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.