I’m nine years old and I’m home from school and my parents aren’t here yet. They’re always here by now. Maybe they stopped for groceries on the way home or got held up at work. But, 5 more minutes have gone by now and they’re still not home and my mom’s eyes have been bothering her recently and she’s never been the greatest driver anyway and what if there was a deer in her path and she swerved off the road and hit a tree and she and my dad are lying in the woods bleeding to death and there’s no one there to help them and I’m just sitting here by myself while my parents die and I can feel that hole in my stomach just opening up and swallowing my insides and I’m going to be sick because how am I going to tell my brother and sister that our parents are dead? So I call their work phone over and over even though I know that they’re not there but the rings are soothing, the rings are a prayer, the rings are hope and despair and some hail mary of an attempt to save them.
Ten minutes later, my parents walk in. I am huddled on the floor in the fetal position, holding my stomach, gasping for air, every muscle in my body coiled up so tight, I might as well be bound in ropes.
My dad pulls me onto his lap and talks to me softly. Tells me to take slow deep breaths, feel my heart beat, look around, see that he is safe and calm and so is my mom who is safe but not nearly as soothing as she laughs at my over-the-topness and tells me just to have faith, have faith, have faith and then nothing bad can ever touch you. But, I think of my mom and how she lost her dearest sister and treasured grand niece and her first love and know that bad things CAN touch you, HAVE touched her… only she lets the bad things go and holds on to the good things and calls them Gd’s blessings and what a blessing it is she can do that and maybe there’s something grievously, sinfully, irreparably wrong with me that I can’t.
No, no, my dad, the agnostic, says. This is not your fault. It’s just anxiety. Think of it as a long sneaky snake that slithers into your brain and twists its body over all the logical parts so that all the good thoughts become slimy, lying snake logic. But, the snake won’t hang around once he knows you know he’s there. Truth is his enemy. Call him out and he’ll loosen his grip and slip down into whatever dark hole he came from.
And he’s right. It does. I hug my dad and feel that terrible snake’s grip on my brain unravel, feel it slide down out of my body and into the dark hole where it came from and that’s where it stays until…
I’m in middle school and there’s this spot on my arm. And, mostly it looks like the other moles I have. Round and brown and just kind of moley… but when I start to look at it for longer I notice that it has weird shades of black or gray in it and the edges are starting to creep out in strange jagged lines and in certain lights I can almost make out a demon face in it and it’s definitely cancerous but I can’t tell my parents because they’ll take me to the doctor and the doctor will tell me it’s cancerous and once something is said out loud then it becomes even more real so instead I’ll just look at it over and over and take pictures of it in different lights and look at images in books of cancerous moles and compare and compare and compare until suddenly I’m noticing that the pictures in the books look like other moles that I have and it’s not just one cancerous mole but five or maybe twenty and this will be the way I die, at 13 years old, from twenty cancerous moles.
My father finds me one day, huddled into a tight ball in my room, whispering silent prayers that are my only defense against this mole attack and he hugs me and asks to see what I’m worried about and I show him and he shows me the mole on his arm and it looks just the same and he tells me I’m fine but we can talk to the doctor if I’m still worried and it’s really just that old snake again, creeped up from his hole. And he asks me to remember all the other things I’ve worried about and there are hundreds and he asks me to tell him how many of them have actually happened and I say zero and he says to remember that, remember that, remember that. The next time that old snake comes creeping around remember that he’s wrong, that I’m fine, that none of the bad things have ever happened. And it helps a little. I get better at noticing when the tricky snake tries to mess with my brain again. Sometimes just calling it out is enough to send it slithering back down its hole. But, not always.
I’m in college and there’s this boy I like and he likes me too and it’s so good and wonderful and perfect and we hold hands and get ice cream sandwiches together and plan crazy road trips and ridiculous pranks. And then one day he doesn’t call when he said he would and then another day he’s walking with another girl and I’m sure that he’s going to take our road trips with her instead and I call him and tell him that and he tells me to stop, she’s just a friend and asks me to go to the movies and we go and laugh at all the same parts and cry at all the same ones too, but then the next day he tells me he has to study and can’t go bowling with me and I start to think about him walking with that girl the other day and I imagine them walking to his house and kissing and laughing and planning grand adventures and I call him and tell him and he tells me to stop and that it’s in my head and I do stop for a while but then he’s late for meeting me for coffee and I start again and I’m sure that he’s with her and I tell him when I see him and he says he wasn’t but he can’t handle this anymore and he doesn’t say goodbye but he starts to fade slowly, slowly slowly away and I think again about that snake and how it must have sneaked back up into my head and how I won’t let it ruin any more good things for me. I won’t.
And, I don’t. Not for a long long time. I meet the best guy and we go on dates and more dates and I don’t get mad when he’s late or ask him why he smiled at my friend for too long and we get married and are happy. So happy that we have a baby. The perfect baby with bright eyes and a sturdy neck and lungs that breathe in and out and in and out just as they should. Only, sometimes I think maybe they paused for too long, that maybe the sucking in wasn’t sucky enough so I stay up and watch, just in case, just in case. I stay up for days, weeks, watching just to make sure that he’s breathing, that his heart is beating and it feels like mothering because I have never mothered before. But my husband is worried about me because I’m not sleeping so he buys me a breathing monitor so I can be sure the baby is breathing and I can sleep but what if it unplugs at night? What if the power goes out and I don’t notice and the breathing monitor stops and the baby’s lungs stop with it? Days and days go by and I’m only getting a few hours of sleep with the baby perched right on my chest because it’s the only way I can be sure.
My husband is worried about my worrying. He asks me to get help, urges me to get help, begs me to get help. But I power through. Because it’s a REAL thing. Babies DO actually die in their sleep. I’m being logical, practical, making sense.
Only I’m not. It’s that sneaky snake again… brought on by post-pregnancy hormones and stress and very little sleep. I get a little better with the next baby and even better with the last one and I hope that maybe that snake is finally gone for good.
The snake is not gone for good. But, he is mostly in hiding these days. I’ve gotten to know my body so well that I can sense his approach, can feel it deep down in my bones. So, when he tries to sneak up on me, I slow down, pay attention to my breaths, remember all the times the snake lied to me, distorted the truth, twisted my brain into knots.
And I fight him with truths, with laughter, with work and play and as many distractions as I can think of. The snake HATES when you don’t pay attention to him. And, usually, usually, it helps and he slinks away before making his quiet attack.
But, that might not always be the case. One day, when I’m off guard, that snake may find a space in my breaths, a chink in my armor, a hole in my heart. And when my defenses are down, he may slither quietly right back up into my brain, thinking I won’t notice…. that I’ll take his snake logic for truth again, that I’ll be too scared or cowardly to fight back, to get help. That he can just nestle on in there and twist up all the good things I’ve worked so hard to build into nasty knots of lies.
But, this time I’ll be prepared. Because I’ve worked too long and too hard to let some old lying snake get the best of me.