Anxiety Chronicles is a series from The Lily that examines the journeys different women have with anxiety.
This week, we hear from Peg Keenleyside, a freelance writer, theater artist and language arts educator living near Vancouver. She is socially active in several local community organizations and an advocate for child and youth mental health support in her community.
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When my daughter’s anxiety was clinically diagnosed at age 12, it started a kind of revelation process — much of it through therapy — of my own long term struggle with anxiety. It was partially a result, I have often felt, of a kind of identity homelessness that came from my family’s constant moving around the world as I was growing up. I went to 14 different schools before I was 14. Social acceptance was a constant challenge.
It was during my daughter’s first therapy work with cognitive behavior therapy that I started to reflect on my own lifelong stress responses to “performance” situations, particularly new social situations or work situations where I felt I was being judged. It dawned on me that I, like my daughter, suffer from social anxiety.
Physically, my anxiety mostly manifests itself as tension. My body will get completely knotted up with muscle tension for hours, even days, in response to a perceived (or real) crisis event. There's no talking myself into relaxation even when I can cognitively identify how I am being triggered. It results in a lot of body pain, exhaustion and chronic sleep troubles. This physical manifestation of my anxiety has been exponentially more pervasive in recent years as I have had to care for and advocate for my daughter’s mental health care.
Mentally, when my anxiety comes on, I can be swamped by massive feelings of inadequacy and feelings of self-destructiveness. I will go over and over past negative events in my mind. I am hugely self-critical and can obsess over making a label for a spice jar until 2 a.m. if I’m having a bad day.
Last year my daughter, now 18, was hospitalized for psychiatric care twice and, looking back, 2019 was one long series of anxiety-making episodes; of lack of sleep, of chronic fear, of feelings of low self-worth as a mother and a woman. There’s — as those who are going through it know — a great deal of self-judgement that goes into parenting a child with a profound mental health challenge. I had paranoid feelings of people “out to get me” at work and in my social life. I had to leave my job. I was taking double doses of my sleep meds to keep my anxiety at bay at night.
One of the most difficult things I’ve come to accept about my mental health condition is that it is interwoven into my daughter’s own difficult journey toward wellness. We talk about this and how our mental health challenges can be inter-generationally connected just as other life traumas can be.
In my 20s and 30s my coping mechanism was alcohol. I drank heavily in almost all social situations and practiced a good deal of self-sabotage as a way to cope with feelings of low social self-worth. I rescued myself through the love of my children in my 40s.
I also started practicing yoga regularly and, in the past few years, mindfulness meditation. I find myself leaning into small circles of women friends more and more as a way to “get through” and consciously practice self-acceptance.
I have also been attending therapy. Lots of it — personal, family, spiritual. Above all else, I could not have coped with the stress and anxiety of these past several years without it. It’s brought me an understanding of how “the bully” as we refer to it in our house — takes over your life and how it can be faced.
If there was one thing that I would like people to know about anxiety is that while it can present as a lifelong mental health challenge for a person, it does not mean a person is cognitively deficient or incapacitated.