When I was in first grade I had a teacher that told us we could die at any time. I can’t remember the context but I would guess that it was in relation to not sinning since I was in a Catholic school. This bothered me so I took this information to my older cousin. He was in third grade. I think I expected him to say, only old people die. In first grade I was lucky enough to have no experience with death. The only person I knew who died was Jesus and he woke up in three days so it all worked out okay for him. Death wasn’t a thing for me. Until it was. My cousin did not say only old people die. He told me that was completely true. Not only did I not know when I was going to die, but I could come home from school at any time and find my parents murdered in my living room. This is my first real memory of being afraid, what I think would now be termed anxiety. This began years of fear of going to bed, I needed to keep an eye on my parents. I was sure that if I let them out of my sight they would die. I vividly remember my mother trying to reassure me as I sat crying in the kitchen. She just didn’t understand. There were nightmares, weeks and weeks of unrelenting nightmares. Not being able to save my parents or my siblings. Once I dreamt my sister stepped in a puddle and disappeared. Once I dreamt my younger brother was carried off while I was trapped in a phone booth. To this day I can hear him calling to me to help him.
But it wasn’t just that. This fear had a child, fear of the fear. I never knew when it would take hold. I was afraid of not just death, but the fear of death. So when I was working in my phonics book and finding rhyming words for read, I would put my hand over that box in the page in an effort to escape the word it invoked in my mind. I was terrified to go to sleep or be left alone at night. As my siblings slept in the room we shared, I would lay awake pretending I wasn’t afraid. Ashamed that I was.
Eventually, I outgrew this, sort of. I still have this almost superstitious need to worry, as though the act of my worrying will prevent bad things from happening. I also have some pretty deep anxiety around driving on highways. This is new in the last few years or so. When I first learned to drive, I wasn’t afraid to drive anywhere. Over the last few years, small worry has bloomed to full on fear and has made my world smaller. I spend a lot of time on google maps finding alternate routes. Recently, I have surfaced this shame because there was no way to hide it. Once my daughter’s friends moved out of state, far but within driving distance, I had to be much more open about it. So what does that look like? Once about five years ago when coming home from Pittsburgh my husband asked me to take over the driving. I was a little nervous but I did it. And everything was fine for about the first hour or so. And then suddenly it wasn’t. Suddenly, I felt panic. I had this fixation on monitoring the speed of the car. It was like a forgot how to do it. My grip on the steering wheel tightened and I was one hundred percent positive I was going to crash and kill my family. I asked my husband to turn the radio off because I thought it was distracting. I stopped participating in the conversation in the car. I’m sure my husband was scared. I was terrified. We made our exit and once off the highway I was able to relax. Since then, I vacillate between needing to get over this fear and feeling as though I am a menace on a highway.
The child of my fear has also grown up. It has developed into a distrust of my own opinions. Is it really not okay to do that, is that really dangerous or is that just my anxiety? What’s the right call here? Should I take my daughter to the doctor? Maybe she is beginning to get strep and untreated strep can attack the heart. Maybe I am over reacting. I have to say, when it comes to my children, I tend to err on over reaction which is not really easier. I live in a world where I wonder if people will dismiss me because of my fear, my previous wrong calls. Maybe I am somebody to not take seriously because you know I am always over the top. And then, maybe they won’t take me seriously at a time when I am right. The Boy Who Cried Wolf. Only I am not looking for attention, I am simply desperately trying to think clearly and not allow this to harm the people I love. Which leads to a sort of social anxiety. I find social situations mostly uncomfortable unless I am drinking. But not all the time. Sometimes, I can wrestle this down for awhile. But normally, if you and I have had any interaction you can believe that at some point I will examine every aspect of that interaction, tone of voice, body language, words in search of what? I have no idea. Probably the proof that I am annoying.
Enter Covid-19. For people like me who are constantly struggling to stay out of a state of fear, this is the worst possible scenario. Everybody is worried, or scared. The problem with people like me is we have little trust in our own judgement right now. I am not sure if I am overreacting or just dong the sensible thing. This is why I push back pretty hard on people saying it is no big deal. Of course it is a big deal. You don’t close state’s worth of school districts for no big deal. I feel as though I am living in the beginning chapters of The Stand by Stephen King. The almost bizarreness of the radio in the background, proclaiming all is normal when the world is falling apart outside my door. Except it isn’t. Everything is the same. Everything is different. More than anything I want to be in one of my over the top moments. But it is harder and harder to believe that now.
So, this is where I am. Everytime I feel as though one of us is in a space that might put us in danger of the virus, I start the clock. Tomorrow marks fourteen days since we’ve been to the Flower Show, but only seven since my daughter has been to New York. Tomorrow marks day one of my son coming home from school. But then, my husband is going to work every day. So, where do I start the clock? For a person who has anxiety, this lack of knowing is terrifying. If you are lucky enough to be one of those people who find this as no big deal, or perhaps even a way to get caught up on your at home projects that’s great. I’m really happy for you. Know that you live in privilege right now, not just because you aren’t afraid but because you don’t have to worry about finances, health care, eating, etc. You don’t have to feel guilty, just don’t belittle the people who are really afraid. Whether we really need to be or not. Trust me, I would much rather not live in this state of constant fear and shame.