My daughter has been in counseling for some time for anxiety issues. Sometimes I join her to both give feedback on her progress and to learn some ways that I can help her overcome her fears.
During one of these sessions we were discussing her fear of germs. I expressed my worry that I had caused this fear when she was just a tiny girl. I have always been a bit of a clean freak, especially regarding my children. I would always place a toilet paper barrier on public toilet seats so their precious bums wouldn’t be contaminated. I never let them get sticky or dirty. I told them about the different types of pathogens: bacteria, viruses, parasites.
When my daughter started kindergarten, knowing that I wouldn’t be there to protect her from all the nasty things, I reiterated over and over how important it was for her to wash her hands and to never eat or drink after anyone or wear their hats. I told her that other kids might not be so careful, so she had to be extra-vigilant.
The first sign of trouble was when she got into trouble for flushing the toilet with her foot. A big no-no with her teacher! In hindsight makes perfect sense as that would only spread more germs when other kids used their hands. She began to use a piece of toilet paper to protect her fingers as she flushed.
Next she began to develop very dry skin and an itchy rash on her hands, to the point the teacher thought it might be infectious and sent her home. We took her to the doctor and he determined that she had been over-using sanitizer while at school, which caused her poor little hands to be irritated. She would wash her hands, then use sanitizer. If she touched a doorknob or a handrail, she sanitized. If she touched someone else’s pencil, she sanitized.
I felt terribly guilty. I had transferred my fears to her. In my wish to protect her, I had inadvertently hurt her. While relating this story to her counselor, I became overwhelmed as I realized that I had probably been the main cause of her anxiety problems, by being anxious myself. The counselor tried to delve into this further, to the point that I physically wished to run away. My own anxiety level became nearly unbearable as she asked me what other types of things I fear.
My darkest and most distressing fear, and this is something I think of often, is of something bad happening to one of my children. I constantly think of possible scenarios. Car accidents, falling accidents, kidnappers, etc. I call them “disaster visions.” While not superstitious, I think somehow having these thoughts and being hyper-vigilant will help me keep those things from happening.
The counselor gently brought up the possibility that I might benefit from counseling myself. I was highly resistant to the idea. She suggested that seeking help would set an example for my daughter and help her with her own struggle with anxiety. She asked me to think about it, which I did…for weeks. I didn’t want to do it. I have been white-knuckling through life up until now. What if talking about things (with a stranger!) made me lose control? But how could I deny the possibility of helping my daughter by helping myself?
I have now seen a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavior therapy for a few sessions. I still feel very uncomfortable with talking about my feelings. Understanding this about me, he has done much of the talking, helping me to start to think about things in a different way. I would like to share here some of the things I am learning, but I will save that for another day.
Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets. This poem speaks to me on several levels, especially now that I have begun an uneasy journey into my own mind-so busy, always crowded with thoughts, fears, and worries. Modern society is the same way. We are always seeking distraction, entertainment, escape. Our televisions and smart phones and computers and tablets always present, stealing our quiet. What if we spent a few moments in silence? Sitting still with our breath and our heartbeats and with each other…
I am learning to quiet my mind, for just a few moments at a time. During those moments, I glimpse a hint-just an inkling of something precious…peace.
“KEEPING QUIET” BY PABLO NERUDA
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.
For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
—from Extravagaria (translated by Alastair Reid, pp. 27-29, 1974)