Confessions of a Worrywart: A Chronic Stress-Case Accepts Herself

Even as a child I already had the anxiety level of a 45-year-old. Now that I'm officially middle-aged, I no longer resist my inner nervous Nellie.
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The Beginnings of a Worrywart

As a young child I would lie in my bed wide awake for hours after the rest of my family had gone to sleep. It was a big house, and we were a big family, so after the clatter had died down and even the pets had settled, the stillness would provide a kind of helpful backdrop to my bouts of worrying.

"Why can't you fall asleep?" my weary mother would ask when I couldn't stand being alone any longer with my anxiety and called out to her for comfort.

"I'm worried," I would reply.

About what? I didn't know. I still don't know. Intruders, illness, car crashes, clowns, nuclear war. I have a busy fantasy life, I bite my nails, I am a hypochondriac. I write stories and novels in which awful things happen to people not so very different from myself. Sometimes I think this practice is a way of warding off these actual events. Other times I worry that the exact opposite is true, that writing about an event will bring it crashing down on me.

Another scene from my overly sensitive childhood: I lost my first tooth when I was 3 years old, swimming at the YMCA. One day, when I was gnawing on my inner tube, a front tooth flew out of my mouth. I had no idea teeth came out; to me, it was like losing an eyeball or little toe. I nearly drowned in my panic. After it had been explained to me -- the fairy, the profit margin -- I made my older brother dive for a long time in search of that valuable body part.

I had some siblings to look after, both older and younger. We're spread apart, the five of us, so while my oldest brother was getting in trouble for skipping out on high school, my youngest sister was still in diapers. That's a lot of territory to cover for a worrier. Sometimes I was joined in my fretting (and in my extreme caution, a close cousin of worrying) by my brother David, who is only two years younger than me, and also situated in the middle of the sibling spectrum.

What a pathetic pair we were at Joyland, our city's amusement park. For our straight A's (cautious, worried, old-before-their-time youth always make straight A's), we'd been awarded free tickets to ride the rides. And we felt obligated to use them, lest we seem ungrateful and wasteful. Yet we hated those rides; what was the point? "It's like being a cat in a clothes dryer," David complained, terror-stricken, as we swung around on the nauseating Ferris wheel. We envied our legitimately middle-aged father, who sat below us reading a book on a bench like a sane person. After we'd dutifully spent all of our free tickets, we sighed with relief and piled back into the car, locked the doors, buckled our seat belts, and returned home.

Continued on page 2:  Middle-Aged Child


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