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In the past month, as this blog has really grown, numerous people have told me they’re proud of me. “You really seem to have found your voice,” they say. As someone who’s wanted to be a writer by profession since she was 7, this is amazing to hear.
But this appearance, while in so many ways true and exciting, also obscures a truth that I want to be very honest about. You see, what I hear when people say this is essentially, “I’m so proud of you. You really seem to have your shit together.”
Let me be very honest with you about something, friends.
And, for that matter, does anyone really?
Let’s Talk about Anxiety
Here’s the thing that many of you know but few of you see: I have anxiety.
What do I mean when I say that?
Anxiety takes on a lot of forms. I’m not talking about the worry we feel when a deadline is approaching or we’re about to speak in front of a large group. Anxiety, as I refer to it, is a serious mental health issue that impacts the way you live your life. An estimated 18% of adults live with some form of anxiety disorder. This means their experience with anxiety is overwhelming to the point that it prevents them from doing everyday activities. I’ve had it since I was a child; I just didn’t know there was a diagnosis for it then.
Anxiety, like everything, exists on a spectrum. It can be severe or minor, but the fact remains: if you suffer from anxiety, going through some basic aspects of life can be more difficult for you than it is for others. The most commonly known types of anxiety are probably Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and phobias. Most of us are also familiar with Panic Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, and Separation Anxiety Disorder.
But here’s the thing: like medical terminology tends to do, it breaks things into groups that make them sound separate, when in reality, they are in so many ways intrinsically linked.
The Role of Anxiety in My Life
By diagnosis, I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a chronic condition that leads someone to experience symptoms of anxiety (excessive worry, spiraling thoughts, hyperfocusing on negative outcomes, tiredness, inability to concentrate, headaches, tension, nausea, and more) on a regular basis. But as those closest to me can attest to, particularly Husband, that often comes with other forms of anxiety: panic, social anxiety, separation anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
If your anxiety is well managed, as mine usually is, the impact is minimal. After years of therapy, mine was so well managed that I was able to go off all medication to take my comprehensive exams (I wanted all the mental clarity I can get, and anxiety medications can cause brain fog and trouble focusing). Not only did I go off all medications for exams, but I stayed off of them for years–through writing a dissertation, finding a job, 4 miscarriages, and a high-risk pregnancy.
Then Jack was born, and everything changed.
The day we arrived home from the hospital, my anxiety monster came back with a vengeance, rearing that ugly head that I had hoped to never see again. I’ll talk more about my experience with postpartum anxiety another time. Today, I want to focus on how anxiety impacts daily life, even when people seem to be the most pulled together.
Flourishing as a Writer?
People keep complimenting how well I’m doing – my blog is growing, my book is in progress, the Wave of Light event was a success, I have posts coming out in some big outlets soon, I recorded as the guest on a podcast for the first time, and I have a few other similar gigs lined up.
But what looks to you like an experience in which I am flourishing and thriving feels very different to me. Don’t get me wrong; I love what I’m doing with my life right now and wouldn’t change a thing about it. But believe me when I say that it is a constant pushing of boundaries, saying yes when my anxiety tells me to say no, and doing things that make me an absolute wreck.
Anxiety is the Invisible Issue that You Don’t See
That’s what we need to talk about: how someone can have a wonderful, happy, successful life, and still deal with nearly debilitating levels of anxiety that most others never see. It’s the Instagram problem of my generation–you see my perfectly curated world, missing all the crap that goes along with it. I try to create the authenticity to show you the bad with the good, but it’s hard.
If you’ve been following my blog this month, you know that I’ve had a lot going on in honor of Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month, and that I rushed to plan a major event for it last Monday. The event went really well, and if you missed it, you can watch the Livestream on my YouTube Channel. In this video, I look pulled together and well prepared. I’m a bit like a peacock in that way. No matter how tightly bound my feathers are, when it’s go time, I spread my wings wide and none of the imperfections show.
But just like I want to be authentic about what this whole miscarriage, pregnancy, and parenting journey has looked like, I also want to be very real about what life looks like. For me, life is full of anxiety. Not nerves, shyness, basic worry. But an overwhelming fear that I’ve spent years–in many ways, a lifetime–learning to work through.
I made it through the event with poise and grace. Then, probably because I’d been repressing my emotions about what the event actually stood for, came the anxiety monster.
My Anxiety Monster
In the days following the Wave of Light event, I received an outpouring of both support and thanks. The response was so overwhelming that I did a Facebook Live follow-up to read aloud names I hadn’t been able to say aloud the night before. Keep in mind, though, that these names are of children who lost their lives before they were born or during infancy–not exactly a light task. And that doesn’t even account for all the children like my own 4 angels who never had names to begin with.
