On Anxiety, Kids, and the End of Days

Here’s my newest life maxim, delivered to me by Crown Heights’s own Sarah Pizer-Bush: There are two kinds of people, Gloom People and Doom People. The Doom People are reasonably sure of a coming apocalypse, not only globally, but also in their own lives: Death is certain, both for themselves and their loved ones, and disaster is just around the corner.

Gloom people carry a more quiet, private depression, a sort of internal, infinite sadness. It manifests in an idea that this is the way things are and it’s the way it’s always going to be.

(Am I saying that everyone in the world is depressed? No way. There aren’t two kinds of people; there are billions of kinds–sorry, Oscar Wilde. This is a broken world, and there’s a part of all of us, I think, that recognizes that in some way; the same way that we’re drawn to do mitzvos, or to do good things for other people, because there isn’t anyone else who’s gonna do it. So my depression is, in a way, an ultimate hopefulness? Maybe.)

Anyway, while Sarah was explaining all this, it hit me that I might be both kinds of people. On an average daily basis, my brain operates on a notoriously worst-case-scenario level. I am constantly thinking about earthquakes, floods (I live on an island), terrorist attacks (I live in New York City), the people I love being murdered, accidentally murdering other people myself. I’m a parent, and three tiny human beings are dependent on me for every single moment of their lives. The older two, four and six years old, don’t completely realize it anymore, but each time I yank them out of moving traffic, and each time I force them to wrestle each other in the living room and not at the top of the three-story spiral staircase is a time that I have, at least theoretically, saved them from certain death.

I utterly 100% realize that this is ridiculous. I have faith in G-d and a gas tank full of anxiety, but a kind of underlying certainty that it’s all going to work out — the kids, the earthquakes, everything. Right before I moved away from L.A., years ago now, I finally went to a doctor about my anxiety. They gave me a prescription for Xanax. I was only supposed to use them for emergencies. Twenty blue pills in a little amber case, the kind my grandparents used to carry everywhere.

I carried them everywhere. I never actually took one. Somehow, just having them nearby — in my backpack, a safe and multicolored little eject button — was enough. The anxiety attacks didn’t stop, but they were never bad enough, or never seemed bad enough in the moment, for me to need to pill myself out.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that, once hostile aliens actually invade New York, I’ll be completely on top of things. I won’t come out with my laser guns a-blazing, but I’ll know all the alleys around my work to duck and hide in. After all, I’ve spent every day eyeing them down. And I know exactly where to run to, since I have this obsessive habit of Googling the fastest walking (well, running) directions from my work to my kids’ school.

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So this is why I’m a doom person, and this is why I’m so good at cocktail parties. Because I am totally nuts, but I can make it sound reasonably like a joke. It might even be a joke? I can’t even tell myself anymore.

But when the party ends and the thoughts of aliens evaporate, dissipated by statistical possibility, the room feels awfully empty. I become scared not so much of the likelihood that I will die soon, but that it will be a long way off and alone. I worry, not that I’ll be able to save my kids, but that I don’t spend enough time with them. I worry I’m not a good enough person. I spend too much time reading books and playing video games and thinking about them instead of listening to people who care about me. I’m too scared to talk to people who ask me for change. My entire writing life is egotism.

And I know these are stupid worries, and my mom is already picking up the phone to tell me she loves something minor but still touching about me, and I know I should be glad that she worries enough to call me in the first place. I am luckier than most people in the world. And I probably don’t deserve as much love as most of those people who don’t have it.

But these aren’t thoughts that can be cured by overanalysis, the way the doomy thoughts can. These are just these molecules of dust at the edge of reality, the things you can brush aside but can’t catch in a pan, the ones that will never go away. It’s Elul, and Rosh Hashanah is near — the early-morning prayers of apology and penance are just starting — and I’ll be asking for forgiveness, the same words that every other person in synagogue will be praying. Most years, I pray thinking more about the year to come than the one I’ve just left, sending out proactive prayers promising G-d I’ll do better, not reflecting on the I-screwed-up-but-good parts. This year, so far it’s been a bit of an introversion. I’ve been feeling like nothing but a screwup.

The solution, or as close to one as I’ve worked out, is to think of it like a story. Just like having the meds in my pocket gave me the happy ending I needed to avoid an anxiety attack, I’m going to think of all the times I messed up this year, the yelling at my kids and the falling asleep before praying maarivs and all the other for-the-sin-I’ve-committed-bys, as writing prompts. They’re the first part of the story.

The next part? Saving the world, of course. And that, I guess, will be my Act II. Here’s hoping that G-d agrees.

Image by eldave/Flickr