I worry. A lot. If my best friend doesn’t respond to my text message, I worry that something I said in our last conversation irritated or angered him; that’s he ignoring me or avoiding me. He calls me a few hours later and we talk for over an hour.
I worry that I am talking too much in a conversation and I anticipate what parts of the story people would be most interested in; I use their reactions as a map, seeking out their interest, steering away when they seem bored or lost.
I worry that because my car seems to be driving differently, a wheel is going to fly off and I will spin out in front of the semi in the lane next to me. I know that my car feels a little different because of the extreme windiness on I-35, but I still think “what if something goes flying off; I don’t remember how to steer out of skids; which shoulder should I veer toward?”
Seriously. I am thinking things like this all the time.
I lie awake sometimes getting mad at myself for not making a dentist appointment, deciding one of my teeth will probably fall out because I will never remember to call them or not be able to find my dental insurance information.
I decided that I have cystic fibrosis because my mucus (from a very standard summer bronchitis) tasted sweet, like candy. I decided that I have lung cancer because I get bronchitis three times a year. I have the very rare paraneoplastic syndrome. It’s not that I am a hypochondriac. It is that I am worried about bad things happening.
A small shake in my car means the wheel will fly off. Fatigue means lupus. Chronic ear infections mean I will go deaf soon.
What if I go to the movies and end up getting really tired and miserable? Or what if I just go home and end up bored and unable to sleep? What do you think I should do?
I avoid doing things like my taxes because I worry about not being able to do them. But I spend time worrying about not getting them done on time.
It’s no surprise, says my doctor, that I both worry all the time and get sick frequently. I thought I was so worried about my health because there were so many signs that it was failing. Those signs, he says are normal “symptoms”; sometimes, people are just tired or sneeze. I don’t worry because I’m sick, I’m sick because I worry.
I am over-sensitive to signs and indicators. I sometimes see indicators where there are none. I’m thinking all time, maybe to avoid feeling, maybe being I am afraid of uncertainty. Maybe both.
So I am trying cognitive therapy.
So far, I’ve learned a lot.
I learned that I worry about little things to keep my mind off the worst things. I think about the cancer, not the dying. How to handle a car wreck, not the pain. How to handle someone being (imaginarily) mad at me, what I would say, how I would react, not about them saying “I don’t like you and you are a terrible person and I am not going to be your friend anymore.” Given a possible scenario and asked about the string of events that could lead to a catastrophic end, I would take longer than you would (unless you’re like me) because I would think of 30 things to worry about on the way to death.
I learned that all the things I do to help assuage my worrying (and its effects) are all very bad strategies. Seeking reassurance (You don’t think he’s mad at me, do you? Do you think this will work?) just postpones the worry. Even if I go to the doctor, and he’s says I am fine, I wonder if he knows what he’s talking about, doubt what he said because I forgot to mention something, etc. So long as I am unable to deal with uncertainty, it won’t help. I collect information, which I think will make the uncertain certain, but I’m not exactly following the scientific method. Googling my symptoms or trying to over-read nonverbal cues is biased information gathering. Compulsively checking on things or over-preparing makes it worse, too.
What I already know is that nothing will help me until I accept that things will be uncertain. And I cannot accept that, and live comfortably realizing it, until I acknowledge that I am capable of handling possible negative outcomes.
What I know is that bad things are not happening all the time. And they won’t all start falling apart one day. I know that I managed to graduate from college and graduate school, so obviously I can handle things, deal with them, get them done, accomplish goals, even if they are complicated. I don’t mind hard–it’s complicated I spend so much time worrying about.
What I know is that if I am worried about something, I can either do something about it, and in that case I should, or I can’t, and in that case, what the hell is thinking about it going to do? I know that sometimes my worries are attempts to avoid thinking about things that are even worse. That sometimes I am over-relying on rationale to avoid emotions, which I distrust and fear. OK, OK. I can’t fear emotions because fear is an emotion, and here I can’t stop over-thinking this.
I realized that I worry about some things non-stop but other things don’t worry me at all. I don’t worry about ending up along, about being a bad teacher. And it is possible to eliminate doubt sometimes; I worried my best friend was irritated with me, but not that it would change our friendship for longer than that day. There are people whose love I never doubt, things I know I am great at, value I know I add to things. I don’t worry about germs, plane crashes, terrorists. I don’t get terribly worried before I read one of my pieces in front of people.
I know these things. Now I am learning how to accept them, how to use them.