What does it feel like to have anxiety? I’ll tell you, and show you, how it feels for me. I have been participating in a self-portrait project this year, and these images are my attempt to both face it, and to explore ways to show how it feels, visually.
A few days ago, over coffee as we watched our daughters play together, a friend and I talked about social media. She mentioned that a family member’s Instagram always made her life look so perfect…too perfect. She didn’t like it, she felt that people wouldn’t connect with her family member, if she didn’t portray a life that felt more “real.”
I felt a pang of guilt: My house is spotless in every photo I post. My children and I are mostly put-together (aside from an ongoing pants battle with my youngest, in which she refuses to wear them). My photos reflect a beautiful, happy, nearly-perfect life. (My life is beautiful, I very much recognize that.) However, my life is far from perfect, far from lacking in daily struggles, far from lacking in the mess that is parenthood. I fully agree vulnerability creates connection. I connect that way in person, but does it also have to be constantly shared on my social media, for me to be “real?”
Motherhood is messy, and so is life in general. I share the blissful moments. Because the truth is, it’s what I want to share, and it is what people want to see. It’s the same reason people smile for photos. We all do it. Who really wants to see the ugly, in a space meant for recreation? Who wants to see photos posted of crying children, piles of laundry, a floor littered with Z-bar wrappers, and spilled lunch? We love seeing happy families and beautiful sunsets, and hearing beautiful, cute, and heartfelt stories. And that stuff is real, too. But maybe sometimes we do also want glimpses of that messiness, just to know we’re not the only ones. But my house isn’t usually clean because I want beautiful photos, it’s clean because I have anxiety that won’t rest.
I have shared my PPD struggles here on this blog at length, I candidly shared that same story in a documentary, and again many times while I was interviewed for the Shot on iPhone 6s Campaign last year. I’ve shared a bit of my anxiety struggles on Instagram, but does the “perfection” in a gallery of finished photos gloss over that? Do I have a responsibility to share that more?
Maybe I do. Maybe because millions of people suffer silently, and because I keep my own anxiety mostly well-hidden, I need to speak up.
I have severe anxiety. Not the kind people joke about like, “Oh, man, my house is so messy it’s giving me anxiety.” Like the kind where I can’t breathe if there is a speck of dust on my hardwood floor, and can’t focus if there’s a dish in my sink.
Often, when it’s bad, I wake up with chest pains so sharp, I worry I’m having a heart attack. There is a rising panic I feel in my stomach that almost never goes away. I go downstairs and before I can even make a cup of coffee, I clean. In a hurried, rushed, almost panicked way. I scrub my kitchen that I cleaned the night before, I dust, I fluff throw pillows, sweep, vacuum and mop, I scrub toilets, I make beds, and I spiral. I try to stop at about an hour of cleaning. I do this every single day, multiple times a day. I grasp at feeling centered, and believe that I have to be in clean surroundings for that to happen.
My friends from college will tell you that my dorm room was spotless. It was odd, maybe even a little funny to them, but what they don’t know is I can’t focus my chaotic-feeling mind if my surroundings are out of order. It’s a compulsion I can’t turn off. I have friends joke that they ‘wish they had anxiety like me so their houses would always be clean.’ It doesn’t hurt my feelings, but I do wanly smile as I think about how they don’t actually wish that at all.
I have an extremely hard time falling asleep at night. I can’t shut my brain off. I lay and contemplate all the sadness of this world. I imagine the ways I could die, imagine horrific things happening to those whom I love most. I feel devastated that my time with my children is limited by my lifespan, and worry that will be shorter than 90+ years. I can’t even let my children get in the car without me, without worrying it will be the last time I see them, and thus giving them long hugs and millions of kisses as I “for the last time” savor them. They are 3 and 5 years old, and I still worry about SIDS. I check that they are breathing in their sleep every single night. My husband took them camping a few weekends ago, and when I couldn’t get ahold of him for 2 hours, I absolutely lost it. I was certain a bear had mauled them, or that they had drowned. I imagine horrible scenarios every day–they intrude my mind.
The worst part is, I know this seems crazy, overreactive, out-there, even ridiculous. But knowing it doesn’t mean that I can turn it off.
Sometimes I can’t eat. Anxiety means an upset stomach and I just can’t. I am claustrophobic in situations where I can’t get out. I could be in an airplane hanger, but if I know the doors are locked, I will start to panic.
