I lived in the country surrounded by fields. We had a small area with apple trees that I climbed frequently, pear trees that gave us delicious fruit, and a cherry tree. There was a creek running through our ground where I spent many happy hours finding crawdads, watching tadpoles, and playing in the shallow water. We had a couple of barns, one of which had a hayloft where I would climb up into, open the loft door, and just look at fields all around me for hours. My dad was a hunter so we always had hunting dogs, puppies, and usually one or two dogs that were for playing. Everything there was beautiful, and I could not have asked for a better place to call home as a child.
Mom managed the household while dad worked for the phone company all day. We had dinner together every night at five o’clock sharp. We all said “I love you” to each other before bed every night. We volunteered for the local Catholic basketball program where my brother eventually became a player and I became a cheerleader. We usually visited one or both sets of grandparents on the weekends. We played games, cut and delivered firewood together, and went on family vacations every few years. We visited The Wisconsin Dells, Silver Dollar City, and Disneyworld. I could not have grown up in a more loving family.
By all appearances, my life was perfect. When I was going through elementary school I loved it. School was one of my favorite places to be! When I wasn't in school, I was playing school with two younger neighbor girls. I loved learning and socializing with everyone. I didn't know a stranger. I had lots of sleepovers with my friends, always played during recess, and through most of school got honor roll grades. I continued to love school throughout middle school and early high school. It was an idyllic life to those on the outside but on the inside, something darker was brewing.
This is the face of anxiety
This is not the life or the type of person most people think of when they think of someone with anxiety. What would a person who "had it all" have to be anxious about? I had that question too. I wondered what was wrong with me that I had such a great life yet I couldn’t enjoy it. When I thought about it, it went something like this:
My parents only love me because they have too.
People tolerate me but no one really likes me. Everyone really hates me.
Every time I walk into a room people leave because they don’t want to be near me.
Every time someone laughs when I walk into a room or laughs anywhere near me they are laughing at me.
I need to get excellent grades in order for my parents to be proud of me. They always say "whatever grade you get is fine as long as you did your best" but what they mean is I have to get perfect grades or they will love me less.
My brother doesn't even have to try and he gets good grades, but I have to spend hours studying. They love him and wish I was as smart as him.
My daddy works all those hours because he can't stand to be around me therefore, I must always be smiling, happy, and do what he says when he is home so he will love me.
Mom spends time with me only because she feels sorry for me. She would much rather be doing something else or be somewhere else.
I can’t leave mom alone in the house because something could happen to her.
My brother plays with me only because mom and dad told him he has too, he doesn't like me let alone love me.
Those "I love you" moments before bedtime are just words, no one really loves me, how could they, just look at me! I'm terrible, ugly, stupid, stick out like a sore thumb, awkward, worthless, unlovable, ungrateful, sick all the time, make mom worry, and cause stress for mom and dad.
I caused my great grandma to die because I prayed she wouldn’t be sick anymore.
The doctors can’t find anything wrong with me, so I must be making this up.
Those were the swirling thoughts, constantly plaguing my life. It manifested physically through stomach aches, severe abdominal pain, not wanting to go to school, not wanting to leave home, headaches, being nervous, being distracted at school, missing school, smiling and being happy all the time to cover my nerves, and crying in my room at home as quietly as possible so as not to let anyone know. I would study for hours on end so that I could always say that “I tried my best.” I practiced the clarinet constantly trying to be the best new student the teacher had. I tried to be the perfect friend, perfect daughter, perfect sister, earn perfect grades, and be the best in every class. I thought I should be perfect because everyone else was and I thought that was how I earned their love.
In sixth grade art class I earned my first report card grade lower than an A, it was a C+. My mom is a great artist and would have gone to college with a scholarship for art had she not married my dad right out of high school. My lowest grade ever on a report card was a D- in geometry when I was a sophomore in high school. My dad had a genius level IQ and his strongest subject was math. These two grades solidified the feeling that my parents only loved me because they had too, not because I was worthy or deserving of their love. The increased amount of pressure I applied to myself to succeed in those specific classes is ironically what made me do even worse. To this day, I have a problem with giving students grades, but that’s a blog for another time. These types of scores and notes sent my anxiety through the roof.
This pattern of irrational thoughts and worry continued throughout all of high school and college. When I was growing up there was very little, if anything, known about anxiety and how it affects a person. My mom took me to doctor after doctor trying to get a reason for all my pain. The doctors gave me the same tests over and over again, but they never found anything wrong. They all told her I was making it up because I didn’t want to go to school. Without saying the words, they were calling me a liar. Being told constantly that it was all in my head, and that I was lying did not make it any better. In fact, it made it a whole lot worse.
Little did those doctors know they were right, it was all in my head, just not in the way they thought. According to The Mayo Clinic:
“People with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. Often, anxiety disorders involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes (panic attacks). These feelings of anxiety and panic interfere with daily activities, are difficult to control, are out of proportion to the actual danger and can last a long time” (Mayoclinic.org).
I never had panic attacks growing up, those came later. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to keep living either. Life was hard and only seemed to be getting harder. I was in counseling off and on starting at the age of fifteen.
