The Day I Told My Father About My Anxiety
For a while I worried about opening up to my parents about my mental health issues — but I never realized how much it would help me move forward.
One of my most memorable moments I remember sharing with my father is when I told him I thought I was sick — mentally sick. I remember struggling with anxiety for almost my whole life, but only realizing (at 19 years old) that there is a name for what I was constantly feeling.
When I was young, about 10 years old, my parents started noticing a problem with my temper. I didn’t exactly lash out on them, but rather on myself. Additionally, they were worried about my lack of self confidence and how I couldn’t make decisions sometimes because of my “nerves”. I remember my father saying, “What, do we need to take you to a psychologist?” He said this with fear in his eyes, because he thought, at the time, that me going to a therapist would mean I was completely unstable. He was scared, and so was I. So we both did what we knew best and buried it and continued on.
Once I was a Freshman year in college, I started connecting the dots about my behavior. I truly believe the first step is to start being acutely aware of yourself is to notice how you react to things. For me, writing really helped. I wrote every night, every day. Whether it was bad grammar or terrible rhetoric, I let my rage out onto the pages. I wrote about the heartbreaks I was going through and the stress in school that I was worried about. At one point, I looked back at a bunch of my journals dating as far back to elementary school, and I noticed the patterns. I noticed how I always got nervous about the smallest things. I wrote about my nervousness of socializing or saying the wrong thing to people. I wrote about my deep, irrational fear of math class, year after year. Reading these archives of my emotional vulnerability made me realize how I reacted and dealt with things in my life. Most importantly, reading my old writings made me realize that nothing much had changed now that I’m older.
I should mention the fact that I’m still (officially) undiagnosed. The reason is because, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve only become aware of what I might be dealing with very recently. Only in the last couple years have I really started reflecting on my mental health. Nobody ever told me there was anything wrong with me, because on the outside, I seemed fine. I went to doctors appointments and they told me I was healthy. When I went to these appointments, I never thought I should bring up that I had panic attacks after taking math tests, or that I suffered from lack of sleep because I was stressed about what I had to do the next day. This was because I was never taught that this was something I should be helped with. I’m not blaming my parents for this because they were also uninformed at the time. This is why I think having as open of communication lines with your loved ones is so necessary. I understand that sometimes, not everyone would understand. And that’s why I was afraid to come to my father about it, because I thought he would brush it off because it’s so out of the blue. I was so afraid he would think I was weak; I wanted to seem strong and confident, just like he was.
I decided to tell my father because I told my father almost everything. He and I were very transparent with each other, about our lives, our opinions and how we felt about things. I was afraid to talk to him at first because I was worried he wouldn’t entirely understand. There seems to still be a generational disconnect when it comes to mental health awareness. My parents grew up in a time when being “too stressed out” didn’t constitute a trip to the doctors.
I remember going to his office and talking to him about it. He listened. The wrinkles on his forehead became to form as he sat there with his arms crossed. My father was a incredibly strong but also emotional man. I knew this would be something new to him, but as I was talking to him, I knew he would at least try and comprehend what I was saying. I told him I’d send him some articles. I explained to him how I was feeling. He naturally asked why I was feeling this way. I naturally answered that I really didn’t know.
“What are you so anxious about?” He asked.
I wished the answer was simple. I wish I could talk about my anxiety like I talked about everything with my dad; politics, religion, history, art. But this wasn’t the case with my mental health. I didn’t have a textbook to show him or a clear answer to look up. All I could do was reflect with him what I wrote for years in my diaries. All the feelings I had and the pain I went through. Whether it was stress and homesickness I experienced when we lived abroad in Europe, or how I was petrified of long division.
He listened and didn’t say much. But he did emphasize that my health is very important, and that if I don’t think I’m okay, it should be addressed. At the end of our talk, I told him I would email him a couple articles about anxiety disorders and why I think I have some of the symptoms.
I didn’t’ come in there to ask to go to therapy or go on meds. I went into my father’s office that day so I could tell him a part of my life that had always been apart of me. A nagging, poking feeling that had affected the way I relate to others and myself. I wanted to talk to him and open up to him and have him understand, so it could be another topic for our discussions. I was scared for his reaction because this was new information I was giving him. This was something he didn’t completely know about, and something he didn’t’ want to believe his own child was going through. But my doubts turned out to be all for nothing, because he did not let me down.
My father was an academic. So as academics do, he did his research.
He read the articles I sent to him. He told me days later that he was looking up some of his own. I heard him talking about it with my mother downstairs in a hushed, concerned tone. He called me into his room eventually to have another meeting about it and as he spoke, he began to choke up. He began to apologize. He told me that now he understood what kind of mental anguish I was experiencing. As he finished he turned away from me and said,
“And I’m sorry…if I in any way helped cause this…”
I knew what he was referring to. My father was sweet, but also tough, like most parents are. I remembered back in 5th grade when I was struggling with math, my dad would lecture me constantly about doing better in school. He also sat down and worked with me on the math constantly, because he so badly wanted me to grasp the concepts, that he himself knew were stupid for me to have to learn. But I told him not to worry, because my internal stress had started much before my parents started stressing me out. I told him that stress is simply being worried about school or nagging parents, but anxiety is a constant nagging in my own head.
He also told me he was sorry if our family living in two countries (Lithuania and the U.S.) in any way. It’s true, I didn’t have the best time living in Lithuania, because I was separated from my best friends. As a young child, my best friends were the major values I had, next to my family. There were definitely stages of depression I went through. My friend Erik even remembers me sending them a letter when I was about 10 where I wrote that I “cry myself to sleep because of how much I miss them”.
My father didn’t cause my anxiety, and I made sure to be very honest with him about it. But it meant the world to me that he was so reflective of himself and some of the flaws he had as a parent. That day when we talked about that, it made me feel so much more open and honest about my anxiety with myself and others.
Little did I know that months after my father’s death, I would start putting together the pieces that my own dad probably suffered from anxiety as well. He grew up with a tough, abusive father and in a rough environment. He inherited heart disease and had high blood pressure. But he probably never considered there was something wrong with his mind. Sometimes, I react in a way due to my anxiety that almost exactly reminds me of how he sometimes reacted. I’m just glad that I had enough time with him to help him realize my own mental state. I cherish the fact that I was able to be open with my best friend, and for him to understand another side of me.
I feel lucky enough that I had a father and a mother who, although didn’t fully grasp the complicity of mental health, still took the time to understand me. That’s something that can do a lot of good for people struggling with different types of mental illnesses. It’s a scary thing to admit it to your parents, the people you’ve known your whole life. It’s terrifying to think they might want to judge you and change you. Unfortunately, sometimes the most trustworthy people for people with mental illnesses aren’t their parents or family.
This is why more of us need to be there to simply hear out others and what they are going through. All anyone wants is a chance to be heard out and understood, while we struggle to comprehend the chaos in our own mind.
Originally published at medium.com on October 13, 2016.