I promise this is not going to be as dark as the title suggests.

(No, really.)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am an anxious person. Anyone who knows me well knows that I have an “I didn’t sleep last night”, “I have developed hives”, “I am becoming physically ill” type of anxiety.

When I was little, anxiety wasn’t really discussed the way that it is today. This, compiled with the fact that I didn’t vocalize what it was exactly that I was feeling (existential dread) made it a challenge to identify. Even as a child, I was an “internalize the terror until you explode” type of person. And so I was “sick” a lot. I really was sick – it just had a source that I didn’t have a name for and therefore couldn’t explain.

I was actually blonde as a child, but that is neither here nor there

I have developed my own coping mechanisms with time. One is medication. One is weighted blankets. One is sitting in my entirely-not-soundproofed car and screaming at the top of my lungs. My personal favorite is a surreal and often mildly alarming sense of humor. Anxiety isn’t funny, but that won’t stop me from pretending that it is to help me get through the day.

My anxiety is not typically rational in any way. I absolutely will not call a restaurant to place an order or there is a 1000% chance that I will die immediately. But I will call that exact same restaurant to see if they have a specific flavor of ice cream in stock because my sister likes it.

I once smelled a candle that had the same scent as a deodorant I wore when I was 13 and started crying in a Target.

And yet other times, my anxiety seems entirely rational. To me. Not to anyone else.

Do not squeeze me without permission. Also don’t ask for permission to squeeze me.

When I was eight, I was part of a “Gifted and Talented” program at school (we are not even going to get into Imposter Syndrome today, folks, or we will never make it to the end of this story). As part of this program, myself and several other students from fourth and fifth grade would gather to read books together and do creative projects and presentations about them.

For one unit, we read The Birchbark House.

(I will pause here to allow you a moment to Google this book and see if you can guess which part of it set me off.)

Any guesses?

It was smallpox.

Picture for a moment that your eight year old daughter comes home from school experiencing what truly can only be described as the final stage of grief. Sometime between getting dropped off at the front doors of her elementary school that morning and her return, she has accepted the fact that she is going to die. From smallpox. Probably soon.

How as a parent does one handle this situation? There is no instruction manual for parenthood, and if one did exist it certainly would not include a chapter on “how to help your eight year old navigate her nineteenth existential crisis (this week)”.

My parents (especially my dad) were never really on board with the idea of lying to us about things that were (or felt) important, even for our own temporary benefit, so once they were able to coax the reason for my despair out of me (and assure me that I was not going to contract smallpox from touching the book), my dad explained that smallpox was not really a thing anymore. And that I definitely did not have to worry about getting it.

And that there were “just a few” samples of it out in the world. Where? In a lab. What lab? Far away. Why? For vaccines. Why would we need vaccines if we could just get rid of all of it? Because other people might have some too. What other people? … Please don’t worry about it.

Thankfully for both myself and my parents, it was like 2003 and it took seven hours of horrific robot screaming to access the internet, so my fears were (mostly) put to rest. That’s not to say that I didn’t lie awake at night waiting for symptoms to set in (I very much did do that); but I stopped hyperfixating during most daylight hours. We will take what few victories we can.

waiting for my imminent demise

Maybe at this point you are thinking, “okay, so you were a little tightly wound, but smallpox is a totally valid fear”. And you are correct on both counts.

But this was not an isolated experience. I was afraid I would die from brushing my teeth because of the ‘call poison control if your child eats this entire tube of toothpaste’ warning. For some reason I was convinced that if I saw the engine of the trains that passed on the tracks across the street from my house, the entire thing would derail to come run me over.

And in kindergarten, I had a full-scale psychological breakdown so intense that I could not explain it to my parents (or anyone) for years.

Now that I’m an adult, I feel safe saying that there are a lot of children’s stories that are truly horrifying. I’m not saying that’s why I am the way that I am…. but it is likely a contributing factor.

One fine winter day, we read the story of the gingerbread man (who is eaten by a fox despite run-run-running as fast as he can). Mildly horrific in and of itself.

As an activity to go with this story, we made our own enormous gingerbread man to share as a class. We got to instruct our teacher how we wanted it decorated, and then, while the frosting set, we went to recess.

while drawing this I realized he looks a little like a sock monkey, which would explain another of my fears.

When we returned, something was … amiss.

Our cookie sheet was still resting on the table, along with some strategically placed crumbs and a stray gumdrop button. But our gingerbread man was nowhere to be seen.

“Look!” our teacher proclaimed, pointing to a ‘footprint’ and another gumdrop button near the door we had just come through, “he ran away just like the story! Should we go find him?”

At this point, I feel a few things are important to note:

  1. Because he was meant for a large group of children to share, our gingerbread man was roughly the size of a toddler.
  2. Our teacher, probably realizing it wasn’t a great idea to have sharp objects at child-height, had relocated the knife she had brought in to divide him up.
  3. The gingerbread man in the story was kind of a jerk???

With this information, I came to the only obvious conclusion:

We were in DANGER.

I’m honestly not entirely sure what happened after that. I know that I immediately started hyperventilating in the hallway at the knowledge that I was moments away from coming face-to-face with an armed, furious cookie the size of me.

I ended up with the nurse and then at home at some point. I think the explanation my parents were given was that I was “upset”, which was both true and gave my parents the good fortune of remaining blissfully unaware of the nightmare world inside my tiny little head.

Also, dad, joke’s on you, because some LOOSE SMALLPOX VIALS were found in a closet in Maryland in 2014. And they were still alive.


9 thoughts on “Anxiety

  1. Payton! This is so well written. I have never felt so understood by an explanation of anxiety. ??‍♀️ Fellow anxiety person (and was as a child). It’s so hard being an anxious child because you don’t know what it is or how to explain it effectively. Thank you for sharing this! ?

  2. Reading this brought up so many memories of my irrational and maybe rational childhood fears! Thanks for the well written blog! Run ,run as fast as you can, you still can’t catch the gingerbread man!

  3. Thanks for sharing, Payton.

    It is in our blood to some degree. Mine was different, but very real from a young age. I was always anxious about how I appeared to others. Did I look weak, did I look stupid, did I look arrogant, and the ever present “What if I SCREW UP?” It made me too nervous to be free with what I said, and I questioned every decision. Unsurprisingly, I had ulcers by the time I was 20. Add to that, some very difficult circumstances and you reach the breakdown I had at the end of my second year of college. I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t relax, couldn’t focus. I took months to get past that. It took years of work and a great best friend to help me let things go and start on the path of being okay with making mistakes. It still takes work, but most of the things that stress me out now are things with real risk. It does make it easier to explain it to the people who are close and have the most impact.

    You’ve taken a brave step in putting this out there. You will definitely find, the more you put things out there, the more you realize how not alone you are. You are uniquely you, but there are people out there who can identify with every part of you if you want to find them.

  4. What a perfect start to my Friday! Your literary voice continues to make me burst out giggling. And, frankly, an armed and furious cookie sounds utterly terrifying.

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