I was not a sad kid. If anything, I was jubilant, carefree, playful, loveable. A typical healthy child. I don’t know if my range of emotions or intensity of emotions were abnormal. They were just me. I could switch so easily from my intense top-of-the-world feelings to a lower-than-low one in a matter of a few seconds, it felt like. My earliest negative feeling was fear. My mom said, from a young age, I was always wanting to know things, information that didn’t really seem to matter. I would get stuck on these small, insignificant details. I would worry constantly.
I have a few but not too many memories of being taken over by worry. Maybe I blocked some of them out. As a little girl, my worry came as a monster. Fear would grip me in its talons and I didn’t know how to fight it. I didn’t think it was wrong because it was part of me. One early memory of this is one day in Kindergarten or first grade. It was the end of the school day, a beautiful sunny day. I was sitting on the school bus with my head against the glass window. The trees were splashing waving shadows on the concrete on the grass of the schoolyard below. Colors and sounds melded together as kids darted to their buses and teachers waved goodbye. My heart was soft and peaceful. The sun warmed my cheeks as I smiled. In front of me, an African American boy named Sonny was singing his favorite song which always lightened my heart.
As the bus engine suddenly came to life, I had a sudden realization: I did not see my brother Greg get on the bus. The kids outside were dwindling now; I knew it was time for the bus to leave for home. I frantically looked around outside and there out of the corner or my right eye, I saw my older brother. He was grinning radiantly up at a teacher near the entrance to the school. His brown wavy hair glistened in the sunlight. He waved his arms as he chatted enthusiastically with the teacher. His obliviousness to the urgent situation irritated me. “The bus is leaving!” I thought. “Hurry up!” I felt the familiar lurch of the bus pulling away from the curb and I started crying. “Oh no!” I must have said out loud. Sonny turned around and asked me what was wrong. “My brother! He didn’t get on the bus!” Sonny comforted me with his impossibly white smile and encouraging words. Putting his arms on the back of his seat, he leaned over and began singing his song to me. I will never forget the comfort of that song as my heart rate slowed and I began to laugh with Sonny.
Every so often the panic would come back, “My brother got left behind! I should have done something!” I don’t know if it was the fear of being alone on the bus (for some reason, I knew my other brother Nate would not be getting on the bus that day) or if I truly felt Greg was in danger. At any rate, I was terrified and got off the bus still shaken up. I remember running frantically up our front lawn, and crying to my mom about what happened. I will never forget her irritation, dismissiveness. “Honey, why are you so worried about it? Everything’s fine. The teacher called. I’ll just go pick him up.” That was one of the first times I remember feeling that I was somehow flawed for my worry. The worst thing was that I had no idea how to stop it or control it. Like a predator, it stalked and attacked me when I was least expecting it.
Another significant memory was one Christmas when I was about six. Every year, at Christmas, my Aunt Shari loved to write scripts of the Christmas story for us cousins to perform. That Christmas Eve, we gathered in our grandparents’ family room as she went through each of our parts with us. Her daughter Becca and I were was always the angels with our fluttering backpack wings and glittering tinsel crowns. Alisha, three, was Mary and her brother Ryan was Joseph. My older brothers were the wise men. Tim, and a couple other cousins were the shepherds, including Becca’s little brother, Robbie who was barely two years old.
I remember the excitement of performing the play like we always did, in front of Grammy and Papa’s fireplace in the living room. All our moms and dads, aunts and uncles, and grandparents would be there to smile and coo and join in on the singing led by Aunt Shari. As we were practicing, I heard Aunt Shari mention something “different” that we would be doing this year. Immediately my heart lurched because my sensitive self did not like to be caught off guard. I remember the words, “going to church” and immediately started to panic. We usually never attended church on Christmas Eve, and now we were going to have to do our play in front of Grammy and Papa’s entire church! From then on, all I heard were voices in my head. The paranoia was so bad I just wanted to quit the play all together. Why couldn’t we do it like we did every year? This went on for several hours, me being oblivious to the hustle and bustle of my family and our plans, because I was stuck in the prison of my panicked mind.
