By Sara Ohlin
“Oh! We’re going to be late. We’re going to be late!” Lily’ s panicked voice rose above the din of skiers making their way toward the lodge mixed with the sounds of cars parking, children laughing.
I grasped her small, warm hand and squeezed it gently, as much for my own comfort as for hers. “Honey, we’ll be fine,” I said in the calmest voice I could fake for her. I was good at faking. “Jasper is the only one who has a lesson. We made it just in time, we’ll get him settled, then you and Dada can get your gear and go ski. We’re fine.”
My insides mimicked her panic. Officially we were on time. As in, my son’s lesson starts at 11:30 and it was now 11:30, but we still had to get him checked in and get his snowboard gear on. Late was more like it. Not as in we’re going to be late, but we were late. I hated being late. It made the bile rise in my throat and I wanted to spit it out on whoever was closest. I hated being late to the point I often didn’t react well if I knew it was a possibility. I looked down at my daughter, her blue eyes closed tight in the face of the sun, or impending lateness. I couldn’t tell, but in that second I felt the stab in my heart. Oh no! I thought, she’s just like me.
“Your mama used to sleep walk, holy cow!” My father tells my two children, his grandkids, at dinner one night. He loves telling stories of when I was little, and I usually laugh along with my kids at hearing the memories, how he taught me to ski by holding me between his legs down the snowy slopes, the ice crusting over his mustache. Or how awkward I was attempting to play basketball in third grade with my no-hand-eye coordination.
Sometimes I tune out and just enjoy the dinner together when he comes to visit, knowing how much my kids love having family around. But these words sling like a warning, daggers whooshing too closely by the side of my head.
“She used to sleep walk. One time she was dressed and ready for school at 4 am, and another time I even found her taking a shower at 3 in the morning. She was taking a sleep shower,” he said and they giggled. My gut felt the weight of the hamburger and homemade fries I’d just eaten, the grease churned in my stomach at their humor, all three of them, my two kids and my father laughing at these lies.
“No way,” my youngest, Jasper said.
“Yep, I had to knock on the door and tell her what time it was.”
“Tell us more,” Lily begged.
Unbelievable, I thought. All warm fuzzy feelings of family dinners evaporated. I wasn’t sleep walking or sleep showering or whatever you want to tell yourself. I got up to clear the table and pretend at doing the dishes so I wouldn’t have to hear any more.
I remembered those instances my father spoke of. As if they were jagged shards of glass wedged into my skin. I was wide awake, not sleep anything. Even at that age, as a junior in high school, I had learned his finely tuned art of insomnia; I was a master at worry. My anxiety directed my behavior.
There were so many things for my seventeen-year-old self to worry about, my father unable to hold down a job, my brother constantly in trouble, my parents hardly speaking to each other, my mom working two and sometimes three jobs. The low rumble of family members fighting over my grandparents’ inheritance before they were even dead. The shame of relatives helping us financially. My father late everywhere, late to wake up in the morning, late to work, when he worked, late to pick me up from swim practice, from my friend’s house, from the mall. Me waiting. Always waiting. Trying not to be embarrassed, trying not to worry.
All this trying not to be something, so much harder and more harmful than just being.
It seems silly now that of all the worries I collected, like little trinkets in a shadowbox, the one thing my anxiety learned to latch onto then was the notion of time. Or maybe not really silly at all, since at-what-time-I-did-things was mostly under my control.
It didn’t occur to me then that my anxiety was a bad thing, or that it even was anxiety. I only knew that getting up super early to shower, or sleeping in my school uniform were things that worked like a soothing balm to my churning insomniac-worry. The only way to calm my rapidly beating heart = to be extra early prepared.
I learned this type of anxiety, from childhood on, without really being aware of it. Do people have just one type? Since I’ve been pretending it wasn’t really anxiety all these years, there is so much I don’t know. So many questions I have. All of the sudden, in writing this, I want to sit down with others like me and pick their brains as if we were discussing our favorite recipes in the latest cookbook. How did you develop anxiety? Does yours manifest like mine, with this crazed need to be everywhere on time? So crazy that you are way too early everywhere? What are your coping mechanisms? Does it smack you down into your dark hole when someone tells you to stop being so ridiculous? As if you wouldn’t just love to be ridiculous, that happy carefree word. Can you feel the pain in your heart when people laugh at your behavior, or roll their eyes with their frustration over your anxiety thinking you can’t hear or see them?
It’s not as if I hid my anxiety because I was ashamed, it’s more because that was one way I learned to cope with it, to keep it segregated, secluded in it’s own soft, padded box hidden in my mind. Hidden in a place only I knew the path to, which seems stupid too, now that I see those words written across the page, because no one but me can see inside my mind. Everything there is hidden unless I choose to share.
I thought my anxiety only had to do with being places on time, one tiny drop in the bucket of life. That if I could contain my on-time worries in my own way I would be okay, and that was all that mattered. But as I learned, so much of life has to do with being places on time, an entire river full. And so much of life isn’t just about me.
Some people can appear completely put-together, calm and organized while inside their anxiety churns away almost constantly, like the river ready to overflow its boundaries, spilling out and causing destruction in its wake. Destruction in its wake is what I try everyday to contain, by myself, lugging one sandbag on top of another, the only way I know how. Till it becomes normal, rote, routine. To not do it would be devastation.
