Anxiety as Birthright
So Jesus asked [the mute boy’s] father, “How long has this been happening to him?”
And he said, “From childhood.”
For Maren and Nathaniel—may you be spared.
—Scott Stossel’s dedication to his children, My Age of Anxiety
We entered in together. Not like a man and woman in marriage. Nor a boy and his saw at the base of a tree. I’m convinced that even as my head emerged, Fear pulled at my heels, like a Jacob no one could see.
There had been a real twin. One I was supposed to be immunized with, ride bikes with, sell Country Time Lemonade with on the corner for dimes. We were due in 1983, when you could still trust homemade juice in Dixie cups.
Did he ever have a heartbeat? He was made of tissue and veins and things you cannot hold.
Before Mom could even buy an extra crib and tandem stroller, she’d lost him. With just a twinge of pain that sat her straight up in bed one morning, he was gone. Vanishing Twin Syndrome, they call it. The healthier twin absorbs the tissue of the abnormal one. As in Helen Farish’s “Newly Born Twins,” there’s no denying that one is strong, the other weak:
The strong one, she will think
she is God, that she can pull back
life from where it was wanting to go.
The obstetrics specialist told Mom she might lose me, as well. You know my mother didn’t lose me because I’m telling you this story, but if you need more proof, there’s this: My parents recorded my birth on an audiocassette tape. I’m not sure what’s stranger—the audio recording of my birth or the fact that I’ve listened to the tape several times. We’ll call it The Sound of Labor:
“Keep pushing. I see a lot more baby that time. That’s better. You got something left?” Dr. Rogers asks Mom.
She moans. I’m the type of woman who eats epidurals for breakfast, but my mom refused most drugs.
“He’s coming in looking up instead of looking down,” says the doctor. “I’m gonna turn him over this time, Brenda. That’ll help him. Bear with me.”
It’s a good thing they found Dr. Rogers. The wiry man with pale blue eyes and a moustache as thick as his thumb was my ticket into this world. When nurses informed Mom that Dr. Rogers’ associate was on call that day, she told them, “No one will deliver this baby but Dr. Rogers, so you better go find him.” She must have looked like Rachel Dratch’s Saturday Night Live character with the baby arm sticking out of her head, because it worked.
Once the hard labor had begun, Dad’s adrenaline kicked in, and he became a birthing bookie. Popping in and out of the delivery room like it was a Buffalo Wild Wings, he reported Mom’s progress to another dad waiting next door, and the two wagered who would have a boy this time around. A water break here, some dilation there. Foul play with forceps. This was better than Sunday Night Football.
“Okay, Brenda, now his head’s out,” says Dr. Rogers. “That’s a big kid. That’s part of it. We gotta get the rest of it.”
“Push, Bren,” my dad chimes in. He stands by her head, and it’s as though he has written two sentences on his palm to recite under pressure. One is, “Push.” The other is, “Want some ice chips?”
One last push.
“Oh, that’s a big kid,” Dr. Rogers repeats.
“4:25,” the nurse announces. I was born at 4:25 p.m. on Wednesday, March 30, 1983, at Riverside Methodist Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
“You all right?” Dr. Rogers asks my mother. “It’s a baby girl!” My high-pitched “Waaaaaahs!” take over, the sound of light bulbs breaking beneath a cloth.
“Is she okay?” Mom asks.
I envision God in a garden, kneeling on the dirt, as in His early man-making days. His fingers are strong yet delicate, and they dig below a nasty weed, one that has invaded His space for years. He rips it from the earth. The ground closes back together, filling the void. It is good, He says. Even if He finds himself ripping at that same plot of earth come spring, let it be good. Let me be worth His while.
“Oh, she’s fine,” says Dr. Rogers.
