When the Anxiety I Felt as a Child Resurfaced in Adulthood
My old “friend” is back. The anxiety I felt during my early childhood has resurfaced and is threatening to drown me. As I struggle to find new ways to cope and new ways to trick my mind into believing my anxiety is a liar, I think back to the many times it has touched my life.
I first learned to manage my anxiety as a young child by lying and inventing excuses no one could argue with. I remember an ice skating class when I was around 4. The teacher wanted us to skate from one side of the rink to the other. The rink seemed impossibly large to me and the task immensely scary. I immediately said I had to go to the bathroom and it could not wait. When confronted by my mom, who had seen the whole thing, I insisted I had to go to the bathroom. She saw right through me, but I didn’t care. She couldn’t possibly understand how terrified I felt in that moment.
Once I started school, faking some type of ailment became my go-to coping mechanism. Whenever something made me nervous, I suddenly didn’t feel well. There were many trips to the nurse’s office. I felt like they were my friends. They allowed me to believe my stories were believable.
On some level, I was telling the truth. My stomach often hurt, which, although I didn’t understand it at the time, was most likely the result of me having a nervous stomach. I even had to get an upper GI test done because I complained so much about having stomach ailments. Physically, I was fine, but no one assessed my mental or emotional health as far I know.
My anxiety would weave itself in and out of my life for the next several years. My family lovingly started referring to me as a hypochondriac. I remember running in to my parent’s bedroom one night and frantically announcing to my parents that I thought my heart had stopped beating. My father’s gentle laugh emerged and he calmly explained to me that that was impossible. I still wasn’t sure, but I trusted him.
My father was my life vest. He was the soothing presence in my life who would pull me back to the surface every time my anxiety tried to sink me. I began a practice of telling him my fears and waiting for him to reassure me. As long as he was safe and present in the world, I knew I could find my way back to myself. When he died almost 20 years ago, the anxiety didn’t strike right away. The depression and denial numbed me from my fear in that time. The worst had happened. What else could go wrong?
Six years ago the wall of numbness finally came down. My anxiety was back and once again, it manifested itself in fears about my health and my sense of safety. Despite the intensity of that episode, I was able to climb out of the darkness by myself after a year-long bout. It was my toughest battle until the birth of my daughter shook me up once more. What was unique about that experience, though, was how I learned to rely on myself and implement coping techniques that quieted my anxiety. I considered it a great success until my world was shaken up once more and the cycle began again.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that my anxiety has returned at this moment in time. We’re coming up on the tenth anniversary of my father’s death. It’s been 10 years since I have been swimming without a life vest. I’m exhausted from the effort.
This anxiety is different, though. It has whispers of my old anxiety, but it has been attacking me with a vengeance as if it’s mad at me for neglecting it for so long. This time, the physical symptoms are impossible to ignore. “Pay attention to me,” it says. “I am still here.”
I am writing this after a panic attack woke me from my sleep. A simple thought entered my mind and off anxiety ran. By the time I woke up and stumbled to the bathroom while loudly urging my husband to wake up, the panic had set in. Who am I? Where am I? How can I find my way back to my center?
I’m still not sure. I am starting to have daily panic attacks, which is something I’ve never experienced before. I hope I can find a way to cope with my new normal. I hope I can find my way back to myself again. The only comfort I have is knowing that I have done it before, and that I have drowned and come back to life time and time again. I am underwater now, but I’m frantically kicking. Come on, old friend, surely this isn’t how our story ends.
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