When I’ve spoken to my mother about my early years she often remarks that I seemed to be such a happy and content child, so different from the troubled adult I seem to have grown into. I might begin to agree with her, to console her, but as I scrutinize my own memories closely I realize that I have always been of a rather nervous disposition. Even as a little girl I worried about what others thought about me and I was hit with bouts of hypochondria on a regular basis. I remember how every tummy ache sent of waves of fear that I had appendicitis and as I browsed my mother’s medical books I found new diseases to feel fearful about. With an introvert’s solemn character I studied the surrounding world closely and tried to figure out the most appropriate behavior to tackle it. When my classmates turned on me and I became a victim of bullying I never quite understood why. Any explanation is always reconstructed from adult knowledge based on vague memories.
In some ways I am glad I never discussed the torment I sometimes went through in school, in periods, always in periods, which made the bullying even harder to understand, especially since it was most often boys that were my tormentors. Except for the time when my best friend in 4th grade became a new tormentor overnight, I hardly noticed when girls were being cruel to me, sometimes I did not even notice until they apologized for it afterwards. It is not impossible to imagine my mother dragging up that tired old “oh, that boy only teases you because he likes you”. I cannot understand that line of reasoning now and I most certainly would not have been able to understand it then. In fact, the idea of romance was foreign to me as well, until when I began to emulate the behavior of my female classmates in 7th and 8th grade. In the early years of school, before the bullying had begun there was a boy I used to hang out with sometimes, mostly so he could tell me the details of a cartoon I liked but which aired on a TV network I did not have at the time. Our longest bit of playtime was when I was invited over to his home so we could play “Blow up the pigs” using his toy car play mat and his plastic barnyard animals. This bit of interaction with a boy though, prompted my mother to buy a button with his name on it for me and tease me about us being a couple. I can still vividly recall the rage and incredulity that my mother would even think that way about me.
I do think the torment, which varied from name-calling and cruel teasing, light shoving to just being ignored and picked last in gym class, did affect my personality. If my disposition had been nervously observant before, surely it made me even more cautious in my interactions with other people. I would become more observant and often I would remain by myself, as that seemed the safest option. Only when I trusted people not to be cruel did I come along for group outings and the like. In that way the Internet became perfect for me, with everyone being so far away I could take my time and observe their chatter and pick out which ones I liked the most, just from how they expressed themselves in text, from their words and wisdom. It must have worked for me as many of those I got to know online are still a part of my life today, while all of my old classmates, even the ones I got along with, are just barely remembered names, faces that are growing fuzzy like the photo of Marty McFly and his family in Back to the Future 2.
Something I can observe in my behavior is that as I grew more observant and cautious around people, it’s that my nervousness grew as well. I suppose this might be there the anxiety climbed on board and decided to make a home out of my skull. My hypochondria is still with me, though now it specializes in fatal illnesses only. Every summer when the newspapers publish images of skin cancer spots, swollen and distorted, I always spend time in front of a mirror, poking and prodding at every little birthmark I have. Sometimes when I got it in my head that one of them was wrong I scratched at it until my skin bled and the birthmark disappeared. It’s certainly not the best or sanest way to remove them. And I have noticed a hint of OCD sneak into my behavior too, which matches poorly the way I keep an ordered chaos about me. Many times have I dropped my keys in a new place and spent a few panicked minutes searching for them, or all the many times I had to dash home on the way to work, nearly being late in the process, to make sure once again that I did turn the stove off after making my morning oatmeal.
But the worst thing, I think, is the anxiety itself. The way it seems to feed off any worry I have and grow fat on it. How it plants suggestions of new things to feel worried about when I’ve already sorted things out in my head. How it forces me to go back into old files and revisit old problems and their solutions. If there is a situation that causes concern I must find a solution to it, or I know it will torment me into insomnia and if it’s something out of my control, if it’s something that requires a phone call or skilled help, then I will carry a hard lump of worry inside my chest, wrapped about my heart until the problems has been settled and sorted out. Planning and preparedness is vital for me.
And the phone thing? I have, after some time finally admitted to myself that my nervous disposition and caution around people strongly affects my phone skills, though that has actually gotten better with time. As I think back I can still remember huddling in my then-boyfriend’s kitchenette, watching the phone on the floor like it was a venomous snake, feeling absolutely unable to pick it up and call my airline to reconfirm my return flight. I suppose it complicated matters that my boyfriend had similar problems with speaking to people, though this was something I didn’t find out until much later. Even now I can’t say I enjoy making phone calls, unless it’s something important. A call to a friend is fine, I suppose, but it is still something that I need to plan and prepare for. When those first signals begin to ring my heart always begins to race, no matter who is picking up on the other side.
It’s not easy living with the demon of worry inside me, wriggling abut inside my body, squeezing my heart one second, only to twist my insides around the next. I think he enjoys tormenting me and it’s easy for me to compare him to the demons that take possession of people in the long-running show “Supernatural”. Inside me I have my own demon, though he lets me be in control a lot, I think that’s part of the fun for him, to leave me feeling in control, even when I feel helpless.
I don’t think it’s strange at all that when I write I like to craft characters with their own inner turmoil, with both metaphorical and literal demons inside them, with power they can’t quite control taking possession of their bodies. Sometimes the demons are bad, tearing up my characters like how I feel torn up in my worst moments, but sometimes the possessing influence isn’t necessarily evil, but something the character must adapt and get used to. That’s not that far off to my own personal struggles, to keep my worries from consuming me, so I might still lead a happy and full life.
It helps that I have friends with their own anxiety demons, who have fought their own internal battles in their lives. They inspire me, much like I hope I can inspire them in turn when I manage to push my demon down into submission. Because the most important thing I have learned through my years of close observation is that with supportive people in your live, you can fight off most anything.
Even a demon.