Anxiety is something nearly every child of an alcoholic I have ever spoken to has had experience with in some form or another. So what is anxiety?
A quick Google search and here’s the definition that comes up at the top-
1.a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease about something with an uncertain outcome.“he felt a surge of anxiety”
synonyms: worry, concern, apprehension, apprehensiveness, consternation, uneasiness, unease,fearfulness, fear, disquiet, disquietude, perturbation, fretfulness, agitation, angst,nervousness, nerves, edginess, tension, tenseness, stress, misgiving, trepidation,foreboding, suspense; More
Now I suppose you could argue there is some good words in there that do show, intellectually at least, the way anxiety makes you feel. But anxiety for me is way more than that. It’s more of a tangible and physical feeling. That feeling of a roller-coaster motion in the pit of your stomach. An internal shakiness that feels like your whole skeleton is vibrating while your muscles spasm to a separate beat, and is almost always accompanied by a noise,a noise fed from within that I can only describe as a deafening, mind piercing, silence.
However, for me, the best, and most moving description comes from one of my greatest teachers, my 5-year-old son, Jimmie.
“It just feels like fizzy dad, in my legs and my arms. Sometimes in my belly too. I have been fizzy all over before, with a prickly neck and my head wants to shake but I don’t let it. That time was when I thought I was going to have to dance in front of everyone at school.”
Perhaps it’s just because he’s my son so I feel every word with him, but for me, that’s what should come up at the top when one searches the word anxiety on Google. I admire him for being able to find those words, and I’m grateful he can. But those words have come with some work. Slowly building up his trust and letting him know it’s OK. He’s aware not everybody feels like it. Over time I have been sharing with him how I feel on the inside. I’m learning that sometimes the greatest strength and support I can give Jimmie, and all my children, is in letting them know that I struggle too.
I never spoke about my ‘internal fizziness’ when I was a child. Alcoholism robbed me of that right. It didn’t just take my dad. It took away my right as a child to talk about how I feel, and stole my mums ability to hear. So I had this fizziness, like Jimmie, I knew not everyone had it, and so with no one to talk to about it, I adapted and coped the best I could on my own.
I guess one might assume that my anxiety was at it worst during the times when my dad was drunk, when there were fights and banging, shouting and crashing, and in some ways I guess it was. But oddly enough, I’m not even sure that’s the case. The way anxiety effected me growing up has contradictions in the way I can describe it. As I grew up it became more and more permanent in my life, and when those things typical of an alcoholic home happened it became almost crippling, my thoughts would race and clamber over one and other to find a solution. But anxiety was there most of the time. So when I had nothing to attach it to, it seemed to be even more damaging to my character. I was trapped in this fight or flight mode that just left me frozen most of the time and I believe that’s where a lot of my feelings of such low self-worth originate from.
You know when you’re home alone late, and the door goes, and you have that fear in your chest until you found out it’s just your neighbour? That was with me almost all the time. By the time I was early teens I was in the cycle of convincing myself and everyone around me that I, and everything else was OK. So I was attracted to chaos, in fact I was attracted to anything that took me away from that stomach turning feeling of fear I had 24/7. But again that contradicting desire to stay away from anything that might make the feeling worse, was almost always coupled with an attraction to madness. Confrontation was something I desperately tried to avoid, yet I got into a lot fights. At school I found the classrooms simply too quiet, the silence made my inner feelings boom loud and clear. So I acted the clown, and with that came the constant tellings off in front of everyone. It crippled me, the shame I felt, and the confirmation it gave me of the person I believed I was. But I kept doing it, I had to. The silence of the classroom, the need for the other kids approval was all too over bearing.
Most teachers disliked me, and I couldn’t blame them. I was disruptive and, at the time, I had no idea why. By the time I was in my mid teens there was no helping me. I was already trapped, my inner world so frightening and confusing. The person I was at that time was simply an outward expression of what I felt inside. At school I never attempted to alter that, but at home, because I wanted my mum to be OK, I played roles and tried to be as OK as I could.
Once I became an adult the characters came out in force. I still had absolutely no idea that I suffered with anxiety, I just thought I was messed up. My dad had died years before now, and I never attached how I felt to that. It felt like an excuse. Since the age of 10 my mum and step dad had offered me a normal home, so to even suggest that my dads alcoholism could have any effect on me seemed ridiculous. I can see now that it had completely shaped the person I was.
I was a dad who, more than anything in the whole world, wanted to be a good dad, and I couldn’t. For a million different reasons I couldn’t. And the times I did, I felt like I was playing at it. Because I was. I had created this big tough man image to try to hide the frightened little boy that I was, and I did all I could to live up to that. I couldn’t have a happy and contented home because that left me alone with my inner world of anxiety. So I brought chaos. I never stayed still, I did whatever I could to drown out the way I felt, and I was so lost I had absolutely no idea I was doing it. I took my world to its knees and I had no idea of the cause.
Today is different. Today, through some vigorous work of stepping back and watching that inner world, I have, at least, an idea of what’s happening when I feel the ways I feel. Once I realised what was happening was anxiety, I had the opportunity to try to do something about it. Initially I wanted it gone. I wanted to heroically defeat anxiety so that I could become a real man! It hasn’t happened, well at least I haven’t totally got rid of it. But I have become a real man, well I believe I have anyway.
I have times when I feel like my anxiety is with me a lot, but most of the time it’s not there. For a while I beat myself up for the times it came, but today I have more acceptance around it. I can feel it and watch it come over me and I can begin to manage it. Me and my wife can even have a bit of a laugh at its expense, and that’s important. Anxiety is a part of my life, and in accepting that, I can drain it of its power and hold over me and it’s part of who I am. It doesn’t run my life any more.
I was in traffic the other day and I saw a guy who looked like his car had broken down. He was stood alone and still, he was next to his car with his hands by his side just waiting. There were people everywhere and he was just staring into the distance and looking completely at ease. That kind of thing amazes me. I would have had my phone out, pacing, trying to hide how anxious I was, concerned by what everyone driving past was thinking about me. But do you know what? I know that today, and I laugh at myself as I write it. Because today… I can be a lot less anxious about my anxiety 🙂
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