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#MHYALit: Anxiety Disorder, My Son, and Me

MHYALitlogoofficfialThere are lots of things my son Callum and I have in common. We both like Converse. We love Harry Potter. We both wear glasses. And we both have anxiety disorder. While I often really, really hate my own anxiety, it has been extremely useful to have first-hand experience when it comes to needing to parent, support, and calm Callum.
 
 

A little history:

 

I’m 38. I’ve been medicated for twenty years. I probably should have been medicated for, like, ten years before that. I was a high-strung, anxious kid, a total perfectionist. My natural state was to work hard, expect to do well, and be hard on myself if I felt I didn’t do well on something. That alone made for plenty of anxious feelings. I heard the same things so many of us heard—You worry too much. You overthink things. It will be fine. Don’t worry about it. My anxiety would kick in when we had tests or projects. I hated being left home alone because I was so nervous about every noise (growing up as the kid of the high school principal, and having our house routinely vandalized didn’t help my fear). Through high school my anxiety worsened. I was fine speaking up in class about things if it was my own choosing, but being called on stirred up instant panic. But mostly, there was no obvious cause. No correlation. No clear trigger. I felt anxious all the damn time, for what generally felt like no reason. I got so used to having panic attacks–hearing my blood whooshing in my ears, feeling like I couldn’t breathe, feeling my muscles tighten up, having my heart race–that I kind of stopped thinking they were weird and just accepted that it was how I was built. I didn’t know anything different and no one was telling me that there was any other way to be. I sort of lived in flight-or-fight mode. It was exhausting.

 

And speaking of exhausting, I also kind of stopped sleeping. As many of us who suffer from anxiety know, bedtime is the brain’s favorite time to start screaming every single worry at you so loudly that sleep is impossible. I’d read, make mix tapes, write letters, work on my zine, watch tv, do anything but sleep. My dad would get up at like 5 and find me still awake downstairs and tell me how ridiculous it was that I was awake. Like I didn’t know. My first year after college, I worked overnights at a gas station (it was one of two things open all night in my tiny hometown, and in retrospect seems like not the safest choice I’ve ever made) simply because I’d then get home and be so exhausted I had to sleep.

 

I never really talked to my parents about any of this. I never really talked to anyone about it, back then. Outside of sometimes knowing someone who tried to kill themselves—or successfully did so—mental health wasn’t a topic that any of us were really openly talking about when I was in high school. But when I graduated high school and was going to move for college, I decided I had to do something or suspected I would spend my entire freshman year hiding in my dorm room and hoping my anxiety would just disappear. At my appointment I explained my symptoms and my doctor was like, oh, sure, you have generalized anxiety disorder. And panic disorder. And probably some social anxiety. Oh… yes. That all sounded right. I started medication and felt pretty much okay. I still had some panic attacks. I still was a worrywart perfectionist, but I don’t think medication can change that for me.

 

I changed medications a handful of times over all those years. Now, I take Elavil every night, have Klonopin for panic attacks, and have a beta blocker also for helping with panic attacks. My anxiety has remained more or less in check and predictable. I don’t like change or uncertainty. I don’t handle unexpected events well. My brain likes to grab onto small “mistakes” or hurts and put them on a continuous loop through my thoughts. When I had to add in new meds for my panic attacks, my doctor told me that my anxiety included “obsessive rumination,” which is exactly what it sounds like–the inability to stop thinking about things. You can image the implosion in my brain when my dad was killed in a car accident in December 2012. One of my biggest fears is driving. If I’m driving in a place I know well, I’m good. But I’ve always felt scared to be traveling along in this metal box and hoping everyone else in their metal boxes is paying attention. Having my dad die how he did was extra bad for my anxiety. I was literally incapable of being able to stop picturing what happened, especially after my grandma read me the coroner’s report (something I really wish she had not done, but she’s had 3 of her 4 adult children die–cancer, suicide, car crash–and I wasn’t about to shut her down). I was a wreck. My panic attacks became so bad I would shake like I was in hypothermic shock. I cried so much the salt from my tears made all the skin around my eyes raw for months. It was horrible.

