A MOTHER'S PERSPECTIVE… Fighting the Anxious Urge to Fix Everything: Helpful Advice from Preschool


A Mother’s Perspective…

Fighting the Anxious Urge to Fix Everything: Helpful Advice from Preschool

* This is our third contribution from Melissa, a Mom of two, dealing with her own anxiety as well as her children’s challenges. She is sharing her story to help others understand what it’s like to live and parent with mental illness.

My kids are in junior high now, but almost daily I think back to some advice I received when they were in preschool, and it’s as helpful now as it was then. 

These words of wisdom came on a day when something happened that left me quite worried about my then 2-year-old son after I dropped him off at school.  All these years later, I have no idea what the issue was, but I know my anxiety was so strong that I called the school to find out how he was doing.  The director’s assistant told me in a firm, yet kind, voice,

“He’s going about his day.  You should go about yours.”   

For the first time, I experienced the realization that this little human being for whom I felt responsible 100% of the time actually had his own life.  He had his own journey that was separate from my journey.  Now, granted he was just 2-years-old at the time, and it’s not like I sent him out into the big, cold world all on his own.  He was in a loving environment after all, but doesn’t that guidance apply no matter how old your child?  As a parent with anxiety, it’s sage advice that I hold onto every single day.

Whether you are diagnosed with anxiety or not, as parents, we worry about our children.  While that worry can be overwhelming, the issue that concerns me more is the pressure we all put on ourselves to make our children happy.  I see it all around me: from my closest friends to strangers posting on the internet.

We all know parents who social engineer their child’s life to make sure they are included all the time.  Shouldn’t we teach our children that everyone isn’t included all the time?  Shouldn’t they learn to handle the disappointment and the hurt feelings?  It’s tough to sit with, but certainly the coping skills they will develop through these childhood experiences will help them when they don’t get the promotion they expect years from now.

What about the parent who’s asking for help online because their child absolutely, positively wants a birthday party with a rhinoceros jumping out of the cake, and the child will just be heartbroken if this stressed-out parent can’t make the magic happen.  (Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the point.)  Don’t our children need to know they don’t get everything they want, but that they will be ok?  They will survive.  Life will go on.

And how about the high-paid Hollywood stars who go to high-risk measures to ensure their child’s future?  Don’t you think there’s some anxiety there pushing those parents to make sure their children have every advantage without having to do the hard work or face the consequences otherwise?

At the heart of all these extreme efforts, I see so much anxiety in parents who are worried that they are losing in the game of parenthood.  I can literally feel the stress when I scroll past these posts and stories online.  It jumps off the screen at me.  It stresses me out just to read it.

As a parent, I’ve been torn between rushing to rescue my children and staying out of the way.  Too often, I’ve taken control of the situation rather than letting them take responsibility for overcoming obstacles and advocating for themselves. Now I’m trying to undo the damage of years of making things easy for them. 

On the flip side, I have lived the consequences as the child of parents who wanted to smooth my path and solve all of my problems.  Trust me, it doesn’t lead to the most desirable outcome.  As an adult, I have my own challenges that are directly related to my parents not letting me go about my day, and I am left trying to learn the lessons I wish I’d been taught all those years ago.  There’s truth to the idea that it’s easier to learn things when you are younger.

So as our children go back to school this fall, let’s all try to stay out of their way.  Give them guidance when they need it.  Offer loving support when difficulties arise.  But please, for your child’s sake, don’t let your anxiety force you to live their life for them: let them go about their day, and you should go about yours. 

Melissa is a married mother of two, dealing with her own anxiety as well as her children’s challenges. She is sharing her story to help others understand what it’s like to live and parent with mental illness.



A Day in the Life: Exposure Therapy

TW: Medical imagery

(Exposure therapy is a way of taking apart a large fear into little steps to be worked on individually. After working for years on my fear of doctors and hospitals resulting from my medical crisis seven years ago, this is what a doctor’s visit looked like for me this week.)

It doesn’t even start with walking in the door.

The anxiety comes a few days before, or maybe even when I make the appointment. It’s not all doctors, just the ones related to my incident seven years ago, but even that is enough to scare me.

I know how to pack my bag: insurance card and ID in my wallet, phone at full battery with all of my games updated, and a small stuffed animal in my purse, just in case. I know to leave early, because if I get there late, I’ll get lost and feel flustered. I need to give myself the best chance.

