I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) in my early twenties. When it became clear that drugs (in my case a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI) were not a great option for me, my doctor worked with me to come up with some coping mechanisms. These are generally known as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. For most of my twenties I used these coping mechanisms with great success. Then, everything changed when I gave birth to my first daughter, Evie, in March of 2011.
Merely days after Evie’s birth my anxiety ramped up so quickly that it was out of my control. This time it didn’t force its way into my life alone; it brought its close friend, Depression, along to play, too. For five weeks I suffered with uncontrollable panic attacks that would leave me sitting in the bathtub with the shower running as hot as I could stand while I vomited down the drain. Rage and sadness would swamp me in waves that I could never see coming. The waves kept taking me under. I was drowning. Finally one night after a middle-of-the-night feeding, as I sobbed in bed, my husband simply said to me, “Either you call the doctor, or I will.” More than any other moment in our marriage that one act in the middle of night has shown me the profound love my husband has for me. I will always love him for that.
I was diagnosed with Post-Partum Depression and Anxiety (PPD/A) very quickly. My doctor immediately started me on a low dose of Lexapro with Xanax as needed for the panic attacks. I recovered, and when I was diagnosed with PPD/A after the birth of my second daughter, Emma, I recovered as well. For all intents and purposes I am a success story. I got help quickly both times, thanks in no small part to my loving husband and attentive doctor. The medications helped me as they should. I was a more present and loving mother. I never had any psychotic events. Interacting with me on a daily basis you would probably never know that I still struggle with anxiety nearly every day of my life, but I do. Elevator rides send my heart racing. Pictures of car crashes make me lose my breath. Some days I can’t even look at the news. Living with anxiety is hard, but living with anxiety as a mother is even harder.
As someone who suffers from anxiety, I can tell you there are things that a lot of people don’t understand. There are 5 main things to know about not just living with anxiety, but also about living with anxiety as mother:
- Some days getting out of the house is a monumental feat. Do you see the Momma at the park hovering around her child as he or she swings or slides? Don’t judge that “helicopter mom” too harshly or quickly. Oftentimes for us mothers who battle anxiety, leaving the house alone with our children is a daunting task. Our homes are our safe spaces. Many times leaving the house can leave us drained, leaving us with fewer defenses to beat back the anxiety. We do it, though, because we love our children, and universally every mother I have ever spoken with who suffers from anxiety says one of their greatest fears is that their anxiety will affect their children negatively.
- Saying “No” isn’t meant as an insult. If you ask me and my child over for a play date, or ask me to meet for coffee or drinks for a mommy date and I say “no,” please understand that it’s not because I don’t love you or your child. It’s that right now the fear is so big, and I need to get that fear under control before I can commit to anything. The last thing I want to do is make plans with you and then have to back out at the last minute because my anxiety is out of control.
- Telling me my fears are “no big deal” is the opposite of helpful. “It’s fine. It’s nothing to worry about,” you tell me when I nervously watch my oldest climb to the top of the highest slide or when my eyes constantly dart around unless my youngest is in my direct line of sight. What you need to understand is that in my mind I’m already past the top of the slide or my child being out of my line of sight. In my mind my oldest has fallen of the top of the slide and is laying broken and motionless on the ground. My youngest has been snatched by a kidnapper. I see these things vividly in my mind. They are called intrusive thoughts and come unbidden and sometimes without warning. Do not minimize them, please. If you know a mother who is living with anxiety, instead of saying “it’s nothing to worry about,” say something along the lines of, “are you ok? Is something bothering you? Do you want to tell me about it?”
- Alone time is a requirement. Alone time is important for most of mothers suffering from anxiety. We need the time to regroup and refocus, even if it’s just a few minutes per day. For those of us living with anxiety, alone time or self-care, is an absolute requirement. Many therapists prescribe it as they would medicine. You wouldn’t skip a dose of an antibiotic so don’t skip a dose of self-care. This can be hard as mother. Alone time is hard to come by, and it’s often it’s the first thing we cut from our schedule when we get busy. Even with a great supportive spouse and family nearby, I sometimes feel like I am going to have a panic attack if I can’t have ten minutes to breathe and visualize. If you know a mom with an anxiety disorder, offering to spend some time with her kids so she can have a few minutes alone is a great idea.
- I am not defined by anxiety. I have an anxiety disorder. I am not my anxiety disorder. I am more than that. I’m sarcastic and funny. I love to write and take pictures. I love it when my kids help me in the kitchen. I love animals and spending time with them. I’m family-oriented, and one of my favorite things to do is to have my whole family around my table eating a meal. I’m a good mom. I like to do interpretive dance to old school Disney songs. I love to sing and read. I’m empathetic and loyal to a fault. I love my people. If you see me as only my anxiety disorder, you miss out on the rest.