In the first and fifth minutes after birth, doctors check a newborn’s vitals and determine an Apgar score. My own scores, based on my heart rate, breathing, responsiveness, muscle tone, and skin coloration, were normal—a seven or eight. Anyone in the delivery room can tell you, though, that Apgar scores determine a baby’s need for urgent or immediate medical attention. Just because a baby comes out fine, doesn’t mean he’ll stay fine, and just because she spends her first week of life in the NICU doesn’t mean she won’t be healthy on day eight.
I’ve listened to this birth tape every few years since I was in elementary school—mostly side B, though, which tells the story of a happy, tone-deaf two year old singing “Teeto Teeto Little Tar” and counting to ten by skipping numbers one through nine.
Side A, the one I used to skip over, now brings me closer to my mom, and also to myself. I can now identify with the petite woman lying in the hospital bed with freckles and sweat dotting her cheeks, a mix of African-American, Irish and Native-American hair hanging damp around her pecan-colored temples. As I listen to her cries, I am both the unknown baby of my mother and the mother of two young children, who are largely unknown to me. Sure, I can pick out their laughs in a roomful of children or spot their distinctive tantrums a block away. I can tell you my son will eat broccoli, and my daughter will not be bribed. But beyond the quirks and the milestones, the shot records and reports from preschool, there’s one thing I want to know: That somehow my children will avoid or outrun my history of mental illness, live free of Generalized Anxiety Disorder and its fraternal twin, Depression.
The reassurance I want that my kids will dodge this particular bullet seems more and more elusive. There was a time when I believed the truth of generations could unravel as easily as a child pulls the tape from the cassette with her finger. That somehow identifying which addictions or disorders lived on which branches of the family tree could protect my children. If I could just find the black box of genetic coding, buried beneath oral histories and old photographs, I, with the help of God, could stop this thing from growing amongst my babies. I would do my part (the knowing) and He would do His (the healing). And His part would be scripted by me.
So a few days after my 27th birthday, when two pink lines emerged on the plastic stick in my hand, I walked upstairs, found my husband, Paul, and we knelt by the bed and prayed. We prayed that no illness would transfer from us to this baby. But I knew the illness we were both thinking of was mine.
My Old Testament
While we are in this body, we cry inside ourselves because things are hard for us.
—2 Corinthians 5:4
Memories, like dreams, are patchwork creatures, made of muted colors, smells, blurred landscapes, and drowned voices. I remember standing close to my mom in a far right aisle of a drug store when the lights went dim to inform shoppers it was closing time. Panic has no name when you’re three years old, but the walls of my brain collapsed into themselves with this thought: I will be stuck in the store with no way out. The same suffocating dread has since tackled me without notice—on planes, in math class, in large ice-cream freezers, and even under streetlights of Madrid. It’s the scene in the Indiana Jones flick where the ruin’s walls begin to close in on Jones, but in my mind, he can’t squirm his way out.
If I were an artist, I’d paint the picture of that memory on a broad swath of canvas, call it “Panic in Aisle 4.” I would paint a round, brown toddler with a forest green and fuchsia coat, turquoise Reebok sneakers, a mother’ soft and feathered ’80s hairstyle, a dimmed overhead light, and shelves filled with Jergen’s lotion and cotton balls. “This is the stuff of fear,” I would tell onlookers. “If pain is weakness leaving the body,” I’d propose, “panic is weakness entering it.”
One clue that [something was wrong] I can’t actually remember, but it’s been told and re-told to me, wallpapered to my mind and sanded over time until flush with my own memory. It has the makings of good evidence, of proof that I was not born alone, that fear followed close behind.
Five weeks after my mom gave birth to me, she took a job working nights at the post office. She and my dad now had three children, a mortgage to pay, and a house filled with needy relatives who, God bless ‘em, contributed more to the chaos than the mortgage. But within two weeks of Mom working nights, I shut down, refusing to take a bottle. She tried all of the pediatric nurses’ suggestions: flat 7-Up, popsicles, Pedialyte. By the time she reached the on-call doctor, I was screaming nonstop.
“Is that the baby in the background?” the doctor asked.
“Yes, that’s what I’ve been telling you,” Mom said. “Something’s not right with her.”