No one can see anything wrong as I walk in, check my phone for the tenth time to remind myself what floor to go to, and make my way in. I know everything they need at check-in, and I breeze through until it’s time for me to go in the back.

It’s hard for me to walk past the rooms, so clinical and cold, but I make it into the exam room, following the nurse closely. I plop into a chair - thankfully, this doctor doesn’t make me sit on the paper on the table - and I don’t notice my legs are bouncing until the nurse asks me to stop, because it may affect the blood pressure results.

Blood pressure is good, but not quite as good as Mom’s - I can never beat her. I thank God that they didn’t pinch a vein this time and make me lose feeling in my arm, which I haven’t figured out how to breathe through yet. Stepping on the scale is hard for entirely different reasons. I don’t look at the number when it beeps; I stare ahead at the wall and get down fast.

I answer the nurse’s questions easily. All of this is scripted, I know my medications and I also know what to do when something in the corner starts to beep unexpectedly. My hand slinks into my purse and finds the small stuffed umbreon - a pokemon - that my friend helped me sew before I moved. It’s made out of socks, and the texture is rough from my inexperienced stitches. Less conspicuous than a phone game, although Pokemon Go is on the screen of my phone too. Never any harm in overpreparing.

The doctor comes in soon. I like this doctor; if I don’t, I’m even more tense. The more she asks me, the more the need to tell my story builds up. I’ll end up writing out something later, surely, but for now I just report my concerns honestly.

I still look calm and composed as I go to the blood lab. That’s the scariest place, the one I had to prepare for the most. I watched medical shows, listened to recordings of beeping machines and hospital sounds, but I’m still flustered enough when I go in that I don’t notice I’m supposed to be sitting in a chair in a waiting area.

I sink into the chair, tap on a few pokemon, and wait. People go back one by one, and then it’s my turn. My routine for this, the scariest part, is down pat: phone in my lap, with a brand-new picture of my dog courtesy of Mom. She’s sent me one where he’s got two Frisbees at the same time, which is impressive. I can’t help but notice the cold square of antiseptic on my skin and the way the nurse wipes it away, then gets closer with the needle.

Mom always tells me to breathe, but I usually forget. I concentrate really hard this time, and look over to where there are only two tubes waiting. It’ll be fast, at least. It doesn’t even hurt all that much. My breath comes faster, not anywhere close to a panic attack, but noticeable. I stick my hand in my purse again for the stuffed umbreon when she goes to pull the needle out, which usually hurts me the most.

I keep bleeding. The nurse tries to get it to stop, but when she turns away for a moment, I watch as it continues to flow, a little dot turning to a big bead that starts to flow down. I alert her to this, and hold the bandage on tight as she applies it. I’ve got one of the fingers of her glove in my grasp too, accidentally.

I notice my breath is quickening as I look at the blood and force my head away, looking down at the picture of my dog, noting how his paws are splayed on the floor and that one of his Frisbees is upside down.

The nurse worries. Someone apparently fainted in here a few minutes ago, and she wants to make sure I won’t be next. I’m still shaky and I’m still rolling the stuffed umbreon’s ear in my left hand. But I’m fine. I can feel my hand, it was only two tubes, and the thick white bandage she puts on finally covers the blood.

I’m a little shaky when she says I can get up, but I’m not going to faint. Never have, even when I hadn’t worked on my fears and I used to scream every time. I came close to fainting once, but even then, I kept my techniques in my head to keep myself from falling prey to panic.

I feel like I can breathe again when I get outdoors. It’s finally done.

(Although this routine trip to the doctor’s office probably doesn’t sound easy, it’s so much easier than when I first started exposure therapy. By learning the different elements of the doctor’s visit and preparing myself for each one, I can control my anxiety to the point that only small physical cues will let people know that I’m not feeling my best. I went from debilitating anxiety and being unable to do a visit like this by myself to having a normal visit where I can get my medications refilled and blood drawn without panic, and quickly moved on to the rest of my day. Exposure therapy is great for my fears and phobias, and since the progress is so visible, I find it a great way to celebrate my accomplishments while looking forward to even more to come!)

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.



Not Dangerous

TW: Violence

I am diagnosed with a mental health condition, and I am not dangerous.

