For most people, sitting in the passenger seat of a car isn’t a big deal. But sadly, it is for me.
My most vivid memories as a preteen involve long, exhausting commutes to the private school my mother had fought hard to send me to. As my younger siblings sat in the backseat of our car, I’d be positioned right next to my father who regularly vented out all of his erratic worries about our financial situation. He felt overwhelmed by the cost of paying for our school, which led to tons of arguments between my parents that bummed me the fuck out. His verbal bursts of fear and panic during those car rides hung thickly in the air, and I held every single one with as much patience and strength as a twelve-year old can.
Nothing I said to my dad during those vulnerable conversations ever appeased him. If anything, trying to make positive light of a situation I didn’t fully understand only upset him more. Little did I know that my father was struggling deeply with something even more challenging than our family’s financial woes. He was living with undiagnosed Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and it affected every aspect of his personality.
I spent so many years misunderstanding my dad as he worried his way through life. I was already a kid dealing with an emotionally distant parent who often hid at his office to avoid fighting with my mother. Being raised by a mom with mental health struggles brought on its fair share of traumatic experiences, and I harbored immense resentment towards my dad for not being around more to shield me from them.
When his marital conflicts reached a boiling point, my father would devote those damn car rides to openly spiraling into chronic dread and obsessively panicking about a future scenario of us potentially becoming homeless or going broke. Despite never struggling to the point of financial depletion, his irrational outbursts were enough to make me scared as hell of the subject, and I’ve been living in financial fear ever since.
In my early twenties, my dad was officially diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. When he finally revealed the news to me, I naively believed it couldn’t possibly be a real problem for him. I just assumed that his constant worrying was because he cared more about money than he did for me. I had no clue that anxiety was holding my dad hostage and that behind the scenes, he was fiercely loving me more than he’d ever be able to articulate. I also had no idea that I too would ultimately be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and it would completely transform my relationship with my father for the rest of our lives.
About a year ago, I was sitting across from my therapist in tears as I tried to make sense of the words she had just spoken. I had already been through the emotional fucking ringer as we worked through much of the childhood trauma that was wreaking havoc on my new motherhood journey, and I was ready to find out exactly what kind of mental health diagnosis she had for me. On top of self-harming since I was a teen, I was also experiencing panic attacks on the regular after birthing my daughter. And, much like my dad, unconscious anxiety had been pulsing through my nervous system every day alongside the constant bouts of shame and self-loathing.
As it turns out, I’ve been living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder and accompanying anxiety for many years and didn’t even know it. In those first few moments of receiving my diagnosis, I sat there with my counselor struggling to process how I could exist in such mental pain and not be aware of it. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. Suddenly, my PTSD-related symptoms were standing right in front of me in a connected line that finally made sense. They were all linked to the ongoing traumas of my childhood.
My mental health diagnosis nearly broke me. But it also set me free. Embracing my PTSD and everything that comes with it led me to walk my ass into an emergency room when I was considering suicide. It inspired me to open up to loved ones and friends about my struggles. And it helped my dad and I connect in an entirely new way when he started encouraging me to seek out the same kind of therapy that helped him with his anxiety symptoms. I’m proud to say we even navigated some tough ass conversations about psychiatric medication, which I began successfully taking with his support.
My dad may be one of the reasons why I’ve felt broken for so much of my life. But he’s also a huge reason why I’ve been able to piece myself back together. As I’ve watched him work hard to cope with his disorder, I’ve marveled at his ability to open up to me and share the challenges he faces. His steady willingness to acknowledge when he needed help motivated me to take the risk of leaning on him when I was sinking deeper into the dark waters of my PTSD.
My mental health disorder tends to leave me on high alert, worrying that at any given moment something could go wrong, so the happy moments have often been undermined by a sinking feeling that they won’t work out. I’ve always been waiting for the other shoe to drop, and that’s an isolating and shame-inducing place to be. I now realize that this is the broken, fear-based world my father has been stuck living in for far too many years. To know that he’s been a prisoner to his mind for so long breaks my fucking heart.
When I look at my dad now, I no longer see the distant, stressed-out parent who often left me feeling emotionally neglected. I see a sensitive and complicated human being who was doing his damn best with the tools he had at the time. My father has survived so much and is still here, still trying to understand his disorder, and still trying to heal from it. His willingness to do so with courage and awareness speaks volumes to me. I feel for my dad and his journey, because I finally know and empathize with his mental anguish.
Anxiety is a legitimate mental health disorder, and it’s often brought on by childhood trauma. It’s been profoundly empowering to break the cycle of abuse by healing my own anxiety and complex PTSD so that I can raise my children with the love, encouragement, and support I so desperately needed growing up. And I have my father to thank for having the courage to ask for the love, encouragement, and support he so desperately needed too.