My children have a few important people in their lives who happen to struggle with anxiety disorders. While I won’t name them or describe their exact relationship with my kids out of respect for their privacy, these are people who are missed when anxiety rears its ugly head.
As someone who is not that far removed from a struggle with mental illness, I completely understand how debilitating it can be. I know firsthand how it feels to have a panic attack at the thought of going out the door, and how exhausting it can be to socialize–even with people you genuinely enjoy the company of.
While my children do not remember mom’s struggle, they are becoming aware of the struggles of other people they love. While I know intimately the struggle these loved ones face, there was a perspective I didn’t have until my son’s fifth birthday: that of the parent trying to shield their child from the fallout of mental illness.
Someone my children love very deeply called the morning of the party. They would be unable to make it. My son was–to put it mildly–quite disappointed.
I had a decision to make.
I could lie–or carefully omit the full truth. As an adult, I found out this was my family’s tactic. I certainly do not judge my parents for this decision. I strongly considered it. In fact, at the beginning of my mental health journey, we simply told my son (then 2) that mom was sick and had to go to the doctor. He didn’t ask beyond that, and we didn’t tell. It was just easier that way.
This time, however. I opted for a brief version of the truth.
I started by explaining what it means to be anxious. Thankfully, Sesame Street had introduced this word into his vocabulary years ago. I told him that sometimes our brains lie to us and tell us things are scary when they’re really not. We talked about how hard and unfair it must be to have to deal with your brain lying to you like that. My sweet boy amazed me with his empathy. As quickly as the conversation came, it went. After all, he’s only five.
I’m sure this isn’t the last conversation we’ll have about anxiety or mental illness in general. In fact, I want to discuss it whenever possible and appropriate with each of my children. With their family history, it is incredibly likely that one or more of them will have a struggle of their own, and even if they don’t, I want them to be aware of how pervasive mental illness can be. I want to raise them to be allies.
One day, I hope to explain the strength and courage it takes to do something when you’re afraid–I’ll probably compare it to the first time my son jumped into the pool. I hope I can impress upon them how loved they are that their family members often push through the anxiety to be with them. I pray I can help them feel strong and brave in the face of any struggle. More than anything, I want the topic to be one they are comfortable discussing–if not with me, then with someone they trust. No one should suffer in silence.