Naming The Big “A”

There’s a mom from my daughter’s school who is a very nice person. Super nice. She’s a little too chipper and rosy-cheeked for my taste. (Unwarranted enthusiasm makes me nervous.) Whenever I see her, I do my best to smile and not crack a sarcastic joke.

The other day we were sitting next to each other waiting for our daughters’ dance class to end. She looked unusually troubled: bloodshot eyes, dark bags underneath. “How do you sleep?” she asked. I told her the truth, that I sleep like a boulder in a valley. Ten hours can feel like a blink. Then she said, “I have terrible insomnia right now. I haven’t slept in three days.” She was stumbling over her words, close to tears.

We discussed all of the possible suspects: caffeine, bright screens in bed, bad pillows, but it was pretty clear that the culprit was anxiety. Big, bad, mind-won’t-stop-racing anxiety.  It seemed a bit of a risk to say the “A” word to such a cheerful mama, but I decided to risk it. “It sounds like anxiety,” I said, as gently as possible. As soon as I said this, she looked at me with clear-as-day relief, as if she were thinking, Finally, someone said it.

“Yes,” she said. “I think you’re right.” Then she seemed to want reassurance. Was this something terrible?  Did this mean she was unstable or unwell? I had no judgement whatsoever. I long ago did away with any shame about my depression. I will tell anyone that I suffer from it.  I treat it like any chronic disease: one that needs careful monitoring and continuous treatment. Like diabetes, I tell people. Just something I deal with.

“Maybe you shouldn’t fight it,” I said. “Maybe you can just lie in bed at night and say, ‘I see you, mind. I see that you are racing. You’re thundering through lists of my little failures. You’re lining up my reasons to feel guilty, to feel terrified…and you won’t stop.’ Maybe if you acknowledge the anxiety and don’t judge it as good or bad or right or wrong, maybe it’ll let go and let you sleep a little.” I told her that I’ve known anxiety to steal many people’s sleep. It’s hideous, but always temporary if you take care of it. Go to the doctor. Get into therapy. For once, take care of yourself first.

She said, “Wow. You’re so full of wisdom.”

“Am I?” I said, pretty sure she was not being sarcastic.

I saw her at school drop-off the next morning. None of my advice worked. She didn’t sleep a wink. She wore an orange scarf and a dash of mascara in an effort to hide how wildly disheveled she truly was. She asked me, “Can you take my daughter after school today? I’m heading to the doctor.”

“Of course,” I said, feeling immediately aligned with her, this previously too-chipper mom who made me feel a wee bit grumpy. All of that was gone and I found myself hugely grateful for her candor and honesty. Because at some point we’re all going to fall apart a little. And why not? This is one of the only things I’m sure of. Falling apart, giving in, letting ourselves be anxious or exhausted or depressed, desperately in need of some rest and care, is the first step to getting through it.

So go ahead. Take all the time you need. I’ll take the kids. We’ll watch movies and play UNO. Because we’ve all had times like this.

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juliebarton

I'm a writer and mom living in Northern California, author of the New York Times Bestselling memoir, Dog Medicine, How My Dog Saved Me From Myself

5 thoughts on “Naming The Big “A”

  1. Thanks Julie, love this post, and then looked over at the animal stories you requested and loved those too. I’ve had pretty bad insomnia for about 30 years. Also probably depression for most of my life, though I didn’t know about it until a few years ago. More recently anxiety appeared. It was Robin Williams suicide that woke me up to my own need Not to be in the closet about my depression. Still it is a difficult chronic illness to live with. It is so helpful to know I’m not alone and to read what others write about its presence in their lives. I’m extremely sensitive to pharmaceuticals, so that didn’t really work for me. Have been trying every alternative route. Sometimes I want to have an animal but when I got a cat, she was more like a dog, and cried when I left home for a few hours. I felt so guilty all the time. She was so beautiful, a close friend of mine took her. Living alone, it’s imperative for me to be able to go out without feeling guilty (also to travel cross country to visit my mother in Arizona or daughter in New York without paying a fortune for cat or dog care). Life is so complicated. I was uber-trained into cheeriness like the mom from your daughter’s school. It kept me from even knowing what my feelings were for many decades. Now, I’m not that cheery. But sad and scared isn’t great either.

    1. I hear you, Gayle. Thank you so much for your comment. You are definitely not alone. And you are so smart to recognize that your struggle is real and needs your attention. Maybe don’t fight the struggle–just see it. Sit with it. Acknowledge it and then get curious about where all this troubling stuff might be coming from. It’s okay to feel down sometimes. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s okay to worry sometimes. In my experience, if you fight the depression or anxiety, it grows. It’s just you (or me) being sensitive, worrying, struggling, etc. And with those traits can come some real gifts, like empathy and emotional insight. Good for you for coming out of the closet about your depression. We’re everywhere, us depressed folks. And, honestly, we’re pretty amazing.

  2. Love this post! I had a ferocious case of insomnia in 2007 and it didn’t get better until I treated it and my anxiety. Great advice given here, Julie!

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