It’s late. Really late. I should have been in bed hours ago, but instead I’m sitting up, trying to calm the fears, trying to shush the irrational thoughts, trying to calm the breathing, trying to wipe away the tears. Anxiety has reared it’s ugly head again. This isn’t a new occurrence in my home. It’s not the first night anxiety has stolen bedtime, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. All three of my kids struggle with anxiety in various forms and manifestations, so tears, worries, and struggles to breathe aren’t strangers to us. The only difference is that tonight those tears, worries, and gasps for breath are my own.
I have anxiety. Sometimes it feels like anxiety has me. I am an anxious parent raising anxious children, and I see myself in them way more often than I’d like. They all three have my dimples, sure, and I’m more than pleased when one of them makes a particularly sarcastic joke or a Lord of the Rings reference – they get those from me, too. They mostly resemble my husband so I’m always grasping for traces of me in them, delighting at my chin on my oldest or my flair for the dramatic in my youngest. As an only child, seeing pieces of me in my children is meaningful in more ways than just novelty, and I burst with pride and amazement that they are mine. Until anxiety kicks in, and I am overwhelmed with the guilt at what I’ve done to them.
The age-old question of nature vs. nurture has long considered all of the factors that contribute to the forming of a person. Did genetics cause this trait to be present from birth? Did the environment in someone’s home form it over time? With anxiety, the answer to both questions is yes. There is a genetic link that suggests anxiety can be hereditary (though it is not guaranteed to be passed down). Environmental behaviors can also contribute to anxiety disorders in children. So, scientifically speaking, I, the anxious parent, have created anxious children. I, the anxious parent, may have caused anxious children.
Sure, they were also likely to be born without anxiety. They could easily have been born with a frazzled, anxious mother and grown up with nary a worry in the world. But they didn’t.
They all three struggle with anxiety, and I, in turn, struggle with the guilt at having passed it on to them.
Hindsight is a funny thing, isn’t it? That boyfriend you look back on and can’t believe you dated. That college major you chose and can’t imagine being employed with now. The raging childhood anxiety disorder you lived with and had no idea.
I was an anxious child. Very anxious. But I had no idea. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to imagine every possible way a burglar could break into your home. I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to quiz your parents because you feared they’d been replaced. I didn’t know that OCD could look like anything other than excessive hand-washing or lock-checking. Apparently my pediatrician didn’t know, either, because when I complained of episodes where my chest burned and I couldn’t catch my breath I was diagnosed with asthma, not anxiety. I carried an inhaler for years, only exacerbating the panic attacks I was having by treating them with steroids. Hindsight again. I was a very, very anxious child, not an asthmatic one.
I learned to channel it as a teenager. I stayed very active in school, in church, with my friends. I never sat still, never stopped doing, reading, making, going. I distracted my brain from the thoughts of impending doom and had the time of my life in high school. In college I double-majored and took 24 hours of classes per semester. I took summer classes, winter classes. I joined a comedy troupe and planned my wedding. I stayed busy, I stayed distracted.
Then motherhood hit.
Suddenly I couldn’t go and do as much. Suddenly I had an entirely new crop of fears. Suddenly I was overcome, wrapped tight, squeezed, enslaved, and totally consumed by anxiety. I managed to keep it in for the most part – I still didn’t know what it was. I thought I was just a worrier. I even considered myself a little intelligent for being able to come up with just so many things to worry about. But then my not-quite-two-year-old son had his first night terror, and I fell apart.
“Associated with anxiety.” I remember reading that when I was researching just what was making my sweet baby boy scream and thrash in the middle of the night. It was like something from a movie – I dropped the book when I read it, practically in slow motion, as the realization of what I was and what I’d given him crashed over me. I had anxiety, and now my innocent baby may, too. I sobbed that night, for hours. The night terrors continued for several years, and with each one I felt the guilt wash all over me anew. Each cry of terror sounded like an accusation to me, a finger pointing at what I’d done to him simply by having the genes that I do. I had anxiety, and I’d passed it on to him.
The years have gone by and we now have three children, each a glowing, burning reminder that I have given them something I didn’t want for myself: anxiety.
It’s remarkable how much guilt and anxiety are alike, how similar they can feel. Both fill you with an overwhelming feeling of something being out of your control that shouldn’t be, the feeling that you could have stopped it but didn’t (even if that’s not the logical truth). Both leave you grasping, gasping, desperately searching for a way out, a way around, a way to fix what’s broken. Anxiety will make you feel guilty, and guilt will cause you to feel anxious. They’re a perfectly-suited pair, and they will crush you. Guilt will make you feel at fault, and anxiety will list every way that it is.
I should have known better, I’ll think. I was selfish to have children, I lament. They deserve better, I cry.
They could just as easily have been born without stress hormones wreaking havoc in their brains – and some studies suggest they’re more likely to have been born without anxiety than with it, regardless of my history. Heck, they were more likely to get my dimples than my mental health. There was no guarantee, either way. I did not knowingly condemn my children to a lifetime of fret and frazzle. I may have passed this on to them, but I did not do this to them. So I remind myself, frequently. So I forget, more frequently.
My poor baby, I sob as I watch one of them struggle. My chest tightens – guilt or anxiety? This is my fault. My own parents don’t struggle with anxiety so I’m not sure who I blame mine on, but I am intent, at least this time, on taking the full responsibility of my childrens’ anxiety. They don’t deserve anxiety… but you know what? Neither do I. I do not deserve to punish myself, to dwell, to list my faults as though anyone were asking for a resume. There’s another thing anxiety loves – a martyr. Anxiety is all too happy to make me feel like the cause, the root, the flawed genetic pool from which my children draw all their struggles. My thoughts continue to race.
But then something almost beautiful happens.
My son is struggling. He can’t sleep. He’s worked out all of the ways someone could break into his room, and he’s terrified. I see myself in my child again. It’s not what I’d like to see. It’s not my good handwriting or my green eyes, but it’s me. And I know just how he feels.
All those years of childhood hand wringing, all those years of sitting alone in the dark, eyes flitting back and forth, writing down every license plate I saw, all those moments of absolute terror, no one knew what was happening. No one knew what I was experiencing, and no one knew it wasn’t normal – which meant that no one could help me. But I, the anxious parent, know just what this anxious boy of mine is going through. I know the thought process and the tight chest. I know what he’s feeling, and I know what he needs. I can help him.
Sure, he’s likely experiencing this fear because of me. But even if it comes from me, he can find comfort in me, he has an advocate in me. He is not alone. He is not misunderstood. He is not misdiagnosed. He is an anxious child with an anxious parent, who can tell him he’s okay and mean it. He can walk into my room after midnight and simply say, “I’m having a lot of anxiety tonight,” and know that he is accepted, understood, empathized with, and not alone. He can speak freely about his struggles and know just what they are, can give voice to his feelings (which often helps to weaken them).
My boy may have gotten this anxiety from me, but he’s also gotten understanding, love, acceptance, and tools from me. Because their anxiety is recognized by me, my children have access to therapies and methods and advocacy that I did not. Because their anxiety is treated, their struggles will look a lot different than my own did. Because they have an anxious parent, they are not alone.