Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

I’d been encouraging my normally chipper eleven year old daughter to consider getting a new dresser, a bigger one where we wouldn’t have to annex pajamas to a shelf in her closet.  I’d shown her some in catalogues—which she normally loves poring over.  But she declined, with a defiant no that seemed disproportionate.

“Okay,” I said.  “No big deal.”  Just a dresser, just a suggestion.  Then I took a risk and asked why she’d snapped at me, if something was wrong.  She might have snapped again; she might have denied that she’d raised her voice (it’s what I might have done at her age) but she didn’t.  Instead she confessed to being grumpy lately.

“And I don’t know why,” she said.

My first thought was: uh-oh, here they come: the new moods of early adolescence.  But maybe it was something more fundamental than that.  Maybe it had to do with some Really Big Changes coming up in our family.

First, after nearly a three year sabbatical, during which I wrote two novels, choreographed three children’s musical productions and began blogging, I am resuming my psychotherapy practice which will mean a shift in everyone’s schedule as well as some form of childcare.  My kids are used to me being there all of the time; now they’ll have to adjust to most of the time.  Second, my husband is in the middle of a job transition, which means some extra stress and uncertainty.  On a lesser and more predictable note, my son is turning nine, which to me feels like a bigger deal than eight (“eight” sounds little still; “nine” not so much).

But the biggest change of all, the one we’re talking about the most anyway, is that my daughter is starting middle school, which, in our town, begins in sixth grade.  It’s not just that she’s going to a new school, bigger and further away than her old one, where she’ll have to take the bus instead of walking or being driven by me.  It’s not just that she’s saying goodbye to many old friends who are going to different schools or “hello” to a whole new crop of kids she doesn’t know (and whose parents I don’t know).   It’s all of these things and more: the unknown.  For most people, anxiety—identified or not—is a big part of venturing into unfamiliar turf.  And, as I know from personal and professional experience: anxiety can feel just like depression.  Especially if you throw a little sleep deprivation into the mix.  (My daughter is still recovering from a week of sleep-away camp.)

For me the change is significant too.  Becoming the parent of a middle schooler is the start of some new and really big words.  Adolescence.  Independence.  Inevitably Increased Screen Presence.  On some level, I believe myself to be prepared.  As a family therapist, I specialize in adolescence; for the six years I worked at the former Montclair Counseling Center, about fifty percent of my clients were teenagers; about twenty-five percent were families and couples who’d come into therapy to talk about issues related to their kids and teens.  I felt confident translating between teens and their parents.  I gave talks on the teenager-parent power struggle.

I’ve had countless kids tell me they felt a certain way or were acting a certain way—and didn’t know why.  Actually, my favorite part about being a therapist is tracking feelings.  I don’t know why I’m angry; I don’t know what’s making me sad.  Even in the case where moods are truly biological or chemical in origin, there are always triggers: losses, moves or other life events that contribute (which is why therapy is always recommended along with medication!).  It’s so normal, so common to be grumpy, grouchy, sad or however you manifest stress when things are in flux.  Day to day snapping at people, nightly bouts of tears, feelings of emptiness and I-don’t-know-why listlessness—when you trace them back, it’s not surprising to find something concrete that you didn’t think bothered you all that much.

I remember when I was nineteen, on a leave from college, about to move to the Midwest for the first time to join a mid-sized ballet company.  I was excited about living in an apartment of my own for the first time, not a dorm, paying my own rent, my own utilities, groceries, such as they’d be.  The best part was that dancing with a real ballet company had been my dream for as long as I could remember; now it was coming true.  I’d have my own pointe shoe order, an amazing repertoire to learn, not to mention a paycheck—a real pay check.  But why was I feeling down?  Why these unexpected crying jags at night?  The therapist I saw at the time made her usual quizzical-sympathetic face (a face I swore never to make once I became a therapist, right up there with the phrase how did that make you feel?) as she wondered aloud whether I was having some feelings about leaving home for the first time?

“Absolutely not,” I said.  “I can’t wait to leave.  Besides, it’s not the first time; I’ve been in college (one hour’s drive away) for over a year.”    And then I began to cry anew.

Well how about that?  Maybe I did have some feelings about leaving, about dancing full-time, about living in Ohio … about all the wild and crazy new-ness, the fear that maybe I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.

Most people I know, clients as well as friends and family, suppress fears and worries to a degree, just to get through the day.  But it builds.  It can makes you sad or angry if you don’t explore what’s going on and sort it out.  You take it out on others, if not yourself.

