#23. Not bein' such a fraidy cat

Some of my earliest memories are, if not of being afraid, of worrying – specifically, worrying about bad things happening. To me, to those I love. Long before I had any notion of what the saying meant, I was wandering the globe, waiting for the other shoe to drop. Trying to discern which part is worry and which part is fear feels a bit like semantics to me. Especially considering the real issue at hand, which is this: I have not evolved much in this area. Actually, that might be inaccurate. I think I did evolve in that area. In my early twenties, I was so filled with anxiety, I suffered near-crippling panic attacks that seemed to strike at the most inopportune times. Interestingly, when I gave up the booze and set myself on the so-called straight and narrow, the fear and panic ebbed.

I suffered a rather significant regression in this area following the sudden death of my mother seven years ago. Suddenly, I felt vulnerable and exposed in a whole new way. The bad things I’d feared as a child were no longer just hypothetical – they were happening. To me. To us. To our family.

Since that time, I’ve waged an ongoing battle with my anxiety and fear and, although I can’t really figure out why, it seems that it’s been at a bit of a high point lately. To be sure, it’s been a year when health concerns have threatened the wellbeing of a number of family members and I suppose that alone is enough to ratchet up the fear level.

But I’m tired of it, frankly. I’m tired of having a brain that leaps to a worst-case-scenario whenever my husband doesn’t check in as promised or when I can’t get a hold of my sister. I know not everyone operates this way. I know that other people possess the ability to be rational about matters, particularly when there is no evidence suggesting the need to be anything but.

This is not how my brain works.

So I set out this past week just to try – to apply actual, conscious effort – not to let my fear rule the land. Just seven days where I tried not to give into worry and anxiety, but tried to behave like a normal person.

This is a particularly uncomfortable subject matter for me. I don’t like thinking about it, much less writing about it. I worry that revealing the extent of my anxiety will finally, once and for all, reveal what a superfreak I am and that no one will want to know me, let alone read another word I write. See? That’s the distinct thud of the other shoe dropping.

A lot of this week’s experiment simply doesn’t lend itself to interesting writing. There was a lot of embarrassing observation in which I noted, for the umpteenth time, how quickly my brain leaped to a tragic outcome. How sometimes I’m so sure that something’s wrong, I could feel it in my bones. That sort of prescience would be impressive were it, well, you know… prescient.

But it’s not.

The feelings I have don’t presage anything. In fact, overwhelmingly, they’re 100% wrong. Everything’s fine, not falling apart. My husband will walk through the door again, my family will return home safely from vacation. But that distance between fact and feeling sometimes seems insurmountable to me.

I realize pretty quickly into this week that I’m not even sure what it means to try not to be afraid. Because that worry seems so automatic to me. I don’t seem to have any control over the fact that when my sister doesn’t return my text message in a timely manner, it means they’ve never arrived safely at their destination and everything we know has been horribly altered.

If I can’t control that, then, the best I can seem to do is to make a very real, very conscious effort to talk myself out of it. To apply rationale to the situation. To basically pretend that I’m not feeling what I’m feeling until the fear subsides. Much to my surprise, this approach actually works to a certain extent. It calms me long enough until my attention’s drawn to something else. So that by the time I hear from my sister the next day, I’m not surprised to learn that her phone battery died the day before.

I’m also struck by the sheer insanity of some of my fear. Sunday is the Fourth of July. That means, shortly after the fireworks start going off, when a police car races down the street outside my house, I try to quiet the immediate panic. My panic is so far outside the realm of possibility. It isn’t just that I’m afraid someone’s hurt; I’m afraid, specifically, that my nieces have been hurt in a horrible fireworks accident. Even when I know they’re miles away. It makes no sense whatsoever, and it’s embarrassing how concretely I have to have this talk with myself: it makes no sense whatsoever. Everything is fine. Everything is okay.

As the week wore on, there were countless small moments like that. I wish I could say it was revelatory and transformative, but in truth it was painful and difficult. It was exhausting. I felt sheepish about facing just how crazy my thinking can be sometimes and powerless to do much about it. I decided I’d feel more positive about the week if I did at least one thing that felt more proactive, something that felt less like waiting to talk myself down off the ledge and more like facing a fear head-on.

A few months ago, I sent a draft of my novel to an agent of some repute, someone I have a tenuous connection with. He wrote back after a week or so with a kindly worded note saying he was halfway through the novel, but was finding it to be slow going. He asked for my thoughts. I told him I concurred, that I realized it was an early draft and what I thought I might need at this stage was an editor more than an agent, someone to help me shape the thing into something publishable. I asked said agent, outright, if he thought it was worth working on or if I should just throw in the towel.

I never heard back from him. The doomsday part of me – which by now you realize is sizable – is tempted to think that sometimes no answer is the answer. The smaller, more positive part of me (and, yes, there is one) is also tempted to think that’s not true in this case. Either way, it’s been causing me a tremendous amount of fear and anxiety. What if I spent nearly two years of my life (off and on, granted) writing a novel that blows? What if it’s terrible and he’s just afraid to tell me? Or (perhaps even worse), what if it’s so boring it’s not worth a response?

Either way, I’ve known the onus for follow up is on me. I’ve just been too afraid to do it. So a few days ago I wrote the email, something (hopefully) witty and self-deprecating, just seeking some sort of response. I wrote it AND I sent it. Sure, now I’m terrified of what the answer is and what it means. I’m terrified that this person thinks it sucks and I should give up the ghost. I’m also terrified that this person thinks it’s worth working on, because that means EFFORT and WORK and I don’t like those things.

But I may be reaching the point where I am more afraid of stagnancy than either success or failure. Maybe.

I still haven’t heard anything back from the agent, but I’ve been doing a remarkably good job of keeping my brain in check about it. After all, there’s a big difference between avoidance and knowing you’ve done your part. I know that’s not applicable to all the situations that fill me with fear and anxiety, but maybe part of this experiment is to help me figure out which is which. The things, as they say, that I can change, versus those I can’t.

One of the things I can’t change may be the very fact, as my therapist keeps kindly suggesting, that I’m just a particularly anxious person. I suspect that she, in her infinite wisdom, is probably correct about this. I just don’t really wanna accept that idea, though. I want to think it’s something that can be fixed or avoided. That said, honestly, after this week, I’m too worn out to worry about it any more.