Time for One Thing: Anxiety

That persistent, gnawing sense that something, somewhere, is not quite right actually serves a purpose -- it gets me out of bed.

By Jennifer Moses

Published November 10, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I'm an extremely anxious person, and always have been. It's not that I suffer from the kind of paralyzing anxiety attacks that, I'm told, feel like a combination of a heart attack and the onset of schizophrenia. But I do live with constant low-level and sometimes not-so-low-level dread -- a kind of second skin, worn on the inside. I'm anxious when I have too much work to do, and when I have too little. I'm anxious when my house is filled with the noisy chaos of family life, and when -- save for the thud-thud-thud of my hyper-beating heart -- it's silent. I'm anxious when I'm upset, and anxious when I'm happy -- especially when I'm happy because who the hell gave me the right to go along all sunny and chipper? My anxiety is non-situational. It just is.

It's also situational. For example -- and I know this isn't original -- I'm afraid of flying. After all, airplanes are held together by Elmer's glue and piloted by guys with blow-dried hair. The combination has always disturbed me. Fortunately, I've been able to develop a technique for helping the pilot keep the airplane where it should be. It's very simple, really: The night before my trip, I get a really bad stomach ache, and when I get on the plane the next day, I begin to sweat so profusely that people stare at me. Then I pray. My husband insists that it is not my pre- and during-flight ritual that keeps the plane aloft, but if I say so myself, the proof is in the pudding.

Other activities, such as having to call people I don't know, push my anxiety meter into the red zone. I also dread bill paying. Worse than paying bills, there's balancing the checkbook, a feat that I haven't actually ever been able to accomplish. Even so, just knowing that it's time to wrestle with my checkbook makes the backs of my knees tingle and my head feel slightly feverish. But the worst is dealing with large, impersonal government agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. I recently had to go to the DMV to get a new driver's license. For weeks beforehand, I had nightmares about it. By the time I actually got to the head of the New Driver's License line, I was a wreck. I was a wreck because I hate lines, and I was worried that I'd have all the wrong documents and end up getting sent home. Plus I'm afraid of government functionaries, who always seem to be angry at me. The clerk took my old driver's license and looked at me suspiciously. She then asked me to take an eye test. "Please read the top line," she said. I did so, perfectly too, I might add, only I kind of read it backwards, which is to say from right to left. Then I started jabbering on about how my oldest kid had just started Hebrew school and Hebrew is read from right to left and the clerk let me go on for a moment or two and then said: "Calm down, ma'am, and read the top line."

My mother tells me that my anxiety is hampering my mothering ability, making my kids and husband nuts, and that it's time, already, to let the anxiety go. "Don't they have therapists where you live, Jennifer?" she says. After all, as she points out, the first three rounds of therapy got me pretty damn far. As long as I'd managed to rid myself of self-disgust, insomnia and destructive relationships, why not go the distance and chuck the anxiety, too? Mr. Will, the ageless Cajun Buddhist who, until he took off for Nepal a few weeks ago, was my next-door neighbor, had also been urging me to live life anxiety-free. He wanted me to meditate, and even offered to teach me how to do so. But as I told Mr. Will, I'm far too anxious to meditate, and -- this is where I lost him -- why the hell would I want to spend several hours of each day meditating when I could be working myself into some kind of frenzy instead?

But as tiresome as it is, my anxiety serves a purpose other than warding off plane crashes. For one thing, it motivates me to get out of bed. It also motivates me to get things done ahead of time, which was why, when I was in college, I never once had to cram for a final exam. (The irony, of course, is that 20 years after graduation I'm still having those really awful exam dreams, where you suddenly realize you haven't studied all semester.) I also make lists. I make lists of lists -- big lists and sub-lists and long-term lists and daily lists. I don't like it when things are out of whack, so my household runs fairly smoothly, and my kids adhere to a fairly regular routine. I also vacuum a lot.

I guess it shouldn't have come as much of a surprise when my three children graduated from the diaper stage and emerged as full-fledged anxiety factories of their own. My eldest child is so anxious that at times he tenses up and turns red and paces back and forth like a cartoon character just before steam comes out of his ears. My twins are not laid back by nature either. They literally have started climbing the walls, or, more specifically, the door frame. There they are, clinging to the top of the frame like bats. They want to know why they should come down. It's safer up in the door frame, they explain, where the raging waters of the Mississippi won't get them when the inevitable flood finally comes. And by the way, who will take care of us if you and Daddy are both killed at the same time?

Come to think of it, all kids are anxious. Their worlds are governed by mysterious, unknowable and sometimes chaotic forces, and they lack the adult language to imaginatively organize it. Which is why they're into ritual: magic words, magic signs, the closet door left exactly a half inch open (so the lions inside it will stay inside but not get so pissed off about being locked inside that they come storming out, as my older sister, a corporate lawyer, will explain). Because I am such an anxious person, I think I understand my kids' anxieties and can at times anticipate their irrational fears better than, say, a more rational, less anxious person, such as my husband. When, for example, the younger of my two sons was troubled by a witch that appeared night after night in his dreams, my husband calmly explained to him that witches aren't real and that his dreams
couldn't hurt him anyway. Naturally, this approach didn't help even a little tiny bit. I took a different approach and taught my son how to chant the Anti-Witch chant. Here's how it goes: "Go away bad witch/Get AWAY from here/'cause you're yucky and ucky/you'll land in the mucky/and we don't want you ANYMORE!"

It's not that I enjoy being jazzed up and agitated all the time, but my anxiety is as much a part of me as my memory. It is, in fact, the glue that keeps all the parts of my personality together. Once I was a crazed, miserable, sullen and sulky girl. Every night, I begged God to protect me and my family, and then went on to implore Him not to inflict all kinds of punishments on me. I listed each possible calamity, asking Him, again, to please spare me from them. Please, God, don't let the house burn down. Please, God, don't let my father get shot by a madman on the elevator. And on and on I went every night, until I was about 13 -- at which point I developed an obsession with Nazis. I saw them everywhere: hiding in the woods that surrounded our house, lurking in the back rows of the movie theater in the new shopping mall, standing in front of me during Algebra class. My high school years were not much better, except that I moved on from Nazis and became afraid of everything.

I'm no longer obsessed with Nazis and I no longer have to ritualistically beg God to spare me from suffering. I actually get on with the business of living quite well. I long ago grew tired of my own cramped misery. And through a series of small miracles, helped along by the kindest Freudian in New York, for whom I later named my first child, I managed to free myself of the worst of my demons. Now at times I can barely recognize myself. Who is this person? And what does she have in common with that miserable mess of a woman who once went by her name? The answer -- even more than memory, more than my brown eyes and hair -- is that constant, persistent, gnawing sense that something, somewhere, is not quite right. My stomach hurts, my palms sweat -- therefore I am. And I look around and see -- ah! -- that everything's OK after all.

Jennifer Moses

Jennifer Moses is the author of "Food and Whine: Confessions of an End of the Millennium Mom"(Simon & Schuster.)

MORE FROM Jennifer Moses

Related Topics ------------------------------------------