When I met and married my husband I still had lots of anxiety but there still wasn’t much known about it. The irrational thoughts continued, the worrying that some day everyone would find out about the real me, the thoughts that my family didn’t really love me, I worried that my husband would get tired of me and leave, that I would be alone, that no matter what I did it just wasn’t good enough. Whenever something the least bit negative happened, I immediately assumed the worst was coming. If something positive happened, I waited for the other shoe to fall and for the bad thing to happen. If my husband and I argued or I felt I disappointed him in any way, I was certain he would leave me. We decided after a couple of years of marriage that we wanted a child. We weren’t successful for 5 years. I blamed myself and just knew it was what I deserved. I made it worse by blaming myself because it wasn’t fair to my husband because he was a good person and deserved a baby.
When we were blessed with our daughter I had my first panic attack. I had never been around a newborn. I didn’t want to leave the hospital because I knew something bad would happen. On the drive home, I sat in the backseat with her and just prayed that we would make it home safely. Thankfully, my husband has sisters that are 6 and 10 years younger so he had experience with newborns and could calmly take care of our daughter. During a midnight feeding soon after bringing her home while rocking our daughter and nursing her, I started thinking of all the horrible things that could happen. Within moments I had worked myself into such a frenzy that my heart was racing, my palms were sweating, and I couldn’t catch my breath. Somehow I managed to get our daughter back into her crib and left the room. I hated to wake my husband as he had to work the next day so I paced the floors for hours until I was able to convince myself we were okay. Sadly, I began having those moments more frequently. Every night when I was alone with my thoughts during those feedings, I found myself worrying about everything related to raising a child and what could go wrong. Some nights I could get my thoughts onto a better track before they derailed completely, but many times the thoughts took over. I began going back to counseling, and I am still going today.
A couple of years later I had another big panic attack. I was cleaning our Xterra’s inside back hatch window. We had a rack that was attached behind the back seats to keep our dog from getting into the front of the vehicle. The hatch door closed accidentally. I was trapped. I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn’t yell for help because I couldn’t breathe. My life was in danger. I was sweating, my heart was racing, and I was fearing the worst in a matter of seconds! Our daughter happened to be just outside the vehicle, she was 3 years old. I banged on the window until she climbed in, I told her to please go get daddy. When he came outside he thought it was funny and didn’t open the door right away. I began to sob and begged him to open the door and let me out. He had no way of knowing the hell I was going through in my mind.
As I’m sure you’ve realized while reading that, I wasn’t in any real danger. I wasn’t truly trapped. If my brain could have been rational in that moment, I could have reached through the rack, released the seat, and crawled out. I had plenty of air as the front doors were open. I was in my driveway, not plummeting down a cliff or into a lake. But that is exactly what anxiety does, it doesn’t allow you to think rationally.
As I am writing this, my heart is speeding up. I have had to tell myself several times that I am safe. I’ve gotten up a couple of times to get away from the story for a moment to prove to myself that I am safe. This is after years of counseling, prayers, and daily medication. I am better, but I still have anxiety. My brain can still trick me into thinking I am in danger even when I am completely safe. I have learned strategies to ground myself again and continue to learn new strategies because my brain sometimes still overrides those old strategies.
While I don’t get stomach aches and headaches when I get anxious now, I still have signs. I wring my hands, my hands might start to shake, my breathing and heart rate race, my body temperature fluctuates, and my mouth gets dry. I don’t feel these things every day thanks to the prayers, medication, counseling, strategies, and experience of life. I can corral the thoughts most of the time immediately, however when I can’t I can feel as though my life is in danger within seconds.
As a young child, not sharing those thoughts with anyone, I didn’t know how irrational they were. I didn’t know those thoughts were causing me to be physically sick. I didn’t know I wasn’t lying to the doctors or myself about my symptoms. I didn’t know that what was happening to me had a name, could be controlled to a degree, and wasn’t my fault. I wish I could say that I am rare and the only child or adult who has ever experienced anxiety, but I can’t.
A study done in 2018 and referred to in this CDC article says that 4.4 million children in the US have diagnosed anxiety disorders. I believe the number of children who actually have anxiety is higher but they aren’t diagnosed. I also believe that since the pandemic, children’s anxiety disorders have increased even more. As educators and parents we have to be aware of the effects of anxiety. Anxiety is a mental disorder and mental disorders among children are defined “as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day” (CDC 2018).
Anxiety is real and has real effects on our bodies, our learning, our memory, and our way of life. If your child or student is showing any signs of anxiety, please do not wait or think they will go away with time. As schools, we can write Section 504 plans to provide accommodations or if specially designed instructions are needed, we can write Individualized Education Programs (IEP) with accommodations added to help the child. If you need help figuring out how to do this, please contact me. I can help you whether you are a parent, teacher, or administrator.
As parents we can believe our child when they say they are sick and take them to the doctor, psychologist, counselor, or social worker. As parents and educators we can educate ourselves on how to help someone with anxiety.
This is a face of anxiety.
I do not feel unlovable, unworthy, ugly, horrible, nor am I sick all the time anymore. My hope is that by writing about my journey and sharing my struggles and success someone else will not have to go through what I went through for as long as I went through it. My hope is that children will be helped, their feelings validated, and their symptoms recognized. Maya Angelou said, "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." Now you know better, so do better.