No One Told Me That Childhood Anxiety is Real

As a kid, I was plagued by intense fears that made me feel isolated and misunderstood.

Written by Michaela Casko

No One Told Me That Childhood Anxiety is Real

01 Approximately 7% of children in the United States ages 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety.

02 Caregivers of a child may not always know what to look for in a child with anxiety, and more education and resources should be available.

03 Michaela’s experience growing up with childhood anxiety taught her a lot but does not define her.

Some of my earliest memories are of being in my childhood bedroom in the middle of the night, crying for reasons I didn’t understand.

Sleep would rarely come, and when it did, it rarely stayed. The night became my worst fear. Being awake wasn’t much better than the nightmares I had: I felt an unbearable loneliness in the night that I couldn’t describe.

My symptoms were obvious during the day, too.

I was beyond being a “shy” kid. I was terrified of anyone who wasn’t my mom. I did okay with my close group of friends at preschool and eventually elementary school, but I remember, even that young, being unreasonably terrified of saying the wrong thing, of people laughing at me, and of people hating me. Adults would comment on how tiny I was for my age, and I would worry I was somehow doing something wrong. 

Sleep would rarely come, and when it did, it rarely stayed. The night became my worst fear.

I learned to read at a very young age and soon after I learned that books were my friend, a way I could cope with the anxiety I experienced daily. I could lose myself in a story. I could stay up all night reading with my little book light, or my dolphin-shaped lamp that gave off a dim but cozy glow. The characters in my books, often kids like me, would always be smart enough to solve their problems. If the kid in my book could climb Mount Everest, I could deal with the bully that stole my toys. 

My dad and I found an author that we loved to read together and the characters became friends that we could bond over. We talked about them like they were real. What might they do next? How would they outsmart the evil adults who were poaching animals?

As much as I found ways to deal with my anxiety, I always felt different, isolated. I had no idea how to explain to my parents that sometimes I didn’t feel like I was real, or that I was scared - really scared - to go to bed. I couldn’t explain to my dad why talking on the phone made me nervous. The disconnect between my unexplainable symptoms and our need for time together caused a rift in our relationship that no one is to blame for and that we’re still healing from today.

Finally, eventually, the way I was feeling was given a name: Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This vague diagnosis was intimidating, but I found resources and began seeing professionals. But this did not happen until I was a teenager. I grew up scared. Scared of why I was scared. Unable to speak up.

I later learned that my favorite singer/songwriter, Scott Hutchison of the Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, also suffered from severe anxiety as a child, and I felt validated. A charity called Tiny Changes has since been set up to honor him, one that focuses on mental health in children. I cried when I read about it. I hope that even one child can find some comfort or hope through its programs. The name of the charity comes from a line in a Frightened Rabbit song that our community of fans has used as a rallying cry, a comfort, a call to action: “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to earth.” 

I don’t blame my parents for not knowing what was happening to me. They did their best to help with any problems I was having, but they both worked full time in order to give me a good home, a warm bed, and a good life. They didn’t know what signs to look for in children with anxiety.

I don’t know if someone had known the right things to ask my younger self, if things would have turned out different for me. I used to wonder that quite a bit, but I don’t see a point in that now.

When I was diagnosed with the disorders I have been diagnosed with, there was a bit of reflection, but not much time for it. I had to focus on graduating high school, setting up the foundation for a version of me in the future who would deal with the consequences of the now. As soon as I asked, my family stepped up and stood behind me like an army behind a commander, ready to do whatever it took to fight this war. So we fought it, and we still are today.

I try to look at the positives when I can. I was a cute kid, smart, independent, loving, constantly seeking knowledge, and always supported in that quest. I am lucky to have had the upbringing I had, surrounded by pure and unconditional love. Sometimes I have a memory of a moment that’ll make me think, “Huh. That was my anxiety showing itself.”

Anxiety has always been a part of me, and it likely always will. My goal now is not to cure it. It’s to survive alongside it, to use it to my advantage to help others, and to learn to ask for what I need. I talk to my anxiety sometimes, to validate the feelings but let them know they won’t stop me.

“Hey, anxiety...I see you being loud today. You won’t stop me. I made it through this feeling before and I will make it through it again.”

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