Worry's Birth

I'm a worrier, and sometimes my worry turns into panic-inducing anxiety.  

Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to therapy, and in our first session, my new therapist pointed something out that opened a window on my past and helped me reframe some of the messaging that drives me from a little worry to a Red Alert, System Lockdown. She also inadvertently helped me figure out the title for my graphic memoir and find a way to start the writing process.

Here's what she said, "Wow. You're really mean to yourself."

Yep. That was it. Brilliant!

I'd informed her that I am aware of my worry and anxiety and that I am smart enough to know that some of it is quite irrational. I'd told her that sometimes, my anxiety hits critical mass, and I break down in tears for an hour or so, and afterward, I give myself a "stern talking to" and am okay again for a little while.  She called me out on the "stern" part. She suggested that, perhaps, instead of needing a stern talking to in those moments I could use a little compassion.

That's really where the session ended. I told her I needed to do some thinking. I felt like I'd been hit with a lead balloon. It hadn't even occurred to me that my sternness was anything other than rational and well-suited to the moment at hand. Honestly. You might find that strange coming from someone who talks to clients about developing self-compassion, but there it is.

I spent the week doing that thinking. I also spent the week noticing exactly what my inner voice was saying when I would get anxious, and I came out with these shining insights: I AM pretty mean to myself, AND I'm mean to myself because there's a little girl in me who believes that by worrying I should somehow figure things out and be able to control and prevent DISASTER. The fact that my worrying doesn't lead to a "figured out" situation causes that little girl to become abusive; the shaming things she says bring up more anxiety because I am clearly failing at the control that I'm supposed to be aiming for.

I realized, in this week of thinking, that I've been a worrier since I was 4-years-old, and it is that 4-year-old that panics and turns mean (though she uses a very adult voice to do it).

This is not a blame-my-parents post. I have long accepted that my parents did the very best they could. I also know that I was well-loved. Any and all resentments that I had about my childhood were aired before my Mom died in 2013. And... I am also quite aware that there's some traumatic shit in my past, that my baby brain developed some odd and sometimes destructive ways of coping, and there is one shining event that I believe set the stage for my very long career as a worrier.  It is that event that will almost certainly open my eventual Graphic Memoir called, Worry, and I will need to put a blurb in thanking this particular therapist for backdooring me into finally getting the thing written.

I hadn't forgotten this event. It's not some repressed thing that bubbled to the surface in the week between sessions 1 and 2. I've never forgotten it. I've never not remembered it. It's been, well, just a fact in my life, in my family's life, for as long as I can remember. In fact, I've tried to write about it before.  I've tried poetry, essay, and a script for a short monologue.  I've even tried to figure out a way to express it through dance and movement. I have always hit a wall. The only way I've ever been able to deeply consider this event was through the eyes of a clinician and through the lens of PTSD, specifically combat-related PTSD (my Dad served multiple tours, 2 back-to-back, in Vietnam). I have never been able to really consider this event from my Mom's perspective or from my own 4-year-old self's perspective. Until now.  And I know I'm just hitting the surface of it.

Here's the very short story: 

In November 1974, my parents and two of their friends came home drunk from the Marine Corps Ball. At some point in the early hours before dawn, my Dad passed out in his recliner with my Mom sitting in his lap. When he woke up, he reached over to the side table, grabbed a ballpoint pen, and tried to shove it through my Mom's throat. His friend was able to stop him and physically restrain him until he calmed down.

I don't actually know if I saw any of that. I don't know exactly when I came out of my room.

What I remember is my own loud crying as I tried to escape the arms of my parents' friend to run downstairs. I remember watching the military police handcuff and escort my Dad out of the house.  As I sit here writing this short memory, I can actually feel the harsh, little kid panic-scream in the back of my throat.

We all survived this event. My Dad was sent away for treatment for alcoholism and PTSD. My Mom and I were eventually packed up and moved back to the states, and we were all eventually reunited. Nothing quite like it ever happened again. But other things did, and somewhere along the line I learned a couple important things that would grow into my keen worrying skills: (1) my parents were not always dependable, and I needed to be able to figure things out on my own, and (2) my parents were going to kill each other, self-destruct, or meet some other terrible end if I didn't control the situation. 

The impact of that one therapy session was really pretty great. Realizing that part of my anxiety was actually coming from being beaten up by my SELF was huge. Truly. I haven't stopped worrying. What I have been able to do is hear the critical, angry-scared voice screaming, "You had better figure this out right now!" in the background, and usually, I can help her settle down enough to stop screaming.  On the few occasions when worry has turned to anxiety and then to panic-driven tears, I've been able to practice that compassion with myself.  It's helped, and I'm grateful enough to keep practicing.  *The therapist and I decided agreed that I'd accomplished what I set out to do in therapy - find a way to manage my anxiety, and we're on an as-needed schedule now.

Beyond that, I think I've found a way into a story that I've been trying to tell for a very long time. The bit I've shared here is only a piece of the bigger story, but it was a piece that I couldn't seem to touch even though it was always right there. To some folx, I imagine that my desire to write about, to create about, this stuff might seem strange. Why not just let it go? If it doesn't want to be expressed, why express it?  Well, I believe that it, the story, may not care about being expressed, but that little girl has been nagging me for a very long time. It is SHE who wants to be expressed, and I don't want to fail her.


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