It’s 23:54 and I’m alone in my mother’s maternity ward room. While she goes through pain I cannot imagine, birthing my new sibling, I’m hunched up in the bright blue pleather rocking chair they have in each room. Literally biting my fist. The past two weeks have drained me, between worrying about my mother’s comfort levels at every step, I’m juggling pressures that many people in my life constantly tell me are back-breaking. My brand of anxiety, of course, continually tells me that I am not enough, don’t do enough, will never be nearly enough.
In that moment I had a painful, almost crushing realisation that I needed someone to hear me. Someone to just rub my back, allow me to wallow, feel as much as I needed to. To simply listen. I can barely remember all I felt, but the struggle of trying to figure out why I felt that way is still overwhelming – because what’s a more fun way to try manage your mental illness but to attempt to diagnose what causes every feeling you’re experiencing? I knew that most of the anxiety was being caused by the birth of my new sibling. I had been with my mom all day, watched as her doctor induced her labour and stayed by her side as her contractions ripped through her body. I had held her hand through most of them, so much so that the nurses joked that I was her doula. And after hours at the hospital my father took my sister and I home – hospital hours had been long over and we were essentially kicked out – the anxiety of leaving her alone kicked in. I had never felt that terrified to leave my mother alone and not being able to return to her for hours after. I was in such a state I could not express it. I couldn’t bear it. After sneaking back into that hospital and trying to calm myself down, I realised how much I need to learn to reach out.
Yup, that long ass intro leads to the simplest (not so much impressive as it is difficult) light bulb moment: that I need to learn to ask for help.
I knew that anxiety had been a part of my life since primary school. I knew that the painful “gunshots”, as I told my mom then, had been tearing through my chest for years. I was painfully aware that it was not normal to run out of breath, feel an impending sense of doom and an abnormal heartbeat when I felt like I was going to run late for something. I went to multiple doctors who tried to diagnose my sore knees, wrists that couldn’t handle weight, and creaking shoulders that would freeze and throb. I saw it manifest in my sleepwalking into dark roads, in my drinking, in my memory loss and in the way I hurt people and punished myself in ways I still don't understand. I struggled through admitting how anxiety impacted my work. How one typo could cause a day’s plans to go up in smoke, running a couple minutes late for something could end in me sobbing in the cubicle of a public bathroom and how anxious thoughts end in, “yup, death. I’d prefer death” so often that people simply took my comments as jokes. I knew the pain I felt the time I had a panic attack in front of a loved one and had them walk past me while I cried on the floor, and even now, I have no idea how to explain that hurt or how to teach others how to help me through this. It hurt me deeply (and continues to do so) when I went into the darkest parts of anxiety, unable to reach out to people and had streams of communication go dead because I was no longer the one making the effort. I was familiar with exactly what triggered me and was vigilant in my attempts to control situations to make sure I could prevent attacks – a whole lol to that. But even now as I think about this, soon after re-watching Laura Mvula’s documentary Generation Anxiety in tears, I feel as though I’m exaggerating.
Ha. I’m hyper-aware of how all this is viewed by others. As though everyone who hears me speaking about this agrees. That I’m a baby. That asking for help and support is burdening others. Man, my anxieties have anxieties. So I grin, barely bear it and work through it alone. I almost always have at least 5 tabs open that relate directly to anxiety, personal essays of other people’s experiences, googling my own symptoms, remedies, exercises and ways to cope because I can’t afford to see someone about all this, let alone pay for any medication they may prescribe. I’m so conscious of my anxious feelings that I need endless validation that it is indeed anxiety. The irony.
I try calm. I try affirmations. I try to remember. “You are not being a baby. You are not blowing things out of proportion. Right now, this is a big deal. Don’t shrink how you feel. How you feel is real. You’ll get through this. You’ll get through this. You’ll get through this. Repeat. Breathe. Use your meditation app. Relax your jaw. Talk to a friend. Take your vitamins. Try to write. Go to gym. Get out of bed. Get out of bed. Take a painkiller. Respond to that text. Make something to eat. Leave the house. Reach out to someone. Brush your teeth. Drink some water. Call your mom. Just open the damn email. Bath. Eat. Make your bed.” Every day is a negotiation.
Everything comes with a few more breaths, another to do list and more often than not, more worries. Some days I’m able to complete each new line of my growing to do list, I'm able to explore new ideas and feel fierce excitement and inspiration at opportunities while other days are riddled with fear, breathlessness, and exhaustion that only multiplies with each nap. And so I thought I’d share this with you. I’m not only trying to own how I’m feeling but I’m also hoping to connect to other Black women and femmes who struggle with their mental health, those who doubt it, own it, survive and struggle through it. Those who need some form of help and those who are willing to offer an ear, a shoulder, a space of healing and listening. I’m developing something. I’ve been developing something since I tweeted this.
To those who reached out to me, I heard you and I’m sorry it’s taken this long. I've read all you've shared with me and cried through the majority of it. But it is coming. So I’ll be getting in touch with those who got in contact but am also looking forward to speaking to many more of you about this. Women. Femmes. Non-binary. Trans. Agender. (Yes, that means no cis men.) Let’s hold each other through this.
[My mom is happy, healthy and with painful nipples. Baby Tshimega is a joy, barely crying unless you fuss. Thank you for all the love and light sent our way <3 ]
Laura Mvula's documentary Generation Anxiety