I was born in a state of panic and have dealt with anxiety ever since. My birth, I was told, was rapid. Too rapid. The amniotic fluids choked me, and breathing was difficult, requiring a number of post- delivery visits to the pediatrician, who expelled the fluids dangerously lingering in or near my lungs.
Next came severe separation anxiety, school phobia, panic attacks, and a constant state of being on high alert, including a startle response that amuses people around me to this day. “Look at that cricket- it’s trying to fly!” would send me two feet off my chair.
I experienced a series of real tragedies growing up– a ruptured appendix at age seven that brought me close to death. And a pulmonary embolism that *did* suddenly take my father in the middle of the night when I was ten.
You can’t escape trauma.
A beloved pet dies during your childhood. Chances are, you’ve lost a beloved grandparent, aunt, or other loved one along the way. Maybe you’ve struggled with parental abuse or neglect. Or a sexual assault. Not all trauma is as obvious or as devastating as these, but no one escapes. The birth of a younger sibling can take an emotional toll, as you, the older child, suddenly loses the entire focus of your parents.
But some kids are simply more resilient than others. Their temperament may protect them from long- term troubling consequences. Maybe even PTSD. Some children have sensitive protective parents who are more able to guide their traumatized, fearful children into a calmer state. They help teach their children to self-regulate, meaning, helping them to calm their over-charged nervous system. Most parents mean well but are dealing with their own demons that keep them from maintaining themselves in a calm state, let alone their children’s.
Over the years, I’ve been studying the work of Dr. Gabor Mate’, who has repeatedly said that ADHD is not as simple as having an imbalance of brain chemicals. He feels ADHD is not simply a genetic biological disorder, either- it’s much more complicated than that. In his book, “Scattered”, Mate’ talks about his own ADHD as being the result of early trauma in his own life as he lived through WWll with a terrified, depressed mother who took significant measures to ensure the safety of her infant son, including handing him to a complete stranger to take him away from the genocide that was taking over Budapest, where he was born. Dr. Mate’ suggests that we may have a genetic predisposition for having ADHD but it’s temperamental sensitivities and early childhood experiences that will bring it out. He suggested I study the works of Drs. Bessel Van der Kolk and Peter Levine. I did, and since then, my thoughts about ADHD have, indeed, changed course.
Fast forward to the current COVD-9 pandemic. I watch how others are dealing with this- some better, some worse, than me. My startle response has internalized into reactions that can’t be seen by others but feel like tsunamis to my nervous system.
ADHD+ anxiety + trauma is not a great combination when one’s world seems to be splitting apart. I was talking to a friend and said the virus feels like “the invisible monster” that terrified me every night when I was growing up. I’d see shadows in my room, imagine killers climbing through my window, and spiders dropping on my face. Every little sound was a trigger that meant I was in danger. But I couldn’t see the boogie man or the killer. Just like we can’t see the coronavirus.
Our world has changed in ways we’ve never experienced before. We are sequestered in our homes, fearful of touching the mail that’s just been dropped into our mail slots. Do we wash down the navel oranges with soap- food that took five days to be delivered to our homes because it’s too dangerous to venture into stores, fearing those who reject the concept of social distancing and face masks?
How many rolls of toilet paper do we order (if we’re lucky to even find any) without feeling guilty about our need to hoard? That need is actually our anxiety playing itself out; not selfishness.
It reminds me of the stories I heard from my grandmother, who lost her mother- my great-grandmother- and others in the Holocaust. Before their horrific deaths, her family in Austria-Hungary was starving. Having escaped the harsh conditions by sailing to America alone at age 16, years before the Nazis destroyed her village, it was hard to picture life in her small town. But I’d always been terrified watching the film clips of Hitler and the death camps. I can’t bring myself to visit Holocaust museums. My nervous system simply cannot handle the intensity of my feelings.
The invisible monster haunts me.
Now that I have a better understanding of my own ADHD and anxiety, I’ve learned that it’s ok to be afraid at times. I’ve learned that it’s ok to reach out and find ways to make life easier during major stressors. The best treatment is self-compassion. When working with women with ADHD, I repeatedly hear: “I’m not being productive enough.” So many women (and men) judge themselves by what they don’t do instead of what they can do. So while we wait out this invisible monster, unsure where or when it will be laid to rest, it’s ok to watch TV or sit in front of your computer for hours. Let your nervous system calm down. Of course, meditation, exercise, good health habits in general are imperative. But let your body dictate what is best for you right now. The “invisible monster” is temporary- remember that- and we need to let ourselves rest as best we can so that we avoid a more chronic type of trauma that can be as problematic, if not worse, than the current one.
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