I just got off the phone. The person calling me was telling me something I didn’t want to hear.
Apparently, a little girl in my life is struggling with some pretty serious anxiety symptoms. They’re terrifying for her and unbearable for her parents to watch.
And she’s just little. She’s only six. Tiny. Still learning what big words mean, and how numbers work together.
And now, figuring out that her brain isn’t always her friend.
And my heart broke. Because I love her so much. And because I understand.
I was this little girl.
Some of my earliest memories are of being scared.
Scared that I couldn’t breathe. I was 4.
Or that I’d go blind. I was 5.
Or that I had breast cancer. At 7. I was sure. And terrified.
Every memory I have is shaded with fear. Fear that everything I loved was going to end. Or be taken from me. A heart attack. At 8.
I read encyclopedias non-stop, searching for medical conditions. Comparing symptom sets with my own experience. Keeping list after list of my aches, pains, twinges, sensations, lumps, bumps, bruises. Dates, times, level of pain or severity of the symptom. I kept a notebook of fear. And then another, and another.
My parents, confounded by this little girl who just couldn’t stop her obsessions, didn’t know what to do. They tried their best. They did. They are wonderful people and superlative parents. I can imagine it was awful. My fears were so crazy, and so pervasive. They must have been both frustrated and afraid. Sad for me to be so scared all the time. Angry that I demanded so much attention.
Though I didn’t want to. I knew what I was feeling wasn’t normal. I knew my friends and siblings weren’t hounded by fear like I was. I just didn’t know how to make it stop. I’d try to pretend it had stopped. I’d put on a brave face and tell my parents that I felt better. And I could see their relief. But then it would become too much and I’d be hiding in my closet, speaking into a Play-Doh can, telling it my secrets because I was about to burst.
I was so alone. And terrified. I remember this so vividly that I can barely type through my tears 35 years later. That little girl was so scared.
It got so bad that I was not able to participate in my 2nd grade class. My anxiety “flavor of the moment” was two-fold. One, I was sure that, if I took my right hand from my heart, my heart would stop beating and I’d die. So, I refused to write anything.
Secondly, I became obsessed with the notion that, if I went to recess, I wouldn’t hear the bell telling me to return to class. No amount of rational explanation was enough (“You’ll see the other kids returning. There’s nothing wrong with your hearing, in fact, you’ve got the hearing of a bat, for Christ’s sake”). Nothing convinced me. I had to be physically carried out of the class and placed on the other side of the door during recess.
There I’d sit, knees hunched up, looking down, not wanting to see all the other kids wondering what the heck was wrong with this weird little girl. It was 1980. You weren’t allowed to be weird. It was a rule.
I could have had a teacher who yelled at me, or resented and ignored me. Who just put me out to pasture with a sad shake of the head.
But I didn’t.
By the good grace of God, I had a spectacular, intuitive, wise young teacher. One who recognized that I was bright and able to learn, and that I was simply debilitated by something stronger than my 7-year-old self.
Miss Anna saved me.
She talked to my parents and encouraged them to get me some professional help. My parents, eager to do anything to make things better, immediately got me into the care of a child psychologist who was awesome.
Dr. Lucy taught me that I wasn’t weird. I just had a thing going on in my brain that made me anxious. He taught me tools and strategies for dealing with the thoughts I was having. He encouraged and equipped and calmed me.
But, absolutely most importantly, he, and Miss Anna, told me that this thing in my brain didn’t make me weak or sick. It made me powerful. It meant that I noticed things that others didn’t. I took in more and different information and could put it together better than most people could. It meant that I had the ability to do with my body and brain things that few people can. It meant I could accomplish more in a an hour than most people could in a day.
It didn’t make me weak.
It made me extraordinary. Like a super power. Anxiety Girl.
And I’ve carried that message with me through my entire life. The tools enabled me to participate in class again and excel. The strategies helped me be able to have a full-blown panic attack without a single person noticing. This meant I could participate in life in general.
The message that I was special made me able to see my strengths and build a career that plays to them.
But, let’s be real: having an anxiety disorder sucks. And it haunts me daily. And some really bad flares bring me to my knees.
But, I learned that I always, always get back up again. And once I do, you better watch out.