I have serious anxiety. I have my entire life.
Couldn’t tell you if it is genetic, trauma, adoption related, or some combination of all three.
I do know that my separation anxiety is adoption related. I suspect it has a lot to do with me searching as an infant for the sound, scent, and touch of the woman who carried me inside her for months. Only baby Sara never found it. Ever again. And that feeling of abandonment and bewilderment planted itself deep inside me.
How deep? To the point that if a person I was expecting to come home was late, I would have a full-blown panic attack. Every. Single. Time.
Believing they were dead and never coming back, my heart races, I hyperventilate, my mind short circuits, and thoughts just jumble together incoherently.
I know it is irrational. Even in the midst of a panic attack, I knew it was irrational. But it was logical. Logical because those feelings were so real and so deeply rooted inside me.
I began to see anxiety as something I needed to conquer – even if it doesn’t go away, I wanted to manage it, not let it rule me. And for the most part, I have. I was able to leave my daughter at college, now for the second year, without fearing that I would never see her again. I have come a long way.
At the same time, so much still affects me. My hypervigilance follows me into my sleep. People cannot touch me when I sleep – I jump, I scream, and sometimes I even start swinging. I have been like this as long as I can remember. Others who have tried to interrupt my sleep have learned this, they warn others “Don’t touch Sara when she is sleeping”!
I can’t let people walk behind me. I have to see where they are at all times – I will always stop and let people get in front. If I am in a restaurant, I have to sit in a chair where I can see everyone. I hate large crowds, and leaving the house can be a huge challenge – even when I manage to force myself to do it, the overstimulation and in anxiety exhaust me. I often have to spend hours realigning myself mentally.
I believe some of this (like hypervigilance in my sleep) is a manifestation of childhood trauma. I can’t remember most of my childhood; which is sad, because I know that I had some really wonderful times. But I also know that I was harmed, and that overshadows the good memories.
I don’t know if my hypervigilance is a manifestation of adoption trauma. I would not have been hurt by that person had I not been adopted, but I may have been hurt by someone else, so I don’t necessarily contribute that aspect of my anxiety to adoption.
The genetic aspect of my anxiety is hard to deny. I am a third generation adoptee. My birth mother and my birth grandmother were also abandoned by their mothers. And I cannot imagine the anxiety my great-grandmother faced being an unwed teenage mother in the 1920’s. My grandmother, her daughter, was deaf. I imagine she had major anxiety trying to care for my mother – which she did for two years before relinquishment. My mother had a racist father – while she wasn’t young, being pregnant with a biracial baby must have been a time of great anxiety for her.
So anxiety is deep in my DNA. Trauma is deep in my DNA. And that’s just on my white family’s side. On my Black side, there is a lot of deeply rooted trauma in the US with our legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, discrimination, etc. That doesn’t even include the trauma encoded directly from my Black ancestors.
I have two daughters who exhibit strong signs of anxiety. I remind them of the trauma history in our DNA. This knowledge of family trauma helps us understand that the issue is bigger than us – that letting go is necessary rather than trying to control it (much easier said than done). I let them know that they are not alone. I support them with the same coping skills that I have taught myself – to not fight the panic, instead allow it to flow through and out of them.
To me, the truest way to deal with anxiety and panic is to face it head on. Having children forces me out of my comfort zone and enables me to face my anxiety. For them, I try my very best. I force myself to leave the house. But I am honest with them about my issues. They help me control my fear by surrounding me in public settings.
My children’s involvement in sports pushes me to face my anxiety as well. I make sure I am there to support them at events, practice, etc. Even if my anxiety is super high, I use all the coping skills I can to still be out in support – they deserve my strongest efforts.
Not every method works for every person. But this is some of the ways I manage my anxiety:
- Self Care: Some days I don’t leave the house – instead I sit and listen to my wind chimes. It helps me stay focused.
- Pets: There is nothing quite like the soft fur and unconditional love of a furry family member to help me relax. A cat’s purr soothes me. Maybe you prefer dogs, rabbits, birds, or even reptiles. But having a loving companion definitely helps with refocusing.
Anxiety is very difficult. It makes me want to disengage from life. Often it makes me want my life to be over. And the hardest part is people don’t understand. Most people don’t even try to understand. They just think I can “get over it.”
I wish they were right. I wish I could wave the magic “get over it” wand and not feel so panicked by things like being around people. I wish I had never been so harmed as a child so I could trust the world more. I wish there weren’t days where death seems like an appealing end to my emotional pain.
Bit in the end, the magic “get over it” wand does not exist. It’s a myth that one can just “get over it.” You can learn to live with it. I ensure that my children understand there is no shame – just because the world doesn’t understand it doesn’t make them “weak,” “crazy,” or “weird.” They are not failures. Anxiety is a very real disorder – it doesn’t care if you are “strong enough” or if you’ve “prayed enough.”
My honesty, my support, and my strength are all for my children – because in the end, it is all about them. Healing doesn’t come from remaining motionless in the dark. As author Brene Brown has written:
Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
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