The lifecycle of anxiety

When you have the good fortune that I do of being allowed quite intimate glimpses into the lives, minds and psyches of so many different people, you can not help but be amazed and awed by the extraordinary range of human emotions, tenacious ability to cope and adapt. People constantly work towards what they believe will make their lives better. But does the end always meet the expectations? Do we always nail the idea of what happiness is? Does the journey take the toll if we don’t recognise the true meaning of personal happiness and unconsciously keep carrying the burden of generations before us?

Here’s a story that evoked these thoughts in my mind. Will be interesting to see what your analysis of this family’s story will be.

Alex was born in a large family. His father George was a decorated war hero and had returned home after serving in the Great War with pride but also carrying the hardness instilled by the cruel experiences of the war. The already tough farm life was further hardened by the distant and detached behaviour of the father who believed that children should be disciplined and love is an emotion to be felt and now shown, in fact any show of loving emotions weakens the children. Quite early in his life Alex got used to being at the receiving end of George’s thrashings, verbal jibes and berating as Alex was somewhat creatively inclined and this frustrated his father no end as this was very distant from his idea of the son he wanted. George often told Alex’s mother that he needs strong sons to work on his farm, not singers who are not men enough. This instilled a deep sense of not being enough in Alex’s mind. The life at farm suffocated him and soon as he was able to, he ran away from home and one way or the other found himself on a boat to America – the land of promise. Alex told himself constantly through the hardships of journey that soon as he put foot on American soil things will be different – he will be happy again.

The instant happiness didn’t show up but as Alex started grappling the realities of starting a new life in a foreign land, he met a girl, Barbara, and both set up a home for themselves. To meet the dreams of owning their own house and settling up lives of their three children they worked four jobs between themselves. Life soon settled into the routine of working, paying bills, putting kids through school and generally getting through life.

Anna was the youngest of the three kids and just like her older siblings she was also brought up in a strict household which laid emphasis on results where success was measured in achievements – an important thing for the migrant family trying to make its place in the foreign land – full of opportunities but also quick to remind them in subtle ways that they were still outsiders.

Alex and his kids didn’t see eye to eye on the matter as the kids, having been born in America couldn’t understand why dad still compared life here and “back home” – for the kids this was home but dad clearly didn’t agree and this created a deep sense of confusion in their young minds.

Alex, on the other hand, felt cheated out of a chance to enjoy prosperity in own homeland as he felt sure that given half a chance he could have built this kind of life back home and infact would have been better off.

He constantly felt dissatisfied with his station in life. His dream had been to own a home and car but his eventual achievements in the new land – a home, car and then even another car, were never satisfactory. He continued to experience a subconscious sense of needing to prove himself and feeling he was not good enough – a sense that had been instilled in his younger years when he was but a child, by his father.

This combination of hard work, a raw instinct typical to first generation migrants to survive, do well and look out for themselves and the eventual lack of satisfaction made him quite grumpy and he frequently took his frustration out on his kids, drunk a lot and didn’t think twice about hitting his wife. He had seen his father hit others when they annoyed him so why should it be different for him?

Anna saw all this. And in a simple clear way that is only given to children she understood that this is not a happy life. She made up her mind to find a way to get out of the house as soon as she could. She took this decision years before she had gained the maturity to tackle the gravity of the decision. This overwhelmed her little inner environment and this manifested outwardly in impatient and restless temperament. She was quick to get angry and had little patience for anyone. Through all this she managed to finish her course in book keeping, met a lovely young man Peter and went on to get married and have two lovely girls – Alanna and Ariel.

After the birth of girls life got busier and Anna struggled to adjust. She found herself getting annoyed quite easily, felt stressed and tired all the time. She also didn’t enjoy engaging in any hobbies any more. Her sleep started being disturbed and her appetite wasn’t the same – she was either following fad/restricted diets or simply not caring. She tried talking to Barbara about this but her mother, hardened by own life experiences, recounted to Anna how hard her own life had been and how she had coped so she couldn’t understand why Anna wasn’t able to cope even though she had far better life than her own. Peter was sympathetic but just advised Anna to relax more and just be more happy.

This annoyed Anna even more as she knew all this but she just couldn’t seem to be able to do it. The frustration of being judged and patronised irritated Anna and made her situation more despairing.

She instead started focusing on raising her two girls. The control Anna lost over her own life, she gained it in being able to control the lives of the two little girls. Being in control gave her some stability.

She made rigid routines for the girls and every single moment of girls’ lives was controlled by the seemingly devoted mum. But the reality was that Anna was subconsciously putting all her efforts in raising her kids perfectly as the control was the only thing that provided some respite from the the mental anguish she experienced otherwise. This controlled upbringing raised two girls who were not wanting for anything, felt quite entitled but were weak at recognising their own emotions and managing them as they had been told from young age, every step of the way, by their mum how they should be feeling, how they should be behaving. In return for all the efforts Anna put in raising the girls, she demanded them to be orderly, well behaved, be at the top of class in school, do well at ballet and gymnastics. When the kids didn’t achieve something to her expectations, Anna was quick to reproach them. The memories of childhood were filled with more irritating rants and shouting from mother with hardly any quiet words of encouragement.

Ariel was the younger and more sensitive of the two girls and from quite a young age she developed a sense of being judged in all her actions. She developed a sense that people are watching and their approval is very important. The repeated sounds of Anna hissing through her gritted teeth at supermarket were instilled in her mind “people are watching! what will they say!”

Ariel didn’t quite understand how she was going to earn everyone’s approval and in her young mind she decided that if she can have others’ attention then that might be good enough. She didn’t really care how she got the attention. She learnt very quickly that fighting, pushing and shoving others at school got her the attention quite quickly and her immature mind adapted this to being an acceptable way to get the result she so craved. She started being reprimanded by teachers and her parents for her behaviours.

When she was in her classroom she felt as if the kids were looking at her and laughing at her. She felt very lonely and unhappy. She made up her mind to not to be nice to others anymore because if she didn’t try to be nice to them then she doesn’t have to worry about  them laughing at her. Slowly Ariel picked up the reputation off being inattentive in class, poor learner, unfriendly and a bully in nature.

On her own Ariel felt very lonely and rejected. She constantly felt that she didn’t live unto the expectations put on her by her mother at a very young age as she was always being told off for one thing or the other. She learnt slowly not to like herself much and lost any confidence in herself.

She found it very hard to adjust to any changes in her routines, couldn’t cope with small discomforts such as minor injuries or ailments – infact she played on them as much as possible as that was the only occasion she got attention from her parents. She found it hard to regulate her emotions and got angry quickly and lost her temper with fairly everyone.

Ariel finished the school with difficulty and enrolled herself into a course which she didn’t really enjoy but felt this will earn her parents’ approval . She found it hard to cope with the stresses of her studies and soon started smoking and drinking.

Life had come full circle. The post traumatic stress disorder that went unrecognised and untreated appropriately in the great grandfather eventually culminated in the discovery of twenty year old Ariel’s body in a cheap motel with syringe marks on arms indicating accidental drug overdose.

The anxiety that passed from one generation to the other, the learned behaviours of anxiety that defined each person’s character, the feelings of low self esteem, self doubt and emotional lability that got passed into each generation at a very tender age had finally claimed its final victim.

As Alanna looked at her younger sister’s lifeless body she made up her mind to break the cycle. Right then and there.

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