By Emily F. Popek
“Tell me the story of our trip again, Mama.”
My 5-year-old daughter is in bed and I am sitting next to her with my hand resting on her back.
In one week, we are leaving for Mexico. She has been on an airplane before but never to another country.
She is nervous.
“Tell me the story again.”
Since she has been able to talk, she has asked me to tell her stories. Stories are the coin of her realm; stories order her world and give her something to hang on to.
I know this because I do the same thing. I tell myself stories just as I tell these stories to her.
So I tell her the story of our trip. On Tuesday we will wake up very, very early in the morning. I will make my coffee, and put our suitcases in the car. We’ll put your jacket on over your pajamas and get in the car to go to the airport. We’ll fly on two airplanes to get to Mexico. Your aunt will meet us at the airport. She will drive us to the place where we’re staying. Grandma and Grandpa will be there.
That’s the story of our day.
As I tell her the story, I can feel her relax, and I know that I am building a little wall for her, brick by brick, to keep her worries at bay. For every anxious question, I have an answer. What will we eat for breakfast? We can get breakfast at the airport, after we go through the security checkpoint. How long do we have to wait at the airport? About an hour — the same as last time. Will it be hot in Mexico? Yes, but we’ll be on the beach. We can go swimming whenever we want to.
I build the wall, slowly, and slowly she goes to sleep.
Then I walk down the hall, lie down in my own bed, and begin again. I tell my own story and I build my own wall. What do I have to do after I wake up? Coffee, suitcase. Don’t forget to use the bathroom. Don’t forget to get her to use the bathroom. Take her pillow with you in the car. Take it out with you on your second trip. Make sure you put the passports in your purse the night before.
Brick by brick, I build the wall that keeps my worries at bay.
But sometimes there are not enough bricks — or there are too many worries. The wall is fragile, it’s imperfect, it threatens to come crashing down at any moment.
The problem with anxiety is that there are always more questions, and there are not always enough answers.
The problem with anxiety is that the answers don’t really matter. Only the questions matter.
The problem with anxiety is that it is easily disguised. In my daughter it looks like defiance, stubbornness, a temper tantrum. In me it feels like fear, and I don’t know if it looks like anything. Sometimes it comes out as anger. Sometimes it comes out as tears.
The problem with anxiety is that it lies. I ask my daughter, “What is your worry brain telling you right now?” when she is so upset she can barely speak. After we count backwards from five, and count back up to five again, she can catch her breath.
Her answer is always the same.
“My worry brain is telling me that I’m never going to feel better,” she says.
Her worry brain always tells her the same thing.
My worry brain is more creative.
It tells me stories, intricately detailed scenarios of death, danger, devastation. It tells me stories about what is lurking in the dark, as it has since I was as little as my daughter is now. It tells me stories about what could happen, and tries to get me to believe that it will happen.
It is a liar, a con artist, a skilled fabulist, and I am learning only now, at 39 years old, to see through its familiar tricks.
I can feel the breath of anxiety on the back of my neck, so often. It tries to sneak up but I can feel it coming. It starts with a little alertness, a heightened awareness of my surroundings, of every sound and motion. It’s a quickening of the pulse, a fleeting feeling that I need to go — but where? to do what?
Then, if I’m not careful, the questions start. What was that sound? I think. What if there was someone on the porch outside? Is the door locked? What would I do if someone knocked at the door right now? Would I call the police? Where’s my phone? Is it charged? If I had to hide somewhere in the house, where would I hide?
The questions keep coming, and there are not enough answers, not enough bricks in the wall I hastily try to build to keep this sudden fear at bay.
It will go on like this, if I don’t stop it. And in those moments, when the fantasy takes over and my heart is racing with completely imagined possibilities, I am totally and completely alone.
Anxiety is a horror movie that no one else can see. It is the scene in the film when the characters are about to open the door, and the spooky music is rising, and everyone is screaming “Don’t go in there!” Except no one else can hear the music, and you are the only one who’s screaming.
I hear my daughter’s screams when the worries come crashing in on her, and I try to help her pick up the pieces. Let’s count backward from five together. Five, four, three, two, one, zero. Her voice is shaky but she’s trying. Now back up to five. One, two, three, four, five. She’s breathing now.
Sometimes there are no bricks and you just have to hang in there anyway, let the worry wash over you, and trust that whatever you’re clinging to is stronger than the wall you tried to build. Maybe it’s love. Maybe it’s hope. Maybe it’s just the stability of the things we can touch, and feel, and know. A hand on our back. The repetition of numbers — one, two, three, four, five. Sometimes that is all we have — and sometimes, that’s enough.
Emily Popek is a writer and communications specialist whose work has appeared in Civil Eats, Parent.co and Healthline. She is also the winner of an award for column writing from the New York Associated Press Association, and the author of three non-fiction books for young readers. Emily lives in upstate New York with her husband and daughter.
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