When we’re very young, we typically aren’t capable of distinguishing normal behavior from abnormal; we simply haven’t had enough life experience. Even at six years old, however, I knew that most kids’ mothers didn’t lock themselves in their bedrooms for 12+ hours, leaving their eldest children to care for their younger siblings.
By the time I was in my teens, I was well acquainted with my mother’s host of untreated mental illnesses — depression, OCD, hypochondria, generalized and social anxiety disorder, borderline personality disorder. She would check the stove burners multiple times before we left the house. Then the lock on the front door. She would fly into unprovoked rages. She would tell my sister and me that she hated us, or call us stupid bitches. Her impulsivity and inability to emotionally connect with people led her from one relationship to the next, until she decided to move from Western New York to New Jersey with someone she’d known for three months and had met through a snail-mail dating service. Unfortunately, being a narcissist as well, she refused to seek help and insisted that psychiatrists would find nothing wrong with her — even proclaiming that one had declared her “100 percent normal.” This attitude persists thirty years later, despite her anxiety disorders having morphed into full-blown agoraphobia.
Growing up, my sister and I were taught nothing so much as to fear everything. Fear that the house is going to burn down, that someone is going to rob or murder us, that our mother is going to die at any moment from some undiagnosed ailment. I had begun exhibiting symptoms of social anxiety disorder around 11 or 12, but I was naturally shy and anyway, my mother certainly wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Fast-forward 25-ish years. I was married, had a house and two dogs; by all accounts, I should have been enjoying my life. But after a robust social life in my twenties, something happened. I started to withdraw from anything that required being around people. And pretty soon, I was becoming unwilling to leave the house. I knew what was happening, even if I didn’t want to admit it. It was only because of the toll it had begun to take on my marriage that I did the thing my mother never did — I got help, because it wasn’t just about me anymore.
My process began with cognitive behavioral therapy. The prospect of exposures terrified me at first, because my main goal was eventually to be able to speak in front of a group of people. I had engaged in a ton of avoidance behavior throughout my life in order to stave off the panic attacks that inevitably occurred. I had to take two of my sister’s Xanax just to get through my MFA thesis defense a few years earlier; I didn’t do readings or sign up for panels at conventions or anything that required attention to be on me. I wouldn’t even strike up a conversation if I could help it.
Over the ensuing several months, my therapist and I designed exposures that would help build my confidence while I learned to combat the negative thoughts that anxiety so loved to implant in my brain. For my final exposure, a group of people from the clinic — including the doctor who had written the textbook for the program — gathered in a conference room to listen to me read from my latest novel, after which I would participate in a Q&A session.
And then the strangest thing happened. I enjoyed it.
Medication followed, in part because I had developed insanely high blood pressure from the years of untreated anxiety. But I still had one more thing to prove to myself. In late 2017, I submitted abstracts to present academic papers at two conferences in 2018. I also signed up for a panel, where I found myself sitting beside award-winning author Paul Tremblay. That night, I recognized another award-winning author, Grady Hendrix, in the hotel bar and introduced myself, something I never would have imagined doing at previous conventions. I presented my paper the next morning, and my second paper a few months later in Romania, where I eventually ended up doing karaoke with Tim Lebbon (the upcoming Netflix series The Silence is based on his novel of the same name). I had been missing opportunities like these since college, and all because my anxiety had convinced me I couldn’t do it without screwing up horribly, which of course everyone would remember for the rest of their lives. That’s one of anxiety’s most effective weapons, by the way — that no one will remember you for anything but how foolish you look and act when you’re nervous. This is, of course, the illness lying to you so that it can have you all to itself.
My mother and I still exchange the obligatory holiday and birthday cards, but we haven’t spoken since 2016. Her toxic behaviors and refusal to seek treatment had infected my life enough, and I was no longer willing to sacrifice my own mental health for her. Sometimes I feel sorry for her; she’s a writer too, but her fear has prevented her from being in the world and making personal connections, just as it did to me for so long. Then I remember the verbal and emotional abuse she heaped on us and that in many ways, this is the life she created for herself. It takes a lot of hard work to overcome mental illness, and I think that’s why she chose not to try. It’s easier for her to believe that everyone else is at fault.
Even at 43, there are times I still wish I had a mother I could talk to, one with whom I could share my achievements or my frustrations. But she’s only getting worse with age, so I remind myself how far I’ve come and where I’d be if I hadn’t made the decision to seek treatment. I refuse to live in the hateful, suspicious, lonely bubble of fear in which my mother has trapped herself.