“Well, my goodness. If that’s her in the background, you need to get her to the ER.”
At seven weeks old, I experienced my first admission to a hospital. After two days of IVs, Children’s Hospital released me into the care of Dr. Dawdy, my first and only pediatrician. He looked like Phil Donahue and always wore a toy monkey clipped to his stethoscope. Sitting on a black stool, with one leg propped up on the other leg’s knee, he’d listen and never rush away after writing a prescription.
“What we’re looking at here,” he said that day, “is separation anxiety.” In his view, I had not experienced enough bonding time with my mom, and maybe it had affected me more than the next baby.
So there were clues that I had too much fear. A pathological amount. “I never felt like it was something that wasn’t gonna go away,” Mom has since told me. “I thought it was more, you know, temporary.” Of course she did. Most of the time, I was a normal, silly child who wore rainbow clown wigs and sunglasses or stuffed cotton balls in her ears just to get a laugh. My favorite photograph shows me at three wearing frizzy, braided pigtails, a necklace of dyed noodles, green Mickey Mouse sunglasses, and a fake Native American headdress. I’m brandishing a Barbie doll and smiling, my bare brown legs showing beneath a faded t-shirt that reads “Happy Birthday.” It’d be thirteen more years until I’d earn my official diagnosis of GAD.
As a young child, when my fears did come, they wrapped themselves in blaring trains, cramped elevators, bogeymen, and butterflies. In one of my earliest memories, I sit straight up in Mom and Dad’s waterbed in the middle of the night. Small creatures fly all around me, less than a foot from my face, my bent legs, my torso. They are too many to count, dark with tiny specks of neon color, not pretty or gentle like the Monarchs.
“Taylor, what’s wrong?” Mom asks. She’s always been the lightest sleeper.
“Butterflies, Mommy. Butterflies,” is all I say. I can’t rest until they leave me alone. My tiny hands pat at the comforter beneath me, as I try to push them away.
Somehow, between age three and twenty-three, the butterflies transformed, endured an ugly metamorphosis. They became brain aneurysms, allergic reactions, plane crashes, and cardiac arrest. Even eternal damnation. Each one served as an irrational thought that triggered a panic attack. Each one convinced me of imminent death.
I was born in a field of butterflies, the kind that danced along my eyelashes and settled right under my lids. The kind whose wings parted the sun from my face, casting a long shadow across my temples. The same creatures, it seems, perched upon the nose of my mother, the ear of my grandmother, the finger of my granddad. I thought, maybe with too much pride, that I could swat them from my own daughter’s face.
Then God said, “Let plants grow from the earth, plants that have seeds. Let fruit trees grow on the earth that bring their kind of fruit with their own seeds.” And it was so.
The other day, my daughter was stacking blocks, and I had been reading a New Yorker article on the importance of talking to your kids. Because I’m the kind of parent who can sit in silence, observing, and forget that I haven’t spoken for a long stretch, I wondered if Margaret Talbot was talking to me.
So I scooted next to my daughter and prompted her to label the animals carved into the wooden blocks.
“And what is this?” she asked me, examining one face of a cube. It wasn’t an antelope or giant squid, so I pushed back: “What do you think it might be?”
“A butterfly,” she said.
“I don’t like butterflies,” she said. “I don’t like when they scare me.”
I know nothing and I know everything. I know decades of anxiety, yet she is only four years old. And she is not me. She is some unknowable composite of our genes.
But this isn’t about one day when my daughter spoke of butterflies as though she had been there, with me, twenty-nine years ago on my parents’ bed. Or about the way she closely inspects the rim of a cup before drinking from it. Or how she’s usually the shyest kid at story time. Let’s be clear: No one really knows what this is about, exactly, but she doesn’t talk or participate in preschool. No art projects, no songs, no trucks, no bathroom.
