I was born anxious, or at least that’s what I love to tell people. I’m pretty sure it’s true, though. I used to blame my anxiety on 1984. That’s when my father died. Not long after that, my mom remarried a man with three kids and we moved in with them and became the Brady Bunch and renovated the house and had a new town and new neighbors and new friends and new family and new grief. That would drive anyone to anxiety but I think I had it before then.
I used to “rock” from sometime not long after birth until my later childhood. Sometimes it even happened as a teenager and in my 20s. “Rocking” was what my parents called my intense tossing and turning that used to literally move my crib across the floor. Or maybe that’s the way it was with my father who was also reported to rock his crib as a baby. I also used to whine and hum a specific tune that I can still conjure up today. If I was feeling particularly needy, I’d use that tune to whine, “Mommy, mommy, ma ma mommy.” I can still do it today. Just ask me next time you see me. (I can also hum the pre-programmed tune from my sister’s old recorder type instrument)
I also would rock rhythmically in a couch or chair while sitting. This happened before his death and after. My siblings loved to make fun of me for it. I mean, how could you not make fun of the rocking, whining, humming girl? I got the last laugh, though. I believe my pediatrician even told my mom that the rocking wasn’t dangerous. It was a form of self-soothing not unlike thumb sucking or hitting your head against the wall. I was rocking through my childhood and teens and I never once reached for alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. I never self-cut, had an eating disorder, needed any kind of medication, or had any violent or antisocial tendencies whatsoever. So what I did in the privacy of my own home (and sometimes embarrassingly at sleepovers and a few times in front of college roommates and boyfriends) was pretty damn cool. If Scarlet starts doing that one day, I’ll probably be ecstatic that she figured some things out. However, Scarlet is a champion thumb sucker so it looks like she’s already covered in that department.
So as I was saying – anxiety. I also remember being afraid of loud music and fireworks when I was really young. I suppose that’s not uncommon for young children. The uncommon stuff is coming…
Around the time my father died, I was deeply obsessed with and terrified of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Many phobias followed that time and it’s hard to say if the phobias came from his death, from the movie, or from the horrid combination of both. Before he died, I was afraid of the Wicked Witch of the West. After he died in the years that followed I went through phases of being deeply phobic of: being spun around, (Dorothy’s house spins), tornadoes, (this tie-in is obvious), lions (Cowardly Lion), loud noises and earthquakes, (he fell when he had a heart attack and the floor shook) and then oddly – a killer whale in my closet that seemed to have no bearing on the film or his death. Anyway, phobias are irrational as these were. However, I was faced in reality with even the most ridiculous.
Once I woke up to the sound of my younger brother screaming bloody murder in the street. I “knew” exactly why he was screaming. Lions, of course! Actually, it was just from my older brother tormenting him. Oddly enough, a lion did escape from a zoo in southern NJ around this same time and was seen in a local park but luckily I never got word of that back then. I was so afraid of tornadoes that I tried to get my parents to take down their wind chimes that were outside my bedroom window. They didn’t budge but living in NJ, you’d think tornadoes wouldn’t be a real fear. And lo and behold, I was faced with my worst phobia at my grandparent’s house in Westfield, NJ. The umbrella stand loudly blew away and under other circumstances, I would have laughed at that. Instead, I was huddling petrified in the basement. No one ever knew how scared I was that time. No one ever knew how scared I was in general. I don’t like showing weakness or fear. I don’t like appearing to have lack of control. My ultimate phobia must be lack of control because every other fear that comes and goes seems to relate to that. I never once had a bad vomiting episode (or a good one), and yet I’m phobic of vomit – other people’s and my own. And I barely threw up as a kid. Maybe five times in my life. No lie. I remember the last time I threw up (I was seven) and I told myself, “Remember this – it’s not that bad.” And yet, I became completely petrified after that. I once read that fear of vomiting is ultimately a fear of losing control. That, I can work with.
A brief conversation with a therapist as an adult revealed only one interesting thing to me:
Her: “What happened after that tornado at your grandparent’s house? Were you still afraid?”
Me: “No, actually. I’ve never been afraid of tornadoes since then. In fact, I think they’re awesome and I’d love to see one (from a safe place) one day.”
Her: “So why do you think your fear went away after you faced it?”
Me: “Because my worst fear came true, which was odd in NJ, and everything was fine afterward except for the umbrella stand. We all survived.”
Her: “Yup. That’s why you conquered THAT fear. Everyone survived and everyone was ok. That time, anyway.”
Me: (thinking of my father) “Ohhhhh…..oh. Jeez. I gotta go.”
