I was born fearful. At least, I believe I was. Somehow neither nature nor nurture seems responsible for my anxious temperament. I do not have fearful parents; my father, if anything, is a daredevil, prone to boyish recklessness. But I emerged into the world with a tightly wound, nervous disposition.
As a child, I was afraid of everything. Water. Having to enter bodies of water. Putting my face under water. Old people. Old men with facial hair. Dogs (yes, dogs). The green slime that would collect on the rungs of the ladder connected to my grandparents’ dock. Chicken pox. Calling strangers on the phone. Vomiting. Splinters. Strangers. Dental visits. Public speaking. Card games. Parasites in any shape or form. Competitions. Boys with mental disabilities. Making travel arrangements. Having to perform in front of audience. Holding newborn babies. Holding the hand of someone who had eczema.
More than anything, I hated disappointing the adults in my life, which is why I so vividly remember the ways in which my fears disappointed or embarrassed them. I can only remember one time my sweet, saintly grandmother was upset with me; it was at her church, and she snapped at me, because I was too scared to talk to her friends and hid behind her skirts. I hated disappointing her more than anything, but I hated talking to strangers even more.
I remember how disappointed my father was that I was so fearful; he seemed incredulous that I, this tiny, whimpering thing, could be related to him. When I was little, he’d try to throw me in the ocean, and I would scream and fight him so passionately that his arms would be covered in small, bleeding lacerations. He’d endeavor to get me to play catch with him, and I’d just pull a George Michael. He was trying to make me brave and tough, but I was impervious to all such efforts and remained firmly entrenched in my nervous state.
I don’t know where these fears came from or why they were so specific and persistent. My siblings never seemed to suffer from this disposition; all three of them turned out to be buff, courageous athletes who laughed in the face of danger. And I would sit in my room with my books and wonder how they got to be this way.
My parents made me join the neighborhood swim team when I was a young teen, and it was easily the most miserable summer of my young life. Swim team combined almost all of my most virulent fears (water + competition + performance + various states of undress). Before every meet, I’d devoutly pray to get my period, a really horrific, bloody, wracking period; if the risen Lord answered my prayers and I was visited by the moon blood, I’d celebrate and then rush to tell my parents that there was no way I could compete; I couldn’t use tampons, because you never know how leak-proof they really are. If menstruation didn’t excuse me, I was a miserable competitor. On the blocks before the horn went off, I’d look down at the pool and wonder how my vomit was going to look, slowly rippling out across the surface of the water. (Thankfully, this never happened.) The coaches told me that I actually had a very good form, but I was so slow. I can still remember the muffled underwater sound of my coaches yelling at me during a race: “ABBY, GO FASTER! GO FASTER!” I wasn’t motivated; I just wanted to quietly get out of the pool, even if I was dead last, and never get back in it again. Meanwhile, Kelsey and Grace were racking up medals and asking if they could join the year-round league.
I have recovered from most of these fears (although I will still fight you if you try to throw me in the ocean). Thanks to some steady work of lifetime conditioning, some of my fears have become my great loves (e.g., dogs and public speaking). But I seem to have acquired new fears to replace the old ones. They haunt me to varying degrees, but I at least feel slightly more capable of handling (or at the very least, voicing) them.
My anxiety is often a mystery to Guion, who is, mercifully, one of the least anxious people I know. “Just stop worrying all the time,” he will tell me. I nod and tell him I’ll try. But I don’t know how to try. Worrying is one of the few things I’m really good at.
2 thoughts on “A personal history with anxiety”
This is me growing up as well! An oldest child thing, perhaps? More certainly, it’s probably an introvert tendency. Have you read Quiet (Susan Cain)? I think you’d enjoy it. Thanks for sharing this.
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