Growing up anxious in the 1980s

Growing up anxious in the 1980s

Big hair bleached blonde with Sun In – check. Acid washed shorts – check. Swatch watch – check. Coppertone tan – check. This photo is the epitome of growing up in the 1980s.

My latest audiobook is Acne: A Memoir by Laura Chinn. Sadly, I can relate to her life in many ways. Don’t get me wrong, the book is hilariously funny but some of the stories are hard to listen to. Like Laura, I struggled with cystic acne as a teenager and well into adulthood. When I finally made the connection between hormones and acne and started taking Spironolactone in my 30s, I FINALLY got control of my “skin disease” as Laura calls it. But all of those years of cystic acne left me with permanent scarring. Thankfully there are treatments to make the scars less noticeable, and I know that I see my scars way more than others do. And I know people who knew me as a teenager will probably not remember my acne being bad. That was only because I spent HOURS in front of a lighted magnifying mirror diligently covering every single cyst.

Laura and I share more than just living with acne. Like her, I struggled with anxiety. Only now, years later do I see how much it impacted my life. And in some ways my anxiety was helpful. I worried about school, so I always had good grades. I worried about all the possible outcomes from making a bad choice, so I did fewer stupid things. Now when a teenager presents with anxiety, she gets a therapist and medications to ease her suffering. That was not life in the 1980s. Here are a few stories from my anxious childhood.

One of my early memories is around refusing to take naps after running around and playing outside. My mom would beg me to nap, but when I finally stopped running around and closed my eyes, I could hear the “bad man” walking into my room. Thump, thump, thump, thump. But as soon as I opened my eyes, he was gone. Y’all I was hearing my own heartbeat, and my anxious brain convinced me it was a bad man coming for me!

One year while in elementary school, my mom bought me a fancy white, ruffled blouse, and bright red Irish-looking kilt skirt, complete with a gold barret-type clip to hold it closed. The outfit was totally not me, but being a pleaser, I put the outfit on and reluctantly headed to school. At Salem Baptist (yes I went to a Southern Baptist church school), students hung out in the gym before school started. I was so worried that my friends were going to make fun of my outfit that I literally made myself sick and had to go home. Similar stories around bad hair cuts and failed perms.

The biggest way my anxiety interfered with my life as a teen was around trying new things. Now we refer to it as social anxiety. The day of a new experience, I would wake up with a sense of dread in my stomach that I cannot even try to describe. The “what ifs” always clogged my brain. Not knowing how it was going to turn out, especially in social situations, was truly terrifying. In a lot of ways, this is still an issue for me as an adult. I often wonder about all the experiences I missed out on as a child because I was too afraid to try.

I am glad we are better at recognizing the mental health needs of adults and children. It is not ok to grow up living an anxious life without even the words to explain all of those intense feelings. I am also grateful for books like Acne, which help me see I was not alone with my skin disease or anxious brain!

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