Was I born anxious?
According to my mother, I was an easy baby to raise. I was good-natured and well behaved.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t anxious. Some research has indicated that babies learn to smile as a way to encourage their caregivers to pay attention to them, and that well behaved children are often afraid of being punished or abandoned.
My mother and my grandmother have both had anxiety and depression, as well, and it has sometimes manifested in eerily similar ways. All three of us have experienced anxiety around highway driving, for instance, and discomfort with crowds to varying degrees.
My symptoms started making themselves known when I was very young. Like most young children, I was easily frightened by certain sights and sounds. But unlike most children, mine persisted as a I grew older, and some have remained phobias to this day. I still feel afraid whenever I see the alien from E.T., for example. I remember seeing the film as a kid, and I don’t remember being afraid in that moment, but later, a family friend had an E.T. Halloween mask, and I know that that frightened me.
Other things that frightened me were Skeletor of the He-Man Universe, nutcrackers, and the band, Kiss. Now, a lot of people say they can really understand about Kiss, but this isn’t just a momentary startle or a feeling of general dislike. My mother took me with her to her bowling league on one occasion, and there was a Kiss themed pinball machine. The sight of that pinball machine was so terrifying for me that I would instantly scream and burst into tears. And unfortunately, the bathroom was on the other side of it. So when I had to go, my mother buried my face in her shoulder so that we could safely get past it without causing a scene.
I reacted similarly in places like toy stores. My grandmother even remarked that I was the only child she knew that refused to go to the toy store, because some of the toys frightened me so much.
Eventually, most of this behavior subsided, but then, the anxiety came out in other ways.
At 11, which happens to be the most typical age for anxiety disorders to manifest, I started pulling out my facial hair – my eyebrows and eyelashes. It got to the point that I was missing half an eyebrow, and my grandmother would use her makeup to disguise it so I wouldn’t get teased at school, at least not for that.
Even at this point, nobody thought that I needed help. Instead, they lectured me, and told me that I was distressing my mother, and that I just needed to stop doing it.
I developed other coping mechanisms. Overachievement. Food. Escapism. And eventually, sex. I still feel resentful that my caregivers’ approach to my mental health problems was to tell me to “stop doing that.”
I’ve been in treatment since college, almost 20 years now. And I’m pretty sure that my anxiety has been the result of both biological inheritance and upbringing. It makes me wonder how it got so bad, when I was still so very little. What was my underlying fear? It does seem like I was fixated on faces that seemed angry, or at least not pleasant to me. And children are very interested in facial expressions, since the mood of their caregivers is so closely tied to the childrens’ survival. Someone was harsh to me, and while some children get angry and lash out when they are treated this way, others, like me, internalize the stress until it erupts in strange and unsettling behaviors.
It wasn’t, and still isn’t, my fault. It’s easy to say, but harder to believe.