Separation Anxiety at 23 is OKAY
If you were to Google "separation anxiety" you'd be faced with this definition: "anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from their mother." Pretty standard definition. But what happens when you're not a child? When you're 23 years old and the sight of your mother and sister walking the opposite way from you on the sidewalk causes you to get physically ill? What strange part of Google do I have to uncover before it gives me answers to why I'm having these feelings as an adult?
A few months ago, my mom and sister came to NYC for a visit. My sister and her friend went to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch in the afternoon and Fun Home in the evening. My mom and I walked a lot, shopped a lot, and then went to see Hand to God at night. We met the other two for dinner before curtain, went to our separate shows, and then met up by the parking garage to say goodbye. It was a perfect and productive day. My mom was helping me get my new bed set up and finding practical furniture for my miniscule room.
Up until this day, I hadn't seen my mom since Independence Day weekend and my sister in a month. We exchanged texts professing how much we missed each other and how excited we were for their trip to NYC. I am in constant communication with my mom and sister all day everyday.
I said goodbye to them in front of the parking garage and started my two-block journey home. I had only taken a few steps before I started to feel sad, which is a very normal feeling for me after saying goodbye. Then suddenly I started to feel sick. The next thing I knew I had my sweater pushed against my mouth as I vomited into the fabric. A few steps later and the sweater was full. I had no choice but to throw up on the sidewalk. People passed by me without stopping. I was just another drunk kid, having too much fun on a Saturday night. I made it to my apartment, went straight into the shower cleaned the sweater as best as I could, threw it and the rest of my clothes in the washing machine and that was that.
Then I went to my bedroom and cried.
It was then I realized that the horrible sadness, nausea, and anxiety I felt related back to the two people I had just said goodbye to a short while before. Mom and sister were on the road back to Connecticut. They'd left me in New York. And this time, they'd left me here for good.
I've been away from my family for longer periods of time before. The semester I spent abroad in London, for example, I went almost four months with very limited communication with any of my family. But every other move I've made up until now has been temporary. This move? This isn't temporary. I'm living in NYC indefinitely. I'm signing a lease. I'm buying furniture. My job? It's not an internship. It doesn't have a definitive end date. This life that I'm living right now? This is what I've been working towards for since whenever I decided a career in theater was going to be the thing that made me happy. And all of these final, definite, scary thoughts swirled around in my anxiety-riddled brain as I said goodbye to mom and sister that night.
I've always had anxiety and I've always had separation issues. As a kid I had to be picked up from many sleepovers before we got to the sleeping part. I signed up for Girl Scout camp and backed out at the last minute when I realize it meant I had to leave home. I signed up for a week-long trip to Washington D.C. to participate in a leadership program the summer before eighth grade, but backed out days before I would’ve had to leave.
Overtime I've learned to hold in my emotions, and these days separation anxiety usually presents itself in the form of a killer headache. I take Advil, rest a while, and the headache slowly goes away after a good night’s sleep.
I haven't been diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), so I'm not an expert. But the symptoms present themselves when I'm separated from those I have a strong emotional attachment with. It may never go away. I probably won't puke on 9th Avenue every time I say goodbye to my mother, but I'll feel some heartache.
More recently I went home to Connecticut to spend the weekend with my mom. When she was dropping me off at the bus station on Sunday afternoon, I fully admitted to feeling sick. I told her I was terrified of throwing up on the bus. But I said goodbye, I got on the bus, and I forced myself to relax. A few hours later I was back in NYC and feeling completely fine. So was the intensity of my previous physical reaction a fluke? What happened that day that made me have such a strong response to the goodbye?
If I’ve learned anything in the last five years, five years filled with a lot of change – college, semester in London, various internships, and now officially moving away from home – it’s that you don’t have to be a kid to miss your mom.