My middle daughter is struggling with anxiety. I hate everything about that sentence. Being neither the oldest or the youngest and only a baby herself when her younger sister arrived, she’s already fighting for her place in life, and now she’s fighting her mind. She’s listening to the voice in her head that tells her ‘you feel sick’ ‘you can’t go to school’ ‘you can’t make it through assembly’, ‘you can’t sleep alone’.
Watching her battle anxiety is hideous. Not only did I suffer the same as a child, chances are she inherited it from me. It took me thirty years, the sudden death of a friend and my marriage crumbling to finally silence the voices in my head. The ones that told me I’d pass out if I drove on a motorway or went on the Underground. I couldn’t even get bread from ASDA because that aisle was right at the back of the shop. I could only cope in the first two aisles near the door. The cupboards were bare, but we had lots of wrapping paper.
My anxiety started when I was Daisy’s age. I choked on a chicken nugget. How ridiculous is that? Worse than ‘I carried a watermelon’ even.
I was at school having lunch, a normal kid, laughing with her friends, looking forward to arctic roll for desert, and then suddenly I was choking. It wasn’t even a big deal. I didn’t need any help, it lasted but a second, but it changed my life. In that moment I thought I was going to be sick, in front of everyone and that was the end of my childhood.
I stopped eating lunch, I stopped eating in front of anyone. I stopped and froze in time. Before long I was skipping school, avoiding assembly and struggling to make it through class without finding an excuse to go to the cloakroom, where I would sit and cry and hate myself for being weak and curse myself for not being 'normal'.
Anxiety had a hold on me for years, making sure I didn’t do anything outside the safe circle I made for myself, which only ever became smaller. I didn’t drink, didn’t take drugs. I couldn’t handle busy clubs or sixth form. I dropped out of education, I dropped out of life. At my worst I couldn’t leave the house.
I’d like to say overcoming my fear was easy, but it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Back then, if someone had said to me ‘cut off your arm and you’ll never feel anxious again’ I’d have gnawed it off there and then.
I don’t want my girl to battle like I did. Don’t get me wrong, a lot has changed since I was seven. And her school is being incredible. She is getting support, she can phone me at lunchtime and she has a pass to get her out of any situation that overwhelms her.
While I’m grateful she is being listened to and understood, how long can this go on? I worry if she keeps avoiding assembly and classes she is only feeding the fear. That’s a downward spiral to depression.
I want Daisy to fear nothing and live in the present, something that took me years. I swear I never noticed a bird singing or a season morph into the next one because I lived in my head. Because of this, I should be the best person to help her, but I don’t have a clue what I’m doing.
I want to wrap her in my arms and hide away from the world. That's impossible. I want to climb inside her and strangle her demons, but I can’t do that either. I get frustrated with her tears and her refusals to try things, then hate myself for forgetting how real it feels for her. Assembly is a cake walk for me now, but it wasn’t back then. Like labour, the pain is so easily forgotten, but Christ was it horrible at the time.
My hands feel tied. All I can tell her is to get up each day and go back into the lion’s den until it feels like a playground again. I hope it doesn’t take her 25 years. I hope she breaks the spell anxiety casts.
I tell her she can because I did it and she’s a mini me. She looks at me like I hung the moon but really, I’m powerless. Sobbing into packed lunches and making her rocky road, despising myself for breeding and passing on this burden.
Until she learns to smash her own bell jar, all I can do is peer at her through the glass.