I hid from you. I hid from everyone that doesn’t live with me, and everything that did not require my urgent attention. I told myself I’d get to all of you, to my friends, my family, my responsibilities, the hobbies I enjoy, when I felt better. When I could be more myself and respond to the question ‘How have you been?’ with something more convincing than a hurried ‘I’m OK’ before changing to the next subject quickly. I rationalise in my head that if I say just ‘OK’, instead of ‘good’ then it isn’t a lie. If I tell myself I’m not lying, then perhaps you won’t see through me, and the way my voice cracks a little at the end of the sentence won’t draw your attention.
I have been struggling with anxiety lately. It’s always there, at best in the background of my mostly well functioning life, with hours and sometimes days of worries and panic, but mostly it subsides. I go back to feeling like I manage that shit and it’s just another thing on my list of stuff to deal with. Until that shit manages me.
When it’s bad it doesn’t leave after a few hours, or a day or two. I know it’s not good when the weeks pass and I start to feel worse each day. More hopelessness follows and an incapability of digging myself out of the hole that just seems to get deeper around me. My body starts to tie itself in knots and I get migraines and sick all the time.
My sleep is usually the first thing to suffer. It takes a while to figure out that it’s going to hell because the last time I slept well was sometime back in 2008. So I have to ask myself is this just regular shitty sleep situation, or is this mental health plummeting kinda shitty sleep situation? If it’s a mental health is taking a nose dive type of situation it usually involves me desperately asking my partner over and over ‘Why can’t I just fucking sleep?’ before bursting into tears. I know why they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture.
If I mention to other people that I am tired they smile knowingly and look at my toddler. I let them believe that she kept me up all night, even though she almost always sleeps through because it’s easier than explaining to them that I just can’t master this basic human function, despite ample opportunity for it. Plus other parents hate you when you tell them your kid sleeps through.
The feeling in my chest lately is always sore and tight. It hurts to breathe a lot of the time. It’s worse when I need to leave the house and be somewhere. My mind thinks up a thousand ways it could go wrong. Things I could forget to pack in the nappy bag that my toddler might need, public tantrums and judgmental stares and comments from strangers, arriving late, not finding parking, picking up a bug and having my family fall ill, bursting into tears in front of strangers and publicly embarrassing myself, dying in a car accident on my way somewhere because I was too distracted being so anxious to begin with to focus on my driving.
The list of responsibilities to people and tasks I need to complete grows. I tell myself that I will get to them soon. The days and weeks pass and the list grows longer and I feel buried. I am such a social person, but I find myself avoiding speaking to my friends, replying to texts and emails and avoiding opportunities to catch up with them. A part of me knows that maybe I might feel better if I saw them. Then I think, what do I have to offer them right now? Who wants to be around a person who really only has one thing to talk about? The same damn thing that I have been hurriedly mentioning in passing and brushing pasted since early this year. I can talk about other things of course. I can be interesting, I can crack jokes, I can be something other than someone who just complains about feeling dreadful every time I see them. If I harness all my energy I can do this.
Except if I use all my energy doing this, then I have nothing left to get me through the rest of the day. I have such little energy and I try my best to conserve it to help me through the day. If I use it all I have less left. Less left for my daughter, to spend hours playing with her, reading to her and singing songs with her. Less energy left to put on that high pitched happy voice that toddlers seem to love. My partner comes home and I find myself having the exact same conversation I have been having with her for years now. She patiently responds to all my worried questions and thoughts, and reassures me. I feel better but guilty for being a burden. The standard conversation usually involves these questions.
‘Why do I feel this way?’ Because <insert current stressful circumstances>
‘When will I feel better?’ Soon. It will be soon.
‘Will it ever go away?’ It will feel better than it does now.
‘When will I sleep again?’ We will get onto that.
‘Am I fucking our kid up?’ No, she’s fine, she’s great, just look at her. You’re doing great. We’re doing great with her.
‘Are you OK? I know seeing me like this stresses you out too.’ I’m OK, I’m just worried about you.
‘Stop worrying, I’m fine. I will be fine. It will all be fine soon, very soon. It’s not that bad really, it just looks bad.’ You’re not OK. I’m worried about you.
‘You’re stressing me out with your worrying. Stop worrying so much.’ OK, but I just want to fix it for you.
‘I know you want to fix it but you can’t.’ But I want to.
‘I’m sorry for always being this way.’ It’s OK.
‘I’m sorry I’m such a dud.’ You’re not a dud. Well maybe a little, but I love you anyway. I can’t return you to the store where I got you anyway because I lost my receipt.
‘I don’t know why you stay with someone like me.’ Because I love you, and you’re great.
‘I’m sorry my being this way ends up costing us so much money.’ Don’t worry about it, we’re good, stop feeling guilty and just focus on getting better.
‘ Thank you for being patient and having this conversation with me for the millionth time.’ It’s OK, do you feel better now?’
‘Yeah, a little.’
She’s the only one I have this conversation with. For every time I’ve had this conversation with her I have had it inside my own head a thousand times. When my mind’s a mess and full of doubts and worries I replay her calm assured voice replying to my fears. During my pregnancy I managed to get a pretty good handle on my anxiety. I was sharing my body with another growing human, and I figured that no amount of appearing fine on the outside was going to mask the symptoms of anxiety that my body produced which fed directly into the body of the tiny human in my belly. When I was doing really well I managed to turn her reassuring voice in my head into my own voice, and I actually listened to it. For the first time in my life I found a way to soothe myself.
Unfortunately my pregnancy zen wore off once my body went back to being my own again. Now, my own voice replying to my fears isn’t really good enough, I have to imagine my wife’s. It helps to keep having the same conversation over and over again in my head, and sometimes in person, to remind myself that it will feel better soon.
It will feel better soon. It doesn’t feel good now. I feel icky and shitty and guilty and sad and scared of everything. I feel stupid for feeling that way, and frustrated. It will leave eventually, it will subside and I will feel better. I know it because it has before and it will again.
Until then I will continue to find room in the parts of my body and my mind to enjoy my family and my life. There are moments where I can breathe for a minute and it doesn’t hurt. I can laugh sometimes and it doesn’t feel forced. I can look at my daughter’s smiling face and feel the deepest joy and gratitude I’ve ever known. There is still room for that.
I am going to use the room I have left inside of me on those things. For now, not forever. Just until I feel a little better.
I still have room inside of me to feel joy when I see this beautiful face grinning at me.