It sounded like every mom’s dream. A weekend entirely to myself at home. My husband and seven-year-old were heading out on their annual father-son trip and I’d be left to pamper myself, watch a non-G-rated movie, and finally catch up with a friend or two. I blew kisses at them as they pulled out of the driveway. Now it was me time. Yay!
I bounded back inside, ready to change out of my jammies and find a cute outfit—no yoga pants today!– in case a friend wanted to hit a new sushi spot in town. But first I would tackle some items on my to do list: organizing the garage, catching up on emails, researching summer camps, learning to use an Instant Pot. I’d sort through all of my son’s artwork from the past five years, throw out toxic cookware, get my laptop fixed (again), and find all my missing tax-receipts. But first, I should investigate the ant problem on the patio. And flush out my dog’s ears to prevent another bad infection. Suddenly I got that slight head-spinny sensation, light-headed and a bit woozy. Maybe it’s not an ear infection. Maybe it’s more serious. My friend’s dog had an ear tumor. Oh my God. That means more vet bills. I need to find a less expensive vet. Now it felt harder to breathe. But if my dog needs treatment, can we still afford to send our son to summer camp? And the “check engine” light just came on again in my car. Do we need a new car? Wait, what about our tax refund? Where the hell are those receipts? Ohhh, crap. It was happening.
I immediately recognized the pounding heart, tightness in my chest and the inexplicable fear that was balling up like a fist in my stomach. Although I’ve battled anxiety attacks on and off since my teens, it’s still hard to describe what they feel like to someone who’s never had one. I was inundated by a hundred spiraling thoughts and felt like I was losing control of reality. My peripheral vision started to darken and my lips and fingertips were tingling. I was probably hyperventilating. I felt a painful heaviness near my heart. I thought I might faint. Or worse. I didn’t know what to do, or who to call. It’s hard to explain how nothing specific had happened... and yet… I just happened to feel like I was dying. I felt completely isolated. I decided I needed a distraction. So I chose Facebook.
Unfortunately, reading posts about the Syrian refugee crisis and listeria contaminations didn’t do much to calm me down. I considered posting: “Help! I’m having a paralyzing anxiety attack, and I can’t get off my couch.” But I did not do this. My irrational dread was not something I wanted to broadcast to friends, acquaintances, and work contacts. I felt so embarrassed. Yet, I wouldn’t have thought twice about posting “Ugh! I have the worst case of the flu.” Because the flu is understandable. When you have it, no one tells you to “think positive” or “read a funny book.” You just get to have the flu. Mental health is different. There’s no thermometer to back it up.
I fought the urge to call my husband and have him turn the car around. But I couldn’t wreck this weekend they’d looked forward to for months. How many times had my anxiety already disrupted their lives?
Ten minutes later, the panic started to subside and was replaced by an incredibly deep sadness that often follows my anxiety. All I could think about were the times I had let my family down. Like when my husband had to go to a big company party without me. Or when I needed my sitter to take my son to a school carnival where I was supposed to be volunteering. It didn’t matter that there were a zillion ways that I had shown up through the years and given them the very best of me. In that moment, I just beat myself up.
The fact is, a mental health challenge can convince you that you are nothing but a drain on the people you love. Even when they tell you over and over that they adore you, the upheaval in your brain tells you otherwise. Of course I could have called my best friend, but I didn’t want to disrupt her busy weekend with her family. And yes, had I asked, my family would have come back home, and they would have forgiven me for messing up their trip. But I wouldn’t have forgiven myself. I really don’t know what was worse, the anxiety attack that lasted for minutes, or the hours of ruthless “self-talk” that followed, telling me all the ways I was a huge strain on my family and friends.
I had to vent these feelings.
So I did something completely random: I found the contact info for the hosts of a popular parenting podcast I like and wrote them an anonymous email and let it all out… every last bit of those feelings of guilt and shame. I hit the “send” button, then crawled into bed with my dog for a really good cry. It was therapeutic to get out all those bottled-up feelings. And, as always, I’d soon feel better and turn to that to-do list. Just not that day.
A couple months later, when I had long forgotten the email, I happened to check out the Facebook page for that parenting podcast. I noticed a ton of posts seemed to be discussing a letter from a listener named “Ann.” I quickly realized “Ann” was ME, and that they must have read my letter on the air.
These were some of the comments I read in response:
“It took me years and a lot of therapy to be OK with the type of mom I can be. But you know, I am one of the most loving and tolerant parents there is. My kids are compassionate, smart, kind. I’m continually amazed by them.”
“My daughter has noticed that I haven’t been laughing a lot lately and she made the comment that she likes it when I laugh. I’m trying not to let my issues become her issues, but it’s so hard!”
“I’m so sorry. My husband has PTSD and anxiety (we’re just a bag full of fun times as parents), and it’s so difficult.”
People wrote long paragraphs about their mental health issues and I was surprised by how incredibly candid they were. I recognized myself in many of the stories I read, except in one way: the self-acceptance. There was an incredible amount of self-acceptance in what was shared. These people were openly living with a mental health disorder the way someone might live with any physical health issue. One woman wrote “it’s surprising how kind other people can be when you tell them the truth” after her neighbors had pitched in to help her with errands and childcare during a rough patch. As I read on, I felt like I was getting a glimpse of the “human chain” of camaraderie and compassion that can exist between people, and how it stands up to judgement and shame.
And yet here I’d been hiding behind the name “Ann,” because I’d bought into the stigma attached to mental health disorders. The truth is, anxiety affects 40 million people in the US every year. And women are 60% more likely than men to suffer from most anxiety disorders. Furthermore, famous moms left and right have “come out” about their mental health struggles like Adele, Kristen Bell, Beyonce, and JK freaking Rowling! The woman who gave birth to three children and Harry Potter could talk openly about her anxiety and depression, yet I had the audacity to think “this isn’t the flu, and no one understands me.” Please.
Since then, I’ve been pretty transparent about my anxiety. I mean, I don’t show up to a PTA meeting, grab the microphone and say “Good morning everyone, I’m losing my S#*%.” In fact, I can’t go to PTA meetings because they usually conflict with a morning fitness class that I have to take in order to keep my brain balanced. But I discuss it openly now.
Speaking of fitness, recently I was having a tough week, and getting to class felt overwhelming. Back to Facebook. I looked up a mom who I was getting friendly with in class. I didn’t know her well, but she was always so warm and open. So I messaged her. Told her I hadn’t been to class in a while because I was having a lot of anxiety, but I wanted to go, I was just slightly terrified I might cry or panic and I needed a person I felt safe with to be there just in case everything went south. This is what she wrote:
“If you cry or pass out, I will wipe your tears and catch your fall. I’ve been there. And if there’s anything I can do to help, I’m here.”
I still get teary just thinking about these words from a woman who I hardly knew. When I showed up to class, she greeted me with a great big hug and the workout went great.
I wouldn’t have done something like that before “Ann.” Going undercover with that fake identity led me to a huge community of real people who weren’t afraid to tell the truth about their struggles. I realized that my coming out of the “anxiety closet” had been long overdue. The only way to shatter a stigma is to break the silence and scream from our collective rooftops: YOU ARE NOT ALONE! I know now that “Ann” is everywhere. She could be standing next to me at the market, running a Fortune 500 company, or decorating the school for Halloween. And I want her to know that when she steps out of her closet, she will find others who manage to have big, beautiful lives despite their tricky brains. Just like her.