My sweet daughter—who can read and draw and play basketball at home—often stands or sits in the corner of the classroom and the playground and watches. When one of her teachers comes to get her from our minivan at morning drop-off, she freezes, looks straight ahead, and cannot say a word. Just the moment before, she might have been belly laughing or singing. Then, she’s gone. They lift her out—a brown doll with a tutu and tights—and stand her up on the ground. She’ll walk with them, hold a hand, but once inside, she shuts down. Won’t hang up her coat or her blue tote bag and spends the rest of the three hours being there.
How do moms who pass down a BRCA gene mutation feel?
My daughter gives me one of three answers when I ask her why she didn’t talk to her teachers or make a craft at school: I felt scared. I felt sad. And most commonly: I don’t know I just didn’t want to. I try not to ask her all the time. I don’t want our relationship to be a game of predictable exercise in call-and-response. Don’t want her to feel I’m performing a verbal fMRI, digging for what’s wrong or where the wires get crossed. Though sometimes I wish she and I could hold our almond-shaped amygdalae in our hands, turn them like prisms, see where the light touches and where, if at all, things go dark.
One way well-meaning folks have tried to make my daughter’s anxiety palatable is through presenting the positives: She’s brilliant. She has a great sense of humor. She’s gorgeous. She’ll be fine, they say. I appreciate the intent but can’t agree that her terrific attributes will balance out a struggle with fear. But maybe that’s not the point. After all, she might begin talking at school this year and never experience clinical depression or anxiety. It’s not fair for me to imagine her life following the same path as mine. This mental condition might be temporary. It might not be a “thorn in her flesh” that Jesus doesn’t remove. So I try to pull back, consciously taking my projections with me. I try to separate my life from hers, even as she clings to me.
From His fullness, we have all received grace upon grace.
Each therapy session begins with my daughter burrowing into my chest. It’s like she’s never before seen her therapist, a doctoral student who reminds me of Jewel. Or maybe it’s not like that at all. Maybe it’s just the distance to that point—where she can look her therapist in the eyes and laugh—seems too far. The doc student is trained. She knows that my daughter doesn’t yet have the skills to cope with anxiety we presume she’s feeling. It’s the everyday folks I worry will judge her, pierce her one day when she responds to their “Hi, sweetie” with a solid glare. Will they think her hazel eyes and curly Afro lend her arrogance, self-conceit? Really she’s just frozen.
While my daughter hides, sometimes placing her hands over her eyes, the therapist moves calmly, pulling a box of toys into the space between us on the floor.
“What should we play with today?” she asks.
My firstborn pulls closer still. Can I open my thorax, bring her inside, let her rest an ear against my heart? Or have I already done that, in birthing her? Have I allowed her, an innocent, too close to my heart—one broken with arrhythmias and palpitations? Have I opened my arms, only to hug her into a rib cage of thorns?
Guilt is not the word. Guilt does not fit.
The therapist pulls out a Ferris wheel or an airplane or a circus stage with little people that sit inside.
“Who should fly the plane?” she asks. “The bird or the pirate?” “Do you want Mommy to choose this time?”
I choose, trying to be the 31-year-old model parent, as though I’m being graded. I wait for the therapist’s cues to participate. The goal is to eventually get me out of these appointments altogether. There could be a day when I don’t carry her on my hip through the double doors and into the therapist’s “classroom.” A day when I sit in the lobby and read an article on Kevin Costner or watch her play from behind a two-way mirror.
Today the brown-skinned pirate with gold hoops will fly.
This is the life cycle of therapy. We play and talk a little and wait for my daughter to play and talk a little. We become comfortable (or at least silently uncomfortable) with silence. After thirty minutes or so, she will whisper, “Mommy, I want you to play with me.” We’ve hit the half-life of her anxiety. She’ll start to open up, even slide off my lap to grab the plastic toucan. Hey, someone’s got to re-fuel the plane.
