Last week, we celebrated the 11th birthday of our daughter, Madeline. She hates it when I call her that. She thinks it sounds too grown up and I love that about her. She’s not ready to be so grown up. It’s rare these days to find children who want to be children. The race is on to adulthood. To knowledge of the world that I don’t want Maddie to have.
The truth is that Maddie already has knowledge that I wish she didn’t. She knows pain and despair. As she blew out the candles on her cake, I thought back to her 10th birthday. It was, as she describes it, the worst birthday of her life. Granted, she had only had 10, but she is not exaggerating.
It was, in the days leading up to Maddie’s 10th birthday, that I discovered she had inherited my anxiety disorder. It was one of the worst days of my life. In the scheme of things, it may not seem that bad to people who don’t understand anxiety but to someone who has lived it, I knew what she was going through and it broke my heart.
She has always been a nervous child. When she was very little, she always chose to watch the other children playing before she joined in. She wanted to see what would happen to them before it happened to her. In first grade, she became worried about having her name moved to red in class. This coming from a child that has never disobeyed me was worrying.
I thought it might be new school jitters but every year it was always something. She seemed to always be worried about something. It was not a long sustained kind of worrying. It was a complete panic attack that lasted a few hours and eventually she got over it.
Then it changed. She became withdrawn. Distant. I could tell she wanted to be present in the moment but something was keeping her from being able to do it. She didn’t want to talk but looked at me like she desperately wanted to tell me something.
I asked her repeatedly if something was bothering her. She said no. I asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She said no. I finally stopped asking and demanded that she tell me what was going on.
She exploded on me. It was a mess of tears and sobs. She had been so worried about everything. She could not get her brain to stop worrying. It was the same repetitive thoughts over and over again and she didn’t know how to stop it.
She was me.
I have suffered from anxiety since my twenties. I understood the absolute despair that Maddie was going through. I know how hard it is to be stuck inside of your own head. It’s like being in the scariest maze and knowing you are never going to be able to find your way out.
We got Maddie help. She didn’t think it was going to work. I knew it was. I’ve been there. Except I didn’t handle it as well as Maddie. She handled it with a grace that I didn’t have at 20 much less at 10.
The other night I was lying in bed writing and she came in and climbed in with me. She asked me what I was working on and I told her. She asked if she could read it and I told her no. She thought I was joking. Was it inappropriate, she asked? I laughed. She knows me. I’m not a June Cleaver kind of mother. I’m the kind of mother who doesn’t sugarcoat life. I tell her like it is. Sometimes I not the most appropriate.
I told her no, it was appropriate, but I didn’t like for people to read some of the things I wrote. Why, she asked? Maddie got an award in fourth grade for asking the most questions. Because I don’t think they are very good, I said.
Why do you care, she asked? I didn’t know how to respond. She had stumped me. I thought for a minute and answered her with the truth. Because I’m afraid. I’m afraid it’s horrible. I’m afraid people won’t get it. I’m afraid people will think I’m stupid or weird or dramatic.
She looked me right in the eyes and said, “I don’t think you should care. They’re your words.”
In that moment, it was not about what I could teach her. It was about what she taught me. I asked her if one day I could write about her journey with anxiety. She didn’t hesitate before she said sure. Maybe it will help someone.
She doesn’t care what others think. She’s not afraid of her own story. And now with her strength pushing me forward maybe I won’t care either. I write all the time. Mostly in my head. And now I’m going to stop putting those thoughts on paper and then using my pen name to publish them. I’m going to put them out their for the world to see. Maybe most people will think my random musings are weird or stupid. I don’t care. Well, I’m trying not to care. Maybe it will help someone. These are my words and I’m not afraid to own them.