I’m A Dad With Anxiety And I’m Trying To Help My Youngest Daughter With Hers

Nov 28, 2019

I’ve always worried. When I was a kid I found out about death and it kept me up at night. I’d lay there staring out the window, at the vastness of the evening sky, and think about eternity. Kind of heavy for a kid, but the act of worrying is a part of me.

My anxiety grew as I grew. After high school, I developed a rapid heartbeat. My doctor told me that I’d grow out of it, but I was convinced something was wrong with my heart. Almost 20 years ago, when my heartbeat wouldn’t slow down after an Ultimate game, my friend took me to the hospital. Doctors had to cardiovert me. They called it “rebooting” my heart. It turned out I was right. I had a heart condition that was eventually corrected via catheter ablation.

That was probably the worst thing that could’ve happened.

Not my heart getting fixed, but me being right. Suddenly, I knew more than doctors. I used to have a constant pressure headache and I spent almost every minute worrying that I had a brain tumor. I was right. I had to be. I’d been right about my heart.

Advice from the Psychology Foundation of Canada: Strategies For Parenting Kids Who Have Anxiety

It all came to a head 10 years ago when I had a nervous breakdown. It was all the worry I’d carried for years. It was my youngest daughter, Lauren, being born. It was my grandmother dying. It was moving to a new house. It was starting a new job. It was the fact that all of these significant life changes happened within three months of each other.

I called an ambulance twice within two months and spent the next six months mostly in bed, forcing myself to go to work because if I didn’t, my family would be in financial trouble. At work I’d sit at my desk, stare at the cubicle wall and wait for the day to end.

Anxiety is an entity that follows you around and whispers in your ear that you’re not good enough, that something awful is going to happen.

I’ve tried to describe how it feels to suffer from anxiety. I’ve failed each time. All I can really say is that when it’s bad, it’s unrelenting, and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody.

At the peak of my breakdown, my wife came into our bedroom and asked me to get groceries. My struggles had left so much on her plate, and this time, there was too much.

“I can’t go,” I said. “I’ll die.”

I thought I’d have a heart attack. Those two ambulances were for what I thought were heart attacks. I hadn’t walked far for months. Walking around a grocery store? Forget it.

Then, my wife asked me something that would change my life: “How do you want to live?”

Anxiety is an entity that follows you around and whispers in your ear that you’re not good enough, that something awful is going to happen. It’ll present the worst possible outcome for the most benign situation. What my wife taught me that night was to not listen to it. It may still whisper in my ear, but that doesn’t mean it controls what I do. It may make me feel awful physical symptoms, but that doesn’t mean I have to let those symptoms prevent me from living.

When I listen to it, it grows. It gets worse. When I don’t, it starves. It gets smaller.

A Mom's POV on her experience: My Anxiety Makes Me Feel Like A Bad Parent

Lauren has anxiety. It’s been passed down. My mom has anxiety, too. Over the years, I’ve learned strategies that have helped me. In turn, my wife and I have taught those same strategies to Lauren.

I share my mental health struggles in the talks I give. I even write about it. I have found that sharing my struggles helps me to heal and feel less alone. I’ve met so many others who also have anxiety. This combats the feeling of isolation, and the belief that nobody could possibly know or understand what I’m going through.

Talking about [anxiety], just like sharing it, helps to heal from it. To feel less alone, and less afraid.

When Lauren is afraid of something, it’s obvious. She might shake. She might cry. She might ball herself up, make her body tight. My wife and I ask her to verbalize what she’s afraid of, then we talk to her about it. It might be sleeping upstairs when nobody else is there. It might be going on stage to play the violin. Talking about it, just like sharing it, helps to heal from it. To feel less alone, and less afraid.

My psychiatrist told me that how I breathe can hurt, or help. If I take quick, shallow breaths, it exacerbates my symptoms. Everything gets worse. If I breathe in through my nose for five seconds, right into my diaphragm, hold it, then breathe out through my mouth for seven seconds, it helps. I do this for as long as it takes.

When Lauren is shaking, crying, balling herself up, we have her take deep breaths, the same way that I do. We tell her to breathe deeply, right into her belly, then let out that breath very slowly. We have her to do that for as long as it takes. Eventually, she calms down, and she gets through it. Breathing is one of the most effective ways to address anxiety, whether you’re an adult or a child.

We’ve done a lot of work with Lauren. Breathing, verbalizing, they’ve all worked. Sometimes we just cuddle her to show her that she’s not alone because we’re right there with her. Love works pretty well.

More tips from the Psychology Foundation of Canada: 5 Ways To Build Your Child’s Resilience In An Anxious World

Living with anxiety has been hard for me. I’m 42, and there are times when I don’t look forward to the next few decades because I know it’s something I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. Living with anxiety is even harder for a child who doesn’t fully understand what they’re going through, or why. The other day, Lauren was crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I just don’t know why I have to be this way.”

“I know,” I said. “I feel that way.”

'I can do hard things.' ... and so can you.

There’ll be days like that. “Why me?” days. Those days are OK to have. More often, Lauren has days of incredibly bravery. Last summer, we drove to Nova Scotia and back as a family. On the way home, we stopped at Niagara Falls. Lauren wanted to zipline over the water. We agreed to let her go, but Jill and I were nervous about it. When we arrived at the top, just before Lauren got strapped in, my wife told her that she didn’t have to do it. It was OK if she was too scared.

Lauren looked Jill in the eyes and said, “Mom, I can do hard things.”

She went down the zipline all by herself.

I still have days where I don’t think I can go up on stage and do a presentation. I still have days where going to work seems like a monumental task. And yes, there are times when I don’t look forward to those next few decades dealing with anxiety. Those days, Lauren’s voice echoes in my mind.

“I can do hard things.”

I can do this, and so can you.

We may teach our kids a lot, but I’m learning more and more each day that they teach us just as much.

Article Author David Robertson
David Robertson

Read more from David here.

David A. Robertson (he, him, his) is an award-winning writer. His books include When We Were Alone (Governor General’s Literary Award), Will I See? (Manuela Dias Book Design and Illustration Award), Betty: The Helen Betty Osborne Story (listed In The Margins), and the YA trilogy The Reckoner (Michael Van Rooy Award for Genre Fiction, McNally Robinson Best Book for Young People). David educates as well as entertains through his writings about Indigenous Peoples in Canada, reflecting their cultures, histories, communities, as well as illuminating many contemporary issues. David is a member of Norway House Cree Nation. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife and five children.

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