Then she’s cruising, filling the seats of the airplane with animals and pirates and flying the plane around the armchairs, circling back to surprise her therapist. Or she’s picking through a tub of Legos to find the block with a painted eye. Once she finds it, she grins, and says, “It’s gonna get Mommy!” Then she attacks me, tapping the eye up my leg and toward my face as I pretend to call out for help.
We are all smiling. There are ten minutes left. This, I think, is the grace.
I’ve been searching for the grace. Not since I was born but since I settled on these three ideas in my college years: 1) Jesus did the impossible, 2) I was born sick, and 3) I have yet to be healed.
So I’ve been looking for the miracle—the burning bush, the parting of a sea. Or maybe a red rope snaking down the city wall, something I can hold on to. And lurking behind these three facts is the fourth, a question: 4) What does this mean for my daughter?
She and I are both deep in our developmental phases. My daughter asks the WHY questions: “Why can’t I touch raw meat, Mommy?” “Why are those scissors too big for me?” “Why does the girl make her face like that when she sings?” To which I answer, respectively, “Germs.” “Dangerous.” And “Passion, honey.”
For my part, I’m asking everyone I can find: Pediatrician, Husband, Friends, God: My daughter has anxiety. What does this mean? As though this question is one we can answer over coffee or Skype. As though this question has a right or a wrong answer or any boundaries at all. As though it isn’t absolutely endless.
Grace, I think, is part of the answer. Grace as in being there. My daughter and I will need a lot of it.
My ancestors sang of chariots. Chariots that would fly them from the cotton fields to a heavenly mansion. I need those chariots, too, and the promise that there will come a time when I don’t contemplate suicide or wonder why my brain is wired like a broken slinky.
But there’s another miracle, as I see it. Something for the now.
I met a former hospice chaplain who described her work as “the ministry of presence.” She sat more than she talked. She stayed and kept watch. God, it seems to me, is best at that. He is being there, even when my daughter is hiding behind the brick wall on the playground. Brick upon brick, grace upon grace. I do not know who built this wall. I only know God has hung a rope for us. We’ll clutch it in our palms like worry beads. No matter what diagnoses come our way or which neurons fire without our permission, we will never lose our line.
For when I am weak, then I am strong.
—2 Corinthians 12:10
“I have a lot of fear and a lot of faith a lot of the time.”
—Anne Lamott, Small Victories
I once tried to un-thorn myself, to pluck out anxiety from under my rib cage, to cast aside generations of mental illness, of frozen minds. Stabilize my own heartbeat. I was in my last year of college and informed God that his grace was so sufficient, I didn’t need Paxil. I was (almost dead) wrong.
The strong one, she will think
she is God, that she can pull back
life from where it was wanting to go.
When I was 27, I tried again to make it happen my way. I prayed the thorn away from my fetus. I imagined the best life for my baby would be a life without unnatural levels of fear. My baby came, with jet-black hair and eyes unlike mine, and they sent her home with us, and I thought that one day, when she was thirteen, I might see a shadow of anxiety—if the shadow were to fall at all. They sent my daughter home with us, and they couldn’t see, and we couldn’t see, and we still can’t see what freezes her throat when people come near. These issues can overlap, sprout wings and spread them, arrogantly, across your chest. They do not always fly alone.
But I, The Worrier, cannot worry about the future. On the best days, that self-talk almost works.
On the best days, my daughter and I are a team. We drop her younger brother off at preschool and drive to the cupcake shop nearby. Armed with my latte and her mini cupcake, we head to the play kitchen in the back of the shop. It’s early, and the stove is all hers. She often cooks pizza for me with a side of cookies. She moves with great ease, as queen of this kitchen, and I relax in the sun that spills onto the floor.
Until we have company. First I see the mom, then her toddler son, and my jaw tenses. It’s as though the social anxiety runs through my body first, seconds before my daughter speaks up. I’m not sure if it’s because I want to protect her, or because I can’t help my own anxious response.
“Mommy,” she calls from behind me. Her eyes are on the boy. “I’m ready to get in the car and go to Target.”
My dear, I think, you and I were born ready.