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Auntie SparkNotes: Should I Tell My Dad He’s the Voice of My Anxiety?

Before we get to the advice portion of today’s show, a heads up: Due to editorial and budget changes at SparkLife, the Auntie SparkNotes column is dialing back from three columns per week to one. Going forward, you can find a new column here every Wednesday!

Hey Auntie,

Years ago, I had a huge depressive breakdown/slump during my first attempt at college (I’m now working on finishing my degree at a different school than the one I attended originally). It turns out that I had undiagnosed anxiety, and when it mixed with academic and other stresses, it creates a perfect storm that resulted in me holing up in my dorm room doing nothing but watching random videos on the internet and maybe occasionally eating if I could bring myself to leave the room to get food (I once made it two weeks on a single bag of chocolate-covered raisins). As much as I tried to hide my situation from my parents when I came home at the end of the semester, it very quickly came out. I ended up going to counseling and getting a prescription for antidepressants, and now I’m happy to say I’ve been off my meds for a year, the depression is gone, and the anxiety is manageable.

But how does my dad play into this, you ask (besides the obvious, of course)? Short answer: it was a visit from him that sparked the whole thing. The college I attended was close enough to home that he liked to visit occasionally (and often without warning, which was really annoying if I was, say, working on a paper that was due the next day) and take me out for lunch or dinner. During one of those visits, he asked me about a test in the psychology class I was taking. I’d failed that test but didn’t want to talk about it, so I just said I didn’t do well. That wasn’t a good enough answer for him, apparently, so he kept pressuring me about it until I told him my actual score.

After that, he started listing off all the things he thought I was doing wrong and what I should do instead (which I already knew), and I think that set me off. I was already stressed about that class, and I’m pretty sure that’s when I snapped. Later, when it came out that I had completely screwed over my chances at that college and was mentally ill, he downplayed everything, got over-analytic about things, and liked to find ways that little accidents were my fault (once, shortly after getting my driver’s license, I backed into our mailbox while trying to get around another car in our driveway. He said it happened because I was distracted from having the radio on, never mind that the noise from the radio kept me from having panic attacks while driving). And now when my anxiety acts up, it sounds like him, or frames itself as “what will Dad say?” instead of normal intrusive thoughts.

I will note that all these incidents were years ago, and he’s gotten much better. We’ve had several in-depth conversations about mental illness in general, and mine in particular. Most notably, about a year and a half ago he was giving me a ride somewhere and straight-up said, “I know I haven’t always been the best dad. Do you mind telling me some things I can improve on?”, and I can tell he’s actively trying to avoid doing some of the things I told him I had problems with.

I’m not sure if telling him that my anxiety sounds like him will help at all, but I also feel like it’s just hanging over me. Should I say anything to him, or should I just leave it be?

Well, let’s just start by stating the obvious: Your anxiety may sound like your dad, sweet pea, but it is not actually your dad—and more to the point, it is not your dad’s fault. As much as your parents can drive you crazy in the colloquial sense of the word, it’s not within their power to make you develop a mental health condition. And while the fact that your dad’s visit coincided so closely with the start of your anxiety death spiral is unfortunate, that doesn’t mean he “sparked” it. Reading between the lines of your letter, it’s pretty clear that you were already in the early stages of what would eventually become a crisis: struggling to cope with your workload, stressing out about your classes, and hiding the truth from your parents that you weren’t really handling things. It’s not like everything would have been different if not for that lunch date, you know?

Of course, this is not to say that your dad did everything right; actually, I think it’s safe to say that his hovering, meddling, micro-managing behavior was the opposite of helpful (and if there were a set of commandments for parents of college-aged people, “Thou shalt not show up unannounced at your adult kiddo’s school without asking if it’s convenient” would be at the top of the list, because dude. Parents! Do not do this! Never, ever do this!) But the truth is, when confronted with a kid in the midst of a mental breakdown, getting over-analytical and offering up all kinds of ridiculous solutions that just make everything worse is something a lot of parents do—because it beats the terrifying alternative of having to admit that your child is in terrible trouble and there’s nothing you can do to help. That’s a scary prospect, and anecdotally, it seems to be something that dads have a particularly hard time with (perhaps because the more your identity is wrapped up in that idea that it’s your job to provide for and protect your family, the harder it is to deal with it when one of them has a problem that you can’t solve.)

In short, your dad botched his response to your anxiety diagnosis. He absolutely did. But he did it in a way that many parents tend to do—and it was years ago, and he’s made a concerted effort since then to listen to you and do better.

All of which is to say, it’s hard to imagine what you’d accomplish by rocking up to him and casually dropping the information that your anxiety speaks to you in his voice…I mean, apart from making him feel bad. And don’t get me wrong, I understand why you might feel tempted to do that. If you’re still carrying around some resentment over the way your dad mishandled things (and it kinda seems like you are), then obviously, there’s a certain snarky satisfaction to be had in saying, “You know how you used to imply that I was to blame for my anxiety? Well, guess what, jerkus maximus: it’s actually YOUR fault. BOO YA!”

The thing is, saddling your dad with a fresh helping of guilt for the years-old sins he’s already apologized and tried to atone for—and implying for good measure that he’s somehow to blame for the quirks of your brain chemistry—might make you feel briefly vindicated, but it’s not going to improve your life. It’s not going to make you less anxious. And it’s not going to change the way your anxiety expresses itself. All it does it throw a grenade full of angst and bitterness into a relationship that was already moving on its own in the direction of a healthier place. And of course, you can do that, if you want to. It’s your life, and your relationship! But if you feel like this aspect of your anxiety is hanging over your head, maybe it’s something you’d be better off talking about with someone who can actually help you change the sound of that nagging voice—like a qualified therapist.

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