A reader asks our agony aunt Beth (@imteddybless) how she can help her parents understand that her severe anxiety isn’t ‘just stress’
I’ve known that I’ve been depressed with severe, severe anxiety for years now. I can recall my first anxiety attack at age 9, and my first time planning my own death at age 12. Now I’m 21 and away at college, but I remain close with my parents. Problem is, they don't “believe” in mental illness and although they've seen me not leave bed for 3 days and hyperventilate and vomit over being in an enclosed space, they always come at me with “everybody gets stressed sometimes. it's how we deal with it that defines us.”
I want help. I want to try medication. I want my parents on my side. I’m going into the medical field and my studies are so rigorous that I cannot afford to take days, weeks, months off to put the pieces back together when I get really bad. I’m not entirely sure what else to do to get them to understand.
This is what I imagine it’s like to be a parent.
Your baby is born. It is small and lovely and fat and very selfish. You feed it soft orange food until its tiny teeth arrive and then you feed it slightly harder orange food. Then its teeth fall away again in a shower of nightmares. Its legs and arms get longer and it learns to say words at you. The baby keeps getting larger and hairier no matter how many times you ask it not to. You worry about it all the time forever.
It’s like having a Tamagotchi that you would die for, basically, which might explain why your parents are digging their nachos so deep in that delicious denial dip about your illness. Because stress is easier to solve than anxiety. Stress just needs a peppermint tea, a positive attitude and a good night’s sleep. Stress is having a lot to do with little time to do it. It’s having exams to study for and essays to hand in and bills to pay. It normally has a root and a reason and, most importantly, a solution. A finishing line. Anxiety has no lines. It’s limitless. It’s a shivering, bone-deep dread. A wake-up-in-the-night blind terror. An everyday minute to minute wrestle against endless, colourless, airless existence. It sucks total and entire balls, basically. And it has as much to do with stress as depression has to do with being sad: e.g. NOT A GREAT DEAL SANDRA AND KENNETH.
You parents probably aren’t called Sandra and Kenneth. And in many ways I’m sure they’re wonderful, loving, giving people who only want you to be happy, healthy and successful. The problem is they only want to help you get there, as long as what you need and who you are remains firmly and reassuringly within their current frame of reference. They love you but what they insist on believing makes it harder for people like you and I to survive day to day.
Which is so fucked up!
Because telling someone that their severe anxiety is just stress is like telling someone with a fondue fork sticking out of their leg that we ALL feel a little fondue-fork-in-the-leg sometimes, but that it’s reealllly not worth dwelling on. Your anxiety has been a fondue fork in the heart for as long as you can remember and your survival (and success) is nothing short of extraordinary. But you’re ready to stop surviving. You’re ready to stop crawling and dragging and suffering through this. You’re ready to breathe and thrive and live a life that’s as big and glorious as someone with your grit and courage deserves.
And you’ve told yourself that to do that you need your parents’ help. My advice to you is to work very hard to prove that the opposite is true. Because your parents aren’t giving you what you need, and even though that hurts unbearably, it’s how things stand right now. You need to crop them out of your picture of recovery until they can act right. You have severe anxiety and depression and you need help. You know this. You’ve known this since you were a kid. This is not new. What’s new is that you’re not going to look backwards for help anymore. You’re not asking mum and dad for their approval before you step out into the light.
You alone know what you need and you know what to do to get it. You know that when you’re hurt, you’re deserving of healing. You know that if you’re having a hard time you deserve that time to end. Your pain requires confronting and unpacking and banishing through determination and empathy and positive support.
I don’t want you to be quiet. You deserve to be as loud and as clear as you want. You don’t have to shut up. Except from when my cartoons are on. But the minute they’re finished I promise you can be as loud about this as you like. Because your illness is valid and real and it’s sure as shit not getting better without some hard work.
So you need to take this next step without your parents’ approval or understanding. You need to feel better as soon as possible. Not after your parents accept your illness, not after they apologise, not after they take back every well-intentioned but horrifyingly stupid thing they ever said. Now. You need to start the process now. You need to talk to someone impartial, informed, and with access to the medication and treatment that you need to feel better and live a life that doesn’t feel half-sunk in swampy terror. It’s now that this needs to happen.
“Feeling better takes a lot of patience, a lot of experimenting with different treatments, and a total refusal to accept that you’re going to feel this bad forever. You aren’t! You’re ready to do what you have to do. Throw everything at it”
Anxiety is a bitch. I get it. It keeps so much of life locked up. It wears a tiny pair of clogs and dances around on your heart and makes it hard to breathe. Feeling better takes a lot of patience, a lot of experimenting with different treatments, and a total refusal to accept that you’re going to feel this bad forever. You aren’t! You’re ready to do what you have to do. Throw everything at it. Try medication. Try exercise. Try mindfulness. Try any counselling or therapy that you can afford. Get all the books! Read all the books! Make all the books into a house for lizards!
And when something starts working, when you feel better, when you can’t quite believe that you were able to do this, then you can take your parents to task. Give them the information, show them what resources are out there, what books they can buy, what lectures they can listen to. Lay it down for them, then step back. Because there’s nothing worse for your anxiety than constantly having to prove it exists. And if they’re not ready to step up and be there for you, then you’re going to keep doing it. You’re gonna get yourself up every day. Take your medicine. Do your breathing. Call a friend. Read something that makes you feel brave.
Feed yourself that soft orange food until you’re ready to eat that harder orange food.
Because like Oscar Wilde (might have) said that one time, “we’re all anxious babies in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the moon.” And I think that’s just so beautiful.