Lifelong Anxiety: I Have No “Before” Life

I have always been mentally ill. I know that it is not comfortable to think of children as mentally ill, but the anxiety and even depression that I have experienced as an adult began haunting me at a very young age. I remember counting small landmarks that went by as our school bus drove from my stop to my best friend’s house, when we were in kindergarten, because after we turned the corner by the big old brick building, after we passed the corn field, she would finally come down that aisle to sit by me. I remember that one day, her siblings filed onto the bus without her. She had three school-aged brothers and sisters, so I asked her oldest sister, “Where’s Sarah?” I felt an awful, tight feeling in my chest when her sister told me that an ear infection would keep Sarah home all day. I know now that that is anxiety. But I couldn’t say “I feel afraid.” There wasn’t something scary happening. It didn’t feel the same as “afraid.” I could only say that my chest hurt, or my tummy hurt.

My mother was never told about childhood anxiety and how it might manifest. Tummy aches that came and went in minutes seemed implausible. She accused me of trying to get out of chores by faking it. Other adults and peers would try to comfort me by explaining that it was “no big deal.” They probably meant that the situation did not warrant so many tears. They were probably right. But what I learned was to keep it all inside, tucked away and secret. The problem was, I have always been really bad at hiding my emotions. Sooner or later, I would break down and cry in school, in front of everyone. It happened in elementary school, middle school, my senior year of high school. There is only so long you can pretend that it’s no big deal, especially when you don’t even know what “it” is. Why was I crying? Because there was too much noise? The hallways were crowded? I couldn’t sleep at night?

I never slept well. My mom tried early bedtimes. Strict wake-up times. (Note: my father didn’t really participate in this whole ordeal until it was just the two of us, when I was in high school. I doubt that he realized then what my mom had been going through my entire life, but he couldn’t get me out of bed any better than she could.) She threatened. She cajoled. She bribed. She made me walk when I missed the bus in the seventh grade. I get it, now. She did not know what else to do. I had to go to school. But I couldn’t get up, because I couldn’t go to sleep. Earlier bed times just meant more time staring at the clock. I still couldn’t fall asleep until midnight, or later.

This has been my reality for as long as I can remember.

I was talking to a friend recently about how she misses life before her anxiety hit her so hard, in her late twenties. I can sympathize, but I can’t relate. I can imagine wanting to go back to the time before anxiety. Obviously, that sounds great. But I can’t picture it. I have a before and an after, too, I guess. Mine is “before treatment” and “after treatment.” Treatment came before an official diagnosis, so getting a name for what I have isn’t the important moment, for me. Before and After don’t look very different, from the outside. I got good grades. I didn’t suddenly become anti-social or lose a job or lost control in any way. Before treatment, I was faking it. After treatment, I could see a better way of living.

I know that it’s on magnets and greeting cards, but I first read this in a book of Emily Dickinson poems:

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul — and sings the tunes without the words — and never stops at all.

I kept going, before treatment. There was a tiny thing urging me on. But after treatment, I had words to back up that tune. I had reasons to hope. Things to try. A name I could share. I could tell my mom, other family, my friends and, later, my husband and in-laws how to help, when they asked. I knew how to ask for help. My life didn’t change much from the outside, but it changed a lot from the inside.

I will probably never know what it is like to live without this illness. I’m still not sure how I feel about the idea. Do I envy my friend her time free from the monsters in the dark? Life without the featherless creatures that have whispered hopeless words, all my life? I’m not sure I can envy something I can’t even imagine. Is it sad that so much of my life has been so dark? Better that I don’t have a time to wish I could go back to? It doesn’t matter, I know. We each have the lives we need. I believe in not only karma, but reincarnation. These are just the questions running through my head today.

