Mom, Interrupted When You’re a Mom with Anxiety Disorder, You Know the Monsters Are Real
I have such immense anxiety. It sweeps me up into its furious winds. And my kids are at the middle of the storm.
This is Mom, Interrupted , a monthly column by Katie Rose Pryal about family life, mental illness, and raising disabled kids as a disabled parent.
It’s the Fourth of July Celebration for our neighborhood, and everyone in my family—including Six, and his brother Eight—have gotten ice cream from the ice cream truck. My husband and the boys came on their bikes. I joined them in my car. There are lots of people around, our friends and their kids. My sister is there, with her kids and her husband. We’re all enjoying ourselves.
And then, suddenly, Six is gone. Just gone.
If you’ve ever had a kid wander off, then you know what this feels like. The world has tilted sideways, and you are about to fall off of it into the void.
I dash to the pool. Sure, there are lifeguards, but they’re not as a good as me. They’re teenagers, more interested in flirting than guarding. My husband: “I already checked the pool.” I don’t tell him what I’m about to do. I walk a lap around the pool, scanning for a small body on the bottom, for a small body floating among the many people playing.
My husband jogs up to me as I exit the pool gates. “His bike is gone.”
A surreal calm has enclosed me. My heart feels like it is beating very slowly. I’ve always wondered how I would act in a real crisis—now, I know. I ask the director of our pool club to send an email to the neighborhood listserv, alerting everyone to Six’s disappearance. “He’s on a blue bike wearing a light blue helmet,” I say. She sends the email. I ask others around me to search places they think he might be. Then I start walking toward the fishing pond across the street.
On my way, I spot a flash of blue in the grass, as blue as a robin’s egg. My son’s bike helmet. I pick it up and clutch it to me. I continue walking toward the pond. Six is a good swimmer. I’ve made sure of that. But kids drown, so I have to check. I have to put my eyes on the water, walk the perimeter, check.
I don’t know how much time has passed since we realized Six was missing. It could have been five minutes. It could have been an hour.
I’m almost to the pond when my phone rings. “I found him. I have him.” It’s my brother-in-law. He found Six at my parents’ house. Six biked there looking for his Mimi and Pop-Pop. When he arrived, no one was home because they are out of town.
I say, “Thank you, please bring him to me,” and then I hang up. I drop my phone, and the bike helmet, and then I fall to my knees on the sidewalk, sobbing. All of the emotions that I couldn’t feel before flood in, and I know two things in that moment: I don’t want my children to see me like this. And I don’t know whether my body is capable of withstanding motherhood.
I’m talking with a close friend, a friend who has anxiety disorder like I do, a friend who is also a mother and a writer. She says, “To write, I have to pretend no one will ever read a single word of what I’ve written. Or I can’t make myself do it at all.”
As we talk, I wonder if people with anxiety should be writers. When I really think about it, it seems like a terrible idea.
I have such immense anxiety. It sweeps me up, does not let me go. And my kids are at the middle of the storm.
I’m not romanticizing mental illness and creativity here; anyone who knows me at all knows I can’t stand the fantasy of the tortured mad genius. I’ve written scholarly articles and as well as screeds about it. I cheered when Hannah Gadsby, in Nanette, did her bit about van Gogh and the color yellow. But there are terrible side effects of being an anxious writer—they’re a bit like the effects of being an alcoholic (which I’m not romanticizing, either, and with which I also have experience). For example, time will pass, and you won’t remember what happened, but you’ll wake up one morning and there’s something you did months ago now published on the internet. The regret can be debilitating.
Then there’s the way the inside of your brain comes flying out of your mouth—or typing fingers—in ways that you often can’t predict or even control. And then, after, your words will have consequences that can seem completely unrelated to the words themselves (but usually aren’t). In anxieta veritas .
I can’t tell if I want people to read what I’ve written. I write thousands and thousands of words, books and books, and one of my biggest fears is that something will be a hit. Make a list. Go viral. That happened once—I had a massively viral essay. And I still get a tight chest when I think about it. I don’t know what I would do with continued, close attention on my writing, on my family, on me.
I’ve told this same friend: I want to sell just enough books to be able to keep writing more. Any more than that and the fear would overwhelm my ability to write at all.
I ask Six—now Seven—why he ran away from that Fourth of July party last summer. “I wanted to visit Mimi and Pop-Pop’s,” he says. “I wanted to play Mario Kart, and they’re the only house that has it.”
But what about the party? Wasn’t that fun? No: “I was bored.”
Seven, like lots of kids who are highly intelligent and who have ADHD, gets bored easily. In some situations, he struggles with following directions. Either he forgets the directions and ends up doing something else—that’s what happened on the Fourth of July; in the chaos of the party, he simply forgot to tell us that he wanted to go to his grandparents’—or he thinks the person giving directions is being “bossy” (his word) and wants to do whatever it is his own way, which he believes is better.
I was a lot like Seven when I was young: independent, stubborn, strong-willed to the point of exasperation. In retrospect, I hated being a kid, at least this part of it, with all of the adult restrictions wrapped around me like so much wire. The happiest times I remember were when I took off to play in the forest, or by the pond, alone. There, I was never bored. I had the entire world.
It’s early. Seven has come from his bed to climb into bed with me for morning snuggles. Finally, I get up to take the boys to school. I tell Seven he needs to git , the word I use to tell the dog to get off of the sofa or the bed. I’m from the South, sort of, and there are a few words that are always going to charm me. “Git” is one of them.
“Git,” I say to Seven, who is flopping around in my bed, hiding under the covers.
“Get?” he says.
“No,” I say. “ Git .” I spell it.
“Is that an acronym? Or is it an initialism?” he asks.
As a disabled parent, you know those monsters intimately. You know what your disabled kids will face.
