Growing up, my dad worked second shift, which meant we saw him long enough to exchange a brief, “hello, how was your day” when we came home from school, and then he went off to work until long past our bedtimes.
Being the burgeoning insomniac that I was, I was, nonetheless, often awake when he came home, though of course I wasn’t going to let him know that (uhh, he probably knew anyway. You aren’t that clever, Ten-year-old Me). I’d lie in bed, reading Disney Adventures and listening to the faint sounds of the History Channel – or, on some nights, The Marx Brothers – and the faint clinking of his fork on his plate as he ate the dinner my mom left out for him.
It was a comforting ritual during a time that was never especially comfortable for me.
Night time was never easy. Even as a kid, the absolute silence and solitude meant that there was little to distract me from whatever was going on in my head, and despite being a fairly happy kid, those goings-on were often fairly dark. I didn’t know the term “intrusive thoughts” at the time, but looking back, that’s what they were – suicidal ideation, thoughts of harm coming to my family (from outside sources, or worse, from me), frightening images, taboo thoughts.
Almost inevitably, I could feel my body respond, and the physical manifestations of my anxiety were as far beyond my control as the psychological. Basically, I would be fine until I wasn’t. I’d suddenly take a breath, and it would feel somehow insufficient – like I wasn’t quite filling up my lungs, as though something was keeping me from drawing in enough air. So I’d breathe deeper, again; and again, that same sensation. My palms would start to sweat and my stomach would sink. Sitting still felt like a resignation to death, so I would have to get up, move, do anything I could to distract myself. So many nights I was convinced that I was either losing my mind or dying – I’m not sure which one scared me more.
As an adult, with both personal and professional interest in mental health, I now recognize most of my childhood issues as symptomatic of anxiety, but at the time – and without the knowledge of where or why I might be having these thoughts – they often literally kept me up at night. Any vestige of normalcy or routine – those worn out issues of Disney Adventures, a tape of my favorite music, the sound of my dad’s car pulling into the driveway, his Marx Brother’s tape on the TV – was grounding. It helped to chase away the feeling of depersonalization and unreality the invariably accompanied the worst of these attacks. It meant life was going on, is as it always did. It meant things would be okay.
As I got older, those security items changed. I moved from Disney Adventures to Dragonball Z mangas, from Disney soundtracks to musical theatre librettos, from my dad’s Marx Brother’s videos to my own copies of old Monty Python episodes (taped off of PBS when they still aired such things). Nothing, including the knowledge I gained about what was actually happening to me during these episodes, ever made the attacks go away, but they made coping infinitely easier, and definitely alleviated the severity of the symptoms.
The other thing that helped was finding out that I wasn’t alone.
I don’t remember how old I was or what the context was – maybe it was New Year’s Eve, and my dad was settling in to watch the Marx Brother’s marathon that aired on TV every year – but my mother expressed exasperation at the frequency with which she’d be woken up to the Marx Brother’s when my had had a “bad night.”
“And it was always the same movie,” she lamented. “And the same damn part of the movie – ‘Hurray for Captain Spaulding, the African explorer!’“
It turned out that those nights I woke up to my dad watching the Marx Brother’s, it wasn’t something that he’d found on TV. It wasn’t different movies or shorts every night.
It was the same videotape. The same movie. For the same reason.
My dad had been having anxiety attacks for years. Those movies were his anchors, just like Monty Python and Disney and manga were mine.
I don’t remember when he told me; my history with anxiety stretches back nearly twenty-five years at this point, and my memory and sense of time are shit to begin with, but I know it wasn’t when I first started exhibiting symptoms. My mom, when I came to her in tears, panicking, was always supportive, don’t get me wrong, but she didn’t tell me about my dad – not right away. Not in those early days.
I don’t remember when they told me. But I wish it had been earlier.
I have a son, now. I also have a history of anxiety and OCD-symptoms, at least some of which apparently run in my family. My husband has ADHD , sensory processing issues, and a family history of depression. The odds of my son dealing with some sort of mental health issue in his life seems astoundingly likely. I want him to know – up front, right away – that he’s not alone. I want him to not have to suffer through those lonely early years, lying in bed alone, thinking he’s losing his grip on reality, thinking he’s dying. I want him to have a better defense against it than worn-out video tapes and magazine back-issues.
How do I bring these things up organically, especially since I mostly grew out of my anxiety attacks (though I still deal with anxiety)? How do I let him know how to cope with what might be in store without causing him to fear what may or may not ever be a real issue for him?