I’m 16 years old. My parents are going on a trip for their anniversary and I’m going to be home alone. I see their bags at the door. They’re putting on their shoes and talking to me, making jokes about throwing parties while they’re gone and reminding me where they left the emergency money. I’m smiling and trying to concentrate on how happy I am for them and how nice it will be to have the house to myself for a week. I am putting on a show. I am trying like hell to hold back the tears and push aside the “what ifs.” But as hard as I try, those thoughts force their way to the front of my mind. They always do. I start wonder why I even try fighting them as they take over my mind, grabbing control of every thought. I’m lost in them.
It always starts with a, “what if…?” What if my parents never even make it to the airport? A terrible thought in and of itself, but it’s not enough for anxiety. It’s not satisfied with one sickening thought. It is just the seed it uses to sprout terror. It is just the beginning. Before I know it, a scene is playing out in my mind. My own personal horror movie. I watch as my parents, my role models and my friends, slam their car into another one. I can see them, air bags deployed and windows smashed, bleeding and unconscious. My dad, laying his head on the steering wheel and my mom, slumped against her seat belt. I can see the flames. They feel so real I swear I can smell the smoke. My dad wakes up. He knows he has to get out. He has to save my mom. He’s shaking her arm, yelling her name, trying to reach her seat belt to set her free. She doesn’t move. The flames are getting closer, getting hotter, but he can’t leave her. My dad, big and strong, begins to cry. He can’t live without her. So he grabs her hand, closes his eyes and waits. I’m trapped in this moment. I’m watching, but I can’t help. I can’t cry, I can’t run, I can’t even move.
I’m back in the house, standing by the door waiting to say goodbye. It feels like I was stuck in my head for hours, but anxiety is surprisingly good at time management. It can put me through hours of hell in mere seconds. It’s so quick, no one else would ever suspect the terror my mind just put me through. But the smell of smoke lingers and the feeling of heartbreak will last for hours. I can’t fight it anymore and a few tears start to roll down my cheeks as I’m hugging my parents goodbye. Somewhere deep inside, I know this won’t be the last time. I know they will be OK and they will be home next Saturday. But those thoughts are too far right now. They’re too quiet to release the hold my anxiety has. So I say goodbye and try to keep the tears to a minimum, hoping my parents will not see, but knowing they can. They’ll never understand. They’ll think I’m paranoid or selfish and just don’t want them to go. I wish that were true.
Someone who has never experienced anxiety, who has never been attacked by their own mind, may not be able to understand how real it is. They can’t understand the power these thoughts have. They don’t see how they infiltrate your mind and affect your body. To them, they’re just thoughts. It’s not their fault they can’t understand. No matter how much we explain, they never truly will. And to be honest, I am so glad they can’t. Dealing with this alone is extremely hard, but it would be so much harder watching someone I love go through the same thing.
To those of you who don’t understand what anxiety feels like, know it’s OK. If there’s someone in your life who is struggling with it, remember you can be there for them without fully grasping what they are feeling. Understand these thoughts are extremely real to them. Remind them they’re safe without belittling their fears. Stay close, even if they don’t want to be touched. And most importantly, know they are grateful for you, even if they can’t express it.
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