Part of learning to live with anxiety means looking back at my history and seeing when and where anxiety has reared its stupid fat head. I need to learn what my triggers have been so I can prepare myself to either avoid them or approach them with guns drawn, ready to take them out.
Wow, that was oddly violent. Anyway.
I can trace my anxiety back to kindergarten. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time puking. I wasn’t sickly or malnourished. I just puked on the regular. I have memories of puking on the carpet in Kindergarten and being given a metal pie pan to catch it in. I have memories of puking all over a friend’s fireplace at a slumber party. And from 2nd grade to 4th grade, I think I puked before and/or after at least half of my meal times. I’m sure at times, I had a bug, but most of the time, it was because of anxiety.
I had a good childhood. I wasn’t suffering from anxiety because of abuse or turmoil. I grew up in a stable home with two parents and a slew of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all within a few miles of me. We didn’t worry about money or food or clothes – the things you would think would cause anxiety in a child. I did live under a fairly oppressive father, however, and I do think that played a part in my early anxiety. I don’t know if that’s what started it, but I do know that in later years, it was a huge part.
I mentioned my issues with meal times. That started in 2nd grade, after I brought home my work from school one day with a note saying that because I had been talking to friends (SHOCKER), I hadn’t finished my assignment before lunch. I got in trouble at home for this, and from that day on, I would bust ass leading up to lunch to make sure my work was done. I’d then trudge my way into the school cafeteria all stressed out and nervous, and the lunchroom volunteers would then encourage me to eat despite the knot in my stomach, which would make me nauseous. The more this went on, the more meal time became a Pavlov’s dog kind of trigger for me. Meal time=stress=puke. As this started happening more and more at home, my parents thought I was just being picky. I was a picky eater as a kid, so that wasn’t a bad guess. So now I’m getting punished after meals for not eating, which added to my pre-meal anxiety. You see how this works? One big cycle of nerves and puke, basically.
One of my worst memories of this era was going out to lunch on Mother’s Day when I was 8 or 9. We were taking my mom to a very nice restaurant, and I knew it was super important for me to try to eat and not be miserable at the table. And guess what? That just added to the already existing anxiety. I can vividly remember sitting at the table, white tablecloth and stemmed glasses, just WILLING myself to just EAT THE DAMN CHICKEN FINGERS. And finally admitting defeat and saying “I’m sorry, Mommy, I just can’t,” and breaking into tears. I knew I was in trouble. I knew I had let my parents down. But I just couldn’t help it.
Eventually my parents realized that not even ShowBiz Pizza could get me to eat, so maybe this wasn’t me being picky after all. My parents got me in to see a child psychologist, and I only remember that I had to draw a picture. A couple weeks later, my mom told me that they had talked to the doctor and he told them to basically BACK THE EFF OFF. It was exhilarating.
My meal time anxiety got better after that, but by 5th grade, I had my first full-blown panic attack that I remember. I was struggling to complete a project when it hit. Sobbing, stomach in knots, unable to breathe, the whole 9. I remember my mom finally making me go sit on the front porch for some air, and she brought me a big glass of ice water and she talked me down. She’s always been able to talk me down, which is a nice balance to my father, who was usually fueling the attack.
I’ve also suffered from HORRIBLE motion sickness my whole life, and every family trip always featured multiple stops on the side of the highway for me to yack my guts out. The older I got, however, the sooner the “motion sickness” would start. As in days before the trip. But it took until I was planning on going overseas to Australia in college that it finally dawned on me that it’s kind of impossible to get carsick if you are still in your bedroom.
Days leading up to a trip, I’d suddenly be unable to sleep. I’d lose my appetite. Queasiness would sneak in. By the time we loaded up the car or headed to the airport, I’d be a mess, and I rarely made it an hour before the puking started. I once flew from Knoxville to Los Angeles, about a 4-hour flight, and I vomited 5 times. There was no turbulence.
Once we would get to our destination, I’d be fine, and I’d typically be in a much better frame of my mind for the trip home. But it wasn’t until the aforementioned trip to Australia that I realized this was a bigger issue. Before my trip, I was in therapy yet again, thanks to my parents’ divorce and estrangement from my father, and I was telling my therapist that if I puked on the flight to Sydney at the same rate that I did on the way to L.A., I would basically be dead on arrival. I explained that “I just get such motion sickness that I’m actually sick before we leave!” and she looked at me and said “Sweetie, that’s not motion sickness. You are out of control and you can’t stand it.” BOOM. NAILED IT. I couldn’t believe it. That was SUCH an obvious answer. I’m a control freak. I didn’t have an obvious fear of crashing or dying, but rather my body was revolting at the thought of being at someone else’s mercy (the driver, the pilot) and having no hand in the outcome. And that was it. I’ve flown and driven puke-free since that day. She went ahead and prescribed me some Xanax for my 20-hour flight, but I never needed it. Now, I still get carsick EASILY and sometimes planes aren’t my favorite, but I can deal with it.
It’s clear that seeking approval and staying in control were two major triggers for me. I am fairly confident that at this age, my approval-seeking days are over. I don’t know if I’m more in control now as mom of two young boys than I was as a teenager, but I drive the car now, so at least there’s that. My hope is, as I discover new triggers, to have a plan of attack in place. When I feel the sweating and the racing heart, I want to put on the brakes IMMEDIATELY, which means not being caught by surprise. I can’t lose it with my kids. I don’t want to fall apart at work. The stakes are higher now, but I’m ready to face them head on, guns blazing. Peacefully, of course.