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Peace, Love & Anxiety

To A Kid

by Christy Gualtieri

I had a very curious relationship with myself as a kid. (I need to preface this by saying that I was raised by two exceptionally loving parents and a wonderful family.  I can in all honesty say that I have been loved every day of my life.) But as a kid, I didn’t necessarily understand it the way I do now. I didn’t outwardly dislike myself; I was content in my own world of reading and writing, and I liked school and watching TV and spending time with my cousins and friends. But maybe it was because I had two younger brothers, one of whom was (and still is) very charismatic and loved the spotlight, that I found myself wanting to – no, needing to change in order to be someone worth knowing. I needed, somehow, more attention. I wanted the world – which is very difficult to navigate as an elementary schooler – to know who I was. So I tried.

I’ll give you some examples. One of the kids in my second grade class had glasses, and he was popular, so I squinted and begged and lied about having headaches in the classroom because I couldn’t see what the teacher had written on the board. He had glasses, so I needed them, too. (And although I didn’t get them then I did eventually need them…in middle school, and if anything they made me less popular.) One of the pretty girls in class had Type 1 diabetes and had to test her blood sugar by pricking her finger with a needle every day, and so I would draw a colored-in circle on my index finger with a red pen before I got on the school bus to show that I, too, needed special treatment for something because I was special, too. (I am acutely aware now, as an adult, of how messed up it sounds to pretend to have Type 1 Diabetes just to get attention, by the way.  It just made sense to me at the time.) And one day, in the middle of the school year, I insisted to everyone on the school bus that my real name wasn’t the plain one I wrote on my papers and teachers called me by. My real name is much more exotic. Veronica. And I wouldn’t answer to anything else. (…It’s a lovely name, but my name was never Veronica. It’s always been Christy.)

For all of the things I liked about myself, there were so many things I wanted to change. I always felt a step or two behind, always off-trend, always missing what everyone else seemed to intrinsically know. And I needed that validation, I guess. Parents and teachers always were ready with praises, but it was the recognition from my peers that meant the most to me. The only trouble was, it was the one I lacked the most. It also didn’t help that my ultra-charismatic brother, who went to the same school, was the class favorite. He always had an invite to the party, a large group of friends around, and he always knew what to say. I was always a bit chubby in middle school, and straight up ballooned in size well through high school and college, adding to my depression. I found it harder and harder to fight through all of the comments about my weight and the comparing I’d do to the other girls at school, but it was pretty plain to me that there wasn’t a whole lot about myself that I liked.

My parents would try to help, give me little pep talks and try to cheer me up, but not much clicked until college. That’s when I really found out who I was, and was able to surround myself with friends who I had so much in common with – and found out I could be my true self around. Because of them, I grew into a (mostly) confident adult who (sometimes) struggles with anxiety but who genuinely, in all honesty, today can say that she loves herself. It’s been a long process, but I’m really glad of it, because it’s made me into the person I am today.

My oldest child is starting elementary school this year, and I’ve already seen him comparing himself to his peers, pointing out to me where he doesn’t measure up. It breaks my heart, but I remember what it felt like for me to be his age. So I give him an extra hug, give him those extra moments of encouragement and send him on his way, ready with a pep talk of my own for when he gets off the school bus at the end of the day. He might not appreciate it now, but maybe he’ll get it, the way I once did, when I became a grown up.

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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Peace, Love & Anxiety

“Thanks, but…”

by Christy Gualtieri

How do you take compliments? It doesn’t have to be anything big; it can be a small comment someone makes to you about an outfit you’re wearing, or how your hair looks, or noticing a good job you’ve done on a project at work.  What’s your first instinct? Do you listen and thank the person? Or do you do what I do, which is completely downplay it while thinking they’re absolutely crazy?

Here’s what I mean.  I was at the pharmacy a few weeks ago, trying to pick up a prescription that was taking a while.  There was some miscommunication about the medicine and as I was trying to talk it over with the pharmacist, my young kids were…well, being young kids.  After many attempts to calm them down, including threats of taking away every toy that has graced our household over the past six years (and there were many; we have very generous family and friends), I sat them down on a nearby bench and noisily opened a bag of pretzels we’d just bought.  They sat there, quiet for the first time in hours, nibbling; and an older woman walked by. She looked down at them and then up at me, and complimented them on how good they were being.

“Yep, they’re good now,” I agreed.  “But you should have seen them just a few minutes ago.”

