Last week, I met my dear friend for lunch at our favorite cafe. Our table had a placard of the summer specials. One side featured a delicious strawberry-laden salad, and the other showcased a refreshing beverage under the heading:
“Got Anxiety? Cool down with Chamomile on ice.”
Got Anxiety?!?! I thought.
YES. I’ve got anxiety: I’ve got a 16-year old with a license. I’ve got a 17-year old with a girlfriend. I’ve got a 12-year old who cares more about Instagram than using real words in real conversations.
I stared at the picture of glass of tea promising stress relief. I wondered if I could order it by the gallon. I wondered if I could have a Chamomile intravenous feed 24/7.
Got Anxiety? When our children hit about age 12, a new red carpet of anxiety is rolled out from the front door, welcoming in a whole new set of parenting concerns: driving, vaping, acne, drinking, body image, drugs, sex, grades for college, tuition for college, body hair everywhere.
You get it.
And the truth is that everyone has anxiety. It’s part of our “fight or flight” response. Anxiety is a normal response to stress that helps us to stay alert, solve problems, and avoid danger. It’s the adrenaline rush before the big game and the butterflies-in-your-stomach before a job interview. As parents of teenagers, we have an increase of stress, so it It makes sense that we have an increase of anxiety. We get it.
But, what about those of us who really Get It?
I TOTALLY GET IT because I am a parent with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Yes. I admit it. I am flag-flying member of the millions of people who suffer from anxiety. And, not to brag, but if you think parenting teenagers is tough – try doing it with an anxiety disorder.
As someone with a GAD diagnosis, I am like a parent who experiences anxiety… except that I am WAY BETTER at worrying than anyone else. I worry about big things. I worry about little things. Some days I spend more time worrying than I spend time living. I sometimes wake up with a feeling of dread in my stomach – absolutely certain that something horrible is going to happen. This constant state of tension – for no discernable reason – can last anywhere from an hour to a few days.
When it’s severe, my worrying can manifest itself into physical symptoms. My heart pounds in my chest. I feel like I can’t catch my breath. My palms are clammy; my arms tingle. My mind races, desperately trying to fight off the irrational fears clouding my good judgement. I can spiral into a cycle of darkness that ends in a full-blown panic attack. (I’ve had four – none are pretty, all are terrifying).
My anxiety disorder is more than the “big show” of a panic attack. More often than not, my body responds in milder ways. I have problems sleeping. My eyes will twitch. I always have a supply of Immodium close at hand.
GAD is not a new diagnosis as result of having teens. I’ve suffered with anxiety most of my life.
Remember when our teens were babies? We worried about them sleeping. Most everyone has a memory of going into the nursery to put a hand on their tiny back to feel their heart beating. That’s normal. Less normal?
I would wake up thinking, “I wonder if the baby is breathing.”
Rational Me: *looks at clock* “Of course, she’s breathing. You just checked on her 25 minutes ago.”
My GAD brain: “Or maybe … that’s why you woke up suddenly. She needs you. Go check on her.”
Rational Me: “I think she’s fine. I’ve been in there over a dozen times tonight. And last night. And the night before. And last week. She’s okay.”
My GAD brain. “Okay… but what if she’s not?”
Me: *throws back covers, heads back down the hall*
“I was convinced that if I did NOT write the letters, I would surely die. “
About ten years ago, I refused to go on a trip without my children until I had written each one of them a long, long letter about how much I loved them and about all of the dreams I had for them. I was convinced that if I did NOT write the letters, I would surely die.
Although my memory sometimes fails me (Where are my keys? What is the name of my daughter’s coach?), I am never, ever at a loss to warn my children about the potential dangers of any activity they are considering. The details of every morbid story I’ve ever read about comes quickly to mind: roller coaster deaths, choking hazards, curling iron injuries, closing the dishwasher door, (because I once read a story – yes, it was fiction – about a girl who fell in the kitchen and cracked her head on the corner of an open dishwasher door and died.) I’m a pathetic glutton of panic-inducing click bait to loosely-researched articles on the off-chance that some detail might save a loved one’s life.
Surprisingly, my anxiety got better the busier my children became. With more time commitments, I had less time to fixate on scary thoughts. My brain needed space to remember which uniform needed to be washed and ready, what child needed to be where and at what time, and what day I had signed up to bring snacks for the soccer team.
Now that my children are driving, though, my life is slowing down a bit. And I can see my anxiety is ramping up. For me, the worst part of GAD is getting trapped in a horrible cycle of thinking. It goes something like this: my son is ten minutes late coming home from his friend’s house. I can see on my Life360 app that his phone is dead. Missing curfew is a typical stressor for all of us that will heighten anxiety. I tell my husband what is happening, and he says, “He’s fine. It’s ten minutes. He probably didn’t know what time it was because his phone was dead.”
That’s not how my brain works, though. I ramp up the outcomes. My beloved son’s phone is dead. He realized he was late. He was speeding to get home. What if he got in an accident? What if he is on the side of the road bleeding out? What if no one is driving by to see him because he took the dirt road to get home? Maybe I should get in the car and trace the route to his friend’s house. But what if I miss the call from the police when they call about the accident? Does my husband have the insurance card? What if he doesn’t make it to the hospital in time? How will I tell my children that their brother died? And, oh my word – I can’t tell my dad. His health is fragile. He can’t handle it….
All of those dramatic thoughts rapidly fire through my brain leaving me filled with tears and ready to vomit. While I start my breathing exercises to gain control, my son’s key jiggles in the lock and he is home. I react disproportionately to the situation. I ground him for two weeks. He yells at the injustice and slams his door. Ugh. I will spend the rest of the night, lying in bed, eyes open, worrying about what a bad parent I am and how I am screwing up my children. I pray my kids will forgive me for the ways I have failed them.
I am working to control and conquer my anxiety. I know I’ll never be a zen and calm mom, but I know I can be better. My therapist is pretty great; she’s patient as she pulls of her magic bag filled with cognitive-behavior skills. I’m learning to identify my negative thoughts before they spiral. I question the validity of my thoughts and try and replace them with more realistic outcomes. It helps. I try and relax with some breathing exercises. I hold on to Scripture and words of encouragement to stay balanced. Some days are better than others.
For today, I’m going to take some deep breaths, kiss my teenagers, and go make a vat of Chamomile iced tea.