For the past 15 years, I have been able to watch anxiety take a hold of our attention, as individuals who suffer from it and as a society that is becoming aware of and reacting to it constantly.
There are people who can’t see it as a real problem and there are people who identify it as our biggest problem. These two opinions are complete opposites, possessed by people with completely opposite perspectives.
I was lucky enough to grow up in the heart of a social experiment that I have been observing and taking mental notes on for the last ten years, and I am finally giving myself the opportunity to document it here.
I was raised by two parents who love me and validated my feelings in every way that they could but who have never experienced anxiety themselves. I have also grown up ten years ahead of but parallel to my cousin, who has two parents with legitimate chronic anxiety, and who have been diagnosed and treated as such.
My younger cousin, we’ll call her Hannah, has a handful of ways that she exhibits her anxiety; anxious eating, constant motion, social issues, panic attacks, and occasional stimming to name a few.
It’s obvious, to anyone who really looks, that these behaviors, along with the anxiety that drives them, are learned behaviors for her. She is the perfect combination of her parent’s anxiety; her father’s inability to stop moving because of emotional discomfort and her mother’s inability to take action because of fear. I have watched her develop and grow up and although I can say that she was always predetermined to anxious behaviors, three years ago she and her family lost their home in a natural disaster, which greatly exacerbated her anxiety.
My anxiety started manifesting when I was about 8 years old, and I had to write it, every page. I had no point of reference for how I was feeling and no where to look for how I should be acting. No one in my real life could empathize with me and it was long enough ago that there wasn’t any other community within my reach that could have potentially provided support.
My parents couldn’t recognize any of my symptoms at face value because they lived in the same environment as me. All of this was foreign to them and no one can fault them for that. I was an emotional child and by the time I was 11, I had been given an extreme health hurdle to overcome. I think that those things took the blame anytime my anxiety leaked out and manifested behaviorally. Most importantly though, there was my habit of keeping the bulk of my feelings to myself. When I did try to share, the things I told my parents didn’t really make any kind of sense to time – ‘I can’t sleep in the summer’, ‘I am very nervous when it’s hot’, ‘I can’t stop doing this’, ‘I don’t want to go’, ‘I don’t want to leave the house’. At that age, most of my anxiety was being triggered by the summer slump, creating a type of Seasonally Affected Disorder that returned each year and evaporated in the fall. Without my pint sized schedule giving my daily life meaning and direction, I had nothing. I dreaded summer and I suffered through most of its hot nights, trapped in endless circles of OCD ritualistic behavior, bargaining with higher powers, trying to create conditions, trying to get out of being miserable, or just crying about it. And for most of this, I was alone.
Where my parents couldn’t see or understand my anxiety, Hannah’s parents not only see it, they recognize it. Everything is out in the open for her, and from where I’m standing this is as good as it is bad.
Hannah has an amazing opportunity to bond with her parents. During those moments when the burning panic settles in or when spiraling thoughts consume her, she has two shoulders to cry on that understand exactly how she is feeling. But, she is being taught, constantly, that her anxiety is a problem that isn’t only real for her, but it’s also a priority for the people around her. She’s learning that if something makes her uncomfortable, she doesn’t have to do it.
As a slice of life example, Hannah and I both share a dislike for eating in restaurants. For her, this means that 9 out of 10 meals, not cooked at home, are takeaway.
Ten years earlier, I was being dragged along, 9 out of the 10 times that my parents were eating out. Did this make me feel like there was a disconnect in my relationship with my them? Yes, of course, but it wasn’t really the worst thing to ever happen. I learned that my parents didn’t understand my anxiety and couldn’t make decisions or plans based on it, so I never expected any different from the rest of the world. As I grew up, I validated my anxiety on my own. It affects me and it is a real problem for me, but it isn’t anyone else’s real problem. It’s for me to handle and deal with by myself. You might think Hannah has it better because she has support, and in the moment, the support feels good, but it does nothing to ease the feeling of isolation that sits at the root of so many problems like anxiety. Two people sitting next to each other, battling their own inner demons are still fighting alone. I knew I was alone from the jump and it made me fight harder. Once I could cope, I did. Once I figured out I could help myself, I did. And it was easy for me to build my relationship with my parents around other things, because I wasn’t consumed anymore. I had a whole life, I had given myself that much.
The coping methods I created, out of desperation for sanity, mostly, are still with me just as much as my anxiety is. Some help me every day and some help me only when things get bad. I want the opportunity to share them, so I’m here, and I’m hopeful that someone will listen.