See what I mean? I could have smiled and thanked her and affirmed them, because they really are generally well behaved.  And I’m not a toddler anymore, but the thought of standing at a pharmacy for a very long time trying to iron out an issue over medication also makes me want to throw fits, so I understand where they’re coming from.  But I did what I normally do when I receive a compliment: I downplayed it. If someone pays me a compliment these days, my initial reaction is “Really? You should have seen me just a few minutes ago, or a day ago, or last week, when I…”  And the list goes on and on.

Why do I do this? I’m pretty sure it has to do with self-esteem.  For those of us who are lacking in that department, it takes work to believe that there are things about us worth praising.  It’s much easier for me to downplay compliments and reinforce those negative thoughts about myself. But if I do that, what am I achieving? What message does that send? It would do me well to remember that there is an endless supply of compliments in the world.  If someone gives me one, it’s not like it’s being wasted and someone else on the planet won’t get one. And it’s helpful for my kids to watch and learn how to receive compliments gracefully, because it helps them remember that they are worthy of praise, too.

I’m going to try, the next time someone says something nice about something I wore or did or achieved, to smile, thank them, and embrace it.  If you struggle with this too, let’s try it together!

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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Peace, Love & Anxiety

The Shape of Fear

by Christy Gualtieri

On a recent episode of NPR’s “TED Radio Hour,” I listened to a man, named Isaac Lidsky – a very successful child actor, Harvard graduate, and law clerk to two Supreme Court justices – give a talk about how he shaped his reality. It’s something we all do; how do we see ourselves, how do we see our lives? The interesting challenge for him is that he suffers from a rare genetic disease that rendered him completely blind in his mid-twenties. Up until the time he lost his eyesight, he had shaped his reality based on what he could see, like most of us do. He did that until he couldn’t…and then he figured out that he had to shape his own reality in other ways. I was drawn to his story by the truth of this one section of his talk:

“Sight is just one way we shape our realities. We create our own realities in many other ways. Let’s take fear as just one example. Your fears distort your reality. Under the warped logic of fear, anything is better than the uncertain. Fear fills the void at all costs, passing off what you dread for what you know, offering up the worst, substituting assumption for reason…fear replaces the unknown with the awful.”

As a chronic worrier and someone who has suffered from anxiety for much of my life, I totally understood what he was saying. I could affirm it all, because I’ve felt it all. Even when things in my life are going well, I sometimes walk on eggshells, looking up, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  If things are going badly, it just affirms my worry, and so it’s conditioned me to keep worrying, since I was “right,” anyway. And when things have been going well for a while, I will create things to worry about, because it’s hard for me to adjust to things going well. (And not that I’ve had this horrible life, at all — I have had, in fact, a wonderful life filled to the brim with countless blessings — but I have so trained my brain to only search for the bad for so long that it honestly can’t always deal with the good. It feels downright uncomfortable!) And if I did have a situation where the outcome was unknown, you can bet that I’d be imagining the worst case scenario.

It’s not the healthiest way to live, but I’m working on it; and with years of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques to practice, it gets a lot easier with time and with work.

Lidsky provides his solution for dealing with fear, and I found that pretty spot on, too:

“See beyond your fears.  Recognize your assumptions. Harness your internal strength. Silence your internal critic…open your hearts to your bountiful blessings.”

Mr. Lidsky’s talk in its entirety can be watched here, and I highly recommend it.  It’s a brief guide to help you navigate through the fear that might dictate your life – and proof that it’s something that can be overcome with time and hard work. (I also highly recommend working through this process with a licensed therapist, who is specially trained to help you through this experience and can provide a solid sounding board to help you work through fears and anxieties.)

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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Peace, Love & Anxiety

First Time On

by Christy Gualtieri

Here in Southwestern PA, Spring decided to just skip right over us, and we’re experiencing Summer’s high temps and intense storm systems. At the school bus stop in the mornings, it’s meant no sweatshirts, shorts and tees; and on the weekends it’s meant time in the wading pool.  And last week, it’s meant a trip to Kennywood!

If you’re not from the area, Kennywood is an iconic amusement park that was opened in the late 1800s (!) and is only one of two in the entire country to be designated as a National Historic Landmark.  It’s home to a variety of exciting rides, entertainment venues, and a special area just for children, Kiddieland, that features pint-sized versions of the park’s most popular rides.