It makes sense that, once I allowed the weight of the subject to hit me, I would struggle emotionally.
I’ve had higher levels of general anxiety ever since the event, but there are moments when it strikes so hard that it impacts even the best of moments. That’s what you don’t see, and that’s what I want you to know about.
There’s Just Something About Bedtime
Last Wednesday night, I was going through Jack’s usual bedtime routine. Husband had given him a bath and gotten him dressed; I was giving him milk and singing to him.
I have songs I usually sing–Brahm’s Lullaby, Mary Had a Little Lamb, Somewhere Over the Rainbow–but on this evening, I heard myself singing something different.
As I sang and snuggled and watched the smile on his face, I felt so at peace. In love. Happy. It was one of those moments of peace and overwhelming love that people pretend is the entirety of motherhood. Parenting is not all fun and games, but at some moments, you’re overtaken by how incredible it is. “You’re my light, little love,” I said to Jack. “And I will do everything possible to empower you to shine as brightly as you can.”
And then, there it was.
Like a creature lurching out of a lake at just the wrong moment in a horror movie, my anxiety monster reared its ugly head. Instantly, I felt physically ill. The back of my neck turned hot and sweaty. I developed an overwhelming sensation of nausea. My pulse became more rapid. My vision blurred. These are some of the many possible symptoms of my biggest nemesis: a panic attack.
Husband took charge of Jack. I had to sit down, trying to recover myself. This is what anxiety looks like. Losing out on precious moments because of something unexpected and uncontrollable.
But Why Did You Panic?
When you experience panic, most people around you ask what they think is an easy question: What caused it? Or, what are you worried about?
If you have obsessive or spiraling thoughts as part of your anxiety (which I used to), you know the answer. Of course, you feel silly admitting to it because you know that your body’s reaction was not rationally proportional to the thought.
But lately, my anxiety isn’t generally accompanied by specific thoughts. I can look back and guess what the trigger might’ve been, but it’s always a guess. Maybe I was just overwhelmed from all the last few days had entailed. Maybe I finally felt relaxed, and that sensation allowed emotions I’d been suppressing to come to the surface. Or maybe, just maybe (and this is my biggest fear), I don’t know how to live any way but afraid.
The Emotional Toll of Miscarriages and Lack of Control
When I was experiencing recurrent miscarriage, I developed a coping mechanism I like to call the “Selfish Mechanism.” In order to survive, I had to learn to value myself as an individual above all. I had to imagine being happy and fulfilled without a baby, which had always been a dream of mine. I had to become the center of my own universe. And I’ve made a point to be sure that, even now, I remain happy with myself beyond my role as a parent.
But on that night with my kind, empathetic, loving, happy toddler, I leaned in to the fact that this precious little love is more important to me than I am.
I already knew that fact, but acknowledging it triggered an internal alarm. It was as if, by feeling what came naturally in that moment, I was risking all the self-preservation I had worked so painstakingly to build.
With every day that passes, Jack becomes more of an independent little person. Thus, he is more and more someone I cannot always protect. I love watching it, seeing his little personality form. He’s stubborn like basically everyone in his family. He’s snuggly and sweet-to-the-core like his daddy, and skeptical of the world around him—strangely cautious for a toddler–like me. Once he makes up his mind about someone, he’s an extroverted little flirt, like his granddaddy. He is who he is, and I can mold, but I cannot control.
I have less and less control over his life, his well-being, his safety with every day that passes. And that will never reverse.
Parenting is Hard on Anxiety
This is the hardest part of parenting to me; learning to deal with the fact that I cannot control.
And when I allow myself to really understand it, it becomes too much. That’s what I felt putting Jack to bed that night. I felt joy, and then an overwhelming feeling of sickness at letting myself enjoy how much of my center he’s become. I experienced crippling panic. I felt physically ill. And it’s happened multiple times since.
This is what it’s like to live with anxiety. To have everything be fine, even wonderful, and within seconds, be unable to see straight. It’s not always visible, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Katy Huie Harrison, PhD, is an author, mom, recurrent miscarriage survivor, & owner of Undefining Motherhood. She lives in Atlanta with her husband (affectionately known on the internet as “Husband,”) son (Jack), and dog (Charlotte). She believes our society puts too many expectations on women that make womanhood and motherhood restrictive. Her goal is to shift the paradigm about what it means to be a woman and mother, giving all women a greater sense of agency over their own lives. You can find Katy and her work featured in places like CNN’s Headline News, Romper, Scary Mommy, Demeter Press’s Motherhood and Social Exclusion, & more.