 

It was around this time that Callum’s anxiety started to manifest. He was 6. He shares essentially all of my same symptoms and diagnoses. Thanks to my own experience, I started to notice his symptoms and began rounds with doctors. We did some testing and got him diagnosed. He has been in and out of therapy for nearly 4 years. He’s been medicated for about 1.5 years and his day-to-day anxiety is lower. His anxiety was getting in the way of his performance at school because he would spend so much of his energy being nervous and worrying about what was coming next that he would not be able to hear what was happening (his anxious mind basically worrying too loudly for him to catch instructions etc). He still has the occasional panic attack. But now he has an arsenal of words to use, techniques to try, and a steady stream of medicine to help even out those anxious moments.

 

Here’s the thing: I know how he feels. And I know the stigma that still exists. We have always treated his anxiety as just another part of him. We talk openly about it. We talk about how helpful therapy and medication are. We talk about how there’s no shame in saying that you have anxiety disorder (or any other mental health challenge). When we were at my best friend Kelly’s house one night, we were having a bonfire. It was late and dark and her son kept making howling wolf noises (something that has scared Callum since forever). Callum started to get uncomfortable and turned to me and said, “I’m having a panic attack and need to go home now.” Just like that. And as Kelly walked us back to the house, she said to Callum, “I totally get it. You know, I have anxiety disorder, too.” Factual. Open. Empathizing.

 

I never feel that my mental illness is a “gift.” It’s not. I’d gladly be rid of it. Outside of sometimes making me extra productive, it does nothing for me that I’d want to keep. But the ability to empathize with my child, to so bone deep understand how he feels, and to know how to help him is a gift. When he panics, I don’t say “don’t worry about it” or “it will be fine” or “just stop thinking about it.” I say, “Let’s talk about it if you want to. Yeah, that really sucks. It’s so hard to not feel like that. What can I do to help? What will make this feel less scary?” I know when he needs to get back in with his therapist. I know when medication seems like it needs to be changed. And the other night, when he had a crying meltdown over turning 10 (“I don’t want to get older. You’re getting older and will die someday. I don’t want to be without you. I want to stay little. Everyone in our family dies young. What if the movers lose all of our things? What if no one at my new school likes me?”) and it spiraled into an existential crisis over EVERYTHING, I got it. One worry reveals 90 worries. One thought makes 90 thoughts start shouting at us. And rational discussion or understanding does not do anything to dissipate what’s happening in his brain. But we talked. And found distractions. And called it what it was–a panic attack–and noted how much anxiety sucks.

 

He has to grow up with the burden of mental illness. I can’t change that. But I can damn well make sure he grows up knowing that he is supported, making sure that he gets the treatment he needs, and helping him understand there is no such thing as normal and that there is NO shame in how his brain is built.

#MHYALit: Accepting Anxiety, a guest post by Jessica Spotswood

Today we’re honored to have Jessica Spotswood sharing her lifelong experiences with anxiety with us. See all of the posts in the #MHYALit series here. 

MHYALitlogoofficfial

I was twenty-seven when I was diagnosed with general anxiety disorder and prescribed Lexapro to help manage it. It gave name to something that I’ve struggled with since I was a little girl. 

 

 

After my grandmother had a stroke while babysitting me, and subsequently died of a brain tumor when I was seven, I had a visceral reaction to hospitals and an unrelenting fear of doctors. I once overheard my parents talking about a girl at church whose appendix had almost ruptured, and for years afterward I had rampant stomaches and panic attacks that I too had appendicitis. I was at odds with my own body – not the usual awkwardness of being a teenager, but constantly monitoring signs and potential symptoms that I might be secretly dying, that my body might betray me at any moment. I remember lying awake at night worrying that something would happen to my parents and anxiously watching the clock if they were even a few minutes late picking us up. I remember being so anxious I couldn’t eat whenever there was any substantial deviation from my routine (school trips, vacations, etc). Despite all this, I remember being a a sunny, bouncy, endlessly positive girl – everyone’s best friend and confidante. I didn’t talk about my worries. When I tried to, my parents told me to find something to do (the devil makes work for idle hands, I guess?), or suggested that I was worrying about nothing. 

