I wanted to do something special to celebrate my blog turning one, and for some weeks now I’d wanted to post something from the perspective of a parent whose child is dealing with anxiety. Having no children myself, let alone any children with anxiety, I saw an opportunity to get another person involved with this particular post. The closest person to me who has some experience with the issue is of course my mother.
Mum was kind enough to give me half an hour of her time, and we sat down and chatted for half an hour. I had five questions for her, which I hoped would give me more insight into her perspective. I definitely wasn’t anticipating a lot of the stuff we ended up talking about, but I’d say it was good for both of us. Below is the transcript of our conversation. If you suffer from anxiety, hopefully this will give you some insight into what it can be like for the parents of anxiety-sufferers. And if you’re a parent of an anxious child, hopefully this will help you to feel less alone.
BETH: What’s it like having a child with anxiety?
MUM: Well, when you don’t know that the child’s got anxiety, then it’s very difficult. Because the child spends a lot of time covering it up and you think she’s fine and she’s not. And then other things become the focus of the issue, like irritable bowel syndrome or other illnesses that might pop up and then we’re dealing with those but actually they’re not the focal part of the problem.
Beth: Like… anxiety was the catalyst for those, but maybe you didn’t know there was a catalyst?
M: Yep, that’s right.
B: So it’s not like [IBS, other health issues] weren’t things…
M: No, but they were distractions from the real thing. But of course [I] didn’t know that the real thing was there because [my child] was lying to [me].
B: Rekt. [laughs] I wouldn’t have said lying so much as omitting the truth…
M: [laughs] That’s true. Well, the other thing that was frustrating was that [I was] trying to get [my child] to go and see a doctor and she wouldn’t. So that was difficult. But you can’t live someone else’s life, and she was an adult, and if she wants to go and do that with her life, that’s what it is. And so sometimes it’s very hard to stand on the sidelines and watch all this going on, knowing that there’s very little you can do about it. Especially when she’s still getting good grades at university. So there was that.
And then after the diagnosis it was a lot easier, because we all knew what we were dealing with.
B: Well, after you knew about the diagnosis.
B: How was it easier?
M: Well, because we knew what we were dealing with. So, [I knew] why [you were] not doing this thing or that thing or the other thing. And, it was a lot better because finally it was all out in the open and [I thought] that [you] were getting good help from the doctor. There was still a lot of resistance from the child, one would have to say, about what she wanted to do about this illness. But then she started a blog, and that made a big difference because clearly she was really thinking of getting better from the illness if that’s even possible. Or at least learning to manage it properly.
B: What did it feel like to find out that your daughter has anxiety?
M: Well, actually it was something of a relief… [laughs] because we knew what we were dealing with. And we knew something was wrong for a time, or at least I did, and you wouldn’t bloody go and get help. And so [finding out] was good, actually.
B: On my blog I talked about the reasons why I didn’t go get help.
M: Yes, that’s right. And like I said before, you can’t live somebody else’s life. You have to wait until they’re ready.
B: And that’s not an excuse for why I didn’t get help it’s an, uh, explanation. And I always say to people now, don’t do what I did and wait forever.
M: But you see some of those blogs and videos and things that you’ve shown me on the Internet, this person lived with it for five years, seven years, nine years or whatever before they got themselves sorted out. That’s just nuts!
B: So I actually… In terms of lots of the stories and things I’ve heard, [I made] a pretty quick turnaround to be honest.
M: And that might be a reflection of the times that we live in. Also changing attitudes of people. Don’t forget that there were people who suffered from anxiety and depression when I was your age, and nobody got any help because you just “got on with it”. That’s what you were supposed to do, you were supposed to just get on with it.
B: Yeah. Because it wasn’t… people didn’t really see it as a thing.
M: No. Nobody saw it as a thing.
B: No-one understood it the way it’s understood today.
M: Nobody thought that you could make it any different. Although interestingly, like I think it was just as common for university students to get depressed and all that kind of stuff when I was at university […] but most of them just sort of dealt with it. And I remember once, going to something or other with some woman saying, “It’s quite common for students to get depressed, and do you know what depression is? Depression is when you think you’re in a corner and there’s no way out. So the best way of helping yourself is to find some way out. That is to say, just do something. Don’t do nothing. Do something, anything. It’s better than nothing.” So when I got depressed, I went and signed up for a driver’s license because I thought that’s what she meant. I took driving lessons.
B: Did it work?
M: It actually helped, yes it did. Because I got some control back on my life. And that’s what she was talking about, she was talking about taking control.
B: What’s been the best thing about me having anxiety?
M: The best thing? What’s good about a mental illness?
B: Well… I don’t know, I think…
M: Actually, probably the best thing is your changing attitudes about it. And your increasing openness to try different ways of dealing with it, other than just being reliant on the drugs. Because my personal opinion is that the drugs will not fix you long-term. Eventually you will have to find ways of managing it that allow you, and you may never do that, but allow you to function without having to be reliant on drugs.
B: You can say “what’s good about having a mental illness?” and on the whole it’s a pretty shitty thing, but there’s lots of things that have happened to me because of it that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
M: But most of them only happened to you because of it, because you decided you wanted to learn to manage it.
B: What about all those stories I wrote in second year?
M: Oh yeah, all those stories.
B: I would have had nothing to talk about otherwise.
M: [laughs] That’s true, okay so let’s talk about the creative side. And the thing I said to you when you first went on the drugs was that I was concerned about that because I thought it might dull your creativity. And indeed, in the last year you have changed in your creativity. You’re not doing those stories anymore.
B: Isn’t that good though?
