When I was a kid my nickname was Worrywart.
I used to say things like Do you think it matters? Is it going to be okay? over and over, to anyone who would listen. It didn’t matter what I was talking about, what the it in question was, it just mattered that I was appeased. I really didn’t care for the truth either, I just wanted to be told it was all going to be okay. And then I didn’t listen. I just kept on worrying and asking the same questions.
I obsessed. I bit my nails down to nothing. I wrote little notes to myself on papers I would crumple up as soon as I jotted down my secret language on them. I would write the first letter of every word only so if the sentence was “Am I going to get in trouble for not reading that book for school” I would write “AIGTGITFNRTBFS”.
It was a language only I understood. And maybe my sister. Years later I would find little notes with the same secret language that were not in my writing, but in hers, and although I think she must have gotten it from me, this secret language, she claims it was a weird talent she made up all on her own.
I used to use that secret language when I was anorexic to write down all the things I ate.
would be: RCHASW.
I knew exactly what it meant when I read it. Even years later.
It was a craft, a skill, a profession that honed, this worrying business. This secret language.
During the years when I was losing weight rapidly, when I was deep in the throes of anorexia, I would ask people, anyone: Do I look fat? Do I look different than I did last week? Have I gained weight?
And the kicker is that I never ever wanted them to say yes. Never.
I wanted to stay in my secret language land and my land of worry warts. It was like a kingdom of pain and although I hated it, I wanted to stay. I felt safe there with my first letters only of words, with my bitten nails and repetitive thoughts.
It started when I was young although I am not sure what age exactly. I remember having a recurring dream that our house was on fire and I that I saved everyone but my sister. Never my sister. I was climbing a tree in the dream and then it would end like that. Always. Each time.
Maybe the worrying started before my dad died. Maybe after. The nickname started after he died, I do recall that, when we moved to California and I would collect soaps and line them up on the shelf in my room I shared with my sister. We had a hamster and bunk beds and at night I closed my eyes and tried to forget everything about my life pre-hamster and pre-bunkbeds.
As I got older the worrying turned into a full time job. I would sit in the library at NYU for hours counting my hunger pains and staring at the book on American Literature without reading one sentence, or rather reading the same one sentence over and over for four hours. I would write down in my secret language all the things I ate or didn’t eat that day and then obsess over how I would finish my homework when I hadn’t even started and I had been sitting here for hours. Then I would obsess that I wasted time. Then the sun came up. To do all of this well, as I did, was a true art.
To have the world fooled, that I had it together, was a skill unlike any other.
My eyes gleamed over and under them were soft dark circles which suggested that I spent the night awake and eating in my sleep as I did often because I was starving. Anything really. Anything I could get my hands on. Cat food. Muffins. Anything.
To be so good at something took time and practice and I didn’t have much time for anything else, mind you.
You never forget how to be an artist.
I still obsess, I still turn things over in my mind so much that they lose their meanings and become dog bones so chewed upon that there’s nothing left to do but keep chewing.
I catch myself now. I catch the thread of the thought and rip it before I trip over it and fall down the rabbit hole.
There was the year when I was 18. I was obsessing on something so much that it ate that year whole. That year disappeared in the way that some years do and the only way I can reconcile any of that year is sometimes in a dream or in a photograph. Gone. Annihilated. Poof. Eaten up by worry.
Truly it’s an art, I tell you. Not everyone could be so good at it.
The thing about worry, the real tricky thing is this: it begets nothing, nothing but more of it. And it’s addicting, a drug in its own right. You know it’s bad for you and you want to stop, or maybe you don’t, but you can’t. It satisfies some deep craving where you’ve been broken, and nothing else does that, not yet at least, not that you’ve found. So you keep doing it, you keep slipping until you are so far gone that nothing makes sense anymore except your secret language filled with broken letters. That place where you worry is like a safe nest and even though all the things you obsess over will most likely never happen, nor do you want them to, it somehow feels safer to be in there, in that cracked world where you can spin and spin and never have to look at what is really happening outside of your mind.
So yes, worry is an art. A skill and a commodity. The more you collect it, the more value it will have. Until eventually it is all you have. Walls of your worry. Looking back they will demarcate the eras of your life as if they really happened.
Sure, I still want someone to tell me it will all be okay. My great big fantasy. I like to feel safe, yes.
Sometimes I still obsess like a parrot with a three word vocabulary, but mostly I catch myself in these moments and open the door to the cage and fly away.
I allow myself my humanness. I astound myself at my own humanness at times, in fact. But I refuse to be swept up in the arms of this clever nonsense. No Thanks, I say, I am just passing through.
Jennifer Pastiloff is a writer living on an airplane. She’s the founder of The Manifest-Station. She’s leading a weekend retreat in May to Ojai, Calif as well as 4 day retreat over Labor Day in Ojai, Calif. All retreats are a combo of yoga/writing for all levels. She and bestselling author Emily Rapp will be leading another writing retreat to Vermont in October. Check out her site https://www.jenniferpastiloff.com for all retreat listings and workshops to attend one in a city near you. Next up is Costa Rica followed by Dallas, Seattle and London.
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