Anxiety is a funny thing. And by “funny,” I don’t mean amusing. I mean odd, weird, nonsensical, irrational, wretched, terrible, horrifying, crippling, cruel. It primarily affects women in much the same way anger management problems and color blindness primarily affect men. And anxiety runs in families.
My mother and sister have anxiety disorder. I have “adjustment disorder with mixed emotional features,” which loosely translates to an inability to tolerate high levels of stress on an ascending scale correlative to the increasing level of said stress. Meditation and mindfulness, rather than medication, help, but I am lucky.
My daughter is six years old. She’s starting to show symptoms, too.
* * *
My first feelings of sharp, painful, destabilizing anxiety — ones I remember, at least, and remember with a vivid tingling tremble in my body — occurred when I was only a little older than my daughter is now. In 1981, President Reagan was shot by a psychopath trying to impress Jodie Foster. Reagan lived, but I didn’t know yet that was going to be the outcome as I stood in the hallway, plucked from my first grade classroom, trembling and choking out tears and unformed words about my terror to the school counselor. My teacher wanted me out of the room so I wouldn’t frighten my classmates as they all watched the breaking news coverage, the president stepping from a building into a street soon pierced with bullets, falling, the scrambling, getting him into speeding cars, over and over again. I remember the light was turned off, the blinds drawn, so we could all see the television better. I remember seeing the president smiling and waving then sharply falling, over and over.
I don’t remember being allowed back into the classroom until I calmed down, but I know that when I reentered the room, my glassy-eyed classmates turned to look at me as if I were no more familiar to them than the strange TV program they were being forced to watch. My Otherness lingered throughout elementary school and junior high, until we all graduated in eighth grade and went on to high school, our class then to be diluted by other students from all over the city. I don’t know how much of that day made me forever strange to them. Perhaps it only made me strange to myself, and that Otherness I felt within me then took root inside my personality, sprouting into the kind of tree one might find in a Tim Burton film.
The next year, my first fears of terrorism occurred, at the Sunday family breakfast table. My father’s cousin in Lebanon had just been elected president a few weeks before and had been assassinated. (His brother would then be elected president to survive him and lead the country for most of the rest of the decade.)
My mother remarked in what I would later remember as a cloyingly dramatic way how sad it was that his family’s joy that he had been elected had abruptly turned to sorrow and mourning. But I was focused on an anecdote my father was recalling, about an earlier assassination attempt in which the dead man’s car had been blown up. Although that incident had been unsuccessful in its target of Bashir, his driver and eighteen-month-old daughter had been killed in the blast.
I looked at my baby sister then, just two years old. She was quietly chewing toast and scrambled eggs, looking back and forth at everyone in the family while she studiously munched. With a pang, it occurred to me that if that toddler cousin wasn’t safe, then my toddler sister wasn’t safe, and if adults were being killed, how could I protect this baby?
This anxiety about protecting my younger brother and sister would linger all the way into adulthood. A rash of kidnappings in our city when we were all in grade school nearly paralyzed me, to the point where I hid letters about neighborhood safety, sent from school to our parents, in the back of my desk drawer. I was too anxious to let both my siblings go out shopping or to a movie theater unless both my parents or one parent and myself were with them. The two kids together were just too rambunctious, I thought, for one parent to handle. I was needed to make sure the family would remain intact. It was my silent crusade of protection, and it left an indelible mark on my psyche, perhaps because it was so silent.
The question of why such a task might fall to me never entered my mind. As my father often reminded my siblings and me as we were growing up and not always getting along, you have to be friends with brothers and sisters, because when you get older, all you have is your family. You can’t really depend on anyone else.
* * *
Separation anxiety is a funny thing, too, in the heartbreaking sense of the word. Even though my daughter has been in school for four years and has never shown anything but enthusiasm for the three schools she has attended, in the early weeks of first grade, I have spent several mornings with her barnacled to my hips and weeping at the door to her classroom. How many minutes have she and I spent on either end of a staircase, waving and blowing kisses, reminding each other the school day is only a few hours long and that everything is going to be all right and that if there’s any emergency, her teacher will call me and I will come running like Dash Incredible from my side of campus to hers? She can rattle off my cell phone number like it’s her ABCs. The school counseling psychologist assures me her behavior is not uncommon and, perhaps, to be expected, considering our family history. She also reveals, with a kind smile, that the kind of behavior my daughter has exhibited only happens in families which are warm and loving. Now there’s a silver lining.
The only thing like separation anxiety that I remember feeling when I was a child was a dull ache, a malaise that inexplicably made me cry. It occurred when I would wake up in the mornings in my parents’ bed, music from the easy listening station on the radio. The room would be dimly lit by sunlight filtered through the taupe linen curtains. The king-size bed was far too big for my toddler body. Both my parents would be at work, and the babysitter would be in the house, waiting for me to wake up. I felt lonely, mournful, as if I had been abandoned.
