By Heather Hansen
I think my mom always knew something was different with me. I always needed to be near her or at least within a short distance of her. And while that is normal for infants and toddlers, it’s not exactly “cool” to still require that when you’re 10. If an event caused my mom and me to separate, I would cry and cry and cry. Whoever was watching me at the time had to be a master of redirection.
I can recall being in Mrs. N’s second grade classroom. Feeling the fight-or-flight urges (even though I didn’t know how to classify them at the time), I would ask to go to the nurses’ office every single day because my stomach hurt. I wasn’t lying, my stomach really did bother me — but turns out it was from anxiety, not the flu.
Mrs. N caught on to my routine quite quickly, and she began giving me peppermint candy to try and settle my stomach. Looking back now, I see how crafty she was attempting to get my mind off of my anxiety and onto something of value. I was magically always picked to help her with classroom duties — she thought that if she kept me busy, it would keep my anxiety at bay. And while it did help, I was exhausted from the constant fears.
For the next couple years, my anxiety slowly but surely killed off any friendships I formed. Even though I was invited to birthday parties and sleepovers, I never attended for fear of experiencing a panic attack. It usually came down to my mom practically dragging me out of the car to at least give the birthday child his or her present. I would hide behind her leg, never speaking a word. Eventually, the other kids got tired of hearing my excuses, and I stopped receiving invites.
“I remember opening my locker door, sticking my head inside and just crying.”
My life seemed to suddenly come to a shattering stop when I entered sixth grade. I’ll never fully understand what made everything come to a head then, but I do know that I felt paralyzingly lost. On the days that I actually got out of the car and walked into school willingly, my fake smile fooled everyone. Because I didn't fully understand what an anxiety disorder was at the time, it was kept on the down low to try and minimize bullying. I remember opening my locker door, sticking my head inside and just crying. I was at a school where I knew every single person by first and last name, knew all of my teachers, was an honor roll member, yet I could not get the negative thoughts out of my mind. My biggest fear at that time was that something terrible was going to happen to my mom; normally the thoughts were so severe that I imagined the worst.
I missed a lot of school that year between panic attacks, doctor appointments and mornings where I just couldn’t get it together. All of the other kids seemed to brush my worries under the rug and figured that if they didn’t bring them up, they weren’t an issue.
This was the year I saw my first counselor and psychiatrist. I’m not going to lie, I hated my first counselor. She never smiled, never told me anything about herself and often would use the silent treatment to coax me into breaking the silence and talking. I can’t even tell you how many appointments I spent on the couch with my eyes glued to the floor. While I didn’t like her, she did indeed know what was wrong with me. I was diagnosed with severe separation anxiety. Wow … what I was feeling actually had a name?! I didn’t think anyone would ever be able to explain to me why I felt the way I did.
At 11 years old, during my sixth grade school year, I was put on my first mental health medication. From then on, I was basically a guinea pig. She would give each new medication a try for about a month before deciding she wasn’t seeing enough progress, then we would move on to the next.
The pills made me tired — they made me a sort of tired I had never experienced before. It was like life was in slow motion, and all I wanted was to lie down. It's been 15 years now that I've taken medication on a daily basis. Deep down, I know that I probably will always require it to function "normally," but I am grateful to have a found a med combination that is effective and doesn’t exhaust me in that way.
Junior high and high school weren’t much different from sixth grade — although depression was also added to my chart. I spent a lot of time alone, and I channeled a lot of my sadness into writing. Whether it was poetry, short stories or art projects, my depression always seemed to find a way to seep in. I tried really hard to lead a normal life, attending my classes, having conversations with others and sometimes even going on public outings, like to a basketball game.
“I don’t need to apologize to anyone for my anxiety because my anxiety is not me.”
During this time, my anxiety was still focused on my mom and being separated from her. In fact, the “separation” wasn’t dropped from my diagnosis until I was 20. Looking back now, I feel guilty. My anxiety stole years from not only my life, but also my mom’s. The countless times she felt helpless, the innumerable nights she stayed awake praying that the next day would be even just a slight bit better for us both than today, and the literally billions of times that I asked her for reassurance. It took me a very long time — in fact I’m still working on it now — to understand that I shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t need to apologize to anyone for my anxiety because my anxiety is not me. It’s not always easy to separate the person from the illness, but it is crucial in order to move forward.
I will always have my anxiety disorder, even on fantastic days where I feel like nothing could go wrong. I keep those days stored inside my head so that I have something to refer back to on the hard days.
To my mom, who never left my side, who never got sick of my need for reassurance, who was willing to get me help when she realized it was more than she could handle — thank you. I will never be able to tell you how much your love and support means to me because there aren’t words great enough.
My advice to anyone who is currently living with an anxiety disorder is to keep reminding yourself that you need to be in the present moment. The past cannot be changed, and the future cannot be predicted, but you can accept yourself as you are and take it one day at a time. I will never forgive my anxiety for that: ruining my friendships, loading piles of stress onto my mom’s shoulders and wasting all my time worrying about disasters that would never actually happen.
If you feel this story is relatable to you and your journey, please seek out treatment. You don't have to suffer through anxiety day after day. Medications and counseling work wonders. Keeping a journal or blog also helps me to "empty" my current fears and worries to make room for more important things like positive self-talk and strengthening family relationships.
You are not alone. You are a valued life who deserves happiness. Keep breathing and believe. It will get better.
Heather Hansen is an anxiety expert (26-years strong) living in Michigan with her boyfriend and dog. She is an early childhood educator who enjoys photography and the cinema.