 

So I tried to keep busy. During the school year, I was mostly successful – AP and advanced classes, marching band, concert band, jazz band, fall play, spring musical, editing the school newspaper, copyediting the yearbook. During the summers, I was miserable and anxious. This continued during college and grad school. I was so busy that I was perpetually stressed, but that seemed normal, until it came to a crisis point my last semester of grad school. I was working full-time, doing comp essays, planning my wedding, and looking for a new apartment, while also dealing with my father’s acrimonious divorce from my stepmom and an estrangement from my half-brother. I started getting so furious with myself over small silly things that I’d hit myself or knock my head into a wall. And I knew that wasn’t healthy. But it wasn’t until a friend was diagnosed with lymphoma and I became obsessively worried about a bump on my neck that I went to see my doctor. It turned out the bump was perfectly normal, but when I couldn’t accept that, my primary care physician realized that my anxiety over it wasn’t normal. She prescribed me Lexapro.

 

And the medication helped. I fought against the idea of needing it, felt shamed that I couldn’t just work it out on my own. I’d grown up in a very practical central Pennsylvania Protestant family with a fantastic work ethic. When, as an adult, I tried to explain my anxiety to them, they still suggested that I had too much time to think, that I wasn’t busy enough if I had this much time to worry. What did I have to worry about anyway, they asked? When I first told my mom about the medication, she was quiet and then relayed that medication like that had made my cousin gain weight. As much as I love my family, it became something I couldn’t talk about with them for my own wellbeing. It showed me that even the most loving people can minimize and dismiss and judge mental health issues.

 

I was embarrassed about having anxiety, but I thought, Okay, I’ll take this medication for a while. Surely not forever. I’ll get better. I made a point of blogging about it, of talking openly about therapy and anxiety and meds with my friends. But in my heart of hearts, I was not reconciled to anxiety being part of me, just like my curly hair and blue eyes and love of words. I’d feel better for weeks or months and think hopefully that it had gone away, that I was cured! Then I’d feel crushingly disappointed in myself when it popped up again.

 

ATOP cover smallThe more I chatted with my therapist, the more I realized how much of my identity was wrapped up in anxiety: my need to please, my fierce avoidance of conflict, my fear of the unknown. For a long time, I believed without question that I had to be sunny and perfect and likable to be loved, and that I had to worry obsessively about all the bad things that might happen in order to prevent them. It was a sort of black magical thinking that still lingers with me, though at least I recognize it now. (As I write this, four days away from the release of my newest book, A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS, I am both delighted by all the positive reviews and buzz, and waiting for the universe to turn on me in some fashion.)

 

The medication helps quiet the worries that circle my brain like vultures. I’m still prey to them sometimes but they fly at enough of a distance that I can use the tools from therapy to ask myself: what is this feeling telling me? Is that true? Do I want to do something about it? If not, can I let it go? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a few months after I started taking medication, I also began writing fiction again for the first time in years. Without that incessant anxious chatter, there was so much space in my mind – space for stories to grow.

 

And, for a while, things were okay. I still had anxious days. I panicked unnecessarily about regular doctors’ appointments. I sold my first trilogy in a major deal and my dream and my hobby became my job. It was a mixed blessing. For a girl who loves knowing what to expect, publishing is in some ways not the ideal job. (I never know what to expect.) There is so much beyond my control – sales, reviews, the publisher’s publicity, the ever-elusive market. And this business breeds perfectionism. It’s easy to feel never-enough, to compare my behind-the-scenes journey to everyone else’s highlight reels on social media. It’s easy to stay busy-busy-busy, jumping from deadline to deadline, from book release to book release. It’s easy for it to become your everything, your whole identity, in a way that is maybe not healthy. That’s where I was two winters ago, when my husband and I started thinking about trying to have a baby (a discussion that’s since been tabled) and I went off my anti-anxiety medication. I thought I could. I thought I should, even though I was in a strange place job-wise, writing full-time but with no new book under contract.

 

It was fine until it wasn’t. I woke up one sunny morning in March in a total panic. I was home in my own bed, safe, but my brain and body started sending signals that something was really wrong. My thoughts started to loop uncontrollably. What if, what if, what if? What if I never sold another book? What if my husband couldn’t find another teaching job after his adjunct contract was up? What if I had secret cancer? My brain was determined to find a reason for how terrified I felt. The feeling of it had come first, then the thoughts. But anxiety isn’t rational.

