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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.
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.
When you arrive at worst-case scenarios with warp speed, owning pets is fraught with terror. I had my own two kitties at college in Kansas, and when I hauled them out to graduate school in Arizona, into a rented ranch house in the desert, terror ensued. Out into the desert my kitties would go; back they would come looking like pincushions of cactus needles. They were neurotic cats, those sisters; one of them used to climb the hollow-core doors inside the house and leave excrement on the top, from which it would fall whenever I moved the door. The other took to eating dead tarantulas. I think she understood how creeped out finding the bodies would make me and sought to spare me that. But perhaps it was my constant, completely over-the-top concern for them that drove them to their rebellions.
Every evening I would confine them in the house, where we would listen to the coyotes out in the hills or the sand snicking at the windows. But in the morning they would escape between my legs into the desert, digging up all their lethal playthings. And if I thought they were feverish, off to the vet they would go. It was always after hours; it always cost at least $100. I spent a fortune on those cats.
It wasn't just the animals I've owned that have been the victims of my worry. Hypochondria comes with this particular territory. Going back to, say, fourth grade, I have suffered agonies of worry over the mere possibility of ever having the following afflictions, in, roughly, this order: brain tumor, breast cancer, pleurisy, anemia, herpes (complex and simplex), pregnancy, pregnancy, heart murmur, pregnancy, pregnancy, pregnancy, chin cancer, melanoma, TB, rickets, OCD, Lyme disease, the hantavirus, rotting flesh, and mad cow.
The only things I have actually suffered (so far, knock on wood) are back spasm and bulimia -- this latter of which might be, when you think about it, a perfect kind of middle-aged disorder: having your cake and heaving it, too. I am the kind of person who should not have a medical encyclopedia in my house let alone an illustrated guide to dermatological disorders; the Internet has exponentially increased the amount of time I can waste, on a daily basis, substantiating some far-flung notion about my own, my husband's, or my children's corporeal conditions.
And here I am, fortysomething, officially arrived at middle age, still lying awake at night, worrying. But, unlike my 8-year-old self, I now have worries I can name. They concern my adolescent son and daughter. When they were babies, I checked on them a few times every night to make sure their hearts and lungs were still soldiering on. And then I could sleep. Until I woke again, panicked and needing reassurance. That monitor on the nightstand? Useless. How do you know that the rhythmic snoring isn't the sound of the sleeping dog, or the wily intruder who's come to do the unimaginable (unfortunately, for me, it is imaginable) to your baby? When my children spend the night away from me, I find myself in that nocturnal hell that is completely of my own making.
When the Twin Towers fell on September 11 and America suddenly grew frightened, I found myself for one brief period not alone in my thinking. Suddenly everyone was afraid of flying. We were all convinced that an apocalyptic force was afoot, ready to hijack our planes, blow up our monuments, slip a questionable white powder into our children's lunch or our representative's mailbox. We hunkered down; we counted our blessings. For just a little while I had the strange sensation of having been joined in my condition of global apprehension. Perverse as it sounds, I drew comfort in having the company of so many people out there from coast to coast, wide-eyed with anxiety in the dark, imagining the worst.
It's probably not surprising that I'd give birth to a middle-aged child, that old soul in a baby suit, my son. His sister is a wild thing, reckless and fun-loving, gregarious and adventurous, but my son is a homebody, a door-locker, yes, a worrier. Endowed with one myself, I can fully appreciate his fretful nature.
When my son grabs my hand as the plane bumps down on the runway, I say, "Would I let you ride in this thing if I really thought it would crash?" When his dogs cry pitifully in the night, alone in their kennels, I say, "Would I ever let anything bad happen to Roscoe or Oscar?" When he lays his head on the pillow at night and creases his brow, his concerns vague but real, nonetheless, I say to him, "You go to sleep. I'll worry for you."
And I do.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2006.