I have actually given this post a lot of thought, because although I pretty much write for a living, this topic gives me great pause. You see, I was a very nervous little boy, demonstrating (then undiagnosed) OCD tendencies to compensate, and it often came across in my school settings. I was a very good student, I did well and was a solid learner, but I craved — required — routine and stability. One of my earliest memories of school was first grade, when we had the first substitute teacher of my life. I was so scared of what this meant, this mystery of where my real teacher was, I vividly recall crying during circle time, hiding my face behind a paper handout (even then, I knew my behavior was irrational and caused me great embarrassment, but I so desired for authority to be present and predictable, I had no tools for dealing with spontaneous wrenches in the mix). That day was the first time I ever faked an illness to get to the nurse and get my ticket home for the day. I recall eating my lunch, which included a small bag of Doritos, at home and trying to keep up my ‘ilness’ for my mom, who I think knew very well that all that was wrong with me was fear of something new, or perhaps more accurately, fear of what might happen when the prescribed plan deviated from the norm, even though substitute teachers as we know present no long-term threat.
I was constantly worried for other people’s well being, my parents at the top of the list, and learned later that it is typical of kids with OCD to assume calamity will befall the people and places they love if order is not immediately restored. I used to sit in class, as an elementary student, and figure out on the first day of school which direction my house was, relative to the location of my desk, and be sure to turn my pencil points in the opposite direction. The points signified some sort of presumptive, graphite-transmitted evil in my mind, usually targeting my poor mother, should I be so careless as to allow them to point in her direction. Every siren I heard out the window I assumed was headed for where my loved ones were while I was away from them at school, unable to protect them from fires and car crashes and burglars and whatever else I could imagine. Fire drills sent me into a panic, even while my friends and classmates relished the time on the playground to flirt and goof around. As the first child in my family, with loving parents who were also young, and my dad traveling a lot for work, my mom believes I proactively assumed, unprovoked, as many responsibilities as I could imagine for my family and tied my young brain into knots as a result. It took many years for me to release myself from the grip of all of this superstition, tics and quirks, and anxiety. To this day, I make it all work for me, learning to channel my own idiosyncrasies and irrationalities to my advantage, but I’m still at the mercy sometimes of my own overblown imagination, which so often tends towards assuming the worst. I can laugh about it, and now, write about it, for over the last several years, I’ve gotten a front row seat to how insane it looks from the outside. See, my eldest daughter, now 6 and in kindergarten, is a slightly-watered down version of me.
My daughter is amazing in every way. She is super smart, super kind, a good friend, and a great big sister. She also exhibits slightly less neurotic tendencies like the ones I just described. Substitute teacher? Without a heads up a day in advance, definitely a source of panic. Fire drills? Not fun. Scary. There’s a hallway between the door to school and her classroom that spans maybe 25 feet — we can watch her enter from the sidewalk and wave through the door window to her as she enters the room. Still, a walk that she can barely make on her own each day. Now, once she’s comfortable in a situation, she’s great — way better than I ever was, and allows herself to be much messier than I did, so there’s hope! But still, a product of my genes, for sure.
The interesting thing, to me, is how willing I am to be tough about this with her. By tough, I mean, I have shared with her what life was like for me when I was young, worrying the way that she sometimes does now, and shared with her how pointless all of that misplaced anxiety was. I want to save her from herself, and it has begun to work. She knows all about her dad’s struggles and reminds me sometimes how she thinks of me, and how I tell her not to be so worried like the little boy I once was, when she gets scared. She’s fired up for summer camp this summer, in a way I’ve never seen when facing a new and unfamiliar environment. She’s been happy trying new classes and after-school activities without fears or tears on the first day, and is cool with ‘drop-off’ birthday parties in a way that seemed unimaginable just a year ago. I like to think I am helping with this, and my help is combined with her mom’s very easygoing influence — Amy never worried like this about anything, and I thank God that has begun to rub off on our kids. Maybe the mix of genes we have provided will allow this irrational, fear streak to become extinct in our family within a few more generations. I certainly hope so — watching your child be afraid over things that are not scary, especially when you once were that exact child, is heartbreaking. Heartbreaking…but simultaneously excellent motivation for finding a better way. Sooner than I did for myself, anyway. Because an overabundance of irrational fear is….exhausting.