It’s a conscious decision, that first attempt at a deep breath, the one that helps me understand before my feet even hit the floor what the day will bring. Inhaling, I close my eyes and pray for the extended intake, filling my lungs and allowing the rest of my body to relax.
Many days I instead receive the jolt of a sudden stop, my body not able to receive actual life-giving air, fighting what sustains me.
Those latter days, they don’t usually go well.
“I feel like I’m drowning,” I tell my husband repeatedly before seeing the trend. Other declarations come in the form of:
“I can’t breathe.”
“It just feels like I’m going under.”
But instead of being surrounded by water, I am surrounded by my life, a first-world charmed one at that: supportive husband, four healthy children, work-at-home mom who writes in between raising children. Sinking into this life should not feel like dying, like suffocating.
Some days it still does.
Perusing my past medical records, I doubt the word anxiety would ever be found. That’s why I search everywhere else in my subconscious for a problem I haven’t dealt with, a source for the feeling of impending doom hanging over me.
Empty handed, I finally look back and see the path. People described me as a nervous child. My irrational fears were like any child’s, but I had nightmares about them that made me wake up screaming.
In my 20s, I walked the parking lot of my apartment at two in the morning, a building where gunshots, fires, and other lawless mischief occurred frequently. My fear was not that something would happen to me out there, but that if I stayed in my apartment one second longer, I would literally die of a cause unknown, my skin crawling, heart racing, body ready for fight or flight, yet not able to name the actual threat.
When my first child was born, I passed the postpartum assessment with flying colors because the questions were a variation of do you want to hurt yourself or hurt your child. What they did not ask me was whether I was so afraid something else might hurt my child that I stayed up all night holding her, forgoing sleep for weeks.
They didn’t ask about the first day I dropped her off at daycare, when I cried so hard I made myself vomit then stared at pictures of her until I finally picked her up four hours early. They didn’t ask if I spent most of my time wondering how in the world I thought myself capable of protecting her. Postpartum anxiety was not on the radar back then.
Now I don’t know what I fear, what brings the anxiety on. Maybe hormones, maybe the responsibility of four children I fear not being able to protect. It’s possible the demands of these same four individuals steal my breath as I already know that, even on a good day, I won’t make everyone happy.
Whatever it is, it creeps in and surrounds me, and I spend many days just trying to crawl back to the surface.
“Can you explain it?” he asks, and I look into my husband’s eyes knowing I have to say the word.
“I think, I’m not sure, but I think I’m having anxiety.” I rush on to explain. “But I don’t want to, and it sounds ungrateful, and it’s not every day.”
“The kids, they’re great, but they are a handful. I can understand feeling anxious,” he offers.
“I’m scared to actually say it, to give it a name.”
It takes some time to explain that the water of my life, the very things that sustain me – kids, schedules, people needing me – also threaten to take me under, bring on the whirlpool that makes the good suddenly bad and a simple day a trap.
There is no way to take one small sip in this phase of life; being a mom means being in the water at all times. With two school-aged kids, who are homeschooled, and two toddlers, treading water in the deep end is what I do with the majority of my time. The anxiety comes when I give out and go under.
How do you explain that it’s possible to drown in the things you love?
When I wake up, my intake of breath stops short. My heart rate is elevated. I hear someone already awake and asking for breakfast. I try again.
Still working on my breathing, I walk down the hall determined not to speak anything but cordial greetings until I can talk myself down. The temptation to snap at nothing is too strong when I’m anxious.
The coffee is brewing, and I have a second while the kids start doing art at the table. I name it.
Anxiety. That’s all this is. It’s as awful and real as I always knew, but it’s not going to stay in control. I can fight back, and I finally know what I’m fighting. To give it a name I take away some of its power.
It’s not a magic incantation, but naming the enemy is like pushing off the bottom of the pool, my body blasting through the water, arms and legs pumping. Sunlight shimmers right above me on the surface, and though I’m not sure when I’ll finally reach it, I know with every second I try, I’m moving closer to the next deep breath.