Trigger Warning: Anxiety
As a child, even as young as 5, I would always feel a stomach flip and a tightening in my chest before I’d walk down the stairs in the morning. I never quite knew what I was going to find when I got down there. Would everyone be happy and laughing about some joke they heard on TV the night before or would they be dismissive and rude? Would my dad be hiding out in the den tending to his fish tanks while my mom flipped pancakes and made passive-aggressive comments about his absence under her breath? Would there be a screaming match happening? I never knew. And I didn’t know at the time that there was an alternative way to live. I only knew that I would often feel jittery and disassociate from my own body. I knew that I had an overwhelming need to control the mood in the room, to almost neutralize it so that it could feel more predictable.
My mother would complain to me and listen to my advice all the time, as if somehow I possessed clearer insight into her marriage than she did even though I was an 8 year old. And I felt resolute in this belief too. If she was listening to me, I must’ve been worth listening to. After all, she was the only person in my family who listened to me. So I carefully crafted her psychoanalyses and presented them to her calmly but passionately. I would feel my chest tighten and my face burn as I’d dole out my words of wisdom. It felt so right but so wrong. I would always try to be positive and solution-driven. She, in turn, would say I was right but that there was no solution. That she was stuck here and she guessed she was just venting.
I came to think of my father as a demon who abused my mother and my mother as an angel who was helplessly caught up in his web. My brother just seemed extremely volatile so I avoided him all together. Around my dad and brother I felt scared, like anything could happen. Like at any moment either one of them might look at me and decide to hit me or scream at me. I was constantly looking around the room for places to hide. Places I could lock myself if either one of them lost it and I happened to be there.
In my adult life, I sought out relationships that made me feel safe with people who seemed stable and predictable. I didn’t want to wonder what a person’s mood would be or how I might get caught in the crosshairs. I wanted to lose the stomach flip. So I married a predictable man who could talk to me about his feelings before they became unmanageable. And for a long time, I stopped looking for places to hide and I stopped being painfully intrusive or controlling and willing myself invisible. And then my daughter was born.
When we had our baby, the stomach flip returned. Even just lying next to her while she slept in her cradle, my body refused to calm down. When she screamed violently, it was a relief—like the inevitable had finally happened and I could exhale.
I didn’t understand the connection between my own childhood and being a mom for years. It took hitting total emotional rock-bottom for me to finally do the work. I almost completely lost feeling in my body one unexceptional day in 2019, and after a whole lot of tests, the diagnosis was general anxiety.
A new-found hope
My daughter is now two, and through a style of meditation I discovered called the loving kindness practice, I’ve finally seen what I’m really afraid of and where the tension in my body truly originates. I’m afraid of getting physically hurt by someone who has lost control (which has happened but only a small number of times). I’m afraid of being verbally degraded because I’ve been known to believe it’s true. I’m scared that my mom will become so sad and helpless that she’ll never leave her bed again. I’m afraid that my brother will commit suicide. Until recently, I felt solely responsible for preventing these things from transpiring.
I wish someone had told me what I know now. That actually, the best thing you can do for yourself is to foster a world of inner peace. It changes everything—the way you treat yourself and how you interact with others. In doing so, you naturally inspire others to be kind to themselves. It doesn’t feel like straining.
What I wish someone had told me seems so simple: I am not my brother, I am not my mom, and I am not my daughter. But what I model will shape my daughter. I want to model self-sufficiency and totally falling in love with your own inner being so that one day she can light that fire for herself.