In the wake of even more mass shootings in America, I am confronted again and again with the misguided belief that people living with mental illness are a risk to the general public due to inherent violent tendencies. After shootings, people look for signs and symptoms, poring over the shooter’s behavior, and if there’s no motivation that makes sense, mental illness is always there to serve as an excuse.

Whenever I hear this, I cringe. It’s true that there are people with diagnosed mental health conditions who have committed violent crimes, but it often gets conflated to the entire population as a risk factor. 

In my experience, this has made it harder for my friends and I to speak out about our problems, especially any sort of negative thoughts we have that may involve violence in some way. And yet, I learned in therapy that “a thought is a thought, not a threat” - which means that even if an intrusive thought pops its way into my head, it’s not going to actually happen unless I choose to make it happen.

I have never experienced an intrusive thought about harming others, but a mindfulness-based OCD workbook I have details these sorts of thoughts: the fear that, by doing or not doing a particular compulsion, you will “snap” and hurt someone. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to confess thoughts like that to a therapist when I’ve had so much trouble confessing other, less “dangerous” thoughts. Maybe this is why these thoughts take root and have time to fester, without the guidance of a therapist to help banish them.

I’m someone who has trusted scary thoughts to a therapist, who helped immeasurably by listening with kindness rather than being afraid. I’ve experienced the fearful kind, the ones who assume that any thought that pops in my head is something I feel the need to do. As if I have no self-control, or even want a thought like that to be there in the first place. As if it’s a threat.

For me, thoughts like that are few and far between, and I have good ways to help myself feel better if a thought scares me. But my favorite coping mechanism often comes under fire: video games.

Two “risk factors,” and I am still not dangerous.

When a childhood friend showed me how to play Grand Theft Auto when I was five, I was too afraid to take the controller. I stared wide-eyed as her character stole a car and mugged someone at gunpoint. I was more curious about the taboo of the character swearing than shooting people. I was diagnosed already, but no hidden desire to commit acts of violence was awakened in me that day.

For many years, my parents didn’t let me have video games at home, more for fear that I’d get obsessed with them in a way that would distract me from school than anything else. When I did finally start playing games, they were games like Pokemon where the only violence was cartoonish. When I started playing more mature games as an adult, I never felt any sort of association with the violence, and often played through battle scenes as quickly as possible to get back to the story.

And yet, I was still afraid to play games with guns. Something in me still believed what I heard, that there could be something dangerous inside me that would get triggered if I pressed a button and killed something on-screen. I stayed away from games with guns for years, and when I played violent games, I was always more interested in the characters’ stories - what else was going on with their character that could be fun to think or write about?

Last year, my dad and I started playing a game that involves guns, Overwatch. I liked it because all the characters have names and stories and diverse backgrounds supported by comic books and short movies that detail an expansive and fascinating world. Plus, it’s a great way to spend time with my dad, as we can play together even if we’re in different states. In the game, I can choose to play a character with a gun and shoot it. But that doesn’t make me want to go anywhere near a real-life gun or ever harm anyone.

For me, it’s all about the difference between stories and reality. I love writing stories, both on paper and in my head, and even if I’d love to live out the plot of some of my favorites, my stories are not true. And the story of people living with mental illness as hidden killers is not only false, but also dangerous. It can create a vicious cycle of stigma that prevents people from admitting that they need help for any sort of mental illness, which can lead to all sorts of things. Maybe, for some small percentage of people, that could mean violence - and then another story fuels the fire.

I can’t pretend to understand everything behind the recent spree of shootings in America. It scares me just as much as it scares my friends and family. But I don’t think it’s fair to anyone to assume that just because they share a characteristic or two with someone who has committed a violent crime, they’re going to be next.

So yes, I live with mental illness, and yes, I play video games, some of which involve violence. But I’m also a dog lover, daughter, Italian food aficionado, cosplayer, friend, writer, proud alumna of my college, employee, Jew, and so much more - and I can only hope that, even with these ideas about mental illness and video games so prevalent, people can see me as simply Ellie, and not feel afraid.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.



The Truth in Mental Health Memes

I tend to not know what most memes (images, text, and/or videos that spread widely across the Internet) mean, but I must admit I laughed when a close friend of mine sent me a new one making the rounds this week.

