It's Not About the Tattoo: a post about anxiety

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Last week, I had two big anxiety attacks, both over, of all things, a tattoo I got a year ago. 

Yes, a year ago.

I was 40 when I got it. I spent months planning it out in my head. I saved up for it. I knew what I was getting into. I walked into the appointment without hesitation, and left with a smile. The tattoo says, "Lead with Love" in bold, beautiful writing on my forearm. I put it on my right arm, which is the one I extend to shake everyone's hand with. It's a reminder to me to always lead with love and kindness in everything I do, and it's served me well. Sometimes I need a reminder.

A few minutes after I got into my car, I panicked - hard. What have I done? Why did I do that? What if I just made a huge mistake? What if people judge me for it? What if no one ever hires me again?

I went home shaking, crying, worried. It took me a few hours to work through it. But by the end of it, I realized it wasn't about the tattoo at all: it was about everything else in my life. It was about a really hectic work schedule, and about being in talks for some big projects I felt were out of my league. It was about juggling three kids, a relationship with someone who was newly transitioning, a growing career, and the chronic hate I deal with as someone engaged in public activism.

It was about dealing with significant life changes and often shelving my own feelings about them so I could take care of others. Make sure they're okay. Get them what they need. Put everyone else first.

A typical mom maneuver. A typically dangerous one. 

I have an anxiety disorder. I've had it my entire life, and it's taken many different forms over the years. When ignored, it finds a way out - a smaller, safer alternative to fret over, rather than dealing with what I'm actually anxious about. In that instance, it found my forearm. I was swallowed up in shame and fear for several terrible hours, a prison of screaming walls in my head.

And then I wasn't anymore. Because when I named it, when I had calmed down enough to say to my wife, "You know, I don't think this is about the tattoo," I was able to examine what was actually stressing me out: Everything else, not my beautiful new ink. 

I've been wearing that ink proudly for over a year now. I love it. I show it off everywhere I go. I like how it looks in the mirror when I'm lifting weights at the gym. I buy shirts with three-quarter length sleeves so it peek-a-boos out the end of them. I'm a little obnoxious about it, actually.

I adore this tattoo. And when I'm calm and rational, I know it was a good decision for me, an expression of who I am and what I believe in. 

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But on Friday, as I was sitting in a waiting room, reading a status update from someone contemplating some ink in a very prominent place on their body and the "don't do it!" replies from others, my own body flooded with adrenaline, my pulse quickened, my breathing became shallow, and a flood of emotions from months before came back like they were brand new. I never saw it coming. 

OMG, I made a mistake. I shouldn't have done that. I'm so stupid. What was I thinking? Who's ever going to take me seriously? What did I do? 

Never mind the lack of evidence to the contrary. Never mind how much I love this tattoo, or how it's received nothing but compliments in the months I've had it. Never mind how I've had no shortage of work, nor have any of my friends with far more ink on their bodies than I have.

It didn't matter. Suddenly, my brain was in my guidance counselor's office in 1990, listening to her warning students about how visible ink will make you look "rough" and render you unemployable.

Reason had taken a backseat and anxiety was the driver.  

I don't know how long the initial panic lasted. All I know is that I walked into the appointment with my anxiety peaking, but trying not to let it show (I'm pretty good at it, although I wouldn't say I'm proud of that). I was wearing a plaid shirt with the cuffs rolled up, and I remember rolling them down while we were talking, out of shame. I absorbed maybe 30% of what was said as I struggled to calm my mind and slow my heart. 

When I got back out to the car, I was surprised, angry and feeling stupid about overreacting to something so benign. I said, out loud, "This is not about the damn tattoo. What's actually going on?"

I knew what was going on. The last few weeks have been incredibly stressful. Some of it is good stress. Our eldest, now 21, has moved out into his own place and is finding his way in the world. This made room for us to add to our family; we've taken in our daughter's best friend, who's 15 and has spent most of her life in the foster care system. We're now a happy family of six. These are good changes for everyone, but it's still been busy as our family undergoes more renovations. 

Add to that the not-so-good stuff happening in and around my life. I have a good friend who has not one, but two kids fighting cancer right now - a stress load I can't even imagine. I have another good friend who's battling an as-of-yet mystery illness that has taken away her health and livelihood for nearly a year now. I have a child dealing with some mental health issues, and have been working hard for months to get services in place. I have a large, career-defining project due soon and am not as far along as I'd like to be because life has been keeping me busier than I expected. And I have the usual stresses that most of us have, like not enough money and not enough time and a not-clean-enough house and not enough butter tarts. 

(Well, that last part might be a more unique concern.)

Through it all, I've been a little more together than I'm comfortable with. I would describe my reaction to a lot of what's been going on as "tempered" or even "numb." Friends will say, "That's a lot happening in your life at once. How are you feeling?" and I'll reply with "Surprisingly okay."

Except, I should replace "surprisingly" with "worryingly." I knew I should be reacting far more strongly than I have been - I just haven't let myself.

Like a lot of people, I can be exceptionally hard on myself when it comes to managing my own emotions. I'm the first to tell the people I care about they have every right to feel things, but I'll hold back when it comes to my own feelings. Why? Because "I can't fall apart right now." Because "other people have bigger problems." Because "I'm strong and I can deal with this without all those messy tears." 

But my emotions know they need to be heard, so they've been looking for a safer exit, one that pushes past the ego and ridiculous expectations I have of myself. 

They found one, those smart little darlings, not once, but twice. First on Friday, then again on the weekend. both over the same over-the-top reaction to the same, ridiculous thing. I challenged it immediately the second time, pushing it aside for what I needed to actually feel: worry for the people I love, worry over that ever-challenging work-life balance, worry over being the best mom to four kids (OMG four kids!) I can be.  

And then, after I did some worrying and problem-solving about the actual problems in my life, I looked down at my arm and smiled proudly.

Anxiety: managed. At least for now.  

Why am I sharing this? Because I hope it helps someone else who's dealing with their own "it's not about the tattoo" moment.

Because it isn't, just like it's probably not about the rip in your favourite hoodie that made you cry for half an hour at the end of a long day, or the raging in the kitchen you did when you burned that pot of soup when you really wanted that soup, or the dog hair on the stairs that hasn't been swept in a week (sorry, my issue again).

It's not about that. It's probably about something much bigger. That smaller stuff? It's the breaking point, not the source.

But rather than kick ourselves for not dealing with the bigger stuff head-on, we should be commending ourselves: We let our emotions find a way out so we could stare them down, figure them out, and start to move on. We did that. That's powerful. 

So here's to your burned soup and my visible ink. And for us being both resilient and kind, even when we don't realize we are.

When we lead with love, we need to start with ourselves. 

(Top photo credit: Danielle Donders, Mothership Photography.)

Amanda Jette Knox