Magazine article The Christian Century

High Anxiety: The Terror of the Dark Unknown

Magazine article The Christian Century

High Anxiety: The Terror of the Dark Unknown

Article excerpt

FEAR THRIVES in the face of the unknown. It is often beyond words and images; it is a physiological response to silence, darkness, tomorrow. It is almost always about death. You can't live in fear, at least not for very long. But you have options. You can cope; you can flee; you can pray; you can turn the lights on and make faces at the monsters. Or, if you are of a particular temperament, you can fill in all the blanks with a tool that will scribble on the surface of any fear: anxiety.

Anxiety, too, thrives in the face of the unknown. Anxiety makes a graven image of it, artfully obscuring mystery with an infinite sketch of possible disasters. It leaves no potential tragedy unturned, no catastrophe unconsidered. In the absence of certainty, anxiety assures that the worst will happen. Anxiety may save you from abject fear, but at a cost: it is exhausting and depressing.

I was an anxious child. I could not bear to follow along as Alice descended into Wonderland; even after I learned the ending, I was sure she would not escape the surreal prison. Now I am an anxious adult. Big changes wear my nerves raw. The summer I got married, moved across the country and began seminary, I awoke many nights in the midst of full-blown panic attacks. Had I calculated the cost of textbooks into our budget? Would our car pass the California emissions test? Was I marrying the wrong man?

Generally, the calamities I expect do not come to pass. So I replace them with new ones. Time and energy that could be used constructively--for prayer, dishwashing, learning to quilt--I sacrifice to cultivate apprehension.

After my daughter Juliette was born, my anxiety skyrocketed. I saw it coming, of course--leave it to a true worrywart to have anxiety about the likelihood of having anxiety. I didn't foresee the depth of it, however. When Juliette was born strong and beautiful after a pregnancy with no complications, I hoped a wave of relief would wash over me. And it did, but ever so briefly. Once the blood and vernix were wiped from my daughter's perfect fingers, I realized that the fears and anxieties of motherhood were just beginning. That was when it hit me: I love her, and she could die.

I tried not to think about it. I didn't know what else to do; just the thought unraveled me. As I rocked Juliette back to sleep in the dark morning hours, I tried to train my mind not to consider all the bad things that could happen to her. But I couldn't chase them all away, especially when the newspaper kept me abreast of so many untimely and heartbreaking deaths. When Juliette was three months old, I had to temporarily swear off the Los Angeles Times, as the reports of the Sichuan province earthquake reawakened my own (reasonable) concern about the odds of a so-called Big One hitting close to home. Nothing fueled my anxiety more effectively than the reminder that the ground could literally shift beneath my feet at any moment.

I was driving to church on a Sunday morning. My husband, Benjamin, had gone early to volunteer at the weekly pancake breakfast, so I had Juliette with me in the backseat. I was absentmindedly listening to a public radio story that was well under way. There was some translation involved, so it took a little longer than usual to catch up. Then all of a sudden I realized what the distraught woman was being interviewed about: an unfathomably brutal attack on her young daughter. The interviewer noted that the perpetrator had been wanted for a similar attack against a three-month-old baby.

I started crying and hyperventilating. I slammed my hand into the radio's on/off button as quickly as I could. I tried to fake a smile at my daughter--she was too young to understand what we'd heard, but I didn't want to scare her with my histrionics-and I focused on not crashing the car.

No one wants to hear about such violence. When I'm depressed and anxious, I can't cope with it. What I heard played over and over in my mind like a broken record, and to my horror, I pictured it in my mind's eye. …

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