping for more peace in 2014, and I hope you find that as well!

  4. Thanks, Dad, Mary, and Mary! I appreciate your words. Such a downer post for the first one I've written in a while, but I felt like I needed to write about it.