It’s 4:30 p.m., and my husband is not home. He has not called. He has not texted. He has not mentioned working late. He teaches public school, and his usual walk-in-the-door time is around 3:45 p.m.
I start to spiral.
Logically, a student or parent kept him late. But my brain is not logical, not now, not when he is likely wrecked in a fiery inferno in front of the state capitol building. And I don’t think I’m named as an emergency contact because I’m not listed under “wife” but instead a college nickname. Why did he do that?
I tell myself my mother-in-law would call me. But what if his phone’s too destroyed? What hospital would they take him to? How could I do this without him? We have three kids. We have life insurance. But how much? Is it enough? Could I get the house clean enough for a funeral?
I look around myself, and despair in the midst of my rising panic. I would have to go to work. I can’t even cook a fucking chicken. My heart hammers and my hands shake and I put on some dumb TV show for the kids and start calling, and calling, and calling. He does not pick up. The panic rises higher. I am on the verge of calling hospitals when my phone rings.
“I had a parent,” he says, without preliminaries. He knows what I’m going through. “I’m so sorry.”
“Just text me,” I tell him through clenched teeth, as fear drops into anger. “Just. Fucking. Text me. I thought you were dead on the highway.”
This is the face of anxiety that no one talks about. Sure, we might joke about paranoid moms. We might joke about the moms who think everyone’s going to die all the time, who always think they’re sick, or their kids are sick, or that their husbands teeter on the brink of fiery doom. You know the ones — the moms who yank their sons away from any child with a cough, the moms who steer their daughters clear from any kid with a runny nose. You might roll your eyes at us. You might think we’re overreacting. And we are. But we can’t help it. We live with an anxiety disorder.
And living with an anxiety disorder means our brains are on constant fight-or-flight alert. We’re always scanning the horizon for danger: danger for us, danger for those we love. In its simplest form, you always think you’re getting sick. I ate too much cheesecake the other night and justifiably got a sick tummy from the vast quantity of rich food (I refuse to divulge how much cheesecake was eaten, and you can’t make me).
I didn’t logically think, “Hey, I ate too much freaking cheesecake” because the anxious brain does not work in logic. It loops in probabilities. I was getting a stomach bug. I had to drink some water, eat some antacids, then go lie down because the bug was brewing. I prayed I didn’t give it to the kids. I prayed I didn’t give it to my husband and the kids at the same time. I wondered if we had enough receptacles to serve as barf buckets. My mind ran on and on, to every contingency, until I passed out. All this over cheesecake.
Every headache is a migraine. Or an aneurysm. Every toothache is a root canal. Every cut demands Neosporin to kill the flesh-eating bacteria lurking on my living room floor. This is life with an anxiety disorder. It is not rational or reasonable. In fact, we don’t talk about it because we’re afraid people will think we’re overreacting weirdos. But it’s there.
Rest assured, if your loved one has an anxiety disorder, it’s probably there. This constant fear of impending doom.
Then there are the kids. Kids fall. Kids bonk. Kids scrape and hit their teeth and tumble into the water. When they fall, I immediately assume a bone has snapped, those skinny, tiny bones that are in reality so very strong. When they hit their teeth, I assume they’ve knocked something out or chipped something and an emergency dental visit is in order as I cradle a screaming child (always the 3-year-old) and make him scream more as I probe gently through his mouth. If they fall in the water, I’m gut-terrified they’ve snorted up the deadly brain-eating amoeba that breeds in warm water during summer months. It kills within a week. It’s incredibly rare, but my brain refuses to acknowledge that. We would be the exception.
And if you venture down the path of long-term health, you fall into a black hole of misery. Remember that study that consumption of hot dogs makes your kid more likely to come down with leukemia? Because I do. And I think about it every single freaking time I serve the stupid meat sticks.
Then there’s the other study that shows kids who regularly eat fast food don’t do as well in school. Color me terrified that my kids will end up living in my basement because I’m strapped for time and driving through Zaxby’s for lunch. Oh yeah, and the more you give that baby that iPhone, the more likely they will have speech delays, so let that ruin your next meal instead of a screaming 3-year-old. And my son is already on the road to too much screen time, which is linked to diabetes. Anxious moms need an internet filter for this shit. It haunts us daily.
But I’ve gotten better, I swear. Medication has helped immensely. I no longer do what my husband calls “the crone curse” — the thing where he says goodbye, and I respond with some desperate plea like, “Drive safely!” in a voice that says I’m sure he’ll end up in a wreck of twisted metal. Or he tells me he loves me, and I say, “Come home safe!” in that pitch that we both know means, “Don’t die. For the love of all things holy, don’t fucking die on me.”
He’s grateful for this. But it doesn’t mean that when he leaves, I don’t have a pang. He walked out the door this morning as I was struggling to spell a word for our son, and I yelled goodbye unthinkingly. I immediately thought, “What if I never see him again, and I wasted my last chance to tell him I love him and really really mean it?” And that thought hangs in there, following me through the day, willing him to get home safely so that I can properly tell him how much he means to me.
It never goes away. To my sisters and brothers in anxiety, I see you. I see your hypochondria. I see your fear over your loved ones’ deaths, the type of fear the leaves you scrambling for life insurance policies at 3 a.m. Anxiety can manifest in many ways. But manifesting in the fear that we or those we love will get sick and/or die? That’s one of the bitterest. It’s one of the cruelest. And it’s one of the hardest not only to break, but also to admit to anyone else.
I’m doing it, though, because I want you to know you’re not alone.