By Nanea Hoffman
“Mom, you know what sucks? When you just start sweating for no reason. Like, special effects sweating where it’s just pouring down your face and you can’t do anything about it.”
“YES. And you’re convinced everyone can tell so you get even more anxious, which of course makes you sweat more, and then it pools in weird places and soaks through your clothes, which makes it even worse. One time, it was pouring down my back and down the waistband of my pants and it looked like I had an accident.”
My teenage son Matthew and I are trading anxiety disorder war stories and laughing together with the camaraderie of fellow survivors. He’s 16 and handsome and strong and in so many ways more self-assured than I was or am, but at the same time, he’s awkward, puppyish, and full of the insecurities of adolescence. Oh, and he seems to have inherited my faulty mental wiring, which means his psychological smoke detector goes off for no damn good reason. This leads, among other things, to special effects sweat. We talk openly and often about therapy, medication, and panic attacks.
When he was younger, I would try to draw my reticent little boy out by telling him my own stories. “I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I had major anxiety in high school. I went from a tiny little Catholic school where I was in a class of 40 girls to a high school with 1,200 students. It had a huge campus, and I was forever getting lost. I was stressed out all the time, not so much from the school work but from being a strange place and hardly knowing anyone. I’d go in the bathroom during my free periods and just cry and say the rosary over and over, silently. It was pretty OCD, bud. One semester, when none of my friends had the same lunch period I did, I snuck food into the library and ate in one of the carrels rather than eat by myself, which was terrifying to me. I think one of the librarians knew, but she must have felt bad for me, because she never said anything.” I told him about being convinced I was bound for hell because my memory wasn’t good enough for me to confess all of my sins effectively. I told him how when I’m really anxious, I get tunnel vision. Everything blurs around the edges. I have very little memory of certain places, what they look like, but I have a visceral memory of what it felt like to be there, heart pounding, veins zinging with adrenaline, breath stuttering in my chest. I used to actually chant to myself under my breath as I walked past groups of people, “One foot in front of the other. One foot in front of the other.”
Matthew never said much during those chats. He went through a very grunty phase between the ages of 10 and 12; it was all very monosyllabic. He listened, though. I could feel the intensity of him sucking up my words, drawing them into himself. “Is that what it feels like for you?” I would ask. Most times, he would reply, “I don’t know.” But then he’d think about it. “Yeah, maybe. Kind of.” It was enough. One day, out of the blue, he said, “I really hate it that I cry when I get anxious. I HATE it. But I can’t stop it. I know it doesn’t make sense, but there’s nothing I can do. It makes me so angry.” I got it. I get it. I still feel this way. Get your shit together, body.
That day, we made an appointment with his primary care physician. He didn’t grumble about it, the way you’d expect a 10 year old boy might. He was so quietly agreeable to my suggestion that we seek professional help that I knew he was struggling more than he let on, and there was such relief even in just making that phone call. In admitting that this was something we couldn’t fix by ourselves. It was time to call in the experts, the way we called the plumber when every drain in the house began erupting with insidious brown goo. We needed help getting unstuck.
Matthew ended up seeing a clinical therapist twice a month. He’d get homework. “When you go back to school, I want you to say hi to 5 people. That’s it. Just hi. You don’t have to make conversation or anything.” Or, “Close your eyes and picture yourself in a completely safe place, doing something that makes you happy. Can you do that? Make it as detailed as you can.” He told me later that his safe place was hanging out in his room with his best bud, playing video games, while his little sister ran in and out. That was what he’d think about when he started feeling overwhelmed or anxious, and it helped. I don’t know what else he and his therapist worked on, because after a few sessions, he didn’t need me to be in there with him. He was ok, he said. I could wait in the car. The therapist recommended, and his primary care doc agreed, that he should see a psychiatrist and get assessed for meds. (A million hippies rise up in indignation, feeling a disturbance in the force. Calm your patchouli. I’m not advocating for everyone. I’m telling you what we did.) I explained it to Matthew and asked how he felt about it. “Yes, please. I want to try it.” The cognitive therapy exercises helped a lot, but he still could not control his physical responses, which was terribly frustrating. The psychiatrist prescribed a low dose beta-blocker, a medication that calmed the shaky hands, racing pulse, and other symptoms of physical distress caused by the upsurge in adrenaline during anxiety attacks. It gave my kid the breathing room he needed to be able to think his way out of the panic. After six months, he no longer needed the beta-blocker.
What we did worked for my son, and to this day, I think it’s one of the best decisions we ever made. He learned that the brain is an organ like any other organ in the body, and that if it’s not working right, you go get help. Taking medication to help regulate his chemistry was no different than his grandmother taking diabetes medicine. It wasn’t a big deal. He learned that therapy works. That talking to people about your problems works and that talking to an expert is a really smart thing to do because they give you all these great hacks. It’s like getting the best cheat codes. He learned that he could trust us with whatever he was going through, and most importantly, he learned that when you are going through something, the operative word is through. You aren’t stuck there. It’s just where you happen to be at the moment.
My own anxiety these days is a bit erratic. It can still swoop in and knock me off my feet like a rogue wave. I have no choice but to be honest when this happens because I can’t really hide it if stress-tears are rolling down my face. “It’s ok. I’m just having a panic attack. I’m going to go lie down for sec. It’ll pass,” I reassure my kids. My daughter accepts this because she’s seen it. Matthew accepts this because he’s been through it. “Go lie down, Mommy. I’ll hang out with Sammy. Do you have your pills?” He’s both confident and casual. “It’s ok, bud. I don’t think I need one right now, but I have ‘em just in case,” I say. He pats me on the shoulder.
The main reason I talk to my kids about mental health is this: I want it to feel completely normal for them. Not that panic attacks should feel normal, but discussing any sort of mental issue should be as no-nonsense as talking about what to do for a sprained ankle. “If something hurts, tell me so I can help you.”
Depression runs on both sides of our family as well, so you can bet we’ve had that talk. “It’s not like how they make it look on TV. You’re not crying all the time or anything. You don’t even always feel sad. You just feel . . . flat. Or like you’re not really there. Sometimes it feels unbearable, and sometimes you don’t feel anything. You know you’re not right, though. If you ever start to feel like that, you talk to us, ok?” I wait until he looks up from the game he’s playing on his phone. “Ok?” He smiles, “I promise. No, really. And I don’t feel like that right now. I still have anxiety sometimes, but not, like, out of control like it was before. I mean. I feel like I can handle it.” I persist. “But if you ever do . . .” He promises.
It’s like me bugging him about taking his dishes to the sink or getting a haircut. Checking in on his mental and emotional well-being is just another thing his parents do, and he affectionately tolerates it. Likes it, even.
Photo credit: “Living Quarters” by Justine Reyes is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.