M: I don’t know whether it’s good or not. Many people who are creative do struggle with a slightly unhinged mind, and you know that.
B: Yeah. I did a blog post on it. [pause] Links below. Subscribe.
M: [laughs] Gotta get the subscription up a bit. [pause] Not everyone who’s highly creative, but many many people…
B: It’s very common. And I, you know, you read that post I’m sure. And it’s interesting because we don’t know what came first, the chicken or the egg. Are highly creative people more likely to be mentally ill, or are they more likely to talk about their mental illness?
B: I feel like… my creativity hasn’t disappeared since taking the drugs. But I just have a different approach because now I’m not… fucked up.
M: [laughs] You’re not struggling to understand what’s going on inside your head.
B: Oh, this is kind of related to what you were saying before. How do you feel about me being on medication for a mental illness?
M: I would have to say that I don’t really like it. But I understand that it’s made you get to where you are. So I put it down as being a necessary evil. But I am a bit concerned that you had to go up in your dose, and I am concerned that at some point in the future you might need to up your dose again. And I would hate to see [that], because I think that it will blunt your ability to be productive in society.
B: Really? Do you mean like I’d just become a zombie?
M: Yeah, well [my sister] was on Prozac for a long time and I don’t know what the dose was…
B: I’m not on Prozac.
M: I know, but that’s another one of those drugs isn’t it. And that’s my other experience with that sort of thing. And she didn’t care about anything. She didn’t care about anything. And I think that actually, it didn’t help her cope with her multiple sclerosis very well. Because she didn’t care.
B: Are you seeing that in me, though?
M: No I’m not seeing that in you. Which is fine. But […] I also read quite a bit about it on the Internet when you first went on [antidepressants], and there’s quite a lot of professional people – and I don’t even know if it was the majority – but a significant number of professional people thought that, for something like anxiety, finding ways of retraining your brain long-term was more effective than relying on a drug. Because there’s an amount of brain-retraining that needs to happen.
B: I mean, it’s more ideal for me, but at this stage I’m not that fussed really [about staying on the drugs]. Because they have made a huge difference.
M: Oh, heck yeah. Nobody’s saying that they haven’t. [But] the problem with taking medication long-term is it tends to be less effective as time goes on. And that’s also true of people who suffer with chronic pain. You know, they have to go on higher and higher doses of medication to deal with the pain sometimes. And that there are actually ways you can manage pain mentally. You can train your brain to ignore it. But it does take a certain kind of person to do that.
B: It also takes hella dollars to go to the therapy.
M: Yeah, yeah it does.
B: But you know, that’s probably the next step from this point eh.
M: Well, I don’t know […] you have to make that decision. I can’t live your life for you. I would encourage you to try it, because it is seen to be effective. But […] if you do it because [I told you to] then it’s gonna fail. You have to do it because you think you want to try it.
B: Last question… Do you have any other advice for parents going through the same thing [having a child with anxiety]?
M: Just be there for them, and don’t tell them what to do. Because it’s their life, you can’t live it for them.
B: Do you think that a degree of encouragement in a healthy direction is good?
M: Oh hell yeah. You should be telling them every other day they should be going and seeking professional help. Possibly every day.
B: [laughs] Isn’t that telling them what to do?
M: No it’s not. It’s giving them advice. Because like you said yourself in your blog, that’s the best advice you got, and eventually you listened to it.
B: I think you just have to give them all the encouragement you can, and then eventually hope they’ll come around to the idea like I did.
M: There’s a difference between saying what you think they should be doing, and actually making the doctor’s appointment and bundling them into the car and driving them down there.
B: They have to – like, okay. Provided they’re not in a life-threatening position –
M: Or they’re not threatening you.
B: Yeah. [Except for in those cases] they have to get there on their own. And you can’t help someone that doesn’t wanna help themselves. […] For a long time, I just was waiting for it to go away. And I was in denial that it was something that I could fix. I just didn’t understand it. But it finally got to the point where I was like this is… I’ve had enough. This is not going away. And then it slowly got better. So you’d just say to be there for them but don’t force them to do anything?
M: Yes. And don’t accept outrageous behaviour from them. People still have to function in society.
B: Obviously anxiety is on the light end of the scale, actually, in terms of mental illness. Depending on what you’ve got, some people will find it a lot harder to…
M: Oh yeah, definitely. But when you’re the people around that person that’s doing that, you’ve got to treat them as much as you can like they’re a regular person. And not start allowing them to get away with outrageous behaviour, because it doesn’t help. It’s like What Katy Did. She was allowed to lie upstairs in her room with a sore back for years and be a complete little miss, until somebody had had enough and told her she was just being selfish. So there’s a difference between being mentally ill and being selfish. And [it’s] really hard to find the dividing line.
B: Yeah. A degree of selfishness can be good, so long as it’s productive selfishness like, I’m gonna have this day for myself because I don’t feel well… Sometimes you need to be a bit selfish to look after [yourself]. But if you’re being selfish in a destructive way…
M: Yeah, or if you’re being selfish all the time, then you’re just indulging yourself.
B: [laughs] Yeah, [for example] every day is a mental health day.
M: And even people who are supposedly “mentally well” need days for themselves. If you’re lucky enough to live in the first world where you can do that, then that’s good. If you’re unlucky enough to live on the edge of starvation all the time, then of course nobody gets those breaks.
B: That’s very true. We’re very lucky.
M: Yes. We are lucky.
Thank you to my lovely mummy for taking the time to talk to me about a subject which is not always pleasant to discuss. I learnt a lot from our conversation and I’m thankful we can talk openly and honestly about it.