I’ve always been a worry wart, and let me tell you, it’s in the wiring. I cannot change this aspect of myself. Chances are, if you’re a Nervous Nelly like me, you already know this. You realize that trying to pinpoint the moment in your life when all of this angst began is pointless.
No one looks back at their third birthday party, remembers frantically blowing out the candles on their Donald Duck cake and thinks, “Ahhhh, yes. That was the moment my anxiety took root.”
Why don’t we do this?
Because we understand that fear leaves a lasting imprint we can’t trace back to its origin. It’s always been with us. Somewhere underneath everything we’ve said and done, or didn’t say or do, rumbling below all that’s happened or hasn’t happened yet, fear has never left us.
And that, my friends, is a hard way to live.
For someone who appears pretty fearless most of the time, I know how you feel, because my emotions and my actions don’t always match up, especially when I’m afraid.
In fact, I’ve gotten so good at acting brave that I’ve made it another day job. I can wake up with pain in my head and tell myself that even though I have no idea why I have it or how to get rid of it, it’s going to go away eventually.
I can worry about my family and pray that they will all stay healthy throughout this crazy health crisis, then go brew a cup of coffee and read the news about the escalating infection rates in my town, county and state.
I can teach English while keeping my students six feet apart in a room where all the windows are cracked, the desks are clean and the door is open as I simultaneously maneuver three separate screens and one camera for forty minutes straight six times a day.
I can work with a migraine and not let on that there’s a sledge hammer lodged somewhere in the base of my skull; I can grocery shop like I’m not afraid to see maskless people walking the wrong way down the aisle; I can come home and mother my children like it’s not odd that they haven’t gotten out of their pajamas or left the house all day.
And I can take the dogs for a walk and leave my worries in the blueberry fields surrounding our home, and for forty-five minutes in a row, I can almost forget that I’m terrified.
Somehow, I’ve kept this charade going so well, I fooled myself into believing my own fearlessness. It wasn’t until I recently received a call about an irregularity on my mammogram that I allowed myself to drop the act.
In and of itself, it turned out to be no big deal. Literally, the nodule they found was incredibly small, and they just needed to see a better picture through sonogram.
In the three days between being notified and the doctor having another look, I was in constant worry, but this time, I decided to tell my tribe.
I told my sister, husband, children, parents, best friends, work friends, mother-in-law, my daughter’s best friend’s mother (who is an FNP) and lastly, my Facebook friends (all 1,000 of them), and do you know what I discovered?
Life’s a little easier when you let people share your worries with you.
And it’s not so lonely.
Some of the people in my village have received news like this before, and much worse, and kept going. Within twenty-four hours of sharing, hundreds of people, family, friends, former students, coworkers and distant acquaintances reached out to offer comfort and strength but also to relate their own struggles.
People who have had irregularities, people who have battled, are currently battling or have loved ones battling cancer, they all contacted me to say, “Hang in there.”
And so many others just wanted to share their love and support and say they were thinking of me that it literally robbed my capacity for speech — and it takes a lot to shut me up — trust me.
I can’t tell you what that meant to me, and honestly, I’m not even sure I need to because again, you get it. If you’ve been through something like this and decided to share your heartache, you know how unbelievably freeing it is to let others in.
But, if you chose to keep it in, if you said, “I’ve got this,” and kept yourself to yourself, hey, maybe that works for you. Or perhaps you’re just more selfless than me, and you don’t want to take up free head space in someone else’s mind — I get that, too.
For me, allowing other people to worry with me actually helped me move through my fear in a way that made it impossible to hide from myself. I couldn’t pretend while talking on the phone, teaching, mothering, shopping or what have you, that everything was fine.
Once you let the cat out of the bag, there’s no way to put her back in, at least no way that I’ve tried, that doesn’t require you to face what’s in front of you in the process.
Yes, it’s scary letting everyone see that you’re not currently in control of your feelings, or even the trajectory of your life, that you can’t stuff everything back up inside and carry on being a tough grown-up.
And that’s okay. Because the people who I love and love me back, they’re the toughest, kindest, fiercest people in the world. And they let me know that strength isn’t about appearing strong.
It’s about showing others how weak you feel sometimes and letting them be strong for you.
It’s about learning how to lean on others, and let them lean on you, too.
So yes, I’m doing good. And I’m feeling good. And I’m thinking good thoughts. But I’m also a little less afraid for the times that I won’t be because I know now that I don’t have to act strong to be strong.
All I have to do is let my inner Nervous Nelly out, and let her speak for me, even when the rest of me wants to keep her quiet.
She’s a real strong person, Nervous Nell. And whenever you need her, she’ll be there for you, too.