I often have to take some quiet alone time and retreat into my own world because I deal a lot with sensory overload. The constant “mommy, mommys!” refereeing, wiping booties, giving cuddles, over-scheduled lives, and pressure to do everything the right way, on top of feeling the sense of panic I can never shake, can be suffocating. It all makes me so exhausted. Not hopelessly exhausted, into my bones and unable to move, like with depression, but like my heart has beat enough beats for a week, in one day.
I can also be very irritable, a combination of the chest pains, noise, busy buzzing head, and exhaustion, and during those times have to work hard to keep my feelings from bubbling over and taking them out on my family. That’s the most important part to me: I don’t want my children or my husband to bear the brunt of this, but I know sometimes they have. That kills me.
And let’s sidebar about parenthood in general, today: We just can’t get anything right. We need to parent gently, but not have undisciplined jerks. If we actually try to discipline them, strangers in the supermarket either cluck at us, or might call CPS. We shouldn’t leave our babies to cry it out, but we shouldn’t let them be so needy and comfort them in the night, unless we “want” to be exhausted. We should feed on demand, but if we don’t get that baby to comply with a schedule, we’re idiots. Breast is best, but if you accidentally flash someone while trying to feed a flailing, screaming baby, you’re being provocative (breastfeeding is just oh-so sexy). We should baby-wear and develop secure attachments, but put that baby down lest we spoil her! We should give our kids freedom, but a nosy neighbor might call us in if we are more than 10 feet away from our children playing outside. We shouldn’t over-schedule them, but we’re dropping the ball if we don’t playdate and do Pinterest activities. We should make everything from scratch with organic beet sugar, but not be so uptight that we deprive them of sugar and being kids. We should work outside of the home so we set a good example, but by God, don’t let someone else “raise” our babies by putting them in daycare (because somehow that’s a thing people actually say). It’s a wonder that not every parent has anxiety.
I digress…(apparently, I have some energy on that.)
Through it all, the normal tough expectations we all face as parents of young kids, and the generalized anxiety, I pretend everything is great. I remain put-together. I work so hard to appear totally okay on the outside, but truthfully, sometimes I’m barely above water, putting on a tranquil mask, screaming and debilitated by anxiety on the inside. I hide this because of the disorder itself–the perfectionism part.
I hide this because as a stay at home mother who has the luxury of deciding to do so, I’m expected to be fulfilled and happy at all times. I do this because in our backwards society, stoicism and suffering in silence is somehow lauded, and showing emotion, showing sensitivity, is weakness. I do this because when it’s on the forefront of people’s minds, it colors their interactions with me. I do this because I don’t want to be treated as fragile, when I’m strong. Fighting this is brave and hard work, that requires a brute inner strength to rise out of the darkness; I am far from fragile. I do this because I am rational and reliable, and don’t want to be treated like I’m not. I do this because I want people to think I’m smart, not that my thoughts are compromised by a broken brain.
And maybe my brain is broken a little bit, but it’s not irreparable. Doing the work to get better is what’s responsible for the creativity that’s filtered in since I had my beautiful daughters, dealt with PPD, and now this. The silver lining is a depth that is hard-won, and only possible to experience once you’ve seen that darkness. It allows me to see the light in ways that I never noticed before, because I didn’t have to. I see shreds of hope when it would be easy to decide all is lost.
I don’t want anyone to misunderstand: Anxiety doesn’t mean no happiness. It means a struggle to feel anything but fear. I have many, many happy moments and as I get better this time around, my awareness of them, my ability to feel them, increases.
Why am I sharing this, both the photo project and the rambling explanations? I share because it’s cathartic. If I get some of it out, maybe my mind will feel like it doesn’t need to hold onto so much of it. I don’t want or need sympathy, I want this disorder to be met with more knowledge and understanding. I don’t want special treatment, in fact I want to be treated as the same person everyone who knows me, has always known, because I’m still her.
I share it because millions of people suffer with it. Because every single time I talk about PPD or anxiety, my DMs and email inbox are filled with messages from people who tell me they identify and don’t feel so alone. Because I want people to know it’s OK to talk about it, and OK to talk to me if they want.
Living with anxiety, I am still valuable, a damn good mother, wife, and photographer. We are capable people and mental health issues, as long as we do the work, don’t diminish that.
I share this because I’m alright, and there may be more times where I’m less than alright again in the future, but I’ll get through them. Anxiety is a secret panic that can feel so lonely; I don’t want it to feel lonely. We’re in this life together and I want to help.
And because vulnerability builds bridges.