Anxiety is a well cleaned bone: sharpened over time, poking, poking, poking you all over, honing in on all of your daily worries and frustrations, hollowing them out until they are so much bigger and wider and all- consuming than they ever need to be. Anxiety changes over time, it grows with you, thriving under the weighted blanket that you create to keep it hidden.
When I was a child I thought it was normal to feel trepidation, to build protective walls around myself before I got out of bed in the morning. I thought it was normal to always worry about everything I did or said, turning it over and over in my mind for hours to make sure there wasn’t a misstep in my actions, something wrong in my words. And that was before I was 10. My anxiety became my closet pet, to be hidden at all costs because no one wants to have to deal with silly things like fear and worry. I worked very, very hard to keep my little pet inside, hiding the little quirks she had from the outside world.
But she had ways of always popping out whenever she felt like it, picking at a small crack in the wall, affecting me physically in ways that I couldn’t imagine. That Tuesday morning Maths class that gave me an upset stomach every week, ruining the history class before it and the lunch break after it. The shaking hands when I opened the front door, pulling the cloak over my inner child before facing whatever mood would prevail in the house that day. The utter fear of being asked to present an idea in class, because even though I always had hundreds of ideas and arguments inside the fear would strangle my vocal chords. I would push myself every day with internal pep talks, and then I would stand up and everything would go black behind my eyes, and stumbling through an answer or presentation, fellow students burning eyes into my body, snickering in my head. I would sit down, spent, because the amount of energy it took to get through every single day was already enough, but the added hurdles tipped me over the edge. Tired.
Anxiety has a way of changing over time, taking on new and more original forms, taking over different bodily organs. And again I developed new coping skills. One that will always stand out is the constant need to pee, a real need, even when I didn’t drink anything, even when I went to pee once, twice, three times in 20 minutes. How does the body create so much water? And then the day spent dehydrated, headache pounding as I moved from class to class, forcing my eyes to stay open. On the worst days hiding in the school nurse’s office citing period pain, because no one wants to challenge the girl with period pain. But no, I wasn’t sick, I was just anxious; although I didn’t know there was a name for it. I thought everyone had it.
Anxiety is waking up in the middle of the night and watching your brain spin stories together, stories so intricate that when you finally go back to sleep and wake up an hour later you can’t tell the difference between real life and dream life. It’s when you rush into work and check your email to make sure the project issue that was running around and around in your mind is not real. What a waste of energy, what a waste of precious sleep time. Anxiety is then beating yourself up about losing sleep, about not being able to switch your brain off for a while. Anxiety is coping skills, some healthy, most not. Alcohol and anxiety go well together, alcohol stripping away at the layers, coating frazzled nerve endings with warm candle wax, freeing your mind from the many boxes and fences you have created. Anxiety and alcohol numb each other and fuel each other, one problem hiding the other. Why would I rather admit to having an alcohol problem than finally say that I have anxiety? Why do I think that living with a constant pit in my stomach is normal?
Anxiety is also chain-smoking, and not being able to swallow food. So what happens when you take the enablers, the jailers, and the protective curtains away? You write, you think, and you deal with everything. But anxiety constantly changes and keeping up with it becomes more and more tiring. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay home and not have to face the constant pokes and prods and potholes.
Anxiety in motherhood is yet another game changer, wading through guilt and niggling terrors, knowing all the signs, building more walls. It’s all so familiar until it isn’t anymore. The mind really has its ways of throwing a few massive curveballs your way. It wasn’t until I read an article the other day that I realized why I felt so angry all the time. I’m not an angry person even though I have real license to be. I could have become angry but it just was never in my nature, I am soft-spoken and try to see the good in everything. But nowadays my temper is short and prone to flare ups, yelling, my eyes wide when I hear the sound of my voice when she unleashes herself, two seconds of sound followed by the most intense guilt I have ever felt. Nowadays anxiety is wanting to throw my phone out of the window when it doesn’t unlock fast enough, anxiety is the intense irritation I feel when yet again one of the children throws food on the floor. Anxiety is now yelling in despair when one of the children refuses to listen, something that never bothered me so much before, but now drives me insane. Anxiety is now worrying about the dishes in the sink all night because I listened to my partner for once and relaxed on the couch. Anxiety is now waking up to a messy living room, unfolded laundry, and a to do list from yesterday, not a neatly handwritten new one for today.
I don’t have PPD or even PPA, I’m doing really well in general, but this new anger was worrying me. But now I realize that it’s my old friend anxiety coming out to play again in a different form. Now I know why I was staring wistfully at the bottle of Jameson in the restaurant the other day, wondering if a shot would “take the edge off”, and then shaking my head and clenching my jaw. Anxiety now is jaw ache from clenching it so much, unconsciously. Anxiety is waking before the baby and not going back to sleep after the baby has settled down again, because anxiety and sleep hate each other. I learnt to cope with all of the different forms that my anxiety cloaks herself in; this one won’t be any different. And you know what?
Now I have figured it out again I can work on it. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. A long sip of water, eyes closed, flushing the crashing thoughts out of my mind. Water flowing, covering the cracks and the holes, ripples, one direction ahead. And the best coping skill of all: knowing it’s OK to not be OK, and that some days we are allowed to give in and let the anxiety go. Because when you unleash the beast it tends to back away, fearing what lies ahead. My kids will never know this irrational anger because I’m letting it go. I just hope they can forgive me for yelling a bit too much over the past month.
And then anxiety is a panic attack, but not your panic attack, the panic attack of a three year old. You know the signs and in addition to offering unending cuddles and patience and a safe place you also take steps to make a difference. I know now that I am not making a big deal out of nothing, because anxiety is a real monster to deal with, a changeling, the deeper you bury her the more she likes to drill to the surface. It’s all about one step at a time. I haven’t let her cripple me and I most certainly won’t let her cripple my daughter.