Parenting my way through an anxiety disorder

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I got my G1 driver’s license for the third time at 48 and figured I had five years to overcome my fear of the road. But somehow it never felt like the right time to get behind the wheel — let alone take a test. The years passed. When I received the notification that my five-year G1 had expired, I felt like I always do when I run from things that scare me: short-term relief, sadness, and overall shame.

I’ve been anxious all my life. I was Afraid to go to kindergarten because I couldn’t read or write. When my parents went out at night, I would lie awake worried sick until they came back. Presenting in front of the class made me physically ill. Back then nobody talked about fear – instead I was considered “sensitive”. Finally, when I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder in my 30s, I immediately rejected the label. After a clinical diagnosis I felt out of control – which only made me more anxious.

Instead, I avoided my triggers, a growing list of elevators, subways, and water hanging over my head. After a late-night panic attack that ended with a 911 call, I was prescribed Ativan, an anti-anxiety medication, and started taking it everywhere for calm. Meanwhile, I apologized for not being able to swim to the raft with my six-year-old niece: how could I explain my fear of having a panic attack and drowning halfway there — especially when the raft was only 20 meters from the dock?

But when I had children of my own, it became difficult. I wanted them to feel safe with me at all times, and I knew they were looking to me for clues. I was determined that my irrational fears would not will her irrational fears.

So I faked it.

If they insisted that I look out the plane window during takeoff, I complied—although the rotating landscape made me deploy the emergency parachute. When they pulled me into the covered tube slide in the park and then locked me in halfway down, I would focus on the tiny visible strip of light below. I forced myself to swim to the raft. Sometimes I would put an Ativan in a plastic bag and put it in my bathing suit in case I had a panic attack along the way.

Parenting through fear was deeply difficult. I wanted to be carried away by their excitement, but it was exhausting—especially when they kept pointing out the very thing that scared me: “Mom, look, the plane is so high! Oh mom! Look how dark the subway tunnel is! Look, Mommy – look how far the cottage is from the raft!’ I would smile bravely until the pounding of my heart drowned out their voices.

But as they grew her own fear started raising my head in small increments, and it became harder to separate where mine ended and hers began: “What if we get stuck?” my five-year-old would sometimes ask as we rode the elevator up. I forced myself to laugh, “Of course we’re not hanging silly! These elevators go up and down a million times a day!” ‘A million times a day‘ I thought to myself, panic rising. ‘Think of all the wear and tear…’

According to psychotherapist Dr. Toronto’s Bradley Murray is four to six times more likely to inherit anxiety for first-degree relatives of people with the disorder, and both environmental factors and genetics play a role. I continued to look for signs that my children might be on the way to a full-blown disorder and practiced my “fake it till you make it” parenting style. But my fear gradually won out.

Like when I tried to teach them ride their bikes were on the road at the age of six and nine and saw only danger at every turn. “Watch out for the door!” I almost hyperventilated, yelled, “You’re weaving! Slow it down! Accelerate! WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” They got so fed up that they ended up getting back on the sidewalk in disgust while I, embarrassed (secretly relieved), continued down the street.

Or when we rode a crowded glass elevator to the 44th floor of the Marriott Hotel in NYC. I wasn’t okay. I squinted shut my eyes and meditated hard while my 12- and 15-year-olds begged me to look down at the rapidly shrinking ant sea in the atrium. I couldn’t keep up. When we got to our room, I refused to look out the floor-to-ceiling window overlooking Times Square. “You don’t get it – we’re SO FAR up,” they insisted. There was no way around it: we were on the fucking 44th floor and they were determined to share it with me. I was flooded with fear and had to admit it to myself.

“Here’s the thing,” I said, trying to face them while covering my left eye to shield the wall of windows, “I’m not actually crazy about heights…” “—Just look,” they said impatiently. “No, really,” I continued, getting more and more agitated, “it kind of makes me sane, panicky, and uh, claustrophobic, and-” My younger daughter didn’t have it, “Oh my god mommy, you just have to face your fears,” she said, trying to coax me. I realized they had no idea how hard this was for me. I got rid of her, fight or flight in full effect now, “NO!” I said like a toddler– “I do not want! I hate heights!” Showing my kids my weaknesses felt both surreal and liberating. They finally backed away, a little confused.

Just knowing I was off the hook for the night got my heart rate regulated enough that I promised to check in the morning. Of course they held me to it. I slowly walked toward the window, feeling my usual combination of altitude-induced vertigo and an inexplicable urge to jump, and gave me a quick, startling look. My head was swimming. “We’re very high up,” I agreed before retreating to the center of the room to lie on the floor.

After that, it became easier to come out myself: Yes, canoeing in even slightly rough water made me panic – and no, I wouldn’t go on the WindSeeker with them in Canada’s Wonderland – ever. We’re sorry. As I became clear about my struggle with panic, I was able to show my children that while fear is something to be managed, it is not something to be ashamed of.

But it also made it easier for them to point fingers. “Well! You gave me your fear! – Thank you!” said my dejected-sounding 18-year-old not long ago. My first reaction was guilt: That was awful! That was exactly what I would try to do, her whole life long to avoid!But then I realized I didn’t need to feel guilty.

Eventually, I no longer asked to be afraid than she did.

“Parents obviously want their children to be happy,” says Murray, “but it’s ultimately important to enable anxious children to be happy discover their own solutions in their fear and in trusting their children to figure out how their own lives will turn out.”

So I gave it back to her. “Yes, I gave you my fear,” I said, “and I’m sorry you have to deal with it. Fear was so paralyzing for me. But I’m always working on it. And that’s what you have to do.” She just blinked. My honesty disarmed her. It was nobody’s fault – I gave her my fear as much as I gave her my sense of humor and my fine hair.

I’m still anxious — every time an elevator door opens and I step out, it feels like a small miracle — but it’s been years since I’ve had a full-blown panic attack or wore Ativan in my shoe when I went jogging go. So was it right to protect my children from my anxious self when they were little? Turns out I was inadvertently working on my anxiety the entire time by facing my fears. “In wanting your kids not to see you anxious, you basically did exposure therapy on yourself,” says Murray, which helped your anxiety get better develop their own avoidance patterns – or at least tried to.

Last summer, my 18-year-old told me her father wanted to teach her to drive. “I just can’t imagine driving myself,” she said. My heart sank. But to be honest, I can’t either – when I imagine her driving, I imagine her falling. But I want her to drive. I want her driving down a highway with the windows open and the music turned on. I want her to be able to go to a goddamn Ikea when she suddenly feels like a swivel chair. So I looked her in the eye and told her that more than anything I wished I had learned to drive. I told her I was so close, but I let the fear take over. I told her it just takes practice and confidence. I told her she’s not me even though we have the same sense of humor and fine hair.

For example, on a recent camping trip, I got to sit next to her as she slowly drove us from our compound to the main road. I was worried, I’ll admit that. But it turns out it’s never too late to practice a little exposure therapy.

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