Confessions of a Worrywart: A Chronic Stress-Case Accepts Herself
Most of the time, however, I suffered alone in my worldly wizened self. Anointed babysitter for the younger kids when the grown-ups were out for the night, I paced the house, locking doors and turning on lights, jamming broom handles under beds, shrieking into the closets to scare out intruders. At 12, fearing his early demise, I ratted out my father when he took up smoking cigarettes after a 20-year hiatus, organizing a campaign of guilt-inducing notes and pictures to be placed strategically in his pants pockets and underneath his razor, taped onto the mirror where he faced himself every morning. At 14 I was the one who quit speaking to my brother when he foolishly divorced his first wife, whose hair I envied. What was he thinking? my parents and I asked one another, shaking our heads around the kitchen table. I referred to the other children in the family as "the little kids," promoting myself out of their class.
Whenever a cat got run over on the busy street outside our house, I took responsibility. I should have brought it in, the night before, no matter the weather, no matter the hour. I'd known, hadn't I, that something awful would happen if I let down my vigilance? Wasn't that the cost of not listening to my gut instinct? Ignore it once and you are doomed, poor Peter Rabbit, poor Ink, poor Panther.
While in high school I took on a bevy of after-school jobs and with the money earned (I was still living at home) I bought antiques. Antiques! Glass candy dishes and velvet chaise lounges. Like the future grandma I was, I liked willowware and had a full set waiting in my bedroom like a dowry. In the evenings, after finishing all my homework, I would go home and drink hot tea, read The New Yorker, listen to public radio. Just like my parents, the actual middle-aged people in the house.
I think I felt if I could catapult myself into boring adulthood before my time I would be safe from the excesses of adolescence and thus have less to worry about. But once I reached college, I had plenty of other people to fret over. The women on my dorm hall were busy going to fraternity parties and getting "wasted." They were so excited to lose control of themselves, stumble around and puke in the halls. They were so young, I observed. It's not that I felt motherly toward these pretty girls I now lived among; it was that I felt like their jaded, vaguely scornful aunt. I would hold the hair of the one ralphing at three in the morning in a trash can in the hall. I would ghostwrite the Dear John letter to the boyfriend abandoned in Winnetka. I would counsel the one caught stealing dorm mail about the root causes of compulsive kleptomania.
I didn't abstain from parties and bars -- far from it -- but in the middle of whatever intoxicated state I have ever found myself, there sits a sober nugget like the metal BB inside the spray-paint can. There, deep inside, I am sane, rational, capable of discerning up from down, smart from dumb, dumb, dumb. Don't drive after a sip of wine, this dutiful take-no-prisoners conscience says. Don't kiss that boy. Move your fingers away from the fire. This judging capacity seems both a gift and a curse. It has both saved and doomed me. My friend Karen calls it my Wise Soul. I know it for what it truly is: a curmudgeonly voice of consequence and reason. I've been carrying it around since I was very, very young. It appears to be getting louder, like other unfortunate transformations wrought by middle age.