I’ve had anxiety since long before I ever knew what it was. I remember being a teen and pre-teen and suffering from full blown panic attacks for reasons I couldn’t even understand. My brain was convinced there was going to be an earthquake and that I’d die in my sleep. Or I’d be at school and was convinced that there would be a mercury spill in the science lab and we’d become violently ill.
Nothing made sense, but I had these fears and if I ever told anyone about them they’d laugh, or tell me I was being dramatic or tell me to not worry about it.
I have very distinct memories of sitting in a ball in the corner of dark classrooms to wait out my panic attacks while at school. I think the first full-blown panic attack I ever had was in fourth grade. And I continued to have them all throughout elementary and high school. I didn’t know they were panic attacks at the time, but I knew I couldn’t be around people. At home, I would go for hours, days (if allowed) on end without even leaving my room. I was afraid of going for a walk and someone trying to kidnap me. It really didn’t matter where I was, I was always on high alert. I could walk into a room and would scan for exits, memorize faces, know what I could use to protect myself. I was anxious. I was always anxious.
In my mind, something was going to go wrong. Always. I was on high alert and prepared for the next disaster to happen.
Another side effect of my anxiety, that I didn’t realize at the time (probably due to my lack of knowledge about anxiety) was sleep. My parents used to yell and scream and me that I needed to go to sleep. They thought I was purposefully laying awake until 2 or 3 or even 4 in the morning just to be a troublesome child. I didn’t want to lay awake worrying. That’s just what happened. Any time I told anyone what was really happening they’d laugh it off or just tell me to not worry anymore.
Because clearly, the solution was that simple.
There was one point, I do recall, going to the doctor for annual check-ups, my mother told the Doctor that I was not sleeping. The Doctor told my mother that I was either acting out, or that I was consuming too much sugar/caffeine. As a fifth grader, I wasn’t consuming caffeine. So in her mind, the problem was sugar. She didn’t let me have sugar for MONTHS! It was probably close to a year. She’d specifically take my siblings and I out for ice cream and tell me that I wasn’t allowed any treats until I proved to her that I was willing to sleep when it was bed time. As you can imagine, this made fifth grade me extremely angry. She was treating it like it was something I could control. And, when I didn’t have any sugar in my life and I still couldn’t sleep at night, she’d convinced herself that I was sneaking sugar and lying to her about it.
During the few hours a night that I actually did sleep, I was grinding my teeth in my sleep. Every time I went to the dentist he’d tell me I was ruining my teeth. He convinced my parents, on three separate occasions, to get expensive ($500 or more) mouth guards for me to wear when I slept. They never worked. They fell out, or they’d break, or they just caused me to struggle even more so with my sleep. I was asleep and grinding my teeth. I couldn’t control it.
Many a conversation were had in which my parents discussed there frustrations with me not properly wearing my $500 mouth guard so the teeth grinding woke them up. They were both angry that I was ruining my teeth and felt as though they couldn’t wake me up because I slept so little.
All of this… and I mean ALL OF THIS was symptoms of my anxiety. My parents, while good people for the most part, openly acknowledge that they believe anxiety and depression are a made up construct.
I moved away from home. I went to University, got a job, built a life for myself and, for almost a decade, things were really good. I learned what anxiety was, as per my own research, and learned how I could cope with it on my own. I found great friends, and I was managing the anxiety I had, after finally learning what it was. I got into a good sleep rhythm and, the teeth grinding stopped.
Last year, when everything fell apart the anxiety and panic attacks hit me like a ton of bricks. I was experiencing it in ways that I hadn’t since I was a teenager. Knight and I came to see my mom right after her second surgery and I remember her telling me she could hear me grinding my teeth so loudly that it woke her up.
I sought out medication to help me cope with the sheer weight I was carrying in my brain and I cannot tell you what a difference it made in my life. No one in my family knows that I take this medication. My family frowns on medications of any sort. And, since they believe that mental illness is a made up construct, it just didn’t make sense to try and pick a fight with them about it. I wish I could tell them. But, maybe it’s just something for me to teach the next generation about.
I think it’s so important to note that that mental illness is not a made up construct. I also think it’s extremely important to acknowledge that mental illness does discriminate based on age. When I hear people say ‘No she’s too young for that’ or ‘No, he’s way too young to experience that’, there’s a little voice screaming in my brain ‘YOU’RE WRONG, YOU’RE NAIVE, DO BETTER’.
Who knows what would have happened had I known what anxiety was when it started affecting me. I could have found/gotten help and learned how to cope ten years before I actually did.
I think it’s so important to talk about the subject of mental health and well being with kids. I would never look at a kid and think ‘No, they’re too young’. I look at kids and think ‘Perhaps we could help them thrive a lot more as humans if we have these difficult discussions rather than avoiding them’.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone tell me they’ve had anxiety since before they knew what it was, I’d be rich. I’d be a fucking millionaire.
My only hope is that the present generation of kids, the kids of Millennials and Gen Xers, are being taught about this because their parents can speak from experience.
The doctor was convinced that I was consuming too much sugar. The dentist was convinced that I needed a $500 plastic mold to stop me from moving my teeth in my sleep. A teacher who saw me having a panic attack in his classroom just told me that I needed to ‘man up’. My parents were convinced I was just trying to be a troublesome child.
And all I really needed was someone to teach me what anxiety was.