Although my children were born here, we’d never been to Kennywood, and we didn’t really know what to expect – but once we got inside the park, we had a blast. Well, my son and I did at first. My daughter pretty much lost her mind her first time on a ride (the carousel), and was inconsolable every time we tried to get in line for a new one.

After about a half hour I stood there, daughter in the stroller and son on a kiddie ride, and decided that I’d take her on the next one with us. No other adult was with us to watch her while I went on with my son, and I knew it’d be very boring for all of us to just walk around and watch my son ride alone; and so when we approached the next ride, I told her that we’d all ride together.

And again, cue the screaming.  But I held firm, parked the stroller, and picked her up and carried her into the ride car with us. I strapped her in tightly next to me (her screams had subsided a bit by this point), and as the attendant went around double-checking our straps, I leaned over to her.

I’m right here. Sometimes we just have to be brave, Sweetheart.

The ride began, and wouldn’t you know it, she absolutely loved it. She was a bit uncertain at first, but by the time the ride ended, she was asking to go again. We spent the next few hours riding together and having a great time (I especially loved that she fell asleep almost the instant we got back to our car).  And I was proud of her for trying to be brave, and succeeding.

You can never learn these things too early, but it’s never too late, either. There’s been countless times as an adult when I’ve had to face things that have ranged from mildly scary to intensely terrifying, and those same words have rung true for me. I take a deep breath, look at myself in the mirror, and say it:

Sometimes we just have to be brave, Sweetheart.

What are you afraid of? What do you need to be brave in the face of? And who do you have with you who will be right there through it all?

Until next time, be well!
Christy

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Peace, Love & Anxiety

Two Secrets

by Christy Gualtieri

It never really goes away, you know.  I think that’s what I want to tell you the most.

Have you ever seen those pharmaceutical commercials where the person (usually cartoon-animated) has a chronic illness, and that illness is personified somehow? Like it’s a creature in the shape of a bladder or an elephant or a cloud.  And it suffocates the person, or sits on their chest so they can’t breathe, or they’re pulling the person endlessly toward the bathroom (that would be the cartoon bladder). After the person gets fed up and takes whatever medicine the commercial is promoting, the chronic issue is still there. It might be smaller, or have a smiley face, or is now led around on a leash (that would be the elephant), but it’s always still there.

Anxiety always is, too. I don’t know what my anxiety would look like, if you asked me to personify it. But it comes and goes, too – it’s not that special. It’s like any other chronic illness. When things are going well and I’m on top of my self-care game, then it hangs back. But when I’m angry or tired or something stressful occurs, it’s like it’s gotten the signal from the coach to jump back in the game, stronger than ever. And the feelings are the same: near panic. Aching body. Shorter breaths. Quicker tears.

It is better now that I know what it is. Before I knew I had anxiety, it would scare me, not being able to control it. I’d despair because I’d put the work in – I’d go to sessions, I’d try changing up my diet and exercising and drinking more water, I’d take deeper breaths and stay off my phone more – but it wasn’t going away.

But that’s the secret. It doesn’t ever go away.

When I realized that, I felt free.

__

When my mother passed away, I read somewhere that grief “never stops hurting.  Over time, it hurts with the same intensity, just less frequently.” And so it is with my anxiety, too. I know the signs. I have strategies ready for when it gets really bad. And when it does, I rely on grace, those strategies, and the love of my family and friends to get through the days. And I get through to the other side.

That’s the other secret. There is another side. Maybe you don’t think there is one. Maybe you think it’s going to be like this forever. And I understand that; anxiety and depression can trick you into thinking it’s always going to be terrible, that you’ll never see the light. But you will. There is another side. There is a way out. It’s going to take work, but most things that are worth anything do. Is it fair? No. Is it your fault? No. But it’s reality, just like it’s a reality that you can and will get through it.

We’re wrapping up Mental Health Awareness month, and if you’ve been looking for a good time to reach out to someone to get you back on solid ground again, I really encourage you to try. If you’ve been in therapy for a while, keep going – keep pushing, keep talking, keep striving.  Drink that water. Get that sunlight. Create those strategies, and pull them out when you need them. No shame.

When you’re feeling better, encourage others. Shine your light on them. When you’re in darkness, rely on others to pull you through, and accept their light. And know that we are with you, every step of the way! Thanks for reading and being a light to me, too.

Until next time, be well!
Christy