Everyday Obligations Give Me Anxiety

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 

I don’t mind doing things. I take my sons to diving practice. I do my freelance work; I take my sons to homeschooling events. I go to my mom’s house for dinner. We lead fairly rich, busy lives. But at times, I get overwhelmed. Looking at a calendar, with the notes I’ve jotted down, makes my stomach churn and my heart race. I wake up with my teeth gritted at three in the morning and can’t go back to sleep. My hands shake when I type. It’s not because these things are hard. It’s not because I’m afraid of doing them. I don’t mind, for example, taking my sons to practice, or going to a friend’s house so the kids can play with their friends. It’s not because I dread meeting people there or screwing up socially. It’s not because there are too many things. It’s the actual obligations themselves that frighten me.

I am anxious about the sheer idea of obligations: the idea that I have to show up at a certain time and place, prepared for a certain thing, to meet certain people. It freaks me out.

Maybe it’s the chain of events these promises create. When I agree to obligations, I negate any other possibility for that point in time and space: I can’t sit around and write, for example, if I’m going to dinner at my mother’s. Therefore, I have to do my writing at some other time. Therefore, I have to plan for that. I have to do my writing in the afternoon, so we have to do our schoolwork in the morning, so I have to wake up earlier, and so on and so worth. The obligations ripple through my life.

It’s not as simple as just planning for one change. I have to plan for many, many changes. I have a recurring obligation on Wednesday mornings at 9 a.m. Not only do I have to produce my children at a certain time and place at 9 a.m., but I have to get up earlier, dress earlier, wake them earlier, and take extra care that they eat breakfast and brush their teeth. The night before, I have to pack them special bags with bathing suits, snacks, and water bottles, all properly labeled with their names. I have to set alarms so I remember to pick them up at the right time and take care of my work obligations; I have to make sure they eat, and, and, and …

This is not just showing up at 9 a.m. This single obligation becomes an distraction to my entire day.

Those of us with anxiety crave order. We crave reliability; we crave predictability and routine. Upsetting that apple cart triggers our anxiety and panic. We suddenly don’t know what will happen next; we have to change our plans, and our often-rigid thinking patterns don’t permit us the same easy flexibility most people enjoy. Obligations upset the regular routine we crave. They’re extra-ordinary: literally, out of the ordinary.

So I try to compensate for this. I try to order my obligations, usually through timing. Often, I decide on an extra-early time to leave, so I won’t be late. I decide on an extra-early time to get ready, so I won’t run up against a time crunch. I may decide what outfit to wear beforehand, so I don’t end up trying on 12 different things and burning through my extra time. I usually show up at least 15 minutes, and sometimes half an hour, too early for all my obligations (except for my mom’s house. Then I’m always late, because mom I told you not to live on that side of town when the traffic sucks at dinnertime, goddammit).

I may also assure we have extra drinks, extra snacks, or band-aids. Or I may forget all of the above. It depends how nervous I am.

Honestly? The reason obligations freak me out most of all? I prefer free time. I don’t like making decisions. I’d rather make them at the spur of moment, when the whim strikes me, when I feel like it. Then I know I feel good; I’m happy; the kids are in a good mood; they know where their shoes are and no one’s having a meltdown. No one’s sick. I feel like getting dressed (as a writer and a homeschooling mama, that’s an actual consideration).

If something’s going wrong, I can stay home without having to bail, disappoint anyone, deal with explanations, or mess something up. No one will get angry. I don’t have to call or text or make up an excuse. No canceling necessary.

I also worry that something will go wrong: that maybe I’m screwing up the date, that maybe my son doesn’t have diving practice today, that I’m coming over at the wrong time. Or that I’m out of gas or I don’t have enough quarters to park, or there won’t be a parking space at all, or the car will overheat (it used to happen with a startling regularity, and I’ve never gotten over it). There are always a million little things that can go wrong with any obligation, and I will think of them all — from forgetting to put the dog in his crate so he eats the couch again (you read that right) to randomly getting my period while I’m out.

So when I see those things jotted on the calendar, my stomach clenches. I’m not afraid of doing them. I enjoy them when I’m there. But they scare me in and of themselves. Their very existence scares me. Obligations offer one more chance to screw up, and I hate screwing up. I’d rather stay home and make plans on my own, thanks. Me and my dog are happy on the couch.

But we have to get out sometime. Even if it scares me.

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