 

I started seeing my therapist again, and that helped. But I was miserable. I cried every day. I was hardly eating. I wasn’t writing. Sometimes I didn’t get out of bed until dark. I was determined to figure it out without medication, though. I don’t know why. It felt like if I just worked hard enough, I could do it. I hadn’t been able to make my books a success – at least not by my publisher’s outsize expectations – but surely I could do this. I was desperate to control my own brain. To control something

 

It didn’t work, no matter how hard I tried. After two months, I got to the point where I was feeling – while not actively suicidal – like I didn’t want to live anymore. And that scared me enough that I – who still have a fairly major phobia about doctors – made an appointment. I asked my doctor to put me back on Lexapro.

 

Like before, it’s not magic. I still feel anxious sometimes, I still get irrationally angry with myself for not being perfect, for not doing enough. But those feelings are muted enough that I can use the tools I’ve learned from therapy. And I decided that writing full-time, letting it be my everything, wasn’t healthy for me. I got a part-time job working as a children’s library associate and I edited my anthology and eventually I sold another book and I got into a new routine. And that includes taking anti-anxiety medication every day. 

 

Only now I’m not embarrassed at all. 

 

Now I’m proud. I saved myself. I wasn’t too ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help when I needed it. I work really hard to take care of myself – to not fall into the traps of perfectionism and busybusybusy and self-blame. When your brain is an asshole sometimes, it is really easy to feel ugly and broken​ and not enough​. That’s when I take a step back and remember that a lot of my thoughts about myself are not objectively true. They are not rational. Would I talk that way about a friend? Would I judge them as harshly as I judge myself? (The answer is almost always a resounding no.) I am finally in a place where I – almost always – believe that anxiety is not my fault. That it’s a combination of learned habits that I can change and brain chemistry that I cannot. It’s not about being stronger or better or, Good Lord, busier. When my brain tells me that, it’s being a bully, because that is not true.

 

And if your brain tells you that? Don’t believe it. And don’t be afraid to ask for help, in whatever form that takes. You aren’t broken, eithe​r. You are exactly enough. ​I promise. 

 

Meet Jessica Spotswood

C. Stanley Photography

C. Stanley Photography

Jessica Spotswood is the editor of the historical anthology A TYRANNY OF PETTICOATS and the author of The Cahill Witch Chronicles and the upcoming WILD SWANS. She grew up in a tiny, one-stoplight town in Pennsylvania, where she could be found swimming, playing clarinet, memorizing lines for the school play, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Now she lives in Washington, DC where she can be found working as a children’s library associate for DC Public Library, seeing theatre with her playwright husband, or – most often – with her nose in a book. Some things never change. Website / Twitter / Facebook / Instagram

 

 

About A Tyranny of Petticoats

ATOP cover smallFrom an impressive sisterhood of YA writers comes an edge-of-your-seat anthology of historical fiction and fantasy featuring a diverse array of daring heroines.

Criss-cross America—on dogsleds and ships, stagecoaches and trains—from pirate ships off the coast of the Carolinas to the peace, love, and protests of 1960s Chicago. Join fifteen of today’s most talented writers of young adult literature on a thrill ride through history with American girls charting their own course. They are monsters and mediums, bodyguards and barkeeps, screenwriters and schoolteachers, heiresses and hobos. They’re making their own way in often-hostile lands, using every weapon in their arsenals, facing down murderers and marriage proposals. And they all have a story to tell.

With stories by:
J. Anderson Coats
Andrea Cremer
Y. S. Lee
Katherine Longshore
Marie Lu
Kekla Magoon
Marissa Meyer
Saundra Mitchell
Beth Revis
Caroline Richmond
Lindsay Smith
Jessica Spotswood
Robin Talley
Leslye Walton
Elizabeth Wein

Publisher: Candlewick Press

Publication date: 03/08/2016

 

About Wild Swans

wild swansThe summer before Ivy’s senior year is going to be golden-all bonfires, barbeques, and spending time with her best friends. For once, she will just get to be. No summer classes, none of Granddad’s intense expectations to live up to the family name. For generations, the Milbourn women have lead extraordinary lives-and died young and tragically. Granddad calls it a legacy, but Ivy considers it a curse. Why else would her mother have run off and abandoned her as a child?

But when her mother unexpectedly returns home with two young daughters in tow, all of the stories Ivy wove to protect her heart start to unravel. The very people she once trusted now speak in lies. And all of Ivy’s ambition and determination cannot defend her against the secrets of the Milbourn past…

 

Publisher: Sourcebooks

Publication date: 05/03/2016