I laugh so hard I start to cry. He smiles, knowing he’s said something to make me happy. But he isn’t sure if his words warranted this strong of a reaction. You know the look, the smile that starts to fade into the drawn brows of concern.
“Baby,” I say. “What’s the difference?”
And then he tells me, precisely and accurately: “An acronym is a word made up of the first letters of other words but you say it like a new word. An initialism is just the initials. No new word.”
Of course he knows. You doubt Seven to your detriment.
You can imagine how complicated it can be to be Seven’s mother. On the one hand, he absorbs knowledge, bloody well yearns for it. On the other, he can’t seem to follow his teacher’s directions at school, even at the school where we pay obscene amounts of money for him to be a class with a one-to-four teacher-to-student ratio, and all of the students are like him. Exceptional. In two ways.
We worked hard to get Seven (and his brother Nine) into this school so that they could be in a place that’s safe. A place where their educational needs could be met. A place that I figured was prepared for students like Seven, so that I could finally let go of my anxiety.
Instead, I find myself in the same place I’ve been all these years. On the receiving end of endless emails and phone calls. Worried and wondering whether this time, this week, they’ll tell me it’s the final straw. Whether we’ll have to find yet another new school for Seven and Nine.
We receive yet another message from school about Seven. It’s like all of the others, that he didn’t follow directions, that he wanted to do things his way. This time, it’s about math. He wanted to do fractions in reverse (I don’t understand what that means, but okay), not the way the teacher insisted he do them. This is a common refrain. One of the reasons we sent him to this special school was so that he’d have teachers who would know how to work with kids like Seven. It’s hard knowing that even there, he doesn’t fit.
Finding a place where Seven fits seems like a matter of luck, instead: Whether an adult will see his creative problem-solving as a benefit or a detriment. Whether an adult will see how easy it is to get him to do something your way, by asking, rather than telling. Seven isn’t easy, but he isn’t hard, either. He usually just wants to know why. He wants to make his number charts look like spaceships. But wanting to know why often gets him sent to the hallway, alone. It’s killing him. It’s killing me.
When we get the email from the school, I look to my husband. He shrugs, unruffled as he always is, able to take in this information about his kid and keep going, filing the news about Seven in a storm-proof partition in his mind. Later, he’ll take the information out again and deal with it.
“How is this not bothering you?” I say, desperately needing to know his secret. “How is the worry not consuming you? Because I need to know how you do it.”
How can my husband be hit by the same barrage of notices about our children, and not be tortured like I am? This torture is the difference between a parent who has anxiety and a parent who does not. In my mind, one email about math becomes probation becomes expulsion—the path is as inevitable as it is clear. My bayou grandmother, were she still with us, would tell me that I’m borrowing trouble. My psychiatrist would say that I’m ruminating. All I know is that when an email arrives from school, I’m out of sorts for the rest of the day, unable to work or even to think about anything but the ugly potential consequences that my mind creates, each one a small, poisonous gift.
For years, the calls and emails were so frequent that my husband had the school put him down as the primary contact. He filtered through notices, only sharing the direst ones with me. We didn’t think we’d need this special plan with our kids’ new school. We were wrong.
My kids are so incredible. I would change nothing about them. The world we live in, though? It might break me.
Every time I get a notice about something someone thinks my child has done wrong, again, I want to rip my family away from here, wrap myself around them like a giant raptor with wings the size of the world, fly them to a place where no one lives but us, and nestle them there, where they can grow and learn and become the people that they will be. There, they can thrive.
There, I won’t be tortured by fear for them.
I take such immense joy in my kids. They are so incredible. I would change nothing about them. The world we live in, though? It might break me. I have such immense anxiety. It swirls around me like the hurricanes we get here every summer and fall. It sweeps me up into its furious winds. It does not let me go. And my kids are at the middle of the storm.
Sometimes I wonder if I can survive that storm. My brain isn’t my friend on those days. Those days, I set aside everything I need to do—work, responsibilities, everything—and just withstand.
Perhaps, like writing, anxiety does this to mothering: With my seemingly boundless emotions and desire to protect, my love for my children unending, and my anxiety—which needs no trigger to knock me on my ass—if you hand me the trigger that is real, the one that is my children, I am in pieces.
How can I possibly hold it together? And yet I do. Because the one thing I swore I would be for my children is steady. Reliable. And so, against everything my brain throws at me, I have turned myself into a mother my children can count on every day. We walk to school. I meet them in the afternoons. When a teacher asked my son Nine who knows him best, he said me. And I thought: I’ve done my job. I’m doing it.
And every day, still, the anxiety pounds at me.
I see my children, my perfect imperfect children, whom the world often cannot see as anything but problems, and I know that, when it comes to them, my anxiety isn’t just my disorder talking. My fear has substance. There is a monster in the closet. It’s the world that doesn’t accept people like them. Like me.
Writing as an anxious person is tough. Mothering as an anxious person is also tough. Writing about motherhood as an anxious person is just asking for trouble.
That day I lost Six on the Fourth of July, I knew what anxiety and motherhood could do to me. If I’m not careful, they can wreck me. But I don’t want to make parenting decisions out of fear, and I don’t want to grow so anxious that I can’t enjoy the beauty my children bring to my life.
So my husband will filter those school emails for me, because really, most of them aren’t worth my time. I will keep my appointments with my doctor, and take my medicine when I’m supposed to instead of muscling through (or failing to). I will take care of myself so that I can be the mother my children need.
Because that’s what it takes to be disabled with disabled kids—to be a parent, perfectly imperfect, in a world filled with toothy monsters. As a disabled parent, you know those monsters intimately. You know what your kids will face. For them, you will figure out a way, because you have to. They need you to show them how.