A Letter To My Dad About My Anxiety
Before anything else, I must say thank you. For 24 years you have supported me without end and have loved me unconditionally, even when you weren’t sure how to. I have not often stopped to consider how hard you work to live in my world and be there for me, but I am so grateful.
There is so much I wish to say in order to explain what anxiety is like, what I have learned from it, and what it means for those I love. I‘ve been wanting to write this for a long time. I originally wanted to write it for myself, to help me articulate my struggle with anxiety. But I realized that if I were to ever write it, it would need to be addressed to you. You’re my best friend and I can’t be anything but honest and open with you. You instill strength and hope in me every single day.
I know you have often felt frustrated trying to understand what my anxiety is like and how you can help. So let me try to put it into words.
What is Anxiety Like?
Anxiety is not the same as worrying, although people often equate the two as synonyms. Anxiety is not like the “anxious” feeling someone has before a big speech or test. Think of it as an eery house. Imagine you are sitting in the living room of someone else’s house, located in the middle of nowhere. It is late at night and you are completely alone, having just watched a horror film. Every little noise and every little rustle or creek, which wouldn’t cause a reaction during the day, causes your heart to start pounding and a wave of fear to wash over you.
With anxiety we become sensitive to everything around us, paralyzed by the overwhelming noise that takes over our senses. There is no peak followed by relief; it just keeps building and building. What would seem like simple things to others become overwhelming to us.
Anxiety is not just all in the mind. The entire body reacts to it: headaches, throbbing, stomach pain, ringing in the ears, etc. Anxiety puts our entire body into an exhausting state of heightened awareness. The fight or flight response is active, we are hyper-tense, and we begin overanalyzing every little thing as a threat. Our minds don’t stop ruminating, which is entirely tiring and exhausting. We feel like a prisoner in our own mind and body. Sending an email? Answering a text? Trying to explain to someone why we’re not acting like ourself?
These simple tasks become incredibly daunting and, although they seem so easy to the normal person, those of us with anxiety require a great deal of courage and strength to get through these.
Anxiety isn’t rational. It is not a cause and effect relationship that can be predicted. It is not just an amplified version of worry, where there is a specific trigger. It’s a misfiring of our brain’s fight or flight mechanisms that can happen for no recognizable reason. Having a life-changing condition dismissed as worrying is difficult to hear.
It takes courage to battle anxiety every day.
People may think that we aren’t thinking positively enough. It’s not that we don’t think positively or that we don’t try -it’s just difficult when anxiety hijacks our body and minds. We often feel detached from ourselves. The repetition of thoughts that go through our mind can be hard to turn off, making us feel out of control and afraid.
I will constantly rethink a sentence I said yesterday or a year ago and wondering if I upset someone by it. When I share something vulnerable I will stay awake for hours, wondering if the other person now sees me differently and if I should have said nothing. I will likely be staying up late questioning every sentence of this post. Almost anything can be a trigger for rumination.
Intellectually we know that the mental processes behind our anxiety are irrational, but as far as our brains are concerned, there is no difference between what we imagine and what is real.
Even if others see our anxiety as irrational, we want them to recognize that for us it is very real.
What I Want You To Know
If anxiety were a visible illness, you would see my battle scars, Dad. You would see the bruises where the anxiety beats me up on the inside. But it’s not visible and oftentimes it may not look like you would expect it to. Sometimes my anxiety looks cranky, depressed, silent, angry or frustrated. Don’t take it personally. Know that I am trying to handle it as best I can. If I talk about my anxiety with you, know that it is incredibly difficult and vulnerable for me, so it means a lot for me to share.
In the end, I just want to know that I am brave.
I want my struggle to be validated, even if it is not fully understood. I want to know that I am not seen differently because of my struggle, but that I’m still loved and I am enough just as I am, even when I feel out of control. I don’t want to be defined by the label of anxiety, but want to be recognized for the culmination of what makes me who I am. I don’t want advice (unless I ask for it).
I simply want to hear that you have no desire to change or fix me. I want to know that you are in my corner.
Listening, hugging, and validating are the most powerful tools you have. Some days I may need space and some days I may need your presence, so ask me what I need and I will let you know.
Sometimes it may look like I’m trying to control everything, but please don’t mistake my need to control my environment with my need to control people. I am simply trying to feel safe and avoid an anxiety takeover.
Sometimes I might come off as a perfectionist, but the truth is that the endless tapes of self-criticism and fear of failure are often driving me and I am daily trying to quiet them. Part of managing anxiety is controlling this inner monologue. This takes a lot of concentration and so I may suddenly grow quiet. At times, I may be angry with myself for not having “better control.”
I might seem like someone who cancels plans a lot. I don’t do this lightly. It actually causes me more stress because I worry about disappointing others. Know that I’m not saying no to you; I’m saying no to potential anxiety attacks.
Why I Am Grateful
Dad, despite the struggles of my anxiety, you have given me the support that I need to see my anxiety as a blessing. If I had the opportunity to take my anxiety away, I wouldn’t. Is it a daily battle? Absolutely.
But you have reminded me that the scars of anxiety are not physical marks on the body. The scars of anxiety are deep compassion and empathy.
Because I have struggled daily, I am more sensitive to you and your needs and struggles. Because I have struggled with having a label of anxiety, I will never see you as a label or judge you for your own path. Because I daily fight the battles of anxiety, I am stronger and more reliant on God. Because my thoughts can easily overtake me, I have learned the importance of self-examination and sorting the truths from the lies. Because I know my own vulnerability, I will listen intently when you need to share your own struggles and I will know that it takes a lot of courage for you to do so.
More than anything, I hope that you can be proud of me — not in spite of my struggle with anxiety, but because of my struggle with anxiety.
Thank you for listening without demanding an explanation for my thoughts and behaviors and without giving advice. Thank you for simply staying with me when I’m struggling. Thank you for seeing that this is not just stress, and for encouraging me time and again. Most of all, thank you for loving me as I am.