I’m not sure exactly when anxiety entered my life. Probably at birth, if not sooner. When my mother was in her last trimester with me, she got chicken pox, courtesy of my two brothers. She wound up with double pneumonia and her gynecologist, the doctor she once described as “that guy who almost killed me three times,” kept her out of the hospital because she was so contagious.
I handpicked the middle of the night for my dramatic arrival. My dad loaded Mom into the Oldsmobile and took off down Sunset Boulevard for County General, the only hospital that would admit a pregnant gal with an infectious disease. By the time he pulled into the parking lot, I was rapidly heading for the exit. Doctors ran out and delivered me in the back seat of the car.
Hello, separation anxiety.
My mom and I were immediately split apart. They put her in quarantine, hooked her up to an iron lung and gave her a new medicine called Cortisone. It saved her life. I wound up at a different hospital, stuck in a basinet next to other tiny wailers. By the time I went home, before my mom, who was still sicker than sick, I had chicken pox, too. In case I infected the whole maternity ward, let me just say, it wasn’t intentional.
The theatrics of my own birth undoubtedly set the tone for a lifetime of inspired what-iffing and riffing on various imaginative personal catastrophes. At all times, I needed an escape plan. Not having an escape plan – how do I get out of this elevator if it stalls – only upped my anxiety.
In my early, post-collegiate twenties, Anxiety with a capital A tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Hello, I’m going to be here awhile.” It followed me to my first job, working at a national magazine for teenage girls. I was a lowly editorial assistant. I answered the phones, walked the publisher’s dog and sorted through stacks of mail that arrived every hour, dumped on my desk by the psychotic mail guy who made me very nervous.
After nine months, I left my dead-end job to take a super glam position in show biz. I was a lowly production assistant. One day, my boss told me to get his Cadillac washed. It was terrifying to drive that tanker. My feet barely touched the pedals. I couldn’t imagine going through that ordeal again. Three weeks in, I quit and I found myself another glam job in show biz. That one lasted eight days. I was a lowly researcher on a “reality” show called “Those Amazing Animals!” It was the ’80s and smoking hadn’t been banned in office buildings. When I asked the executive producer, super nicely, if he could maybe refrain from cigar-smoking in our endless closed-door meetings, he canned my ass on the spot.
Goodbye, show biz. I’ll see you later.
Failure raised the ante, anxiety-wise. I started to hyperventilate. So now I was nervous and worried about my breathing. The mantra that played on a continuous loop: Am I breathing? What if I stop breathing? What if I pass out? What if I –
It was an exhausting place to be. I carried around a paper bag as a security blanket. I was 22, unemployed, about to get married and consumed with angst.
My family doctor prescribed a tranquilizer that helped take the edge off a little.
He suggested I might want to “see someone.”
Hello, Dr. Zelman, a grandfatherly, Freudian shrink with white hair, a white beard and a thick German accent. He was straight out of Central Casting. He told me I was a good person and that I wasn’t nuts and promised me I was going to be alright. He helped me get through the wedding and then he dropped dead.
Goodbye, Dr. Zelman.
Done with show biz, at least for a while, I went to work for a bankrupt newspaper in Century City. God forbid, I should pick a normal place to work. All day, I rode the crowded elevators in Century City. They felt like coffins to me. Everything felt like coffins to me.
Hello, new shrink: a lovely lady named Edith, who analyzed my dreams, held my hand while I cried and told me I was going to be okay. She never specified when, exactly, but she did inspire a degree of confidence. The fact that I was getting more and more fearful, but covering it up, brilliantly, or so I thought, made my loved ones a little anxious, too. Behind my back, my people couldn’t help but wonder, “What is wrong with her?”
Week after week, I talked and talked about my typical neurotic childhood with my therapist. It didn’t help. I got tired of listening to myself. I pretended I was fine.
Goodbye, therapy. I’ll see you later.
I was 29 and pregnant when I joined a support group full of women who were so saddled with anxiety and agoraphobia, I felt almost normal in comparison.
Goodbye, crazy ladies, and good luck.
Hello, self-hypnosis. I listened to tapes twice a day. I breathed and visualized peaceful nice things. It helped. I managed to keep Anxiety at bay.
My thirties were better. Giving birth twice felt empowering. If I can do THIS, I can do anything. I still had anxiety, but I understood my own mishegas. Slowly, it dawned on me that I didn’t have the power to control the entire universe. It was a big relief. And then I lost my mom.
Hello, depression, the flipside of anxiety.
I’d held it together the whole year she was dying of lung cancer. I didn’t want her to worry about me. I wanted her to go out thinking what a strong, together daughter she’d produced. Afterwards, I fell apart. Every day felt like I was stuck in thick molasses. Like I couldn’t move an inch. Like I was just trapped there in my own gooey sadness and pain.
Hello, therapy. I’m back. Did you miss me?
My next therapist, a sweet and caring lady named Diane, was the best of the shrink brigade. She helped me the most and told me I might benefit from a nice, soothing anti-depressant. I resisted that one with every inch of my being. No way was I taking anything.
I put up a big fight. And then I caved. I got tired of feeling sticky-sad and trying to talk my way out of anxiety. I went on a pretty pink pill. I upgraded to the latest, healthiest version of myself.
Goodbye, all-consuming anxiety. You’ve overstayed your welcome, my friend. And please, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.
Carol Starr Schneider is a writer in Sherman Oaks. She writes a daily humor blog called Short Jewish Gal (www.shortjewishgal.blogspot.com)