This new type of memes, called “My Therapist,” involves writing a short, fictitious exchange between a therapist and patient. It begins with the therapist asking a guiding question, followed by the patient giving an incorrect answer. It usually ends with the therapist - or someone else mentioned in the short dialogue - saying “no” to indicate that the answer was wrong.

I must admit I was thrilled to see a meme format that spoke about mental health - even though most people don’t take memes very seriously, it was great to see conversations about mental health happening - and I was particularly happy to find this example, which directly relates to how I cope.

Even before I knew much about writing, I was always coming up with stories in my head. It was a very common occurrence in my childhood for someone to ask me what I was looking at, only for me to realize I was staring off into the distance as I re-entered real life after immersing myself completely in a story.

Inserting trauma into stories, which the above meme references, is the best way I’ve been able to deal with my problems. When I faced a challenge in life and didn’t know how to deal with it, I threw it at a character, and was able to brainstorm solutions. Even if these solutions didn’t apply to the real world - like, if a problem in my story could be solved with a well-programmed robot or a particularly fast horse - I could extrapolate what I could do in real life to mimic that solution. And when I was mired in an endless sea of obsessive thoughts and just needed to escape, I could come up with a story about literally anything else, and dream it to life until I was calm and happy again.

The Ellies are probably the most obvious example of both sides of this. The Ellie from my college thesis grew out of the pain I experienced after my medical crisis seven years ago, when I began to wonder what can stop someone suffering from severe mental illness from breaking. As I discovered the process in real life, it flooded into the story. The Ellie I wrote as a nurse let me explore my fear of hospitals in a sensory way - by describing what a hospital smells and sounds like without experiencing it in real life, I could do some of the early stages of exposure therapy at home.

The stories can also switch purposes - I loved the story of the gymnast Ellie for being popular and athletic in high school when I wasn’t, and after my surgery, I gave her the same ailment and wondered how she’d move on. Spoiler alert, she didn’t move on well, but I eventually did, and writing the story helped me acknowledge my own strength after realizing I had coping skills she didn’t develop because of a lack of adversity.

Sometimes, I write like this on purpose. Other times, it infiltrates my work. More often than not, if I analyze a story of mine with at least one original character (and sometimes fanfiction as well), I find characters with OCD or some other form of anxiety. This can mean my characters have specific things that they obsess about, like a piece I wrote about a favorite character of mine being obsessed about getting to dinner early. Sometimes, their fear stops them from doing what they want. But, even considering this, my characters are focused, single-minded, and determined, and exploring these positive qualities has done a great deal to help my self-esteem after years of bullying in school and beyond.

Nowadays, my commute is a great breeding ground for stories, and the music I listen to often weaves itself into the plot in some way. If I’m bored when I’m doing chores or need a little help relaxing before I go to bed, I hop into my stories as easily as I hop into my own memories. I have a series of stock scenes I go to - re-imaginings of “Character X does Thing Y” that I’ve “written” in my head so many times that I know it by heart - and I also enjoy making up new ones. Since boredom is hard for me to handle, it helps to know that I have a series of stories from a variety of fandoms as well as my original creations to keep my mind away from unsavory things.

It was so refreshing to see a meme that I connected to one of the things I love the most about my life. I don’t think a day will come when I stop writing stories, and to see this written in the context of therapy and also published on the Internet is amazing. I’ve seen so much intolerance of people living with mental illness online that I wonder how this meme came to be, but I like to think it’s a sign that things are changing. People aren’t quite as narrow-minded about what they don’t understand, and words like “therapist” and “coping mechanism” are starting to become more mainstream instead of reserved for one particular community.

Even though many memes are made as jokes, I hope this one may inspire people to see each other in a new light. Maybe the strange behavior you observe in someone else isn’t a lack of respect or something weird to shun, but rather a specific coping skill they’ve developed. These lessons, when presented in a format my generation appreciates, can hopefully lead to more discussions about mental health and treating everyone with the respect they deserve.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.




I was at Navy Pier with some friends when the Andi discussion started again. “I’d be happy to invite anyone here to spend time with us - except Andi,” one person said. Another laughed. I was seeing red when they did impressions of her voice, high-pitched and repetitive.

I tried to stay quiet. I knew, from years of experience, that it was better for my own sake, especially when the person in question wasn’t even there. Andi would never know what people were saying about her in this particular instance. It wasn’t hurting her to hold my tongue and keep my friends happy.

