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What I Want To Tell My Children About Anxiety When The World Feels Unsafe

It sounds more fun and flashy to “overcome” your anxiety, but I manage mine.

Dear Kids,

I’m sorry you’ve already lived through a science fiction novel.

You all prefer to read graphic novels, and I can’t imagine how many will be written about this pandemic. Growing up, I liked reading books like Brave New World and The Giver. You’ll probably read at least one of them in school. These books led me to a ledge, forced me look way out there, past what I thought were the boundaries or limits of our world. That can be scary. But I could always close the books and take a step back. The thrill came in imagining danger, wondering if that danger could ever really happen, and then returning to safety. When I sat down for a dinner of Hamburger Helper (my favorite) or rode shotgun with your Poppy to buy potato chips (yes, he was obsessed even back then), I felt safe enough from the worlds I’d read about.

You don’t get to step back so easily. You must remain vigilant, much of your being geared toward avoiding risk — at school and choir practice, in the grocery store and the Starbucks lines I drag you to. If someone sneezes, it’s a code red. When half your class is absent, you ask to wear two KF94s. All this in addition to lockdown drills that have forced you and your teachers to practice erasure, closing blinds and crouching low so that heartless politicians can keep clutching their guns and freedom.

Last summer, one of you wore a mask at the beach, as though the ocean itself carried the latest variant on its waves. How could you possibly know what counts as safe anymore? Does it feel like threat is everywhere?

This near round-the-clock, rational vigilance and abiding stress can’t be healthy for you, long term. You have wonderful teachers, but not one of them can measure this wear on our brains, bodies, and souls. The other day, one of you pointed to a thread of a carpet and asked, “Are there infinity of these in the room?” My answer was no, but I certainly didn’t want to count them.

I wonder how many people in our country have no desire to count the cost, even if we could.

At first, I thought I could keep anxiety from you. I wanted you to inherit my love for writing or playing tennis, maybe even my discount sneaker fetish. I prayed that, like a flight, mental illness could be diverted.

More kids are showing signs of being anxious and depressed. And that doesn’t only include Black children like you, who are already on high alert for microaggressions and racist bullying throughout your school day. Recently, a group of experts said all kids should be screened regularly for anxiety, which is not so much a novel idea as an urgent one.

But here’s where it gets a little trickier, or layered, for our family. You could say I’ve been screening you for anxiety your whole lives. Screening sounds too formal, and I’m not a doctor. Let’s say I’ve been looking for symptoms of serious or unhealthy fear. Mommy has a lot of anxiety — it’s called an anxiety disorder — so in a way, I’ve been looking for parts of myself in you.

At first, I thought I could keep anxiety from you. I wanted you to inherit my love for writing or playing tennis, maybe even my discount sneaker fetish. I prayed that, like a flight, mental illness could be diverted. “No, you can’t land there,” God would say. You’d still know fear and sadness because you’re human, but you wouldn’t struggle against the chronic or exhausting kind. To borrow your words, mental illness wouldn’t be your official thing. But that’s now how it works. We don’t get to choose what we, as your parents, pass down to you. And even if we set genetics aside, you’d likely pick up on some of my habits or mood changes or fear, just because I’m mothering you.

Maybe you’ve noticed the way I snap at you when I’m on a deadline or how I lament social events before they’ve even started. Some nights I find myself exhausted, even when I haven’t been on the Peloton, because I’ve spent hours dreading what I actually love doing: writing. That’s what anxiety can look like in me. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m sorry if my actions have subtly caused you to develop any unhealthy coping strategies. It probably happens in every family, but that doesn’t make it easy. And it’s not a joke, or a burn, when Daddy and I talk about including therapy in our family budget for years to come. I wish everyone had access to good mental health care.

Sometimes I hear you say things aloud that I’ve said to myself. Like when you’re scanning an item at self-checkout, and I take your hands and turn them slightly so the bar code hits the light, and you say, “I did it wrong.” I know what it’s like to see an attempt as a failure, even when no one else is seeing it that way. Or when you say “I’m never gonna get this” or “It’s all my fault.” I recognize the black-and-white thinking, the catastrophizing, how you discount the positive, the beautiful brilliant parts of yourself in that moment, and I want, with everything in me, to erase those thoughts from your mind. But it’s not about finding a magic eraser; it’s about retraining our brains and reframing our thoughts. I’ve tried to interrupt you the best way I can in those moments, to offer something rational and true in the midst of your doubt. My therapist, a woman with long red hair and a great laugh, challenges me when I say I feel like a failure. “What would failure look like?” she asks. “What is success?” Answering those questions is hard work, but I’m so glad she asks. I hope you always have someone to ask you those questions.

It sounds more fun and flashy to “overcome” your anxiety, but I manage mine.

Mommy doesn’t have plans to go anywhere soon, but I want you to hear this from me: I’ve lived many years with anxiety, and sometimes depression, and it’s been really hard. I don’t love my anxiety. I’d rather trade it for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. OK, that’s not a fair trade, but I’d eat fish sticks(!) if I could get rid of that walking-through-sludge feeling I get sometimes. But also hear this: I’ve found help along the way. Not just once, but time and time again. It sounds more fun and flashy to “overcome” your anxiety, but I manage mine. I take medicine every day — a little tablet that tells my amygdala, “Chill out, bro.”

The medicine isn’t magic, but it helps me to pack your lunches or give you the right medicine or read with you on the couch after school. And I see my therapist, who encourages me to do hard things I’d rather say no to when I’m scared. She is not my fairy godmother or a millennial monk, but we do the work together. I leave our sessions feeling like I’m walking on bubbles that won’t pop. Eventually, those bubbles do lose air, but I know that feeling of lightness and confidence is possible. It can return. If I take medicine and see a therapist for the rest of my life, I want you to know that’s OK. Your story might look similar to mine or completely different. You might take Robitussin and call it a day (that’s a Chris Rock joke, wait for it). Either way is fine. But if you’re ever struggling, and someone describes mental illness like a train you need to dodge or a wound you just need to bandage and forget, please get a second opinion.

I’m so proud of you, though I wish you didn’t have to carry so much. When your language skills were developing as toddlers, people advised us to give you an option between two choices. Blue or yellow? Goldfish or string cheese? When I look at all you are navigating, while only in elementary school, I want to return to those choices. Maybe you could pick one hardship at a time. Or none at all. Multitasking through global tragedy and systemic inequities should not be anyone’s jam. But there’s a saying one of you has repeated this year, and I keep thinking about it. The one you wrote on a card to your teacher: I love you, keep well, and be safe. I wondered how you could be so wise. Yours are the words I want to borrow, for all of you —

I love you. Looking through old photos or watching videos of you three, I realize I’ve lived several lives of joy with you in one lifetime. How is that possible?

Be safe. Daddy and I are trying — with masks and vaccines, with Black affinity groups in your school and Black literature at home — to keep you safe. We know we can’t promise you safety, but it doesn’t keep us from trying.

Finally, keep well. This part really got me. I’ve learned over time that wellness is not necessarily the absence of illness or difficulty. We work on wellness throughout our lives, and sometimes that work looks like crying with a friend or napping with your dog or taking a mental health day off from school. Keeping well might be saying “No, I can’t right now” or simply “No, I can’t.” You all are already listening to your bodies. Keep listening, sharing your thoughts, and telling us when something doesn’t feel right or when a fear won’t go away. I am here with you, listening and watching, reminding you — and myself — that these days aren’t easy, yet somehow the trying is still worth it.