No One Knew the Extent of My Childhood Anxiety
My strongest childhood memories are of headaches, backaches, sore legs, fatigue and the constant feeling of needing to be small and of needing to hide.
I presented to the world as a typical child. I was sometimes shy, sometimes outgoing and usually very talkative. I went to ballet, jazz, tap dance, swimming and piano lessons. I was in a Brownie troop. I played with my cousins and my friends. To an outsider, I was thriving.
What no one knew was how terrified I was of the entire world. It was a strange terror. Despite knowing something horrible was going to happen, I resigned myself to a life with that knowledge. I never trusted anyone but gave them my trust anyway. I knew they would let me down, or harm me, or hurt me. But I knew that was just the way my life was.
To me, the world was dangerous and I was a target.
I truly believed that one day, “a bad guy” would climb in my bedroom window and murder me. I would say “murder me in my sleep,” but sleep was often a distant memory for me. There were always “bad guys” under my bed, in my closet, coming through my window or waiting for me in a park somewhere. There was nothing I could do about it. There was also a witch in my closet who liked to cut off children’s chins for her stew and there were spiders and worms waiting for me to close my eyes so they could crawl out of my ceiling. But that’s a whole other story.
When I was 3, I started ballet classes and we were taught how to suck in our stomachs — to tighten our muscles. I used that feeling and taught myself to breathe as shallowly as I could. Depriving my brain of much-needed oxygen and feeding what must have been an elevation of cortisol and adrenaline — I was always ready for danger and, I always had an escape plan to save my little brother. Even if that meant sacrificing myself.
At night, I slept with all of my dolls and stuffed animals. It wasn’t for comfort. I spread the toys around my body closely and lay the blanket overtop so it looked like I was part of a pile of toys. I was convinced that if I breathed as shallowly as possible, stayed perfectly still and kept the blankets off of my body, that the “bad guys” would either not notice me, or would think I was already dead.
I was 9 when I wrote my first “Will and Testimony.” I wrote a note stating who my toys would go to (mostly to my brother) and I hid it inside my pillowcase. I slept with it there for months. I remember being at the park near my school and telling my friend that in a few months I would turn 10 and my life would change completely. I can remember telling her my life up to 9 had been so hard and, when I was 10 years old, everything would be OK.
That was 33 years ago. I’m still waiting.
That heightened level of anxiety must have affected my body as much as my mind. I imagine my heart rate was often rapid, my muscles tight and my brain on high alert. My strongest childhood memories are of headaches, backaches, sore legs, fatigue and the constant feeling of needing to be small and of needing to hide. I was always looking over my shoulder and listening to everything around me. Waiting. Always waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
As an adult, I find my anxiety exhausting. I don’t get enough sleep, I worry about things that do not need to be worried about, I have developed fibromyalgia and I just want to sleep all the time.
I can only imagine what it was like for little-me to be so afraid of the world that my body began to take in all the fear and hold it for me physically so I could go about my life, day-to-day, trying to focus at school, trying to be a good daughter, sister and friend.
I often wonder how much of my childhood fear and anxiety has impacted me physically as an adult. I am beginning to think the answer is: “it impacted me immensely.”
Follow this journey on the author’s website.
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