Soon we were bundling up and climbing into cars and vans for church. I remember following my family in the dark near the front of the auditorium. As we sat, down I wondered why Aunt Shari had not thought to bring all of our costumes, props and scripts. I nudged her with probing, quavering words: “When do we go up there and do our play?” She looked at my panic-stricken face and laughingly told me, “Oh honey, we’re not doing it here. After church, we’ll go back to the house and do it like we always do.” I don’t know if I’d ever heard sweeter words. The relief and comfort was like salve in every open sore of my mind. I still wonder how I misinterpreted her words earlier in the day. Again I felt taken captive by my overactive mind and racing, panicked thoughts.
Looking back, this is just one situation where the thought of change or doing something out of the ordinary resulted in terror for me, or at least moderate discomfort in the form of excessive worry. As a child, I knew how to comfort myself. Generally, my home was stable, comfortable, predictable. There was no shouting matches, dishes breaking, screaming. As children of loving Christian parents, my brothers and I were always taken care of. I never felt unsafe. But most of my memories involve me being alone, just the way I wanted it. Sometimes, when I was in my dream worlds with my dolls and stuffed animals, with my story writing, I felt I was the only one alive on earth. So, maybe there was more chaos; I just didn’t notice it? There had to have been fights, especially the years our family was planning for our third big move, when I began to feel something different happening with Mom. When my dad’s footsteps up the stairs became heavier and his face more forlorn. Maybe I just knew how to separate from pain.
Maybe during those years, as a third grader, was the time I really felt change. I wanted to rebel. The way I rebelled was by retreating. But the more I retreated inside my mind, the more I became a slave to it. I had always been meticulous about details, a perfectionist. From my parents, I guess, I learned the right way to do things. I folded my toilet paper, set the table correctly, and learned how to slide the tube of toothpaste from bottom to top against the counter to squeeze it out perfectly. Besides the rules my family had for me, I started creating rules for myself: my clothes had to folded a certain way, my dolls and animals could not be out of place before I left my bedroom, I had to hop right out of bed when my alarm went off.
I became even more ritualistic after a distinct incident when I was seven years old. I had been preparing to go to my friend’s house. I was anxious because my parents were entertaining a missionary couple and we were running late. I felt the familiar tightness in my chest and my runaway thoughts of, “What will my friend think? She’s going to be so mad.” I remember sitting on the toilet trying to urinate. All the tension in my body created a surge more powerful than myself; I could not urinate no matter how hard I tried. This realization created intense fear in me which, of course, perpetuated the inability to urinate.
From that day on, I had problems urinating when I was worried about something. As a young child, I dealt with this bizarre fear the only way I knew how. I listened to the thoughts in my head. My brain told me, “If you don’t get up early enough, your brothers are going to have to wait and they’ll get upset. Then you won’t be able to pee.” So I began getting up much earlier in the morning, to ease the anxiety produced by my thoughts. I would also meticulously watch the time at breakfast. I would excuse myself to the bathroom a half hour before the bus arrived to give myself plenty of time. I did not want to “get stuck” at school, unable to relieve myself. I will never forget how common it was for me to obey the thoughts. It felt like my life depended on it.
The bathroom situation developed into full blown paruresis, or Shy Bladder Syndrome, a little known but disabling social anxiety disorder. (I would discover this all about 15 years later.) Thankfully, as a grade schooler, my ritualistic behavior was contained to only this area of my life. (The devastation Shy Bladder Syndrome had on my life as a child, teen and young adult is a story on its own, so I will share it another time). In most other areas, I was free to be me and I didn’t have demanding voices in my head telling me how to act.
As I got older, though, my perfectionism got worse. I started realizing that others had opinions of me, especially my parents. Around age eight or nine, I became devastatingly aware that my parents were disappointed in me…