You see a cute family on the subway. I see a woman whose internal monologue sounds something like this: "Is that guy looking at my kids funny? What if Stella doesn't get off in time and the doors shut? Did somebody leave a backpack behind? I'm seeing something, SHOULD I SAY SOMETHING??? What if the museum is closed today? I should have checked. Did I pack extra pants for Sam? What if he has an accident? I can't believe we traveled so soon after his cold. What if he gets a massive sinus infection? OR WORSE? WHAT IF HE GETS SOMETHING WORSE? What if the train gets stuck? What if..."
I am in the middle of the sidewalk. Hands covering my ears. Kneeling, nearly in the fetal position. Screaming and rocking back and forth. "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!"
Except not really. What everybody else sees is a haggard mom, irritably nudging her daughter along the street, gruffly telling her husband to stop pushing the stroller so damned fast. I seem somewhat normal, somewhat together, but inside my head, I am losing it.
A lot of people don't really believe me when I say I have anxiety. "Sure, don't we all?" they reply, smiling knowingly. Or, "You seem to be doing alright."
Yes, I know I seem that way, but do you realize how much effort that deception takes?
We just got back from a trip to the New York City metro area to visit my in-laws and spend some time in Manhattan. All the work I've done in therapy trying to cope with my triggers was put to the test, as I was triggered about 4,000 times per day.
A 3 hour delay to Newark with a 3 year old and and an 8 year old on the spectrum. Lots of arguing over the iPad. Lots of child-free folks looking warily at Sam as he repeatedly lost his cool and slipped from our grasp. Sam looking at me seriously for a moment, saying, "Mama, the plane will crash and there will be lots of fire!" All while waiting for a plane that was having technical difficulties to be repaired.
The car rental place took over an hour to get us our car. We were late for dinner with my in-laws, and I HATE to be late. The only car seat they had for Sam (because I couldn't stand the idea of travelling another time with his clunker of a car seat) was decrepit and had a broken strap, meaning we had to secure it with the seat belt. That would have been OK, except Sam kept messing with the seat belt, causing it to come loose, causing me to envision a car wreck that would have sent him flying.
The hotel didn't have a pack and play for Sam. They only had an infant crib, which is way too small for Sam. The room couldn't fit a rollaway in addition to the two queen beds. Stella began to howl when we suggested that she share a bed with someone, because her autism spectrum disorder was already challenged in 101 ways by all the travel and changes to her routine. So Dave and I shared a little bed with our 3 year old, who sleeps like a dolphin trying to free itself from a trap, and was only interested in my side of the bed. Have I ever mentioned how crucial sleep is for my mental health? Well, it is. It really, really is.
Speaking of Sam, he's going through some sort of developmental phase that makes him want to crawl back inside my womb. Instead, he settles for being on my body 99% of the day. Eating meals on my lap, climbing on me like a jungle gym, squeezing my butt cheeks or pinching my thighs. He's rough and doesn't know his own strength, meaning I get physically hurt at least 25 times a day. We give him time outs and rewards for gentle behavior, but it doesn't seem to help.
New York City itself is one massive trigger for me, which is part of the reason we chose to move. Pushing a stroller down crowded sidewalks filled with people who automatically hate children puts me on edge. A constant barrage of loud noises. An insanely long wait for every single thing you try to do (eating, getting into a museum, going to the bathroom, checking out with your purchases). Kids who tire of walking after the first 5 miles. And dinner in a restaurant with no kids' menu and about 4 inches of space between the back of your chair and the next table, with waiters who won't split the check 5 different ways and who really want your kid to stop trying to be Ringo Starr with his chopsticks.
Trying to carry on a conversation with family you barely ever get to see while your threenager climbs under the table and sticks his hand up your shirt and tries to sling your hot food around the table. The embarrassment that comes when your mother-in-law, who's paying the bill, thinks she was accidentally charged for two glasses of chianti and you must explain that, no, the second glass kept you from losing your you-know-what in front of your in-laws who've rarely had to witness your dark side.
We got home Wednesday, after another series of delays. Sam wouldn't stop climbing on me and getting in my face, Stella wouldn't stop suddenly needing me to get something for her the moment I sat down. Our dog - who'd been well-taken-care-of in our absence, needed to live on top of me, and our cat wanted to make sure I knew how personally offended he was by our absence. And Dave, though trying to help in any way possible, couldn't seem to do what I wanted him to do, probably because I had no clue what I wanted him to do.
I shut down. I stopped responding to anyone. Sam became upset, Stella became a little freaked out. Dave, who's had a more intimate view of my anxiety that anyone one this planet, became wary.
"I love you guys, I really do, but I have to take a break," I declared. I felt myself march upstairs, draw a bath with the Lush bath products my friend Alex had gifted me, and put myself to bed at 8pm.
And, according to my therapist, that was exactly what I was supposed to do. What I really wanted to do was scream and break things and run out on the street and tell everyone how freaking impossible the past few days had been. I wanted to smack Sam's little hands when they got in my face and yell a swear word at Stella when she asked for a glass of water that she can get herself or scream bloody murder when Dave sat looking at his phone while our children swirled around me, acting as if he didn't exist.
I fought that urge. I checked out and took care of myself. And I feel almost normal now.
Still, as happy as I am that I've always functioned quite well in the world despite my anxiety, sometimes I wish I had the courage to let people see it. Maybe, if it could seep out slowly, I wouldn't have these massive build ups that mainly my poor family must endure. If I could admit to the general public that I need to go to the bathroom for 15 minutes to get away from the noise or to let myself cry when I find myself in a space so crowded I can barely move, maybe I could feel better.
Instead, I smile and make jokes, or get somewhat irritable, then save the worst stuff for the safety of my home.
But I'm making progress. Slowly, yet surely. And for that, I am truly grateful.
"Those people are really annoyed with us for taking up so much space while taking a picture. I hope nobody snags Sam in his stroller while Dave is taking the picture. Is this magical for the kids? I HOPE THIS IS MAGICAL FOR MY KIDS, DAMN IT! Why is that guy looking at us funny? THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE I CAN BARELY BREATHE. What time is dinner? What if the people who said they're coming bail on us? What if nobody likes us? What if..."