Some mornings are easy. My son wakes me up by shoving a cup of yogurt in my face, asking me to open it. I roll out of bed, make some coffee, and begin mentally listing out what to do that day with the kids, the house, my work, etc. The morning moves peacefully and all is right with the world. Then there are some mornings, though, when I wake up with my chest tight, finding it hard to breathe. I take a Xanax before I ever get to the coffee pot. I’m a mom with anxiety, and this is my reality.
I’ve lived with anxiety for the majority of my life. It first reared its head in my 20s when suddenly I was unable to sleep like a normal person. Melatonin became my best friend, then when that ceased being effective, I turned to over-the-counter sleeping pills. It was such a commonplace part of my life that friends and I would joke about it. If anyone had any sleep troubles, they’d come to me for advice.
At that time it was manageable, and I was the only one being affected. If I had trouble sleeping, if my head was spinning, if I couldn’t focus on what was actually happening instead of fixating on what could be happening, I was really the only person suffering.
Now, though ... now, I’m a mom — a stay-at-home mom in charge of a 2-and-half-year-old boy and a 3-and-half-year-old daughter. Now my actions, irrational fears, and struggle to keep a tight grip on reality also matter to them. Now, my problems are also theirs. Knowing this breaks my heart because I want my children to have a “normal” mom, one who doesn’t have to medicate herself throughout the day to simply get through it. Whatever “normal” looks like, my kids won’t have it, because I never will either.
There are moments when I feel like part of “the group.” Every parent has the same struggles and battles to fight, especially when they’re raising toddlers. There’s the never-ending war over naptime and bedtime and mealtime. There’s the tantrums, the outbursts, the misunderstandings, and the teachings. All the teaching. We teach our children right from wrong. We teach them respect. We teach them their numbers and colors, and we teach them songs and all about their senses. Hell, we even teach them how to dress themselves.
When I pause to think about all the ways we are the same, I do feel just like any other woman with children. But as a mother with anxiety, I feel something else, too. There is an unrelenting fear and dread that accompanies me through every motion, every tantrum, every song, and every outfit change. It’s a dark cloud that looms over our home on almost a daily basis, and it hangs just above my head.
My daughter could easily master a 12-piece puzzles at the age my son is now, but he still struggles. He doesn’t understand why some pieces fit and others don’t. He gets frustrated and I … I get anxious. While most parents would recognize that maybe puzzles aren’t his strong suit, focusing instead on what he is good at, my mind spirals into disparaging thoughts about what’s wrong with me. My worries range from, “Is there something wrong with him?” to, more often than not, a litany of questions: What am I doing wrong? What did I do with my daughter that I’m not doing with him? Am I giving him enough attention, enough guidance? Am I not as good of a mom to him as I am to my daughter? What’s wrong with me?
Perhaps my hyperbolic thoughts read as completely blown out of proportion, and maybe some will read this and think that I just need to calm down. To be honest, it’s what I hear a lot. I just need to “take a deep breath,” I need to “calm down,” I need to “remember that all parents struggle.” But I can’t just talk myself down from a ledge that easily. I can’t close my eyes, count to 10, and have everything be better. My brain races with all of my inadequacies and all of my issues, and my chest tightens and suddenly, just because my son struggles to do a puzzle, I have suddenly morphed into the worst mother in the world. All parents may struggle, but I am struggling, too.
On the awful days — the days that, for parents, mean tears flow freely and screams echo off the walls — it’s normal to check the clock ad nauseum hoping bedtime will come swiftly and painlessly. For a woman living with anxiety who’s also a mother, these days sit heavy on my chest, make my heart race, and fill me with such a sense of dread that I can barely help my daughter pull up her pants after going to the bathroom. I’m unable to just “go with the flow” on the very worst days, because for me, they provide a Lens of Doom. They feel like they’ll drag on for an eternity and I’ll forever be trapped in this painful, exhausting, tumultuous life. I keep thinking that maybe, just maybe, when the kids are in school, things will change. I know better, though.
I take medications to ease my anxiety, but they are not miracle drugs. They exist to take the edge off in my darkest of moments so that I can continue to put one foot in front of the other. They make it possible for me to make it to bedtime rather than run away screaming. They are tools to help me cope, reminding me that my anxiety is just part of who I am, not something I did wrong or something I deserve; reminding me that my anxiety is something I’ll deal with forever. My children will grow up seeing their mom struggle to keep it together because, let’s face it, I can only hide in the bathroom for so long.
And while the days and weeks and months are more difficult than I can ever imagine, they remind me of my inner strength — the strength that has, undoubtedly, been passed on to my children. It’s the strength that keeps my son fixated on figuring out the hard puzzles and my daughter independent and strong.
As they grow, I hope we can have mature dialogues about what it’s like to have anxiety and to struggle, and I hope that they’ll have a greater sense of empathy and acceptance toward others. It’s the silver lining I cling to on the bad days. And if that’s not enough, I take a Xanax. Because it keeps me holding on.
Images courtesy of Toni Hammer (3)