I first learned about not trusting when I was four years old. We were in my cousin’s pool and my grandfather kept urging me to go down the slide. I could not yet swim and was afraid.
“Don’t worry, I’ll catch you,” he promised, again and again. “I swear, I’ll catch you.”
I took a deep breath and raced down the slide and into the water, then under. I waited for the arms to reach and scoop me up. Only they didn’t come. There were a few seconds of panic. Where is he? Why isn’t he picking me up? I kept wondering. I thrashed around wildly, searching for air, my lungs starting to hurt. Finally, I felt someone grab me and push me back up.
My grandfather stood there holding me, laughing. Apparently this had been some kind of test. Pepe was not a particularly cruel or abusive man, but he sometimes did things that were well, unacceptable.
“How could you do that?” my mother was yelling at him.
I was too hurt to be angry. All I could do was stare at him as I cried and choked and caught my breath and ask over and over again, “Why didn’t you catch me?”
He never gave me an answer.
As long as I can remember, there has been Fear. As a young child I fretted about bugs and worried about the bees that swarmed near our front door. I stayed up late at night during our Maine vacations, worrying about a skunk spraying our cabin. After a tornado hit my grandmother’s town I feared thunderstorms for years and would panic when I’d start to see the cumulonimbus clouds start to form in the late afternoon. I got a cloud chart and learned about weather so I could be protected; prepared. I needed to know they were coming so I could…so I could what? I don’t know.
When I was seven I was playing at my grandmother’s one day when she got the call that her nephew and his wife had been killed in a motorcycle accident. After that, when anyone was late coming home, I would wonder. I’d look out the window and think about the horrible things that might have happened.
I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. I loved Nonna. I loved her cooking and the comfort of her hum as she rocked in the kitchen rocking chair and the way she always fussed over me and made me feel special. “You’re so much like her,” everyone always said. I didn’t realize at the time that Nonna was a major worrier, the type who, my dad later told me, was constantly crying and hysterical when he was a child over things that had happened or might happen.
People liked to call me weak and wimpy or fearful when I was a child, but what I didn’t realize then was that I was living out something that swarmed all around me in my genes from both sides of the family. Besides my grandmother’s worrying ways, five other relatives struggled mightily with anxiety and depression – three were diagnosed as bi-polar. Two additional relatives silently dealt with hypochondria specifically for years and years.
I loved to read, and at Nonna’s house as a child, I spent a lot of time reading the collection of Guideposts magazines she kept stashed in a big closet off her dining room. Guideposts is a Christian magazine that runs a lot of stories about how people relied on God through various tragedies and hardships. The thing was, I’d read the stories and never latch on to the happy ending, the fact that yes, these people had horrible things happen but God got them through. What would stick in my mind was the tragedies. For years I read and my mind built up an impressive collection of all the things that might happen to me. I read about houses destroyed by wildfires, plane crashes and bridges collapsing. There was the woman whose daughter was brutally murdered and the mom who watched three of her four children die from some kind of rare disease. Yes, life is scary, I concluded.
My parents had very different personalities than my own. They hated whining and crying and craved adventure and excitement. While I was fearing the storms they piled us all in the car to chase them – the worse storm the better. Rather than ruminating over things internally they wondered aloud about worse-case scenarios, almost embracing the possibilities. When I was 9 or 10 my mom and uncles concocted a “practical joke” that involved pretending that one uncle had jacked up the car to change a tire and had it collapse on him. I remember the screaming, I remember running and feeling panicked and wondering how we could save him, until they burst out laughing.
My dad has always been honest about his own struggles with anxiety. He would tell me about the day he began work at a factory just out of high school, when he saw the bus full of school kids drive by and suddenly felt as if he was going to lose it, realizing he had started a dead-end job in the “real world.” When I was in second grade my dad was suddenly “in the hospital.” I didn’t understand then that he had had some sort of breakdown. We visited and I remembered him drawing pictures of our family as some sort of group counseling activity. I wondered why my dad was in the hospital, coloring. I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. I didn’t know until much later that my grandfather had had a similar breakdown as well. I didn’t know until the day we drove past the soldier’s home on the highway and my dad told me about the time Pepe spent there when he was a kid, when life had just become too much.
My dad recovered and for awhile we lived with a kind business man from our church who helped him get back on his feet. A few years later, my youngest brother was diagnosed with a severe form of autism. As he hit the toddler years all of us more and more often were on the alert, making sure he wasn’t raiding the refrigerator or trying to race outside naked or eat poison. It was hard to keep your guard down, because you never knew what Andy might do. I learned later there is actually a term for that kind of stress. It’s called hyper vigilance. Our reality had us living always prepared for the worst to happen.
Then again, I was already more than ready for that.
To be continued...