The panic attacks began for my mom when she was 29. She was six months pregnant with me. Doctors told her it was pre-partum depression that would go away after she gave birth. But the panic didn’t go away. So then the doctors said it was just postpartum depression that would go away after about six months. But it didn’t go away then either.
She told me this recently, but that all happened in the late 1970s. My mom was 18 in 1966, living in a suburb of Los Angeles. She is exactly the same age as Pamela Des Barres and grew up only a few miles away from her.
They didn’t know each other. And they would not have been friends anyway. Pamela Des Barres was the ultimate groupie chick during possibly the exact right time – the intersection of the sexual revolution and the development of pop and rock music into unknown magical forms, along with rampant drug experimentation.
If you want to know more about Pamela Des Barres, read her book I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie. It’s great. If you want to know more about my mom, anxiety, and myself, then read on.
I’ve always had deep affection for Sixties music. The sweet loveliness of girl groups from the beginning of the decade like The Ronettes, The Shirelles, and The Supremes kills me softly. And then there’s The Beatles, The Velvet Underground, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Love, and a lot of other stuff in a lot of other genres. Something about this period in American Music has always fascinated me.
My mom loves Neil Diamond and she’s never heard of Leonard Cohen. They’re both special to me. She says she stopped listening to The Beatles when Sgt Pepper’s came out because she thought it was too weird. I think she really probably stopped after Revolver, though I know she had a copy of The White Album.
As far as I’m concerned the Beach Boys hit their stride with “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds. My mom likes the earlier poppy stuff about cars and surfing, even though she was never into drag racing or riding waves. She’s into whatever she finds wholesome, whatever that is.
She never had a sip of alcohol or smoked anything, even when her friends were partying. My grandmother told her that we have a very fertile family, and if she has (PIV) sex, she will get pregnant. Just like her cousin, who got pregnant and then got married because she was pregnant.
So my mom waited. And she got pregnant immediately after she got married. She had an IUD, but she did not realize it had dislodged until it was too late. That said, my brother was welcome and wanted.
All my mom ever really wanted was to be around babies, and watch them grow up into adults who have babies, and so on. Maybe she wanted other things, but this has always been her big interest. She worked in early childhood development for most of her life.
And she’s very sad that I don’t want to have babies and that nobody really thinks my brother should have babies. It’s an something of an American Tragedy.
Her panic attacks developed into agoraphobia, so much as I can understand, because she realized she did not get them at home. So, she stopped going out. She’s always refused to drive on the freeway, and if you ask her why, she’ll say, “If you don’t know, then you don’t know me.” She cannot give a more elaborate reason than that.
The reason, I believe, is that she must have had a panic attack while driving, or sensed some severe anxiety about it and just stayed away. She doesn’t like driving at night or in the rain or by herself. A lot of people say that’s natural, but it’s also often necessary.
And the more you do it, the less fearful you are about it. At least, that’s been my experience. That’s what they taught me in group therapy. And also in speech class, even though I loathe public speaking. You’re not likely to see me give a TED talk any time soon.
The whole idea of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is to force bodily response similar to anxiety and learn how to recognize, identify, experience, and manage them. That’s how I keep a small amount of anxiety from becoming a large amount of anxiety.
In CBT group, they made us breath through a tiny straw to simulate shortness of breath. They spun us around in chairs to force dizziness and blurred vision. They made one of us stand while the rest were sitting to feel the pressure of social anxiety, alienation, and discomfort. It’s not easy and it’s not pleasant and it takes a lot of exposure.
My mom has gone to group therapies for decades, but I’m not really sure if she’s done CBT. She’s seen therapists one-on-one to learn how to manage social anxiety and become more assertive, but she says it doesn’t really work for her. She cannot remember what to do in the moment, and people do not stick to the script. Deep down, I believe she doesn’t really want to have to do any of this.
She wants people to be more helpful to her special needs. She wants to be able to stay away from stressful situations. It’s really not much different from a person wanting to take drugs to reduce anxiety, even though from a psychological treatment and CBT perspective, this does not improve the situation. It’s a bandage over a wound that will not heal on its own.
But my mom will still not go out to cafes or restaurants by herself. She doesn’t really want to do that, even when she wants to get out of the house. Drug treatments may have helped reduce her agoraphobia to a manageable level, but she doesn’t really talk much about that. She’s likely embarrassed and feels the society stigmas about it.
She told me she believes everyone thinks she’s a loser if she goes out to eat by herself. I told her if she goes to a restaurant and sits at a table, people will think she’s hungry and that’s about it. I’ve also suggested she try sitting at the bar, where it’s more serviceable for diners to sit solo. Drinking alcohol is not required. She’s very reluctant to do this for whatever reason.
My mom says at least she knows she’s crazy, unlike my grandmother, who just thought everyone else was crazy. I do believe she wants anxiety not to be a problem in her life, but she seems to want to achieve this by convincing her friends and family to be more accommodating and kind.
Even though she’s lived in the same area for over sixty years, she’s still afraid of getting lost. I believe that’s a big part of why she doesn’t like to go out alone. It’s almost impossible to get lost where she lives, in my opinion, and there’s also GPS in the car and in her phone. But the technology intimidates her and she’s rather not have to rely on something she’s not accustomed to using, especially in a moment of panic when she probably cannot think clearly as it is.
I’d rather be not be dependent on drugs or people.
Drugs weaken resolve.
People are unreliable.
Dogs and trees, though…
Find a yourself good dog and a nice tree and those are the making for a great day.
Transparency: I’m very nervous about this post. My mom has a lot of internalized shame regarding her anxiety, and I’m feeling concerned and protective of her. If someone she knows reads this and comes to her with what she perceives as pity, she’ll feel humiliated. That’s no good. Part of why I’m writing this blog is to reduce stigma and raise awareness and visibility for mental health. There’s no reason to be embarrassed, but that comes with anxiety for most people. That said, gossip can be nasty. So, if you know me or my mom, please be kind and respectful.
Post Script: I should add that my mom has apologized time and again for “giving” Generalized Anxiety Disorder to me. I always tell her honestly that I do not blame her, and that she had no control over what genetic traits her children inherited. But maybe she wishes her mother would have expressed some sorrow for raising her in an overly cautious, biologically determined and gendered environment. I do not believe parents can nurture anxiety disorders out of existence even if they are aware of them, but nurturing definitely helps manage their expression. And I’m grateful for having a mother who is capable of that.