Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Mom, sometimes I just think the world is a scary place..."

Since Martha has been out of school for the summer she has accompanied me on my daily walks with our dog, Carson. It’s not a very long walk and I have started giving her the option of staying home while I go out, knowing that I will only be gone for 10-15 minutes. I often take my cell phone with me so she can call and talk to me if she wants to – which she always does. When she comes with us, she rides her scooter and wheels ahead of me then waits at each intersection so we can cross the street together. Last week, however, she started scootering right next to me, slowly, which is problematic for our wandering dog who is not accustomed to limiting his sniffing to one side of the sidewalk. He needs his options. With Martha on her scooter at my elbow, Carson was frequently getting a paw run over and I spent a lot of time maneuvering him out of her way or constantly directing Martha to slow down, speed up, watch out. Suddenly the relaxing mid-day stroll seemed much less relaxing.

Then Martha abandoned the scooter altogether and decided she would just walk next to me and hold my hand because she was afraid of seeing any dead bugs or animals. Well, for goodness sake, I thought to myself, how irrational can this kid be? The sight of one or two dead cicadas on our driveway recently provoked a freakishly sudden and severe phobia of a world overridden with dead bugs and small dead animals. That’s preposterous. Or maybe not, because in one day we saw two dead cicadas and a dead mouse. For crying out loud. The next day we took a different route and I assured her that dead cicadas on the sidewalk are very rare. Or maybe not. Two more dead cicadas, plus a dead bee, which was equally terrifying to her. Maybe it’s something weird with my karma because I’m pretty sure the cicadas are dying in my path on purpose. It could be they are out to torment Martha but she seems too young to have prompted a karmic beef with a whole species already. So it must be me they are angry with. Tell me cicadas, what must I do to soothe you and your kind?

Martha’s acute anxiety has surfaced at a time when we are talking a lot about back to school, which causes tears because, she says, “it’s so much work.” We've also been working on some major behavioral changes here at home of late. I’m pretty sure this is no coincidence. I’m also pretty sure the fear of dead bugs will go away soon and that it would go away even without the convenient fact that the bugs’ life spans are limited here as autumn and cooler weather approach. In the meantime, however, I am still faced with the daily walk with a child who shrieks and freezes up every few feet when she spots a leaf, a twig, or any other manner of mysterious debris on the sidewalk. Just as my patience begins to break down (as happens almost instantaneously upon leaving the house) and I am ready to snap at her, oh look, another dead bug. Damn you, bugs.

And so it is for this reason that I have been thinking a lot lately about fear and anxiety. A brilliant, funny woman I know recently made reference to the above quote by Eleanor Roosevelt, which played in nicely with the topic already on my mind, and I’ve been thinking about the feasibility of confronting one's fears every single day.

If you are Martha, it is quite simple to do something that scares you every day. Just go for a walk. If you are a more rational, adult person, however, how do you confront your fears on a daily basis? I confess, I have a fear of full-service gas stations and drive-thru car washes. Something about the vagueness of my responsibilities in these situations while operating a motor vehicle, worrying I won’t understand what I’m being directed to do or I won’t hear the attendant clearly, or what if I accidentally and inexplicably slam my foot on the accelerator and kill someone… these are possible explanations of my fear. So what if I just go to through the car wash every day? Does this meet Mrs. Roosevelt’s  criteria for properly confronting my fears? I imagine over time that I would eventually desensitize myself and I’d be driving a very clean car. But maybe we’re talking deeper fears. In that case, every day seems awfully frequent to have to take on our deepest fears. Probably most people have a fear of getting hurt, primarily in the emotional realm, so do we get credit for just loving other people every day? This is a nice thought, actually.

My daughter has a lot of fears and anxieties and I don’t really bother making any kind of distinction between the two when it comes to her feelings. Some of her fears are totally irrational, like when she freaks out because she has called my name five times and I don’t answer and she’s convinced I have abandoned her forever but really I’m just in the backyard with the dog, just as I told her I would be, but in the five minutes that has elapsed since I told her that, she forgot and then when she called my name and I didn’t answer, voilá, instant panic. But some of her fears are totally normal, like her fear of the dark. I think I was 9 or 10 when The Amityville Horror was published and, as I recall, The Denver Post carried excerpts of the story for a week, which I read eagerly. There was a hall light on the second floor of our house with a switch downstairs that I always turned on so that I would not have to climb the stairs in relative darkness. After a few days of Amityville Horror stories, I was mid-way up the stairs when my sister decided I should really conquer this fear of the dark and she flipped the switch back off.  Despite the fact that the entire first floor was aglow with lights I stood on the stairs screaming and crying and waiting for a ghost or dead pig or something to come murder me until my mom, most likely utterly disgusted with both of us, finally rescued me from my terror. Let’s just say backbone was not one of my strong points as a kid. But still, if Martha wants all the lights on in the house, I’m not going to be the evil mentor who plunges her into darkness as a strategy for getting her over that fear of the dark.

I'm sure Eleanor Roosevelt was not referring to a 9-year old when she made her comments about fear. She also said you must do the thing which you think you cannot do, which I think is much more mellow directive for Martha and her fear of bugs and school and being separated from me. And fortunately, I don't really fear the car wash in this way, as in, seeing it as something I cannot do. I actually have been through the car wash enough times to know I just need to put the car in neutral and if I can't hear the car wash dude's instructions I am free to ask him to repeat them (but I still kind of fear it anyway). The hard part now is figuring out how to gently nudge Martha towards independence and competence, which, coincidentally, is what I fear I am not able to do or do well enough. Doesn't that just work out so handy? I wish this was just about a fear of heights because I would much rather jump off the high diving board.

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