Over the years I’ve developed ways to cope, to make it feel as if nothing’s amiss. One, I always leave extra early to get to where I need to go, in fact I’ve talked my brain into leaving even earlier than early, just in case. Just in case what? You know, that errant hurricane or traffic jam at two in the afternoon, perhaps all of my tires going flat at the same time. These things happen, don’t they? Two, I sometimes visit a place the day before if it’s new, to scope out the route, just so I’ll know how to get there. Three, I don’t like to be not-in-control of going places, for example, if I’m not driving, the water surges up close, threatening my sandbags.
Lookout if that angry river overflows. My children hear me call out every morning, “It’s time to go to school. It’s time to GO!” Even twenty, sometimes thirty minutes early. I hover by the door when we get ready to go somewhere as a family. “Come on, you guys!” The churning water rises to the top of those sandbags.
It never occurred to me to ask for help with my sandbags, or that maybe there wasn’t even a need for sandbags at all.
Do not get in my way. Do not change the size or the shape of my sandbags or the flow of the river and I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. I’ll be okay. That is what I tell myself with each deep breath—each deep breath made to look like a normal breath, mind you, because I have mastered that too—when I’m going to be in a position of anxiety. I say that like I can choose it. Like I can decide chicken or fish, wine or tea. It isn’t a choice, the anxiety, but I’ve made sure that how I deal with it is up to me.
Only now, with children of my own, have I come to realize that how I deal with it also sends out its shockwaves through those around me, leaving a trail like dust accumulating over years.
To hear, all these years later, that my father believed I was sleepwalking, that he chose not to see me and what was really going on makes my dinner want to surge back up. I swallow and scrub the pan with harsh lemon soap, focusing on that crisp scent, wishing I could scrub away my memories too. It comes as no surprise that my father didn’t see me, but that he would tell the story so differently, laughingly to my kids. Ouch.
I want to scream, “I wasn’t sleepwalking. Stop filling their tiny heads with lies. Go home and don’t visit again for a while. A long, long while. Every time you visit I’m left with more bitter, more regret, more longing for something I will never have.”
It would be a lie to say I’d forgotten about these middle-of-the-night teenage moments my dad so casually laughs about. To forget is to not remember, and remember them I did, like the burn scars, left from a hot iron on my wrist that I often run my fingers over, feeling acutely that moment years ago when the skin reddened and blistered. Memories woven in anxiety and fear carve a scar much deeper. I’ll forget them someday, maybe when I’m dead.
To say I have a need to be on time, maybe even a tad bit early. Seems like no big deal. Like planting morning glory on a trellis in your garden.
To admit my need to be on time is really born from a lifetime of worry and anxiety, those deeply, twisted, dug in roots. Stubborn, like bindweed roots, no matter how you pull them out, they grow back ever stronger. This knowledge snags at my soul, questioning.
To witness my own child developing this hyper need to be on time, to the point that it can put her in a panic every morning, exposes that morning glory for what it truly is, a vicious, invasive bindweed. And suddenly my eyes are open and I see that the bindweed covers everything, smothering my entire garden of beauty and nourishment.
Have they helped me, my coping mechanisms? Or do they just shove the truth deeper down into the muck? Have they made me blind to the bindweed smothering my life, and now creeping into my daughter’s.
Because, at only 8-years-old, my daughter has, after years of witnessing my hyper need to be on time, absorbed it into her body as her own, my stress, my anxiety feeding her innocent soul. Suddenly the black and white coping mechanisms I’ve developed have been turned into ugly neon color right in front of my face by none other than my own child, and I can no longer claim to be unaware. The question is, now that I am blatantly aware, what am I going to do about it?
While I can recognize the consideration for being on time and for teaching my child to be polite in this manner, I don’t want her to stress about it to the point where her anxiety becomes a part of her DNA, flooding her blood, sinking its fangs into her veins, making itself more at home than a peaceful way to live, like has in my veins for so many, many years.
Maybe my own coping mechanisms were okay when it was just about me, but now, that I’m a mom, that my children bear witness to how I do things, I need to develop new coping mechanisms, so that we can get places on time, keep the river from surging, but also just be. Just live. Just enjoy where we are in each moment, not super stressing about the next one before it’s even happened.
All this trying not be something, anxious, worried, uncertain, is so, so much harder and more harmful than just being. I know this burden too well and I don’t want to pass it on.
I shake my daughter’s hand in mine and play with the soft skin on her fingers. “Look at how beautiful it is out today,” I say, urging her to open her eyes. We walk toward the lodge following Jasper and Greg. “Don’t you love skiing when the sky is blue and the sun’s out?” I ask.
“Mmm hmm,” she says and smiles.
I want to slow time down now. I want to count each freckle on her pale inherited Welsh skin. I slow our pace deliberately, and listen to the crunch of old snow under our boots. “Can’t wait to see you ski today, honey. So glad you love it.”
“It’s awesome,” she says.
So are you, I think. So are you. These are the moments I want her to carve into her memory, the tissue thin layers of her generous heart. And with the scent of the snowy mountain air all around me and the sun warming our connected hands I again realize how difficult it is to be an individual and a parent, this combination of two roles, more difficult than I ever fully imagined.
Sara Ohlin lives and writes in Bangor, Maine. Her essays can be found at Anderbo.com (as Sara Mitchell), Trillium Literary Journal, Mothers Always Write, The Good Mother Project and the anthology, Are We Feeling Better Yet? Women Speak About Health Care in America. She’s a contributor to Her View from Home and currently writes about life, food, motherhood and gardening at www.lemonsandroses.com