Friday, November 19, 2010

Human Worry Doll

Last week I was listening to the Nerdist podcast and someone quoted this idea, "Anxiety is imagination mis-used." I was blown away with that concept because it COMPLETELY encapsulates my lifelong struggle with anxiety.

I didn't get my training wheels off until 3rd grade because every time I tried riding my bike without them, I imagined falling and my arm bone breaking in a compound fracture that would jut out of my arm. I am not a strong swimmer because I imagined myself drowning in gruesome detail - lungs filling up with water, feeling sleepy and dying at the bottom of the pool. The first time I jumped off the diving board for fun was when I was 24! I loved it and have done it since but every time I take the step on the diving board my inner 4 year old is screaming with terror and I feel like puking. The way I convinced myself to take the leap was that I had been using a family pool as outpatient physical therapy after my stroke and I reasoned myself out of my fear. So many awful things had just happened to me and I had survived, so how can jumping into water compare on the scale of horribleness?

I also had these goofy mental exercises that made me feel safe. Every time I went downstairs to do laundry, I imagined falling down the stairs and breaking my neck. Because I imagined it, it didn't happen. Every time I passed a wood chipper, I imagined a wood chip being shot into my eye and penetrating my brain. That grotesque imagery kept me safe for years.

The more mundane anxiety is kind of funny now. I didn't buy lunch in high school at all because I was worried that I would not understand the flow and get mocked. That cafeteria phobia was with me for a while - until 2007. I remember when I broke the spell. It was at South Shore hospital May 2007 as my family was at my grandmother's bedside while she was dying. I needed to grab some lunch and walked into the cafeteria with dread in my stomach. As I looked around, I saw a couple aunts and uncles picking up food and a cousin had arrived the same time as me. So I was surrounded by sympathetic non-mocking people. It also helped that the cafeteria didn't have a flow, just miscellaneous food stations that you can visit willy nilly.

I also had a grocery shopping anxiety for most of my teen years because I was overweight. I felt ashamed of buying food and I had a lot of classmates working in the grocery store. I thought if I bought just healthy food, they would think I'm trying to diet. Yet if I bought a treat they would think, "So that's why she looks like that."

It's hilarious how worry/anxiety requires a huge ego. I went through life assuming everything about me was being scrutinized by complete strangers like I"m a celebrity! My recent therapist deadpanned one session, "Well, who cares?" Also, throughout my life, I have realized that I'm no china doll. My bones don't break and jut through my skin if I fall. My kneecap doesn't swim around and randomly dislocates.

I have had a bone spur in my spine for over a decade with only minor pain here and there. My left shoulder has been out of socket for nine years and it has been manageable. The only bone I have ever broken is my right pinky. I have had a disc removed from my back which resulted in a bad hematoma in the scar. So my doctor has to reopen the incision and stick a swab in my back. No pain killers. Nothing. Three years ago, a dentist couldn't get me numb and I was really late for work so I had him fill two teeth without Novocaine. Five years ago, I had part of my tongue removed for cancer analysis. You know how my tongue was numbed for the procedure? I huge ass needle underneath and then down the middle of my tongue. Don't get me started on the spinal tap attempts in the Beth Israel ER eight years ago. The interns couldn't get the liquid center of my spine so jab after jab hitting bone and nerves. I couldn't lie on my back for weeks because of all the horrible bruising. Also eight years ago, I had a cardiac catheterization procedure awake. I could feel the catheter moving through my veins to my heart. It really hurt going through my lungs.

My imagination couldn't have dreamed up these experiences and you know what? I am actually stronger because I went through them! Oh yeah, I am a warrior woman. It's no accident that my mother's family name motto is "Virescit vulnere virtus" which means "Courage grows strong at a wound".

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