Even at that age, I knew intellectually that this was silly, that my parents would be home again before I knew it. But that didn’t stop the longing for their presence or my tears. And that’s no way to start your day.
* * *
This morning, on the ten-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I have been awakened from my Sunday bed by the radio. It’s NPR, playing impactfully arranged broadcasts from that first 9/11’s Morning Edition. It’s a powerful thing to wake up to, but not something I especially want to hear again; I had listened to it the first time, ten years ago, on that Tuesday morning.
Both our daughter and our four-year-old son have climbed into bed with my husband and me at some point in the last couple of hours. We are sleeping like sardines, all snuggled together in a bed not meant for four. The children have instinctively edged us toward the middle to avoid perching in their slumber on the drop-offs on either side. Aaron and I wake and begin coaxing them gently back to their own beds. Our son walks back down the hall to his room, where he will climb onto his pillow and turtle down back to sleep. Our daughter merely slides from the bed to the floor, not even waking as her body pours itself gracefully across the carpet.
The radio is loud enough to wake me up. That’s how we’ve designed it, because the morning broadcast is usually less violent than a shrieking alarm. But today is Sunday, and we’ve no reason to get up early. I turn the radio way down so the coverage can’t permeate anyone’s dreams.
* * *
In the first couple of hours after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the field, I had to return to class and, in the absence of any other directive, teach. In my tiny Creative Writing class that semester I had six students. We were studying plays. I had been contemplating writing a stage adaptation of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, which I had just read and loved the week before. I was supposed to be discussing with my students that day Our Man in Madras, a one-act play about a nuclear bomb blast. (For a week I tried dutifully to cover that material until we all just sort of agreed it was a bad idea.)
I looked at my students on the morning of 9/11. One was absent. One was in the office in tears trying to find news of her family: her parents had been on a plane that morning, leaving D.C.; they had been visiting her older sister, who worked at the White House. She had been fed uninformed information and thought her whole family had been killed in the attacks. (Fortunately, everyone ended up being completely safe.)
I had four students left in my classroom. A senior girl who was immersing herself in homework to avoid the situation around her. A sophomore girl who was silently freaking out. Two eleventh-grade boys.
I looked at those children and felt sad. You didn’t have to be a military expert to know that a war was coming. These kids had grown up during peacetime and would remember it wistfully. I looked at the boys and felt a deep, frightened tenderness. For over an hour, I could think of nothing but please don’t let them reinstate the draft, please don’t let them reinstate the draft, please don’t…
* * *
On the first anniversary of those terrorist attacks, a friend forwarded me a newspaper cartoon that if I could find now, I would post a link to. I’ve looked; I can’t find it anywhere but in my memory, but that’s good enough. Nine years later, the fact that it’s still there is perhaps the point. The cartoonist’s implied question was how one could possibly memorialize such a traumatic event. The single-panel comic depicted a television that had been unplugged from the wall, beneath a window through which a mother and toddler could be seen playing together, all smiles, outside. The toddler was laughing, playing catch-the-ball with Mommy, and the mother didn’t look anxious. The unplugged television let us know the events were present in the mother’s mind, but she wasn’t letting them cripple her.
I have been advised that avoidance is not the way to deal with anxiety. Good advice, but easier said than done. I am trying to be mindful of the symptoms when they manifest in my young daughter’s behavior as vigilantly as I monitor my own. I am trying to be cognizant of everything, to counteract the paralysis and tears with positive, healthy, stable fortitude and sound reason. Sometimes it works. It’s a process I’ve had to teach myself in adulthood. And it’s getting better.
Today will be a relaxing day. We will not attend the numerous vigils and ceremonies and memorials and events we have been informed of and invited to, although I am glad they’re happening for those who need them. We will play with our children, visit good friends for dinner, do some housework, read and write. We will prepare for tomorrow’s day at school. We will discuss Hallowe’en costumes with our kids. We will admire our daughter’s newest drawings and collect a picture of a spider web our son has drawn for his idol, Spider-Man.
The world will turn at its rapid, steady pace. The news cycle will do the same, but tucked into another corner of our house where we can participate in it or not. The events of ten years ago will be remembered. We will honor the fallen and remember the heroes. We will incorporate those feelings into the fabric of our lives but not let them dominate unnecessarily. We will choose to forge ahead with awareness and reverence, but not be stuck in a despair-filled past. Some people will hate us for our choices, but their hate is not my responsibility.
Tomorrow we will publicly resume the other parts of our lives. Participating fully in them, demonstrating our strength and our love for the people still around us, being survivors for the survivors, helping everyone to move forward without stagnation — that is a healthy and loving tribute, too.