Anxiety: The invisible illness

Carie LevyBy Carie Levy |

My mom was cooking breakfast one day when it hit her out of nowhere.

What I remember was holding my 5-year-old sister in my arms while my mother lay limp on the kitchen floor.

“Is mommy going to be OK?” she asked, the words barely audible through her sobs.

“Shh, don’t worry,” I tried to respond confidently. “Mommy will be fine.”

I wasn’t confident, though. I never was.

Anxiety is contagious. No, you cannot catch it like you can catch a cold, but it can spread like a virus — especially when the original carrier of the disease is someone you love. There isn’t a right way to explain anxiety problems to someone who has never experienced it, whether directly or through a loved one. It’s troubling that there isn’t much awareness on the subject considering anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States. For two years, no doctor could tell my mom why almost every day her entire body went numb and she could barely breathe.

Leaving for college is the first instance in my life when I have spent a considerable amount of time away from my family. I like to think that they are a little bit unique in today’s times. We are all very close and genuinely enjoy spending time with one another. My mother home-schooled me and my three younger sisters since I was in second grade while my dad worked as a full time deputy for the Sheriff’s office and part time in the Army Reserve.

We were rarely apart and we formed a strong bond of trust and support within our family. If one of us needed help with something, it was second nature to step up and help. No questions. It was simply our duty as a family to love and support each other in everything we did. As the oldest of my sisters, I was the one to take charge when my father was at work or away with the Army. If my mother needed anything, it was naturally assumed that I should be the first to do it. As the oldest, I believe that’s only logical. When my mom began experiencing anxiety attacks, I tried to take charge, though I didn’t have the slightest idea if anything I did helped.

“Help mom out. Don’t let her do all the work alone or she will get too stressed.”

I repeated that statement to my sisters countless times as the inevitable college move-in day grew closer and closer. I feared for my mom when I wasn’t there. Not only would she be busier without my help, I wouldn’t be by her side when she had an attack. Would my sisters know what to do? Was there truly any proper method to taking care of her in these horrible instances? Probably not, but I felt as though there was — that somehow my presence during the attacks helped. If not, it was at least more comforting for me. As much as I hate witnessing what she went through, it terrifies me even more to know that something happened and I wasn’t there. Now that I’m in college, that is a constant struggle.

Comforting her was all I knew to do. When I was utterly helpless in every other aspect of the situation, at least I would feel useful doing that. I needed that assurance that I was helping the situation in some way in order to keep me sane.

“Are you feeling OK?” became a question I would ask so frequently I feared it was going to annoy her. I felt a cold tightening in my chest every time she took a deep breath. Why was she breathing like that? Was she about to have another attack? When she couldn’t breathe I couldn’t breathe. I still can’t.

Living 80 miles away truly doesn’t seem that far, but it is certainly out of arm’s reach. I cannot comfort my mom when she has an attack. I cannot help her relax when she feels one coming on. I cannot help relieve her stress by driving my sisters to and from softball practices or assisting in extra chores. I cannot even know when my mother is suffering — and that is the worst part.

Tests came back negative of any and every possible disease. According to the data, my mother was perfectly healthy; however, anyone with eyes could see that she was far from that. How can one describe the feeling of waking up every morning wondering if your mother was going to die that day? For all I knew, she had a disease so complex even the doctors couldn’t figure it out. When would the day come that she would not be able to recover from one of these brutal mystery attacks? Nobody in my family knew; not even her. How crazy would it seem to discover later that she was having most these attacks simply because of the shear fear of having another one?

No doctor ever diagnosed her. Each one happily sent us on our way proclaiming how wonderfully healthy my mom was after there was no physical signs of failing health. They expected us, somehow, to be comforted by that; nothing could be farther from the truth. It took extensive research on our part to discover that my mother possessed a very severe form of this illness. Yes, it is an illness.

It has been four and a half years since my mother began suffering from anxiety attacks. In a sense, it has become slightly easier now that we understand what they are. I know to an extent that they aren’t life threatening. However, it is hard to feel so confident while watching her lay almost lifeless on the couch struggling to breathe. That sight hasn’t grown easier for me, and it never will.

Some people may think I’m too clingy when I text my mom over and over if she doesn’t respond quickly, or if I call my dad asking why my mom won’t answer her phone. I’ve heard comments such as, “You’re a college student. Why do you call your parents every day?”

“I just want to call them,” is my response, like a blanket covering so many secrets.

If only they knew, perhaps they wouldn’t judge me. But they won’t know. I simply form a half genuine smile and go on my way trying to reassure myself, “Mommy will be fine.”

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