A couple of days ago I got a package from my mom, who had packed up some of my grandma’s cross stitch thread and sent it to me. Sure enough, when I opened it, I found embroidery floss tucked into little protectors in plastic sleeves that I could put in a binder, as expected. What I did not expect was seeing my grandma’s handwriting, labeling the colors. On some of them, she even indicated the part of the cross stitch she was using that color for. I’m pretty sure that I have some of the colors from a piece that she made for my mom of a girl on a swing; it sat on her bathroom counter and I looked at it every day as a kid.
I cried a little bit because my grandma passed away in 2014 and I never thought I’d see her handwriting again. But I also cried because she passed before I felt comfortable enough to share with her what was going on with the anxiety, and I regret that so much.
My grandma grew up on a farm and spent her whole life on one, and she died on the farm that she and my grandpa ran for over 50 years. She always took care of everything automatically; she saw what needed to be done, and she did it. She was always thinking of others and making every day moments memorable. She was funny, and smart, and had a thirst for knowledge: she used a kindle for much of the last decade or so of her life, and we have numerous pictures of her playing with our iphones. She passed down a lot of these qualities, and I’m grateful for them.
She also shared a lot of the same struggles that I do, but I didn’t discover this until she had passed. Just like me, she needed time to process things and, because of that, sometimes lost the opportunity to speak up for herself or to resolve something. She struggled with anxiety, too, though from what I can gather hers was more mild than mine. I wish I had shared with her what I was going through. She always knew the right thing to say, and I know that talking with her about it would have comforted me and deepened our relationship.
Over the course of my experiences with anxiety, I’ve learned that I have multiple family members who experience something similar. I didn’t find most of this out until I started speaking about my own experiences with it, and I’m so glad that I did. Something clicked for me with each new story I heard, with each person who reached out, and it really started to hit home that the anxiety is not my fault. It’s not something I chose. It’s something that has its roots in my genetic makeup – it’s another thing that has been passed down to me.
Anxiety is not a mood order, like depression. There are genetic factors, but anxiety can be managed by environmental adjustments, whereas depression is mostly chemical and sometimes requires physiological alteration via meds. (Though meds can certainly help anxiety and depression can be managed without meds.) Out of everything I’ve learned over the last couple of years, this is perhaps the biggest and most important. I have the power to shift my relationship with anxiety, and I have the ability to shape my environment to help lessen the intensity of anxiety. This is why I do yoga, and meditate, and go to therapy. This is why I write this blog. In doing all of these things, I’m managing and improving my relationship with anxiety.
And I wish that I’d been able to talk about all of this with my grandma, because I feel like it would have been so interesting and so helpful to talk about it with her. It would have brought us closer as we discovered more things we have in common. I also think that it would have helped both of us; so much of why anxiety and mood disorders are so hard is because we’re afraid to talk about them. And when we don’t talk about them we isolate ourselves and others and we miss opportunities to deepen our relationships. I so would have loved to share with my grandma all of the things I was learning and about my own experiences. I would have loved to share with her the TED talks and the articles and particularly, the words of Brene Brown. I would have loved to hear what she had to say in response, and I’m sure she would have agreed with Brene.
One of the things that Brene talks about in her book Daring Greatly is how the willingness to be vulnerable affects not only our romantic relationships, but the way we work and parent. This resonated with me a lot this year, because one of the things I worried about most when all of this started was my ability to parent while still dealing with anxiety. That idea in itself caused so much anxiety that, during the worst of it, I was actually questioning whether or not it was ethical to raise a child who was a depending on me, a person who sometimes cannot function for a few hours/days. And whether or not I should bring a child into this world when they would not only be subject to my heightened anxiety, but probably to their own as well.
The couple of months that I was ruminating about this series of thoughts were some of the most emotionally difficult I have ever been through. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a parent. I’ve felt that it was one of the most important things I would ever to with my life, and (not to sound too conceited) that I would do a great job. I have always wanted to know what it was like to be pregnant, and I have always wanted to know that I carried with me every day for nine months a physical manifestation of the love and commitment my partner and I had for each other. Never for a second had I ever doubted that being a parent is the best, bravest, most selfish and selfless thing I will ever do.
But the anxiety was so strong that, for a little while at least, I almost convinced myself that it was too strong. That I wouldn’t be able to parent, that I wouldn’t be able to be a good partner. I convinced myself that instead of having a few bad days every six months or so, the anxiety would exponentially grow when I became a parent and I would spend every day in varying states of anxiety and panic.
This is what anxiety does. Anxiety convinces you that you can’t do the things that you’ve dreamed of doing all your life. It persuades you to believe things that you know are impossible. It wheedles its way into your life and whispers in your ear, asking constantly, are you sure? what if? what if? what if? until it’s easier to give up than it is to keep trying to answer the question with conviction.
Conversely, though, the anxiety can also lead to a shift. For me, it got bad enough and made me felt hopeless enough that I eventually thought fuck it. I’m going to do it anyway and I’ll figure it out. Fortunately for me, I was reading Daring Greatly during the time I was questioning my life-long dream of being a parent, and I came across Brene’s Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto.
I can’t really describe the relief I felt as I read this. For the first time, someone was telling me that I could feel anxiety and still parent. That it was ok. That that, in fact, was desirable in some ways, because it meant that I had an opportunity to model vulnerability for my children. Feeling anxiety around my future children means that I’ll be able to teach them how to manage their anxiety, if they have it. It means that I can teach them about compassion, about self-care, about being honest and forthright even though it’s scary. In the past, I knew I wanted my children to be all of these things, but it wasn’t until I was confronted with how my own anxiety would affect my parenting that I really thought about how important it is to me to openly talk with my kids about these things. Obviously I don’t know yet how all of that is going to go down, but I do know that I don’t want anxiety to keep me from parenting with a willingness to be vulnerable. I want it to help me be a better parent, whenever I become one.
And I know that my grandma would have been really interested in the Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto. She kept a lot of things to herself, and would be evasive even when she was asked a direct question about her past or her emotions. Part of that is because I was her grandchild – I’m sure that she was more open with her husband and children – but part of it is because she was a very private person. And I inherited that from her, as well as my need to process and my unwillingness to speak out unless absolutely necessary. I wish I could talk to her now and tell her how glad I am that she cultivated the values of compassion and seflessness in our family, and to talk to her about self-care and vulnerability. I think we would have both felt relief and joy to talk about the fears and anxiety we felt. And I think we would have both learned something, and become better versions of ourselves.
And then we would have made a sweet cross stitch.