I have never really thought about being anxious. I don’t “have anxiety”. But I do wake up sometimes at 4 am for no apparent reason, heart pounding, and can’t return to sleep because of random, rolling, tumbling thoughts, nearly all involving harm coming to people I love, the state of the world, my relationship, my health, or whether I will get Alzheimer’s or perhaps I already have it.
I have never really thought about anxiety as a condition. But I remember being called a cry-baby, or having my fears of the dark, of monsters, of lots of things brushed aside, laughed at or diminished when I was a child. I was the child who felt things too deeply, wanted to come home from the sleepover because I was “homesick”, the child who had bellyaches before school, and burst into tears a lot. I was the child who hid behind doors and listened in to adult conversations as if the secret to not being scared might be found there. What I found instead were more things to be afraid of. I heard things that traumatised me, I saw harm done. I was harmed. I look at my primary school photo from 1967 when I was five and see a frightened little face. I was terrified often, and sometimes today when I wake at night and my heart is pounding for no apparent reason, it feels the same as when I got stuck in a concrete pipe when I was nine or ten. Except I wasn’t physically stuck I just panicked. I panicked a lot.
I have never known anxiety. But I have known crippling fear, paralysing rage, indecision, people pleasing, feelings of being undeserving and unlovable, loneliness and the need to self soothe and self-punish with addictive behaviours.
I haven’t understood anxiety. But in the last year I have understood a family legacy. My mother’s brain finally exploded in a series of small strokes, and then she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Watching her, helping her navigate this new reality and all that went with it has been heartbreaking and illuminating. She is completely undone by anxiety, and it became clear to me it was always there. The behaviours that are now so acute when not medicated – stress, paranoia, sleeplessness, panic, twitches, agoraphobia, generalised fear of going out in case she needs the toilet, tearfulness and the constant obsession with what to wear the next day – were always there, masked by efficiency, constant ‘doing’, busy-ness, being demanding of others, being a victim and never seeming to be happy, except when being admired.
I haven’t acknowledged my own anxiety. I thought it had something to do with strength and weakness. Now when I think back to my second born child and recognise it in him and all the things I did ‘wrong’ in not understanding, and when I did try to understand and get help for him, nobody else understood and thought he had ADHD or was just defiant. He was an adult with kids of his own before I even realised he had been anxious in a disordered way. Even the panic attacks didn’t really give me a clue. And so, we battled through. And battled. I hurt him, like my mother hurt me, by not acknowledging his sensitivity, his fragility, his demons. And by not always allowing him to fully express himself.
I didn’t understand anxiety like my son does. Now, my heart is cracked open by his son - my lovely sensitive, fragile, funny, eight year old grandson, who is so like his father. I have seen fear of the world in his eyes, I see the kid who wants to come home from sleepovers because he misses his mum, who gets bellyaches before school, who plucks his hair out, who wants lots of cuddles, and who listens in to adult conversations. I see my son and his partner, and my grandson’s mother loving him so hard, understanding him, guiding him and getting him the support he needs in a world that understands anxiety more. I see him. I see his father. I see my mother. I see my other children and grandchildren. I see my husband. I see me.
I see anxiety now. I see how it hurt me and impacted those around me. I see all that I did wrong, all that I did right, how hard I tried, how often I thought of giving up, how much shame I have at the rage I often felt when my kids were small, and how much fierce love I had for them that was offset by deep fear about my own capacity to look after them. And I see me as I was then, as I am now. I see myself with compassion, with self-love and with enough light to shine into the dark corners of feeling shame that I didn’t do enough, or be enough for anybody, least of all myself.
I want to take that anxious looking child in the 1967 photo into my arms and say you are enough, but you will be a grandmother before you know that to be true.