I am sure I am not the only one who has felt anxious…you know that heart racing, butterflies in the tummy, sweating and sometimes nauseous feeling. Yes, I think most people have experienced anxiety at some point in life.
My first real anxious moment that stuck with me was my first day on my very first job, at the age of 14. I had applied to work as a maid in a hotel in the beach town my family lived in just a few months after losing my mom. I was sitting there in the lobby area on my first day, surrounded by those who had worked there for some time and a couple of other new employees. And I was nervous. Really nervous. My heart began racing, my body started shaking, and suddenly the world around me became a tunnel and started to fade….I was going to faint….that made me panic…. So I slowed my breathing, taking deep breaths and focused on one person…. And slowly, the world came back into focus and my heart slowed. I was able to get through that moment of intense anxiety…
But not everyone can.
There have been many other moments in my life that have made me feel anxious. And when anxiety inducing moments happen, I just push through it and breathe and I am okay.
But not everyone is.
I believed, like many believe, that anxiety was momentary, that it was a sign that I was stepping outside my comfort zone. Pushing through and doing the thing that made a person anxious was the way to deal with it.
So when my young son (my first born) showed signs of being anxious, well I just encouraged him to push through it, take a deep breath and do it. So many fits of anger and uncontrolled emotions filled his life when I tried to force him to “just do it”.
I didn’t realize the debilitating effect that anxiety had on some people. On him.
If I knew then what I know now, how much different would my son’s life have been? How much different would the life of my family have been? How many fights would we have prevented? How much stress would we have avoided?
Thinking back now and remembering, I can see those moments, the stress and the effects the anxiety had on my son…. I just didn’t know it all those years ago. How could I? No one I knew suffered, or maybe it was that no one talked about it. We all were told to just “suck it up” and do it. And that is why I am sharing today what I have learned and what may have been different had we known all those years ago what we know now.
So many times, my son fought going to school…. Oh the fights to get him to go when he was young, and the “mommy I am sick” moments were many. So many times, he would drag his feet, often ending up in tears when we tried to get him to get moving for many events. The times he would be sick to his stomach before having to perform in a band concert or speak to a group, go to school, go to the doctor, or when meeting someone new. The hours, yes HOURS, of crying when he was too young to really verbalize is fears when going to bed. Everyone told us to just put him in bed and let him cry… they didn’t know that the crying would not stop, for hours, not until I went in and sat with him, reassuring him that all was okay and promising to stay with him… then the crying stopped and he would finally sleep (for a bit anyway). The difficulty he had with every move we made with the Air Force and the difficulty getting him to get out and join other kids in our new locations were moments of stress for him, often leading to emotional distress, an upset tummy and isolation.
So many times I missed the signs.
Because I didn’t know.
In October 2016 my son decided he was tired of the anxiety medicine and the addictive and dangerous side-effects, so he asked the doctor to titrate him down, slowly, until he was no longer taking the medicine. He was sure that the anxiety wasn’t as bad as he thought and that it was the fear of the seizures when taken off the medicine that would cause the anxiety and panic attacks. So he felt if he was weaned off the medicine, slowly, he could overcome the fears and then life would be easier.
It took a year to do.
The first week of October 2017 was the first time in over 13 years that my son was no longer taking the anxiety medication. He was so proud of himself. And he had hope for the future.
It became difficult. The anxiety was coming every day, stronger each day. The anxiety was real. Not imagined. Not created from a fear of not having his meds.
For the month of October 2017 into the first half of November 2017, we watched our son’s mental health deteriorate. The anxiety was so debilitating that he could not look us in the eye. He could not get out of bed. He could not talk on the phone. He could not shower. He could not leave his room. He could not sleep.
My son was fading away from us, sinking deeper and deeper into a hole. He kept trying to explain to us what he was feeling, but it was so hard. He couldn’t live in his own skin.
Here was my son, who had been through treatment, was not self-medicating and was off all mental health meds.
And we were losing him.
We were beyond frightened.
When he began to express to us that he now understood why some take their own lives…. Well, we knew we had to do something. We had not been through all that we had been through to lose our son now. Losing him was not an option! Not when we finally had him back from the grip of drugs.
We got him in to see a psychiatrist who was hesitant to put him back on any medication, because he was an addict. (and that will be part of my coming blog on the problems and difficulties and brokenness with our mental health system). The Psychiatrist then asked my husband if he was worried about our son going back on the anxiety meds…. And my husband’s response was that he was more scared of what would happen to our son if he wasn’t put back on the medication. And so they started our son back on his meds, just a much lower dose.
I never knew until that month and a half just how debilitating anxiety is for some in this world. There is no “just getting through it” or “sucking it up”. It is real. It is a fear that is so deep that the person cannot move beyond it. It keeps them isolated. The fear paralyzes them. And they cannot stop it.
I asked my son recently what it was like that month and a half, how he would describe it and here is what he said—
“It was like I was collecting phobias. I was constantly having a panic attack and everything around me became something to fear. I would fear that spiders and bugs were going to attack me in my sleep so I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t leave my room for the fear that something would get me. I couldn’t do anything to stop the panic. Nothing! I kept thinking I was going to have to live with this constant panic attack and kept fearing I would have to live in a hospital for the rest of my life. I kept thinking it would never end so maybe it would be better to not live any longer.”
This breaks my heart. This makes me realize just how debilitating anxiety disorder is. I didn’t know. I wish I had. Maybe, just maybe, things would have been different….
That month and half in the fall of 2017, showed me what my son has been dealing with his entire life and has given me an understanding I did not have before. An understanding that now has me being more patient with my son when it takes him a little longer to get moving, when he needs a moment to catch his breath, when he just can’t do it today. I now understand and I am learning new ways to help him through it and to make it easier for him to do the things he needs to do, without the pressure from me…. Things I wish I had done when he was younger. Maybe then he would have learned more of the coping skills he so desperately needs now. Maybe then he would have felt supported. Maybe then I could have provided a safe place for him to share his worries and learn to find strength in the midst of gripping fear. Maybe, if I had known what I know now, we would have been able to get him the help he needed all those years ago….
Why share this now, when the medication is helping, when my son is doing well and having more good days than bad? Because I wish that the generation before me and the generation before them had talked about mental health issues. I wish earlier generations had shared what was happening in their families, instead of keeping it secret and keeping it “in the family”. And I want to change that for future generations. I want to keep talking and sharing our story, my son’s story, so that others know they are not alone. So that the young parent who’s feeling alone and judged because their child has uncontrolled emotional outbursts in public and at home, knows that they ARE NOT alone. Help is out there. Support is out there.
If we keep talking we can change the life of so many before they get to the point my son did or before they are no longer with us and take their own life, as my friend did.
When you see someone struggling, or you know someone is dealing with a loved one who has a mental illness or addiction, or you see the young parent at their wits end because their child is on an emotional rollercoaster, reach out to them…. Let them know you care. Let them know you understand and do not judge. Let them know they are not alone.
Let’s go beyond previous generations and let’s change things for future generations by talking about mental illness, educating ourselves and supporting those who need our love and empathy.
I am taking the leap and continuing to share our story……
Will you take the leap with me?