One year ago, if a friend had told me he was suffering from anxiety so debilitating it prevented him from working, studying, speaking in public or even being alone, I might have suggested it was a figment of his imagination.
Panic attacks? Please. Take a deep breath, pal.
Can’t sleep? Come on. Count more sheep. Better yet, count more unicorns, since they have a lot in common with your little imagined problem.
In related news, I’ve never been nominated for “buddy of the year.”
To that hypothetical friend suffering from anxiety-related disorders, I owe you an apology. Because so much has changed in the past year, I hardly recognize my own naive, inconsiderate memories. Anxiety didn’t just knock on our front door — it joined the family.
My new understanding began last fall when, without obvious trigger or explanation, my 14-year-old daughter, Jadi, began experiencing anxiety about being away from home or being away from a parent. Unless Mom or Dad accompanied her, it was difficult to attend school, church, etc. By the time Christmas break ended, she was unable to walk back into the building without panic attacks so serious they brought tears to her eyes — and ours.
While I began to research the world of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive and panic disorders, and even post-traumatic stress, my wife did the only thing she could think of to help our daughter continue progressing.
My wife enrolled in the eighth grade.
For the second semester of the school year, Jadi was never in the building without her mother. At first, Mom sat in the classroom. Later, she moved to a desk in the hallway where Jadi could see her. Finally, she set up shop in the library and spent the entire school day there as Jadi moved from class to class, occasionally stopping by to check in.
They walked into the building together at 8 a.m. and walked out at 3 p.m. — a seven-hour day. The axiom “parenting is a full-time job” had a whole new meaning in our home.
My wife’s willingness to sacrifice her time, friends, responsibilities, work and hobbies from January to June is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. If our acts of kindness are truly recorded in heaven, the angels have gone to volumes II, III and IV on my wife’s edition.
As the two of them adjusted to their new reality and Jadi began receiving professional help to better understand her trials, I dove into researching this world that previously seemed as fictional as one of my books.
The view on the other side of my foggy ignorance was staggering.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety disorders affect roughly 40 million adults each year. That’s approximately 18 percent of all American adults, nearly one in five.
Obviously, fear and uncertainly chase our teens, too. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that about 8 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 have an anxiety disorder. Of these, only 18 percent receive health care.
Though the numbers were a surprise, nothing pried my eyes open more than meeting so many faces of anxiety. The more I opened up and sought counsel, the more I discovered that among those 40 million sufferers are many of the people I love most in this world: family members, neighbors and people I both work and worship with.
A conversation with the woman who edits most of my articles at the Deseret News, Brooke Porter, revealed that she, too, suffers and seeks regular care. She’s been open about her challenges and shared her trial with the world in a popular, praiseworthy KSL column.
One young friend of mine preparing to serve a full-time mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was diagnosed with a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that has remapped his life in ways he couldn’t have imagined. I'm certain that by leaning on professional and heavenly wisdom, he’ll overcome.
Those aware of our daughter’s struggles often ask how she’s doing. After an anxious summer, Jadi walked into high school with all the other terrified freshmen. With the love of a supportive older sister, as well as good friends who share her values and believe in her, she’s found a place for herself in an institution that has humbled millions.
Perhaps the greatest evidence of her growth and healing is this very column. She is willing to go on record with her challenges with the hope and prayer that someone might benefit from knowing they are not alone.
One year ago, if my daughter told me she would suffer from anxiety so debilitating it would prevent her from working, studying, speaking in public or even being alone, and that she was willing to share her struggles with the world, I might have suggested it was a figment of her imagination.
I’ve learned a lot at the feet of anxiety this year. I’ve learned anxiety and its related illnesses are as real as broken bones and ear infections. I’ve learned that many around me are suffering with things I cannot always see and almost always do not understand. But my failure to understand doesn’t make their suffering any less painful.
Finally, I’ve learned I don’t owe an apology to my hypothetical friend — I owe it to a real one.
Jason Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 96th Annual Apple Valley Barn Dance." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jasonfwright.com.