The holiday season brings out my worst quality. Anxiety.
It’s what has made me ridiculously self-conscious in large crowds. It’s kept me home on more than one occasion from parties and church socials and away from big crowds of any kind where I am expected to interact with people, even those I’ve known for years.
Big gatherings make me deeply uncomfortable, sometimes for days before the event.
It runs deep in my gene pool, I’ve discovered. And as life would have it, my wife and I have discovered it in our own children as well. It is one of the most challenging parenting issues we’ve had to face.
To the outsider, it may seem like something to get over, or laugh off, like the pre-game jitters.
It’s not. I remember with dread one holiday season that we spent on the road, traveling from Thanksgiving until the New Year. It was too much ¯ and that month and a half sent me into an anxiety-induced spiral of depression that lasted until March. It was not fun and it ruined the holidays because faking it when you just want to crawl into a hole is hard, hard work.
But that’s just the point: I faked it because I have always viewed this element of my personality as a character flaw.
Even as a child, when I would sneak out of the house to hide in the car during parties, I understood that hiding was never the way to go. I was a kid then, of course. These days, when I hear a party or social event is on the calendar, I go because as I tell my kids, “Being scared is never a good enough reason to say no.” Thankfully, my wife is the complete opposite, so a weekend of nothing doesn’t come along very often. When it does, it feels like a luxury.
Until recently, I have felt as if I were struggling alone. No one got around, in fact, to calling my events “panic attacks” and my character flaw as an “anxiety disorder, with accompanying depression” until I was almost 40. Therapy and some mild medication have changed my life. I recommend the first highly, the other only as a last resort.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America calls my affliction the “most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults.”
And Patrick McGrath, clinical director of the Center for Anxiety and OCD, says many adults aren’t getting help.
“Many people have learned to live with their anxiety,” he said. “They do not fly; they go to work but avoid any social scenes.”
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But as both McGrath and Stacia Casillo, a psychiatrist from Manhattan Psychiatric Associates, point out, managing anxiety is about managing yourself.
“I encourage individuals with anxiety to clearly identify what is most important to them during this time of year — spending time with family and friends, and avoiding activities they think they ‘should’ be doing but bring little joy or fulfillment,” Casillo said.
Now that’s some advice we all need, anxious or not.
With me, it’s not just anxiety. It’s the double whammy of anxiety and introversion. These days, fortunately, I’m not so alone.
Buzzfeed tells me about “27 problems only introverts will understand.” Then there’s the obligatory “12 things that irritate introverts.” These things are funny and a bit self-affirming. Up until 2012, after all, the American Psychiatric Association included introversion as a contributing factor in personality disorders.
Karma, of course, does find a way, and my son is particularly afflicted. When all is said and done, he wants to be at home, hanging with us. When I was his age, I wasn’t nearly as self-aware to label what I was feeling.
As for parties, he is OK with one friend over and maybe their parents for dinner, but anything beyond that and he’s having full-on “crowd anxiety.” (Those are his words. Where he learned them, I have no idea.)
It’s good and bad, I guess. The Anxiety Disorders Association says anxiety affects 1 in 8 children. He knows it’s not his fault, and that’s good. But it’s bad because he uses it as an excuse to not engage. I get that.
As his parents, we tread a thin line between pushing him to experience things and simply allowing him to be. We tend to err on the side of pushing, simply because of our mantra: Being afraid isn’t a reason to say no. I try not to project, but I have some regrets about things I didn’t do as a kid because I was scared. If we can minimize any of those for him, we’d like to try.
It’s heartbreaking to see him when the “fear takes over.” He’s just a kid, and sometimes he is so burdened. But we’re beyond shame in our home, so we tell him this: “Everybody is crazy. Some people deal with it, some don’t. We want to be the people who deal with it.” As parents, it’s on us to set the example by stepping up, by being willing to acknowledge the unpleasantness of life, and then by acting.
These days, I’m willing to admit that my mental illness is more than a character flaw. I do wonder what my life would have been like if I had been diagnosed at age 13 instead of 37, but I certainly wouldn’t change anything. I can only hope our early intervention might give my son some relief as he moves through life.
As therapy goes, the best piece of advice I ever got was from the lead singer of The Clash, the late great Joe Strummer. “You don’t face your demons down, you grapple ‘em Jack, and pin ‘em to the ground.”
Amen, Brother Joe.