But I just couldn’t, and I blurted out something I wondered weeks ago, but never quite had the courage to ask.

“What’s the difference between Andi and me?”

I hoped, somehow, this question would cow them into silence and maybe even make them think. Instead, I got a very quick answer: “You’re self-aware.”

My friend (I think) went on to say that I knew, when I got too excited about something, that it was too much. I knew how to stop and I knew how to give other people what they needed. “If you’re worried about being like her, you could think up some new topics to talk about,” he told me, trying to be helpful. His tone wasn’t mean, not like when he was talking about Andi. But it hurt all the same.

I know all too well how to stop. As an adult, I’m extremely aware of the fact that I can be excitable and repetitive just like Andi, and the only time I let myself enjoy conversations without thinking is when I’m with my friends.

I know how to stop because I used to not know.

I know now because, when I was a kid invited to a class party and asked the birthday kid’s parents to put the dog in another room due to my phobia, my former best friend asked, “Why did we have to invite her? I’d rather have the dog.”

I know because of the time I went to a bar mitzvah with my classmates and was told there was no room for me on a crowded bench, but there was room for the popular girl who came in later.

I know because of the time that girl asked me to go out for ice cream, and I was so thrilled someone had invited me to do something, only for her to sit with another kid and ignore me completely as my mom paid for her ice cream and drove her home.

I know because of the time my middle school principal yelled at my mom in front of the carpool line when I’d broken a minor rule - I’d played a computer game in class - that “I want this thing out of my school.”

And when my child psychologist tried to intervene, the principal excused her behavior by saying that I was “psychotic” and she was worried about my long-term survival as a person.

I survived, I learned, but this is one lesson I wish I didn’t have to follow.

I wish I could be freer with what I say, share memes like my friends do, make jokes about the things I enjoy. But I’ve learned too well how that behavior makes me a “freak” according to too many people, and the only way to survive was to hide in plain sight.

Even now, I wish I could let a remark like my friend’s go by, laugh it off, and go on with my day. Instead, I watched what I said. I got quiet even when chatter resumed. I realized I’d said a few times that I was really eager to catch a certain pokemon in Pokemon Go, and was calling out when I’d see one on the screen. I not only stopped talking about that, but I also barely responded to another person in the group who started calling them out for me.

Each time something like this happens, I feel a small chip in a budding friendship, creating cracks in what, I assume, for neurotypical people, is a strong foundation. But I always feel like I’m on thin ice, like one glimpse too deep into my true self and I’ll lose everything I’ve built so far. Even now, after years of trying to build my confidence of not only being a person with OCD but also being a person, I still feel the need to hide.

It’s why, even though I’m desperate to get a picture of myself in my new cosplay, I asked a stranger in the elevator who told me I looked pretty. It was easy to fall into the girlish conversations of beauty without going into the real reason I was wearing an elf dress.

It’s why I watched myself so carefully at my Pokemon trading meetup the next day, even though nearly everyone in the room has - and was eagerly talking about - a hyper-specific list of pokemon they want to fit their very rigid goals. I caught myself getting excited once and quickly plopped myself down in a chair. I made sure to only talk about normal things. I blushed deeply when I realized I let my guard down and was talking about my new cosplay to someone who I’d never even mentioned it to before.

As I hurriedly swiped past the photo, I could feel the stare of the friend who told me to find new topics as I quickly asked this girl what she did last weekend, how work was going, and other mundane things.

I was self-aware, and it may have saved me from more heartache like I experienced for years in school and beyond.

It’s sad that I have to be aware that, although I don’t see myself as a freak, other people can (and will) if I don’t keep my thoughts to myself. It’s sad to be aware that if I don’t, every one of my friendships could be in jeopardy.

When I heard that self-awareness was what distinguished me from Andi, I couldn’t help but think that I paid a heavy price to know that I was too much, and I never want to pay that price again. It also made me sad to think of someone else first learning how painful it is to be hated for who you are.

Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to be so self-aware, that I could just interact with people without worrying about if I’m being normal enough. I hope that, as more time goes on and I make friends with kinder people, that I can also learn when it’s okay to let go, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Until then, I’ll live in the middle, navigating how and when I can show myself, and hoping this lesson will be less painful than the ones before.

Ellie, a writer new to the Chicago area, was diagnosed with OCD at age 3. She hopes to educate others about her condition and end the stigma against mental illness.