The Joy of Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Julia is a woman and mother I have long admired and striven to emulate since we first met in 1997. She is one of those mothers who has it “all together”. You know the ones: Great husband; a genius mind; well-mannered, good looking and accomplished children and a house that probably smells like mint chocolate chip cookies. (I don’t know for sure. I haven’t visited her home since she moved out of state.)

On the surface, one might be tempted to think her ‘perfect’ life was as a result of careful planning, directed by a  copious creation and supply pie charts, behavioral analysis and financial forecast, but it turns out her success as a mother – which I admire so greatly – is  all just a happy accident… if you count Generalized Anxiety Disorder as an ‘accident’.

Enough of my chatter. Read, enjoy and laugh.

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I come from a long line of worriers. It is hard to tell how much of this is genetic and how much is social conditioning.  But regardless of whether scientists ever identify the “anxiety gene” in my family stock, it surely cannot help to be forced by one’s parents to rehearse every single tragic possibility—car accident, kidnapping, mugging, assault—every time one is attempting to leave the house.

I also blame my parents for never letting us watch television. My sister and I were, without exaggeration, allowed only one hour of non-public television a week, which meant The Cosby Show, Family Ties and lots of Life on Earth with David Attenborough. (“The cheetah stalks its prey patiently, waiting for the perfect moment to strike…”)

Sure, there were advantages: my brain didn’t rot and drip out of my ears, for one. But I also developed an extremely vivid imagination which continues to haunt me to this day. Add to that all the literature they constantly exposed me to, and my brain naturally rejects the idea that life is a big predictable joke that will be happily resolved in half an hour. Instead, it’s convinced life is a hopelessly complex series of unexpected developments that will result in conflict, character development, and a resolution that is tragically ironic more often than not. (Also, in the battle of man versus nature, nature always wins.)

Side Note: I am deliberately continuing this cycle with my own children. As part of their homeschooling, they are not only required to read good literature, they also have to convince me afterwards that they understood and enjoyed it. So far, this has not translated into as much voluntary literature reading as I had originally hoped. It has, however, resulted in very good taste in television. And at the end of the day, both Sherlock and Lord Grantham speak with decent vocabularies, so there’s that.

As an adult, and particularly as a mother, my mild Generalized Anxiety Disorder has taken on a life of its own. The way I have learned to cope—besides popping the occasional Benadryl before a gymnastics meet—is by trying to take a couple steps back and enjoy its performance. Because honestly, what is a potentially incapacitating mental problem if you can’t have a little fun with it?

So, in an effort to spread the joy around, here are a few of my GAD’s greatest hits:

1. I am driving my (relatively new) car, flowing with traffic. As I brake for a red light, I hear horrible sounds—sounds I imagine an engine makes either just before it gives birth or departs for the Big Advanced Auto Parts Store in the Sky. Immediately, I picture myself and the kids by the side of the road, late to wherever we were going, waiting for a tow truck.

And then…then of course I realize that it is the dump truck next to me—which (go figure) just happens to be braking at exactly the same time as I am for exactly the same red light—that is making those horrible noises. Crisis averted…for now.

2. I am at church, and the pastor makes an altar call for a particular illness. (If you have never been to this kind of church, it’s just an invitation at the end of service for people to come to the front to receive prayer for specific needs. At some churches, if you come forward and have mistakenly worn what the Church Mothers consider to be undergarments instead of appropriate church attire, you will be draped with a tablecloth at this time.)

Now when I hear the illness named, I know that I do not have it. I may have just come back from a doctor visit with a clean bill of health. But part of me wonders: should I go forward anyway, just in case? Fortunately, by the time I am done turning this question over in my mind, church is over.

3. My responsible almost 14 year old child has biked to swim practice with a friend. Although the trip takes less than five minutes, she is only required to cross one street, she always walks her bike at the crosswalk, and she is wearing a helmet and appropriate footwear, I still require her to text me when she arrives. She does not text. I know this is because she has biked with her friend and has forgotten. (But I still drive to the pool and check to see that they are there.)

4. Every few years, I get a sinus infection. My primary care doctor very dutifully checks me for walking pneumonia, because he knows that’s what I think I have.

5. I will not TMI you with what I discuss with my OB-Gyn, except that he assures me that all the things I am concerned about are “normal for a woman my age.” I think that’s supposed to make me feel better.

6. Yes, I still sneak into my children’s rooms at night to ensure that they are breathing.

7. Whenever my husband is out of town, I will hear mysterious noises in the house. This will force me out of bed to ensure that my children have not been abducted out of their bedrooms, even though we have no money for ransom, and we are not totally confident we could get those windows open in case of an emergency.

8. My child receives a superficial scrape. I google the symptoms for tetanus even though her shots are up to date and it is a superficial scrape. Then I make my friend who is a nurse examine the scrape. (Thanks, Angie!)

9. My husband fails to text exactly when his plane lands. By the time he does text (three minutes after he lands) I am already choked up from fully visualizing our daughter’s wedding and the moving tribute someone would give to his memory.

10. These are things I actually did when my kids were younger:

Called 911 for Amani for what ended up being a sneeze (the firemen were very nice)

Went to Urgent Care for Michaela for what ended being a hangnail

Went to the pediatrician for Michaela three times in five days for the same stomach virus (“She has a stomach virus, Mrs. Nelson”)

Brandon’s infancy and toddlerhood were much less eventful, partially because he was asleep most of the time. Also, I was way more distracted.

Shockingly, I do not always assume something medical is more serious than it is. When I took Michaela to the ER on Christmas Eve a few years ago, I thought she had a sinus infection. We found out the next day it was a septic infection that could have gotten really bad really fast if the ER doc hadn’t proactively given her a broad spectrum intravenous antibiotic. And, with the same child, I was weeks late to visit the doctor for what ended up being a fractured ankle and (on another occasion) a stress reaction in her lumbar vertebrae. So I’ve learned that GAD doesn’t actually make you more likely to err on the side of caution—that is a separate skill. It just helps you quickly imagine the worst possible outcome of your current situation and obsess over it.

In life, there are problems you solve and problems you manage. For me, GAD is a problem I am managing for now. In practical terms, that means prayer, exercising, deep breathing and trying to limit caffeine. (I could theoretically eliminate caffeine, but at that point you really have to ask yourself what you’re living for in the first place.) So take heart, fellow sufferers! Someday, our children will be grown up and we can worry about them worrying about their own children!

And if you are one of those mellow, optimistic people married to someone like me, follow my wonderful husband’s example: give her a squeeze and a kiss and tell her that everything is going to be fine. That’s all she really wants. And be sure to keep the Benadryl handy.

  • Ebenezer Mr Scrooge

    Dayuuuum!!! This made me laugh and cry at the same time, remembering how my mother would constantly tell me to be vigilant, ensuring none of my (significantly older) step siblings sweet talks me into getting into a car as that would be the end of me… To her detest for animals of any and every sort, which I used to find funny, but suddenly I’m older and tadaaah!!! I can’t stand any creature other than man and plants.

    Guess I’ve kept a lot bottled in… I never was the most expressive one, it’s rumored I cried so little and so inaudibly as a child, there were genuine concerns I’d be mute… This continued as I grew older, can’t remember the last time tears ran down my cheeks. I’m officially paranoid.

    Hi, my name is Ebenezer and I’ve got me good ol’ GAD. I need a hug.

  • Oh goodness! You’ve given me such a laugh! Who knew there was a man with Monkish tendencies roaming the streets of Accra?