Children feel pain. Children fear. I probably would have been just as strange had my family been shiny, happy, normal. However, I do think the sudden changes around four and five did give me the intense separation anxiety I felt with my mom. I know all kids get separation anxiety so why is mine so special? Probably because it got bad not when I was really young but when I was nine and ten and I’d get upset from…going to school for the day. Yeah, those were bad times. I was also afraid of movie theaters around that time which might have something to do with the loud noises problem. I was also afraid of sleepovers around that time because if I couldn’t even go to school, how could I leave my parents overnight??
Beyond some hard phases, I had a really happy childhood and I was socially adept always, despite being afraid to go to sleepovers and movies, and despite crying in the hallways of school for my mommy sometimes. I guess my classmates and friends were very forgiving.
The aspect of my anxiety that gives me the most bewildering confusion has got to be my stomach panic attacks. That’s what I call them. I’ve only had a “real” panic attack once in my life a few weeks before I moved to California. I was driving and had to pull over because my heart was pounding and I was experiencing shortness of breath. It sucked but it was over fast. For me, my stomach panic attacks are when I get a random bout of nausea out of nowhere and it disappears as mysteriously as it came. It can last anywhere from three minutes to hours. It averages around 20 minutes. I have gotten them enough in life that anytime I have a stomachache, I assume that it’s in my head and that I can make it go away. This is awesome. This either means I’ve never in my life had a “real” stomachache (not likely) or that I use mind over matter for stomachaches no matter what the origin. These stomach panic attacks have followed me into adulthood and go with the flow of my life. If times are tough, I can get them daily or weekly. If times are great, I can literally go years without even one stomachache. Not one.
It wasn’t bad in childhood – just odd and without explanation. Once I was digging into these clown cupcakes that someone brought over and then my brother told me there was rum in them and I freaked out thinking I was drunk and went to bed with a stomachache. Another time, my brother threw up at this Mexican restaurant we were at and I decided that it must be the food and I must be sick too and I felt queasy until the next day! It then magically went away when I came home from school because I don’t think it was real to begin with. The food was fine! (You can all relax and go to El Coyote in New Jersey.) A few times when I was young – once at a waffle restaurant and another time eating burgers and fries at the dinner table, I just randomly felt really, really nauseous suddenly and ran to the bathroom where I wasn’t sick and maybe wasn’t physically sick to begin with. I don’t know! It’s not abnormal for little kids to feel nauseous and I’m describing only a few times but knowing what I know now, I do think they were in my head. The one or two times I was ever truly sick to my stomach (strange, I know) felt very different. A last anxious example I can think of was in 4th grade and I suddenly felt VERY ill but I had to sing in a school musical. I told my teacher and she told me I was probably nervous about the musical and that I shouldn’t make myself so sick like this for minor things, because one day a major bad thing would happen and I wouldn’t be able to handle it. She was right. And wrong. I sang in the musical but as my brother said, “You had no enthusiasm.” Then I went home and I was fine.
Why am I telling you all of that? I really don’t know. I hope it’s valid. It never came up again until I was 16 and a boy asked me out and I nearly lost my lunch on the spot. I talk about that and a road trip that followed here.
After that trip and all of that getting high on life that followed, I would feel so much, so fast that I’d get stomach panic attacks even while happy. They weren’t terrible but truly a sign of anxiety that I’d have butterflies in my stomach all the time. I had a college roommate who once said, “I have such bad anxiety that I literally ALWAYS am sick to my stomach. It just fades into the background of my life. It’s always there.” And I relate to her. However in my case, I’ve gone through phases of life where I don’t feel any kind of sick for years or, like her, I may feel it every day for a month or so. Sometimes people give me these minor attacks and I wonder if I’ll ever know why. I’ve met people before and they made me so nervous that I spent our first meeting using my anxiety coping techniques – deep breaths, pacing, talking, writing if I can, happy thoughts, dogs, thinking of calming people. All of this works, by the way…I didn’t know how to do any of that in my childhood but I had to learn during stressful times when I was older. It was why I never had to resort to treatment for anxiety. I have thought about it but ultimately, I think I worked out a lot of it on my own and I’ll continue to do so.
These stomach panic attacks haven’t happened with any kind of severity in almost two years. Maybe it will come back and maybe it won’t. What I’m left with is a lot of unanswered questions. Why do they happen? Where do they come from? None of my triggers make sense, really. Sometimes it seems to be the most subtle thing that someone says that makes it happen. And sometimes it’s the nicest people, who I often still form a friendship with even after our panicked first meeting. I guess people I know today are very forgiving as well.
A lot of you reach out to me with similar stories and comments about my posts. I appreciate that so much. Please feel free to share your own anxiety, lack of anxiety, or coping mechanisms. If it takes a lifetime to figure this out, so be it. I bet I will someday.