In case you are reading this and struggling with postpartum mental health trouble, I highly recommend signing up for the daily email service that got me thinking about that Emily Dickinson poem I have loved so long. It’s called Daily Hope. It does cost $50 for the year, but somehow, every day, the email has just what I need inside. It’s money well-spent. Because I have no “before” life, I don’t always relate to my friends with more “classic” postpartum struggles. But they are always sympathetic. And even the Daily Hope emails that address postpartum depression specifically touch my heart. I’m not affiliated with Postpartum Progress at all (I wish!) so this is just a suggestion from me to you.

9 Comments

  1. Jo said:

    I have never seen this explained so clearly, nor would be able to do so myself. This is my life, too, and while my heart aches for you – there is something inside me so relieved to know it isn’t just me. Thank you for putting this in words and sharing it with the world – you just made a huge difference in mine.

    March 11, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      Just today, I was saying that the words “me too” have been some of the most important in my healing process. I am more than happy to give you a big, fat, “ME TOO!” if it helps. It’s not just you. And it never is.

      March 11, 2013
      Reply
  2. Hey, you. I know we’ve already talked about this, but I finally made it here on my laptop to leave you an official comment. Yes, me, too. There is no before. I have no comparison. I have been in treatment for so long that I don’t even see that as a marker – just another aspect of living with the disease. I remember “bad times” and “okay times.”

    I am in fact in strange contrast to the PPD community you and I love so much – having my daughter has been so earth shattering in so many ways, in a way that has given me strength and new ways of understanding my own childhood, what it means to love, and my own worth. If there is any “before” and “after” for me, it is before her and after her.

    March 15, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      That comes across so clearly in your love letter to your daughter! It totally made me cry. I cannot repeat enough how grateful I am that my postpartum issues have not included alienation from Walt. He is asleep on the Boppy in my lap right now, and his little tummy moving is enough to give me perspective.

      March 15, 2013
      Reply
  3. Susan said:

    Only now, after my PPD caused me to hit rock bottom, and after years of therapy, do I realize that I suffered from anxiety as a child. I couldn’t ride the bus because of it. Refused to make new friends. Needed valium to go to the dentist for a cleaning. My parents just thought I was “wound tightly.”

    In college, my anxiety would shut me down for weeks, months at a time. It broke friendships and relationships. It nearly took my marriage.

    But, like you, I faked through it. Pushed and worked 200% harder than “normal” people to just live a normal life. Sometimes I look back and regret all that wasted time spent undiagnosed and untreated.

    But when you know better, you do better, right?

    I’m so glad I found your blog – why did it take us so long to connect? Sheesh. ;)

    -Susan

    March 21, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      I don’t know why it took so long, but I’m glad we did! Thanks so much for reading.

      March 26, 2013
      Reply
  4. This is an excellent article. My story is very different. After accepting diagnosis of manic depression at age 40 and being treated by brutal drugs, my life became immeasurably worse. I think it is mistake to characterize yourself as mentally ill. Mental illness is a phrase without meaning.

    March 26, 2013
    Reply
    • Anne-Marie said:

      Objectively, the phrase “mental illness” has a great deal of meaning. Once I have that characterization, accompanied by a specific diagnosis (or three, in my case), I can receive insurance benefits for the treatment and, again, in my case, medicine that I find helpful.

      I am sorry to hear that you feel that your life is worse after your experience with the medical community. I have heard that bipolar disorder is very difficult to diagnose and treat properly and that the drugs most often prescribed do have extreme side effects for many patients.

      The phrase “mental illness” may have no meaning for you, but please respect this space as a place where mental *health* is discussed as safely as possible, with as little judgment as possible. I strongly object to you telling anyone that something she or he has found helpful is a mistake. You are entitled to that opinion, but please find more helpful language or refrain from commenting, here. By all means, object loudly and strongly to the way you have been treated! I simply ask that you do not tell others that we are wrong about our treatment.

      March 26, 2013
      Reply
  5. James&Jax said:

    This is the first post I’ve read on your blog, and I’m happy we connected on Twitter because this post sounds a lot like my experience with anxiety. I’ve struggled with it since my earliest memories, too. So here I am, saying “me, too” to you & sending a hug.

    April 23, 2013
    Reply

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