Around 12 years old, I began suffering from anxiety, but had no idea what it was. I believed I was just shy, awkward, uncool, you name it. I lived with my mother in Brazil at the time, and she, with her very Brazilian ways, did not help matters either. She wanted me to be in the spotlight and grew more and more frustrated as I refused and hid. I spoiled all her plans for fun – like going to the club, Carnival, trips – because the idea of leaving home to a new strange place made me panic. She said I was “antisocial”, or that it was my “American side” showing through (not a good thing) or that I needed to “get out there” and make myself seen, that I had “so much to offer!”. All the while I would think – Oh Lord, imagine the disappointment when she finds out that in fact, I am a big fraud? And what about my father? He was in the US at the time, but I knew he had great expectations as well. I was paralyzed by the idea of opening up to either of them about the hard time I was having just being…well, me.
So naturally, I gravitated towards other people I thought could help, that I saw as wise, kind maternal figures. Teachers. Teachers who saw me and admired my work, who saw I was struggling and would encourage me to open up. I was so desperate for their attention, but it was hard to talk when I didn’t really know what was wrong. My parents were loving, sensible people, I had a nice home, went to a good school, had friends, did well at school…but something was off.
I felt so alone and scared of the world half of the time. This included being scared of being considered all the things I thought of myself (ungrateful, weak, weird…) that while I so desperately wanted to talk to someone, I also retreated and ended up having very cryptic interactions, using poetry, art and anonymous notes. Writing and art assignments were a golden ticket for expression and who was to say – fiction or fact? English and art teachers naturally gravitated towards me, fascinated with the girl who had “something to say”.
Then at 13 years of age, one such teacher managed to get me to the school counselor. However, when the counselor informed me that to continue our sessions my mother had to be informed, I panicked. I never went back; gave no explanation. The counselor didn’t really do much after that either. What a terribly isolating feeling, being so close to help yet having to deny it because the fear was so much greater. The fear of disappointing. In my mind, I thought my mother would get angry and demand of me “Am I not enough?” I wasn’t far from the truth, although it would be about 5 years later when that came out of the hat. Kids can sense things, all that remains unsaid. I knew it was more than what my mom could handle, or more than I could handle from my mom. I knew something would crumble in our family life. So I stuck it out some more at the expense of my mental health.
Then, at 14, I decided I needed a change in scenery and went to spend a year with my father in the US. I hadn’t lived with him since I was 10 and I ended up at a very different alternative hippy school in the middle of Vermont woodland. I was anxious about the new school and the new way of life, but I thought it was just regular nerves about a new situation. I remember the first week of orientation, we had to sleep over at the school and later go on a camping trip, and I was so relieved to have a room all to myself so I could cry my eyes out in privacy. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat, I missed my dad, I wanted to go home like nobody’s business.
I survived that week, but when I went back home, nothing was the same. Something had broken. Not even home was safe. I dreaded the next day, when classes would start. I dreaded leaving the house, I dreaded staying at the house. It was the first time I realized anxiety could destroy me, and I could not hide it. I was crying, vomiting, having diarrhea and not eating all in front of my dad, my new classmates and teachers. I remember being so angry at myself and wondering why I had decided to make this stupid decision of coming to the States. I regretted it deeply. When my dad’s car rounded the bend to pick me up I would feel such relief, but I remember it would last about 2 minutes after I got into his car, and then it was lost. I’d cry, and cry, and cry, with the loss of all familiarity.
My father was quick to realize this wasn’t just the first-day-of-school jitters and sought out the school counselor. This was a life-saving move on his part – I was so grateful, because I would’ve never asked for it on my own. Moral of the story, it is so important to pay attention to people. To take feelings seriously, to help people get help. Unfortunately, my mental health struggle did not end there. I am 34 years old now and have fought many other battles, all won, as I am still here. But I can’t help wonder what would have happened if intervention had come at an earlier point in my life, accompanied with acceptance and patience from my parents. I am certain things would’ve been much different as I transitioned into adulthood. Now, with my own kids, I pray I can be attentive and allow them the space to express their needs, and I pray I can have the wisdom to listen and accept, without taking it personally as a commentary on my parenting.