When it comes to transitions, most people have plenty of fears and worries, even if the transition is something they’re thrilled about on some level.  A move to a new house, a new job, a new baby, a new school.  All can be hugely exciting; all can increase anxiety, bring on or exacerbate depression.   In a few weeks, my daughter will have a new school, new classes, a new bus, and new peers.  A Hogwarts-like house system, a specialized arts program, an audition for the school play the second week of school.  Going from a tiny school where every teacher knows and loves her, to an enormous school where no one knows her.  Going from being the oldest in the school to the youngest.  Lots and lots of changes.  Possibly enough to make anyone grumpy.   My therapist training had given me the skills to talk about this with kids.  But those were other people’s kids.  They were in my professional realm, not my personal one.  This was my own daughter.  Since I’m her mother, I am—by status, by role, and by virtue of the fact that I make her do things like make her bed and write thank-you notes—really annoying, which cuts down on the credibility I might have had with a tween client her age.   I had to choose my words and tread more carefully, wanting to be supportive, hoping to get her talking but not wanting to sound too therapist-y.

“Summer is ending,” I said, trying to sound neutral.  A cricket outside chortled its agreement.  “Think you might be feeling a little sad about that?”

“Maybe,” she said.

“And …” a deep breath, “middle school is coming up soon.  Any feelings about starting middle school?”

She assured me it wasn’t that.  “I can’t wait for middle school to start.”

But we talked a little more.  There were some details, she admitted, a few small ones, she might be wondering about.  Like the bus, like being in a House with the friends she’s got from elementary school.  Like some other stuff she hadn’t realized were on her mind.  We talked about the worries that she said weren’t really worries until her excitement about going to this big new place really took over.  Soon she was gushing about the cool things she’d heard from friends with older siblings who went there.  I’ve found this with clients too: when you’ve got mixed feelings about a transition: both thrills and doubts, you can only really enjoy the thrills once you’ve unpacked the doubts.   My daughter had moved on to the thrills, happily speculating about the future.  But I felt like I had to get in my therapeutic mama moment:

“It’s so normal,” I said.  “To worry about things even when you’re happy about them.  And sometimes, worries you don’t talk about can make you sad without knowing why.”  I was saying it after the fact; it might have been moot anyway at this point, but I said it.

“Hmm.”  She said, pretending to think it over, though really I think she was patronizing me.  She rolled over and went to sleep.  But I know she heard me.  And maybe next time the “grumpies” set in, we’ll have a good place to start.

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12 responses to “Why am I sad? Anxiety in Disguise

  1. I am glad I found this and thank you for sharing! It has given me a whole lot of insight to some things going on in our lives. I guess I needed to be reminded that I am not unique with these same transitions and changes, everyone goes through them at some point in their life. My and my son’s emotions that perhaps I thought were a form of depression (which I would never own) makes since that is more anxiety and the fear of the unknown or even my suppressed fear of success. Thank you for this valuable insight!

  2. It’s so wonderful that you can let your daughter talk about her feelings and analyze them together — no being judgmental but allowing that they happen to everyone. With the power that comes from being self-aware, your daughter will be able to navigate the tempestuous middle-school years so much better.

  3. I wonder what your daughter thinks about your work?

  4. Good question, Gilly. I think that’s a new conversation we need to have. In the past, she used to point out random people we saw around and ask if those were my clients. I think it was a bit of a mystery. Now, however, I know she has some friends who are in family therapy, so I think it may be a more accessible thing for her to get. My son too, I think.

  5. Loved this.

  6. Transitions, Lisa. It’s a lot to do with transitions. I agree. Right now, I’ll be honest. I’m feel a little sad because my son, who had returned home after college, is moving out–all over again. Last time he left was several years ago to go to college. I got used to him being away, Then, 18 months ago, he quit his job and moved back home. Was supposed to be temporary, a month or two at most. But we got along great. A second chance for us to bond, and now he’s moving out. I cannot begin to tell you how I feel, even though I know that for him, it’s the right thing. Transitions. They’re always here. My daughter’s home from school, and soon she’ll be going back. Guess that’s life.

  7. My daughter is in the same position. She’s excited for kindergarten but afraid to be away from me for that long. She asked me what will happen if she misses me. Broke my heart, too. I keep telling her that I’ll miss her too but she’ll be learning, having fun, and making new friends. I told her school is her job. She’s a big girl now and she has responsibilities just like her father and I do. I think she understands, and I hope the first day goes smoothly.

  8. Kelly it’s so great that you both talked about it and that she can identify what she’s feeling. I bet it will be a wonderful time for her. By the time the first week of kindergarten was over, my daughter was feeing so proud of her independence.

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